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A year among the Maoris: study of their arts and customs

Chapter X — The Thermal District and Nature's Cooking Holes

page 127

Chapter X
The Thermal District and Nature's Cooking Holes

A good deal of my time was spent in the Thermal District of the North Island, and some reference to this awe-inspiring region would seem necessary, especially as it affects Maori life and customs. Rotorua is, more or less, the centre of a volcanic region of about 150 miles in length by 20 miles in breadth, in which manifestations of Nature from the strangely beautiful to the really hideous and diabolical can be seen. There are areas of fine old native bush, lakes of varying tints, and winding streams of charming beauty. One of the places that appealed to me was Lake Rotomahana, which is of a milky opalescent hue. It was on the shores of this lake that the world-renowned pink and white terraces were situated, and which were destroyed at the time of the Mount Tarawera eruption in 1886.

The lake is situated at the base of the mountain, and it is said that it has steadily extended since the eruption, and if it continues at the same rate, will be a menace to the country eastward of it. The alarmists even say that it threatens to overflow its banks, and the waters would then make their way to the sea. These are but rumours of the people in the locality. Although the famous terraces have gone, there still remain other white terraces which are truly beautiful. Along the rocky shores of the lake clouds of steam rise from a hundred boiling springs, and surrounding these cauldrons is a growth of brilliant green moss which makes a vivid contrast to the otherwise sombre and diabolic aspect of the country.

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Before the eruption of Mount Tarawera there was a small Maori settlement at the base of the mountain, but now for miles the country is unpopulated, dreary, and repulsive. It is situated on a Government-organised sight-seeing route. Parties are accompanied by numerous guides, and a competent geologist makes the trip one of intense interest. Part of the tour has to be done on foot, and as an object-lesson not to stray away from the guides a small cross is pointed out which marks the spot where two women lost their lives. Having strayed away, one of them looked over into a steam hole, probably lost her balance, and fell in, and her companion, in an effort to rescue her, was drawn in, too. The place seems to teem with tragedy and horror.

The Government sight-seeing route is from Rotorua by coach to Wairoa, by motor launch across Tarawera Lake, a short walk, and again by launch across Lake Rotomahana to Waimangu. Whakarewarewa, a village set amongst boiling springs, is first passed; then the road runs between brown bracken-clad hills, with mountains in the distance, which, owing to atmospheric conditions, are of a rich deep blue tone. Several lakes are passed, each having a special charm, often designated by its name. Lake Tikitapu, or Blue Lake, has waters of a deep blue tint. Then a hill-side covered with a rich growth of ancient bush is passed, making one wish that more of it had been spared. Lake Rotokakahi, the Green Lake, is close by, but it is said its level is about seventy feet above that of the Blue Lake. Although so close together, the two sheets of water are quite different in colour. A few more miles, and we reach Wairoa. Here we are told page 129of the great earthquake of July 10, 1886, when Mount Tarawera broke into eruption, and the beautiful terraces, classed as one of the wonders of the world, disappeared beneath the debris of the eruption. The mountain broke out in several craters; one huge one can now be seen on the side of the mountain facing Lake Tarawera. The little Maori settlement of Wairoa on Lake Tarawera, at the foot of the mountain, was completely destroyed, save for one whare in which lived Sophia, a woman guide, whose acts of bravery are the sole gleam of brightness in the long tale of suffering and destruction. For a radius of over fifteen miles the country was covered with mud thrown up from the bed of the lake, and over this was deposited many feet of scoria. All about Tarawera the country is still in volcanic activity in forms of vapours, springs, and mud holes. Distortions and convulsions of Nature have made it a weird and desolate country. Here Nature is undergoing torture in its efforts to create. No wonder that one name the Maoris had for the God of Creation was "One who shakes the earth."

Another coach route from Rotorua takes one to Lake Taupo, which is also in the midst of a district of Nature's spasms and upheavals. The lake is about thirty miles long and about twenty miles broad, and has been called an inland sea. Indeed, though its waters may be glass-like in their perfect peacefulness, there are times when they are lashed into mountainous waves by tempestuous winds. The great volcanoes— Ruapehu, Tongariro, and Ngauruhoe—rise majestically at the southern end of the lake, and from the snowfields hundreds of crystal-clear streams flow down to page 130form the upper reaches of the Waikato, which feeds this inland sea. A few miles from the northern shore of the lake is Wairakei Valley, in which is concentrated in a comparatively small area every conceivable manifestation of the weird and terrible.

