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

Chapter XV. — The Rangipo Table-Land

page 168

Chapter XV.
The Rangipo Table-Land.

Along the delta of the Upper Waikato—Mount Pihanga—The Poutu River and Lake Rotoaira—Boundaries of the Rangipo—Scenery —A fine night—A rough time—A great storm—The karamu as fodder—Banks of the Upper Waikato—Another start—More bad weather—Flooded creeks—Pangarara—Te Hau.

From Tokanu we followed up the delta of the Waikato River, and passed through a swamp nearly three miles across, and where many of the muddy creeks and crossing-places were up to our horses' girths in thick black mud. The swamp, composed of a black alluvial soil of the richest kind, covered a large area to the south of the lake, and stretched far inland to the base of the low hills beyond. It was mostly covered with a dense growth of flax and raupo, the less swampy parts giving life to a luxuriant growth of toetoe grass, which waved its feathery tufts far above our heads. Further along our track the country rose rapidly to a height of 200 feet above the delta in the form of a long ridge of barren hills. From the summit of these elevations the land fell rapidly along our course 100 feet into a hollow depression. This large area, which had the appearance of having formed at some time a portion of the lake basin, was covered with fluvial drift page 169and enormous trachytic boulders, but wherever vegetation could spring up the tussock grass grew luxuriantly. Through the centre of this broad expanse the Waikato rolled onward with many twists and turns over its boulder-strewn bed, its winding course being marked by a luxuriant growth of tall trees and other vegetation.

We passed close to the base of Mount Pihanga, which rose majestically on our right to an altitude of nearly 4000 feet, and formed a conspicuous landmark for many miles around. This splendid mountain, springing from an almost level base, is the largest volcanic cone of the Kakaramea ranges, and while its form is wonderfully symmetrical in its proportions, it is clothed from base to summit with a dense forest growth, save here and there where its clear-cut sides roll down into the plains beneath in the form of fernclad slopes. Immediately at the summit of Pihanga is an extensive crater, the northern lip of which comes considerably down the slope of the mountain, appearing like an extensive land-slip. This mountain is personified by the Maoris as the wife of Tongariro.

We had to cross the Waikato twice on its winding course, and next we forded the Poutu River, a rapid stream with deep broken banks flowing out of Lake Rotoaira, which lay a considerable distance further to our right at the southern base of Pihanga, and between that mountain and Tongariro. We had now entered upon the Rangipo table-land, and were gradually ascending that portion of it known to the natives as the Te Henga, a large tract of country covered with good soil and a luxuriant growth of low fern and native grasses.

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As the Rangipo table-land and the plains in its vicinity will enter largely into my description of this portion of the country, I will point out its boundaries, with a few of the grand natural features which render it one of the most remarkable regions in the world.

The Rangipo plateau, which may be said to form the central division of the great highland of the interior of the island, is in reality considerably higher than the extensive elevated region immediately surrounding Lake Taupo. While the latter has a mean elevation of about 2000 feet above the level of the sea, the height of the Rangipo is over 3000 feet at its highest point on the Onetapu desert, on the eastern side of Ruapehu. This extensive plane of elevation takes its rise a short distance from the southern end of the lake, and extends in the form of broad open downs for a distance of over forty miles, when it merges into the Murimotu Plains as it falls to the south. On its eastern margin are the Kaimanawa Mountains, at the extreme base of which the Upper Waikato rolls in its winding course to join the great lake. Beyond, to the north-west, the cone-shaped summits of the Kakaramea ranges rise up, clothed with a dense vegetation, as they slope gracefully to the shores of Lake Rotoaira in the west, and beyond which there are again extensive plains fringed with dense forests, which slope gradually to the valley of the Whanganui. Right in the very centre of the table-land towers the magnificent cone of Tongariro, situated in the midst of a cluster of lower mountains, whilst close to it and separated only by a narrow valley, stands the colossal form of Ruapehu, peak rising above peak to the region page 171of eternal snow. The greater portion of the soil of this extensive table-land is of volcanic origin, and is formed principally by the decomposition of the trachytic rocks forming the extensive volcanic system of mountains which border it on its western side, and, with the exception of the desert tract above alluded to, which is about eight miles across, it is covered for the most part with a luxuriant growth of native grasses; while it is intersected from one extent to the other by a perfect network of streams and rivers, which flow generally in an easterly direction and form tributaries of the Upper Waikato.

The scenery of this splendid tract of country burst so suddenly upon us after rounding the broad base of Mount Pihanga that we seemed to have entered a wild, romantic land blessed with the grandest and most varied features of nature. To the north was Lake Taupo, with the island and bold headlands tinged with the golden rays of the setting sun; in front of us were the tall Kaimanawa Mountains clothed to their summits with sombre forests, over which the shades of evening played in a fitful kind of way, now lighting up the broad ravines, now clothing them with darkness. The wide, rolling sides of the Tongariro Mountains swept down to the plains in a series of terrace like slopes, green with a dense growth of fern and native grasses, which, mingling with the trees on the higher ridges, gave the hills a park-like look, while, as we rode onward, the white glittering summit of Ruapehu assumed a pink rosy tint as the orb of day sank slowly to rest in the west.

