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

A Place of Enchantment… — Tongariro National Park

page 17

A Place of Enchantment…
Tongariro National Park

(Govt. Publicity photo. Mt. Ngauruhoe in winter garb.

(Govt. Publicity photo.
Mt. Ngauruhoe in winter garb.

National Park is a national all-the-year-round recreation resort which too many New Zealanders fail to appreciate. Its attraction as a snow-sport centre in the season is undisputed, but when I said that I would be there for the greater part of my annual holiday, the almost horrified reaction of dozens of people was, without exception, “But what on earth will you Do there in the summer?”

Two added scornfully: “That desolate, colourless spot!”

Desolate and colourless? I gasped. A place that is drenched in subtleties of colour for those with eyes to see: eddies of low, purple-tinted flowers against the tawny brown of the plains; masses of white-flowering shrubs lying like drifts of snow on the silent hillsides; the sudden warmth of golden broom flaring against grey boulders; starry patches of mountain daisies standing primly on silver stems beside silver-white rapids; exquisitely-tiny white bells swinging blue-tipped petals on thin brown stalks above beds of deep green moss, heads of creamy bells with their stems tinged with rose-red, or clusters of four-petalled golden-stamened flowers with green leaves closing compactly up beneath them and tight buds packed securely in the centre.

Of all the hundreds of folk who flock down for the exhilaration of the winter sports, how many realise how much they are missing by not seeing the Park in summer time, when so many of its diverse attractions are visible and accessible as they never are during the winter?

James Cowan, in his exceedingly well-written and well-informed book, “The Tongariro National Park,” describes these attractions in the following words:

“Steaming craters, sulphurous pits, a boiling lake, ice-cold lakes, glaciers, snowfields, alpine slopes, torrents and bubbling springs, rapids and waterfalls, huge cliffs and rocky pinnacles, forests and wild fern gardens, mountain meadows bright with leagues of flowers—to enumerate the varied scenes of the Tongariro Park is almost to make a catalogue of all New Zealand's landscapes.”

Even a casual stroll up the metal road of the mountain gives glimpses which are superb; a dazzle of white at a corner as Ruapehu comes into sight, its massive shoulder thrusting into the burning blue sky; on the right the beeches dropping down the hillside in tiers and conveying, through the wide spacing of their boughs and the smallness of their leaves, an indescribable quality of light and airy loveliness; on the way back, a different vista as the great cone of Ngauruhoe soars into the sky, its grey flanks striped with long claws of snow.

From the Chateau itself the panorama is rich with colour: dull green of the beech woods, tawny gold of the rolling hills; emerald green of the golf course slashing the landscape like a sword; dim brown of the plains broken by a range of hills as deeply-blue as a bird's wing. Far off, the flat-topped distinctive outline of Hikurangi. In the distance, tier on tier of further hills, merging from smoky-blue into grey-blue, from grey-blue into silver-blue, from silver-blue into the silver pallor of the skyline.

Or let the “no colour” critics take a walk to the Waiuku Gorge, starting through the beeches where the path is dappled with shifting light and shade, where a cold, clear stream cascades over boulders that its minerals have painted a bright golden-brown; through the open country and up a hillside till a fantastic outcrop of grey-black rock gives a look-out over the Gorge.

Sheer below the rock face, the delicate airiness of the beeches slants steeply down, the leaves of the trees directly below glistening in the sun as though each one were plated in pure silver. To the left, the river, far above the Gorge, gouges a narrow passage through the rock-cliff and hurls a veil of water down, down to the heart of the valley below—to thread the silver-grey boulders together with a ribbon of quicksilver, while on the farther hillside a half-hidden waterfall is a white flash behind a screen of lacy green.

Or, at the Taranaki Falls, let the critics again watch a river fling itself through a narrow chasm in the rock face and, thundering downwards in the light, carry a living rainhow with it to the pool below.

Of a certainty, delicate beauty and rugged grandeur dwell side by side in this domain of 149,700 acres, where “almost all New Zealand's landscapes” meet and mingle.

