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No. 35 (June 1961)
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At one flank old Tasman the boar Slashes and tears And the other Pacific's sheer Mountainous anger devours.

Denis Glover

I had seen tidal-rips before. But here at Cape Reinga, where Te Moana-a-Rehua, the man-sea of the Maori, meets the woman-sea, Te Tai-o-Whitirea, there is a frenzy even rock cannot withstand. Only Te Reinga, last jagged extremity of the island, remains.

To the ancient Maori, Cape Reinga was known as Te Rerenga Wairua, leaping-place of the spirits. Here, the Maori believed, the spirits of his dead departed the island to return to Hawaiki.

There is no more appropriate point of departure for the journey between the living and the dead than Te Rerenga Wairua, not only for its desolate appearance, but also for its situation, at the northwestern extremity of the island, angling into the Pacific, towards the islands of origin. Most Polynesian islands have a Rerenga Wairua but as we move Northwards through the Pacific the Rerenga of each island swings Westward, homing towards mysterious and enigmatic Hawaiiki.

The landscape is desolate and fearsome. One of the first Europeans to visit Cape Reinga, the Reverend W. G. Puckey, C.M.S., who in 1834 walked to the Cape from the mission-station at Kaitaia, was so impressed that his journal departs its usual humdrum style and takes flight! The

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scenery around the place I stood was most uninviting and not only so. but calculated to fill the soul with horror. The place has a most barren appearance, while the numerous sea-fowl screaming and the sea roaring in the pride of its might, dashing against the dismal black rocks, would suggest to the reflecting mind that it must have been the dreary aspect of the place which led the New Zealanders to choose such a situation as this for their hell.

In this barren landscape where the spirits of the dead gathered, every stream, hill and tree had a special significance for the Maori-and still has for certain elders, such as Hohepa Kanara (Joseph Conrads) of Te Kao, who guided us on our first trip to Te Rerenga Wairua.


Modern civilization has marked Cape Reinga with a lighthouse, power-station and wireless masts, appropriate symbols of man's material power over sea, land and air. Only once was this European power over tangible things tested against the supernatural forces of the Maori spirit-world.

That was when the lighthouse site was shifted, from inaccessible Motuopao, the island of Cape Maria van Diemen, to Cape Reinga. Bubbling came from a spring in the hillside, high above the spirit's leap. This stream was sacred. Its very name, Te Waiora-a-Tane (Waters-of-life), came from Hawaiiki. The Maoris believed that once the spirit had passed this point, there was no return from unconsciousness back to the land of the living. Here, the spirits underwent the transformation that prepared them for their long journey through the seas to Hawaiki. The waters of Waiora-a-Tane had taken the tapu of unnumbered generations of Maori dead.

Moreover, a spiritual cleansing with waters called Te Waiora-a-Tane was a feature in the ceremonial of Maori death and the exhumation of bones in all parts of New Zealand. Te-Waiora-a-Tane bore much of the same relation to the ancient religion of the Maori as the waters of Jordan bear to the Christian rites of baptism.

This was the stream the Europeans intended to use for their water supply. As the Maori by that time, had become possibly more Christian than the pakeha, little protest was made. A large concrete reservoir was built, set into the hill beside the track leading down to the lighthouse.

It is still there to be seen, but that is all. It is empty, useless, for no sooner was the work finished than the little stream, Te Waiora-a-Tane, disappeared underground, and did not emerge until it reached the safety of the sea, where it bubbles forth in a clear spring at low-tide mark.

On white, misty days when the cloud is lying

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close to the land, the older Maori people say they can hear Te Reo Irirangi, a peculiar high singing, just on the edge of silence. This singing signifies the passing of the spirits. Sometimes the spirits are chattering and laughing too. Only certain people can hear this, but they swear by it, and they include several whose judgment I would not question in other, more mundane matters.

The ancient people of this land were all of them aware of the spirits passing, and in this part of the island at least—even constructed their food-houses accordingly, with the entrance always facing the north, lest the tapu spirit be trapped, contaminating the food, with possibly fatal results. Such things had been known.


On my second trip to Te Reinga, I followed the way of the spirits, the original road taken by the Rev. W. G. Puckey and his guide Te Paerata, in the early December of 1834. I knew Puckey's journal well, thanks to the kindness of his descendants, the Puckeys of Kaitaia. He came up the Ninety-Mile Beach, as I did, and climbed the hill called Haumu at the head of the beach, where the spirits from the two coasts and the centre of the island are said to mingle. Here Puckey records—and explains— the first simple phenomenon. There we saw many dry waka au, which, as a native whom we took as a guide from our last place said, were the tokens of the spirits who have rested at this place. I asked him if it were not possible for strangers who passed this way to do as my natives were then doing, which was everyone twisting green branches and depositing them there as a sign that they had stopped at that notable place. This is a general custom with the natives whenever they pass any remarkable place

I was looking for these braided leaves. Only a few days before, Louis Hobson, the young Maori secretary of the Tai Tokerau Trust Board had been telling me of a pohutukawa, where the dried emblems lay, some made of leaves not usually found near the coast, but I saw no sign of them. Possibly I did not look in the right place.


But Hohepa Kanara had mentioned a peculiar braiding of the grass, and I found this, not on Haumu, but on the next hill, Maringinoa, where some freak of the wind had apparently twisted and knotted the marram-grass, binding the heads so tightly they could not uncoil.

