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

Chapter XX. — Second Ascent of Ruapehu. Sources of the Whangaehu And Waikato Rivers

page 237

Chapter XX.
Second Ascent of Ruapehu. Sources of the Whangaehu And Waikato Rivers.

Curious parterres—Supposed source of Whangaehu—A gigantic lava bed—A steep bluff—The Horseshoe Fall—The Bridal Veil Fall —The Twin Falls—A dreary region—Ice caves—Source of the Waikato—The descent—Our camp on the desert.

Having satisfied myself as to the geological formation of the Kaimanawa Mountains, I next determined to trace up the Whangaehu and Waikato Rivers to their source in Ruapehu. Striking our camp at Mamanui, we took a south-westerly course for some distance, until we struck the Whangaehu River, which we found winding across the desert in the form of a wide, rushing stream. Once on the opposite side, we were again fairly on the Onetapu Desert, and we shaped our course in the direction of the eastern side of Ruapehu, where a tremendous ravine seemed to lead right into the very heart of the mountain.

When passing over some portions of the great scoria plain, we found all of the plants and shrubs peculiar to the region growing together with dwarf trees, but all so artistically dispersed by the hand of Nature as to appear like miniature gardens, with winding walks that formed a perfect labyrinth. In fact, so beauti-page 238fully and carefully designed were some of these parterres, that it was almost impossible to believe that they had not been artificially formed. Every species of plant that we had hitherto found in the district grew in them, with a vast variety of shrubs we had not before observed, while the scoria winding about the clumps of vegetation was so even as to appear as if it had been artificially rolled down.

The Whangaehu River, which takes its rise in the eastern side of Ruapehu, is one of the largest streams in the colony. Bursting forth high up in the snows of the mountain, it crosses the desert in an easterly direction, and then, with the fall of the country, takes a swift bend towards the south in its course to the coast, where it joins the sea, in a distance of about sixty miles from its source. From the point where it issues from the mountain, and for many miles as it winds through the plains, its waters are rendered perfectly white from the enormous amount of alum with which they are charged. We had been informed by the natives at Tokanu that the source of this river rose in an enormous black rock, or dark bluff, which forms a conspicuous feature near the eastern base of the mountain, and it was therefore towards this point we directed our course.

The whole of this side of Ruapehu appeared singularly rugged, and above the deep gorges the enormous bluffs and precipices seemed to mount one above the other to the glacier-crowned peaks above. We struck into a boulder-strewn ravine, and, after following this along for a considerable distance, we found that it brought us to the dark mass of rocks page 239which the natives had indicated to us. It was, however, clear at once that the true source of the river was a long distance up the mountain from this point. The dark rocks, which were nothing more than enormous outcrops of lava, formed the portals, or entrance, as it were, to a still deeper gorge, winch led further into the mountain, and which looked as weird and as dismal as anything Dante or Doré had ever created. When we had got fairly into this tremendous chasm, a most curious sight presented itself. Below our feet was the bed of the ravine, strewn with boulders of all sizes, which lay scattered about in endless confusion, as if hurled from the heights above by the hands of mountain giants. On cur left rose an immense lava wall, over 100 feet in height, and on our right, rising from the bed of the ravine, was a wide stratum of alluvial drift, composed of sand and water-worn boulders. Resting on this stratum, just as it had cooled, was a lava stream, about 200 feet in perpendicular height, as sharp and as clear in all its proportions as if it had been cast out but yesterday from the fiery craters of the mountain. Dark, bright, and shining with a metallic lustre, it looked like a solid wall of bronze built by Cyclopean hands, the stupendous jagged ridge which crowned it resembling the rampart of an embattled fortress. This appeared to be one of the grandest specimens of a trachytic lava bed to be found in any part of the world, and it formed one of the most interesting geological phenomena I had ever beheld. Looking at this stupendous mass, one could fairly realize how widespread and how tremendous in its proportions must have been the volcanic action of page 240Ruapehu. The stream of lava which had formed this great deposit had evidently come from one of the many central craters of the mountain, and had rolled down in a molten stream for a distance of several miles, until it had gradually cooled into its present form. When gazing up at this singular monument, it could be seen that there was not a single flaw in its whole surface to mar the general outline of its colossal
great trachytic lava bed.

great trachytic lava bed.

proportions. Here and there from the hard metallic surface, which shone like bronze by some powerful agency difficult to comprehend, blocks of the adamantine rock had fallen into the ravine below, but even every line of their surface was as sharp and as angular as if they had been just wrought into form under our eyes.

