Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

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

Chapter XXVII. — The Northern Table-Land

page 315

Chapter XXVII.
The Northern Table-Land.

The Whanganui stream—Oruapuraho Valley—Waihaha River— Kahakaharoa—The sweetbriar—The kiwi—The moa—A gigantic lizard—Waikomiko and Waihora Rivers—Te Tihoi Plains— Scenery—Mount Titiraupenga—Mangakowiriwiri River—Mangakino River—Swimming horses—Our camp—The Maoris as travellers—A Maori joke—Good horsemen—Their knowledge of the country—Their endurance—The Waipapa—Te Toto Ranges—The Waipari—Te Tauranga—The Upper Puniu—A fine specimen of tattooing—A night at Hengia.

We left Pouotepiki early on the following morning, and, as the tangi was at an end, about a dozen mounted natives, who were going in the same direction as ourselves, invited us to join them. Leaving the pa in a long cavalcade, we descended into a valley, and crossed the Whanganui stream flowing into Lake Taupo.

Further to the north, we crossed the Waikino stream, and after passing over steep, fern-clad hills we reached the Oruapuraho Valley, formed by a wild ravine sunk like an enormous pit in the table-land. This curious place, which was about two miles long, was exactly 200 feet in depth, and was walled in on every side with perpendicular masses of trachytic and white pumice rock, which were broken here and there into page 316the form of enormous bluffs, which jutted out in the most fantastic shapes. Winding, precipitous ravines opened out now and again in the direction of the lake and towards the mountainous country on the west, but beyond these wild gorges nothing could be seen beyond the towering walls of the deep valley, the sides of which appeared to attain, all along the course, to a general height of 200 feet, the altitude of the tableland being, both at the entrance and exit of the valley, exactly 2000 feet above the level of the sea. A small stream wound through the centre of this rock-bound ravine, about the sides of which the tussock grass and fern grew in great luxuriance, together with the koromiko, of which our horses ate greedily.

The table-land fell to 1700 feet as we gained the Waihaha River, the name of which literally means "still waters." There was a very deep descent to it, and looking from the top of this down upon the stream, there was not a ripple upon its surface. It was, however, some hundred feet wide at the fording-place, and as the water was deep, we had to swim our horses. On the opposite side of this river, towards the east, a castellated bluff rose up to a height of nearly 200 feet, in appearance not unlike a fortified stronghold, while beyond this point the river fell in the form of a small waterfall, as it wound on its way to Lake Taupo.

At about a mile distant from the Waihaha River, after passing through a wild, rocky gorge, where fantastic masses of rock stood up above the conical hills like monuments, we arrived at Kahakaharoa, a small pa situated on a winding mountain stream called page 317Te Pikopiko. At one time there had been a considerable native settlement here, but now the whole place was nearly abandoned. We were detained here all the following day by an incessant rain that came down in a perfect deluge, the streams rising all round
moa and apteryx.

moa and apteryx.

us with marvellous rapidity. This was a very wild, dreary-looking place, situated in a rock-bound, in-accessible spot, right at the base of the Hurakia Mountains, and the appearance of the inhabitants seemed quite in keeping with the locality.
page 318

Our horses fared badly at this camping-place, and were compelled to subsist upon the ripe berries of the sweetbriar, which here grew in wonderful luxuriance, so much so that our animals, following out the laws of natural selection, would often have to stand on their hind legs to reach the bright red fruit.

Here, besides the usual diet of pork and potatoes, we were treated to roast kiwi. This bird (Apteryx Australis) is the only remaining representative of the great family of New Zealand Struthionidæ. It is a dwarf form of the moa, not larger than a fair-sized hen, with short, rudimentary wings, totally unfit for flying, and without a tail; it has four toes on each foot, a long bill resembling that of a snipe, while its body is covered with pendulous feathers resembling hair. Its habits are nocturnal; it lives in recesses under the roots of trees, and feeds upon insects, grubs, and the seeds of various plants; the hen lays but one egg, which for the size of the bird is extraordinarily large. These birds, which live in pairs, are still very plentiful in the dense, unfrequented ranges of the King Country.1

Throughout the journey we always made it a practice to inquire of the natives as to whether they had ever discovered any remains of the moa,2 but, beyond

1 For wingless birds, see Appendix.

2 There were no less than six species of this extinct wingless bird—

  • The Dinornis Giganteus, height 11 feet.
  • The Dinornis Robustus, height 8 feet 6 in.
  • The Dinornis Elephantopus height 6 feet 8 in.
  • The Dinornis Casuarinus height 5 feet 6 in.
  • The Dinornis Crassus height 5 feet.
  • The Dinornis Didiformus height 4 feet 8 in.

page 319are ference to it in their traditions, little appeared to be known of it. The natives, however, at Kahakaharoa informed us that in former times the bones of this bird had been found in the swamps around Lake Rotoaira.

It is also worthy of remark that we ascertained that there was a tradition among all the tribes of the existence at one time of a gigantic lizard, which is said to have inhabited the caves and rocky places of the North Island, but whether this was in fact a real or fabulous reptile, it would seem impossible to determine.

