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Legends of the Maori

The Little Gulls of Mokoia

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The Little Gulls of Mokoia

Winged habitant of the Rotorua country familiar to those who have done much fishing and camping round the lakes is the little soberplumaged gull that the Maori call the tarapunga. Really a sea-bird, it found these lakes and the fishes thereof so much to its liking when it first made its way there from the Bay of Plenty coast—which is only thirty-five miles away—that it became a permanent settler. It has its breeding-places on the pumice cliffs which shine as white as chalk on the eastern and north-eastern shores of Lake Rotorua. As the night comes down, you will see it making homeward for its cliffy nest, and often through the dark you may hear, particularly if you are in camp on the eastern side of the lake or on Mokoia Island, the thin, sharp cry of some belated gull, suggesting, say, a peevish ghost that has come home too late and found itself locked out. Mokoia is a favoured haunt of the little birds. There is a low, sandy point which runs out to the eastward of the Paepaerau beach, on the flat where the islanders have their whares and cultivations. On this point we used to see flocks of tarapunga, waiting patiently until the coming marangai, the nor’-east breeze, should bring the shoals of whitebait, plentiful in the lake at certain seasons, close inshore. Presently there would be excitement and terror amongst the silvery inanga, and jubilation amongst the well-dined tarapunga.

But the most interesting thing about the lake gull is the fact of the Maori tapu that protects it from the Arawa guns. No Maori would shoot the tarapunga in the days when we went cruising round the lakes, a period when many fanciful beliefs held full sway over the minds of the older Maori. Human souls inhabit those birds, say the Arawa. The spirits of the dead enter into the tarapunga; the leaders of the flocks are tribal chieftains of ancient days. So say the elders, just as old sailors say that when a bo’s’n dies, if he has been a good bo’s’n he becomes an albatross, and lives for ever on the ocean wave. And touching the origin of the tapu, here is a story:—

In the days when Rotorua was a more primitive, and possibly a more pleasant place than it is to-day, a party of five young pakeha set out for a camping and shooting cruise to the far end of Rotoiti Lake. They embarked in an open sailing-boat, owned by their leading spirit, whom the Maori called Rautao. In those times, nearly forty years ago, there was capital sport down at Rotoiti and Rotoehu among the wild ducks. Pheasants, too, were plentiful there, and the bush was swarming with page 242 pigeons. The sportsmen stowed tent and food and blankets and guns in their little craft and off they went.

As they approached the eastern side of Mokoia Island, on their way from Ohinemutu to the Ohau Channel (which connects Rotorua Lake with Rotoiti), the wind fell light, and they amused themselves by shooting at the tarapunga congregated on the sandy point. They sailed slowly along, blazing away at the gulls, and knocked some of the little fellows over. It was nothing of which to brag in the way of sport, but they had to kill something.

Just as the crew were passing the point, they heard a screech and a yell, and a white-haired Maori woman, in a furious temper, came running out from the willows. The gunners thought one of them must have put a charge of shot into the old wahine by mistake, but it wasn’t that. She came out to the end of the beach, as close as she could to the boat, shaking her tokotoko, her walking-stick, at them, and then she loosed her eloquent tongue. She called them tangata-kohuru—murderers—and many other things. Rautao called out to her in Maori, and asked her what the trouble was.

“You murdering pakeha!” she screamed. “You’ve killed my ancestors! You’ve murdered me! Don’t you know that those tarapunga you’ve been shooting are men and women? Don’t you know they’re the souls of our dead? They’re all tapu, they’re all spirits. You murderers!”

And the angry old kuia began to recite a karakia, an incantation to curse the gunners and bring them ill luck for killing her tapu birds. She went at it as fast as her tongue could go, and long after the boating party were out of earshot they could see her standing there, waving her stick. They laughed and talked about the “Ancient Mariner” and the bad sailor’s crossbow and all the trouble it caused. But a fine little breeze sprang up from the west, and they went along spanking, ran down the Ohau Channel, and hauled in to Wai-iti that afternoon. They pitched camp near the Maori kainga and enjoyed three or four days’ fine sport amongst the birds, and then embarked for the return sail to Rotorua, with light hearts and heavy bags.

