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No. 11 (July 1955)
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Floating down the river Teramakau. (Engraving in London Illustrated News.)


The first part of this feature gives the background of Maori journeys across the Southern Alps and other mountains of the South Island. The second will detail the routes and the passes that are said to have been used. The author is a mountaineer who has himself travelled over and photographed many of the places described, and who has specialised in historical research about the Southern Alps.

South is South and North is North, and the differences that divide them are sometimes as deep as Cook Strait. Mountain travel in the North Island was eased with a network of trails well-known to the different tribes, whose guides led the pakeha on many journeys claimed as pakeha exploration. In the South it was higher and more rugged, peaks soared to the sky and glaciers on their flanks twisted and tumbled till they fed swift and dangerous rivers. Here in this mountain region of the Southern Alps, adventurous pakehas could indeed explore the lands they wished to graze, where they sought gold, or merely new horizons. But before the pakeha and even in the mountainous South, there were some routes where Maori enterprise and Maori courage had been the first to conquer the distances and the solitude.

The mountains were not empty of bird life. Above the snow, the skirts of the kea raised echoes. In the bush the choruses of the bellbird and tui, the whirr of the berry-bellied pigeon, and the night cries of the kiwis and wekas were but routine. The skylines were stark in their grandeur. Snow ebbed and flowed according to season, but over the higher ranges there was perpetual ice. Many of the rock ridges were broken, as though they were designed for teeth in a saw. Some precipices were several thousands of feet high, made, as it were, to terrify any intruders. The breaks in these ranges, formed natural saddles or passes, where strong and resolute men could cross from one valley to another valley. Do not talk of provinces, for the times that you must now contemplate are before the pakeha, when a riverbed was the road

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and a flax sandal made the imprint in the sand on river beaches. Rock-bound gorges, snow-bound gorges, deep crevasses, splintered peaks: these were sights that met the first explorers. And consider the Maori explorers.

One stimulus to the first crossing of the Southern Alps was the discovery of a pass now mapped as Bownings Pass. Draw a line on a South Island map between Ashburton and Hokitika and it crosses the Main Divide at Brownings. Raureka was the first to find and to use this pass. She was held to be mad by the Ngati Wairangi of the West Coast and escaped up the Arahura river, home of greenstone, the valued pounamu. At the head of the river she found the pass, crossed it, and descended the mountain valleys. Near the place we now know as Geraldine she fell in with a group of Ngai Tahu. When they saw her greenstone and she admitted there was plenty more across the ranges, a war party gathered. The Ngai Tahu crossed the pass to Westland, fought with ngati Wairangi, and returned laden with the stone.

The significance was not so much the discovery of greenstone, for its presence in Westland must have been known long before that. The significance was the perfecting of a short route across the mountains. The alternatives to the mountain pass were long coastal journeys on foot or dangerous canoe voyages along a storm-beaten land till Arahura was reached. Raureka made her crossing about the year 1700, and if the legend of her

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Rough country above a tributary of the Buller Gorge. (John Pascoe Photograph.)

exploit is true, all other mountain passes known to the Maori must have been found since her journey.

Perhaps a greater stimulus to bush and mountain travel was war. The old-time Maori warrior needed speed on foot and knowledge of country that enabled him to outflank or surprise his enemies. He had to know all the arts of living off the land. In other words his natural training as guerilla leader or commando officer excelled anything that he would now learn in an army school of bush and mountain warfare. The stories of some of the crossings of the passes, as told in the next article will underline this fact.

Living off the land was indeed a technical skill. For a party to prepare for a transalpine trail meant the gathering of wekas packed in kelp bags. Dried eels and whitebait would be useful to add to eels caught on the journey. Berries of totara and kahikitea would give variety to roots of the fern katoke. Dried mamaku (black-ribbed punga) was another staple diet. These dried foods would be soaked overnight and then roasted and pounded between stones. Six men would start their trip with a hundredweight of food. If the party was large, the chief would carry only weapons, and slaves would take the mats and the food. Women would take heavy loads. The pakeha mountaineer of today would be no better served by his modern dehyrdated foods or his unreliable air-drops of supplies.

The rough trails were hard on footwear. The Maori parties wore sandals that had to be replenished from flax or mountain grass as they wore out. In his book ‘Memories of Mountains and Men’ (1946) Arthur P. Harper recalls that his father Leonard told him that in 1857 flax sandals were much better than boots for travelling along the rugged coastline, and were used by him and Tarapuhi. In the South Island Maori Women's Welfare Leagues these sandals are still being made today.

