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Legends of the Maori

The Tree of the Rope. — A Tale of Old Rotoiti

page 252

The Tree of the Rope.

A Tale of Old Rotoiti.

Ohoukaka Bay, on the northern side of Lake Rotoiti, has a narrow entrance between wooded cliffs. On the point on the left hand as the bay is entered, where the trees dip their thirsty branches so low that they touch the water, once stood Te Ari kainga, a village of the ancient lake people. Very deep and almost black in colour is the water under these bush-clad cliffs, reddened in midsummer with the blazing blossoms of the pohutukawa, and variegated in golden patches with the bright foliage of the kohekohe, the whau and the wharangi. On the high cliff overlooking the lake stood a fortified pa of old, called Kakanui, and on the verge of this precipice you will see to-day, should you cruise that way, a wizardly-looking, gale-battered pohutukawa, broken and twisted of branch, incredibly ancient of aspect.

This lake-overlooking old tree, like some veteran sentry at a forgotten post, is celebrated in local legend. It is called “Tapuae,” and is one of those lakeside trees which are known as tohu-hau, or “wind-omens.” The old Maori say it was a “singing-tree” and that the sound made by its branches in the wind enabled the people living in the pa to forecast the weather. If its branches sang a gentle “Mu-mu, mu-mu,” like the murmuring of a ngaro or fly, everything was calm and the lake would be smooth for canoeing and fishing. If it began to make a whistling sound, even though the wind was not high, it was a sign of an approaching marangai, a strong wind from the north-east, usually with rain; and if its cry rose to a shrill scream, its branches creaking and rubbing against each other, then presently a gale of wind would burst on the lake, and canoes had best keep to the beach. And war-history, too, hangs to the limbs of Tapuae.

About a hundred and fifty years ago some of the Tuhourangi tribe (whose descendants now live at Whakarewarewa) occupied Ohoukaka; their trenched and parapeted village Kakanui crowned the cliff here, where Tapuae stands. With them, married to one of their chiefs, lived a young woman of the Ngati-Pikiao tribe who owned the eastern end of the lake; she was a sister of the chief Te Rangi-wawhia (The Sky Cleft Open). Some insult offered to this woman in the pa came to the ears of Te Rangi-wawahia. Family and tribal honour was offended; the warrior determined page 253 on revenge. Knowing the strength of the Kakanui fort, he resorted to strategic methods instead of a direct and open assault. Being a taharua (that is, related to both sides), he was at liberty to visit the pa, although his tribe were frequently at war with Tuhourangi.

Raising a war party of Ngati-Pikiao and Waitaha men, and giving them instructions as to how to act, Te Rangi-wawahia set off with a few men in his own canoe. On reaching the pa he went to his sister’s house until the time came to act.

That night the war-canoe crews of Ngati-Pikiao and Waitaha paddled up the lake from Tapuwae-haruru, and a number of the warriors quietly landed and hid themselves amongst the shrubs and rocks at the foot of the Kakanui cliff. The rest of the fleet anchored off the front of the pa, and in the early morning the warriors roused the Tuhourangi with their beating of paddles on the sides of the canoes and their singing and shouts of challenge and defiance.

A number of the pa garrison rushed down to their war-canoes, which were kept in the little bay of Ohoukaka. Paddling out into the open lake they attacked the invaders with spear and war-axe, and a lively little naval battle began.

Meanwhile, under cover of the darkness, Te Rangi-wawahia had securely fastened a strong knotted flax rope to the butt of the tree Tapuae, on the edge of the cliff, and dropped the end to the water edge, where his men lay in ambush. When the canoe combat was at its height, in the dim and early morning Te Rangi took post by the tree, and cried in a loud voice his whakaaraara-pa—a term usually applied to a sentinel’s watch-song—so that his men, who were intently listening below, might know it was time to leap to action. This was the cry of “The-Sky-cleft-open”:

“Tika tonu mai,
Tika tonu mai,
Kia ahau e noho nei!
Tika tonu mai!


“Come straight this way,
To the spot where I now stand.
Straight towards me,
Straight this way, ha, ha!”

At the word his followers one by one climbed up the rope to the cliff top, and found their leader there, and then they saw that their comrades in the war-canoes were gaining the water fight and were pursuing the Tuhourangi men into the bay. With club and battle-axe and sharp manuka spear Te Rangi’s cliff-climbers dashed upon the warriors who had remained in the pa.

The Tuhourangi, intent on repelling the canoe men on the beach below, were thrown into complete confusion by this unexpected attack page 254 delivered in their very midst. Assailed furiously on two sides they were soon defeated. Many were killed, and many a body was cut up for the ovens; and Te Rangi-wawahia carried his sister away with him to her old home up the lake. The insult had been paid for in blood; the utu was complete.

Sketch of a New Zealand tree