Of the Red Crater on Tongariro page 18 alone, a widely-travelled English scientist whom we met said that it was a unique and “super-special sight” which no one should dare to miss. Mr. Cowan's description of the Crater, as usual, cannot be excelled. Here it is:

“The last-born of the craters which once discharged lava within the walls of this basin of black scoria rock and cinders is the still active Red Crater—a mouth of glowing colour set round with jagged rocks, and venting hot sulphur and acid-laden steam and strange noises, and fearful pulsings and thumpings from the depths of the volcano. This Red Crater is 600 feet above the floor of the main crater and is about a quarter of a mile across. The scoria forming the sides is wonderfully coloured in red, orange, blue, yellow and black, with bright yellow sulphur incrustations….”

No wonder Maori legends, as Mr. Cowan says, embody weird stories of “the multitudes of genii and demons with which the native imagination
Looking across the golf links towards the Chateau Tongariro. Mt. Ruapehu in the background. (Govt. Publy. photo).

Looking across the golf links towards the Chateau Tongariro. Mt. Ruapehu in the background.
(Govt. Publy. photo).

peoples this wild gale-swept region resounding with strange and terrifying noises, alive with the smoke and the steam and the fiery valleys of the volcanoes.”

The origin of the name Ngauruhoe as related in Mr. Cowan's book is interesting:

“When Ngatoro reached the foot of the range now known as Tongariro, he decided to ascend it in order to spy out the country, like the modern surveyor.” He was, however, caught in a snowstorm, “a new and terrible experience for an immigrant from the tropical isles of the ocean. In his extremity he prayed for the fire of the gods.

“His priestess sisters heard him and appealed to the fire-demons, Te Pupu and Te Hoata, who sent the saving fire. The flames of life burst on the peak-top and his body gained warmth and he was saved. The words ‘riro’ (carried away or seized) and ‘tonga’ (south wind) in his prayer to the goddesses were the origin of the name Tongariro… When Ngatoro-i-rangi put forth his prayer, he slew a female slave as an offering to the gods. This slave, who was a personal attendant and food bearer, was named Auruhoe. When the god-sent flames of life burst forth Ngatoro threw the body of the slave into the blazing crater and that was how the volcano came to bear its name…”

Very interesting to the pakeha, but most unfortunate for poor Auruhoe, who had to pay the price of death for the perpetuation of her name!

There are variations of this legend, of course, just as there are variations of the tale of Egmont, Pihanga, and Ruapehu. Mr. Cowan, retelling one tale, says that in the old days:

“…. An assemblage of great mountains stood in the heart of the North Island. Like gods they stood there…. Tongariro was chief of them all, but… lofty snow-topped Taranaki stood there … and there also stood Tauhara and Putauaki” (now called by the pakehas Edgecumbe). “They were males, all these mountains; they were gods and warriors—all except one, who was a female. Her name was Pihanga… and these mountains loved Pihanga and each wished her to become his wife. But the one she favoured most was Tongariro” (Tongariro and Ngauruhoe being regarded as one). “He won her by fierce combat; he turned upon the other mountains and forced them to depart. He fought them and defeated them; Pihanga was his…

“And the defeated mountains debated among themselves whither they should go.” Tauhara and Putauaki decided on the Bay of Plenty, Taranaki” the setting-place of the sun.”

All one night they travelled. At daylight Taranaki halted at the west coast, where he stands now under the name of Mt. Egmont. Tauhara and Putauaki travelled north, Putauaki, halted by the dawn, standing still “at the northern end of the Kaingaroa Plain, nearly a hundred miles from his original standing place.”

Tauhara, however, was “the slowest of the three rejected lovers. He travelled with tardy, lingering steps; he paused many times to look back towards Pihanga, whom he was leaving. And when daylight came and stopped his march he had only reached the place where he stands now, near the shores of Taupo Moana. And he ever looks back across the lake at beautifull Pihanga.”

Taranaki mythology differs, and as Mr. Cowan points out, there is a remarkable similarity in this kind of animistic symbolism between the mountain folk-tales of New Zealand and those page 19 of Java and Sumatra, an ethnic likeness that he does not think has been noted previously.

