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The King Country; or, Explorations in New Zealand. A Narrative of 600 Miles of Travel through Maoriland.

Chapter XI. — The Start

page 131

Chapter XI.
The Start.

Reason of the journey—How I succeeded—My interpreter—Our horses—The Hursthouse difficulty—Departure from Wairakei—Tapuwaeharura—The natives—Release of Hursthouse, and capture of Te Mahuki—The council of war.

In undertaking my journey of exploration through the King Country, I was prompted by no other desire than to advance the general interests of New Zealand, by making known more fully that portion of it which was virtually a blank on the maps, and thus to add, as far as lay in my power, to the geographical and geological knowledge of a vast and important region, which was reputed to be rich in natural resources of a valuable and varied order. The object was, in fine, of a purely scientific nature, and was prosecuted throughout solely in conformity with that view.

In setting out upon the undertaking—as I had selected to do the journey only in company with an interpreter, and without the protection of friendly natives, whose aid, in fact, it would have been impossible to obtain— page 132I was aware that a difficult and, by reason of the unsatisfactory state of the native question, a dangerous task lay before me, but I was likewise aware that I was no novice in the matter of travel. I had penetrated into some of the wildest parts of Australia, explored the principal islands of the Coral Sea, been into the interior of China and of Japan, crossed the United States, visited Mexico, travelled in Canada, voyaged up the Nile, camped with the Bedouins on the plains of Arabia, and hunted in the forests of Ceylon. In all these countries, whilst exploring their natural beauties and varied resources, it was my practice to mix freely with the native races, while I made their habits and customs my special study, and with the knowledge thus acquired, it seemed to my mind that it would not be altogether impossible for me to get along with the Maoris, whose intelligence and courage had been a general theme for admiration ever since the arrival of Cook.

When entering upon the journey, I determined to follow a certain line of action throughout. I resolved to ascend Tongariro, to scale the summit of Ruapehu, and then to enter the King Country at its furthest extremity, and return northward to Alexandra by the best route by which I could secure the most extended knowledge of the region to be traversed. If turned back by the natives at one point, I was prepared to try another. I was determined that no efforts should be spared to accomplish my object, and that no obstacle should impede my progress, save forcible opposition. To guard as much as possible against an occurrence of the latter kind, I resolved, above all when in contact page 133with the tribes, to go fearlessly among them, to respect their customs, and follow, as near as possible, their mode of life, and, in fact, for the time being to become a Maori. Only in one instance was I forced to break through this rule, and that was in order to accomplish the ascent of Tongariro. This mountain, as before pointed out, is strictly tapu, and I was aware that all the persuasive diplomacy in the world would not secure me permission to ascend it, I therefore had to accomplish this task unbeknown to the Maoris having settlements in its vicinity. Following strictly the natives' habits, when camping with the tribes, we would at sundown turn into the wharepunis, or assembly-houses, in which the members of the hapu meet to eat and sleep, when the small door would be closed, the solitary window scrupulously fastened up, the charcoal fire lit, and when the dismal slush lamp would give forth its flickering light, as if struggling for existence amidst the clouds of smoke which mingled with the stifling air of the apartment; then men, women, and children would squat down in their blankets, and, lighting their pipes, conversation would begin. It was on these occasions that we gained most of our information about the country and the habits and customs of the interesting people among whom we were travelling. They were always desirous of ascertaining what countries I had visited, and, with the able assistance of my interpreter, I related to them some of the principal features of interest I had seen in various parts of the world. During these descriptions not a word was ever spoken—men, women, and children sat in silence—but at the conclusion of my page 134narrative the most extraordinary and often ludicrous questions would be asked. In turn the natives would tell us all we wished to know about their country and indicate the mineral deposits1 which they knew to exist in various localities, while they would likewise recite legends, and sing songs in a mournful, melancholy way. Then, one by one, they would gradually settle down to sleep, and in this way, amid loud snoring and a stifling heat, we would pass away twelve dreary hours, until the cool breath of morning came and gave us relief. It was, in fact, by following this course that we gained the confidence of the natives, and made them our friends.

When I was fully prepared to set out on my journey, as I could not speak a word of the native language, my next desire was to secure the services of an efficient interpreter. During my travels through the Lake Country I had become acquainted with Mr. J. A. Turner, a younger member of a family of European extraction, who from the early days of the colony had been settled near Whatiwhatihoe. It was in company with Mr. Turner that I examined the wonders of Wairakei, and made the descent under the Huka Falls. It was on that occasion, too, that I remarked his spirited love for travel and adventure, his quick perception as a guide, his thorough knowledge of the Maori language, and of native habits and customs; and while I admired his genial manner, I secretly determined that when I started on my journey

1 The natives at Ruakaka told us of the existence of gold in the Kaimanawa Mountains, and in the Tuhua country, as likewise of extensive deposits of coal on the Upper Whanganui River.

page 135to explore the King Country he would be the first man whose services I would endeavour to secure. In this I was fortunately successful.

