Maturin Ballou.

Under the Southern Cross



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CHAPTER XVI

A Journey to the King's Country. – An Experienced "Whip." – Volcanic Hills. – A New Zealand Forest. – A Strangely Afflicted Boy. – Lake Rotorua. – Ohinemutu. – Funeral of a Maori Chief. – Wailing and Weeping. – Moonlight on the Lake. – Wonderland. – Spouting Geysers and Boiling Pools. – Savage Mode of Slaughter. – Maori Houses. – Chivalry and Cannibalism. – Savage and Civilized Life.

Here in Auckland we were also in the vicinity of the Hot Lake District of North New Zealand, and a week was devoted to a visit to the remarkable points of interest connected therewith. To accomplish this, one goes from the capital of the Province a hundred and thirty miles to Oxford, and thence thirty miles by stage to the native town of Ohinemutu. This route carries the traveller in a southeast course, and leads into the very heart of the North Island, among the Maori tribes. The cars took us over a level country, which however is bounded on either side, five or six miles distant, by lofty serrated hills, presenting a confusion of irregular forms. These hills contain an abundance of mineral wealth in the form of gold, silver, iron, coal, and manganese. Many low-lying marshy fields of native flax were observed, and the Waikato River was three times crossed in its winding course. Large plantations containing several thousand each of young pine-trees of the American species were seen, covering gentle slopes and many broad acres of level land, where Government is endeavoring to establish artificial forests throughout wide reaches of unwooded country. These trees grow more rapidly here than they do even in their native soil. Miles upon miles of this level country were covered only by the low-growing ti-tree and the ever present ferns; the former, being a sort of tall heath, was in some places in bloom, producing an effect as if a light fall of feathery snow had lodged upon the delicate branches. Flocks of sheep and lambs were numerous, but the population was sparse. The whole landscape was lighted up here and there by the bright yellow leaves of the wattle-tree, which contrasted strongly with the black beech, the deep green of the cabbage-palm, and what is called the white-pine, which is totally unlike any pine we ever saw. Several miniature villages were passed through, where a few small European houses clustered in the neighborhood of the railroad depots, consisting of a blacksmith's forge, a grocery-store, a one-story inn, and three or four dwellings. There was plenty of water everywhere. Now it was a small and pretty stream, and again it was a large river's course. At one rural hamlet a rustic water-wheel was revolving, splashing and sparkling in the sunshine with a noisy, gleeful sound, telling how easily and thoroughly these fields might be irrigated. We passed through what is called the Waikato Pastures, a rural district where herds of fine-looking cattle were browsing, and where cheese-making is a flourishing industry.

Some coal mines were being worked upon the route, connected by side-tracks with this main branch of the railroad; the coal, it was plain to see, was a good article for domestic use or for manufacturing purposes. Small Maori encampments, composed of a dozen lodges each, were scattered along our way, the lazy, tattooed natives – men and women – lingering about the stations with blackened pipes in their mouths, smoking the rankest sort of tobacco, while they kept up a chattering like Benares monkeys. Why Maori women and savage squaws generally are so fond of wearing men's hats, with a feather stuck into them, we cannot understand; for though serving the purpose of a head-covering, they are far from being ornamental. The awkward Maori men looked doubly outr? in their ill-fitting European clothes.

Oxford is the somewhat pretentious name given to the hamlet where the railroad ends, containing five houses, one of which is the Oxford Royal, – a neat but circumscribed inn, affording us a sleeping apartment measuring exactly seven feet wide by nine in length. The stage-drive from here to Ohinemutu – the centre of the geysers, boiling springs, and mud caldrons, and also of the Maori reservation – is by a road a little over thirty miles in length, which we do not hesitate to pronounce to be the hardest to travel that it has yet been our misfortune to encounter. The patient reader will bear witness that we do not often parade the hardships of travel, but it makes our bones ache to recall those seven hours of staging; and yet they were by no means without their compensation. It was the author's good fortune to sit upon the box with an experienced and admirable "whip," – Harry Kerr by name, – who was fully equal to his business. The vehicle was an American stage, the harnesses on the horses were American made, and the stage line was owned by an American, – a resident in New Zealand for many years, during which time he has held a mail contract throughout the country. We travelled lightly, there being no other passenger, and four stout horses forming the motive power; but had not the stage been constructed of the best seasoned material, and put together in the most thorough manner, it would have been left upon the road in fragments before it had completed the trip. The traveller under such circumstances is always more or less dependent upon the intelligence of the driver who takes him through a new country, and we cheerfully acknowledge our indebtedness on this occasion. We can well understand why Harry Kerr is a favorite in the Auckland district.

