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The Exploration of New Zealand

Chapter V — North Island: the East Coast

page 53

Chapter V
North Island: the East Coast

The exploration of the east coast of the North Island is notable for the discovery of moa bones. Polack, the trader, heard of a 'species of struthio' in 1835, and J. W. Harris, the whaler, obtained a fragment of bone in 1837. This specimen, was given to Dr Rule of New South Wales who offered it to the Royal College of Surgeons for £10. Professor Owen thought it 'one of the most remarkable acquisitions to zoology which the present century has produced', and read a paper on the subject to the Royal College of Surgeons. The missionaries may or may not have read the paper*, but they certainly did collect information about the bird when they visited the Maoris in the Waiapu valley. In November 1841 Colenso obtained a specimen of bone from this district when on his way to Poverty Bay. He was convinced that he had made a great discovery and when he went overland to the

* T. Lindsay Buick in his books on the moa decided that they had not. Having seen an abstract of Owen's paper in the New Zealand Journal of 1840, the author dares to think that they read it and immediately collected specimens.

page 54bay he scanned with his pocket telescope the hill-slopes upon which the moa was said to exist. When he arrived he found that William Williams had obtained the tibia of a moa. Colenso offered rewards for more specimens and eventually the bones of over thirty birds were collected. They were sent to Professor Owen who was delighted to discover that his theories had been correct.
Meanwhile Colenso had returned overland to the Bay of Islands, traversing the Urewera country and visiting Waikaremoana. By a curious coincidence, a Roman Catholic, Father Baty, was visiting the lake at the very same time. He had been left by Bishop Pompallier to conduct a brief mission at Mahia peninsula, and owing to a mission tragedy in the Pacific had to remain for nearly twelve months. On 17 December 1841 he went overland with eighteen Maoris to the Wairoa river and took the native route up the Waikare-Taheke to Waikaremoana. Colenso arrived on the scene one day later, having gone across country from Poverty Bay. On Christmas Eve the Europeans met, and relations between them could have been very much better. Baty crossed the lake on 26 December, Colenso on the 29th. Both explored Tuhoe Land and to their mutual annoyance, no doubt, met again on 3 January. Baty went back to Hawke's Bay; Colenso went over the ranges to Lake Tarawera, arriving so tired that he did not bother to visit a nearby hot spring. He page break
Lake Waikaremoana

Lake Waikaremoana

page 55said, 'I have often been surprised at the great carelessness I have exhibited towards rare natural productions when either over-fatigued or ravenously hungry; at such times, botanical, geographical and other specimens, which I have eagerly and with much pleasure collected and carefully carried for many a weary mile, have become quite a burden, and have been one by one abandoned; to be, however, invariably regretted afterwards.'

The rest of his journey to the Bay of Islands was across country explored by other missionaries, but it was inordinately long for a man who had just made the first traverse of the ranges separating the east coast from the interior of the North Island. He visited Rotorua, the Thames valley and the Waikato, he went to Auckland, Kaipara, Whangarei, and the Bay of Islands. The result, quite apart from the missionary work, was 1,000 botanical specimens for Sir W. J. Hooker and material for a paper on the moa bones which appeared in the Tasmanian Journal of Science of 1843.

Before Colenso set out again Bishop Selwyn and Chief Justice Martin made an arduous and extensive journey on the east coast of the Island. In November 1842 they went up the Manawatu river with a large company of natives. There were six canoes, each with eight polemen, and the Europeans were free to admire the scenery or read the latest English newspapers. After they went through the gorge they saw the page 56Wairarapa, 'a noble plain, stretching as far as the eye could reach.' Their first destination was Ahuriri on the shores of Hawke's Bay and to reach it they crossed most pleasant country 'on which wild pigs were ranging without fear of molestation.' From Ahuriri they went to Wairoa, 'a very pretty station with a beautiful river winding through an extensive plain.' From here they went overland to Poverty Bay, then by the coast to Tokomaru Bay, and overland to the Waiapu valley and the populous pa of Rangitukia.

The next problem was to find the shortest route to the mission station at Tauranga; no ship was available and the overland journey very tedious. However, some old men remembered an overgrown war track and the party, accompanied by the Rev. J. W. Stack, went up the Waiapu valley to Whakawhitira and over the Raukumara range to the shores of the Bay of Plenty. Tauranga was reached on 13 December and Selwyn was able to meet Acting-Governor Shortland at the house of Brown, the missionary. Together they were very important company indeed, but Mrs Brown 'pursued the even tenor of her domestic duties.'

The rest of Selwyn's journey to Auckland did not open up any new country, but by the time he had reached Tauranga he had done enough to win the respect of any critic. His party had made the first recorded journey from the Manawatu to Hawke's page 57Bay and the route over the Raukumara range has been used only twice since then. For such toil in a worthy cause Charles Kingsley dedicated Westward Ho to Rajah Brooke and Bishop Selwyn who, he thought, had exhibited English virtue 'in a form even purer and more heroic' than that in which it was exhibited by the worthies of the Elizabethan age.

In 1843–4 Colenso made another journey covering much the same ground as in his previous expedition. He was landing at Hicks Bay in October 1843 when a storm arose, his boat was swamped by the breakers, and the ship sailed away without him. This minor disaster forced him to go overland post-haste to Poverty Bay to deliver to William Williams some letters from Bishop Selwyn. Then together they sailed for Wellington, only to suffer fifteen days cooped up in a tiny cabin. They therefore landed at Castle Point and waited for some baggage to be brought overland from Wellington. While they waited, Colenso made arrangements for the mission he afterwards established at Farndon, near the present Napier.