Near Rotorua itself the two places of particular interest are Ohinemutu and Wakarewarewa. Ohinemutu, on the southern shores of Lake Rotorua, is literally built on boiling springs. Steam seems to be escaping from all directions. A gurgling sound traced to its source turns out to be a hot mud hole. After the new Protestant church was erected it was found that the basement was continually filled with steam. Escape flues were made, and nobody has worried any more about it. The village has a charm all its own, for in spite of being so close to a popular tourist resort it is essentially Maori. A few posts out in the lake mark the site of a famous old pa. They were evidently good-sized tree trunks stripped of their bark and trimmed to form a head-like top. The water of the lake has since encroached upon the shore, but the posts remain intact, showing how strongly constructed were the stockades of the defensive pas.

About two miles inland from Ohinemutu is the village of Whakarewarewa, nestled amongst some of the most remarkable thermal activities in the world. Here are great gushing geysers, earth fissures from which issue eerie hissing sounds, terraces of flowing lava, and great pools of boiling water, crystal clear to a great depth. The repulsive vie with the majestic and beautiful. One is always kept interested, not only by the scenery, but by the Maori girls who act as guides. page break
Hot Pools Amidst a Maori Village

Hot Pools Amidst a Maori Village

page 131The district is carefully mapped out by Government geologists, and these guides are instructed where they may safely take the tourists.

My work among the Maoris caused me to be looked upon as a resident, and I was left to myself at Whakarewarewa, although I had been carefully instructed what paths to take and what parts to avoid. Seated one day on my tripod sketching stool in one of the "safe places," making a painting of the landscape, I found my point of view gradually changing. Was I witnessing some strange manifestation of volcanic activity? Suddenly my knees seemed to be jerked upwards, and I realised that my stool was sinking gradually but surely into the ground. It was I who then voluntarily changed the point of view.

In transforming the springs of Rotorua into "baths" which have many curative powers, the Government undertook an adventure which has proved most successful both from a financial and a health point of view. The "cure house" is a fine large building erected in well-laid-out gardens, and compares favourably with similar places in both Europe and America. The air is heavily laden with sulphur fumes, and if one is making a long stay it is advisable to find out the direction of the prevailing winds and select one's rooms accordingly. There is a growth of manuka trees between the sanatorium and the lake, and in this plantation one is likely, on turning a corner of the paths, to be confronted with gusts of steam and warm currents of air. Eels are found along the borders of the lake, which also abounds in trout.

Throughout the whole of the Thermal District the page 132Maoris utilise the boiling springs for domestic purposes. For cooking the process is simple. Greens and potatoes are washed in one of the many cold-water streams. They are then placed in a loosely woven flax basket and suspended from a pole in a boiling pool. A method of steaming is also employed. A box having a grill at the bottom is placed over a steam hole, the food is placed inside, and over the top of the box is placed a sack. The meat, fish, vegetables, or puddings are thus subjected to the influence of superheated steam, and take very little time to cook. Coffee-pots or saucepans are set in shallow pools of hot or boiling water, and in a very few minutes they are at the same temperature as the surrounding pool. Besides utilising the hot pools for cooking, the women use them as wash-tubs. When there are no pools cool enough for the purpose, they scoop a hole adjacent to one, allow the water to run in, and dam it up again. This is left until the cooler air has reduced it to the required temperature, and the washing of clothes begins. One of the chief recreations of men, women, and children in all parts of the Thermal District, but especially at Ohinemutu, is bathing in the warm pools. It is a common practice for them to sit in the evenings almost entirely immersed in the warm water, chatting and smoking for hours together.

The ordinary method of cooking employed by the Maoris, and which is still common throughout Polynesia, was with heated stones laid in a shallow pit. These Maori ovens were about three feet in diameter. In this hole wood was piled a foot or more above the level of the ground, and on this were laid stones of a page 133porous volcanic rock which does not easily crack from the heat. The stones vary in size, according to purpose, from that of a hen's egg to that of a man's fist. The wood was lighted, and when the stones were thoroughly heated they were removed by means of a forked stick or with the hands, which were dipped beforehand into a calabash of water. Then the embers were removed and the stones put back at the bottom of the oven. On these heated stones kumaras and other root plants were placed. If a pig or a bird was to be cooked, the smaller stones were placed inside the trussed animals. Many kinds of food, both animal and vegetable, in which the juices were desired to be retained, were wrapped in large leaves and tied. All these would be packed into the oven and well sprinkled with water. Then the whole was covered quickly with more leaves and a damp mat. The earth was packed closely all around to keep the steam from escaping. When the hot stones had done their work, the removal of the earth so that none of it should fall upon the food required considerable dexterity.

