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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 64

Chapter IV. — Round the Lakes, by W. P. Snow

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Chapter IV.

Round the Lakes, by W. P. Snow.

ASojourn of seven not inactive months at Tarawera served to acquaint us most familiarly with its hills and dales, bush and waters, and, on the 7th of March, after convening a most congenial party, numbering a pleasant proportion of both sexes, we decided upon a change of scene, and set off on a camping trip through the neighbouring lakes of Rotorua, Rotoiti, Rotoehu, and Rotoma. Our boats, tents, and multifarious accoutrements calculated to enhance camp comfort, were transported by cart to Rotorua, and our tents were first pitched in a copse of ti-tree, upon the shore of a deep bay whose waters teem with a cloud of sulphur. Surrounding the ti-tree was an extensive hollow crust of dry, barren mineral deposit, through which burst columns of steam and noisy spouts of hot water, to remind one that to wander abroad at night was far from the proper thing to do and might end disastrously. From the impregnated yellow waters of the bay, from the bubbling spring, the shooting geyser, and from every pore of the earth issued copious sulphurous odours, that one of our Maoris, in ventilating his English, elegantly described as "too stink." As though in league with the orchestra of noisy cauldrons and their odorous exhalations, the heavens, first announcing their anger in a rumble of thunder, precipitated a deluge of rain that would have banished sleep from the pillow of the camping novice; but with good canvas overhead to keep us dry, and a subterranean furnace beneath from which oozed vaporous, but not sweet-scented, heat to warm our couch of ferns, we defied the elements, and in our sound sleep, no doubt, added to the noisy night a few basso tremolos from our nasal pipes. In the morning page 24 our goods and chattels were packed quickly into the boats to secure an early start and avoid the treacherous winds of midday and afternoon.

A lazy row of eight or nine miles, during which time we enjoyed the mild scenery of the lake, brought us to its north extremity and outlet. Our first short visit, by the way, was at a little village on the right shore, where a comely Maori wife presented us with a fine kit of potatoes, and two older women, after the usual effusion of whines,* kindly invited us to assist in disposing of their hot breakfast of vegetables, which their fingers were causing to travel towards their mouths at a rapid pace. The former we accepted, but were constrained to refuse the latter, not upon general principles but from the fact that we were already accompanied by a breakfast, such as only campers know.

The island of Mokoia is especially famous, historically, as the field where Hongi, the notorious Bay of Islands chief, made, about sixty years ago, one of his sanguinary onslaughts. Hongi having secured a passage in a sailing vessel to England, returned to his tribe with the first fire-arms possessed by native New Zealanders. With this terrible advantage over his foes, his savage spirit of bloodshed and revenge was naturally roused; and he inaugurated a series of raids, at which times he was accompanied by as many as 2,000 men. The scenes of carnage that blotted the paths of these raids can be imagined, when we know the opposing tribes rushed impetuously, armed with naught but their spears and meres, as of old, to fairly meet in the open field this old enemy of the north. In this way whole tribes were slaughtered before the deadly fire of the unknown instruments of destruction, and the hangis of the blood-thirsty tribe groaned under the weight of the human flesh that furnished ample rations for the victorious savages.

Our second camp was pitched at the outlet of the lake, but a few rods from the beach where Hongi and his cannibal followers rested the night preceding their attack upon Mokoia How strangely different were the people, who, with cheerful faces and cherry salutations, greeted and welcomed us. Instead of daubing page 25 themselves with the hideous war pigments, performing the savage war dance, and smacking their lips over this prospect of devouring our flesh, and converting our bones into fish-hooks and whistles, as was the custom of old, they came to us with generous kits full of potatoes and crayfish, which they donated as assurances of their friendship and aroha (love). The people who greeted us were clad in European garments, read and wrote their own tongue, and possessed somewhat—but by no means a profound—conception of the Christian religion. Every day during the week we occupied this camp we were visited by groups of natives from the different neighbouring kaingas, who almost invariably brought with them substantial tokens of their goodwill. At these times we engaged in many friendly hand-shakings and social chats, and felt half inclined at times to follow the example of our native guides and indulge in an occasional nose-rubbing.

