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Legends of the Maori

The Lover’s Chase — A Story of the Whakatane Valley

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The Lover’s Chase

A Story of the Whakatane Valley

We had been some days travelling by rough horse-trails through the Urewera mountains and forests, and it was a relief after so much gorge and range traversing and so many river crossings, to see the wooded cliffs step apart at last and the valley widen out into a great plain of grass and maize fields. A few miles before we rode out from the hill-pent gravels of the Whakatane River we were hailed by a jolly-looking Maori woman, who stood at the fence of a three-whare hamlet on the low terrace between stream and wooded hillside. “Come to kai,” was the invitation; the little kainga of Ngamahanga was just squatting down to its open-air breakfast. It was our second that morning; the first had been eaten at sunrise in camp in the heart of the bush at Waikari-whenua. We were ready for that meal, after our rough and rather wet ride, and the tin plateful of boiled eggs and the flax basket of trout were capital fare. The trout had been caught in an eel-trap; it tasted all the better for the unorthodox method of its capture. The eggs seemed of make unfamiliar. The hospitable wahine, noticing my enquiring look, said: “They are peacock eggs, pakeha.”

“Peacock eggs?”

“Oh, yes; we have plenty of peacocks here,” and she pointed over the fence. It was the first time we had seen peahens in the working role of domestic fowls. They certainly were a success at Ngamahanga that morning.

When we called our good-byes to the kind folk of the little settlement—it was the first inhabited spot we had seen for some forty miles—and went on our way towards the Urewera villages at Ruatoki, an old man joined us on his roan pony. He was good company, this white-whiskered veteran of the Hauhau war-trail; active still for all his near-fourscore years; his eyes peered out with the keen glitter characteristic of these few surviving warriors, from under very thick bushy eyebrows. And after our horses had been given their gallop and we pulled up to a walk, the old man told the stories of the wayside. Forest-hidden ancient forts on the clifftops, the scenes of long-ago battles, venerable trees and their legends. The story that most of all captured my fancy was the legend of yonder rock of romance, the great flat slab called Te Tapapatanga-a-Te Rau-tawhiri—which, out of consideration for the reader, shall henceforward be called Fragrant-Leaf’s Rock.

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The tale of that ancient rock-slab, said the Maori, began a long way from here. It was down at the seaside village at Whakatane, where Hurinui’s carved house “Wairaka,” with the mermaid splendidly wood-sculptured on its front, stands to-day facing the river entrance. Long ago there lived there a young chief named Rongo-Karae (“Listen to the seagulls”), a tall, fine, handsome fellow, well tattooed, proficient with spear, mere and taiaha; in fact, a perfect warrior. To visit the village came one day a party of people from up the valley, the folk of Ruatoki out yonder, and with their chief came his two daughters. One of these girls, the younger, was a very beautiful young woman, and all the young men admired her greatly, none more than Rongo-Karae. But she was not for any man yet, this starryeyed beauty, for it was the desire of her family that she should be a puhi, that is, that she should remain unmarried for many years to come, and should be trained as a priestess. Her name was Rau-tawhiri, which means “Leaf of the Sweet-scented Tree.” There was another name bestowed on her—Rangimahanga—but let us speak of her as Fragrant Leaf. As for the elder sister, she was a bounteously-built, handsome young woman, but Rau’ was the beauty.

After the ceremonious greetings and feasting at Whakatane, and after the dances, the haka and poi, in which Fragrant Leaf won the admiration of all for her grace of movement, her dexterity with the poi balls, and for the sweetness of her voice as she chanted the old time-keeping songs of love—after these doings, the Ruatoki people returned to their homes. And Rongo-Karae could think of nothing but the lovely young maid Fragrant Leaf.

The day soon came when Rongo-Karae set out with a party of his people for Ruatoki to pay a return visit to the chief of that place. He was greeted with the greatest hospitality, and so greatly did the people admire his warrior mien that they besought him to remain there and become one of the tribe. So fine a man would give added strength to the tribe if he would but stay. “Remain with us and we will give you a wife,” they said, “or as many wives as you like; and as for land, why, look around. Here is land enough and to spare, the beautiful plains and the ranges and forests full of birds. Why live hemmed in by cliffs and tide at Whakatane when you can have this grand country for your home?”

As for the women, they were all in love with Rongo-Karae—all but one. And, of course, that was the one he desired most of all—Rau-tawhiri, the maid of the village. She would not look kindly on the young brave; indeed, she made jesting remarks about his vanity and martial talk. For all his bragging, said she, no one had yet heard of any great deeds he had performed.

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Rongo-Karae soon made his decision known. He would not return to Whakatane, but would remain at Ruatoki with the descendants of Toikai-rakau. And the chief of the tribe, at a gathering of the people, announced that he would give the young warrior his eldest daughter as a wife. And at this there was great satisfaction among the tribe; in fact, everyone was well satisfied but Rongo-Karae. For, though the elder daughter, the tuakana, was a fine figure of a woman and looked likely to mother many warriors, she was not Fragrant Leaf.