Friction from dry sticks gave fire for cooking. Live birds such as pigeons and tuis could be captured by traditional means. At Karangarua in South Westland there were gulls' eggs for delicacies to be added to shellfish from the sea.

Flax ropes were used for tricky cliffs or river bluffs. They were mostly made on the spot from flax or snowgrass, whichever material was handy. The Nelson Examiner of 12th September, 1846, has an account of the Brunner-Heaphy expedition down the West Coast from below Cape Farewell. Referring to the Tauparikaka cliff. Rocky Point, the author said: ‘We certainly deemed the descent impracticable, without a ladder. The sight of a rotten native made rope which dangled over the precipice made us perhaps to imagine the descent to be more critical than it in reality was’.

The rivers themselves were crossed on rafts of wood or raupo—moki—and weather forecasting was made possible by a study of clouds and twinkling stars. The trade, between east and west coasts was taramea scent—gum from the spear plant—and greenstone.

These and related facts are given by H. D. Skinner in the Journal of the Polynesian Society of 1912 based on notes made in 1897 by G. J. Roberts, Commissioner of Crown Lands for Westland, who gleaned them from Maoris living at the mouth of the Jacobs River in South Westland. The article is called ‘Maori Life on the Poutini Coast’.

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It is likely that the Maori parties avoided snow. But when caught in a blizzard they knew enough to dig a hole, get down and breathe in it, and thus avoid suffocation. This foreshadows the present day mountaineer's technique of digging a snow cave for survival in an emergency caused by a sudden snow storm. Glaciers and crevasses would have been avoided, as there are many passes free from these obstacles.

In The Coming of the Maori’ Te Rangi Hiroa (Sir Peter Buck) confirms some of the foregoing. He noted that ‘greenstone was procured by expeditions to the Poutini coast, by barter, and through war. From its rarity and beauty, it was made into valued ornaments, and from its taking a keen edge, it was worked into adzes, chisels and short clubs’. But he was primarily concerned with migration and with life in the North Island and unfortunately he has not recorded what he knew about legends of his kinsmen in the mountains of the South.

The most graphic description of the knowledge and endurance of stalwart Maoris in mountain travel was given by the explorer Thomas Brunner, whose journal of 1846–48 was published in 1952 under the title The Great Journey. His trip of 550 days was made with the guides Ekehu and Epikiwati and their wives. They went from Nelson to Lakes Roto-iti and Rotoroa—not to be confused with similar names of the North Island. From this area of peaks and lakes they followed the Buller river to the sea, enduring hardships in steep country where birds were scarce and at times on a diet of semi-starvation. At one desperate stage Brunner had to kill for eating his dog Rover, ‘very palatable, tasting something between mutton and pork’. For this Brunner earned the nick-name of Kai Kuri.

Ekehu and Epikiwati were adept at improvising shelters from storms by making houses of bark. They taught Brunner how to bake roots of the cabbage-tree and ferns in an oven that had to cook for twelve hours. They helped him swim the rivers. When they reached isolated Maori settlements on the Coast near the present towns of Greymouth and Hokitika, they were better fed with potatoes and birds.

Brunner journeyed as far south as Paringa, and on his return trip went up the Grey river, down the Inangahua and back up the Buller. Again food ran short, illness beset Brunner, and he reached Nelson after the bitter trials of winter travel. He recorded that to Ekehu he owed his life, and there is little doubt that he would have died without the Maori's bushcraft and faithful attention.

Such a concrete testimonial is a pleasant reminder that in a land that is popularly held to be lacking in tradition, there have been men whose courage and vitality have pioneered new routes. In themselves these journeys constitute tradition. The unrecorded footsteps of the successors to Raureka, the ashes of their perished fires and their footprints lost in rock slides and avalanches have contributed to the fascination of the high country. Sit in the evening under the lee of a boulder at your camp fire, hear the more-pork (ruru) calling across the valley above the rustle of the wind or the rapids of the river, and though the peaks above are bleak and lonely, it is a solace to know that Maori explorers once passed that way. They, too, met the challenge of a mountain barrier, and felt the excitement of crossing a pass to unfamiliar gorges below, and knew that within a few days of fair weather they could see the breakers of the Tasman Sea beating against the wild West coast.

The next issue will describe some of the passes that are known to have been used by Maori parties and the offshoots of legends that make up an island story.