Puckey does not mention Maringinoa at all, but states that the spirits paused and wept on Haumu, as they gazed for the last time back the way they had come. It is from Maringinoa, not Haumu, that one has the last view of Ninety-Mile Beach and the sweep of country southward. The very name Maringinoa comes from the weeping of the spirits. “Maringinoa,” said Hohepa Kanara, “is where the spirits farewelled their people,” and I am inclined to accept his statement. Puckey abbreviated his account, and it was written apparently some time after his journey to Cape Reinga. His account goes almost direct from Haumu to the high point overlooking the aka, the root by which the spirits descended into the ocean.

“After Maringinoa,” said Hohepa Kanara, “the spirits descend into the valley of Waingurunguru. In that valley you can hear the water tangiing for the dead.” I thought, at the time, that he was referring possibly to a waterfall or some such thing; but below Maringinoa is a valley, very still and swampy, where a stream flows sluggishly, if at all, and although it was the wrong time of the year for most insects, at the water's edge I could hear faint droning, coming from everywhere and nowhere. Thus was Waingurunguru, murmuring-waters. It was more an eerie quivering of the air than an actual sound, and it persisted for the length of the stream.

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It was a relief to come at last to the sound of breakers and the beach stretching from Cape Maria van Diemen to Te Pae-o-Rehua, the high western edge of Te Rerenga Wairua. Puckey and his party found the climb up from the beach hard and dangerous going. I kept well clear of the sheer drop down to the rocks and breakers, some hundreds of feet below and found the going quite good.

From the top of Te Pae-o-Rehua, where the wireless masts stand today, the spirits took the plunge, down Te Waiora-a-Tane to the final jagged scarp of Te Reinga itself, almost a thousand feet below. Puckey describes this last, rocky projection of the coast: Here there is a hole through a rock, into which the spirits are said to go: after this, they ascend again, and thence descend by the aka (root) to the Reinga, which is a branch of a tree, projecting out of the rock, inclining downwards, with part of it broken off by the violence of the wind but said to have been broken off by the number of spirits which went down by the aka some years ago, when great numbers were killed in a fight.

The fight referred to was the second battle between Hongi and Murupaenga of the Ngati-Whatua (Kaipara) tribe, when Hongi and his Ngapuhi with their muskets took terrible vengeance for Murupaenga's earlier victory at Oripiro.


It was rumoured—and the rumours are still believed by some people—that Puckey had chopped away Te Aka, the root to the spirit-world. This act would not be out of character. All the early missionaries, except the unfrocked Kendall and the unpopular Richard Taylor attacked in the most direct manner, any manifestation of so-called heathenism, burning carved houses, desecrating tapu places, if only to demonstrate to the Maori that the mana (the power and prestige) of the Christian religion was greater than that of the heathen. Mathews and Puckey, the two missionaries

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of Kaitaia, were no exception to this rule.

But Puckey did not cut the root. He himself describes the trouble his visit caused, and how the trouble was met by Te Paerata, his guide: During the time I was absent, great rumours were spread among the tribes that I had gone to cut away the Aka of the Reinga. Many angry speeches were made, and some said they would go and waylay us, as we were returning. It, in fact, roused all the affections of those who had any, for their old Dagon; while numbers who had begun to feel a little enlightened said ‘And what of it? It the ladder is cut away, it is a thing of lies, and the spirits never went there.’

On being asked, ‘What are you afraid of, having no place of torment to do to?’ some of the old men would touchingly say, ‘It is very well for you to have your Rangi (Heaven), but leave us the old road to our Reinga, and let us have something to hold on by, as we descend, or we shall break our necks over the precipice.’

Puckey and Te Paerata were intercepted by the chiefs of the Far North and their followers, who were in a most threatening mood. Te Paerata spoke for two hours, told them every detail of the journey and said they had not harmed the aka in any way; this was found to be so. The chiefs then let Puckey and Te Paerata return.

The same pohutukawa tree that Puckey was supposed to have chopped is still there today, an insignificant thing growing in a cleft in the rock, but its endurance over the centuries on this barren place where nothing else grows is almost beyond nature, supernatural.


Below Te Aka, the long dry root of the pohutukawa which does not quite reach the sea, is Maurianuku, the entrance to the underworld. Puckey calls this place Motatau and says that here the Maori spirits godown to their hell. He describes how the kelp used to slide back and forth over the entrance, and how the rocks are reddened with Kokowai or red-ochre, with which the Maoris used to daub themselves. According to Puckey's guide, even the fish caught at this place were red. But there is no sign of Kokowai today, only coralline, the reddish sea-algae.

I put on goggles and flippers and swam, rather tentatively, in Maurianuku. Although the coast, a hundred yards away, is thick with paua and crayfish, here the underwater walls of the Reinga were almost bare of any growth. One could put this down to the force of the perpetual surge, the backwash of the tidal-rip. I found no sign of any great depth, but there was an eerieness in this water that made me stay close to the rock and not look too far.

As we climbed back up the slow steep ridge to the lighthouse, we could see more clearly the ocean beyond Te Rerenga Wairua, running like the rapids of a river, a square mile of water convulsed in the clash of tides. But the constant, distant roaring seemed to be diminishing—the change of the tide was approaching.

Now we would see Te Ripo-a-Mauria-nuku, the current of Maurianuku, the first sea-stage of the spirits' journey. Slowly, the sea subsided and was still, and the Ripo took form, a winding line of demarcation between those two uncongenial bedfellows, Tasman and Pacific.

Te Ripo-a-Maurianuku leads the spirits out to Manawatawhi, mis-called Great Island by the Pakeha, the largest of the Three Kings. The Maori name is just as literal, but infinitely preferable to the pakeha: it means, “Last breath”, for at Manawatawhi the spirits came up for the last glimpse of their island home. Then, the way was theirs' alone, into the unknown.