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Legends of the Maori

Lagoons of the Tuna. — Kawa Repo and its Story

page 255

Lagoons of the Tuna.

Kawa Repo and its Story.

It would scarcely be imagined, perhaps, that this fat, well-tamed country of dairy farms over which you travel in smooth comfort between the storied hills on the Old Frontier was once—and that not long ago—a far-stretching wilderness of swamps and lagoons and watercourses, a maze of marshes tenanted only by eels and waterbirds.

That transformation from watery desert to pakeha homestead has come well within one’s memory. A farmer deepening his drains or following his plough on these plains of wealth now and then turns up a stone weapon or strikes an old-time eel-weir post. A little canoe was discovered by a settler near the railway station, among the rushes on a slight elevation, once an island in the unwatered land, a dug-out kopapa used by some duck-hunter and tuna-fisher of famous Kawa Repo.

* * *

All this region is a Maori storyland. Gracefully-moulded Kawa Mountain overlooks the now-rich pasture levels of the drained swamps. On the other side of the railway Kakepuku Mountain—he and the beautiful Kawa were husband and wife in local folk lore—seems to keep guard like some stern old sentry over the ancient food-teeming valleys of the Waipa. To the south, again, is a minor mountain, the Puketarata Range, of which the natives say in their highly imaginative fashion that it was the rejected lover of Kawa. Here is the “eternal triangle”; here, of old, too, the warrior watched the rich eel preserves, for Kawa’s tuna were celebrated all over the island.

They were of enormous value to the Maori, those raupo and flax swamps and their shining, shallow lakes. Wars were waged for the possession of the immensely-desired tuna, the kinds called puhi and whitiki. The silver eels of the Kawa, smoke-dried and packed in baskets, were sent far over the country as a commodity in barter, and they were especially valued by the tribes living on the sea coast, and envious tribes came hundreds of miles simply to get those eels.

The ancient owners of this country over which the railway now runs between Kakepuku and Kawa Mountains were the Ngati-Unu tribe, whose villages were at Ouruwhero and elsewhere on the plain; they had cultivations and strongholds, too, up on Kakepuku; there are still to be seen the fern-grown earthworks of their refuge forts on the summit of the mountain. Tribe fought tribe for the ownership of the several rauwiri, or eel weirs, page 256 called pa-tuna in other parts. The principal rauwiri were all given names, and their ownership was strictly defined. Various hapus of Ngati-Maniapoto had rights in the great swamps, and periodically set their nets and eel-baskets and made great hauls.

A rauwiri was constructed by driving stout stakes into the bed of the creek and filling up the interstices closely with fern, thus confining its waters to a V-shaped channel; the eels, when making their migrations in huge numbers, were caught in nets made of flax and in traps called hinaki, cleverly-made receptacles, closely woven of the tough elastic creeping plant called mangémangé.

The Mangawhero Creek, which meandered along from these lagoons to the Waipa River, was the great eel river, and in it and its small tributaries, creeping from the depths of the marsh, the rauwiri were constructed, and the owners thereof ever kept jealous watch to see that no greedy plundering party interfered with their rights. The names of all of these fishing V’s are preserved. These are examples: Te Tarere, at the mouth of the Mangawhero (this was owned by Ngati-Ngaupaka, or Ngati-Paia-riki); Te Tawa, Te Roto-parera (Duck Lake)—this eel-weir had five mouths—Te Toatoa, Te Manuka, Te Rautawhiri, Pangopango (black), Tere-Ngarara, Taumoana, Kumi, Papaki, Te Maire, Te Waikoka (this was devoted to eel-catches for the great chief Tukorehu), Te Ara-Kopara (the property of the chief and tohunga Hopa te Rangianini, of Tokanui). Many other names were given me, with details of their building and ownership, all indicating the importance the tuna occupied in the economic scheme of the Maori.

