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Legends of the Maori

By the Waters of Rakaunui

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By the Waters of Rakaunui.

Calm, sunlit Kawhia Harbour lay spread out in a smooth plate of silver-and-pearlshell the morning we went boating across from Powewe township to the Rakaunui tidal river on the south side. It was the top of high water when we left the beach where the giant pohutukawa, ancient beyond reckoning, spread enormous branching heads of foliage and crimson flowers over the story-haunted beach. Wonderful old trees; some of them have names of their own, such as Tangi-te-Korowhiti, the king of them all; in under its arching roots there is a shallow cave which an old-time tohunga used as a dwelling. In the shade of that tree and of its neighbour, Te Papa-o-Karewa, the rite of tohi-tu-tama, the ceremony of baptising a man child and dedicating him to Tu, the god of war, was performed by the priests. On the outstretched lower branches the bodies of slain foes were aforetime hung. Ghosts haunt those broad canopies of branch and leaf. Even the young Maori avoid the tapu trees after dark, and if compelled to go along the beach at night they will wade through the water, should the tide be in, sooner than walk under the black shadows of the pohutukawa. Certain curiously-shaped rocky ledges on this beach-side have their names and legends. A long red-streaked sandstone rock, like some sleeping saurian monster, is called Tatua-a-Kawharu, or Kawharu’s Girdle, and a singular hole like a giant footprint impressed in the rock is known as Kawharu’s Footstep.

This Kawharu was a locally renowned toa or hero of long ago, particularly celebrated for his jumping feats in storming forts and leaping at his foes. Yon never-failing water spring that bubbles out near the dwellings under the arching greenwood is named after Koata, a chieftainess of many generations ago, wife of Kawharu. Above us we saw the terraced heights of Motu-ngaio Pa, once a fort of huge scarps and ditches, now peaceful and beautiful with pakeha orchards and flower gardens.

The kahawai were leaping here and there, breaking the looking-glass surface. A long fishing canoe, with two figures leisurely paddling, trawling kahawai lines, was silhouetted against the dazzle of the water. We came to the low shores of the Rakaunui arm and entered the winding estuary. Maori women were at work in a kumara garden at Taumaha, the beach on our right; there were maize patches and small potato fields, with pig-proof manuka fences. A grey duck rose scuttling from the quiet water as we rounded a reed-fringed bend of the river.

The low shores gave place to grey limestone cliffs, and the river narrowed in. The rocks assumed strange shapes as we went on; they rose page 90 in castle-walls, with ledges and squared-off faces that almost seemed the work of human hands. Twisty trees, mostly karaka, flax bushes, clumps of flowering koromiko, grew in the crevices of the cliffs. At one place we passed a deserted camp of old, where grape vines trailed over the grey weathered rocks and dipped into the water. Bushy and ferny dells opened out, and the song of the tui came ringing like a morning bell. Bands of semi-luminous fog still wreathed the hills; on the water ahead of us the sun was drawing up the little mists that presaged a hot day.

We landed at a small kainga on the west bank of the Rakaunui, and the few Maori there came out to greet us with many loud calls of “Nau mai.” Here the best house we saw that day of long ago was a whare-nikau of the type that has all but disappeared. The nikau palm fronds used for the thatch of roof and walls were skilfully plaited in a chevron-like design. It is quite an art in itself, the thatch-weaving of such a house, and really beautiful are some of these nikau dwellings that have nearly all given place to ugly cottages and mere shanties of weatherboard and corrugated iron. Looking up the narrowed river here, between the castellated walls of rock, we saw in the distance the first of the pakeha settlers’ homes in these parts, on a sunward-looking hill, cleared and grassed.

Sitting at ease in the shady front of the pretty summer dwelling, one listened to tales and songs of old Kawhia, and noted local place names and the stories of their origin. One of the men told of the great hauls of shark made in the good midsummer, when all the tribe gathered for a fishing excursion that they made a glorious water picnic. But his best fishing tale was a big eel story.

The storyteller showed us the rocky arched entrance to a cave a little way above the kainga. The gateway to the ana was in a confused pile of great limestone rocks, all flaked and split by ages of weather. The entrance to this cave was just large enough, he said, to admit a man. Inside, it dipped downward and opened out, and there was a pool of water there, in a high arched chamber. In that darksome pool lived a great tuna, a famous eel which no one had ever been able to capture. Many had entered that cave in pursuit of the eel, but it eluded all their efforts with hook and many-pronged matarau spear.

