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

Chapter XXV. — Hot Springs of Tongariro

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Chapter XXV.
Hot Springs of Tongariro.

Departure from Ngatokorua—Okahakura Plains—Tongariro from the north—Source of the Whanganui—The hot springs—A marvellous sanatorium—Crater of Ketetahi—Te Perore—A strategic position—Kuwharua—Maori cakes—A grand region—Site for a public park.

We left Ngatokorua with a pressing invitation to return again, and took an easterly course across the Waimarino Plains, in the direction of Tongariro, with the view of tracing up the source of the Whanganui River, which, we had learned from the natives, rose somewhere in the northern side of the volcano, and after that I had determined to examine the tapued springs and the crater of Ketetahi, which were situated a short distance further to the east on the same mountain.

The whole country we passed through to reach Tongariro consisted of a series of magnificent plains, richly grassed, surrounded for the most part by forest, and dotted here and there with patches of bush that grew in the centre of the plains and bordered many of the streams. We crossed the Mangahuia and Whakapapa rivers, both swift streams, flowing in a north-westerly direction to join the Upper Whanganui.

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Beyond the Waimarino Plains was an equally attractive stretch, of country of the same description, known as Okahakura, and through the centre of which wound the Mangatepopo River, likewise a tributary of the Whanganui.

When we ascended the hills and rugged spurs which surrounded the great volcano of Tongariro on the north, we found them to be composed mostly of scoria and trachytic rock, but covered for a long distance up their sides with a thick vegetation of native grasses and dwarf shrubs. The tops of the larger spurs were, however, very rugged and barren, while the depression round the lip of the crater, which we had observed when at the summit of the great cone, was distinctly visible, and naturally made the mountain appear less elevated on this than on its southern side. The splendid cone was, however, now covered with a white canopy of snow almost to its base, while the summit here and there was tinged of a bright yellow with deposits of sulphur crystals, and as its white coil of steam floated over its gracefully pointed top the effect was beautiful in the extreme.

On one of the principal spurs to the north-west of the great cone we found the source of the "Whanganui bursting out through a narrow rocky gorge at an altitude of 3700 feet above the level of the sea, the water evidently arising from mountain springs, and at certain times from the melting of the snows. The river from this point runs rapidly down the winding gorges of the mountains, and, after receiving in its course the waters of numerous other streams, winds across the Okahakura Plains, and afterwards enters page 297thedense forests of the Tuhua, and then taking a bold sweep to the north-west receives the waters of the Ongaruhe and numerous other streams, as it flows in its long course to join the sea in the south. The Whanganui, which, after the Waikato, forms the most important river of the North Island, receives the whole of the western watershed of the great central table-land, besides that of other divisions of the country.

Leaving the source of the Whanganui, we took an easterly direction, and, after a long climb through the thick shrubs and boulder-strewn sides of the mountain arrived at the great solfatara, the steam from which, constantly arising in the form of a dense white cloud, forms a conspicuous feature when looking towards Tongariro from the north. We ascended to an altitude of 5600 feet on to the spur where the renowned chief Te Heuheu is said to be buried, and on the summit of which were the small blue lakes we had seen from the top of the great cone, and which were now surrounded by their winter mantle of snow. Lower down on the same spur, at an altitude of 4900 feet, we found the hot springs roaring beneath us, deep down in a semicircular gorge, which was strewn about in every direction with huge boulders, as if a great flood of water had recently passed through it. We got with some difficulty down the rugged sides of this strange chasm, and soon stood in the centre of a region where boiling springs burst from the earth, where jets of steam shrieked and hissed from innumerable fissures, where enormous boiling mud-holes bubbled like heated cauldrons, and where the hot, steaming soil, covered in page 298everydirection with yellow crystals of sulphur, and glistening silicious deposits, quaked beneath our feet, as if anxious to swallow us up, so that we had to pick our way cautiously amid clouds of steam and sulphurous fumes for fear of coming to an untimely and unpleasant end. In many places fountains of hot water shot high into the air. Some of the warm springs were of a dark coffee-colour, caused apparently by the admixture of iron; others were yellow with excess of sulphur; others white with alum; while not a few were of the purest blue. Taken altogether, this weird place had an unpleasant, pandemonium-like air about it, while the noise of the hissing steam-jets was so great, as they burst with terrific force from their rocky vents, that it was impossible to hear oneself speak when near to them. Indeed, a dozen or so of railway engines letting off steam and blowing their whistles at the same time would only serve to convey a slight idea of the tremendous din.

These springs, as the Maoris afterwards informed us, possessed wonderful curative properties in all cases of chronic rheumatism and cutaneous disorders, and many natives suffering from ailments of that kind come long distances to avail themselves of the thermal waters, which it would appear never fail to effect a cure. This portion of Tongariro, like all other parts, is strictly tapued against Europeans, and the natives of Rotoaira and the surrounding district guard this marvellous sanatorium with a jealous eye; but as we attacked it from the rear, they were none the wiser for our visit.

A short distance beyond the springs, and near to the page 299end of the great spur, we found the small crater known to the natives as Ketetahi, which was formed of a circular aperture emitting vast volumes of steam. We obtained a splendid view of the country towards the north from our elevated position, the rugged ranges of Te Tuhua being crowned by Hikurangi, a beautiful pyramidal-shaped mountain, with a flat top, while to the westward of it could be distinctly traced the winding course of the Ongaruhe River.

