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Legends of the Maori

Tales of Tauhara. — The Value of a Mountain

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Tales of Tauhara.

The Value of a Mountain.

Standing all by itself on the great pumice plain, three miles back from Lake Taupo’s white cliffs, the long-dead volcanic peak called Tauhara makes a bold blue-painted sector of landscape that relieves the flatness of the green and grey tussock and manuka prairie. It goes up in the sharp slants that only volcanic mountains show, with a huge irregular hollow in its heart, the ancient crater, fractured on one side like a broken cup, the outflow of the ancient streams of fire. The plain here is some 1,500 feet above sea-level, and the topmost rim of Tauhara is another 2,000 feet and more in air. There is a track to its top, winding up through the gullies of bush and fern, a track along which one can ride a horse—a Maori horse, used to such work—to within a short distance of the summit.

* * *

It is a peak of poetry and romance, this Tauhara, a name that can be translated broadly as the rejected, or unwanted, one, the “odd man out.” It has come to be called “The Lone Lover,” because of the folk-tale of its origin, a nature-myth from the hazy past. This is the legend accounting, in the imaginative manner of the Maori, for Tauhara’s presence on this plain, so far removed from other mountains of any size. Tamati Kurupae and other elders of Taupo tell the story (“Tauhara is my mountain,” says Tamati; “my sentry-height and food-store from the ancient days”).

In the long ago Tauhara stood in a very different place. There was a great group of mountains; they all stood close together on the central plain south of Lake Taupo. Most of them are there still, and Ruapehu is chief of them all, but in the far-away days Taranaki stood there, and also Tauhara and Putauaki (the pakeha now calls this peak Mount Edgecumbe). They were males, those mountains; they were gods and warriors—all except one, who was a female. Her name was Pihanga—yonder she stands still, with her soft robe of forest about her, near the south side of Taupo Moana. (In Taranaki legend Ruapehu was the chief female, and Taranaki was her husband.) And all these men mountains loved Pihanga, but the only one she favoured was Tongariro, who defeated the others in a mighty battle of the volcanoes.

Tauhara and Putauaki, who stood where Roto-a-Ira lake is now, said to the other mountains: “We shall go hence; we shall go to the sea which looks towards the rising of the sun.” And Taranaki said: “I shall go to the page 178 setting place of the sun” (“Ka haere au ki te towenetanga o te ra”). And so those mountains uprooted themselves and departed, crying their farewells to Pihanga, who was now the wife of Tongariro.

It was a magic journey, in the hours of darkness, the only time when fairies and mountains can move abroad. Tauhara and Putauaki travelled north towards the morning sunshine. Putauaki was halted by the dawn when he had traversed the greater part of the way to the sea, and there he stands to this day, at the northern end of the Kaingaroa Plain, fifty miles from Taupo, and he looks down on the wide valley of the Rangitaiki. He is Ngati-Awa’s sacred mountain.

Tauhara travelled slowly, with tardy, lingering steps; often and longingly he looked back towards Pihanga, whom he was leaving. And when daylight came he had only reached the place where he stands now, near the shore of Taupo Moana. And he ever looks back across the lake at fair Pihanga, gently slanting yonder with her blue garment of forest drawn closely about her.

Tauhara is ever on the lips of the older Maori of Taupo, as it is ever before their eyes. Often there comes in a low crooning song, the eighty-years-old lament for Te Heuheu the Great, who, with fifty of his people, was overwhelmed in the landslide at Te Rapa, near Tokaanu:

“See yon first beams of day,
They gleam upon the peak of Tauhara,
Perhaps in those bright rays
My chieftain comes again.”

The song apostrophises the noble dead, bids him live again, to recite his sacred chants of power, grasp once more his treasured greenstone patu, lead his warriors once more to battle.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when Maori hapus lived in the very heart of Tauhara, for the deep wooded valleys and sheltered slopes on the western aspect were the best cultivation grounds anywhere near the north end of Lake Taupo. The soil was rich, and the forests which clothed Tauhara then—there is still much bush on this side of the old volcano—were alive with birds. The Maori point out the sites of villages; one is Te Morere. The massive ferny hill which forms the north-western buttress of the mountain is Te Hue; anciently there was a pa there; below is the square-topped hill Tau-Waenga (Central Resting Place). This, too, was an ancient height of defence. “It is quite different soil, the soil of Tauhara, from our pumice plains,” says Tamati Kurupae. “It is the oné-matua, the good rich volcanic earth, and in it we used to grow our best crops. I have grown potatoes there in that old Mōréré kainga, in the warm heart of Tauhara. It was a beautiful place for our cultivators of old—safe, sheltered, fertile, and the forests protected us.”

