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Trails Through the New Zealand Countryside

Manukau to Paihia. 1842

This trail begins towards the end of a return journey from Paihia to Waikaremoana by William Colenso, explorer, botanist, missionary etc.

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The time for Colenso's return from his holiday was now drawing near, and on the 1st February he crossed the river to the north bank and set off on foot along the beach. That evening he reached the south head of the Manukau Harbour and camped among the sandhills about three miles from the entrance. In the morning he secured a canoe from a neighbouring village for the trip up the harbour to Otahuhu, but before leaving he walked to the Rev. James Hamlin's station at Awhitu, on Orua Bay, only to find the family away from home on a visit to Te Waipuna. He thought the mission a cheerless place. The house was poorly constructed and surrounded by a barren waste of sand which extended to the very doorstep. Disappointed, he returned to the canoe and set off up the harbour under a scorching sun. During the afternoon a favourable breeze sprang up, and, aided by blankets hoisted as sails, the party reached Otahuhu. Two days were spent at the mission station with Mr. and Mrs. W. T. Fairburn. Their eldest daughter, Elizabeth, whom Colenso remembered as a young girl at Mrs. Henry Williams's boarding school for the daughters of missionaries some years previously, was absent from home.

Colenso found the surroundings of Otahuhu most depressing. The many isolated conical hills, terraced for defensive purposes, indicated a once numerous native population, but the district was now largely uninhabited as the result of sanguinary wars. Even the koitareke, the native quail, which had once abounded, was being exterminated by imported dogs, cats, rats and other vermin. From this unpromising spot, however, two new plants were collected, Coprosma crassifolia and a small fern, Gymnogramme leptophylla.

They set out again in the canoe on the 4th, after having procured a quantity of rice from Auckland as provisions for the remainder of the journey, and paddled down the harbour against a high wind which threatened to swamp their low overladen bark. They had no guide, but were informed that the track for Kaipara left the Manukau at a place called Te Wau. Here they landed, and, finding no obvious track, proceeded by venture along a path that led in a northerly direction. It took them nearly two days to reach the lonely shores of the Kaipara - two days of travel over a barren, deserted and uninteresting countryside which, until they neared the harbour, was destitute of tree or shrub, and then supported only a few isolated clumps of kauri - the remnants of a once mighty forest which had been consumed by fire. Some of these few survivors were even now burning fiercely, having been carelessly set alight by passing natives.

No progress could now be made without a canoe, and for the next two days they unsuccessfully searched for some native who might help them on their way. Nearby they found a deserted village, but no trace of its recent inhabitants other than a piece of board marked off for draughts on one side and bearing on the other a text written with charcoal. Colenso here left a note stating his plight and desire for a canoe, hoping the message might soon be found by returning natives. Impatient at the delay and tormented by mosquitoes, which bred in millions on the low muddy shores of the harbour, he cast about for some means of escape from this wretched situation. The position was becoming desperate when on the 8th, while again reconnoitering the country he happened to espy with his telescope what appeared to be the roof of a hut in the far distance. Two of the lads were sent off with a note, and after a considerable time they returned accompanied, much to Colenso's relief, by two white men in a boat.The whole party was at once rowed to the house, which was some miles distant, and there they were received with practical hospitality. The men, who were sailors, had recently settled at that place, and insisted on Colenso occupying their only bed, though this necessitated their leaving the house for the night. Their solicitude did not, however, ensure rest for their guest, for the ever-present mosquitoes were reinforced by an army of fleas, and under their combined attacks Colenso spent a night of misery. The hosts apparently slept more comfortably in their makeshift quarters, for they arose so late in the morn that the tide was lost and no start could be made. It was evening before the tide was again full, but as the men were reluctant to face a night voyage in their much-patched and leaky boat it became necessary to spend another night at Kaukopakopa, as the locality was called. That same night a Maori woman arrived and informed them that there was a track leading to Whangarei, commencing at a small creek named Ikaranganui at Kaipara Heads. No better information being available, Colenso decided to attempt this route. Mindful of his experience of the previous night, he refused to again occupy his hosts' bed, and slept out in the fern, with the satisfactory result that an early start was made. They called at Omokoiti, a distance of 35 miles on their way, and tried to obtain a guide, but without success. When they started across the harbour entrance in their cranky vessel, the heavy breakers rolling in from the Tasman rendered the passage one of considerable danger. A successful landing was made on the North Head, and here they camped for the night among the sandhills.