On leaving Oxford the journey takes one at first through a section of country where the hills were thrown about in the wildest fashion during the ancient volcanic period, causing them to present a grotesqueness of aspect which is quite beyond description. Here the bowels of the earth vomited forth their fiery secretions of molten lava, and as it cooled, it formed itself into countless ridges and hills, no two of which are alike. The road wound over hills, down into gulches, and skirted precipices where to have deviated a few inches only from the proper track would have been instant destruction. As we rose to the summit of some elevation loftier than the rest, the view became expansive. From one of these summits was seen, nearly one hundred miles away on the far horizon, the broad, bold, snow-covered mountain Ruapehu, ten thousand feet high. The last portion of the journey from Oxford to Ohinemutu took us through one of the grandest forests in all New Zealand, extending eighteen or twenty miles without a human habitation or any sign of life, save the flutter of an occasional bird.

In this forest, mingled with tall columnar trees of various species, were seen frequent examples of the fern-tree thirty feet in height and of surpassing beauty, spreading out their plumed summits like an Egyptian palm, while the stem had the graceful inclination of the cocoanut-tree. Well has the fern-tree been called the forest Houri. The picturesque effect of the birches was also remarkable, flanked by the massive outlines and drooping tassels of the rimu, the soft luxuriance of the undergrowth adding charms to the whole. For miles of the way on either side of the road the forest was impenetrable even to the eye save for the shortest distance, presenting a tangled mass of foliage, vines, and branches such as can be matched only by the virgin forests of Brazil or the jungles of India. Ground-ferns were observed in infinite variety, sometimes of a silvery texture, sometimes of orange-yellow, but oftenest of the various shades of green. Here too we made acquaintance with the sweet-scented manuka, the fragrant veronica, and the glossy-leaved karaka, – this last the pride of the Maoris. A dark-colored shrub, with leaves like the orange-tree, their under side being of a quicksilver hue, was pointed out to us by the driver, which though poisonous, as he declared, to horses, sheep, and cattle, is nevertheless eaten by them with avidity whenever they chance to come upon it. Its first effect is to intoxicate them, and it will ultimately prove fatal unless an antidote is given. Many specimens of the lofty rimu-tree were seen, about whose tall white stems a parasitic vine was slowly and treacherously weaving itself, clasping and binding the upright body with such a marvellous power of compression as literally to strangle it, until ultimately the vine becomes a stout tree in place of the original. The most noted and destructive of these vegetable boa-constrictors is the gigantic rope-like rata, whose Gordian knot nothing can untie. The tree once clasped in its toils is fated, yielding up its sap and life without a struggle to cast off its deadly enemy. Many trees were observed whose stems bore branches only far above the surrounding woods, laden with bunches of alien foliage, – parasites like the mistletoe. Indeed, this forest seemed like vegetation running riot; and with its clumps of abnormal foliage, fixed like storks' nests in the tops of the trees, it recalled similar effects seen on the banks of the St. John's River in Florida.

Midway in these almost impenetrable woods, where the soil was literally smothered by vegetation and a wilderness of undergrowth, we came upon a lonely cottage, with a large barn and some outbuildings attached, which had been established by the owner of the stage line; and here our four jaded horses were changed for fresh ones.

