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Legends of the Maori

Tales of the Cave Country

Tales of the Cave Country.

page 106

The Legend of the Den of the Wild Dogs.

Once when we were walking cautiously by lantern-candlelight—it was before the days of brilliant illumination—through the silent halls of the Waitomo limestone caves, in the King Country—the question was put to me: “Did the Maori ever live in these caves?”

The answer was that while the Maori of old time often used shallow caves and overhanging rock shelters, he had no great liking for venturing deep into the heart of the earth. Probably no man had ever explored the Waitomo and Ruakuri caverns until the first pakeha fossicked around in there fifty years ago. There were many burial caves in that strange limestone land, just as there were in the lava caves around Auckland, but the ancient folk did not care to penetrate far from the good open air. It was natural that they should avoid those mysterious holes in the underworld, with their strange spectre-like stalactites and stalagmites, cold, dank, grave-like prisons, where one was in peril of tumbling down one of those awful black wells they call tomo.

But the smaller caves in the limestone and rhyolite country were frequently used as camping places and temporary homes, sometimes as ambush places in which to lie in wait for a passing incautious enemy. There is a curious little carving on a post in the tribal meeting house, “Tokanga-nui-a-Noho,” at Te Kuiti, with a figure representing the chief Maniapoto—ancestor of the famous Rewi Maniapoto—sitting in a cave, stalactites glistening over his head. The carvers intended this as a picture of the old chief in his favourite cave dwelling, the cavern called “Te Ana-uriuri” (The Gloomy Cave). It is the one solitary example, within my knowledge, of a troglodytic dwelling shown in Maori artcraft.

And Maniapoto’s descendant Rewi himself is said to have taken to the cave life there for a while in his dejection and despair after the siege and capture of Orakau Pa by the British troops in 1864. Rewi’s cave is four and a half miles from Hangatiki, on the old track to Te Kuiti.

Round about Lake Taupo there are many caves, large and small, in the cliffs of volcanic rock, more especially on the western shore. That old warrior, the late Hitiri te Paerata, of Orakau fame, narrated that he was born in a cave at Kawakawa. He said also that in those parts, in the great cliff called Karangahape, which rises nearly a thousand feet above the lake, page 107 there was a cave which was used as a place of refuge in former days by the local clans when hard beset by their foes. Near Te Papa, inland from the beautiful little bay where the Waihaha River flows into the lake, there is a cave in the rocky cliff called Te Ana-a-Toroa (Toroa’s Cave). And a venerable comrade in arms of Titiri, Hauraki Tonganui, told how he had lived for some years in a cave at Te Papa; “my house was that cave.” Hauraki probably did not mean that he lived all the time in the cave; it probably was resorted to as a camping place by way of a change from the whare Maori.

The recently-discovered cave on the Waikato River, near the Aratiatia Rapids, and the rock shelter on the eastern rim of the Kaingaroa Plains, above the Rangitaiki, are remarkable for their rock-carvings of canoes. They were probably first occupied by the ancient tribes Tini-o-te-Marangaranga and Ngati-Kahupungapunga.

Often caves in the sea-coast cliffs were occupied, especially in time of war. In the days of warfare between the Taranaki tribes and Waikato, when all the people at the base of Mount Egmont were in fear of the invaders and their muskets, the chief Rawiri te Motutere had a secure place of refuge for his wives and children. At Hauranga, on the southern side of the Timaru stream, which flows down from Egmont, there was a large cave in the face of the sea-cliff; its entrance was partly covered by the tide at high water. Within, the bottom of the cave sloped upwards and there was plenty of dry floor space. To this cave Rawiri took his two wives Māweu and Tāpaki (who were sisters), with their children and household goods, and they remained there in hiding until the land was clear of enemies. The floor of the cave was made comfortable with fern and flax mats, and there was a place where cooking was done, in a haangi, or earth oven, in the usual way. There was a puta, or hole in the roof of the cave from the top of the cliff above, and Rawiri (as his granddaughter Mere Ngamai told me) was accustomed to lower food down through this by a flax line when his wives were unable to venture out. The upper opening was well concealed by bushes. The entrance to this cave of refuge is now blocked with sand.

Returning to the limestone cave country of the Rohepotae, there is that beautiful stalactite cavern, or series of caverns, the Ruakuri, near Waitomo. Concerning its discovery there is a local legend, the tale of Tane-Tinorau and the wild dogs.

Many generations ago the people who lived in that part of the Hauturu district which is near the Waitomo Caves were the Ngati-Hau tribe. At that time an important chief of Kawhia named Tane-Tinorau page 108 came over the hills from the West Coast with a war party for the purpose of making war on Ngati-Hau. When the warriors arrived near Waitomo one of their party went to spear birds (aheré manu) and discovered this cave, which at that time was in possession of a number of wild Maori dogs, with their young. On seeing him approach they attacked him, whereupon he fled, and in order to save himself threw down two bundles of birds that he had speared, to draw off the attention of the dogs from himself. The ruse was successful and he regained his companions and related the story about the dogs and the cave.

