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

Chapter XXIV. — Ngatokorua Pa

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Chapter XXIV.
Ngatokorua Pa.

Departure from Ruakaka—A legend—Rough forest—Crossing the Manganui-a-te-Ao—Scenery of the river—Mount Towai—The plains in sight—Rapid rise in the country—Ruapehu from the west—The Waimarino plains—Arrival at the pa—The chief's family—A Hauhau chief—Inter alia—Pehi on the decay of the Maoris—A war-dance—The mere.

We left Ruakaka with the best wishes of the natives, Te Pareoterangi riding out some distance with us to put us in the right direction. Our course now lay easterly up the valley of the Manganui-a-te-Ao, and for thirty miles through another portion of the dense forest by which we had come to reach the settlement, but by a route far more difficult to travel, according to the account given to us of the country by the natives, who informed us that we should have to cross the Manganui-a-te-Ao ten times at various points, besides other streams and innumerable creeks, before we could again reach the open country to the north of Ruapehu. The river was still so flooded that the natives earnestly advised us to remain, old Hinepareoterangi remarking, in her jocose way, "If when you are gone the skies open and the great rains descend, I will sit by the rushing waters and wait for your horses and page 282saddles; you will make splendid food for the eels." Notwithstanding this grim joke of the chieftainess of the "heavenly crest," as the clouds were still gathering, and another flood might detain us a week or perhaps a month at Ruakaka, and possibly prevent us from ever reaching Alexandra by the course we had planned, we determined to make a desperate effort to push through. We therefore set out without delay, and crossed the Manganui-a-te-Ao for the first time about a mile below the settlement, at a very picturesque spot, but we had to descend nearly 100 feet to the crossing-place, beyond which a higher bend of the river appeared to be nearly 100 feet above us.

After gaining the opposite side we mounted above the stream to a bold bluff, where once stood a pa called Rotua, which was formerly one of the most formidable strongholds of the valley, and Te Pareoterangi, when he pointed it out, told us of an interesting legend connected with it. On one occasion in years gone by the pa was occupied by two tribes, named respectively the Ngatitamakana and Ngatiatamire. Being at war with other tribes, on one stormy night they were suddenly surprised by the enemy under a noted chief named Tama Turaki, when, seeing all chance of escape hopeless, they made a rope of native flax, and letting themselves down the steep cliffs into the river, took up their position in a stronghold further down the stream called Pukeatua. When, on the following day, Tama Turaki found how the enemy had escaped, he followed them with his tribe down the river in canoes, but the Ngatitamakana and Ngatiatamire, being alive to his movements, conceived the bold page 283idea of consigning their savage pursuer into eternity by one fell swoop. With this chivalrous aim in view, they hauled an enormous mass of rock to the edge of the cliff on which the pa was situated, and below which the canoes of the enemy would pass, and just as they appeared underneath the precipice the rock was hurled from above, and with a thundering crash completely annihilated Tama Turaki and his band. This enormous mass of rock, which may still be seen in the river, is known to the natives as Parekura Huripari,1 and is looked upon by them even unto this day with that singular display of superstitious veneration which forms one of the most marked characteristics of the Maori race.

When Te Pareoterangi left us, which was about two miles out of the settlement, he told us that we had a dangerous and difficult road to go, and that it would be necessary to make all speed, lest the flood should overtake us, and in that event he added, with true Maori lightheartedness, "If the river don't land you again at Ruakaka you may have to eat your horses." At the fourth crossing-place we had already mounted to an altitude of 1200 feet, but to get to this point we had traversed a hilly, broken region, covered in every direction with a dense growth of rimu-trees. Throughout this portion of the country, not only did the rata-vines coil about the giants of the forest in every direction, but the "supplejacks" kept pulling us up at every turn, while the rain, now descending in torrents, rendered the ground and enormous roots of the trees page 284which formed a complete network beneath our feet, as slippery as glass.