Our course was along the Rangipo in the direction page 172of Tongariro, some fifteen miles distant by the way we were going to attack it, and as we were acting a kind of strategic movement we kept out to the east along the Waikato River, to avoid, if possible, being seen by the natives of Rotoaira, who keep watch and ward over the tapued mountain. Everything looked propitious for the assault which we had intended to make on the following day. When we took up our quarters for the night, the moon rose bright and clear, the stars shone brilliantly, and the snow on the dark mountains gleamed white and beautiful. By this time we were already 850 feet above Lake Taupo, or a little over 2000 feet above the level of the sea; the air was singularly clear, and the thermometer, which had marked 48° in the shade at 6 a.m., at midday had risen to 72°, and had fallen to 64° at 5 p.m., and as the wind was still from the south, and there appeared every prospect of fine weather on the morrow, we determined to start at daybreak to make the next stage for Tongariro; but alas! "the best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft a-gley."

The name Rangipo means, in the native language, "black, cloudy sky," a term which in former years may have had some allusion to the volcanic fires, with their clouds of smoke and ashes, which must at some period have made this place appear like a veritable Pandemonium—or it may, on the other hand, have originated in the terrific storms which still break with unabated violence on this elevated region, just as they must have done countless ages ago, when the elements above waged war with the plutonic fires below. Be that, however, as it may, the "black, cloudy sky" page 173cast its dismal mantle around us, and our first night was ushered in with a tremendous storm of wind from the north-east, and a perfect deluge of rain. The creeks and rivers rose around us, the Waikato rolled through its rocky gorge with a sound like the roaring of a distant sea, and when daybreak came and we looked anxiously in the direction of Tongariro, both it and Ruapehu were blotted completely out of view by a dense black cloud, which hung around them like a funeral pall. Up to the time when we arrived at the Rangipo, we had enjoyed throughout our journey the most delightful weather, but this sudden break was the prelude to some of the hardest experiences of our journey. The rain poured down incessantly without a single hour's intermission, and without a single break in the clouds, the wind blowing a hurricane most of the time, and veering round to all points of the compass, but invariably coming back to the north-east or north.

During the six days and nights which this storm lasted without a single intermission, we lived on from day to day in hope, which was sustained by scanty feeds of porridge and hard biscuit. We, however, managed to keep body and soul together, but our poor horses suffered severely, and it was the privations which they underwent on this occasion that told greatly upon them during the whole of the journey. The constant cold and wet to which they were exposed reduced their general tone to the lowest, and while the grass at that season possessed little or no nourishment, they had to seek their food always at the end of the tether rope. To aid them a little, we would go into the bush which skirts the Waikato, and cut the page 174branches of the karamu,1 which bears a dark green leaf and clusters of bright red berries. Of this the half-starved animals would eat voraciously, but unfortunately the supply was limited in this locality, although we afterwards met with this tree frequently throughout our journey.

During our unwilling sojourn on the banks of the Waikato the long wet days and nights passed drearily and slowly away. Even on foot we could not travel far, owing to the swollen creeks, but we used sometimes to go out with the gun, and range over the splendid forests which border the Waikato along its entire length and extend over the Kaimanawa Mountains in the form of a thick and almost impenetrable growth. Here we found all the varied flora peculiar to this region growing in the most luxuriant way down to the edge of the boulder-strewn river and upwards for thousands of feet to the summits of the highest mountains. Whenever we came to the many bends of the river the scenery was beautiful beyond description, by reason of its rugged grandeur, and the wonderful growth of vegetation that spread itself everywhere around, as if gaining life and strength from the rapid waters as they careered madly along. The river, in most places about 100 feet wide, descended from the steep table-land in the direction of Lake Taupo, with a rapid current, over enormous boulders of trachytic rock. Gaining force and rapidity at almost every bend, its bright foaming waters fed by the steep gorges of the Kaimanawa Mountains, the snows of Ruapehu, and the rapidly-rolling creek of Tongariro, it pursued a page 175perfectly snake-like course at the base of the tall mountains, which rose up almost perpendicularly for thousands of feet on its eastern side, while precipitous walls of pumice rock and volcanic conglomerate formed its western boundary along the table-land. The Upper Waikato forms, in fact, the main channel for the watershed of the whole of the Rangipo table-land and the western side of the Kaimanawa Mountains for a distance of over thirty miles, and every creek and river in the country through which it passes flows into it. At one point we came to a splendid gorge through which the river dashed in low, silvery cascades. On the opposite side from where we stood, the mountains rose steeply upwards to a height of about 6000 feet, forest-clad to their summits, with a dense and beautifully varied growth, where shrubs, trees, and parasitical plants mingled themselves together in a perfect network of vegetation. The banks of the river below us fell almost perpendicularly to a depth of 300 feet, but so thick was the forest verdure as we looked down to the bottom of the deep gorge below over the tops of the gigantic trees which grew beneath, that it was only now and again that we caught a glimpse of the rushing stream as it flowed over its boulder-strewn bed. Here tree top rose over tree-top until the beautiful vegetation mounting upwards in a dense mass mingled with the vapoury clouds that hung around.

