The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 12 (March 1, 1939.)
Pictures from Lakeland — … Taupo …
Many, many years ago … just how long no white man can measure … a little group of Maori adventurers portaged their canoes around the great Huka Falls on the Waikato River, and saw break upon their awed vision the great glittering sweep of the tideless inland sea. Where the river breaks from the Lake they encamped, and called the spot Taupo, which means “Resting Place Upon The First Night.”
If you want to recapture all the mystery and fascination of that time, you must go to Taupo in the winter, when the sightseers and the trout fishermen have gone their ways, and the little township is almost empty, clean-swept by the winds and frosts and sunshine of that upland level.
Then it is a fit setting for fairy tales, and the portal by which you enter is the Rotorua road, running smoothly mile after mile through the bare larch plantations, with the frost lying white on the ground, and the far hills fantastically blue in the sunshine. Larch gives way to pine, and you travel through Hans Andersen woods, with a thousand dark spear points against a glittering sky. Now looms up Rainbow Mountain, that blunt stark peak, slashed with rose and saffron and gold and amethyst, and all the colours of an artist's palette splashed together. Little lakes, jade and steel-coloured, lie cupped at its base in belts of tall sere raupo. The steam-jets of Waiotapu Valley plume like graceful feathers into the motionless air.
Then upon your awed sight breaks a miracle. Across the dark-blue sea of the Kaiangaroa Plains rises the Kaimanawas, a steel-blade, snow-edged, with the three great mountains, Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, and Tongariro, snow-clad to the base, floating like some shining Celestial City between earth and sky.
At every second turn of the road, the mountains are there, dominating all that blue upland landscape, gathering all the sunshine to them in a dazzling miracle of glory. When you plunge into the dark pine-scented valley of Wairakei, you lose the vision, to find it again, floating in white-rose reflections upon the green breast of the river as you pass over the bridge to Taupo.
Sunset draws a path of golden glory over the lake waters, and dusk comes on slowly, with a lingering twilight. There is a saffron flare of frost behind Mount Tauhara, which means, in the pakeha tongue, Lonely Sentinel. The lake holds light and colour long after it has faded from the sky, but darkness comes at last. The air is too dry and too still to be cold, but the pumice roads crunch crisply underfoot. The stars are so amazingly clear and bright that they make little flames of reflection, like liquid jewels, in the calm black waters of the lake.
The magic moment of all the day is dawn. The ground is white as snow; the tips of the dark broom scrub are brushed with frost. Beyond lies the lake, in a mingling of rose and steelgrey. The sky is rose-coloured, shading upwards to blue; the mountains rise against it in pure whiteness pencilled with ice-blue shadows.
Follow the path from the outlet of the Waikato, and it takes you through the old Constabulary orchard. There can be no quieter, more magical stretch of water in all the world than the jade-green sweep of the Waikato as it passes smoothly between the green banks and low white cliffs of Taupo. There are ancient cherry trees in the orchard, Murillos, descended from trees brought by the Spanish missionaries; there are apple trunks, gnarled and mossy, and hoary rose-bushes that must have supplied many a gay young trooper with blossoms for his buttonhole.
The old mess-room still stands, grey and sagging with age, its shingle roof gaping, an incredibly ancient grape vine sprawling in one window. Its walls are papered with copies of the “London Illustrated News” dating back for seventy years. It is nothing more than a crumbling shell now, but once it echoed to the martial ring of spurred heels, and the traditional toast … “Gentlemen … the Queen!” St. John dined here, and Whitmore, and Cameron, and perhaps Von Tempsky himself. Taupo … after the abandoning of Opepe … was the last frontier post of the lake country, fifty miles overland from Fort Galatea, in the Urewera.
The tale of the surprise of Opepe camp … so long wrongfully called the Opepe Massacre … is well known. It is an unhappy story. One could scarcely believe that a detachment of seasoned troops such as the Bay of Plenty Cavalry would lie down to sleep in an unguarded bush camp on the very edge of Te Kooti's own country, but that is what happened. It is believed that their Maori guide was treacherous and kept in touch with Te Kooti's men by means of smoke signals. But, at any rate, on the evening of the 7th May, 1869, a band of Hauhaus under Te Rangi-Tahu encircled the little camp on the lonely Kaiangaroa Plains. Out of fourteen troopers only five escaped, and all the horses, arms, and accoutrements fell as spoil of war to the jubilant Hauhaus.
Lake Taupo is almost two hundred and fifty square miles in extent; it lies like a tideless sea more than twelve hundred feet above sea-level, lapped around by shelving beaches and wooded points, by a rim of great towering cliffs that cast their shadow a thousand feet above the water. Clear, swift trout-streams pour into it; the famous Tongariro, foaming, snowfed, from the glacier fields of Ruapehu; that fisherman's paradise, the little Waitahanui, clear as glass, with the great Oregon Rainbows flicking their tails in the sunlit reaches; Hine-maiaia, at Hatepe, winding through the ribbed sand floor and kowhai thickets of its sheer-walled canyon; Waihaha and Waihoro, green-white and foaming, splitting the tremendous cliffs of Western Bay. The outlet of the lake waters is the majestic Waikato.
The road around the lake from Taupo to Tokaanu follows a fascinating course. It takes you by pale placid beaches, by rose and ochre painted cliffs, and over cold tussock uplands where the white and pink and crimson snow-berries grow. From the heights of Hatepe Hill you look upon an amazing panorama of glittering water and sun-hazed distances. Soon the road runs by the lake edge again, where the incredibly transparent waters lap the beaches of the famous fishing-camps, Motutere and Jellicoe Point, and Tauranga-Taupo. It is hard to believe that there can be a lovelier spot in all the world than these pale still bays, in the springtime, when the kowhai thickets are in blossom, and the moth-golden reflection of their glory stains the silver lake water.
