Picturesque New Zealand/Chapter 9

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Down New Zealand's Rhine—Far-famed Wanganui—Amorous Taranaki

A BEAUTIFUL river is one of man's most cherished possessions. The German is proud of the castellated Rhine; the Frenchman's eyes sparkle at mention of the historic Seine; the Englishman grows poetical over the upper Thames; the American points to the palisaded Hudson; and the New Zealander says, "Behold the Wanganui!"

The Wanganui is Maoriland's finest scenic river. It has other rivers that in some respects rival and surpass it, but it has none that totally eclipses it as a beautiful whole. From the mountains to the sea the Wanganui offers a voyage that lures thousands of tourists every year. In gliding down its rapid, canyon-walled stream, no one derives more pleasure than the dusty traveler from Tokaanu. From swirling sand clouds of the Rangipo Desert to the clear, refreshing Wanganui overnight was to me a most luxurious change.

The river has its source near the base of Tongariro, and for the greater part of its length flows through a deep gorge with lichen-draped cliffs and higher, forested slopes. Between Taumarunui and the mouth, one hundred and fifty miles, the river falls five hundred feet; in its steepest part the fall is fifteen feet in twelve chains. There are many rapids, and in passing through these the voyager has exciting moments.

Taumarunui is not much to look at, but it is one of the greatest tourist gateways of New Zealand. It is at the head of navigation on the Wanganui, and is one of the principal stations on the Main Trunk Railway. In this busy hotel town, when you seek the tourist steamer office, it is only necessary to follow the crowd.

"Where shall I find the steamer office?" I asked my landlady on the morning of my trip down the river.

"Oh, it is easy to find," said she. "You'll see plenty of people going there."

So I did. There was a string of them ahead of me, and they looked like picnickers on the march.

At the foot of a stairway, beside a willow-lined bank, I boarded the launch Waireka. It was hard to decide whether this craft looked more like a torpedo boat or a canoe with decks. It had a steel hull more than sixty feet long and less than a sixth as wide, and its draught was—ten inches! Near it were smaller vessels, called canoes, equipped with gasoline engines; these also belonged to "Hatrick's fleet." When we were all aboard the pilot came aft.

"Please move forward," said he; "there is shallow water here."

Then, mounting to his wheel, he gave the starting signal. First we passed rocky bars and were warned off by netting; then came big boulders; next a roar of waters, and—splash! We were in the rapids, and showered with flying foam.

For a brief time we twisted and rolled in a narrow,


boisterous channel, our eyes on the rapidly shifting scene and the pilot, his eyes on banks and trees that were his aids in navigation. Then came stretches of steep but placid water, and many turns, each with a different vista. Soon the scenery became more interesting. Over shrub and tree rambled the white clematis, toitoi bowed to tree fern, and high up on pine trees climbed the tenacious kiekie and nestled the aerial astelia. Next came high stratified bluffs running back to forested steeps. Farther down were heavier forests, broken here and there by scrub and fern-grown clearings.

"It is n't safe here; please move over."

It was a member of the crew warning two passengers away from the port gunwale aft. Another rapid was just ahead. And there was something else just ahead, also. A slow bell clanged near a sharp turn, and a big dugout canoe waiting near the shore slid alongside the launch with a bump. Maori hands grasped our gunwale, and canoe and launch moved downstream together. Into brown hands a package of letters was thrust by one of our crew. The dugout was a mail boat, manned by a crew of two. "R.M.S." could not be applied to it, but to the Maori settlement across the river it was just as important as is a Royal Mail Steamer to the pakeha of large cities.

With the distance traveled the scenery continued to improve. The hills became higher and more thickly wooded, and water-courses, carrying with them the cool breath of moist and shaded banks, flowed into the Wanganui through narrow clefts. Near one of these streams stood, one of the most unique buildings in the world. It resembled a mushroom with a half-dozen stems. It was merely a small thatched cone resting on fern posts, and having as its centre support a live tree fern, which projected above the roof and shaded it.

At one point sandstone cliffs from two hundred to four hundred feet high rose almost vertically. Their bases were hollowed by the river, and in one place so fantastically as to resemble the stump of an immense tree.

Bump! Two and one half hours out of port, in a narrow, very rocky channel, the Waireka struck bottom. A deckhand hurried to starboard with a pole, and in a minute we were off again. Anchored to the right bank, a few hundred yards below this, was a little two-deck steamer. To it we were immediately transferred, and continued the voyage. But we had not gone far before we were bumped again.

"Too much weight on the starboard side," shouted the pilot.

Three or four passengers shifted to port, and the steamer was lifted clear.

"I am getting hungry," said somebody.

"You'll soon eat; we are near the houseboat," was the encouraging assurance.

