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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 15, Issue 3 (June 1, 1940)

The Storied Shores of … — Plimmerton

page 47

The Storied Shores of …

The Wellington traveller who keeps to the new coast road to the north merely skirts the edge of the township of Plimmerton.

Plimmerton is a beautiful and a historical spot, lying side by side with its twin beach, Karehana Bay, between the blue sea and the brown rolling hills of the Strait coast. A white sea wall winds around the rocky shore; the houses are scattered along the road, and up into the dark bush of the valleys, and perched on the tussocky hill shoulders where the toe-toe waves its windy plumes.

Out to sea rises the silhouette of Mana Island, crouched like a grim fortress upon the rock-bound beaches that break the thundering might of the Tasman swell. The seas that splash along the Plimmerton strand are never furious, never bitter with the stinging hail of salt sea-spray. Flowers bloom in the gardens right down to the sand's edge, winter geraniums and roses, all manner of warmth-loving blooms that wither before the cold breath of Wellington's winter.

The railway runs through Plimmerton; Karehana Bay lies beyond, over the low hill shoulder. Its beaches are wilder; the pale-yellow sand gives way to tumbled rock stretches, with seaanemones, and deep green sea-pools, and great boulder crags that brood against the sky. Sheep browse on the rough sea-grass, and cicadas sing in the tussock.

Plimmerton is an old settlement. It was named after John Plimmer, whom Seddon called the Father of Wellington. Plimmer came from England to Wellington in the ship Gertrude, in 1841; he was a great patriot and pioneer. One of his most picturesque exploits was the purchase of the damaged American barque Inconstant, which he had towed ashore and beached just about where the Bank of New Zealand now stands at the corner of Customhouse Quay and Willis Street. Then he started the first reclamation scheme in New Zealand; he had soil carted, and built up the land around the derelict vessel, and turned her into a trading store. Known as “Noah's Ark,” the store flourished for twenty years. Plimmer was the founder of the Wellington-Manawatu Railway Company, and one of the chief supporters of the Main Trunk scheme. It is fitting that a station on this line should to-day bear his name.

It is just over a hundred years since the New Zealand Company's ship Tory, anchored off Petone Beach. The complicated proceedings of the purchase of land completed, other ships followed rapidly, the Aurora, the Oriental, the Duke of Roxburgh, and the Bengal Merchant. The sound of axe-blows and the clatter of adzes was heard up and down the beach, and the city of Wellington was born.

There was one man who heard the sounds of civilisation as a knell, the knell of the passing of the old Maori days. Te Rauparaha, the great warlord, secure in his stronghold on Kapiti Island, swore that no white man should ever buy land in his domains. With the war-trumpet he proclaimed it. Conflict between his men and the company was inevitable. In the first clash more than twenty Europeans were killed. The company had neither sufficient men nor sufficient arms to take redress. An ominous change had come over the demeanour of the Wellington Maoris. In the undergrowth there was the first flickering of the fire of war that was soon to set the land ablaze.

Looking over Karehana Bay.

Looking over Karehana Bay.

Governor Grey took action. He built a Redoubt at Paremata, near Plimmerton, and garrisoned it to keep a watch on Te Rauparaha's comings and goings. He marched a detachment of six hundred men of the 58th and 99th Regiments into Wellington. The Maoris rose to the challenge with a series of brutal and marauding sorties. The white settlers were called in from the outlying farms to the military garrisons, and Wellington made ready for siege.

Te Rauparaha and his nephew, Rangihaeata, chieftain of Mana Island, marched boldly through their territories, calling out the fighting men of the coast villages, and, on the night of 16th May they attacked the military garrison at Boulcott's farm, on the Hutt River.

The story is well-known. The British command was taking the situation very easily, and, if it had not been for the boy-bugler Allen, the soldiers would have been massacred as they slept. Struck down by three tomahawk blows, the dying boy managed to raise the bugle to his lips and sound a feeble alarm.

Once roused, the troops fought fiercely, and drove the Maoris back over the hills. The Maoris, dispersing, gathered again at the Taupo Pa, at Plimmerton, where Te Rauparaha had made his mainland headquarters. There, under cover of a guise of outward friendliness, the chief waited, like a wily old spider in a web, spinning his final plans for assault on Wellington.

page 48
Karehana Bay from the sea.

Karehana Bay from the sea.

But there were forces against him. Wiremu Kingi withdrew his followers. That good and peaceful chief, Te Puni, was on the side of the white man. And in Governor Grey, Te Rauparaha had to deal with an adversary as shrewd and implacable as himself. Governor Grey understood the native mind; he knew the full value of a leader's prestige … his mana … and that was exactly where he prepared to strike.

To carry out his plan, he chose a young adventurer, a mere boy named McKillop. McKillop began his naval career as a midshipman in charge of a patrol rowboat armed with a toy brass cannon, in the Paremata Estuary; he ended it as Lord High Admiral of the Turkish Fleet at Constantinople.

He had already proved his mettle by discovering Rangihaeata's secret fortress at Pahautanui. Grey sent troops there, and drove Rangihaeata's men back into the hills.

Then Grey turned his attention to Te Rauparaha. Under cover of night, the little gun-boat, the Driver, landed McKillop and a small party on the Plimmerton beach. Warily they crept up to Te Rauparaha's whare, fell upon him as he slept, gagged and trussed him, and carried him down struggling to the ship's boat. Thus ended the career of New Zealand's greatest war-lord … kidnapped by a midshipman.

It was the end of the Wellington Wars. Te Rauparaha's followers scattered; the troops were withdrawn from the blockhouses, and the settlers returned to their farms.

In Te Rauparaha's last days he was released from restraint, and he spent his time, a bent old man, in a tarnished naval uniform, building a Christian church at Otaki.

His tomb is at Otaki, but the Maoris say that his body is buried on Kapiti Island, where his shade still walks. Perhaps it walks at Plimmerton, too … pathetic old shade in a battered naval uniform … treading again the path to Taupo Pa, last scene of that bitter and humiliating defeat.

The site of the old Taupo Pa is opposite the Plimmerton Railway Station. There is a sheep-run there now, and you may read the name on the shearing-sheds—“Taupo”—as the train flashes swiftly by. And out to sea broods Mana Island, grim and grey, implacable as the cold-hearted Rangihaeata who once ruled its spray-lashed hills.

It is only in stormy weather that these wild days of the past return.

When the sun shines, the bay is blue and vivid, sparkling with foam under a yachtsman's wind and white sails like butterflies, or tranquil as a mirror, reflecting the grim purple outlines of the wave-worn cliffs.

Loveliest of all is a calm morning, before the sea-mists are abroad, when you may look across the broad planes of the still water to the blue horizon, and see the ghost-mountains of the Kaikouras floating in a shining range of silver in the sky.