At this kainga there lived a man whose wife, Poroaki, asked him to go and get her a basket of eels. The husband bethought him of the great eel in the cave; that would be a capture worth many a basket of the ordinary creek tuna. So into the dark cave he went, with his spear and an axe and a torch (rama) made of resinous wood, and sought that big tuna. He found it by the light of his torch gliding about the pond, and he attacked it with his spear. He transfixed it, and then there was a terrific struggle. Drop- page 91
Hunting the Giant Tuna.

Hunting the Giant Tuna.

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his torch on a ledge of rock, he drew his sharp stone axe from his belt and chopped away at the tuna writhing on his spear. “Die,” he cried, “to satisfy the hunger of Poroaki!”

Now, the great tuna possessed some supernatural attributes, and when it heard the name “Poroaki” uttered it was stricken with terror, because that chieftainess was a woman of great mana tapu, and it knew that the invocation of her name meant victory for the husband in his attack.

In its convulsions it threshed about the cave, and as it was dying it lashed its tail around with such force that it brought down part of the rocky wall. The fall blocked the narrow entrance by which the man had crawled in, and there the eel-hunter was imprisoned, entombed in the cave of the dead tuna. The eel-killer’s torch was extinguished and lost. He was in a living grave. He set to at his prayers to the gods, he recited his karakia for deliverance. Never was a karakia uttered with more earnestness. Then, fortified by the recitation of his charm-prayers, he sought for a way of escape. Groping about, he discovered the continuation of the cave, a passage, crooked and narrow, leading deeper into the heart of the hill. He crawled on and on, wriggling on hands and knees sometimes, then entering spaces where he could stand erect. Sometimes mysterious abysses opened in front of him; he could see nothing, but he felt around the brink of those deep wells, or tomo, and he dropped stones in and heard them splash into water far below. Shuddering, he crept on and on. Exhaustion overpowered him and he slept, then he went on again.

Three days after the eel-hunter had left his home, a party of searchers found him lying unconscious, almost dead, at the cliffside just below a narrow opening in the limestone rocks, a long way from the cave by which he had entered. They carried him home and when he recovered he told Poroaki and the others of his fearful adventure. Many a basket of eels he brought home to Poroaki in after days, but he avoided caves for the rest of his life. “Let sleeping tuna lie” might well have been his working motto.

* * *

And then Pohepohe, telling of the old bush days, described the birdspearing and snaring of the past, when pigeon and tui and kaka were taken in great quantities in these parts without any apparent diminution in their numbers. Like a true old diehard, he lamented the spread of pakeha settlement, with the resultant wholesale clearance of the forest. “When the bush goes,” he said, “the birds vanish too. The hinau, the miro, the tawa, the kahikatea, with its koroi berries, those are their foods. They cannot live on pakeha trees. Ka ngaro nga manu Maori (the Maori birds are doomed to disappear).”

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A greybeard of the kainga had stories to tell of the great Rauparaha’s days. He recited the cannibal conqueror’s farewell chant to Kawhia, when he marched forth southward more than a century ago, after burning his village behind him. It may have been such a morning as to-day, when the migrating tribe halted on Moeatoa Mountain and looked their last on the glistening harbour and stretched forth their hands and wept and sang their song of parting: “Tera te tai o Kawhia,” it began. “Yonder are Kawhia’s waters; alas, we are going away. We leave Te Motu Pa; we are going away. We leave our land; we shall grieve for it far away. We leave the flowing waters, the leaping tide, the fast-speeding tide. We are going away, like seabirds flying, seeking a home.”

* * *

There was a tale of the years before that tribe-flitting of Ngati-Toa, when Rauparaha and his warriors engaged in many a battle with invaders from Waikato.

A war-party of Waikato men was attacked and defeated by the Ngati-Toa near Te Maika, at the south head of Kawhia Harbour. A fugitive warrior took refuge in a rata tree that grew on the edge of a high precipice. Far below was a rocky gully. He thought to escape detection, but some keen-eyed fellow saw him through the branches. The tree was surrounded by his foes, and he was ordered to descend. He defied them, though his plight was hopeless, and menaced with his taiaha any who attempted to climb up after him.

As the fierce Ngati-Toa stood there, ready to receive the Waikato man on their spears should he attempt to dash through the cordon, they heard him begin a high chant. He was singing his dying song. He farewelled his tribe and friends, he defied his enemies, and he invoked the names of great ancestors, whom he was so soon to join in the Reinga.

Standing there in the outleaning rata tree, the doomed hero sang his waiata poroporoaki, the farewell to light and life. Silent as death, his enemies listened with admiration to the high song of a man who knew how to die.

His chant ended, the Waikato warrior stepped out firmly along the lowest bough that overhung the cliff. Then he leaped, and went flying through space, his taiaha still grasped firmly in his outstretched right hand, and vanished into the dark gulch below.