When we had travelled a considerable distance up to page 241the head of this wild gorge, we found it impossible to get out of it except by the way we had come, so we headed back again, and climbed, with great difficulty and at considerable risk, up the enormous bluff forming the entrance to the gorge, the sharp edges of the lava being particularly rough on our hands. Once at the summit of the bluff, we gained a long spur which formed the top of the great bed of lava we had examined in the ravine below, and which was here about 600 yards in width, as evidenced by the rugged outcrops of black rock that rose above the surface of the ground on every side. Travelling for a short distance up this steep ridge, we descended a rocky precipice to the right into another weird gorge, where the milky waters of the Whangaehu came bounding in a rapid descent over boulders and rocky precipices. We crossed the river at this point, and we kept the stream on our left for a considerable distance up the mountain.

When we had followed up this ravine for a long distance we came to another scoria spur, mounting upwards towards the mountain. About two miles up this the ravine widened out, with high lava walls on either side, while right in the centre rose a high ridge of lava, which ended in steep, sloping ridges of fine scoria. The great snow peaks beyond now came into full view, and at a height of 5300 feet the ravine opened out on our left, and over the flat terrace above a large waterfall fell from a height of 150 feet over a semicircular precipice into a deep, rocky basin, and, as the vast volume of water poured on to the great rocks beneath, it resounded through the ravine like the echo page 242of distant thunder. We named this the "Horseshoe Fall" from the shape of the precipice over which the water fell.

From the Horseshoe Fall we mounted still higher up a very steep ascent on to a flat-topped scoria spur, which immediately to the right descended into a rugged ravine over a sheer precipice of 400 feet, while to the left of the ridge, which we followed up, rolled the Whangaehu, at a depth of about 300 feet in the gorge below, and beyond which the giant form of one of the principal spurs of the mountain, built up of scoria and layers of lava, rose to a height of about 1000 feet above us. We were now high up in the mountain, and the cold wind from the snow-crowned glacier above swept over us with a chilly blast, while the colossal walls of rock, towering above on every side, cast their weird shadows around, and blocked out every ray of sunlight. We climbed for about three miles further up the dreary scoria spurs, the monotonous appearance of which was only relieved by the fantastic outcrops of lava rock, which jutted up above the surface in every direction, as if still hot and quaking with subterranean heat. One of the most remarkable features about these fantastic outcrops of lava was that time and the devastating effects of the elements to which they must have been subjected for hundreds, nay, thousands, of years, appeared to have left no traces upon them, the hard, metallic-looking surface of the rock being as sharp in outline as if it had but just got cool from the terrific heat of the stupendous fires, which had left their impress in every direction over the face of the mountain. Not a sign of vegetation was to page 243be seen anywhere. We could not even get a glimpse of the country around, as the windings of the enormous gorge had led us, as it were, into the very heart of the mountain, and had surrounded us with its high, rugged walls. As we climbed still further to the glacier crowned heights above us, the appearance of this wild ravine became still more desolate; rugged, craggy boulders of black rock were scattered about the slopes in every direction, and we had to climb over huge masses of rock that barred our pathway. Thick icicles now covered the ground, hung in festoons from the rocks, and bedecked the high precipices in the form of a glittering fringe, while the snow was not only on the heights above, but in the deep ravines beneath us. In the distance we could hear the loud roaring of a cataract, and, as we pressed on, the sound of the falling water resounded louder and louder, and at an altitude of 6250 feet another waterfall, far larger and more beautiful than the one we had previously discovered, burst into view. We had hoped that this would prove the source of the river, as it was now late in the day, and it was clear that we would not have much more time for climbing if we wished to gain our camp before nightfall. We soon found, however, that the great gorge still wound into the mountain for 1000 feet above, and that the true source of the river was yet further ahead. We took our first rest at this stage, and gazed in admiration at the leaping volume of water in front of us. Here, on our right, rose a gigantic bluff of lava and conglomerated rock, while round this frowning point and coursing down the steep incline of the gorge, up which we were ascending, page 244swept the white waters of the Whangaehu, until the whole volume, concentrated into a narrow rocky channel, burst over a precipice with a fall of 300 feet into the rocky gorge below. This was one of the most beautiful and unique cascades I had ever seen. All around the craggy rocks were white with a deposit of alum from the spray of the fall, while the water, of a milky hue, poured over the precipice in a continuous frothy stream, which appeared by its whiteness like folds of delicate lace. This beautiful cascade had not the sparkle and glitter of ordinary waterfalls, but a soft, milky appearance different to anything I had ever beheld before. The big, circular, rock-bound basin, into which the water fell, was decorated around its sides with fantastic clusters of icicles, all of the same milky whiteness, and mingling as they did with the still whiter snow, they served to complete one of the most singular and attractive features of this weird ravine. We named this the "Bridal Veil Fall" on account of its peculiar lace-like appearance.