At this isolated spot we saw a remarkably handsome boy between six and seven years of age, large and well-formed for one of his years, wearing only a blouse reaching to his knees, – otherwise being entirely without clothing. It was instantly apparent that he was mentally deficient, and his eccentric gambols caused us to make further inquiries. It seems that his mother, an intelligent Englishwoman, four or five months before the boy was born had been so terribly frightened by a furious bull as to throw her into convulsions, from which she was with difficulty restored. The eccentricities of the child began to exhibit themselves as soon as he had reached a twelvemonth, and from that period his actions became more animal than human. He cares only for vegetable food, living mostly on potatoes. The use of the knife and fork he utterly ignores, taking his food from the plate with his mouth, not using his hands. He smells of every new thing or person when first presented to his notice. He will not abide clothing beyond the blouse already spoken of, and when he is restrained in any purpose butts with his forehead like a bull. The boy has never uttered any words distinctly, though he makes half-articulate sounds of assent and negation. Sometimes he walks about with his head extended before him, mooing like a bovine, and on such occasions he takes no notice of any words addressed to him or any attempt to divert him. He is quite mischievous, but not viciously so; it is necessary to keep wire screens over the glass windows, which he would otherwise put his head through when he desired to get into the open air. He was running about the space before the house and roadway when we saw him, and submitted to our kindly caress, even uttering sympathetic sounds in response, while his large black eyes looked into our own with a half-pleading, half-grateful expression. The father told us that the favorite amusement of the boy was tossing small articles high into the air and seeing them fall to the earth. Having this in mind, we commissioned Harry Kerr to purchase a strong ball for the unfortunate child, and to bring it to him on the return trip. The health of the boy has always been perfect, and his strength is equal to that of a youth of twice his age. He has brothers, one older and one younger than himself, both of whom seem to be of even more than ordinary intelligence, and all are over-fond of the unfortunate one.

After leaving the forest and crossing a volcanic mountain, the road winds across the broad reach of table-land which borders Lake Rotorua, whose waters lay shimmering under the warm and brilliant tints of the afternoon sun. We drove for three or four miles along the side of this beautiful and romantic sheet of water, concerning whose one island the Maoris have many curious legends, prominent among which is one nearly identical with that of Leander and the Hellespont, – possibly antedating that classic story, and thus proving that "there is nothing new under the sun." This lake is justly celebrated for its scenic beauty and remarkable surroundings, being about ten miles long by eight or nine in width.

As we approached the quaint little settlement of Ohinemutu, over which floated a heavy sulphurous cloud of steam, a motley cort?ge was met, consisting of men, women, and children decked in all the gay colors which delight the Maori heart. Their heads were dressed in gorgeous feathers, yellow wattle-blossoms, and other fantastic ornaments, their faces rendered hideous by tattooing. Each of the women had an infant upon her back, held in position by a tawdry shawl arranged in the form of a sack and tied across the breast. These natives called to mind the feather-crowned Crow Indians of the Yellowstone Valley, both races living in a wonderland of geysers, boiling springs, and sulphurous vapor. This display proved to be a funeral procession in honor of a dead chief named Rotohika. Curiosity led us to follow the procession to the grave near at hand, where the ceremony was brief but peculiar. Two of the dead chief's wives knelt by the coarse wooden box which supplied the place of a coffin, and made sacrifice of their long dark locks of hair, cutting them from their heads and placing them in the box containing the body of the deceased. The box was then lowered into the grave, each relative throwing a shovelful of dirt upon it, and others followed, quickly filling up the cavity. The throng then returned to their huts with manifest eagerness, to participate in a grand feast. After the burial is completed the grave is placed under what is termed "tapu," – or in other words the spot is made sacred, to be avoided always; to tread upon it is considered a desecration.

We were told that formerly the burial ceremony of a chief involved the sacrifice of at least one human life. If the tribe had a prisoner of war on hand, his life sufficed. After sprinkling his blood upon the grave, his body was roasted and eaten at the grand feast which followed. The Maori "wakes" his dead after the Irish fashion, the revel lasting as long as the money holds out, and almost any excess is condoned on these occasions, which are characterized by the strangest and most weird dances, the wildest shouts and wailings, the most fantastic distortion of body and limbs that can be conceived of. On the occasion at which we were present the performers, especially the women, seemed to us for the time being to lose their reason, and to become maniacs, exciting one another to a state of frenzy. To listen to the native tangi, or wail for the dead, one would think it represented the most natural and heart-broken grief, accompanied as it is by a copious fall of tears; but this is all pretence. It is wonderful how these Maori women can summon such perfect showers of tears at will; we saw them shed Niagaras of brine, which of course deceived no one. It was as purely a mechanical operation as is the work of a hydraulic ram. A wail of grief is started by some one among the mourners, when it is taken up and continued for hours by the others, now one and now another prolonging the note with unabated vigor. Though realizing that this is so largely mere pretence, one cannot listen to the sad note of the tangi without a corresponding sense of sorrowful emotion. The present occasion being the decease of a great man among them, drew forth the most exaggerated expressions, and the wailing was at times almost deafening.

