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Legends of the Maori

Tarao the Tunneller. — A Tradition of Kawa Mountain

page 125

Tarao the Tunneller.

A Tradition of Kawa Mountain.

Swelling up in easy rondures sweetly moulded as a woman’s breasts, some of the ancient volcanic hills of Maori Land are places to enchant the eye and the imagination. Such symmetrically shaped mountains as Putahi and Whatitiri, in North Auckland, and Pihanga, South Taupo’s wooded cone, perfectly proportioned, easily sloping in their lines of rest, seem to the fancy Demeter made visible; not mere rock and soil, but the sex embodiment of Papa-tua-nuku, our mother Earth. In contrast there is the bold, insistent upthrust of such sharply-cut peaks as Putauaki and Kakepuku—like still active Ngauruhoe—which a primitive people could not but endow with masculine attributes. Kawa is one of the little women mountains; softly rounded Kawa, resting yonder on the northern border of the King Country, a few miles south of the olden frontier river, the Puniu. Facing her—the pakeha’s railway line between them—Kakepuku lifts in steeply conical lines to his crater summit. Little wonder that in Maori legend Kakepuku is husband, victor in the battle of the mountains for the graceful Kawa’s love.

On the northern and eastern sides Kawa presents an evenly slanting convex face, greatly tattooed in the successive scarps of an ancient fortress. On the western, the hill is hollowed; the ancient volcanic forces breached the wall on that side and fiery lava flowed to the plain. In yonder sheltered glen the people of old-time grew their food-crops; and in there is a spring which supplied the garrison. It was a romantic mountain, Kawa, to one’s youthful vision, viewed from the “white” side of the frontier river, sometimes lightly veiled in wet mists, but more often standing out in clear outline against the western sky, a nippled knoll of richest blue.

This story of three centuries ago, told me by my old Ngati-Maniapoto legend-keepers who live on the Puniu south bank, within near sight of Kawa, concerns the day when the little mountain was a fortified hold, with terraces and scarps, now fern-grown or grassy; several successive lines of stout timber palisading encircling the central knoll. On this mound was the tihi, the well-stockaded citadel where the chief and his family lived.

At the period of our story a chief named Tarao was the head of the sub-clan of Tainui descent which had its home on Kawa Hill. His people grew their kumara and taro and hue, introduced from the tropic isles, in the warm decomposed volcanic soil of the inner slopes and the floor of the page 126 olden crater, fished for eels in the great marshes and lagoons of Kawa swamp that spread over the plain for miles below, and snared and speared birds in the bush. There they lived in peace and comfort until Tarao gave mortal offence to Karewa, of Kawhia Harbour.

Now, Karewa’s sister had become Tarao’s wife; the two sub-tribes were closely akin. But it is possible to overstep the bounds of freedom, even when dealing with a brother-in-law, and that was what Tarao did. It may be that he was over-fond of practical jokes; at any rate he played exactly the wrong kind of grim jest on the touchy Karewa.

* * *

Tarao and his followers went to Kawhia at Karewa’s invitation on a visit of friendship; they visited the chief of the Tai-Hauauru—the Western Sea—at his hill-fort, Pounui. Tarao had heard much of the strength of this fortified position, and Karewa, when visiting him, had boasted that it was an impregnable pa. Tarao surveyed it from below before he entered, he gazed long and keenly at it, appraising its defences. To his companions he made the cryptic remark: “Teitei awatea, papaku po” (“High in the daylight, shallow at night”).

By this he meant that while Pounui might seem a lofty and formidable place by day, when its defences were manned, it would not be so difficult to scale it under cover of night.

After the ceremonial and festivities customary on the occasion of such friendly visits, Tarao and his party left Pounui for their homes. Karewa and his people waved them farewells and cried their last haere ra! and the visitors from inland disappeared from sight in the forest. But Tarao had not yet done with Pounui Pa. He thought of Karewa’s boastful praise of his pa, and he decided to give him a lesson in caution and watchfulness.

Bidding his men await his return he left them in camp in the hills and returned alone to the shores of Kawhia Harbour. He watched Pounui from the bush until darkness fell, and then he scouted up to its base. He lay there concealed until the midnight hours, then he climbed the hill, entered the stockaded village, and crept into the large house in which Karewa and many others slept. If any sleepy inmate saw him enter, quietly drawing back the sliding door, he was probably taken for one of the hapu.

