How Rau-Whato Swam Lake Taupo—The Story of a Maori Heroine.
Taupo Moana lay spread out before us, a smooth plate of blue and turquoise and pawa-shell pearly glimmer, in its mid-afternoon siesta. Fifty miles away Ruapehu’s snows glittered and flashed like a helio; just a slender curl of dark vapour rested on Ngauruhoe’s steep cone to remind us that Ruaimoko, the volcano god, was not dead, but fitfully slumbering. In the far reaches under Motutaiko Island and Karangahape heights the lake was dark blue in hue, almost the cobalt of deep ocean. Calm Moana, soft, calm sky, soft wash of smoke grey over wooded ranges. Blue and grey and pearl; the white pumice cliffs of Kai-Miromiro and Kowhai-a-Taku glistening like snow in the water-mirror; peace and sunshine and bird-song on the ancient shore.
Paora Rokino and Tamati Kurupae, old-timers of Taupo, talked of scenes and episodes of the past that summer day when we took it easy under the trees on the pumice-cliff top at Nukuhau, where the Waikato goes out of the lake in a greenstone-hued strong current. Out on the lake there were here and there motor-launches and a dinghy, with their fishermen. A long Maori canoe from the Tapuwae-haruru beachside opposite was slowly moving, paddled by two girls. The waka seemed uplifted; it looked to float in air above the glass-smooth water, an effect of refraction often seen on these lakes in calm weather when the flooding sunshine steeps land and water.
Tamati told of the big war-canoes and the fishing flotillas of other days, and talk turned to swimming exploits. And there it was that I heard the story of Rau-whato’s great swim across the wide bight of the lake in front of us. Like that famous chieftainess Te-Rau-o-te-rangi, who, a century ago, swam from Kapiti Island to the mainland at Te Uruhi, near Waikanae, to escape her enemies, she bore her little child to safety on her shoulders.
There lived in a stockaded village on this north shore of Lake Taupo, two hundred years ago—Tamati’s story went—a young chief woman whose name was Rau-whato. She was the wife of Turiroa Tuwharetoa—not the great founder of the Ngati-Tuwharetoa tribe of Taupo, but a descendant—and there was one child of the union, an infant boy. Rau-whato was probably about twenty-five years old at this time, a good swimmer, an page 218 expert canoe-paddler, and as beautiful as she was strong of frame. This was her second marriage; her first husband, a young warrior, had been killed in battle.
The home of Rau’ and Turiroa, with their little clan, was Poniu Pa, a steep, cliffy mound on the eastern side of Rangatira Point, that hilly peninsula which we saw as we looked south-west across this northern bay of the lake from Taupo township cliff-front. Fern-grown, long deserted, the high maioro, or scarped walls, and the trenches of Poniu fort can still be traced. Not far away, at the headland, there is a lakeside cave, an overhang of rock, at the foot of the cliffs. This, too, is a scene in the story.
Rau and her husband lived happily there in their lakeside home until one black day there came a war-party of Ngati-Raukawa from the Waikato. This was a man-slaying and man-eating expedition, led by the chief Whiti-patato—a name of renown in those parts. Whiti’ was an ancestor of the Paerata family, of Orakau Pa fame.
The leader of the war-party cautiously scouted the place and reconnoitred from the high hill the approaches to the village. His warriors lay in wait behind the hill until darkness came. Then, in the evening, he led them to the surprise attack, and the peaceful village was all in a moment a place of slaughter. The invaders fell like a hurricane on the helpless lakemen, yelling, spearing, clubbing. Most of the men were killed, the women captured; such of the children as were not killed were reserved for captivity.
Rau-whato and her husband escaped from the ravaged village to the beach below, where they took refuge in a shallow cave near the point. This, however, was no place of security; the victors were scouting for them, and Whiti-patato knew of the cave.
Turiroa realised that he would not escape death, but he was determined that his wife and little son should not share his fate. There was no canoe there, and none could be reached by his wife, but he knew how powerful a swimmer she was.
“Wife of mine,” he said, “take you our child and swim to yonder shore, to your mother’s home.” He pointed through the gloom to the opposite shore-line, the eastern coast of the lake.
“You will reach it, for you are strong, and I shall fasten the child on your shoulders.”
Hurriedly the mother’s woven-flax waist-mat was bound upon her shoulders as a thick pad on which the child could rest high and keep its face above the water, and a broad flax belt tied about the boy and under her arms kept him secure.page 219 page break page 221
Turiroa pressed his nose to his wife’s nose and to his child’s in farewell. They wept tears of agony, the husband and wife, for death was very near. Then Rau-whato turned and entered the dark water, and when it came to her breast she began her long swim for two lives. And on the shore the lone chief of Poniu stood reciting a prayer to the gods for the safety of his wife and son. For himself it was useless, for the victors, with fearful cries of blood-madness, were already rushing down to the cave.
Whiti-patato entered the shallow cavern by the waterside. He gripped his sharp-edged stone patu. “Come forth,” he shouted.
Turiroa calmly accepted his fate. He asked whose war-party it was, and when the answer came that it was a taua to avenge the death of a certain chief—the story is too long to be brought in here—he simply said: “It is a just cause,” and he bowed his head for the death-stroke.
Out yonder in the dark lake the heroic mother is cleaving the ice-cold waters with strong, steady strokes. The brave little boy does not cry or whimper; his mother turns her head now and again to give him a word of love and encouragement. She pauses in her swimming to float while she sets her mind to recite a karakia to the gods for power to sustain her in her effort—a charm-song that is still remembered among her descendants. She invokes the powers of nature to shorten the distance to the farther shore, and to strengthen her frame against the killing cold. Thus she puts forth her appeal to the spirit world, and she swims on again with sure and confident strokes. She will live; she will save her child, for she is an Ariki-taniwha—she is the sacred chief of all the beings that haunt the waters. Ahead, life and succour; behind her the fires of the blazing village send an awful glow across the calm lake waters.
So swimming, resting now and then, the brave mother at last approached the dark looming cliffs near Te Kowhai-a-Taku, that high point which you may see on the eastern shore of Taupo looking due south from Taupo township. Here, at Wharewaka—quite five miles from where she began her swim—she came to a flat rock. Then she drew herself up and rested. She unfastened her poor little child from its place on her shoulders; she chafed and warmed its cramped, cold body and limbs, and she wept over it, mingled tears of grief and joy, and then she set out along the beach and up the hill to Te Tara-o-te-Marama Pa.
In that strongly fenced hill village dwelt Rau’s mother, the chief woman, Hine-Kaharoa. In the midnight hours, the refugee called to the people as she stood at the stockade gateway, and she and the child were in the home of warmth and love again.page 222
And Rau-whato lived to marry again and bear more children. Her third husband, Werewere, was more fortunate than the other two, for he did not fall in battle. The pair were the progenitors of some of the present families of Taupo. Both my narrators, Paora and Tamati, were descended from them. And the little boy, saved by the devotion of his father and the strength of body and greatness of heart of his mother, was given the name Te Urunga, meaning “The Pillow,” in memory of that swim for life, for his mother’s garment fastened on her shoulders was the pillow on which he was borne to safety and life.
Hinemoa of romantic memory swam two miles across Lake Rotorua to her lover. Rau-whato swam at least five miles. And Hinemoa did not carry a baby on her shoulders.