The Fairy Folk of Ngongotaha Mountain
The Fairy Folk of Ngongotaha Mountain is reprinted with permission from Mrs E. C. Cowan from Fairy Folk Tales of the Maori by the late James Cowan, published by Whitcombe & Tombs in 1930.
My old Arawa friend Te Matahaere, one-time guerilla soldier and bush-scout, lives in a very beautiful and romantic spot, the ancient ditched and parapeted village Weriweri, overlooking the soft blue expanse of Rotorua Lake. Weriweri pa was built by Matahaere's great ancestor Ihenga five centuries ago, and there within the entrenched lines the old warrior lives to-day, growing his potatoes and kumara and maize, enjoying the fruit and shade of his orchard trees; gazing out over the calm and lovely lake; crooning the love-chants of his youth and the songs of the fairy tribe with whom his forefather made friends in the dim and wonderful past.
Yonder to the south of Weriweri, lifting steeply from the plain in fern-hung scarps, is the fairy mountain Ngongotaha, and about that peak of his forefather's Matehaere has many a curious story. His description of the fairy folk as handed down through the generations from Ihenga is the most circumstantial account of the Patu-paiarehe that I have yet heard from Maori lips.
‘Long ago,’ said Te Matehaere, ‘the summit of yon mountain Ngongotaha, the peaktop called Te Tuahu a te Atua (The Altar of the God) was the chief home of the fairy people of this country. The name of that tribe of Patu-paiarehe was Ngati-Rua, and the chiefs of that tribe in the days of my ancestor Ihenga were Tuehu, Te Rangitamai, Tongakohu, and Rotokohu. The people were very numerous; there were a thousand or perhaps more on Ngongotaha. They were an iwi atua (a god-like race, a people of supernatural powers). In appearance some of them were very much like the Maori people of to-day; others resembled the pakeha race. The colour of most of them was kiri puwhero (reddish skins), and their hair had the red or golden tinge which we call uru-kehu. Some had black eyes, some blue like fair-skinned Europeans. They were about the same height as ourselves. Some of their women were very beautiful, very fair of complexion, with shining fair hair. They wore chiefly the flax garments called pakerangi, dyed a red colour; they also wore the rough mats pora and pureke. In disposition they were peaceful; they were not a war-Ioving, angry people. Their food consisted of the products of the forest, and they also came down to this Lake Rotorua to catch inanga (whitebait). There was one curious characteristic of these Patu-paiarehe; they had a great dread of the steam that rose from cooked food. In the evenings, when the Maori people living at Te Raho-o-te-Rangipiere and other places near the fairy abodes opened their cooking-ovens, all the Patu-paiarehe retired to their houses immediately they saw the clouds of vapour rising, and shut themselves up; they were afraid of the mamaoa—the steam.
‘The Patu-paiarehe of Ngongotaha had no water supply close to their pa; the mountain is a very dry place, at any rate near the summit, the sacred Tuahu a te Atua. So the women had to come a long way to draw their supplies from a spring under the northern cliffs, near the side of the Kauae spur—the ancient sacred burial place of the Ngati-Whakaue tribe—whence they carried water up the mountain in taha (gourd calabashes). And there it was, upon the slopes of the fairy mountain, that my ancestor Ihenga met a woman of the Patu-paiarehe, when he first explored these parts nearly twenty generations ago.
‘When Ihenga came to the bank of the stream now called the Ngongotaha,’ the old legend-keeper continued, ‘he beheld a curl of smoke rising near the summit of the great mountain looming dark-blue above him. May-be the smoke he saw was but a fairy mist. He left his wife on the shore of the lake to await his return, and ascended the mountain to discover what people dwelt there. As he climbed he had to press his way through thick fern on the lower slopes of the mountain before he came to the forest. There was much new fern springing up, and the fine pollen from this entered his mouth and nostrils and produced an intense thirst. He looked for a spring of water or a stream whereat he might drink, but found none. He toiled upward, and when he came near the top of the peak he came all suddenly on the home of the Patu-paiarehe. He gazed marvelling on those strange people, whom he came to know well in after-time. He was able to converse with them for their language was very like his own. He asked for water, and
a beautiful young woman gave him a drink out of a calabash. Hence the name which Ihenga afterwards gave to the mountain, a combination of the words ngongo, to drink—also the wooden mouth-piece of the drinking-vessel—and taha, a calabash. The fairy people pressed around him in great curiosity, touching him, feeling him all over and asking innumerable questions. At last he became alarmed, thinking perhaps that they might kill and eat him, and he turned and broke through them and fled down the mountainside. The Patu-paiarehe tribe chased him, but he far outstripped all of them except the young beauty who had given him the drink of water, She wished to catch the stranger and make him her husband. She cast away most of her garments in order to run the faster, and Ihenga, looking back as he raced down the rough mountain side, perceived that he would quickly be caught. He knew now that the uncanny people were Patu-paiarehe and he knew also that if once the athletic fairy lady seized him and laid her spell upon him he would never see his Maori wife again.
‘In that moment he bethought him of a trick to stay the pursuit. He carried attached to his girdle a small putea or satchel, containing some kokowai, red ochre mixed with shark oil, which he used on occasions for painting his body. He opened this as he ran and smeared himself with it. Now, the fairy folk are very dainty in some ways, as compared with the Maoris. The haunga or odour of the shark-oil so disgusted the young woman that she stopped and gave up the chase, and Ihenga rejoined his wife on the beach of the lake and told of his strange adventure.
‘But later Ihenga became friendly with the Patu-paiarehe, and dwelt quite near to them in his pa Whakaeke-tahuna, on the Waiteti stream, near the northern base of the fairy mountain; it is not far from the sacred stream to which you and I once went to see Ihenga's axe-polishing stone, the tapu Wai-oro-toki brook of which no man may drink and live.’