The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 6 (September 1, 1938)
Legends of the Lakes… — Rotorua
In the sunshine Lake Rotorua is yours for your pleasure … those clear sparkling waters ringed by their blue bush-clad hills, with the bold friendly battlements of Ngongotaha looking down on the red-roofed town, and the steam-clouds of Ohinemutu swaying like white feathers against the blue. But when the mists lie upon the breast of the waters, and the swirling storm clouds reach down to enwrap the brooding summit of Ngongotaha, then‥ the Maoris say … you may hear the thin sweet music of the fairy flutes, the putorino, drifting down from the mountainside. Then, it may be, that the fairies are abroad, and Unuaho the Wizard walks his ways again, that you may hear … if you listen at the hour of nightfall … the singing tree of Tona whispering across the misty water.
Crown of the waters of Rotorua is the Sacred Island of Tinirau, which we pakehas, following the modern Maori fashion, call Mokoia. It is the dwelling-place of the ancient gods, the high altar of the Arawa people … a low crested peak rising above white beach ledges and dark pohutukawa groves, above the lovely bay where steam plumes rise, and the milk-warm waters of Hinemoa's Bath overflow into the cold tides of the Lake. The caves and rock clefts of the peak hide the strange stone images, good and evil, that are the tribal gods; locked away with them are the amazing tales of sorcery and magic, the dark secrets of the necromancer Unuaho, greatest of all the Arawa tohunga, who once ruled the sacred isle of Mokoia as a monarch rules his kingdom.
Even the very soil of Mokoia … sandy, warm, and volcanic … is a talisman against the evil of blights and pestilences; in his little shrine beneath the totara tree, Te-Matua-tonga, the god of the kumara plantations, sits snugly as he has sat since the beginning of Maori time. From the mainland, in the old days, when the whistling notes of the pipiwharauroa, the shining cuckoo, warned the people that the planting time was come, each of the tribes made pilgrimage to Mokoia. With them they carried a few tubers of the seed-kumara that they might touch the sacred image of Te-Matua-Tonga, and be assured of good sweet harvest for the year to come.
Kura-of-the-Claws would not abandon her prey. She lay in wait until thirst drove Hatupatu forth, and then she pursued him north toward Rotorua, by way of Rotokakahi, which we call the Green Lake. At the steaming valley of Whakarewarewa she was so close to him that he thought he could feel her terrible talons. As a last desperate resort he turned aside to the steam clouds that veiled the great mud-boiling spring of Whanga-pipiro. Hatupatu sprang, and by his great strength he cleared the boiling mud, but the Bird-Woman, following closely behind, could not stop. She stumbled, and fell forward into the great steam cloud, and the frightful cauldron of Whangapipiro received Kura-of-the-Claws for ever.
By the shore of Rotorua, the hunter rested, and plucked himself a crown of pohutukawa leaves, and then plunged, rejoicing, into the cold waters of the lake.
Halfway to Mokoia, he paused upon an underwater rock and rested. The Maoris of to-day call the spot “The Startled Soul of Hatupatu.” They believe it is a magic rock, and to look upon it is a portent of approaching death, and they will resolutely turn their eyes away, when they cross the lake, for fear that they may catch a glimpse of its enchanted white shape gleaming through the clear water. Where Hatupatu landed upon Mokoia, he threw down his wreath of leaves, and they took root, and became the great pohutukawa trees which to-day fringe the island beaches.
It was upon the magic soil of Mokoia that one of the strangest duels in all the world took place. It was the meeting of the old necromancer Unuaho and the great and wise Bishop Selwyn.
When Selwyn landed, unostentatiously, from a little boat, Unuaho rose from the flax mat where he spent the long sun-soaked days in meditation, and received his guest with a great and amazing courtesy.
“I greatly love that strong chief the Bishop,” the old sorcerer said of the meeting, long afterwards, “There is a difference between him and me, but so long as there is a man-child in my family there will be a Selwyn in memory of the great and wise Bishop.”
“Turn to the only God!” cried Selwyn the uncompromising, “Leave your ways of darkness and turn to the Light!”
But the old pagan gazed steadfastly out upon the green slopes of his island kingdom and the shining levels of the lake, and it seemed to Selwyn that already the sunshine was leaving the water, and the wind that blew through Hatupatu's Head-Wreath was grey and chill.
“Why should I turn to your God?” asked Unuaho, gravely courteous, “Am I not a god myself? And are not the things of the earth subject to me? Now, friend Herewini, let there be a test between you and me. Look upon the green ti that grows here before my door, and call upon it to die and wither, and when it dies, O Bishop, I will turn and worship your God!”
The Bishop looked at the tall ti, which we call the cabbage palm, and shook his head gravely.
“Mine is a God of Light and not of sorcery.”