Leaving the Bridal Veil Fall to dart over its echoing rocks, we struck up the steep, precipitous ridge ahead, where we could still see the white waters of the river coming down, as it were, from the very summit of the mountain. Here the whole surroundings had a most wild and romantic appearance, and we seemed to have entered a dismal solitude where there was no sound but the rushing of waters as they dashed over the rocky precipices, or rolled among the stupendous boulders which lay scattered about the winding channels of the deep ravines. We pushed on as fast as we could over an enormous outcrop of lava, and when we page 245had reached 6750 feet fresh wonders still seemed to call us onward. At this elevation we discovered two cascades falling over a steep, bluff-like precipice, and
the bridal veil fall.

the bridal veil fall.

only at a short distance apart from each other. These two shoots of water, which appeared to be of the same proportions, fell from a height of about 100 feet into the ravine below, and then dashed onward to leap over page 246the precipice of the Bridal Veil. All around the rocks were resplendent with icicles, and with the white coating of alum appeared like alabaster. We named these the "Twin Waterfalls" on account of their singular resemblance to each other.

From this point of the great ravine we again mounted up precipitous rocks and lava ridges, one of which we had to climb hand over hand for a height of fifty feet. The river now, as far as we could discern, appeared to pour out of the snow as it came down in a rapid torrent through a precipitous ravine, along the side of which we crawled with difficulty. As we mounted higher the stupendous rocks, over which we had to make our way, were piled about in the most intricate confusion and in one place we had to pass over an outcrop of trachytic rock which was broken into angular pieces, as sharp as flint, and fractured in every direction as if it had been subjected at some period to the force of a terrific explosion. It required great care to get over this difficult point, as there was only room enough to crawl along between the wall of rock on one side and a precipice of 200 feet on the other, which fell with a sheer descent into a big, circular, icebound pool, into which the milky waters of the Whangaehu poured in the form of foaming cascades. Here, around on every side, rose steep precipices, great buttresses of black lava mounted up in the form of stupendous bluffs that supported, as it were, the rampart-like heights above, while right in front of us, and towering to an altitude of over 1000 feet, was a glacier slope crowned with craggy peaks, which stood out in bold relief against the sky. This rugged locality page 247was one of the most singular of the whole mountain. No region could be wilder or more desolate in appearance. There was nothing but the blue heavens above to relieve the frigid glare of the ice, the cold glitter of the snows, and the dreary tints of the frowning fire-scorched rocks. We now seemed to be in a new world, where solitude reigned supreme, and where Nature, casting aside her most radiant charms, looked stern and awe-inspiring in her mantle of ice and snow.

