Topic: From Napier to Taupo and Back, Overland - 1887 - Chapter 5

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Front Cover of 1887 book Napier to Taupor

The top of the Runanga terraces is an arm of the Kaimangaroa Plain – a great desert of broken glass, for pumice is glass. Where it was all manufactured, and how it was carried forth and spread with such an approach to evenness over so large an area, are questions still unsettled, and travellers may relieve any ennui that threatens them while crossing the plain by trying to settle them on the evidence they may collect as they go. I had been led to expect the passage across the pumice country to be dreary in the extreme, but I found it quite otherwise. It is variety itself compared with the coach road across the Rakaia-Ashburton plain in the old days, before settlers introduced new features in shape of farms and townships and a trunk railway. The Kaimangaroa plain is monotonous enough, looked at broadly; but there is plenty of change, in details of the surface configuration, in the vegetation, in the hills which bound it, and in the materials of the plain – to say nothing of the constant wonder where so much frothy stuff came from – to make the journey interesting enough to an enquiring mind. The surface is curiously uneven – mounds and ridges two, three, and four hundred feet high being common upon it. Near Te Runanga there are some extensive swamps, which could easily be drained, and, if drained, ought to make fertile farms – till winds blew the light soil clean away. The road runs for many miles near and across the ends of spurs of the Kaimanawa Mountains, and a remarkable feature of these is that bush, apparently good bush, grows on the summits of the ridges, and some little way down the sides, but not down to the bases. This feature is well marked in a view of Tongariro and Ruapehu in Hochstetter’s work. What is the cause of it? Is it that the pumice, in which bush will not flourish, has been rain-washed, snow-ploughed, or gale-swept off the summits? The vegetation of the plain does not present much variety. It is miserably grassed with tussock, good for, say, a sheep to the square mile, with here and there a bit of feed in the bottoms of the gullies where water flows in the winter, and on the southern sides of the ridges and mounds. A small brown scrub, with grass-like leaf and a broom-like general appearance, of rather less pastoral value than a Scotch thistle, grows plentifully, and over much of the plain manuka trees give no small degree of picturesqueness to what would otherwise be a dreary landscape. This desert manuka is not a scrub, it apes the growth of forest trees, and for many a mile the beautiful forms of these Lilliputian “giants of the forest” give quite a park-like aspect to the foreground. Some people cannot admire anything in trees under say 500 feet high, but there is a strong suspicion of servility in that attitude. One may feel a pleasurable sense of equality with a full-grown tree whose top one can reach by pulling it over. Photographed to the same size, thousands of these desert manukas would match for comeliness anything the world is now producing in the shape of trees.

About half-way between Tarawera and Taupo, on the maps, a neat little circle is cut out of the black line indicating the road, and marked “Cox’s.” “Cox” is the name of an unfortunate South Islander who sold a beautiful estate down there, and lost the proceeds by taking up some of this Taupo country. The station is now called Loch Inver, and is some half-dozen miles from the road, so that no circle or anything else representing it is seen by the traveller, unless it be a boy on horseback, waiting for the station mail. Not far from the boy, when he is there, the road crosses the Rangitaiki River, which flows northward into the Bay of Plenty, and here the coach stopped for lunch. The horses were stripped and turned into a loop of the river, with nose bags, the passenger devoured his sandwiches, and the driver made himself at home with the carpenters who were building the half-way house of the future. It is by this time probably finished and furnished and ready for the accommodation of man and beast. That important part of it, the bar, was finished and furnished then, and I do not suppose I run any risk of being branded an informer if I state, not under oath, that the brandy and water I got from the Maori landlady on the usual terms was very good indeed. (Possibly the house was duly licensed, but there was no “sign” of the fact.) Chunks of pumice as large as three or four feet in length are common in the surface near the house, and the chimneys are built of blocks chopped or sawn out of these. The material is light, but not light enough to allow the whole chimney to be carried up by the draft of the fire.