Although we could only lead our horses through the forest, it was necessary to ride them whenever we came to the crossing-places of the Manganui-a-te-Ao, since at these points the water was in most places over their backs, and often nearly over their heads, when they got into the big holes that everywhere dotted the rugged channel of the river. At the sixth crossing-place we had mounted to an altitude of 1460 feet, and here we were nearly coming to grief. The course across the river was, like all other places, strewn in every direction with enormous masses of rock, and the water came sweeping swiftly round a great bend, where the cliffs rose up like a stupendous wall on each side. The river here was about 100 feet wide, and in order to get across, it was necessary for our horses to climb over a series of huge boulders, and then on to the top of a big rock with a flat top, from which they had to plunge off into a deep water-hole, with a rapid only a few feet distant on the lower side. Turner, on his plucky pony, took the first leap, and my own horse following, the snowy waters, fresh from the glaciers of Ruapehu, nearly swept us out of our saddles, and, for a moment, it seemed as if the ominous joke made by old Hinepareoterangi before our departure, were about to become true. At the seventh crossing-place the bed of the river was at an altitude of 1541 feet, and here, as usual, we had fresh difficulties to encounter. The masses of rock were of great size, and, while most of the larger impediments of this nature were of trachytic formation, I noticed several water-worn page 285boulders, composed of a fossiliferous rock, containing particles of shells, but all of which were too broken to be easily recognizable. These boulders appeared to have been washed down by the river for some distance.

All along the course of the Manganui-a-te-Ao the scenery was of the wildest description; the steep cliffs and mountains towering above us in the grandest confusion. In many places the colossal trees reached their broad branches over the precipices that bordered the stream, in a vivid canopy of green, while the foaming cascades beneath echoed with a roaring sound through the deep valleys as the blue, dancing waters swept onward in their precipitous course along the winding, rock-bound ravine that formed the channel of this remarkable river.

Leaving the course of the river for a time, we made a wide détour to the north, and passed along a range of rugged mountains which marked an altitude of 2900 feet above the level of the sea. Here the whole country was very broken, and it was nothing but one continuous ridge after ridge and gully after gully, while we had to take our horses along precipices where there was scarcely room for them to move along, especially where they had to round the trunks and roots of the stupendous towai-trees, which grew in wonderful luxuriance in this elevated region. Night fairly overtook us on the mountains at a point which marked an altitude of 3500 feet above the level of the sea. The rain poured down incessantly, and we could hear the river roaring in the distance somewhere beneath us, although we had not the remotest idea page 286where we were. We named this elevated point "Mount Towai," on account of a magnificent tree of that species which grew close to the spot where we pitched our tent.

We were up by the first streak of dawn, and, climbing a tree that stretched out its trunk over the precipitous sides of Mount Towai, looked anxiously to see whether we could get a glimpse of the open plains, which we knew to be somewhere in the east. Beneath us wound the deep ravines, covered with their primeval forests, and above the hills in the distance we got a glance at a patch of open country through the dense foliage. This seemed to us like a bright oasis, which had at last come to break the dull monotony of the forest wilderness. We struck camp at once, and descending 500 feet by a steep and slippery incline, we gained the margin of the Manganui-a-te-Ao, and crossed the winding stream for the ninth time, as it rolled down a deep gorge from its source in the regions of eternal snow, as rugged and as rapid as ever.

Once on the opposite side, we climbed a steep ascent, and gained the broad, open table-land at an altitude of 2850 feet. Thus, to arrive at this elevation from Ruakaka, we had travelled over hills and mountains the whole way, and yet in a distance of about thirty miles the country had risen over 2000 feet from our point of departure, which stood at an altitude of 800 feet.

Now that we had done eighty miles of forest travelling since we had left the Murimotu Plains to reach the valley of the Whanganui, and had spent eight days in the primeval wilderness, it is impossible to page 287describe with, what delight we hailed the grand open country before us. During our journey through the forest—that is to say, since we first entered it from the Murimotu Plains—the weather had been mostly wet, and even when the sun shone, the moisture kept dripping from the trees like a perpetual shower-bath, and the dank, heavy feeling of the air, caused by the endless vegetation through which we could never see a hundred yards ahead, produced in the long-run a feeling of intense weariness. Now, however, all nature looked radiant before us, and the colossal form of Ruapehu, rising close to us on our right, looked grander than ever. We now viewed the great mountain from the north-west, an aspect from which we had not beheld it before, and the forests on its sides were interspersed with patches of open country, while the snow since last we had beheld it had crept down almost to the base, and, mingling with the green of the vegetation, produced the most beautiful effect as the mists of morning rolled away beneath the glowing power of the sun.