The pair were married, and they dwelt in Tauarau, the principal village in the group of settlements we call Ruatoki. But always Rongo-Karae’s thoughts dwelt on that haughty beauty Fragrant Leaf. He made request of her that she should become his wife—for it was often the custom for a man to take two sisters as wives. But Fragrant Leaf laughed at him, which only increased his desire for her, and he determined that he would find some way of conquering the scornful maid.

Indeed, he put it to his wife, the elder sister; he told her of his overmastering desire for Rau-Tawhiri, because of her beauty and because she had spurned him. And—behold the ways of women! (said the storyteller)—the elder sister declared that she would help him to obtain the younger as his wife. It may be she secretly hated Fragrant Leaf and desired to see the proud one subjugated. At any rate, she agreed to aid her husband. She gave him this counsel, that the only way in which he could conquer the puhi was by the strong hand. A warrior conquered his foes by force of arms; so with a stubborn woman, she must be taken by storm. And Rongo-Karae listened and profited thereby.

Two days later Rongo-Karae, who kept daily watch like a hawk, saw the maid Fragrant Leaf go out in the direction of this gorge-mouth where the Whakatane issues from the hills. She was, maybe, seeking scented grasses for her house, or it may be that the tawhara fruit was ripe in the bush, for with her was an attendant, a slave woman, who carried a large basket. And Rongo-Karae watched and followed. He overtook the pair out yonder on the plain, inland of Tauarau. The attendant he roughly bade return to the village, which she promptly did, in spite of Fragrant Leaf’s angry protests. And then the warrior made fierce love to the maid. He told her that he was determined to make her his wife, and he pressed her to return with him.

But Fragrant Leaf was made of stubborn stuff. She slapped the brave’s tattooed face, and, whirling about, ran for her life up this Whakatane Valley. After her raced the lover. What a race was that! It began out yonder on the river-bank. Where did it end? Be patient. You shall hear.

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Now both these young people were strong, well-muscled runners. Rau-Tawhiri was accustomed to sports in the open, she was a great swimmer and she could dance tirelessly. So she ran on confidently, although the young man’s anger had at first terrified her. She thought to reach a camp of her people up the river, or perhaps elude Rongo-Karae and circle round in the bush, and so race homeward again. She did indeed attempt to break away to the right, but her pursuer headed her off; and now she realised his purpose. He would chase her up this valley until she surrendered through weakness. But her limbs and lungs were strong, and she ran on, like one of those deer on the hills.

“Stop, foolish one!” Rongo-Karae shouted once, but he wasted no more breath on calls. He was wearing only a light rapaki, or waist-mat, which did not impede his running. As for the girl, she had a korowai cloak about her shoulders when she left the village, but it now lay on the bushes far behind, and, as airily clad as her pursuer, the athletic beauty raced on up the valley.

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On they ran, that Maori pair, one as determined as the other, the girl to outrace her lover, the man to capture her. They had gone, perhaps, two miles, when Rongo-Karae exultantly observed the girl’s distress. She had made heroic fight for liberty; now her breath and muscles were failing her.

She struggled on, casting terrified glances behind her. The low bushes through which she tore wrested from her her last remaining garment; she could not stay an instant to retrieve it. Rongo-Karae, too, had lost his rapaki, or cast it away, and so they went on, but more slowly now, that wild naked pair.

At last poor Fragrant Leaf could run no more, not another step. She stopped, she staggered and fell on a great flat rock by the trail side, close to the river. She lay with heaving lungs, her face on the rock; her feet were cut and bleeding, her limbs and body scratched by the race through the fern and short manuka.

A moment or two and up came Rongo-Karae, almost as exhausted. He dropped down by the girl’s side and put his arms about her. And this time Fragrant Leaf did not repel her lover with scornful laugh. She had lost her pride when the bushes snatched from her her last garment.

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And so (thus ended the old man his story) the pair, the conqueror and the conquered, came home to Tauarau that evening as darkness fell. The girl walked calmly to Rongo-Karae’s house and took her place there as his new wife. Her sister greeted her with simulated astonishment, for she page 137 did not wish the younger one to know that she had abetted Rongo-Karae in his strong-handed wooing. But it was not long before Fragrant Leaf’s husband told her of it, and now, again, behold the ways of a woman!

The younger sister determined that she would rid the home of the elder one, in retaliation for what she considered a deed of treachery. So she put forth all her wiles, and used all her arts to win Rongo-Karae completely for herself, and Rongo, seeing her more beautiful and more captivating than ever, resolved that he would have no other woman in the house but her.

So he put away the elder sister; he bade her return to her father; and he and Rau-Tawhiri abode with each other all their days. And from them sprang this clan of the Urewera which is called Ngati-Rongo-karae, in truth a numerous hapu to-day, and never shall they forget the love-story of their origin.

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And it would be well, pakeha (this by way of final word from the old legend-teller), if this rock, the-Place-Where-Rau-Tawhiri-Lay, were preserved as a sacred spot. Why not? Was it not our tribal trysting place? Let not your pakeha roadmakers break it up when they come cutting and blasting that new way up the Whakatane.

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Sketch of the rock where Rau-Tawhiri lay