When the storm had spent its force, a gleam of sunshine dispelled the mists, and just for a time the summit of Ruapehu shone white and clear beneath the rolling clouds. We had carefully marked our intendedc page 176course upon the map, and had resolved as soon as the weather should break to make direct for the southern side of Tongariro, and ascend the tapued mountain as quickly as we could, in order to give the natives, if they fell across our tracks, as short a time as possible to run us to earth. With the hope, if not altogether the prospect, of a fine day, we made another start, but not before we had been compelled, owing to the weak condition of our horses, to abandon half our provisions, and reduce our whole commissariat to the lowest proportions.

Before we had journeyed a mile the bright sun disappeared; the "black, cloudy sky" of the Rangipo again gathered around us; the winds swept across the wide plains in terrific gusts; the rain poured down heavier than before; the white snow-clad summit of Ruapehu disappeared from view with the quickness of a phantom, and again the vapouring mists obscured the great mountains towards which we were travelling.

We had to cross no less than five large creeks, besides smaller streams, in about four miles. The tracts down to the creeks, which had a steep fall of 200 to 300 feet below the plains, were broken about and washed away into big holes and dangerous and slippery places, and the horses were as chary of facing these treacherous inclines as they were of going into the flooded waters of the creeks themselves. The amount of water poured out by these creeks into the Waikato from the Tongariro Mountains during a flood must be seen to be fully realized. At all times the natural springs of the mountains keep them well supplied, but when heavy rains descend, the whole water-page 177shed comes down with, tremendous force and volume. Wherever we crossed these rugged, boulder-strewn streams, the banks were clothed with a splendid and varied vegetation, which got denser and denser as their deep gorges led up the steep mountain sides. I noticed in these creeks that the boulders were mostly of trachytic formation, with smaller drift composed of the various volcanic rocks peculiar to the district, while embedded in their steep pumice sides might often be seen the charred remains of enormous trees, which must have lived ages ago, when some volcanic eruption swept over them.

We pitched our camp at Pangarara, a deserted Maori pa, situated some distance off the plains, and at the edge of a secluded bush about two miles from the south-eastern foot of Tongariro. The rain still poured down as heavily as usual, and although the country was entirely open between us and the big mountain that was to be the next scene of our operations, not a vestige of it could we see.

We had up to this time been detained exactly ten days, through stress of weather, whilst waiting to ascend the tapued mountain, the dull monotony of our position being only relieved by the somewhat exciting expectation that the Maoris might be down upon us at any moment. The place where we were camped formed part of a wide area of country, extending from the base of Tongariro in an easterly direction to the Waikato, and embracing a large and fertile portion of the Rangipo Plains. For time out of mind this part of the country had been a native game reserve, principally for the hunting of the weka and a small white bird (I page 178believe of the gull species) which frequents the mountains of Tongariro at certain seasons of the year. This wide territory, and a great deal more besides, was under the mana of a noted chief named Te Hau, whose pa was at Ruaponga. This native dignity was renowned throughout this part of the country as a man of singular intelligence; but, like most Hauhaus, he entertained an intense hatred for Anglo-Saxon laws and institutions. He appeared to act the rôle, among the tribes of these parts, of a Napoleon the Great, in the matter of territorial aggrandizement, and it is darkly hinted that, during the war, Te Hau and many of the rebel chiefs were in league, and that one day a terrible massacre occurred over a disputed title to an extensive area of land over which Te Hau now rules as lord and master.

A strict Conservative in all matters relative to Maori laws, customs, and traditions, to have fallen in with Te Hau on his "native heath," and under the very shadow of Tongariro, which he guards with the sacred jealousy of a fanatic, would have been about as pleasant as meeting with his Satanic Majesty himself just fresh from the fires of the burning mountain. We therefore had to keep not only a keen but an anxious look-out, the more so as we had learned at Tokanu that Te Hau was on his way from the south with a large party of his followers to attend a native gathering at Rotoaira, which had been convened by some of the leading chiefs to inquire into a disputed land title; and as Pangarara was one of his usual camping-places, we were naturally the more anxious to get away from the locality as soon as possible.

1 For this tree, see Appendix.