So we were. The steamer whistled, and there, round a bend, was a long, narrow building that looked much like a river steamer minus smokestack and pilot house. It had two decks, the lower one being divided into staterooms and the upper reserved as a dining-room. Here we sat down to lunch, twenty-four miles from Taumarunui, and we were to eat dinner in Pipiriki, sixty miles below us.

Below the houseboat the scenery became more beautiful with every passing mile, until, miles from our day's destination, we were in the heart of Wanganui's grandeur. The hills were clothed with a denser, more luxurious growth of ornate bush and flowering tree. Most brilliant of all was the crimson rata, greatest of New Zealand's forest parasites. Thousands of tall tree ferns bent over lofty cliffs, and ran in straggling rows up steep slopes or spread into thick groves. At infrequent intervals a nikau palm thrust up its latticed fronds in shaded nooks. Everywhere the kiekie clambered and the long pointed leaves of the astelia rustled, weighting the trunks of tree and fern and clinging to perpendicular walls. With them, struggling for possession of bole and limb, were the wiry mangemange, the cable-like supplejack, and many other climbers and parasites. For miles the short mountain flax clung to the face of cliffs, and in wide bands sword ferns from three to four feet long hid the sandstone mile after mile. From the river's edge spread mossy carpets inlaid with fragile fern and tiny creeper.

Water in diversified form completed this composite picture of grace and ruggedness. The banks dripped with it, they shed it in oozing drops and trickling streams, and they were divided by it. All along the way were small waterfalls, and into the river flowed clear creeks deeply set in narrow channels that presented entrancing mural scenes and created in me a longing to explore.

But, after all, what was the journey through this rippling, rustling fairy gorge but one long, delightful exploration? Every minute there were a turn and a different view. "What next?" was my constant thought. Would it be another cliff formation; a narrow lateral canyon looking like a big crack; a massive hill; a great tree standing out in solitary grandeur above its fellows; a rocky cavity roofed with ferns; another cobblestone bar; or a rapid?

In this world business and pleasure are seldom far apart. Our steamer was primarily a pleasure boat, but it also carried freight, and making port and landing cargo proved to be a most interesting proceeding. The usual landing place was the river bank, and to make a landing it was only necessary to bury the steamer's "nose" in a sandy shelf, throw a rope round a tree, and, when passengers were going ashore, run out a plank. At other times the steamer merely swung close to the bank, and the freight, if unbreakable, was thrown ashore. Likewise cargo for the boat occasionally hurtled through the air, and once the pilot skirted the shore to get a letter thrust out on the end of a pole by a settler.

At a Maori settlement we stopped for our first cargo. Six bales of wool awaited the steamer, and they were surrounded by native men, women, and children, who seemed glad to see us. That wool was placed aboard by one of the most amazing looking stevedoring crews I had ever seen, — five Maori youths. Three wore soiled, white knee-trousers, between which and their stockings were several inches of bare leg. One lad wore only one stocking, and another matched blue overalls with a green headdress somewhat resembling a polar explorer's cap. It looked like a sack, with a hole in one side for the face. Four of the Maoris wore coats while working, though their task was hot and heavy.

Later in the afternoon, shortly after we had passed the Drop Scene, — high cliffs near Pipiriki, — we reached the end of the first stage of our voyage, Pipiriki. This haven looked more like a port than any other settlement we had seen that day. There was a wharf and two steamers were alongside. Maoris were there to welcome us, but there was no cab, moving stairway, or "angels' flight" to carry us in ease to the hotel high on the slope of a range. Instead we had to climb a long stairway, but at its top we received a pleasant surprise; we found a large modern hotel in a wilderness.

On the last stage of the Wanganui trip we started on a larger steamer at half-past five the following morning. Passengers were to be landed at Aramoho Junction, nearly sixty miles away, to connect with the New Plymouth-Wellington mail train. Again we passed lofty cliffs, forested hills, rapids, and beautiful bends. It soon became clear, however, that this part of the river was incomparable with the reaches between Pipiriki and the houseboat. Here were more clearings, more settlements, and more ports.

We were not long out from Pipiriki until we rammed the left bank. A score of Maoris, bright with many colors of dress, shawl, and handkerchief, awaited the onslaught. A plank was put out, and a dozen steerage passengers came aboard. As the steamer moved downstream, they shouted and waved their hands to their comrades ashore, and their farewells were responded to with similar demonstrations. This was the largest number of passengers we had yet received, and it betokened the presence of a village near the river. But from the landing no village was visible.

"What port is this?" I inquired of a fellow voyager.

"Jerusalem," he replied. "It is quite a settlement."

It was quite a name for a Maori kainga, too. To the Maoris it was known as Hiruharama, their name for the Holy City.

After a short run we rammed the left bank again, and took aboard three bales of wool.