Right under the snowy glacier above us were wide, yawning apertures, arched at the top, and framed, as it were, with ice, in the form of rude portals, through which the white waters of the river burst in a continuous stream. These were ice caves. Climbing over the rough boulders, and then descending into a rocky channel, where the water mounted over our knees, we entered the largest of these singular structures, when a wonderful sight met the gaze. We found ourselves in a cave of some 200 feet in circumference, whose sides of black volcanic rock were sheeted with ice, and festooned with icicles, all grandly and marvellously designed. At the further end from where we entered was a wide, cavernous opening, so dark that the waters of the river, as they burst out of it in a foaming, eddying stream down the centre of the cave in which we stood, looked doubly white, in comparison with the black void out of which they came. We were now right under the enormous glacier that covered the summit of the mountain, and the roof of the cave was formed of a mass of frozen snow, which had been fashioned by some singular law of page 248Nature into oval-shaped depressions of about two feet in height, and a foot and a half broad, all of one uniform size, and so beautifully, and so mathematically precise in outline, as to resemble the quaint designs of a Moorish temple; while, from all the central points to which the edges of these singular designs converged, a long single icicle hung down several inches in diameter at its base, perfectly round and smooth and clear, tapering off towards its end with a point as sharp as a needle. High up on our left, in the walls of the cave, were two apertures like the slanting windows of a dungeon, through which the light streamed, giving a soft, mysterious halo to the whole scene, which looked weird and indescribably curious. We had brought candles with us, and lighting them, we pressed forward to explore the deep cavern beyond, but to do so we had to climb over sharp, slippery rocks, which were covered with a coating of ice, as if they had been glazed with glass, while the white waters streaming beneath us fell into a deep, eddying pool. We managed, after some difficulty, to cross the stream in the second cave, and to penetrate a considerable distance along the treacherous rocks into the very centre, as it were, of the great mountain; but, just as we were winding along a kind of subterranean passage, which looked like a short cut into eternity, our lights went out, owing to the water falling from above, and, as we could hear nothing but rushing waters ahead, we, with some difficulty, beat a retreat into the first cave, which looked like a fairy palace in comparison with the dark cavern we had just left. These caves were at an altitude of 7000 page 249feet above the level of the sea, and we were now at the true source of the remarkable river. Wherever the water poured over the rocks it left a white deposit, and when we tasted it, it produced a marked astringent feeling upon the tongue, leaving a strong taste of alum, sulphur, and iron, with all of which ingredients, especially the two former, it appeared to be strongly impregnated.1

It is a. remarkable and interesting geographical fact that the waters which form the source of the Waikato River burst from the sides of Ruapehu, within a short distance of the Whangaehu, and at almost the same altitude. Both streams run almost parallel to each other for a long distance from their source, and then, as they reach the desert, they gradually diverge and divide the two great watersheds of this portion of the country, the Waikato flowing to the north into Lake Taupo, and the Whangaehu to join the sea in the south. There is, I believe, no place in the world where two great rivers may be seen rising at an altitude of over 7000 feet in the sides of a glacier-clad mountain, and rolling for miles, side by side, down its rugged slopes, the waters of the one of alabaster whiteness, and the waters of the other as pure and as limpid page 250as crystal, and each forming the dividing waters of an area of country of nearly 100 miles in length.

It had taken us nine hours to reach the ice caves, and as it was now late in the day we began to descend with all haste, in order, if possible, to reach the point where we had left our horses before nightfall.

As the sun went down the wind blew with a freezing blast, and as we descended precipice after precipice, and ridge after ridge, and the tints of evening crept gradually over the dismal sides of the mountains, our course appeared long beyond measure. When we got near to the immense mass of lava we had beheld in wonder in the morning, the shades of night overtook us, and it was with great difficulty we could pick our way over the rough boulders of the dark, weird gorge, which now looked like Dante's Inferno with the fires put out. We again struck the waters of the Whangaehu, and shining as they did like a white streak in the darkness, we were enabled to follow them up until we came to our camp.

We soon had our tent erected under the lee of a cluster of scrub, which served to protect us from the fury of the wind, which now swept in strong blasts across the scoria plains. Our camping-place was as near as possible in the centre of the desert, and at a point which indicated an elevation of 3000 feet above the level of the sea. It might, in fact, be considered as the highest point of the great central table-land, for it was here that the watershed divided, and flowed on the one hand to the north, and on the other to the south, as previously described. A drink of tea and a biscuit formed our only meal, and then page 251we lay down to pass one of the roughest and most uncomfortable nights we had ever experienced. About midnight a great storm of wind swept over the plains, and dark clouds gathered over the heavens, and the rain continued to descend in torrents throughout the night. Fortunately for us, the few straggling bushes around served to break the force of the blast, otherwise everything would have been blown away.

1 Near to this point, on the summit of the mountain, there is a lake formed by an extinct crater, filled by subterranean springs, and it is likely that the Whangaehu may in some way be connected with it. It is, however, clear that there must, of necessity, be strong subterranean springs in this portion of the mountain, to account for the large volume of water forming the source of this river, as likewise extensive deposits of alum, of some form or another, to cause the complete discoloration of the waters by that mineral. I believe that this singular river will be found to possess great medicinal properties for the cure of rheumatic affections and cutaneous disorders.