'IRON-MAN, IRON-MAN', the crowd chanted, as Queen's 'We Will Rock You' thrashed away in the background. The chant seemed particularly inappropriate when a frail woman in her sixties collapsed through the ticker tape into the arms of ambulance staff. I was touched, all the same, by the way the inhabitants of Taupo celebrated competitors simply for finishing their event. Men and women who had swum three kilometres, cycled one hundred and eighty kilometres, and ran - or, more often, limped - a marathon were visibly moved by the numbers of people who were waiting for them in the drizzly dark. Like the spectators who cheered Eric the Eel and Eddie the Eagle on at the Olympics, the crowd at Taupo seemed to appreciate effort and enthusiasm more than natural ability. It's hard to imagine a crowd of Aucklanders with a similar bias.
On Sunday morning we visited Opepe, the place fifteen kilometres down the Taupo-Napier highway which was the starting point for one of New Zealand's earlier endurance runs. In the middle of 1869 a small group of volunteer cavalrymen occupied the abandoned Maori village at Opepe, and prepared to turn it into a redoubt. The men had been ordered to defend the track between Taupo and Hawkes Bay from Te Kooti, the Maori prophet and guerrilla fighter who had been hiding from government forces in the Urewera ranges in the northeast.
After suffering several punitive invasions by armies of Pakeha volunteers and Te Arawa kupapa, the Tuhoe people of the Ureweras had been forced to ask Te Kooti to leave the shelter of their forests. The government feared that Te Kooti would move west, and try to link up with the Tainui King Tawhiao, who was living in exile in the rugged central North Island after his defeat in the Waikato War of 1863-64. Tawhiao had already established relations with Titokowaru, whose army was waging war on the settlers of the Taranaki, and the Crown was deeply worried by the prospect of a three-front war.
For reasons that are still unclear, the cavalrymen who moved into Opepe in early June 1869 were assured of their immediate safety by the commanders who sent them. Colonel St John, who had ridden down to Opepe with the cavalrymen, told them that the place was 'as safe as London', and then mounted his horse and rode back to his heavily fortified base at Galatea. Whether St John knew it or not, Opepe was in the path of Te Kooti's army, which had begun to move out of the Ureweras towards the great lake in the centre of the North Island, where the rebels hoped to gain some support and recruits from the Tuwharetoa people.
On the late afternoon of June the 7th, 1869, most of the volunteer cavalrymen were resting in their huts at Opepe, recovering from a day spent hunting for sheep in the bush around the settlement. Several of the men had taken their sodden clothes off, and hung them over an open fire to dry. The soliders had not bothered to post a sentry, so they were surprised when a tall Maori dressed in the blue and white uniform of the Te Arawa kupapa strolled into the midst of their camp. Seeing the man's clothing, the cavalrymen emerged from their huts to greet him, and offer him some food and drink. None of them knew what Te Kooti looked like, and none of them knew that the feared rebel had captured a number of Te Arawa uniforms during a raid on Whakatane earlier in the year. While Te Kooti stood in the centre of the campsite smiling, his arm outstretched, his followers crept out of the surrounding bush, and aimed their muskets at the naked, unarmed cavalrymen.
The bodies of the cavalrymen were covered with strange hieroglyphic cuts, and left exposed to the elements. Te Kooti gave his own mounted followers the uniforms of the slain men, and left a letter stuck to the point of a sword at the centre of the campsite:
These men fell. They were mine. That is all.
This is another subject. You will wonder who were the fighting party. God was the fighting party. This is a judgment of God to show his might to the world and especially to the wicked...
George Crosswell was one of the men who escaped the attack on Opepe. He ran naked into the bush, hearing musket balls strike the trees around him, and kept running for forty kilometres, until the he reached the safety of Galatea. Despite his lack of clothes and the mid-winter weather, Crosswell was relatively unharmed by his ordeal. After resting a few days to allow his swollen and cut feet to heal, he resumed his duties. When James Cowan was researching his massive history of the 'Maori wars' in the early 1920s, he was able to call upon Crosswell in the little Bay of Plenty town of Opotiki, where the old soldier had settled down on a piece of land given to him as a reward for his service.
After Te Kooti's victory at Opepe, the Crown built a network of eleven redoubts between Taupo and Napier. In a sense, Te Kooti was the founder of the town of Taupo: today's central business district grew up around the redoubt that was built beside the spot where the Waikato comes out of Lake Taupo. (If you ever wind up in the police cells at Taupo, just take a look through the bars of your window, and you'll see the remains of the redoubt, including a little pumice-stoned storehouse and a couple of trenches.) Opepe was reoccupied, and for a while a small town grew up around its redoubt. Today, though, the area is once again uninhabited, and visitors can walk over the site of the redoubt, the detritus of the town, and a gravesite that houses some of the men killed by Te Kooti, as well as soldiers who died of less violent causes in the 1870s. A group of pines planted around the graveyard in the 1870s stand like sentries, but elsewhere the Department of Conservation is posioning and removing exotic vegetation, so that native podocarps like rimu and matai have more room to spread their branches. Even in early March, walking on a well-established and carefully maintained path, I found the bush cool and damp. By the time I'd looped around the cemetery, crossed a ditch made by an ancient lava flow, spotted a morepork on a branch of an ancient rimu, and stepped back into the carpark, my shirt and the soles of my shoes were soaked. How must George Crosswell have felt on the night of June the 7th, 1869, as he ran naked away the burning huts of Opepe and the bodies of his comrades, through the trackless freezing dark?
George Crosswell ran almost a full marathon, and he ran naked, like the ancient Greeks, in the less than Mediterranean weather of the central North Island in June. Whereas Pheideppides had the exultation of victory to carry him, Crosswell had nothing to report to his commanders but disaster. Unlike his Greek predecessor, who died of his exertions, Crosswell lived to a ripe old age. He may have been fighting on the wrong side of the New Zealand Wars, but the man surely deserves a cheer or two.