The fine grassy expanse covered with a thick coating of white frost we had now entered, we afterwards found was known to the natives as the Waimarino, from the name of the river running through it, and which had its source in Haurungatahi, a large, densely wooded mountain which we could see in the distance to our right, and which formed an attractive and beautiful object in the surrounding scenery. These plains immediately to the north-west of Ruapehu were the same we had seen in this direction some weeks before, when making the ascent of Tongariro. We page 288had been told by the natives at Ruakaka that if we kept across the plains to the south-east for about ten miles in the direction of Mount Haurungatahi, we should reach Ngatokorua, the pa of Pehi Hetau Turoa, one of the principal chiefs of the Whanganui tribes. We therefore directed our course towards this place, the plains as we rode along opening out into park-like expanses, fringed with dense forests on either side.

When we arrived at the pa, early in the day, we were received by Pehi and his people with a true Maori welcome.

One of the most remarkable features in connection with this place was that everything about it had a neat and tidy appearance, unlike all other settlements we had seen. It was situated at the foot of Mount Haurungatahi, whose steep sides, clothed with dense forests, towered up behind it. This mountain, we learned, was personified by the Maoris as the wife of Ruapehu. The view in every direction from the settlement was most enchanting, forest, plain, and mountain all combining to add variety to the surroundings.

We were given comfortable quarters in the wharepuni in which the chief's family dwelt, and which consisted of a spacious building constructed of totara, and spread about with clean white mats. We found Pehi's family to consist of Ngaruma, his wife, a pleasant woman with an almost Grecian cast of countenance, although a pure Maori; Te Wao, the chief's henchman, and his wife Ngawini; Turongoiti, with his wife Rauia; Rene, another native; and Hinekura, Rora, and Pureti, the chief's three daughters.

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We were invited by Pehi to remain as long as we liked, and the three days we sojourned with the old chief formed the most agreeable stage of our long journey. There was only one drawback, and that was that we had to sleep with thirteen others in the wharepuni, and as there were always two charcoal fires kept burning, the heat was at times—especially during the first part of the night—intolerable, the thermometer often reaching as high as 100° Fahr., while outside it indicated from four to six degrees below freezing-point. Unfortunately, it was always dark by six o'clock in the evening, when the wharepuni was closely fastened up, and we would have to remain twelve hours in the stifling atmosphere until daylight.

At the first glance it struck me that Pehi Hetau Turoa looked and walked a chief. Taken altogether, he was the finest specimen of his race I had ever seen. In age he appeared to be sixty, or thereabouts but his stature was that of a well-conditioned athlete. He stood about six feet three, as upright as a dart, big-boned and muscular, and in his younger days he had the reputation of being one of the strongest men of his time. His well-formed features were cast in the true Maori mould, and he had a singularly massive and well-shaped head. Over his closely clipped beard hung a thick moustache, and above this again, the blue tattooed lines wound round his nostrils, then over his face, and ended in small circles over his brows. During the war Pehi had been a noted Hauhau leader, but, unlike most of the warriors of his race I had met with, he, as if anxious to preserve his page 290military renown, moved about with the air of a well-drilled soldier, while he possessed at all times and in all his actions that genial yet dignified tone of manner so characteristic of the Maori of the old school.

Pehi was at all times a host in himself, and being a man of singularly original and witty train of thought, his conversation was very amusing. Of an evening, when the wharepuni was closed in, the whole hapu would assemble, and squatting down on their mats round the small charcoal fire, the old chief would relate the most singular tales, and ask the most extraordinary questions. He recounted to us some of his experiences in the Maori war, and then asked what nation was at present at war with England? When informed that we were at that time having a brush with Egypt, he inquired if that was not the place where Christ was crucified, and when told that that incident occurred in a neighbouring country, he ejaculated, "Ah, I know I was not far out; a mile or two make no difference in a big event like that." He next inquired what manner of men the Egyptians were, and whether they danced the haka; and when I stated that the Egyptian dancing-girls went through gyrations very similar to those of their dark sisters at the antipodes, he replied, "Then if they dance the haka we must be descended from them. I believe the Maoris are one of the lost tribes of Israel." He asked many questions about England, and the descriptions of London especially amused him, and when told that they had a railway there running underground, he expressed great surprise, and asked how it was that the taniwha we called the devil didn't object to underground railways.