Continuing our travels, we were carried rapidly to the mouth of the Ohau River, a mile distant, by its strong current, where we were cordially welcomed by the natives of the village of Mourea. Thirty of these people, after their usual preliminary "committee" of enquiry, enrolled their names upon our temperance list.

Rotoiti, corresponding in size and irregularity of outline with Tarawera, and vieing with it in beauty, formed the next field of exploration for our little party. Its environment of rolling hills and precipitous crags and cliffs are alternately clad with ferns and bush, and are picturesquely dotted with Maori villages and isolated dares, with their rude plantations of potatoes, corn, and kumeras. Through the deep gullies and round the many projecting points and promontories of the shores whistle boisterous winds, that rise suddenly, at the most unexpected times, agitate and toss the waters of the lake into choppy, white-capped waves, that no medium-sized boat dare face.

Securing the protection of the lee shore to escape the danger of a spill, as the waves in the centre of the lake were pitching to a threatening height, our two boats, after a row of about five miles glided into the quiet little cove of Manupirua. Here we spent a night of blissful quietude, thoroughly enjoyed after three days of page 26 boisterous winds. But the fame of the sulphur bath, supplied by a brooklet of steaming water that gushes from the base of an over-shadowing hill, is what attracted us to the spot. We found ourselves sole occupants of the cove, and a little abandoned whare, standing in a cosy nook, just above the spring, was nicely renovated, and a thick bed of ferns spread over the entire floor for the ladies, and our tents were pitched conveniently near. All the elements of the night combined to make it one of delightful quiescence. As we lounged in the bath, covered to the neck in its warm sedative waters, with naught above us but the cloudless canopy of heaven, with the placid waters of the bay stretching out before us, with the murmurs of the distant waves of the open lake wafted to our ears as soothing lullabies, with the full round face of old Luna looking down upon us with one of her most peaceful smiles, we felt there had been few moments in our lives of more luxurious unconcern. Tattooing our bodies with daubs of the soft yellow mud of the spring, spattering and plunging about in its waters to our hearts' content, singing, screeching, and joking with the enthusiasm and simplicity of a lot of primary school children, the night is ever to be remembered as one of thorough relaxation and enjoyment. In the morning, another hot bath; a resuscitating plunge and swim in the cold lake; a hearty breakfast, followed by a row of six or seven miles that brought us to Tapuwaeharuru (Sounding Footsteps) and the end of Rotoiti.

We had now left every trace of European habitation far in our rear; every inch of the soil within a circuit of many miles being inhabited by natives alone. Swarms of these tawny people following along the beach to the spot selected for our tents, gathered about us in inquisitive, but orderly groups, comically broadening their visages at the sights before them. Fortunately for us, one of our men was blessed with Rotoiti cousins, and the potatoes, corn, and cray-fish flowed liberally into our larder. Here we spent a pleasant week, scudding about the lake to the different native villages, and watching their citizens at their different employments.

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In the bush we found two parties of men engaged in hewing into shape two fine canoes, the only style of craft as yet possessed by this isolated tribe.