Fingers were used by the Maoris where we have substituted the spoon and knife and fork. Their dishes were fresh and dainty, and were not used a second time. While the food was being cooked the women wove small baskets, circular in form, with a flat bottom, in which were served individual portions, and a rectangular flat mat, also newly woven, served as a general platter on which to place the bulk of the food. Men and women ate apart, and it is said that the women ate what was left over when the men had finished. I feel assured, however, that, like all cooks, they took page 134good care they did not go hungry. Certain foods, however, were tapu to the women at all times and other food at certain times. The dignity and courtesy of the chieftain class extended to the ceremony of eating and of drinking. The men, and amongst them even the chiefs, in turn waited upon honoured guests, who were always served apart. Food was carried to them in freshly woven baskets, and these were borne aloft in procession from the cook house to the place of feasting.

A food basket made for me was five inches high and eight inches in diameter. A mat on which to place a quantity of food, and, of course, such as had no juice, measured twenty-six inches square. Although knives and forks were not generally used, there were substitutes for cutting up large portions of food. These were made of sharp shells, shark's teeth set in rows, and sharpened bone; and it is said that forks of human bone were used at cannibal feasts.

Boiling, gurgling mud holes and majestic geysers amidst which the Maoris live in the Thermal District fail to disturb them. True, when the earth trembles and continues to repeat the movement they are moved to genuine fright, and gather in their community houses, closely huddled together, seeking relief in pious thoughts. When Christianity does not give the comfort for which they are in search, the old gods are appealed to, for they were the personification of the forces of Nature, each manifestation of which had its own particular god, whose sole function was to protect or punish with his power. Out in the open, with the wonderfully clear sky above, the natives page break
Woman, Wearing Rain Cloak, Cooking Food in a Hot Pool

Woman, Wearing Rain Cloak, Cooking Food in a Hot Pool

page 135no doubt feel they can cope with Nature's unusual manifestations, but in a cave, the mysterious burial-places of their chiefs, it is different. These are places to be avoided, and this fear of the eerie darkness underground has deprived the Maoris of the enjoyment of the most beautiful of the natural wonders with which their land abounds.

With better methods of illumination and means of personal protection, as well as a truer understanding by the Maoris themselves, it is possible that they may assist us to explore some of the old burial caves, whose very location is kept a secret, or has even been forgotten. There are some caves in the King Country whose beauty, could it but be known by all, I feel confident would move them to cast aside their prejudice and venture within. These have the beauty of a poet-pictured fairyland. They make one feel that those dearest folks of our childhood's belief really have a realm of their own under the land of the warrior race of the Pacific. Here are great halls with magnificent stalactite columns that make man-built cathedrals seem but trivial; long avenues of marble-like pillars pulsating with life, all vibrating with steady movement, but as solid as a marble quarry; all so mysteriously growing in the underground darkness, a darkness penetrated with the light of its own stars—myriads of them, brightly sparkling and within arm's reach, too. Truly this is fairyland, where one may touch the tiny sparkling gems, flashing their jets of colour like so many precious jewels, these myriads of minute glow-worms. They favour a vaulting hung with small stalactites, which follows the course of an underground page 136river. A boat is provided, and never was there a more wonderful journey.

An entrance may be gained to the Waitomo Caves by means of the river or through a hole in the hill-side. The Ruakuri Caves, a few miles' distance from Waitomo, are even more beautiful, not one but many chambers being of cathedral-like grandeur. A third set of caves in the district discovered in fairly recent years are the Aranui, and, if possible, these are still more beautiful. The roof is ninety feet above the floor of the cave in places, and the stalactites are as much as twenty feet in length. One recess is named the Chamber of Diamonds, from the fact that myriads of crystals stud the walls. Although the entrances to the caves have been known for many generations, very few Maoris have ever explored the interiors.