As I shall have occasion to refer frequently to the horses we took on our journey I will give their names, with a brief description of each. Charlie, the horse which I rode, was bred on the Kaingaroa Plains, east of Lake Taupo, and was caught by Turner from a mob of wild horses. He stood about fifteen hands, was of a dark iron-grey colour, and possessed good points. Tommy, ridden by Turner, was a black pony, of about fourteen hands, bred near Auckland, and, although his points were not perfect, he was strongly built, and plucky to a degree. Our sumpter-horse, also bred near Auckland, was a gaunt, white-coated animal, well built, but somewhat long in the legs, and narrow-chested. His principal failing was an inordinate appetite. Moreover, although a fine-looking horse in many ways, he had the gait of a camel, and, I think, like the "ship of the desert" is said to do, he cursed his father when going up a hill, and his Creator when coming down.

When everything was in readiness, and just as we were about to start from Wairakei, an event mingled with alarm occurred in connection with the native difficulty. Several of the principal Kingite chiefs, who had up to this time remained in sullen isolation, agreed to allow Mr. Hursthouse, a government surveyor, and his assistants, with a body-guard of friendly natives, to enter a part of the northern portion of the King Country, but immediately upon the party reaching the small settlement of Te Kumi, a few miles across the page 136frontier-line, they were set upon and made prisoners by a band of Maoris headed by Te Mahuki, a fanatical follower of Te Whiti, the Maori prophet. No sooner were the surveyors in the hands of the desperadoes, than they were taken prisoners into the settlement, stripped of every particle of clothing, brutally maltreated, and chained up in a hut where they were detained until intelligence of their capture reached Alexandra. This brutal outrage upon a government officer in the face of the many delicate phases of the Maori difficulty, was naturally received with consternation throughout the colony, as at first glance it appeared little short of an act of open rebellion on the part of the natives.

A few days after this event, on the 5th of April, we set out from Wairakei, and following along the banks of the Waikato for about six miles, reached Tapuwae-haruru, a small township at the northern end of Lake Taupo. Situated far from the centres of population, this settlement is not an important place, beyond its being one of the principal strategic positions of the armed constabulary. The flat, elevated plain upon which the township is situated, is formed entirely of pumice, and has a hollow, cavernous-like sound when riding over it, a circumstance which no doubt gave rise to its native name, which signifies "the place of sounding footsteps."

From time immemorial Tapuwaeharuru has been the centre of a large Maori population, and all around this portion of the lake may yet be seen the remains of old pas and other evidences of the fast-decaying native race. There is still a considerable number of natives page 137living in the vicinity, and the township is usually full of them. Many of the men are tall and finely built, and, in fact, this portion of the country has been at all times renowned for the splendid physical development of the native race, some of the tallest and most powerful men in the island hailing from these parts. The women, likewise, are comely in appearance and strongly built, while they follow the peculiar custom, which I have not seen elsewhere, of tattooing the legs as well as the lips in thin cross-lines of a dark-blue colour.

We reached Tapuwaeharuru early in the day, and noticed as we entered the township that a body of the armed constabulary were at work repairing the earthwork of the redoubt. We soon learned that Hurst-house and his party had been released by a body of armed natives under Wahanui, the principal chief of the Ngatimaniapoto, and that Te Mahuki and his band had been taken prisoners to Auckland.1 It was evident that the natives were much excited over the latter event, and the armed constabulary had received orders to hold themselves in readiness to take the field at any moment. Tawhiao, the Maori king, was on his way from the East Coast with 300 mounted Waikatos, and was expected to arrive on the following day, and it was reported by the natives that he would enter the King Country by the northern shore of the lake, and call a meeting of all the tribes to discuss the situation.

1 A few days subsequent to the release of Mr. Hursthouse Te Mahuki marched with his band into Alexandra, and after threatening to burn down the town and to destroy the whites, both he and his followers were captured by the armed constabulary.

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At this juncture I sent Turner to sound the natives whether they thought that he could enter the King Country at Tokanu, and pass northward to visit his family at Whatiwhatihoe. Two of the natives whom he knew from Tokanu told him that he might by chance get through, but if he happened to come across any of Te Mahuki's followers or other unfriendly natives, he would probably be treated in the same way as Hursthouse, or perhaps get a bullet through him. The general impression was that the Hursthouse affair, and the imprisonment of Te Mahuki and his band, would cause a serious disturbance between the Europeans and natives. At this stage we held a council of war. It was clear there were only two alternatives—either to go on and chance everything, or beat an ignominious retreat. I made a firm stand against the latter, and Turner, realizing the position at once, said, "Wherever you go, I'll follow." That settled the question, and that night, when the moon was high, we pitched our first camp on the eastern shore of Lake Taupo.