To the rear of our camp was an almost perpendicular wooded range, the frowning summit of which is chosen as the repository of the departed chieftains. From the grim fastnesses of the range, almost black with the density of its vegetation, came nightly the repeated note of the hungry owls, calling out "more pork, more pork." If the silly blinkers had said "more beef, more beef," they would have had our heartiest sympathies, as, in this sequestered corner of the land, we had already begun to look upon pork as a necessary evil. At the expiration of three or four days of our visit at Tapuwaeharuru, our appetites had so exceeded our forethought, it fell to my lot, with three native boatmen, to attempt a return to Ohinemutu for provisions. But although the men were expert oarsmen, a gale of wind, in which we shipped a number of miniature seas, obliged us to seek refuge for the night at a Maori whare. We chanced to be personally acquainted with the occupants of this primitive dwelling as, being of a nomadic nature, they spent portions of the year at Wairoa. Our welcome, 'midst a babel of barks from a legion of hungry dogs, was both hearty and noisy. The natives after, in the kindness of their hearts, extending to us their hospitality, in the shape of their invariable entertainment, raised the question—where shall the pakeha sleep? Unfortunately there was but one alternative—inside the small, sooty room of the whare with fourteen bed-fellows, numbering men, women, and children; or outside, with the dogs and dew. As my supply of clothing was light, I reluctantly decided upon the former, and a section of the ground about two feet in width was allotted to me, and arranged as comfortably as their circumstances would allow. After heating the room up to a furnace-pitch, the smoking embers were thrown outside, the sliding door shut, a song of welcome chanted in honour of our presence, and we each took up our separate claims and retired to rest. Lying upon my back, my elbows touched the sides of two swarthy Maoris, whose tawny bodies were bared page 28 to the waist, and by the faint glimmer of the moon through the insignificant window I saw that many more of my bed-fellows were alike modestly attired. The suffocating heat of the whare rendered sleep impossible and decided me to gather up my personal effects and bolt for the open air; there, rolled in my blanket, under the shelter of the projecting gable, I suffered till morning. During my waking moments in this moon-lit night, my ample boots were wont to come in contact with three bunches of bones, which possessed the howl and fleas, but few of the outward appearances, of canines. These animated frames possessed the determination to share with me my blanket, and as they still retained the courage to scratch, my family was becoming ridicuously numerous. Thus at the dawn of day, when the first bright rays of the sun stole silently above the summits of the distant hills, burnishing the water of the lake with a dazzling sheet of gold that caused my weak eyes to wink and blink and my scattered thoughts to concentrate, I came to the undoubted conclusion that I was a wiser and richer man: wiser in knowledge of out-door life, and richer in entomological lore, as a subsequent war of extermination through my wardrobe proved. In the morning the adieux of our hospitable host were substantially accompanied by a kit each of potatoes and cray-fish.

From Tapuwaeharuru we proceeded through an exquisite bush and over a narrow level path, one mile and a-half, to the next in the chain of lakes, Rotoehu. This sheet of water is much smaller than Rotoiti, but similar in scenery. Only one small Maori kianga graces its shores, containing a handful of natives, exemplifying as do the shores of all the other lakes, the sad and rapid decadence of this interesting race. Within the remembrance of men still living, the banks of Rotoiti swarmed with hundreds of men, women, and children; while now, in some instances, but a single family, or a collection of broken-down whares, remain to reiterate the everywhere noticeable fact of native deterioration.

Our boats were conveyed to Rotoehu, each upon the broad shoulders of seven natives, who, in picking them up, carrying, and putting them down, accompanied each motion with wild chants, page 29 that reminded us they were but a half-century removed from savagery, and even cannibalism. The "Anstis" and the "Little Sell" had the honour of being the pioneers of their race—the first boats to float upon the waters of Rotoehu—canoes having been their only predecessors. We sculled across the south end of the lake and through a lagoon, from which we frightened into flight hundreds of ducks, to the mouth of a warm-water creek, which we ascended about a-quarter of a mile, to the source of one of its branches. Here we found a hot-water spring issuing from the bowels of the earth, bubbling with great force to the surface through an opening in the sand three or four feet in diameter. The hot water spreads out and forms a pool thirty or forty feet in circumference, painting its bed and banks with a red, and evidently ferruginous deposit. Into one side of this pool gushes a brook of cold water; and into the bath of delightful temperature thus made, we plunged without further orders. By a single turn we could roll from water of almost scalding heat to the enlivening current of cold; and while lying with our bodies in the latter and our feet in the former, to draw down into those ample extremities all of the quarrelsome blood of our systems, we could with a blissful feeling of inertia forgive our worst enemies their misdemeanors, and feel at peace with the world generally. The environments of the springs are not prepossessing. On one side stand two old deserted whares, suggestive of apparitions and fleas; and opposite, on a rise of ground fifteen or twenty yards from the spring, stands a hideous wooden image with tattooed face, and body wrapped in a ghostly white shirt; marking the spot where, six months previous to our visit, a man met with a strange and sudden death. It appears he had been engaged in hunting wild pigs, and one of these animals having gotten by some means into a steaming hole on the bank of the creek, the native followed him, and the first inhalations of the powerful gases wrought his immediate death. A friend who attempted to rescue him, escaped, but by a hair's breadth, from the same fate, as he lost consciousness, and his body, which turned black, was subjected to vigorous treatment to resuscitate him.

