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No. 5 (Spring 1953)
– 40 –

used in mutton-birding

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A Maori Torch, Poutama Island. Drawing by Margaret A. Morison

The torch or rama was an important item of old Maori days. It appears now to have disappeared from use among all Maori communities. Fortunately we were recently able to have a specimen made by Mrs K. A. Cross, of Bluff. This is an example of the type formerly used on mutton-bird islands off Stewart Island. Mutton-birds are taken in the burrows, and later in the rama or torching period, which commences on April 20. It is then that the young leave their burrows and come out at night to exercise their wings and shed their down.

Mrs Cross was taught the art of making torches by her mother when she was about eight years old, and had already started visiting mutton-bird islands for seasonal work, which she still undertakes. To make the torch, strips of flax about five inches apart are laid on the ground. Long pieces of totara bark, each about 2 ft. 6 ins., are laid across the flax strips, and inside these the body of the torch is rolled and tied.

It was necessary to secure the bark by using a rod termed koo, cut at one end into a chisel-shaped edge, the dry totara bark being levered away from the tree from below upwards. The bark is said to be fairly loose for a period of six weeks each year, about the end of February. The dry bark is called amoka. Inside the cigar-shaped torch, a quantity of dried grass (titaki), together with broken bark, is held in position by vertical bark rods, the whole being saturated with piro or kato, fats from inside the body of the baby mutton-bird.

It was the custom for a party of mutton-birders to carry two torches, and for groups to keep close to the torch-bearers. This precaution may have assisted operations and have prevented too much bunching of workers. In use the torch is held in the hand at the narrow end. If it tends to burn too quickly, green kelp is used to stop the rate of burning. Green kelp is also used to protect the hand from the heat of the torch. If slow to burn, the torch is whirled around the head. A single torch should burn up to three or four hours.