We crossed the Mangatepopo River, flowing from Tongariro, and then the Whanganui, the winding course of which we had to traverse three times. Near to the second crossing-place a picturesque headland jutted out from the dense forest that bordered the plain, and upon its summit could be plainly traced the outline of rude earthworks, which were as solid as if they had been but recently erected. This was all that remained of Te Perore, which during the war formed one of Te Kooti's most formidable strongholds. and it was here that the memorable battle was fought in which Captain St. George lost his life. The Maoris are said to have suffered severely during the engagement, Te Kooti himself being wounded in the left hand by a rifle-ball.

When examining this decaying remnant of the great struggle between the white and the dark race, I could not but admire the judgment which had been displayed by the Maoris in choosing this point as a strategic position. It was about 100 feet above the plain, the Whanganui River wound round it to the east, while the formation of the surrounding country was such that the enemy would be open to the fire of the -page 300sieged from every side of the pa save at the rear, where the latter, if beaten, would have a splendid retreat open in the dense forests of the Tuhua, which backed the fortification at that point. Nature appeared to have done her utmost to efface all traces of the struggle, and upon the rude earthworks, once alive with the forms of tattooed warriors, now shrubs and trees waved their heads to the passing breeze. Never was there a more beautiful spot chosen for a battle, and it must have been a truly impressive sight to see the valiant Maori warriors fighting for their country under the very shadow of their sacred mountains, driving back the pakeha, and erecting a barrier of isolation around the grand region whose wonders we were now exploring.

As we were riding on our way along the plain near to the edge of the forest we noticed that on the small elevations on our left, which fringed the bush, several whares were dotted about in the most picturesque situations. When we were passing one of these rustic homesteads some natives hailed us, to know where we were going. At this we rode up the steep elevation upon which their whare was placed, to have a korero, and to gain what information we could with regard to our future course. An old woman with a goitre upon her neck hailed us with the usual cry of welcome, while her tattooed lord, who was engaged making a trap to catch pigeons, invited us to put up our horses and rest. We were willing enough to do this, especially as there was a smell of cooking about, and our cool ride across the plains had given us our usual wolfish appetite. We were soon invited to partake of page 301are past of pork and potatoes, together with some cakes, made evidently of flour and water, but so hard that it was impossible to bite them, and so heavy that Turner, with every show of reason, remarked that if we happened to get unhorsed when crossing a river, we should never rise to the surface with one of those cakes in our insides.

We did not take our meal in the smoky whore, but sat with the Maoris outside in the sun. The day was one of the finest we had experienced, and all nature appeared as if wrapped in a mantle of eternal spring. The small kainga where we now were was known to the natives as Kuwharua, and stood at an elevation of 2420 feet above the level of the sea. The view from this place when looking towards the south was the finest we had beheld during our journey, if I except the marvellous panoramas beheld from the top of the Ruapehu and Tongariro. For the variety of the scenery to be obtained within the radius of ten miles from where we were, no view in the world could equal it. Beneath us was the Te Pakaru Plain, with an area of some twenty square miles, covered with a green growth of native grass, and intersected by winding mountain streams. In the south-east were the blue waters of Lake Rotoaira, backed by the coneshaped summits of the Kakaramea Ranges, clothed with dense forests of tall trees; while beyond, stretching like a grand barrier across the country to the south, were the serrated peaks of the Kaimanawa Mountains, at whose base rolled the broad open downs of the Rangipo Table-land. Rising right in the centre of this grand picture were the wonderful mountains page 302ofTongariro, heaped and piled about in the most fantastic and curious way, and from the midst of which shot up the white, glittering cone of the volcano crowned with its perpetual cloud of steam, while, to complete the attractive scene, the stupendous form of Ruapehu towered to the skies, peak rising above peak beneath its deep mantle of winter snow. Here was a view which, taken in as it was at one glance, exceeded in grandeur and sublimity even the most glowing creations of fairyland. Here were park-like plains of vivid green stretching from the borders of an inland sea to the shores of a romantic-looking lake, where the waters were of the deepest blue; around were steaming craters and thermal springs, colossal cone-shaped mountains towering to the regions of eternal snow, and lesser heights rising from amidst primeval forests of the grandest description, glowing and palpitating as it were, in all their beauty beneath the sunlight; and yet, singular to relate, this marvellous country, this wonder-land, as we gazed upon it, was to all intents and purposes a terra incognita. Here was in reality a model Switzerland under a semi-tropical sky—a region designed, as it were, by the artistic hand of nature for a national recreation-ground, where countless generations of men might assemble to marvel at some of the grandest works of the creation.

With the Te Pakaru Plain proclaimed as a public domain, New Zealand would possess the finest and most unique park in the world. For healthfulness of climate, variety of scenery, and volcanic and thermal wonders, there would be no place to equal it in the page 303northern or southern hemisphere, no spot where within so small a radius could be seen natural phenomena so varied and so remarkable. It would embrace within its boundaries the hot springs of Tongariro and those of Tokanu, and would stretch from the waters of Lake Taupo to the shores of Rotoaira. The surrounding table-land, with its millions of acres of open plains covered with rich volcanic soil, should eventually become the granary of the North Island; while the Kaimanawa Mountains and the Tuhua should give forth their mineral treasures on either side.