We left Kahakaharoa as soon as the swollen state of the rivers would allow us, and, after crossing the Waikomiko River, continued our course in a northerly direction along the table-land which here opened out into a broad expanse of rolling plains, stretching away to the north as far as the eye could reach. We passed by the head-waters of the Waihora River, which was the last stream of any importance, forming the western watershed of Lake Taupo.

Journeying still further on, we crossed the Te Tihoi Plains, a fine tract of open country extending around the mountains of Titiraupenga as far north as the banks of the Waikato River, and thence north-westerly to the Te Toto Ranges. This large area, comprising nearly 1000 square miles, was the country described upon the maps as covered with dense bush; and where we had expected to travel through primeval forests we found magnificent open plains, clothed with a rich vegetation of native grasses, and composed of some of the best soil we had met with during our journey.

page 320

As we rode over these plains, the scenery was magnificent, as much by reason of the vast scope of country that stretched before us as by the variety of mountain scenery that surrounded the plains in every direction. To the north-east high, forest-clad mountains rose up one above the other in the direction of Ouranui and the valley of the Waikato, while to the west were rugged, forest-clad ranges, crowned by the towering form of Titiraupenga.

This magnificent mountain, which is one of the highest peaks in the northern portion of the King Country, rises to an altitude of some 4000 feet above the level of the sea. It assumes in general outline the formation of an extensive cone, with a broad base and long sweeping sides, while its summit is surmounted by a gigantic pinnacle of rock, of a pointed form, and which serves with the great mountain as a conspicuous landmark all over the surrounding country. It is covered from base to summit with dense forests, and its enormous gorges and deep ravines give rise to many streams and rivers.

For a considerable distance along our course the altitude of the table-land varied from 2000 to 2450 feet, until we struck the Mangakowiriwiri, a curious underground river flowing from Titiraupenga. This river burst through a tremendous gorge of the mountain, flanked on either side by tall precipices of rock, and then cut its way through a narrow, rocky chasm. Looking down into the deep fissure, we could just see the silver streak of water foaming nearly a hundred feet below, but in many places it passed entirely out of sight when the channel ran underground. This page 321stream, which was 2200 feet above the sea, we were enabled to cross by means of a very narrow and very primitive footway, which the natives told us was known as the "bridge of God."

From the Mangakowiriwiri, our course lay through an open, undulating country covered with a luxuriant growth of tussock and other native grasses. Here the table-land began to fall perceptibly towards the north-west, and for a long distance it averaged in altitude from 1000 to 1150 feet, and when we reached the valley of the Mangakino River it had fallen to 1000 feet. This was one of our longest journeys, the distance travelled during the day being over forty miles, so that it was moonlight when we arrived at the banks of the river. The Mangakino ran through a deep mountain gorge, and formed one of the many streams issuing from the Titiraupenga Ranges, and flowing into the Waikato.

We soon found that the river was much swollen by the recent rains, and that it would be necessary to swim our horses. Four of the natives who had accompanied us from Pouotepiki were still with us, so that altogether we had to get six horses across, but the animals behaved splendidly, and swam through the icy cold water like ducks, the Maori horses showing their bush knowledge by taking the lead. Altogether it was a very dangerous crossing-place to take, especially at night-time, as the river just below the ford fell over a deep precipice with noise like thunder.

Once on the opposite bank, we pitched camp for the night, and made a meal out of what we could muster between us. All we could boast of was a little flour, page 322some of which the natives worked up into a dough in a "pannikin," and then rolling it up into long pieces between the palms of their hands, wound the pieces round sticks in a spiral fashion, and baked them in front of the fire. A few potatoes the Maoris had with them were likewise spitted and roasted in this way. The place where we camped was an exceedingly wild-looking spot, and during the night we experienced a severe frost, the thermometer descending to 28°.

We struck our camp at the Mangakino before daylight, and set out on our journey at once, but, unpleasant to relate, without any breakfast, as our commissariat was now reduced to a few potatoes, which we had determined to cook when we should get further on the road. We rose from the valley of the river on to the level plains just as the first rays of the sun swept over the country in a flood of glowing light, and the air was so pure and buoyant that we soon forgot that we were journeying on an empty stomach, until we came to a stream, where we found an abundant growth of watercress, of which we ate heartily, one of the Maoris remarking with a broad grin that we had at last come "to feed like the cows." When travelling with the Maoris I could not but admire the easy, good-natured way in which they took everything—nothing disconcerted them. When impediments to travel presented themselves, the bigger the difficulties to overcome, the more ardent they appeared to surmount them. When crossing the swollen rivers, if one got a bigger ducking than the rest, they would laugh and joke at the ill-luck of their comrade, while he in his turn would enjoy the amusement as much as they did.

page 323

On one occasion, when we were ascending a steep, slippery hill, the saddle-girth of one of the horses broke, and the saddle slipping aside, the rider fell heavily and rolled down a muddy bank. This brought down roars of laughter from the others, who told him not to mind himself, but that it was a pity to spoil a good horse by letting him know how easily a man could fall off his back.

