Pool of the Papua.
The sun was hot in the still, windless valley of the Rangitaiki, and though we got a trifle wet in the fording of the deep and strong river —it was some ten miles above the Murupara Bridge on the road from Rotorua to the Urewera Country—boots and trousers soon baked dry when we off-saddled for lunch at the old camp ground at Ngahuinga. We let our horses graze for an hour and boiled the billy, and then had the afternoon before us for the ride up to our camping place on the bush edge at Te Tapiri, on the rim of the ranges, a thousand feet above the Kaingaroa Plain. In a little while we came to the falls of the Wheao. This tributary of the Rangitaiki, flowing through the high fern and the black-fruited tupakihi, poured itself over a broad ledge of rock into a great circular pool surrounded by steep bushy banks. Below, the brimming pool emptied itself in a series of little rapids towards the main river.
“There she is, there’s the old woman,” said Harehare, the whitebeard from Murupara. He pointed to a small rounded piece of timber, black and polished by water wear, that lay in a backwater where the eddies had undermined the nearer bank. “There’s Hine-ngutu, the old kuia. She’s lasting well, that old woman.”
Harehare’s story, a legend told all along the Rangitaiki, was that long ago, a century or so, an aged woman called Hine-ngutu, when carrying home a load of firewood on her back one day to the village which then stood here, was hailed by one of her fellow gossips. She turned to answer her, forgetting that she was on the very brink of the great whirlpool below the fall. She tumbled off the narrow, slippery track into the furious waters below and she was never seen again. But a log of wood appeared in the pool, circling round and round, and as it seemed to bear a resemblance to a human body, the fancy grew that it was poor old Hine-ngutu. Once an attempt was made to haul out the log, but it eluded all lassos. Hine dived to the bottom for a while until the fishers desisted. Now, of course, she is tapu through and through, and though she is very much reduced in size by water attrition, she is the same old piece, the visible transubstantiation of Hine-ngutu. Of that there can be no possible doubt, say the Maori.
As we watched the deep churning basin, with the tapu bit of timber tossing in the water, but hemmed in there by an old log with no history to speak of, a big black shag rose heavily from a projecting branch where it had been watching us. It was the sable-plumaged variety of kawau that the Maori calls papua—an interesting word to the philologist, by the way, page 154 for it at once suggests an inquiry as to whether its origin had anything to do with Papua, the great Black Island. It circled over the pool, a silent, sombre bird of omen; it settled on a bush on the other side, and sat there, its eyes fixed on us.
Our Maori companions said the papua was always there. It fished in the Wheao, and it lived beside the mystic pool. “That old fellow,” said they, “is Hine-ngutu’s guardian. He watches the river, and he lives alone here. No doubt he is an atua, a god of some sort. Anyhow, it is best not to meddle with him. If we leave him alone he’ll leave us alone. Perhaps some foolish pakeha will shoot him some day—and come to grief in the Rangitaiki.”
Curious fellow, the Maori, revealing a blending of shrewdness, close observation and an incurably lively imagination. Who among the matter-of-fact pakeha tribe would have identified that bit of log with Hine-ngutu, or linked up a stray shag with that old-wives’ tale of the Wheao whirlpool?