"What place is this?" I asked again.

"London," I was told, to my still greater surprise.

Near this wilderness navigation became very exciting. The steamer entered one place too narrow for turning, and it became necessary to back it down a stretch of rapids with the aid of a wire cable. It was a difficult performance, but the pilot-captain, continually shouting

Ranana Village 1913 left side.jpgRanana Village 1913 right side - page 144.jpg


orders as he divided his attention between the wheel and the crew, accomplished it without mishap.

Below these rapids we drew up near a dugout beside a narrow beach. On the beach were several Maori children, one of whom was a boy who looked like a Chinese mandarin in miniature. He wore faded, loose pink trousers, a sky-blue shirt large enough for his father, and a sweater with black and red stripes. His shirt-sleeves dangled like those of a scarecrow and his trousers bellied with each passing breeze. But these things did not trouble him; and why should they? He had plenty of room and a variety of color. What more did he need?

At this landing the plank was put out for a big Maori woman wearing a black dress and a white motor-veil. In her hand she carried her "going-out" shoes. The broad shoes she wore were good enough for Corinth, but they were not fancy enough for Aramoho Junction or Wanganui. Yes, this was Corinth. And not far away were Damascus, Galatia, Laodicea, and Athens! Such were some of the names given Maori villages in the old missionary days.

The distance between life and death is often an inch, a hair's breadth, or a second, but seldom is it accurately measured. On the Wanganui it was definitely known. It was the width of a totem pole. This pole stands within a small picket fence on the lower Wanganui. To me it was in its isolation a strong reminder of the far-famed totem pole of Seattle's Pioneer Square. To the New Zealander versed in Taranaki's history it recalled the days when, from lofty heights, from sandspit and from canoe, Maoris challenged the European to deadly combat.

This pole was a demarkation point between war and peace. From it ran imaginary lines dividing native and European lands, and it was a point past which no white man was allowed to ascend the river. One man named Moffatt did so, and Maoris shot him. The pole was erected by Major Kemp (Kepa te Rangihiwinui), a Maori chief who fought with the whites against the fanatical Hauhaus. One of the battle-grounds of this sect and their Maori opponents was the poplar-shaded Moutoa Island, near the river village Tawhitinui. Here the brown allies of the pakeha defeated the Hauhaus with rifle and tomahawk, and thereby prevented an attack on Wanganui.

Wanganui is one of the most important towns in New Zealand; and likewise it is one of the best advertising mediums the country has ever had. In the days when it sometimes took steamers several weeks to get up and down the river, because they had too much draught, Wanganui was not of much relative consequence; now it is celebrated for a number of things. It established the first municipal theatre in New Zealand; it once had the champion brass band of Australasia; it has the only eight-oared aquatic event in the Dominion; and it is the alpha of one of the most obliging railroads man ever operated anywhere.

mount egmont from hawera

Of this railroad—a short private line—it is said that one day, after having waited ten minutes for some of its regular passengers, "it had no sooner started than a loud whistle was heard, and a man was observed, some considerable distance back, making fast time to the station. The train very obligingly backed to the platform and waited for him, finally getting away twenty minutes late."

North of Wanganui, in Taranaki, the land of butter and cheese and iron sands, is Mount Egmont, the most beautiful volcanic cone in New Zealand. Egmont, known to the Maoris as "Taranaki," is isolated on a plain far from other mountains. It rises 8260 feet above the sea, and its cone, the culmination of long, gracefully sweeping slopes, is forest-clad to the snow-line.

The isolation of a mountain so high as Egmont is one of the most remarkable characteristics of New Zealand mountains. The ancient Maoris, who gave voice and being to mountains and to many other inanimate objects, account for this detachment in a charming way. They say that this disjunction was due to Taranaki's affectionate regard for Pihanga, an extinct volcano south of Lake Taupo. In the days when love messages were carried by wind, mists, and clouds, Taranaki stood between Tongariro and Ruapehu, seventy-five miles east of his present location. In those times mountains were gods, and they sometimes had mountains for wives. Pihanga was the wife of Tongariro, which in legendary accounts generally included Ngauruhoe.

Taranaki made love to Pihanga, and for his amorous advances he paid dearly. Tongariro and Ngauruhoe assaulted him with lava and fire. Against these Taranaki battled until he could withstand them no more; then, jerking himself from his foundation with a noise like a rending world, he fled to the western sea. As he went he plowed the deep furrow through which the Wanganui flows, and he did not stop to rest until he planted himself where he stands to-day.

On this mountain, which is ascended by hundreds of persons every year, there is no smoking vent, for Taranaki's heart is now cold. The volcanic soil that it shed on its lower slopes and for miles over the connecting plains is green with leaf and blade, but above its scrub and moss is only a waste of loose scoria and lava.