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Legends of the Maori

The Cave Dwellers of Te Pehu. — A Story of the Great Forest

page 121

The Cave Dwellers of Te Pehu.

A Story of the Great Forest.

A Gorge profound and misty opened at our feet. All around was forest, tall and tangled and liane-looped; it clouded with green and shadowy-blue the ranges to the skyline; it leaned over the gulch edge and hid from us the depths below, where an unseen river rushed with a dull noise over its rocky bed. The ravine was the valley of the Mangorewa River; we were in the heart of the bush midway between the northern shore of Lake Rotorua and the Tauranga coast. We had come in here searching out the ancient fort of Te Pehu, a place of memories, the tragic story of the Tapuika tribe. Our Maori companion, Hohepa Tauhuroa, was one of the very few who were acquainted with this long-lost haunt of the ancient children of the wilds. It was difficult to trace the outlines of the old parapeted pa which crowned the cliff-top; but just on the left as the track wound round to the side facing the ravine there was a massive earthwork, the high wall of a flanking bastion. The great age of this deserted fort was indicated by the large size of the trees growing in the trenches and the dug-in house sites.

Overlooking the gorge, and sloping gently down for a hundred yards or so, there was a narrow terrace cut out of the hillside, just about wide enough to give room for a row of the old-time nikau huts of the Maori. All vestiges of any whares had disappeared; but a series of singular little doorway openings cut in the mossy cliff was seen on the right, and investigating these we found that they gave access to ancient cave dwellings. We counted nine of these artificial caves, all on an alignment; a number of them, close together, were connected by openings cut through the soft rock. The doorways, three to four feet high, exactly resembled the openings to the rua, or kumara-pits which are often seen on the sites of old hill-forts. No doubt these caves, or some of them, were originally made for food-stores, and here the ancient foresters kept their supplies of aruhé, or fern-root, and other foods of primitive man.

Entering one rua near the lower end of the terrace we found it to measure five feet in height, with a length of thirteen feet, and a width of eight feet six inches. The roof was of a dome-shape, carefully rounded; the marks of the stone axes and the matā-tuhua, or obsidian knives, with which the Maori chipped out the soft rock, were still as plain as if they had only been made yesterday instead of centuries ago. The sides of the little underground dwellings were very smoothly cut; the floors were dug page 122 out to a foot or more below the level of the outer terrace. Here the forest-refugees of old spread their fern-tree fronds as a floor-covering (whariki-rau-ponga) and over them their mats; in the centre of the floor each cave-family kindled its nightly fire. We saw the ashes of camp-fires there, but they are those of present days, for Maori pig-hunters out in these forests occasionally spend a night here—they are in no fear of the ghosts of the long-vanished cave men, and they have written their names in charcoal on the walls. The other caves are similar in design, and about the same height as that described, but are narrower.

Some distance away to the west, perhaps half a mile on the other side of the Mangorewa Gorge, there is another ancient forest pa, called Te Weta, once occupied by a hapu of the tribe that held Te Pehu. There are said to be some cave dwellings there also, but we did not search out the pa.

This traditional story of Te Pehu Pa, and the conquest of the forest-dwellers by the lakeside Arawa nearly two hundred years ago, was told me shortly after our expedition in 1906 by the old man Akuhata Waharoa, of Utuhina, Rotorua. It is an illustration of the fierce feuds and vendettas which were carried on by tribe against tribe, actuated by the never-dying thirst for utu (revenge). It is the story of a stone axe, and all the trouble it caused.

“This is what I know of Te Pehu Pa and the people who dwelt there in the hill-caves; the history I was taught by my father. Te Pehu fort was built there, far in the forest, by the Tapuika tribe, eleven generations ago. The Tapuika are a clan of the Arawa; their ancestors came in the Arawa canoe, and the remnant of the tribe live at this day at Te Puke and elsewhere between Rotorua and the coast. Their chiefs in Te Pehu at the period I am telling of were three, named Te Koata, Rakawhati, and Whanganui. Now there was a certain man of the lakeside Arawa, one Katu, of Ngati-Ihenga hapu, who went from here to Waikato on a visit to some of his friends. His Waikato hosts presented him with a valuable stone adze (toki) and a very large shark’s tooth ear-pendant (mako-taniwha). Rakawhati and Whanganui from Te Pehu Pa were also on a visit to Waikato, and they knew of the presentation of these articles of Maori taonga to the Rotorua man. They were anxious to secure these treasures for themselves, and on their return they lay in wait for Katu on a certain trail which he frequented. Leaping out from the thickets on the Ngati-Ihenga man, they forcibly robbed him of his axe, and tore his shark’s-tooth pendant from his ear. Then they returned to Te Pehu rejoicing.

