Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Skyler and I arrived in Taupo late on Saturday afternoon, just as the fittest competitors in the Ironman competition were storming home, down the main street of the city, to the polite applause of gaggles of spectators. After a meal and a long, languid conversation with two old friends of Skyler's who live in a delightful fifties bungalow a few streets from the lake, we wandered back into the town centre, and discovered a huge boozy crowd celebrating the Ironman stragglers who were hobbling over the finishing line in groups of twos and threes.

'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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post. We stayed in Taupo for a family holiday last year, didn't get to Opepe, but did visit the delightful Taupo museum (tucked in behind the info centre), where in a side room there is some interesting 19th c historical material (IIRC Gazettes, reports from Superindendents etc), including some material on Opepe.

12:59 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always thought Te Kooti was a man of peace.

Now it turns out he killed.

I'm suprised.

1:01 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonder who 'Anonymous' has Te Kooti mixed up with?

Probably Te Whiti :-)

2:41 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nothing wrong with anonymous' comment. You have to think dialectically. Te Kooti brought peace along with war. He brought the peace of death to men like the war criminal Biggs who were a stain on the earth. Later, when the killing had been done, his church spread where his sword could not.

Te Kooti had (has) great powers. He could travel from one place to another distant place in the blinking on an eye. He could fortell the future. He could change the past. He invented a religion and he invented modern New Zealand art. Leigh Davis called him the first greatest and in a sense only New Zealander.


3:23 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

"Pat" was that comment by Davis on or in his essay or speech about Shane Cotton and Maori art? - I found it interesting but rather (probably deliberately provocative) - I think his general drift is wrong there but he had some interesting points involving Te Kooti

"anonymous" - how can you carry out a war of resistance and not kill? The problem is that the opposition see such a "peaceful stance" as weakness and kill you before you get chance to do any peace making - sure negotiation is preferable to war - but... life intervenes or reality or whatever...

6:05 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes that was the source Richard.

What was wrong with it?


8:13 pm  
Blogger Richard said...


I'd need to see a copy of the whole article - it was complex in nature and could be misconstrued - he says something like "there is no Maori art now "... but taken out of context this is misleading (and could be hurtful - and I (strongly!) suspect it is quite wrong)) and I disagree - in context he makes some good points about the vitality of a culture that is "living" and self-generating but I would need to go through the whole thing but it was only on a PDF think and I couldn't or wasn't able to; or allowed to; copy it - Maps had a (one sided - they didn't answer - one suspects arrogance but one doesn't know if there is silence)) controversy with Davis and Curnow -the trouble is neither replied or got into real debate - only silence. Also they didn't reply to "accusations" by (I cant recall the name of the person - she was part Samoan I think and is now deceased - ad in an issue of Brief Mag (when John Geraets was the editor)) about a book they had done - it was accused of being racially biased or looking like it was)); my feeling is that Davis "intellectualised" the art of Shane Cotton too much* - I feel he is valid artist and Maori art like any art of any people is going strong and is relevant and various...but Davis had some interesting points about Te Kooti and cleverly linked it to (some works of) Giotto etc

* He may "over intellectualise in general" - the other extreme is not good either though. I'm not criticising his post modernistic to theoretician's approach or his poetry itself - what I have seen of his work is challenging if not exactly what I would want to aim to do...although I am somewhat also influenced also by the language poets etc

1:03 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes this is a good post -it shows there are many sides to any history especially that involving war and conflict...

My local library has some CDs by Belich - are they good Maps? His TV series was good but I believe Cowan is in some ways even more scathing of the Euroreans...perhaps he is less "biased" to either side - lack of some bias is impossible of course.

We have to accept this account of George Crosswell as heroic and the actions (or this particular incident) of Te Kooti unpalatable to say the least - but it is a tragic part of war...it was more brutal than most of can imagine I would say...

1:13 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hope you've had a chance to visit Te Kooti's pa at Te Porere. They are a a nice bookend to Opepe I think, especially on a grey misty day.

By the way, Peter Clayworth might be able to supply you a copy of his PhD thesis, you can email him at peterclayworth at hotmail dot com.

4:47 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

on the Moriori,I mean

4:48 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Te Porere is incredible - I've been there a few times but intend to return soon. Smithyman wrote a poem about the place:

Air which does not know about corrupting
or the state of the nation breathes you in
to tussock and out to plains statement
running away from the mountains.
Roads which connect one scheme to another
look across a century and a score of years
to the gunfighters’ redoubt,
the last pitched battle.

Te Porere was not well designed:
Te Kooti did not understand his limits.
He was outsmarted, and outgunned.
Thirty-seven were killed, thirty women and kids taken.
Government had four dead, four wounded.
Those are facts of the matter.

Visiting Te Porere you feel unduly exposed.
That you are tested? This may be.
Or disillusioned? On the contrary, it is more
like locating (if only briefly) in a heartland
somewhere continental where memory spreads wider,
talk of romance or pity is irrelevant.
Logically, you realise the scale’s all wrong.
Nonetheless, you could be persuaded.

28. 10. 88

1:01 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:14 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It reminds me of 'the blood of a viper in a land of none' by Dalbeg Maksoudian. Maksoudian is a severely underrated poet imho.
To me it strikes a balance between petty commentary and the withering wit of a reluctant immigrant.
It's not everyone's cup of tea, but its not bad.

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