On the return journey I walked to one of the mounds above referred to, a mile or so from the crossing, and found it composed, superficially at any rate, of pumice like the level country around it. Its height I guessed at between 300 and 400 feet. There is quite good pasture on the southern slope, and if the hundreds of such piles are similarly grassed the mobs of wild horses that I was informed occupy the plain, are not badly off. They may find their quarters uncomfortable in winter, when the country is covered for weeks with snow, but even then they would not, it may be believed, willingly exchange their freedom and poor fare for three feeds of oats a day and the task of pulling the mail coach backwards and forwards through the snow. A mare and foal were grazing on the further side of the mound, but they did not behave in such a way when they saw me as to allow me to boast that I have seen wild horses in New Zealand, with their foot upon their native heath.

An oasis in the desert is the Opepe Hills, well bushed, and well grassed, the site of a native settlement, the fattening ground of Taupo stock owners, and the sanatorium of their used-up horseflesh. There was sharp fighting here during the war, and the ruins of stockades and of an old constabulary camp (converted into an accommodation house, afterwards burned down), are among the representatives, on the ground, of the Opepe dot on the maps. A party of constabulary was “massacred” here. – How circumstances to alter cases! Had the parties been reversed, the affair would have been a “successful surprise attack.” It is an ugly word, “massacre,” and certainly should not be used in describing the death of professional fighting men, under arms. The descent from Opepe is moderately rapid, though a series of gullies in the pumice, on whose sides quantities of a beautiful scented creeper hung out clusters of yellow flowers to perfume the breeze. During the descent the first glimpse is obtained of Lake Taupo, - as I saw it a couple of dim broad lines, that might as well have been bands of low lying fog, separated by the black cone of Manga, 1800 feet, which persisted in presenting itself to view thenceforward, while the glimpse of the lake was a fleeting one. A rise in the road brings the lake into view again, and the traveller who is favoured by clear weather will have a panorama spread before him that will require all his time to inspect thoroughly, in the wide-spreading waters of our inland sea, the grand series of volcanic peaks that are massed beyond its southern extremity, the long-backed ridges to the north-west and north, and to the right the solitary pile of Tauhara, 3000 feet high. I was permitted to see nothing of this on the up journey, save a broad band of dull grey water, merging into rain mist in the distance, with Manga standing out blackly against it. The Taupo Maoris say, “When strangers come the mountains weep.” I am sure they need not have betrayed so much emotion on my account, but I sympathised deeply with them, grieved that they wept so long and so dismally. I wished they would have “a good cry” and be done with it. More fortunate on the return journey, I never tired of risking permanent disfigurement by twisting my head round to look at the vanishing lake and mountains. For the last two or three miles the road runs on the top of a low cliff which, with a beach of fine gravel and sand below it, bounds the lake near Taupo township. A small native village is passed, and several urchins and twice as many mongrel gods turned out to race with the coach. Fine intelligent looking youngsters they were, with the brightest of bright black eyes. Bright eyes seemed to be a characteristic of the few natives I saw near Taupo. The youngsters hung on behind the coach like white ones, and a girl unable to “catch on,” sang out “whip behind” with a dong-in-the-manger selfishness that Mary Jane could not have beaten. A warm stream runs through the village, and the edge of the lake for a long distance was steaming as we passed. This is not the first sign of “getting into hot water” visible to the traveller approaching Taupo. A thin column of steam rising continually from a sloping hillside several miles ahead, and beyond the river, is the first.

The coach drew up in the yard of Gallagher’s “Lake Hotel” about 5pm, the team trotting in after their long stage as “fresh as daises,” and I was safely landed in Taupo. The township, surveyed, occupies an angle formed by the north-eastern shore of the Lake and the river Waikato, by which the drainage of an immense area of country escapes from a long rest and advances by leaps and bounds, with short easy spells between, to the sleepy courses of the lower river and thence the sea. The township, built, occupies but a small number of the pegged out sections. The Government, however, I was informed, have fixed very high values on the sections, and a late Minister of Lands when on a visit to Taupo talked as if they would have to live in boats on the lake soon, for want of room on shore. Two hotels, a few small stores, whose profits are mainly derived from the natives, and whose business booms during local sitting of the Land Court, a smithy, post-and-telegraph office, large police quarters, a dozen and a half or so of small cottages, and a large bare “Government lawn,” make up the constructed town. A few gum trees planted some years ago have thriven well, and host Gallagher has put in a row of pines opposite his house to break the westerly winds. The young trees require strong moorings and break winds themselves in the meantime. The Lake Hotel is the largest building in the place, and from its balcony a magnificent view of the lake and of Tongariro and its neighbours can be had. A view of Taupo given in the Illustrated New Zealand News of Dec 20th, gives a correct idea of the situation, but the artist has been stingy with his “whites,” and makes the township less than it really is.