“Katu went on to Puhirua, the large stockaded kainga, which in those days stood near the lake shore between Te Awahou and Te Puna-i-Hangarua (now known as Hamurana). There he stood in the middle of the village square, and he raised a loud lament and tangi’d for his lost treasures. The page 123 people of Ngati-Rangiwewehi, his wife’s tribe, asked him, ‘Why do you weep?’ He replied, ‘My treasures have been taken from me with violence by Rakawhati and Whanganui, those men of Te Pehu.’

“The lakeside tribes related to Katu were exceedingly angry at this affront, and a small armed party speedily marched into the forest and before the walls of Te Pehu demanded compensation for the robbery of which Katu had been the victim. They stood there without the stockade gate and loudly requested that certain valued kakahu waero (dogskin cloaks), of which Tapuika were known to be possessed, should be given to them as utu.

“Then stood forth Rakawhati the chief and brusquely shouted to them: ‘He whakahihi ta koutou ki te haere mai ki te tono utu! Kaore e hoatu!’ (‘What a conceit you must have to come here and ask for payment. No, you will get none!’).

“And the men of Ngati-Rangiwewehi and Ngati-Ihenga marched home as they came, without the dogskin cloaks, and anger burned in their hearts.

“Some time after this episode Te Koata, the head chief of Te Pehu and Te Weta, came in on a visit to Puhirua. The Ngati-Rangiwewehi had not forgotten or forgiven the forest-men for their insult, and they took the opportunity to plunder Te Koata of what taonga (valuable property, ornaments) he had in his possession, as utu. Te Koata did not return direct to his home in the bush, but went to Kawaha, the headland to the north-west of Ohinemutu, where there stood a large pa of the Ngati-Whakaue tribe, the most powerful section of the Arawa nation. He told the people of that pa of what had occurred, and cried for vengeance on Ngati-Rangiwewehi.

“And there rose up a certain man of Ngati-Whakaue, eager to raise the feud against Katu’s people. Taking an old flax mat, a kakipora, and rolling it up after setting it alight, he swiftly departed for Puhirua by night with the intention of setting fire to the great carved house called ‘Tawake-hei-moa,’ of which Ngati-Rangiwewehi were exceedingly proud. The flax mat would smoulder for a long time without being consumed by the fire. Arriving at Puhirua when the people were asleep, he stole up to the rear of the carved house and thrust the smouldering kakipora into the dry raupo-thatch walls, left it there, and fled back to his village. The meeting-house was speedily ablaze. When the alarm was raised the tribe ran to the marae, and loudly lamented the destruction of their whare-whakalro. Quickly divining the hand of Te Koata and his friends in this act, they cast about for immediate and terrible utu.

“A party of men was swiftly despatched to the village that stood near the Fount-at-Hangarua (now known as Hamurana spring), where lived a member of the Tapuika tribe, an old woman named Waitāréré. Her they seized (she had nothing to do with the case, but that did not matter) and page 124 haling her quickly to Puhirua, they cast her into the still burning ruins of the carved house and roasted her alive. Kaitoa! The burning of the whare-whakairo was avenged. The old woman’s death was the utu for the stolen axe and the shark’s-tooth of Katu.

“But Ngati-Rangiwewehi and their friends did not let the feud rest there. They carried the war into the Tapuika country. Raising a strong war-party, they marched through the forest to Te Pehu, and furiously assaulted that pa. They succeeded in capturing it and in killing many of the occupants. The survivors fled down the gorge and across the Mangorewa to Te Weta Pa, and there the Tapuika made a final stand. But the lake men were again victorious. They stormed the pa, and few escaped the battle-axe and spear.

“The morehu, or remnant, of the garrison crept back through the forest to the desolated site of Te Pehu Pa. Among them were the three chiefs, Te Koata, Rakawhati, and Whanganui, who had escaped the general slaughter. In fear and trembling they took refuge in the caves which had been cut in the sides of the hill pa, and there they hid until the victorious Arawa had marched home again, carrying with them the heads of many of the slain and much plunder, besides some of the Tapuika women for slave-wives. And long after that they continued to live in the cave dwellings, existing on the wild foods of the forest and the birds they caught, and always keeping a watchful eye for their foes. They did not venture to rebuild their homes in the pa. And so was finally avenged the theft of the stone axe of Katu’s by the insolent chiefs of Tapuika.

“These caves,” concluded old Waharoa, “are very old indeed. It is eleven generations since they were first dug out by the Tapuika for food stores. Probably it was not until Te Koata’s time that they were enlarged and used as human habitations. From Te Koata down to the present day is seven generations of men.”*

* A generation=25 years. The history of Te Pehu pa, therefore, dates back about three hundred years.