"The Heads of Kaipara and the adjacent country for several miles . . . are high hills of sand, utterly destitute of verdure and presenting a most desolate appearance; the shoals within and without the Heads are extensive and numerous over which the sea breaks continually; often terrifically. Here it was that the Sophia Pate was lately lost; when all her passengers perished, a more melancholy looking spot could scarcely be conceived, not even by the most creative imagination."

A pull of twelve miles next morning brought them to Otamatea, where Colenso had been informed he might obtain reliable directions from the native teacher, but no sign of life could be found until after rowing some distance up the creek they saw a house, apparently the abode of a European, on the river bank. They landed, but were dissapointed to find the house unoccupied.

"The house, which was open, was very clean and tidy. On a shelf were plates, cups and saucers, seeds in bags, &c. and beneath were tea-kettle, frying pan, buckets, &c. A mattress, bolster and pillow were rolled neatly together; a glazed and coloured print, representing the Crucifixion of Christ, hung against the wall; and beneath was a fowling piece. In a corner, on a shelf, were a hair-brush, a hat-box containing a hat, a New Zealand Testament and other things. On another shelf were paper and pens; while three large and locked chests, a good cane-bottom chair, and a table completed the furniture of the room. Out of doors, in the garden, were raspberry-bushes and peach-trees, and maize, melons, gourds, onions, &c. in abundance. An out-house contained a fishing-net upon a platform; and in another out-house on the hill, at about 200 yards distance, we found wheat in bags and in the straw, oil in calabashes, pit saws, and carpenter's tools. In front of the house stakes had been driven to form an embankment against the sea, which came up very near it; while behind the house a way had been cut down the face of the hill, to conduct a small stream of water into the little garden."

Colenso was much impressed with this neat little habitation in the wilderness, so expressive of the self-respect, industry and refinement of its owner, whom he assumed to be a European settler. He took the opportunity of pointing out to his pakeha companions that they might very probably copy such a good example. He was sitting in the shade of the verandah considering what should be his next step when his eye lighted on a slate hanging beside the door and bearing an inscription. This proved to be a message for the owner from a native, and disclosed that the owner of the property was William Stephenson, a Christian native teacher. This rather surprising information was confirmed by a closer examination of the Testament and other papers in the house. Colenso was greatly gratified at this evidence of progress on the part of a native, "without doubt the highest step in civilization I had yet seen among the New Zealanders during more than seven years' residence among them!"

A search further up the stream failing to reveal any sign of native habitation, Colenso decided to proceed up the great Wairoa River, and had engaged the owners of the boat to take him an estimated distance of 190 miles up the harbour and river, when, on rounding the headland at the creek entrance, they came upon a party of natives from Hokianga, some of whom were were old acquaintances These people professed to know the track he was in quest of and provided him with a guide. Thus relieved of some anxiety, Colenso turned the boat and they proceeded about twelve miles up the little river before camping for the night. A further row of six miles next morning brought them to a point where the guide informed them the overland track commenced, but no track was to be seen. The guide showed a strange reluctance to leave the boat, but assured them that as soon as they got over a nearby hill they would come upon a good track. Colenso, having had some experience of the ways of native guides whom he did not know personally, had doubts as to the veracity of this information, and at length induced him to go over the hill with Aperahama and another native and show them the road. Presently one of the natives returned, stating it was all right; the guide had gone over the hill with Aperahama. Soon the guide also returned, reporting that he had Ieft Aperahama safely on the road. On receipt of this cheerful news Colenso bade farewell to his white friends, who set off down the stream, carrying the guide with them. The travellers quickly shouldered their burdens and set off. For two hours they struggled through a jungle of fern and brushwood before they overtook a disgusted Aperahama, who, to their dismay, said he had not seen any road. There was nothing left to do but to proceed, and all the rest of the day they battled on through " a horrid interwoven mass of shrubs and prickly creepers, fern and cutting grass, and prostrate trees and swamps and mud," guided only by compass, until at sundown they halted, weary and dispirited, in a little valley.