After tea Mr Gallagher kindly volunteered to conduct me to the principal steam works near the township, the Crow’s Nest Geyser, the chief local wonder in the eyes of the residents, situated a mile and a half away on the bank of the Waikato. The shades of evening fell before we reached the Nest, and to save going all the way for nothing – the geyser works but seldom, twice or thrice a day, and the people seem to have lost its calendar – we sat down on top of a steep bluff overlooking the river, whence the Nest could be dimly seen, to watch for signs of the Crow being about and awake.

And as we sat there, from a still pool of the dark Waikato beneath us, gleamed pale and ghastly through the twilight, the form of a dead body – a drowned corpse! There was no mistake about it! It was no phantasm, conjured up by an imagination affected by fatigue and the strange surroundings – the deep river far beneath us – the mournful rippling complaint of it as it tripped in its course over rocks at its edge – the hazy cloudlets of steam that crept, like ghosts from a churchyard, up the bank of the river above where a dim outline represented the lazy geyser – the stilly air – the growing darkness, leaving just such light as apparitions love – the strain upon the attention, in watching for the real spirit of the deeps to play up some pranks – all this might have excused one for forming foolish fancies. But this was a reality, no phantasy. Should not something be done? I drew Mr Gallagher’s attention to it. At first he doubted, but soon agreed that it was a dead body. He made no remark upon it, however, from which I inferred that the old white horse had not belonged to him.

The Crow made no sign, and in order that I might be able to find my way to it alone the next morning, we went on, and descended to within a few yards of the geyser, through a mass of flowering broom which someone has planted to give colour to the scene. Our approach did not disturb the sleeping bird, by this date familiar to contemptuousness with guides and gazers. My companion apostrophised the phenomenon, and in vigorous terms bade it phenomenize. I gather from the guide books and my own experience that intermittent geysers are very much like working bullocks, as to the style of language which is found most effectual in urging them to activity. The guides may be mistaken in this, and so may the bullock punchers. (N.B. “my own experience” I do not mean that I tried geyser driving at all.) As we descended to the river, confused murmurings and a regular throbbing sound became audible, the sources of which I was advised it were safer to seek in daylight. The positions of several interesting points were pointed out to me, including that of the “Witches’ Cauldron,” from which the throbbing sound issued, and I was invited to “smell the sulphur,” which however I failed to do. On our way back my companion drew my attention to the hollow sounds produced by our walking over a portion of the road, and converting our walk into a tramp, we evoked long rumbling sounds like distant thunder, beneath our feet. Quite evidently the ground there is cavernous. Enquiring, I was told there is no opening known to the cavity. With a practical eye to “opening up the country,” and “utilising our natural resources,” I asked “Why do you not bore and locate it, and tunnel into it from the river? You might find a cave in there that would be a ten times greater attraction as a show than the Crow’s Nest?” The native name of this locality is Tapuaeharuru, “Thundering Footsteps,” an appropriate name enough when translated, but in its natural state it is Dead Sea Fruit on the mouth of a new chum. There are some “alum caves” twenty miles or so down the river, that are thought much of. The Taupo people should work up a faith in their buried cave and have it dug out. It would require no great labor to tunnel from the river to the road, if necessary to go so far. Possibly a more diligent search would reveal a natural opening ready to hand.


Chapter 6 has been uploaded so take a look to find out what some of Taupo's thermal sites looked like in the mid 18 hundreds - find it and Chapters 7 - 9 under 'related topics'



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From Napier to Taupo and Back, Overland - 1887 - Chapter 5 by jochubb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License