Standing out from the eastern shore of Lake Taupo is a small steep island known as Motutaipo, or Devil's Island. There is a local and rather weird superstition connected with this spot. The Maoris of the lake villages believe that if you look across to the island at night, and are unlucky enough to see a light, it is your own death omen.
Beyond Tauranga-Taupo you pass Echo Cliff standing white and stark above the road. It gives back your call amazingly repeated, and the hoof-beats of a single horse are multiplied into the galloping of a phantom legion whose thunder lifts the hair on your scalp. Its name was given by a party of Maoris who had an odd experience when returning from a hunting expedition. They pulled up their horses to wait page 40 for two of their party who had loitered, and, when the galloping of a great party of wild riders struck upon their ears, they clapped heels to their horses' flanks, and went away as fast as the weary beasts could lay leg to the ground. It was not until after they reached home that the bold huntsmen found their phantom war-party to be composed of their two rather disgruntled comrades.
At Turanga the road branches, one fork going away toward the uplands of National Park, the other turning inwards by the green-white rushing Tongariro River toward Tokaanu. Between the green gentle cone of Pihanga and the silver spreading fan of the Lake Delta, Tokaanu broods, an old, quiet, sun-washed township.
The Maori calls the upper reaches of the Tongariro, before its junction with the Poutu from Roto-A-Ira, Waikato. He believes that the snowfed waters, entering at Tokaanu, trace an irresistible course through the lake to re-issue at Taupo. Be that as it may, the two rivers bear a remarkable resemblance in the clear green rushing waters.
From Taupo, the Waikato passes slowly into the Wairakei Valley, the banks narrowing, rock shoals and islands cutting foam-white swathes in the green water. Now the grey rock walls draw together; the confined waters thunder toward the canyon which is filled with a mighty roar and rising mist of spray. Here is the famous drop of the Huka Falls. If you cross the swing bridge, and walk a hundred yards along the bank, you may see it at close quarters. You may see it, but it will take you a long time to realise it. The blinding whiteness of the water, the thunder, and the spray bewilder with their beauty and grandeur. It was in this boiling maelstrom that Tamatea, captain of the Taki-timu canoe, and all his brave men lost their lives after their epic journey up the Wanganui, and over the terrible portage by Roto-A-Ira.
Wairakei means Beautiful Water. It is one of the most wonderful thermal reserves in the world. High on the hills between Taupo and Wairakei is the famous steam vent of Karapiti, sometimes called the Safety Valve of New Zealand. The vent bears the name of a Maori woman who is remembered only for her spectacular end. Her husband was unfaithful to her, and left home with another woman. Whereupon Karapiti, consumed by rage and jealousy, climbed up the hills, and dramatically hurled herself into the great steam hole.
Taupo may seem to your eyes a land of mountains, but the Maori will tell you that there was once a great group of peaks round about the township itself. One night they had a family quarrel. It was a truly terrible quarrel, and, since they could move only during the night, each fled on his or her separate way. When dawn came they were rooted where they stood. Maungapohatu found herself in the Urewera country, but her husband, Kakaramea, who was always a greedy fellow, had stopped by the wayside to cook himself a meal, and his fire would not burn, and daylight came upon him unawares. (You may still see him by the road near Waiotapu; he is Mount Striped-Earth, which the pakeha calls Rainbow Mountain.) Putauaki, now Edgecumbe, was shrewd enough to follow the river course, and he got as far as the Rangitaiki Plains, but White Island beat them all, for he swam away out into the sea, and took up a position of vantage there. Only Tauhara stayed where he was, because he was too lazy or too dignified to trouble himself, and there he is to-day, the Lonely Sentinel, the last of the great family.
Guardian of the mountain country, and greatest figure of all the annals of Taupo was Te Heu Heu, chief of the tribes of the lake. (A descendant of his was Te Heu Heu Tukino, M.L.C., who presented the greatest gift ever given to New Zealand … the three mountain cones of Tongariro National Park.) We are told that Te Heu Heu was a very big man, and curiously fair-complexioned. He lived in deliberate seclusion from the encroaching tide of civilisation, in feudal state in his lakeside village. Alone of the upland chiefs he refused to cede authority to the Crown.
There is a proverb repeated in the lake districts to this very day … “Taupo, the Sea; Tongariro, the Mountain; Te Heu Heu, the Man!”
Te Heu Heu believed himself to be appointed of the gods the guardian of the three great mountains. They were all tapu, but Ngauruhoe was the most tapu of them all. When a man of Te Heu Heu's tribe travelled by a certain road which gave a very fine view of the mountains, he was expected to veil his eyes with a corner of his cloak lest he should be stricken blind by the holiness of that awful summit.
Te Heu Heu's death was fitting. For long the steep hillsides behind his village had been impregnated by thermal waters. Suddenly they were loosened, and a great earth avalanche rolled down upon the doomed village. While the people fled, Te Heu Heu stood alone, arrogant and unafraid. The mountain-side and the cold lake waters engulfed the village that had been the last stronghold of olden law, and there, in a grave of the gods, the great chief found his resting-place.
May he sleep well, for with him are gone the old, brave days of Taupo, the giants, and warriors, the walking mountains, and talking rivers, and voices of the gods!