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Legends of the Maori

The Witch Trees of the Kaingaroa

page 247

The Witch Trees of the Kaingaroa.

In the old days—and that was not so long ago, either—before the State tree-planters covered the wide area of the Kaingaroa Plain with forests of exotic pines, this broad backbone of the North Island was a vast timberless desert. Much of the great pumice plateau is still in its ancient prairie condition, but in the northern part, where you drive along a perfectly level road from the Rotorua side towards the blue-looming sierras of the Urewera Country, there are fields of grass and root crops and mile after mile of fast-growing trees. But when first I rode that way there was little but the stunted monoao shrub and the shivery tussock to clothe the sterile-seeming soil. Of trees there were but here and there, at wide intervals, wind-bowed ti or whanake, which the pakeha calls the cabbage tree.

There was a cabbage-tree, one of these gale-battered patriarchs of the Maori prairie, whose story has always held for me an element of fancy and magic. Once I turned off the main track and made southward in search of it, but never found it. It was the Ti-Whakaaweawe-a-Ngatoro-i-rangi.

This wide and untamed steppe of pumice land, for all its loneliness and monotony, has its folk-stories, its songs and legends. These tales are of well-nigh six centuries ago, of the era of Ngatoro-i-rangi, “The Great Traveller from the Sky,” the high-priest of the Arawa canoe, who explored these desolations and sprinkled the land with poetic place-names.

Ngatoro-i-rangi and his two sisters, Kuiwai and Haungaroa—witch-women and priestesses of high degree—came trudging up from the sea-coast, crossing these plains, and penetrating as far as the inland sea of Taupo and the volcanic mountains to the southward. With the weird sisters came sundry other women, bearing food. Ngatoro and his people were stricken with thirst, and he stamped upon the ground, as Moses of old struck the rock, and springs or puna of water burst forth to gladden the thirsty land.

Two of these puna, beautiful, clear little fountains, may be seen today; one is by the side of the Motumako road as we descend to the Kuhawaea plain and the Rangitaiki, and from it flows a never-failing stream, which goes dancing down parallel with the track; the other is a puna some miles to the southward of our road. Midway across the plain the party, having filled their calabashes at one of the magic springs, halted for a meal.

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The lady Haungaroa was so hungry after the wearying journey that she continued eating long after the others had finished. Two of the women twitted her on her appetite, saying, “Oh, Haungaroa, how long you are at your meal!” and from their words came the full name of the plateau, “Te Kaingaroa a Haungaroa,” or “Haungaroa’s Long-continued Eating.”

Haungaroa appears to have been short in the temper, for she took the jesting words as an insult, and straightaway attacked the women, smiting them with many abusive words after the fashion of the ancient Maori. They fled from the angry witch-woman, and ever as she pursued them they girded up their garments and still fled onward. And the sorceress, with potent incantations, makutu’d these women; she bedevilled them for aye. By her magical powers she turned them into ti trees—palm-lily, cordyline, cabbage-trees—and there left them upon the lonely plain, to be whipped for ever by the cold south winds and parched by the suns of midsummer, when the whole land blazes with heat. And those enchanted ti—or, at any rate certain great ti on the wide plain—came to be called the “Ti-whakaaweawe” (“the Elusive Cabbage-trees”) because of the fact that as one travelled towards the spots where they stood they seemed to recede into the distance; sometimes on misty days they quite eluded the traveller who wished to reach them. And long after Haungaroa’s day this enchantment clung to them. The lone Maori traveller crossing the plain observed in wonderment and awe that in certain states of the atmosphere the trees seemed to dance about the plateau; and when, after passing them, he looked behind him, the bedevilled cabbage-trees were following him; it seemed impossible to lose them now, difficult as they had been to approach.

There the Ti-whakaaweawe stood century after century upon the melancholy tussock plains, their slender stems growing into huge barrels, rough and storm-beaten of surface, their heads of rustling sword leaves ever inclined to the north by the gales that swept the Kaingaroa. On days of quivering midsummer heat, they seemed to dance about the desert of which they were the guardian genii; and on days of cold driving mist they startled the wayfarer by suddenly appearing before him out of the wintry smother and as suddenly vanishing; and the Maori traveller would betake him to his prayers in propitiation of the spirits of the waste and open places.

A hundred years ago a war-party of a northern tribe, the Ngati-Maru, returning from an expedition to the Urewera Country and the East Cape, passed the sacred tree, and the chief of the taua, having a grudge against one Te Purewa, a rangatira of the Urewera, conceived the curious page 249 but truly Maori idea of making one of the ti trees by the trail-side do proxy for his distant antagonist.

“This tree is Te Purewa,” he cried; “now behold me slay him.” And straightaway he attacked the Ti-Whakaaweawe furiously with his stone axe, and his tribe joining him, the tree presently was laid low. The task could not have been an easy one, for the hacked stump of the great ti was seen by a friend of mine in the ’Sixties of last century, and it was, as near as he could compute, quite twenty feet in girth. The iconoclastic warrior who felled it was Tu-te-Rangianini. He made haste to leave the magic-saturated Kaingaroa after that mighty deed of vengeance.