The Lake House, presided over by the intelligent and lady-like Mrs. Graham, afforded us every comfort as well as admirable service, hardly to be anticipated in so isolated a spot. The window of our chamber overlooked Lake Rotorua; and as the moon was at its full on that first evening of our arrival, the scene was indescribably lovely. It was an inspiration to stand on the shore of the lake, beholding the heavens above, and their reflected glory in the mirror-like waters below. The wailing, singing, and dancing among the natives had ceased; the performers had rolled themselves in their blankets, and worn out with excess were sleeping; the night and its peace were over all, – and yet it was as light as mid-day. One certainly feels inclined to give New Zealand moonlight precedence over anything of the sort elsewhere. How it silvered the unruffled surface of the lake! So calm, so intense, so dazzlingly brilliant were its shining waters that they seemed to put the stars out of countenance. With a couple of tawny, tattooed natives we took a long, lazy row upon Rotorua at midnight, "the dusky hour friendliest to sleep and silence," permitting the boat at times to float after its own fancy, while we dreamed a dream of peace. So quiet were the scene and the hour that both oarsmen leaned upon the thwarts and slept. It was enchantment verified; one was loath to break the spell by arousing the sleepers and turning shoreward. By and by the silence, only slightly broken by the light dip of the oars, became almost oppressive, and we said, "Give us a song, men! a Maori song;" and those rough, dark-hued rowers broke forth in a low, weird chant as we glided smoothly over the water, seeming to be the only adjunct needed to fill the measure of that midnight hour.

And yet it is difficult to say which was the more inspiring, – the sweet, suggestive hours of the moon's reign, or those of the delicious break of day across the lake, so quickly followed by the sunrise. How responsive were the waiting waters to every fresh hue and color of the returning morn! The moonlight had recalled many thoughts of the past, memories both sad and joyous; while the sunlight was full of hope, promise, and present grandeur. Those of our readers who have seen at the foot of the Maritime Alps, on the shores of the Mediterranean, the change of night into morning, will most readily understand what the break of day really is over Lake Rotorua.

Once fairly within the area of this south land of varied wonders, the most active volcanic region of the Antipodes, nothing seems too strange to be true; geysers, fumaroles, boiling springs, and dry stones burning hot beneath one's feet, as though the surface of the land covered Nature's chemical laboratory, are all regarded by the visitor as quite the proper thing, – in fact, just what is to be expected. Even the scores of naked Maori bathers, of both sexes, outrage no sense of propriety in this weird atmosphere of Ohinemutu. One seems to be surrounded by a race upon whose semi-civilization the era of clothes has not yet dawned. The Maori inhabitants of Wairoa, the native town which was so recently buried with all its people by a volcanic outburst, had no more reason to anticipate any immediate danger than have these natives on the banks of Lake Rotorua. Indeed, so far as external evidence of subterranean volcanic force is concerned, the inhabitants of Wairoa had not one half the threatening tokens about them that exist here at every turn. Sulphur, alkaline, and iron-impregnated pools of inviting temperature induce one to indulge in frequent baths, and it seems but natural that the natives in their semi-nude condition should pass so much of their time in the water, both sexes mingling in this pleasure as they would do in the ordinary avocations of life. Near to the shore, where the lake is shallow, a boiling spring forces its way to the surface of the surrounding cold water, telling of a submerged fiery caldron underlying the lake at that particular point. It was, however, no more significant than the scores of other steam-holes and spouting geysers which force themselves to the surface all about this sulphurous region. In short, the town of Ohinemutu is built on a thin crust, roofing over, as it were, a vast fiery furnace, whose volcanic eccentricities form the marvel of the locality.

Here then the traveller eats, drinks, and sleeps above a series of suppressed volcanoes. One could not but recall the fate of Lisbon and of half-exhumed Pompeii. Many of these springs and geysers are so hot that a mere touch of the water will blister the human flesh as quickly as contact with red-hot iron. Others are of a temperature suitable for boiling vegetables; and still others by artificial means – that is, the introduction of cool surface-water – are rendered of a temperature suitable for bathing purposes. One must walk cautiously among these boiling mud-pits, open springs, and steam-holes; a misstep might prove instantly fatal. Caldrons lie on either side of the path, within a few inches of where one may be walking all unsuspiciously. A Maori child lately disappeared while playing near some sulphurous jets. A full-grown aboriginal met the same fate not long ago; he had been partaking too freely of intoxicants, and sank into the Stygian darkness without uttering a cry. One coolly records these facts; but what an awful fate to encounter!



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