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He appeared very anxious to learn all about the government of England, and when I had given him a résumé of parliamentary procedure, he pointed towards Te Wao, his henchman, who, strange to say for a Maori, was perfectly bald, and demanded, in a seriocomic way, whether bald-headed men were allowed to sit in the British Parliament, and when I pointed out that a bald-headed man enjoyed equal parliamentary privileges with one having his head covered with hair, he replied that the Maoris always looked with suspicion on bald-headed men. All joined in the laugh at this remark, with the exception of Pehi, who always looked particularly fierce and grim when he cracked his jokes or hurled his shafts of satire.

Although Pehi was singularly jocund for a man of his age, yet when a serious question was put to him he knew how to answer it in a clear and deliberate way; and when I got Turner to induce the rangatira to give the apparent reason for the rapid decay of his race, he spoke thus: "In former times we lived differently; each tribe had its territory. We lived in pas placed high upon the mountains. The men looked to war as their only occupation, and the women and the young people cultivated the fields. We were a strong and a healthy people then. When the pakeha came, everything began to die away, even the natural animals of the country. Formerly, when we went into a forest and stood under a tree, we could not hear ourselves speak for the noise of the birds; every tree was full of them. Then we had pigeons and everything in plenty; now many of the birds have died out. A few years ago there was a big green page 292parrotin these forests; now it is gone, and lots of other things have gradually faded away. In those times the fields were well tilled, there was always plenty of provisions, and we wore few clothes, only our own mats of feathers. Then the missionaries came and took our children from the fields, and taught them to sing hymns; they changed their minds, and the fields were untilled. The children came home and quoted Grospel on an empty stomach. Then came the war between the pakeha and the Maori that split up our homes, and made one tribe fight against another; and after the war came the pakeha settlers, who took our lands, taught us to drink, and to smoke, and made us wear clothes that brought on disease. "What race," said the old chief, "could stand against that. The Maori," he continued, "is passing away like the kiwi, the tui, and many other things, and by-and-by they will disappear just as the leaves of the trees, and nothing will remain to tell of them but the names of their mountains and their rivers."

One morning, when we were sunning ourselves in front of the wharepuni, I asked Pehi how the Maoris fought in battle. Without a moment's hesitation he jumped up from where he had been seated, and, casting aside his cape and appearing in nothing but a cloth around his loins, entered a small whare, and emerged an instant afterwards with a huata, or short spear, beautifully carved at the top to represent a grotesque human head, from the mouth of which the tongue protruded about three inches in the form of a spear-blade, while just below the head was a long tuft of white dog's-hair bound with flax stained a page 293brightred. The shaft of the implement, made of totara wood, and highly polished, was rounded at the top part, but widened out in an oval form with sharp, bevelled edges towards the bottom end. Flourishing this weapon about in the wildest way, jumping into
a chief armed with "mere" and "huata."

a chief armed with "mere" and "huata."

the air, making the most hideous grimaces, thrusting out his tongue, and turning up his eyes till nothing but the whites were visible, the old warrior yelled and danced about like a madman, now throwing up his huata in the air and catching it again, now sweeping it round in a way that seemed to carry death in every page 294stroke, the savage, tattooed countenance of the old rangatira working the while in a most diabolical fashion. He made terrific and frantic cuts at each of our heads, but so dexterous was he in the manipulation of his weapon that he arrested it in every instance when within the eighth of an inch of our skulls—which he jocosely told us were not thick enough to hurt the huata.
When questioned as to the use of the mere, he informed us that it was seldom used in war, except by the chiefs, and that it was more an emblem of rank which was handed down as an heirloom in a tribe. The greenstone mere was so highly prized that to secure one in battle appeared to be considered as an act of glory, just as the taking of a stand of colours might be with us. The mere was, however, always considered as a formidable weapon in fight, as a blow from it, if properly dealt, would break any bone in a man's body. When using it, it was customary to aim at the head. It was also used by the chiefs to cleave the skulls of the captured. He told us that the Maoris had never accustomed themselves to the use of the bow and arrow, and that, when fighting, they depended principally upon the huata and other spears, until the Europeans taught them the use of fire-arms.
a "mere."

a "mere."

1 Literally, the battle-ground where the rock was thrown.