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Tamati explained the rotation of food-getting industries which kept the Maori busy in the days before the pakeha came with his bread, and beef, and tinned fish, and his waipiro:

“In the summer time we all went out on the lake fishing. We caught the inanga—the whitebait—in great quantities, in fine-meshed nets, and preserved it for future use, and filled our storehouses. Kokopu, too, that little fish which the trout have eaten out, like the inanga, we caught in the hand-nets called pouraka. We were out in our canoes and along the shores day after day; every village was busy.

“Then, in the winter, the takurua, we went to Tauhara Mountain birdhunting. That was our great bird-mountain; that was our parent that supplied us with our stores of manu-huahua. The bush was full of birds, especially the kereru (pigeon) and koko (tui, parson bird). We caught them in snares arranged above wai-tuhi, small troughs shaped like canoes, which we filled with water; these were set in the driest parts of the bush, so that the birds might be tempted to fly down there and drink. We speared them, too, with long barbed wooden spears. The kaka parrot was plentiful; we caught it with mutu kaka, elbowed wooden snares, rigged with running flax-string tackle, which we set up in the rata trees. With these contrivances, camping there for many days, we caught great numbers of birds, which we cooked and preserved in their own fat in airtight vessels of totara bark.

“And the birds never decreased in those days when snares and spear were used more than the gun. There are birds there still, and it is pleasing to hear the koko, that manu rangatira, but the old days of abundance of food have gone—aue!”

Manu rangatira” is a complimentary term the old-school Maori is fond of applying to the koko, or tui. “Chief-like bird” it means; a feathered gentleman. The pretty and sweet-voiced koko holds great charm for the Maori; and it was his delight to keep a young one as a family pet and teach it to talk and to call greetings to visitors, even to chant little karakia, or charms.

The most precious thing in or on Tauhara is the splendid spring of water which gushes out near the top of the mountain. This is as welcome to the thirsty climber to-day as it was to the Maori of long ago. The fount of clear, cold water flows a short distance down a gully, tinkling in a little cascade, and then disappears into the soil again. As the Maori puts it, “I ngaro i te whenua”—it is lost in the earth.

There are other springs and streamlets lower down, but a permanent well of water on a mountain top was indeed a blessing to the people who lived on the high parts of the land for safety from their foes.

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And it was, too, a sentry mountain, this 3,600-foot peak. On its crest, level for a considerable distance, and free from tall timber, sentinels kept watch in the era of intertribal wars. When there was danger of invasion, the Taupo people sent keen-eyed scouts up to Tauhara-top, to keep a sharp look-out for signs of an enemy. No war-party could cross the Kaingaroa Plain by day from the east or north—the quarters whence most invaders came—without being seen from Tauhara. And the name by which the summit of the mountain is known, as Tamati explains, is beautiful and descriptive—Matairangi, a combination of the words “gaze upon,” or “keep watch,” and “sky.” It fitted this sky-high watch-tower.

* * *

Verily this mountain was a playground of the gods. There was Ngatoro-i-rangi, the high priest of the Arawa. When he explored these parts he shook the fringes of his mat into the lake, and they became the little inanga fish. He climbed to the top of Tauhara, as his successor the pakeha surveyor did. He did not set up a trig station, in token of taking possession, but he did something more difficult. He observed that the northern and eastern shores of Taupo Moana were lamentably bare of timber, and he determined to rectify that defect. There were many huge totara trees on the mountain. Some of these Ngatoro plucked up by the roots, and kopere’d or darted them hurtling through the air into the margin of the lake—distance four miles. They are there to this day—some head up, some root-end up, memorials of the Arawa’s marvel-worker, the Moses and Merlin of the tribe. Several are sticking up above the water—one is the locally-famous log Nukuhau—“moving in the wind”—in front of Taupo township—and there is a small forest of submerged totara timber near the north-eastern coast.

Look on Nukuhau and remember that long-ago caber-tosser with respect. His like we shall not see again.