Aperahama had come all the way from the East Coast, cheerfully accepting all the privations of the long journey, but the miseries and disappointments of that wretched day proved too much for even his loyalty. Throwing his Testament and Prayer Book on the ground, he shouted at the astonished missionary: "You have stained your hands with human blood. To morrow I shall be baptized by the Pikopo. Should I not be ashamed of you?" Then, declaring he would find his own way, he cast off the last trammels of civilisation in the symbolical act of tearing off his trousers, and, attired only in a blanket, vanished into the scrub.

Next day, being the Sabbath, was spent in this desolate spot, but early the following morning they caught from an elevation a glimpse of the sea and later a view of the Mangawai creek and the island of Taranga gave them their bearings. Colenso hurried on ahead of his companions and soon reached the creek, which he managed to wade just before the flowing tide rendered the wide channel impassable. From here, however, he took the wrong direction, and after wandering among the sandhills was compelled to return to the creek. An hour's heavy tramp brought him to the sea beach. Of his companions he could find no trace. Concluding that they had gone on up the coast, he pressed on, hungry and weary, expecting at any moment to fall in with them. He shouted aloud in the hope that they would hear. "Nought but the loud dash of the billow on the lonely strand, with now and then the melancholy wail of the sandpiper, burst on my expectant ear."

Then followed a nightmare day. Colenso, tired, wet and ravenously hungry, his clothing in tatters, struggled along the deserted beach. Soon the impassable headland of the northern entrance of the Mangawai inlet barred his way and drove him inland to climb to the summit of the high hill. Still no sign of the natives was to be seen. Overcome by exhaustion and weak from hunger, he sat down and almost wept. It was, however, useless to remain where he was, and be determined to return to the shore. Forcing his way through the tangled brush he at length regained the beach and quickly ran to the water's edge, eagerly scanning the stretch of sand. No human being could be seen. The sand showed no trace of human feet. The tide had now receded, and he decided to return to the Mangawai, concluding that the natives had been prevented by the inflowing tide from following him across the stream and had taken the inland route for Whangarei. Back he went, but still there was no sign whatever of the men.

He was wearily dragging his feet along the beach towards the north headland in the commencement of an attempt to find his way alone to some coastal village where he might obtain food and assistance when, after travelling a few miles, he was overjoyed to see a native emerge from a thicket bordering the beach. He hurried forward and found it to be the truant Aperahama, now in chastened mood and eager for the society of his former companions. The prodigal soon started a fire by friction of wood, and while Colenso essayed to allay his hunger with roasted shellfish his now obedient follower made a trip to the Mangawai creek in the hope of detecting some sign of the others. He presently returned disconsolate, and they determined to push on up the coast together. The bold and rocky shores provided many difficult obstacles and necessitated climbing the precipitous cliffs where passage along the besch was prevented by bluffs. When they reached Paepaeotu, the south headland of Whangarei Bay, Colenso felt unequal to following Aperahama's example of cat-climbing round the cliff, and had to drag his weary body up the high headland and over the hill and then descend by way of a dangerous and broken cliff to the beach. Before he got there he was praying for strength and almost sobbing from exhaustion. Slowly he stumbled along the sand until, to his relief, he saw his companion returning in some concern, having assumed from his failure to follow that he had fallen from the cliff.

Darkness was now close, and as the tide had almost covered the beach and reached the line of cliffs, they took to the dense, jungle-like woods above, searching for a place where they would have at least water at their camp. They struggled on until it became pitch black among the trees and they were obliged to halt, " sans water, sans food, sans shelter, sans fire; rain too beginning to fall!" The resourceful Aperahama however, presently brought in two young nikau palms and they supped on the crisp young leaves.