Knowing exactly where Karewa slept, Tarao, with the utmost care, as noiselessly as a Red Indian on the scouting trail, crept to his brother-in-law’s side. He remained there unmoving until he was certain the chief lay in a heavy sleep. He felt for the greenstone patu, or mere, the sharp-edged club which Karewa always carried. It was secured by a peculiarly plaited page 127 cord formed of thin thongs of dogskin passed through the hole in the handle of the mere, and looped loosely round his wrist.

Tarao carefully unfastened the weapon from the sleeper’s wrist, without awakening him, and substituted his own patu, a greenstone weapon somewhat similar to Karewa’s in weight and size. So, leaving the house presently as silently as he had come, he passed like a ghost through the pa and descended to the valley. In the morning he rejoined his men and the party marched home to the Waipa Valley and Kawa Hill. Tarao’s heart bounded with pride at the glorious trick he had played on his brother-in-law. He laughed to himself; he thought: “Oh that I could have seen Karewa when he awakened this morning and looked at his patu pounamu!”

* * *

Karewa, as it chanced, waked from his sleep very soon after Tarao had crept thief-like out of the dark house. Instinctively he felt for his greenstone patu; he felt it, and slept again. But in the morning light, when he came to look at the weapon, he saw it was not his own familiar patu. The greenstone was a darker tint, a dark green stone; his own patu had a band of lighter colour—the Maori term it inanga, or whitebait, running transversely; moreover, the hand-grip end was differently worked from his, and the dogskin thong was also made differently.

Then Karewa realised what had happened. It was Tarao’s patu pounamu. He knew exactly how it had been done, as accurately as if he had witnessed it.

Karewa did not at all appreciate the cleverness of the trick. He was greatly angered; he looked at it in this way: “Tarao had me at his mercy; he stole upon me in the night and he could easily have killed me. He exchanged patu weapons with me in the midnight to show what he could have done had he liked. He has murdered me! For this insult I shall have revenge!”

* * *

And revenge he planned—utu—satisfaction for the injury to his feelings and the silent threat of what might have been. But he did not hurry about the task of exacting that utu. A sufficiently strong and justifiable také, a casus belli, was required before he and his Kawhia men could enter confidently upon a fighting expedition. The patu incident, while provocative, was scarcely enough to warrant war upon Tarao.

That také was soon provided by a quarrel between some of Tarao’s young men and a party of Karewa’s hapu who came inland. The disagreement befell on the shore of Kawa Repo, the great expanses of lagoons and marshes that spread to the west and the south from the foot of Kawa page 128 Mountain. There were many rauwiri, or eel-weirs (pa-tuna) on the dark-brown watercourses which flowed slowly towards the Waipa River from the morass. The Kawhia men camped beside the swamp and feasted on the eels. A dispute ended in a fight, and Karewa’s men returned to their chief with a tale that justified invasion.

Meanwhile, Tarao had given much thought to the intertribal situation, and he came to the conclusion that in the event of war with his affronted relative Kawa Hill, with its smaller garrison, would not hold out against a long-continued attack. So, like a wise commander, he prepared for the worst. He must be ready, if need be, to abandon the hill-pa and take refuge in the forest. He set his people to work to prepare a way of retreat.

This way was a rua-keria, or subterranean passage. The whole strength of the hapu was engaged in the digging of a tunnel and covered way, through the narrow ridge on the southern side of the pa, from the terrace just below the summit. This tunnel they dug out and downward until it reached the thick clump of bush that covered the hill-slopes on the south side, beyond the outermost lines of the fortification. It was a heavy task, but there were many hands, some digging away with wooden spades, others carrying out the earth in flax baskets. It took a long time to dig the tunnel and to timber it roughly, but at last it was finished, leading down the hill to the woods, where its mouth was hidden from all enemies. It would enable an outnumbered or starving garrison to escape right under the feet of a beleaguering enemy, should matters come to that last extremity.

* * *

Over the ranges from Kawhia coast came Karewa and his army. They laid siege to Tarao’s hill castle, and there within the stockaded lines of Kawa Tarao waited anxiously for the assault which should determine whether he would have to make use of his secret route of flight.