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Owing to this sad occurrence the legion of ducks that quack defiantly at you in the neighbouring lagoon are declared tapu. To kill one of these birds when under this sacred protection would be to court a disturbance with the natives, that would more than likely terminate unfortunately for the poacher. This restriction will remain till the bones of the unfortunate man have been exhumed and conveyed to their final resting-place, which ceremony will be celebrated by a grand duck slaughter and season of feasting.

From the spring our boats were portaged again on the shoulders of the natives, three-quarters of a mile to Rotoma, and again were honoured by being the first to be launched upon this, one of the smallest, but the gem, of all the lakes. The banks of Rotoma are exceedingly sinuous, and the encompassing hills are abundantly wooded. The dark blue waters of the lake, with their streaks of vivid green marking the shoals, and the sombre verdure of the forests are pleasantly relieved by long stretches of white sand beach, and by bare perpendicular bluffs, formed by landslides Selecting a fine little beach for a landing under the lee of a forest hill, and pitching our tents with doors open to a lovely view of the lake, we remained to enjoy three weeks of that delightful autumn weather of April that corresponds to our own days of October. We were the only human inhabitants of the lake, and to all intents and purposes were monarchs of all we surveyed. The expanse of lake with its clear depths and shoals, and the vast wilderness of primeval forest, unknown to the sacrilegious axe, were ours to explore and enjoy. The pigeons and parrots, and other winged game of the bush, which were scarce, and the numerous droves of wild pigs, were also ours to get.

Returning to the tents at night from our daily excursions, we habitually centered about our rousing camp fire to recapitulate the experiences of the day. By the glow of these luminous camp fires, our Maoris occasionally entertained us with native songs and mimic fights, or while severing the palatable flesh from the bones of a wild pig, amused us with their grim superstitious narratives. Long before our arrival at Rotoma, we heard of the fame of its sunken island, and were repeatedly told by the natives if we should page 31 approach the vicinity of this dread spot, we would rouse the ire of a marine monster called taniwha, and without doubt, be speedily dispatched by this demon. The native tradition would have us believe that many years ago a populus island existed in the middle of the lake, exactly how long ago is not known to a people without literature, and who keep no record of the years of their own individual existence. One day a Maori tohunga (priest), from a tribe living by the sea, appeared on the shore within hailing distance of the Rotoma Island, and called for a canoe to be sent to ferry him across. For some reason his request was unheeded; the wrath of the tohunga was kindled, and calling together his evil spirits, which, in this case were taniwhas, he bade them do their worst, immediately the island, with its inhabitants, subsided into the depths; and out of a population of 300, but three escaped to tell the story. Since this mystic annihilation, a monster taniwha, which, in turn, assumes the form of a whale, an enormous rock, an immense lizard, and a towering tree, is believed to keep a constant and most zealous vigilance over the island. One old man living at Tapu waehaururu las the face, and a sober one at that, to assert that while sitting some years ago on the shore of the lake, he witnessed distinctly I canoe, with four men from a distant tribe, sink into the water when attempting to cross the forbidden spot, and men or canoe have never again risen to the surface.

Rich, amusing, but still, when we consider it soberly, painful draughts of superstition are inbibed by the Maoris from their very mothers' breasts. What wonder, then—with these startling tales related nightly around the camp fire, and losing nothing in fright-fulness by frequent repetitions—we could not at first, upon any consideration, persuade a single one of our men to accompany us as a guide to the sunken rocks, which, in this land of ancient volcanoes, more than likely existed at one time above the water.

P.S.—After an intimate acquaintance of the Maoris, we have found them to be a whole-soled, hospitable people. Our prayer is they may be ever perpetuated and the day soon arrive when their numbers, instead of diminishing, shall rapidly increase, under the influence of true civilisation and religion.

* Maori manner of expressing pleasure.