"Rolling myself up in my tent I soon fell asleep; and the night [was] undisturbed by mosquitoes. Thus closed one of the most eventful days of my whole life. Kahikatoa, with hairy calyx and berry; sandbills 5-12 ft. Chara in watercourse Coprosma. . . "

The privation, anxiety and weariness of even that terrible day had failed to extinguish the ardour of the botanist.

Before the sun was up they made a breakfastless start, and after two hours' march over the rocky beach reached Waipu cove. To their dissappointment, they found it deserted. The only food to be discovered was some karaka berries. After a short rest they hurried on as best they could, leaving a note fixed to a stake in case the missing bearers should still be behind them. Soon further progress was stopped by the deep estuary of the Waipu River, and here they had to wait for several hours, consumed by thirst, until the tide had ebbed. At mid-afternoon they placed their clothes on a log of wood and, pushing it before them, swam safely to the other side. Still no water could be found. They had travelled another twelve thirsty miles before they found a bog hole with water that was drinkable after the insects with which it was infested had been removed by straining through a cloth.

That night they made camp under Ruakaka headland. An hour later, to their tremendous relief, the missing bearers came hurrying along the beach. Their story was soon told. Stopped by the rising tide at the Mangawai creek they had made camp, and, wearied by the rough journey from Kaipara, had slept late into the following day. Then, greatly concerned at the absence of Koroneho, they had hurried on, refusing to touch the food they carried as, he being without food, they must share his privation, and had subsisted on the scant fare of shellfish and karaka berries, which was all the countryside provided. "We all made a hearty and joyful meal this evening; and I trust all gave God heartful thanks for his great mercies vouchsafed unto us."

Next morning they reached Ruakaka, the first place of habitation they had seen since leaving the Kaipara harbour, and were hospitably received by Pou, the local chief. From here they crossed the bay in a small canoe and landed at Tamaterau, where they found a gathering of the local chiefs on account of the illness of Te Amo-o-terini, the principal chief of the district. Te Amo was Iying in a wooden trough filled with warm water, which his wife was pouring over him. He explained that his sickness was the result of his being bewitched by the Whakatohea tribe. This diagnosis was unanimously confirmed by the assembled chiefs, and, knowing the often fatal consequences of such a conviction, Colenso did his best to dissipate his fears, though with little apparent result. After breakfast they left the makutu-stricken chief and proceeded on to Parua and Kawa Bay. The walk through the intervening kauri forest was productive of many botanical specimens, and while Colenso was being borne over the Horahora creek on the back of a sturdy native the latter had his toe bitten by a small red fish. Colenso immediately jumped into the water and secured the aggressive creature, which he added to his collection. Kawa Bay was crossed by canoe, and at 8 p.m. they reached the Ngunguru River. Unable to cross the deep stream, they shouted and bawled until, after some time, a European heard them and fetched them across to the village in his boat. They stayed there all the next day, and on the l9th proceeded by boat to the south head of Whangaruru Bay, whence they continued to Owae by native canoe. Here the Sabbath was spent, and though disappointed by the lack of interest of the inhabitants in spiritual matters, a state common in villages subject to European contact, Colenso found much to engross him in the botany and insect and bird life of the neighbourhood. He was able to collect fine specimens of the huhu and weta, and recollected having here in 1839 found a fern tree (Cyathea dealoata) 38 feet high.

The long journey was now nearing its end. On the 21st Whangaruru Bay was crossed, and by noon they reached the head of the Whangaruru River. Landing at Tutaematai in pouring rain, they climbed over Te Ranga, a high hill crowned by kauri trees, and reached the Rev. Baker's station at Waikare, on the inner waters of the Bay of Islands. Next day they left for Paihia by boat, " and arrived there in safety - praised and blessed be our God for all His Mercies! Amen."

The extract above is reproduced (with permission) from pages 128 - 135 of the book WILLIAM COLENSO by A. G. Bagnall and G. C. Petersen, published by A. H. & A. W. Reed 1948.

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