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Legends of the Maori

Hurihia’s Race — A Tale of the Taupo Coast

page 229

Hurihia’s Race

A Tale of the Taupo Coast.

“Fast as the fatal symbol flies
In arms the huts and hamlets rise;
From winding glen, from upland brown,
They pour’d each hardy tenant down.
Nor slack’d the messenger his pace,
He show’d the sign, he named the place,
And pressing forward like the wind,
Left clamour and surprise behind.
Prompt at the signal of alarms
Each son of Alpine rush’d to arms.”

—The Fiery Cross, in “The Lady of the Lake” (Scott).

She was a priestess, the heroine of this tradition of the Ngati-Tuwharetoa tribe, whose territory is the country surrounding Taupo Moana, New Zealand’s greatest lake. Here, on the shores of the deep freshwater sea that lies like a blue heart in the centre of the North Island, the stockaded villages of the fighting clan stood in many a beautiful bay, on many a terraced hill and craggy promontory. At Waitahanui, a large palisaded town on the south-eastern coast, near the mouth of the Tongariro River, the ariki, the high chief of the tribe, Te Heuheu, had his headquarters. There he lived over a century ago with his sub-clan Ngati-Turumakina, and other hapus. His first-born child was the girl Hurihia.

Her eldest brother was the chief who became renowned as the great Te Heuheu Tukino, the most famous of his line. It was he who, in his old age, was overwhelmed with fifty of his tribe by the landslip at Te Rapa, near Tokaanu. This Heuheu, Hurihia’s brother, was the father of the chief who gave the Crown the summits of the three sacred mountains, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu. The tale was told me in those parts by the fourth of that name, the late Te Heuheu Tukino (Hurihia’s grand-nephew), and his uncle, the old warrior Waaka Tamaira.

So Hurihia was a very high-born young woman, an ariki tapairu— duchess or princess might be the English equivalent, with a touch of priestess added. Indeed, she was a priestess in verity; she was trained in sacred and secret lore from her childhood. As the first-born of her family, she had a right to such instruction. Physically she grew up a perfect type of the rangatira woman, tall, handsome and well formed; a strong swimmer and canoe-paddler. She accompanied her father and page 230 brothers on fighting expeditions, and she was as capable of hard marching as any of the warriors. In time she came to perform certain ceremonies preliminary to battle.

As priestess (ruwahine, learned woman), Hurihia was required to conduct the curious rite called whakakake before the warriors marched off on the fighting trail. She would stand attired only in a short waist-mat, with her legs wide apart, and each man of the war-party would stoop down and pass under her, “between her thighs,” in the Maori phrase. This was for the purpose of averting the baneful influence of hauhau-aitu, or fatal weakness upon the battlefield. Should any warrior neglect this rite, he was a foredoomed man. He would fall in the coming battle; his nerve would fail him, his eye become unsteady, his fighting-arm weak, and spear or club or axe would smite him down. Such men were even recognised by the enemy in the clash of arms in hand-to-hand combat. The Atua had set his seal upon their countenances.

This young Amazon, at the time of this episode, chanced to be on a visit to the village of Motutere, on the eastern shore of Taupo, nearly opposite the cliffy wooded island Motu-Taiko. Motutere was on the old track around the lake; the modern motor road runs a little distance inland of it at this point. The village stood on a woody hill running out to a sandy point, a little way to the south of that pretty bay Waipehi—well known to pakeha trout fishers and campers—where golden blossoms shower the kowhai trees in the Maori springtime.

A war-party from the Waikato descended suddenly on Taupo, rashly invading the territory of the great Te Heuheu, whom few outside tribes cared to assail. They seized a number of war canoes and paddles along the lake shores. They played the bully, plundered and ill-treated the people in small and defenceless villages, though not actually killing them. Raiding Motutere when most of the able-bodied men and women were away, they badly used some of the old people, and then paddled across to Motu-Taiko, where they amused themselves by desecrating the sacred burial places. For generations the island had been a wahi tapu for the dead of Ngati-Tuwharetoa. They set fire to the carved memorials over the graves, and they fashioned fish-hooks out of the bones they disinterred.

This insult to the lake tribe roused the few people in Motutere to grief and indignation. They saw the fires on Motu-Taiko and they well knew what had happened, from the invaders’ boasts before their departure for the island.

Hurihia, the priestess, happened to be the only member of the Heuheu family in Motutere at the time. Immediately she heard of page 231
Hurihia’s Race.

Hurihia’s Race.

page break page 233 Waikato’s deeds on the island she rose and stripped for action. She cast off all her woven-flax garments, for it was her duty now to call her tribe to arms, and it was a race against time.

She took a small and old kupenga, a fishing net, one of those that were used for catching the little fish upokororo and inanga, and bound this about her strong young body, a scanty waist covering. Then she set out at her utmost speed along the beach southward to Waitahanui, the stockaded pa in which her brother and most of his warriors lived.

There were several villages on the way, but Hurihia made no halt at any of these. She ran right through them without turning to left or right or calling to any of the people. She followed the winding shore, fording the rivers at their mouths—the Tauranga-Taupo, Waimarino and other streams.

And instantly the people understood, just as the old Highland clansmen understood the message of the fiery cross. The racing woman, almost mother-naked, the old fish-net, told the tale. Every man, every boy who was able to use a weapon, instantly left his occupation and, snatching up spear or taiaha, axe or mere, followed the chieftainess. Without any words they knew that Waitahanui was the rendezvous. Thither they ran, the armed company gradually swelling in numbers.

On she raced, stout-lunged, deep-bosomed Hurihia, as beautiful as she was brave, her long black hair streaming in the wind behind her, her tattered fish-net kilt scarce concealing anything of her strong, shapely form. Her pace slackened little. As she ran she murmured, now and then, a brief karakia, a distance-shortening magic prayer; this was the hoa-tapuwae. At last, after a run of nearly ten miles, Hurihia reached the great beachside fortress camp, and there, for the first time since leaving Motutere, she spoke. She rushed across the marae, she saw her brother, she pointed to Motu-Taiko, and she cried the alarm, “Maranga, maranga, whitiki, whitiki!” (“Up, up, and gird yourselves for battle!”) Quickly robed again, the panting priestess, a greenstone patu quivering in her hand, paced up and down on the marae, as she told the tale of Waikato’s invasion and desecration of the tribal sacred places.

The fighting Heuheu, in a white heat of anger, immediately gave the order for attack. By this time the whole countryside had been roused, and the tribesmen came pouring in.

A strong column of men was speedily ready for the expedition. The war-canoes were launched, the captains, standing amidships, began their time-songs, the warriors plunged their paddles in the smooth waters, the long waka taua swept quickly across the lake to Motu-Taiko. Waikato by this time had gone; they had crossed Taupo Moana to the north- page 234 western side. In another day they would have been on the return march to their northem homes. But the Taupo men caught them. Paddling over the lake in the midnight hours, they cautiously landed in the early dawn near the camp of their sleeping enemies, at Rangatira Point—which you can see on your right hand as you look southward from the cliff at Taupo township. Silently, at the first grey peep of dawn, they stole upon the Waikato camp. With terrific yells they fell upon their foe.

The surprise was complete. A little later the foe would have been on the alert. As it was, attacking at the right moment, Te Heuheu and his men killed nearly all of them. Only a few of that Waikato band lived to carry the news home. The heads of the slain soon decorated the stockade posts of Ngati-Tuwharetoa, and their bodies went to fill the food ovens. And loud and eloquent was the tribesmen’s praise, in speech and song, of Hurihia’s long-distance race for the honour of her tribe.

Maori artifact