Of the place names round the Park, one which owes its origin to actual history is that of Whakapapa—“to lay out flat-like boards or flat rock.”

“On the upper parts of the Whakapapa River a battle was fought about five generations ago between Ngati-Tuwharetoa, led by Pouwhare, and a war-party of Whanganui men commanded by Manako. The Whanganui invaders were defeated and many of them were slaughtered, and their bodies were laid out side by side on the rocks and tussock. This level array of corpses was compared to a flat rock or table…”

The story of the Haunted Whare also has its source in fact. In the early days when sheep-stocking was being attempted in the mountain country, a Maori shepherd, by name Wi Takerei, was found dead on the floor of a slab whare built near the waterfall on the Whakapapanui, one of his eyes being missing. “The lonely desolate spot on which the whare stood had been regarded by the Maoris as haunted by the ghost of a young woman who had come to a violent end near there, and now the people were disposed to believe that the kehua or ghost had had something to do with the young shepherd's death.”

The Haunted Whare now standing is not the original whare, but stands about a quarter of a mile from the site of the original hut. Soon after it was put up, “it was occupied for a time by a surveying party working around the mountains, under an assistant surveyor named Springall, who had a Maori wife. Some time in 1883, Springall and his wife and another Maori woman were snowed up in the whare. Late one afternoon they were playing cards at the table facing the one window when suddenly the woman saw a face at the window. The apparition seemingly was that of a young Maori woman, of a handsome and fair type. The two wahines were overcome by the shock. Springall rushed outside but could see no one, and there were no tracks on the snow.”

Later, after the whare had been deserted for a time, a traveller camping there for a night reported seeing the same face at the window, and an old recluse who was stationed there as a shepherd “used to say he was visited by a mysterious Mohoao woman several times.”

But for a last impression of National Park, let us make a summer-time ascent of Ruapehu. As we go up to the Salt Hut area by car, an extraordinary sight lies spread before us—the whole of the landscape right out to the horizon obscured by an immense snow-field of curling white cloud apparently frozen into immobility, the sensation of unearthliness at the sight being exactly the same as that received in a plane, when great banks of cloud below shut out the solid earth and open up another world.

Yet around us the world of valley and hillside, of green trees and running water, was so clear in the early morning light that it seemed to have been purified, and the air was so thrillingly clean one wanted to taste it.

From the Ski Club hut the climb really began. Up over rock faces, trudging heavy boots whose soles were lavishly bestrewn with hobnails, past a waterfall from which the spray was cold on the lips, on up to the glacier, where only the slip-slip of footsteps in the snow broke the silence, a rhythm that became hypnotic. On and on, up and up, till the vast sweep of the glacial fields stretched pure and lovely under the morning sky, with three or four skiers making dark patterns against the background of blinding white. Then, at the summit, a stillness and whiteness so profound that it could he felt. Ice-cliffs rising from the hot lake in the crater, the white spire of Te Heuheu slashed by black lava ridges; then, lower down, as we descended, to the right the gleaming waters of Lake Taupo, beyond it the outline of “trady Tauhara.” In front, the stretch of the plains now visible, with all its nuances of rich and dim blues and greys, greens and browns, and far to the west,
The Chateau Tongariro. (Govt. Publicity photo.).

The Chateau Tongariro.
(Govt. Publicity photo.).

the great glistening cone of Egmont, soaring into the blue. Altogether a panorama that could be described only as sublime.

Then the thrills of the descent—and what thrills! Taken on a “private toboggan” formed simply by sitting on the snow, clasping the hands round the lifted knees to keep the feet from impeding speed—then rushing down, down, down in a dizzying whirl that for sheer excitement and exhilaration would be hard to beat. And so, finally, back for late afternoon-tea in the Chateau lounge, a sun-bath on a Lilo on the big sun-balcony, a bath, dinner, dancing, music, billiards, table tennis—all the unlimited comfort and social fun of a superluxurious hostel in a national park which is a national asset, offering superb facilities for all-the-year-round recreation.

page 20