“Then, O Herewini …” said Unuaho, with a great and deadly courtesy, “Watch the ti.”
He stretched forth a hand, lean and withered and claw-like, and the day, which had been warm, became cold. The long grey ripples moved across the lake, and while the old pagan cried his incantations, the wind rustled the leaves of the sacred tawa grove.
Before the eyes of the good and wise Bishop, the sword leaves of the cabbage palm drooped and withered and died. The shade upon the grass dwindled. The wind had ceased to rustle in the leaves of the blasted palm.
“See O unbeliever!” cried Unuaho, “Now, will you bring it to life again for me?”
Gravely the Bishop shook his head, gravely and with dignity, he bade the old necromancer good-bye, and went down the hill to his boat, never to set foot again upon the enchanted soil of the Holy-Isle-of-Tinirau, last stronghold of pagan magic and sorcery.
But he is not forgotten there, for if you travel the ways of Lakeland today, you will find scarcely a village where there is no man to answer to the name of Herewini in memory of the great and wise Bishop.
As Hinemoa, night by night, sat by the lake edge listening to the plaintive notes drifting across the water, the page 40 courage grew in her for the thing that she was going to do. The first moonless night she carried down paddles with her. But the chief, her father, had ordered all the canoes drawn high upon the sand, and it was far beyond her strength to have launched the lightest of them. Even as she stood there defeated, the soft piping notes of Tutanekai's flute came through the darkness, and Hinemoa ran down to the margin, and cast her garments from her, and leaped into the lake.
It was dark, and the waters were very cold; she had no guide but the plaintive-sounding strains of the flute. Had Tutanekai stopped playing, she would most assuredly have been lost. But he played on, sending out the messages of his most-disconsolate love, and by the sound Hinemoa's flagging strokes bore her to the shallows of the Island. Not now to Tutanekai she went, but to crouch from sight in the pool of the warm lakeside spring which still bears her name. Here Tutanekai found her when he went down to the shore to drink, and—falling at her feet stricken by her loveliness and shame, and the great revelation of her love for him—he drew her up from the water and took her to his house. As the two stepped over the threshold together, they were made—according to the Maori fashion—man and wife.
You may not believe in fairies, but you will have to believe in the Patupaiarehe—the red-haired fairy people of the Maoris—if you hear their thin strange voices singing in the mist, and the sound of the putorino, their flutes—the sweetest music in all the world, the Maoris say—drifting down from the mountainside. The fire-stick and the axe of the white man have driven most of them away from their ancestral home on Ngongotaha mountain, but even yet the Maoris will not go up pighunting when the fog lies close, and when the young men are eel-spearing of a night in the clear-running streams between the mountain and the lake, they are careful to keep their torches burning, for, as everyone knows, the Patu-paierehe are very afraid of fire.
Ngongotaha means “to drink from a calabash,” and was so called by the explorer Ihenga, a man of the Arawa, many, many years ago, when a woman of the fairies gave him to drink from her calabash. Ihenga drank, for he was very thirsty from his climb up the mountain-side, but a great fear fell upon him that he had drunk enchantment with the sparkling draught, and he turned and fled, with all the fairy people giving chase. Close upon his heels ran the woman who had given him the water, and Ihenga resorted to guile. As he ran, he groped in the small pouch of ochre and shark-oil which hung at his belt, and smeared the oil upon his naked, sweating body, and the odour drifted back to the Patu-paierehe woman, so disgusting her that she abandoned the chase.
Ngongotaha is a strange place, a mountain of magic, and spells, and enchantment, for it is from its ferny base that the Wai-oro-toki rises, that sacred stream from whose waters no man may drink and live. The shoulder of Ngongotaha, Te Kauwae, leaning toward the lake, is the Lightning Mountain of the Arawa people. When three bright flashes are seen in quick succession above the bold thrust of Te Kauwae, it is a sign that a chief will shortly die.
Before the coming of the white man, the fishing-grounds of Rotorua were jealously guarded. The boundaries were defined by long rows of stakes to which the nets were fastened, and by carved corner posts that were known by name. To the fishing-grounds belong the strange story of Tona of Ohinemutu and the singing tree. Some few hundred yards out into the lake waters stood a totara tree-trunk, driven down into the pumice bed. The Maoris called it Te Purewa. One night the woman Tona dreamed as she slept, and she dreamed that she heard Te Purewa singing to her, in a strange, mournful wailing voice.
“Alas, my grief for Mokoia's Isle, Standing desolate yonder In the sea of Rotorua! Alas!”
“It is an omen of death,” said the people when she told her dream in the morning, “Disaster will shortly fall upon us.”
It was even as the singing tree had foretold, for at that very time Hongi Hika was setting forth from the North with his terrible fleet of war-canoes which were to sweep the waters of Lakeland, and capture the ancient stronghold of sacred Mokoia.