I always found the natives to be expert and fearless horsemen, and I believe that a cavalry regiment of well-trained and well-mounted Maoris, both for courage, endurance, and élan, would form one of the finest body of troops ever marshalled upon a parade-ground or a battle-field.

When travelling with them, another interesting fact was that they seemed to take a pride in being able to define thoroughly all the natural features of their country. Each mountain and hill had its special name, and every valley and plain and river, down to the smallest stream, each being called after some characteristic feature or legendary tale connected with it; while every tree, plant, bird, and insect was known by a designation which betokened either its appearance or habits.

A remarkable feature indicative of the endurance of the natives, was that one night they would be sleeping in a wharepuni with the thermometer over 100°, and the next night they would not hesitate to lie down upon the damp ground with only a blanket over them, and with the thermometer at several degrees below freezing-point. It is true we often went through the same ordeal ourselves during the page 324journey, but it appeared to me to be more remarkable on the part of the Maoris, as they seemed to enjoy the stifling heat of their wharepunis as a positive luxury, while we looked upon it as being very much akin to a sojourn in Hades.

We reached the Waipapa River near its junction with the Mangatete, and descended from the table-land, over 100 feet, to the crossing-place. This river, which was one of the largest we had met with, rushed with a rapid current through a deep rock-bound gorge from the mountains of Titiraupenga to join the Waikato, of which it formed one of the principal tributaries. We gained the crossing-place by a steep, winding descent, the mountains with their rocky bluffs on the opposite side of the river being clothed with a dense vegetation of giant trees, while to the right of the track by which we had to descend was a small mountain forming a complete cone, and which was clothed from base to summit with a luxuriant growth of fern and tall manuka. The whole gorge through which the river wound had a very wild and beautiful appearance, while the water, like that of the Waikato, into which it fell after crossing the plains, was as clear as crystal. Beyond the Waipapa we passed through more open country until we neared the Te Toto ranges, when mountain, hill, and valley mingled together in a most picturesque way.

It took us several hours to traverse the Te Toto ranges, the track winding about in every direction, with deep ravines on either side. Here the vegetation was of the most luxuriant and varied order, but the page 325enormous roots of the great trees made riding very difficult.

We crossed the Waipari River, a large stream flowing from the Rangitoto ranges into the Waikato. The descent to the crossing-place of this river was no less than 500 feet, and we had to mount a slippery incline on the opposite side of equal altitude. Our course now lay over high fern-clad ridges, and now, for the first time, the broad valley of the Waipa was before us, with Maungatautari to the north, and Pirongia to the north-west.

Towards sundown we passed along a ridge, with a tremendous rock-bound gorge beneath us, and where the enormous rocks were dispersed about in a way which resembled the ruins of a feudal stronghold. This place was formerly occupied as a pa, and on one occasion a great battle was fought there by the Ngatiraukawa, who were defeated by the Ngatituwharetoa and Ngatimatakore, who, it is said, feasted for days on the bodies of their enemies.

A few miles beyond Tetauranga we arrived at a low hill, upon the summit of which a number of Maoris were camped in tents. As luck would have it, feeding was just going on, and we were invited to partake of a welcome meal. Although it was now evening, we determined to push on our way, and when the moon rose we started, and gained the head-waters of the Puniu River, which we crossed with the intention of camping on the opposite side; we, however, got wet in the operation, and as the place was swampy, and the night fearfully cold, we determined to ride several page 326miles further, to Hengia pa, which we reached at ten o'clock, after a journey of over sixty miles, and which had kept us in the saddle for about seventeen hours. Before arrival at the settlement, the whole country was covered with a white frost, and the damp, chilly cold of the low valley of the Waipa seemed to go right into the marrow of one's bones.

The natives appeared much surprised at our nocturnal raid upon them, but we were soon invited into a whare, where a big fire was burning, and where four men and an old woman were located with three or four mongrel dogs. One of the men, although apparently very old, was yet wiry and active, while his pinched, sharp features were tattooed in the most elaborate way up to the very roots of his hair, the thin blue lines forming a complete network over his countenance. This was the most artistically tattooed savage we had met on the journey, and Turner remarked to me that he would much like to have the old man's head to preserve as a mokaikai,1 but he was cautious enough not to express this desire to the antiquated Hauhau.

After we had talked over matters for some time, and the surprise occasioned by our visit had somewhat abated, our tattooed friend produced a newly-slaughtered pig from a dark corner of the whare, and when this was dismembered and some potatoes had been peeled by the old woman, there was soon a good

1 Mohaikai, a process of embalming heads, by saturating them with the pyroligneous acid of wood. This custom was at one time very common with the Maoris, who thus preserved the heads of their ancestors, the skin and tattoo marks of the face remaining perfect for many years.

page 327meal cooking for our benefit. After we had partaken of our repast, we were invited by our entertainers to remain the night, and being only too glad to take advantage of their proffered hospitality, we took up our quarters in a corner of the primitive whare, which, unpleasant to relate, was literally alive with fleas.