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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 2 (May 1, 1939)

The Old Brave Days of Opunake — A Tale Of The Taranaki Coast

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The Old Brave Days of Opunake
A Tale Of The Taranaki Coast

The beach at Opunake.

The beach at Opunake.

In the year 1862, the steamer Lord Worsley, carrying arms and ammunition and four chests of gold, rounded Cape Egmont, and drove in upon that iron-ribbed reef which guards the mouth of the Otahi Stream just south of Opunake Bay.

That was in the troubled days of the Taranaki wars, and the Maoris from the nearby fortified villages came swarming jubilantly down to the cliffs. Under their very eyes, the captain gave orders that the guns should be thrown into the sea, and the casks of powder stove in and rolled overboard, and, while the seas battered the breaking vessel, the crew stoically obeyed.

Boats were lowered, the men rowed in to the beach. The impotently enraged Maoris awaited them, and there would speedily have been an end to the ship's company of the Lord Worsley if it had not been for the intervention of Wiremu Kingii, who took the part of the white seamen. Kingii and his followers—among whom was Te Whiti, who was years later to make Taranaki history—dug themselves in upon a cliff-top, and a sniping battle ensued, and lasted the better part of the day.

Under cover of the excitement, canoe-loads of Maoris raided the Lord Worsley. Five men from a pa near the Harriet Beach stole the chests of gold, and hid them in a swamp. Under cover of darkness, they removed one chest, and carried it home. What happened after that has never been known. Perhaps they fought over their spoil, and killed one another. They did not return for the other three chests, and the gold was discovered and salvaged long afterwards.

But of the chest of gold which was carried to the Harriet pa, no one has ever heard of it from that day to this. Innumerable treasure-hunters have sought it in vain. Perhaps it lies
Site of the wreek of the “Lord Worsley.”

Site of the wreek of the “Lord Worsley.”

mouldering in some deep swamp beneath the silver toi toi plumes; perhaps it is buried in the shifting sand of the coastal dunes; perhaps hidden in some sea-cave where the green water-lights play, and the crabs scuttle and scramble over the tarnished magnificance.

Opunake to-day is a sleepy little town, a holiday resort, famous for a glorious surfing beach. It lies on the wind-swept cliffs above the blue and white jewelled coastline, brooded over by the calm aloofness of Mount Egmont, the lovely Taranaki of old Maori lore. In summer the sweep of Opunake Bay is sun-bright; long rows of cars stand parked on the hard brown sand; the foaming surf is gay with laughter and shouting and tumbling bronze bodies. But in the winter, the sands lie pounded clean by the great Tasman rollers, and a haze of rain and spindrift blurs the bold face of the rugged cliffs. Then Egmont draws a blanket of cloud to him, and wraps his dazzling whiteness away, aloof and unattended.

But sometimes, on a calm winter's day, when there is frost in the air, and page 22 page 23 the surf curls slowly blazing-white upon a peacock-blue sea, Egmont towers into the sky like some giant silver castle, and the Opunake coast is a very fairyland.

There is little of the old days which has survived in Opunake. The old Redoubt, on the windy cliffs, has been razed. The deep moats are filled, the ramparts which saw the stirring days of the 'sixties and 'seventies and early 'eighties, are levelled to the ground. The Power Board has made a lake of the little saucer-shaped valley where the vegetables for the Camp were raised. Over on the good salty turf of the cliffs, where the Constabulary men grazed their horses, you may play golf, with a little caddie to save you the trouble of carrying your bag.

Of the old trading days of Opunake, nothing remains. The roadstead was once a busy port; as many as six ships in a day lay anchored, bringing trading goods and carrying off a cargo of baled flax. They were worked by surf-boats which plunged perilously through the tossing seas to the shore where patient bullocks waited, with wagons deep in the thunder and swirl of the breakers.

Now you approach Opunake prosaically enough by railway, or by the long grey bitumen-surfaced roads that run so straight and so smoothly through the flat green farmlands of Taranaki. No more the old mail-coach jingles along the New Plymouth highway, rattling over the stony mountain creek-beds, and lurching through the mud of the flax-swamps. To-day you may cover its long stages, in a modern car, on the smooth-surfaced road, in little more than sixty minutes.

In a car, you cross the swift clear waters of the Waiau River by a broad white concrete bridge. There is nothing to tell of the old, bad days of Taranaki, when the Waiau River crossing was the key to Te Whiti's position at Parihaka.

For many months a Constabulary post was kept at the Waiau River. Large parties of Maoris were not allowed to travel northwards; each man had to produce a pass, or convince the bridge guard that he was merely a peaceful traveller pursuing his own business. By such means a check was kept upon any large gathering of Te Whiti's disciples.

Opunake was the nearest white settlement to Parihaka, and at Opunake the main body of the troops was stationed, and a great display of arms made, while the difficult work of roading and survey continued through the province.

You may visit Parihaka to-day. That famous old Village of the Prophet is a peaceful little Maori settlement lying beneath the shadow of its guardian mountain, Egmont. You enter by way of gates built of unhewn stone, and, as your car rattles over the iron cattlestop, the loose rails sound a rude alarm,
Site of the old Opunake Redoubt, looking out to sea.

Site of the old Opunake Redoubt, looking out to sea.

which, it seems, must rouse the absent guard from their last long sleep.

There is something strange about Parihaka.

Of an evening, when Egmont fades away, blue and silver, into the mists, and night falls, Parihaka becomes a village inhabited by ghosts. Its lawful inhabitants are a-bed and asleep, and strange things are upon the night wind. A dispossessed people come back to cry for justice.

But no ghosts walk at Opunake, that leisurely little farming town upon its windy sea-cliffs. The motor-camp and the surfing beach, the busy dairy factory and the comfortable shopping street all very effectively manage to keep the past at bay.

But perhaps … of a rare summer evening, when the mists roll back from the mountain and a bow of fairy colours arches above the hazy coastline …. you may feel that deep at the foot of it must lie the lost chest of the Lord Worsley gold.

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