The wind blew fair, the sun shone warmly, all was serene until the sportsmen had passed through the Ohau—they rowed up the winding creek—and set sail for the passage across Lake Rotorua. Then, with Mokoia full in view, their troubles began. A snorting southerly gale—a hau-tonga—sprang up all in a few minutes. It blew and blew as if it would blow the little boat out of the water. The crew were more than midway from the Ohau beach to Mokoia by this time, and they kept plugging away with the oars, trying to get under the lee of the island. At last, long after page 243
The Warning of the Gulls.

The Warning of the Gulls.

page break page 245 dark, they brought up at Matariki beach, where they were in good shelter, and they got ashore, wet through, and half frozen.

Leaving the boat snug, they made for the Maori village, intending to ask for a night’s shelter at the first whare they came to. They saw a light, and knocked at the door of a raupo house that stood in the middle of a plantation of kumara and maize. The door opened, a head was poked out, and a voice asked, “Who are you?”

It was a venerable, white-haired woman. Rautao recognised her, the very same dame who had cursed the gunners so soundly for their raid on the tarapunga.

And the kuia knew them at once, too. “Come in, pakeha,” she said, a grin on her tattooed face. “I knew you’d come to me; my atua told me you would! You’re very fortunate that you’re not lying at the bottom of the lake instead of being safe here on Mokoia. You’ll never shoot my sacred tarapunga again, will you?”

“No, no, mother,” Rautao said. “We only shot the birds through ignorance; we didn’t know they were tapu. Our sins are many, but we’ll never offend again if you’ll only give us a mat by the fire, and something hot to drink.”

With the hospitality that is second nature to the Maori the kuia—old Maraea—gave the wet and starving wanderers blankets, and hot tea and food. And when they were dry and comfortable by the big fire, she told them the story of the tapu birds.

“It was in the days of Hongi Hika Kai-tangata, the Man-eater of the North,” said Maraea, “that these little birds of ours became for ever sacred to us.” Then she told of Hongi’s invasion of Rotorua district seventy years before—how the Ngapuhi, with their guns, camped over yonder on the Ohau beach until their war-canoes had been brought up from the coast, and how they made their descent on Mokoia, where all the Arawa had assembled for safety.

“It was very early one misty morning,” the kuia continued, “that they delivered their attack on this island. Our sentries did not see them at first, so that the enemy’s canoes were close up before the alarm was given. And the first our warriors knew of the Ngapuhi’s coming was the sight of a flock of tarapunga suddenly flying up in alarm from the sandy point out yonder. The strange canoes appearing out of the fog startled the birds, and up they flew, screaming a warning to us that our foes were upon us. Our people at once knew that the Ngapuhi had alarmed the birds, and they rushed to the beach to resist the invaders. And the birds circled overhead, tangi-ing with shrill voices, as they watched the defeat of their people the Arawa.

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“Yes, we fell, and many scores of our dead were cooked in ovens on this very flat and were eaten by the black-tattooed men from the North. My father fell there, and my uncles. My mother saved her life and my own—I was then but a little child. She ran with me on her back into the crowded meeting-house, where the chieftainess Te Ao-Kapurangi saved so many of our tribe from slaughter. And afterwards, when peace came again, we remembered those tarapunga birds, how they tried to save us that red morning on Mokoia here. Our priests karakia’d to them, recited their charms of propitiation and thanksgiving, and they declared that the birds should be tapu, for they acted as if they were human beings. We think that the spirits of our dead, those who died at the mouths of Hongi’s guns, and those who have since died in battle, enter into the bodies of those birds. And that is why we reverence the tarapunga to-day, and will suffer none, whether pakeha or Maori, to injure them.

“And now, go to sleep and gain strength for your water journey on the morrow. You have been punished by the gods of the wind and the lake, and you will sin no more. Ma te Atua tatou e tiaki! May the Lord protect us all!”