Eventually they went north, Williams going to Poverty Bay and Colenso up the Wairoa river to Waikaremoana. When he reached it, the surface was like a raging sea, and when he held a service the next day—21 December—his voice could hardly be heard above the roaring of the wind. He was able to cross on the 27th and carry out an intensive study of page 58the Urewera country. Bishop Selwyn wanted figures for a census of the inland Maoris, so Colenso's movements from pa to pa are decidely intricate and involved. Eventually he reached the Whakatane river, followed it to the Bay of Plenty, and walked overland to the Waikato and the Bay of Islands.

In the year 1844 he was admitted to deacon's orders and sent to establish a mission station at Waitangi, near Farndon. His parish was a huge one—from Waikaremoana to Wellington, from Taupo to Hawke Bay. Therefore he had to spend seven months each year visiting villages more than fifty miles from the station. The most inaccessible were those south of Taupo and across the Ruahine ranges. Bishop Selwyn, if it were he who decided the boundaries of the parish, had shown little respect for the topography of the country. The missionary at Rotorua could have gone south of Taupo with only a fraction of the trouble and danger.

He made his first attempt to cross the Ruahines in February 1845 when the snow had gone from the tops. As a guide he had a native who had been a captive in the interior and had returned across the mountains. The route was up the Waipawa river then up the Makaroro river and by mud, boulders, logs, and shingle the mountain-side was reached. On Sunday 9 February two natives were sent over the mountains to get assistance from a small village near Patea. On Monday the rest followed in their page 59tracks along narrow ledges and above deep gorges until they reached the watershed. Here 'the lovely appearance of so many varied, beautiful and novel wild plants and flowers richly repaid me the toil of the journey and the ascent, for never did I behold at one time in New Zealand such a profusion of Flora's stores.' He had no bag and no flax to make one. Therefore he pulled off his jacket and used it; and then as the specimens accumulated he made his shirt into a bag and even stored them in his hat.

Meanwhile there was no sign of the advance party, and Colenso, not knowing the route of descent, had to go back to his camp. Late that night the two forerunners returned feeling very sorry for themselves. There was no one in the village and they had had no food except cabbage-tree tops for the last two days. There was nothing for it but to go back home. Food was short, the natives without boots or trousers were tormented by the speargrass, and Colenso was sickening for a two months' bout of sciatica, brought on by his privations; by tying knots in a piece of string he recorded 108 crossings of one icy-cold mountain stream.

Later in the year he made journeys to such places as Poverty Bay, Lake Wairarapa, and Wellington. In 1846 he went to Wellington by the coast as usual and returned by the Manawatu gorge. From here he went through the area between the Manawatu river and the Ruamahanga, that is, through the 'Seventy page 60Mile Bush.' No European scientist had visited it before and Colenso thought it the most primeval forest he had visited in New Zealand. There were few birds and consequently a death-like stillness.

He still wanted to visit that most remote spot, Patea, and finding no natives willing to cross the Ruahines he decided to get at it from Taupo. On 4 February 1847 he left the mission station and followed roughly the modern route from Napier to Taupo, except that once over the watershed he swung south-west and skirted the eastern shores of the lake. At Lake Roto Aira he obtained a guide who knew the route across the upper Waikato and over the volcanic plateau.

By 19 February the weather was bad and the guide had lost the way. Colenso's tent had to be pitched on a level spot hacked out from mud of the hill-slope. They could not go back because the route was probably covered with snow; they went on and took good care that the Taupo guide did not slip away. Colenso lived on rice and scraps of bacon fat and was at length reduced to one raw potato, while the native had a meal of roasted cabbage-tree leaves. Then to urge them on, they found the bleached bones of a Patea native who had been caught in a snow-storm. It was 23 February before they were feasting royally at Patea.*

This place was worthy of some close study. The

* It had already been visited by the Rev. Richard Taylor. See Chapter iv.

page 61view extended over miles of bush to Mounts Egmont and Ruapehu, to the Ruahines and the East Cape ranges. There were several inches of snow on the ground but the natives seemed quite insensible to the cold. For Maoris that was quite unusual. Colenso wished to stay but he had to leave the next day—24 February—promising to return next summer.

The route was difficult and Colenso was carried across dangerous sections by the more sure-footed natives. On such occasions he invariably shut his eyes. They crossed the upper Rangitikei and ascended the Ruahines to the spot reached in 1844. To repeat the experience of the inward journey, they had seen, suspended in the coprosma bushes, the skeleton of a young Maori who was caught by the snow when bird catching. The route to Waipukurau was familiar, and Colenso got there by 1 April. The next day he kept a promise and married nine couples.

With the route now explored, Colenso went several times to this remote spot, Patea. He always went in summer to avoid snow, wind, and loose rain-soaked soil. Even then he once slipped and to save himself had to use a spear as if it were an alpenstock. On another occasion a Maori slipped and was rescued by the whole party linking hands and using tent poles to get him from a position in which he was afraid to move.

On all these journeys Colenso collected with great care and skill hundreds of specimens of mountain page 62flora. Sir J. D. Hooker, who laid the foundation of New Zealand botany, thought that Colenso discovered 'more new and interesting plants… than any botanist since Banks and Solander. In every respect Mr Colenso is the foremost New Zealand botanical explorer and the one to whom I am most indebted for specimens and information.'

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