Now, “dogs were dogs” in those days; they were valuable for their skins as well as for food, and the party decided to catch and kill them. Near the entrance to the cave was a narrow track which anyone going there must follow, as there was no other road. The party selected that spot for their operations, and there they made a number of roré, or spring traps. After making them and setting them, one of the party, acting as a decoy, approached the cave, whilst the others hid themselves. As soon as the dogs saw the man approaching they dashed out at him. He turned and fled, but took good care to go in the direction of the spring traps, over each of which he jumped as he ran. The dogs followed at his heels, but were caught in the traps, and were killed at once by the people in hiding. Then they went into the cave and secured the young dogs (kuao kuri). And that is how the cave came to be called “Te Rua-kuri,” which means “The Den of the Dogs.”

Tane-Tinorau had several dogskin mats (topuni) made from the skins of the slaughtered kuri. He attacked the Ngati-Hau and killed several of their chiefs and captured their hill fort. He took the largest of the dogskin mats and spread it on the ground in token of his having acquired the territory, and the spot where he spread it out is known to this day as “Te Horahanga-o-te-kahu-o-Tane-Tinorau” (the place where Tane-Tinorau spread out his garment”).

And near Ruakuri he lived and died. He was buried with others in a recess or ledge over the entrance to the Ruakuri Cave, and about twenty feet above it, slightly to one side. This is on the side of a high precipice, and the distance from the ledge to the top is some twenty or thirty feet more. The ledge was reached from the trees which grew on the face of the cliff in olden times, but which have now disappeared, and the spot can only be got at by means of ropes from the top. The locality of the recess and ledge is known by a quantity of kokowai (red ochre) that was besmeared there, and that is still visible. This story was related forty years ago by Tane-Tinorau, the chief then bearing that name, and himself a lineal descendant of the hero of the story.

page 109

The Man-eating Dog of Ngamoko Mountain.

In a very different part of the island, the rugged wooded country about Lake Waikare-moana, there is a cave-riddled mountain with a curious legend of a great wild dog which lived on human flesh. The story of this ferocious wolf-like animal and its cave retreat came from an old man of Ngati-Ruapani at Hurae Puketapu’s village, Waimako, near Waikare-moana.

The scene of the story is the precipitous wooded mountain Ngamoko, two miles from the lake. Caves are numerous in this rocky mountain, the summit of which is three thousand five hundred feet above sea level. On the south-eastern side of the mountain, said the venerable narrator, there is a cave in which lived a much-dreaded fierce dog which attacked and devoured human beings. It was called “Te Kuri-nui-a-Meko” (“Moko’s Great Dog”)—or, as another version has it, “Te Kuri-nui-a-Meko.” Bird-hunters from Waikare-moana and the surrounding country frequently ascended Ngamoko for the purpose of snaring and spearing the kaka parrot, the tui or koko (parson-bird) and the kuku or pigeon, which abounded in those dense forests. Some of these men failed to return, and at last it was found that they had been attacked and eaten by the monstrous Dog of Moko.

The Waikare-moana people resolved that the man-eating kuri must die, and they discussed various methods by which to slay it. It was decided that the best way to bring about its destruction would be to snare it in a cage made of saplings and pirita, or supplejack vines. A large cage (taiki) was constructed of these supplejack vines laced together, with an open door by which the kuri could enter. The cage was baited with flesh—possibly a slave was killed for the purpose as a special inducement to the wild dog to enter. With all caution and secrecy it was set up on one of the spots near the cave frequented by the beast and the warriors in ambush awaited developments.

They had not long to wait. The wild dog, scenting fresh meat, came blundering into the trap. A man darted out from cover and shut the door to and the big kuri dashed about helplessly in the cage, in which spaces had been left between the pirita sticks and which was elevated a little above the ground. The captors with their long spears lunged at the man-eater through the lattice-work sides of the trap, and thrust the furious howling dog through and through until he lay dead. And that was the end of the terrible Kuri-nui-a-Moko. Like some solitary old man-eating tiger of India he roved alone, he had no mate, and never more did a savage beast of the bush trouble the bird-snarers of Waikare-moana.

page 110

That cave high up on Ngamoko’s wooded shoulder has a chapter of later history. Some of the old people of Wairoa and Waikare-moana relate that it was a camping-place of the guerilla warrior Te Kooti when he was being hunted from place to place in this mountain land sixty years ago. For a month in the winter of 1871 he and some of his followers lived in the ana, and here Te Kooti had his wives tattooed. There was a tattooing expert in his party and this tohunga-ta-moko plied his engraving chisel on the young women’s chins and lips. Te Kooti and his men snared and speared birds for food, and cautiously scouted the country, and from the front of the cave they had a distant view one day of a war-party of Arawa Constabulary returning from Wairoa in search of them.

Maori design