According to Russell

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs
Russell was an old-school forester, with a knowledge of local history. During our short time together he became a mentor.

Submitted: June 23, 2017

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Submitted: June 23, 2017

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As a young forest ranger I was sent to Herbert Forest because the boss was in hospital battling cancer, a fight that he was destined to lose. Russell came back, more or less on light duties and I felt that he wanted to instil in me some of the intrinsic values of his place in time. He had been a deer culler in his younger days so was adept at survival and self-reliance. His schooling may have been limited, nevertheless he was intelligent, resourceful and he taught me a lot that you don’t find in textbooks! He was deeply interested in local Maori history and appreciated my willingness to listen.

His accent was southern New Zealand, and it took a little time for me to catch on. For instance he asked me to preserve a special tree known to me as Pokaka, but he pronounced it a P’cawcaw. I knew he knew what he was talking about but I didn’t to twig his accent until he talked about the slope of a hill down the main road. Rather than using the actual creek name that is Kakaho, but locals for years had dropped the ho. So Russell referred to it the Cawcaw so from then on I understood him.

It’s been established that there was a Maori Pa on a ridge to the north of Hood’s creek, and in the early days of colonisation, the ridge was ploughed in preparation for a crop of wheat. According to Russell two sugar bags of Maori artefact were revealed and picked up, but somehow they have disappeared, somehow lost. We think of a Pa as being a fortified encampment or village, but it seems more likely this had been a simple, regular encampment. We associate artefacts as being greenstone or stone tools, but such things would have been valuable to the residents, so the two sacksful of artefacts may not have been of value in the opinion of the finder so were perhaps discarded.

Throughout the forest, especially within the vicinity of the Pa site, there are large depressions in the ground that are recognisable as umu, Maori ovens. Heated rocks were used in the pits to cook ti kouka, cabbage tree taproots, which was the only source of carbohydrate for South Island Maori. Russell and I never found bone or stone implements around those sites. It is likely, according to Russell, that the encampment was where the seasonal cooking of ti kouka took place, rather than needing a fortified position. However there would have been plenty of birdlife in the area to supplement their diet while they were camped there.  

According to Russell, another lot of artefacts were found in what was called the Otepopo Bush. Some remnants of the bush area remain, but not much of it. Again, none of the remnants are displayed or catalogued anywhere but apparently the artefacts showed there had been a battle there. It is likely that it was the same group of Maori that cooked the ti kouka, who were living in a more substantial settlement near the mouth of the Waianakarua River, a good place to fish and where there was plenty of flax for weaving.

These Waianakarua Maori had warning that a marauding North Island tribe in several waka, canoes, was on their way. They were looking for a fight, had been capturing slaves or stealing pounamu, greenstone. The news was that they were dangerous. Apparently the Waianakarua Maori gathered all their pounamu and hid it in a pond, surrounded by Ngio trees situated on the hill to the south of the river mouth. It is speculated that the pounamu was never recovered! Not by the owners or later by fortune-seekers.

Taking heed of the warning, the Waianakarua Maori prepared to repulse the invaders. According to Russell, there were two places where fortifications could be prepared. The first is adjacent to Mount Charles, where there is a small, steep hill with a flattened top. A pile of spoil can be seen to the side. According to Russell, what we don’t know is how long did they have to do the work, or if the site was already prepared. The other site is a steep bluff overlooking the confluence of the north and south branches of the Waianakarua River. If time was short this would be a good place to make a stand but there was access behind this area, so it was not quite so secure.

Regardless of which area the Waianakarua Maori chose to make their stand, somehow the main battle occurred in the Otepopo Bush, slap-bang between the two possible sites. The outcome of the battle, and we don’t even know if there had been skirmishes or if it was one pitched battle, but the Waianakarua Maori drove their attackers ‘into the sea’. Even that term may be misleading. In retreat were the attackers picked off? Did some manage to refloat their waka and escape by sea? Or did the Waianakarua Maori stand with arms folded and watch as the invaders paddled away into the distance.

There is a curious addition to the tale. A woman and a boy who were unrelated, became separated from the attacking party and managed to escape up into the hills, the area the forest now occupies. They lived up there for two years, supposedly in a cave in Hoods Creek. I have scoured that creek and there is no cave there, it is all schist rock, but across a couple of ridges the rock type is different and there are rock shelters, one of them quite substantial. We found a small, charcoal drawing of a man and a dog, just above the entrance to it, but was that the pair, or others who drew it?

There is another story there, but not according to Russell.


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