Thereafter the centuries-old tapu which had gathered about the Elusive Palm-trees of the Kaingaroa was concentrated in the lone survivor, which lifted his huge barrel and many-branched head away over yonder, to the right-hand or southern side of our track, as we go to the Rangitaiki Valley and the Urewera Country. Now more than ever was it an object of veneration to the Arawa and the Urewera whose narrow foot-trails passed its spreading butt. Like the sacred Gualichu Tree of which Mr. Cunninghame Graham has told us in one of his stories of the South American pampas, it became a tribal shrine, and came to personify for the imaginative pagan Maori the brooding spirit of the wilds and the lonesome enchantment of those great plains, the sole living inhabitant of which seemed to be the hawk. Te whenua i haroa e te kahu (the land soared over by the hawk) is an expression used by the Maori in describing the Kaingaroa. Sometimes this predatory kahu would be seen perched upon the tapu tree, watching for his prey, as elusive as Haungaroa’s bewitched companions of old. Pious travellers, whether spearmen and patu wielders on the war trail, or peaceful bearers of food burdens across the weary tableland, viewed with feelings of deep respect Ngatoro’s holy tree and at its feet they laid their offerings of monoao leaves, repeating the brief propitiatory incantation of the uru-uru whenua:

“O spirit of the Earth,
Receive thou the heart of the stranger.”

A ceremony akin to tree-worship which is not forgotten by the Maori of to-day, as you may see for yourself should you chance to pass along Hongi’s Track, on the Rotoiti-Rotoehu road, where the sacred matai tree, called Hinehopu, stands by the wayside. At the foot of the tree, also, it became the custom to cut the hair of chiefs, a performance attended with sacred ceremonial, indeed, a religious rite, for the hair of a man’s head was a sacred thing in the days of old. This hair-cutting was done with flakes of obsidian, called mata-tuhua, and up to recent years sharp pieces of this material, the knives of the ancient people, were to page 250 be seen lying about the butt of the huge cordyline. And a wandering wood-carver, after paying due respect to the Ti-whakaaweawe in the prayer of the uru-uru whenua, with his little stone axe worked one of the spreading root-flanks into a carved face, the artist’s tribute to the spirit of the Tipua tree. (The word Tipua, be it noted, signifies a supernatural being, or an object under the spell of enchantment, compelling respect and propitiation by spells and charms.) Then, too, it was a tuahu, or altar; and war-parties returning from a foray hung a bleeding heart or a handful of hair upon its grey lowermost branch, an offering to Whiro, the god of bloody deeds.

Generation after generation of tattooed brown men had come and gone and that storm-beaten, sun-dried old tree outlived them all. Its rustling head, in whose thin bayonets of leaves unnumbered gales had shrieked their anger, looked down upon a narrow circle at its foot worn by the feet of long-gone wayfarers. And a new life came to the plain when, after the destruction of the sister tree, the white man’s four-footed creatures spread throughout the land, even to the desolate places of the Kaingaroa. Wild horses multiplied upon the plains and scoured the free, wild land from blue Putauaki’s base to the far-away pumice cliffs of Lake Taupo. The lone tree seemed to hold some strange attraction for them, and often and often they gathered about the Tipua cabbage-palm upon which all the mid-plain trails converged, as if to hold some wilderness convention.

Thousands of wild horses there were upon these plains thirty years ago—brandless, ownerless, free creatures of the pumice deserts. Riding across those uplands “soared over by the hawk,” we used to startle mob after mob of horses. The Maori formed hunting parties and acquired much cheap horseflesh in a truly sporting fashion, by driving a mob before them until they rounded them up in some blind gully on the edge of the plain. But there were other sportsmen—of a kind. These were whites. They shot down the wild horses for the sake of their flowing manes and tails and left the carcases a prey to the kahu sitting sentry-wise on the old Tipua tree’s branchy head. Then came another set of whites, the rabbiters, who slaughtered the horses mercilessly for the purpose of feeding their dogs upon the flesh. And now the day of the lonesome ti was well-nigh done.

There came to this shrine of the Plain of Long-Eating a white kai-ruri, a surveyor, the “man who rules lines,” and he cast a destructive eye upon Ngatoro’s majestic old cordyline. He knew nothing of its story; nothing he cared that for centuries it had withstood the bitter storms of the island backbone. He appraised it in terms of timber, and taking a measurement of its extraordinary girth, he calculated that the number of slabs he could hew from its barrel would build him a comfortable cook- page 251 house. So he and his chainmen set to at it with their axes, and the last Ti-whakaaweawe lay prone, presently to make a whare for the sheltering of the survey party’s pots and pans and tinned stuff, and sacks of flour and sides of bacon.

In such manner perished the lone cabbage-tree of the plains. Unfortunately, as my Maori friends assure me, the spell of the tapu does not extend to white men, otherwise the food prepared in that cookhouse would quickly have killed all who partook of it.

But, in the interests of Maori justice, I hope the fates of the wilds laid a heavy hand on that kai-ruri. The law of tapu may not touch the white man, yet it is my inbred fancy that the old gods of the outland have not yet lost all their powers.

Sketch of a New Zealand cabbage tree