* * *

“The fame of the delicious and abundant eels of Kawa,” said Poupatate, of Te Kopua, narrating his tribal history of the great repo, “spread to every part of this island, and this chief and that considered how they might secure for themselves a supply of these tuna, and they made expeditions to view the place for themselves. There was an expedition of Ngati-Maru-Kai-mokomoko (the descendants of Maru the lizard-eater), who came from Taranaki, and built two stockaded camps near Mangawhero, on the east side of the Waipa River. They came into conflict with our people at last, and were attacked and driven out of the district, in fact they were pursued right down to Taringamotu, near Taumarunui, where they got canoes and fled down the Whanganui River.”

They were an impudent people, those strong-handed squatters from Taranaki. The old man of Te Kopua told a story illustrative of their manners.

Two persons from the western side were travelling to Kawa to visit their kinsfolk, and when they reached the Waipa opposite Ararimu page 257 and Parahamuti, the Ngati-Maru stockaded villages, they called out, as any travellers would, for a canoe to take them across the river. The shouted reply they received was this:

Takoto mai ko o korua tuara hei waka mo korua!” (“Lie down and let your backs be a canoe for yourselves!”)

This insulting reply was of course a curse, a serious kanga. The two people to whom it was addressed were chiefs, men named Taihoropaki and his younger brother Ngaupaka. They crossed the river at another place and continued their journey. They told their kinsman Tai-te-Ngahue and his people of the curse which had been hurled at them. That was the beginning of the end for Ngati-Maru. The people of Ngati-Unu raised a war-party of a hundred and forty men; they assailed the insolent warriors of Ngati-Maru, captured their fenced villages and drove them off southward, never to return. Such were the serious consequences of incivility to travellers.

Later on there came to Kawa another party of eel-hungry warriors. These people, Ngati-Makino, came all the way from Tapuika, the ancient name by which the country extending from the Rotorua lakes to the Bay of Plenty was known. They were inhabitants of the bush regions about Rotoehu and Rotoma lakes. A hundred and forty strong was the warparty, besides some women. They settled on the east side of Kakepuku Mountain, planted kumara, built palisaded villages, and made eel-weirs. The place seemed exceedingly desirable to them and they sent for their families as they intended to stay. At last, like Ngati-Maru, they waxed insolent towards their long-settled neighbours. They greedily wished to prevent their neighbours on the west side from coming to the eel swamps and to that end they made a law that a certain route should be tapu and that it must not be trodden by strangers.

This was a direct challenge of war. When a certain chief named Motai heard of this he determined to put the aukati (no trespassing) law of the interlopers to the test. He set out accompanied only by a slave, in the direction of the marae of Ngati-Makino. The chief of that tribe had tied some feathers to posts set up on the track as a sign that the way was tapu. Motai passed two of these no-thoroughfare signs, disregarding the warning. When he came to the third some men of Ngati-Makino sprang out on him, and he was stabbed to death with a wooden dagger. The slave fled and spread the news of the murder and all the villages around Kakepuku Mountain were quickly busy with preparations for vengeance. A strong war column was raised and Ngati-Makino were furiously attacked and driven from their homes on the borders of Kawa Repo. They retreated in the direction of Pirongia mountain, looming above the Waipa Valley. Its page 258 lofty heights and many deep valleys, all densely forested, promised a refuge from their pursuers. The chief, whose name was Makino—the tribe took its name from him—said to his followers: “Let us take shelter on the ika-huruhuru”—a figurative term for a high wooded mountain range.

The fortunes of war presently changed; Ngati-Makino fought so desperately that at last a remnant of the tribe was permitted to hold some of the land at the base of Kakepuku; and so there are descendants of Makino living there at the present day.

The story of these events and of many such incidents in the long saga of the Kawa lagoons and their overlording hills goes back at least three hundred years, to the times of Unu, the eponymous founder of the fighting Ngati-Unu tribe.

Sketch of a New Zealand Maori