The Kawhia men having drawn their lines all round the pa, to prevent the escape of the occupants, Karewa ordered the assault. Up the steep ferny hill swarmed the naked warriors. They battered at the palisades with their stone axes, they hacked away at the vine-ties, and they thrust their long manuka spears through the interstices at the warriors within. The red blood flowed, and the ferocious battle-yell shook the air, and there was the inciting storming-cry of the assaulting captains: “Kokiritia—Patua—Kainga!” (“Charge on them—Slay them—Eat them!”).

Force of numbers began to prevail. From one terrace to another the defenders were driven back, until, after a struggle which lasted the whole of one day, from the rising to the going down of the sun, only the upper terraces and the tihi at the summit were left in the hands of Tarao and his hapu. Then Tarao decided that Kawa was no longer a desirable home.

page 129
The Subterranean Passage.

The Subterranean Passage.

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“If we wait until to-morrow’s sun rises,” said he to his people, “the land of life will know us no more. We shall go down before the strong arm of Karewa. Now is the time for escape while yet we may. While Karewa’s men, all except the sentries, are sleeping below us there, in the early morning time, before dawn, let us descend into the pit and escape to the forest.”

And it was done. When most of the wearied besiegers slept soundly, leaving the task of watching to their song-chanting sentinels, who paced the conquered terraces, the dejected people of Kawa left their mountainhold. One by one they descended into the hidden way, some of them carrying lighted torches of resinous wood, and taking little with them except their weapons. Mothers bore their children with them on their backs, wrapped in flaxen shawls; they had to stoop low as they hurried along the narrow grave-like way.

Tarao was the last to enter the subterranean passage. His wife—Karewa’s sister—would not accompany him. “No,” said she, “get you gone. I shall stay here to deceive the army outside and gain time for you. I shall sit upon the entrance to the pit, which I shall cover with slabs of timber when you have gone. I am in no danger; is not Karewa my brother?”

And the chief, pressing his nose to his wife’s, dropped into the tunnel, and the woman closed it carefully after him, and sat there on her mats waiting for daylight and the storming party.

As the first grey light of day spread over the land, the besiegers moved to the assault. Surprised at meeting no resistance, they climbed over the earthworks and stockades and rushed the tihi. And there, to their vast astonishment, they found no warriors awaiting them, with spear and battle-axe, but one lone woman, sitting there calmly on her flax whariki mat.

Karewa dashed angrily at her, his patu raised. He recognised her, and stayed his blow. He asked where the people had gone—where was his enemy Tarao?

“How can I tell?” said she; “they all vanished in the night.”

At that moment there sounded through the morning air a distant trumpet-call, a signal blown by strong lungs from the Maori war-bugle, the tetere, made of wood bound tightly round with aka vines. It came from the south; from the forested valley far in the rear of the pa.

“Do you hear that tetere call?” asked the woman. “That is Tarao’s signal. He is clear away from you; he and all his people have escaped out of your hand as the weka escapes the snare set for it. They burrowed out like rats while your ignorant army was asleep. And this is how they page 132 escaped”—and she rose from her mat and pulled away the slabs of timber from the tunnel, and revealed the passage of escape.

Karewa was furious, but his sister laughed at him. A pursuit was ordered, but not one of the fugitives was overtaken. It was a warrior in the rearguard who had blown the signal. They had had a long start, and they rapidly fled through the forest and the fern until they reached friendly villages on the Upper Waipa. Not one prisoner did the outwitted Karewa take. All the satisfaction left him was the possession of the empty pa of Kawa Hill.

It was not many days longer before Tarao’s wife quietly departed from the pa one night, and, making her way southward, from village to village, presently rejoined her husband and his tribe. They made their homes far in the heart of the island. There is a familiar place-name in those parts which reminds us to this day of Tarao’s exodus; this is Poro-o-Tarao, the steep range through which the Main Trunk railway tunnels, between the Mokau head-waters and the Upper Whanganui watershed; this mountain was named after our hidden-way burrower. And for many a generation now Kawa Hill has been deserted by the ancient fort-builders and fort-stormers, but its bold-cut terraces and trenches remain, imperishable memorials to a vanished warrior race.