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Taniwha of Poukaria

Taniwha of Poukaria
 
 
 
 
 

THE MAORI culture was deeply steeped in New Zealand’s unique natural wonders. These islands are reputed to be the world’s last large land mass to be settled just 800 short years ago. Before then it was a mysterious lost world. The Maori had to make the most of the resources here, totally different from what they had known in the Pacific Islands where they had come from.

The Maori people carry deep spiritual beliefs tied in with the land. They believe everything has its own mauri, or spirit, and amongst these spirits are great monsters lurking in the deep and dark hollows of the river.

Upon reaching the end of a straight the river turned 90 degrees to the left, entering the barely noticeable Whatanuku rapid. Low mudstone cliffs rose on either side with three terraces on the right hand side explaining the name meaning to move elevating to a higher level. A single phone wire crossed over the river no doubt to service a remote farm.

Layers in the mudstone

Layers in the mudstone

Half way around the bend we passed the mouth of the Ruataniwha Stream coming out in a shingle bank to the right as we went down the Koiro rapid. Ruataniwha means a hole with a taniwha monster in it. The Maori believed the deep water holes of the rivers and coasts had huge monsters in them, often describing them as snakes or crocodiles even though New Zealand has never had either of these. It is believed that these accurate depictions are from stories told down the generations from a time in the distant past when the ancestors of the indigenous settlers had come from islands of the Pacific tropics where these animals had been common. These stories told of the heroic slayers of these beasts.

The terraces at the bend marked the site of the former Korio pa. It was another unbroken rapid with a few big rocks submerged in the dark water. Once around the bend we could see along a fairly long straight where the valley widened a little. Our lunch stop was visible now past the end of the straight.

The classic V shaped entrance to the Owhata rapid started at the beginning of a 90 degree turn to the right marking the mouth of the Te Whakaironga Stream coming in from the left over a large shingle bank. Owhata is the Maori name for elevated place, perhaps a small village was once established on a terrace above the river here.

The river narrowed to the Arataua rapid (hardly noticeable) as it turned tightly just 150 metres short of the camping ground. The name means looking for a war party. Perhaps this had been the rendezvous point for a war party.

The turn ended with a large shingle bank at the landing of the Poukaria camping ground marking the start of a two kilometre straight. We had travelled 14 kilometres downstream from Ohinepane, with another 17.5 kilometres to go to tonight’s destination, and 110 kilometres to go to our final destination at Pipiriki.

Landing at Poukaria

Landing at Poukaria

By now the sky was partially covered in mid level cloud. We pulled our canoes mostly out of the water onto the large grey stones standing over soft mud. Weeds grew almost to the water’s edge and increased in concentration up the gentle slope. Across the river thick mixed bush with some tree ferns covered the view on the other side.

Looking up towards the camping ground a large green and gold DOC sign just below the tree line indicated Poukaria camping ground. Poukaria is the Maori name for digging a hole for a support or a post. Grass and weeds covered the flat we were on, and the steep rise to the terrace the camping ground was sitting on. Thick forest covered the ground above about three metres above the river, indicating floods often reach that high. A wooden staircase was set into the steep bank up to the terrace.

Poukaria Campsite

Poukaria Campsite

Cameron untied a couple of the chilli bins and the water and we carried them up the stairs to the camping ground. Looking upstream the hills were quite lofty and deeply scarred with small gullies eroded from storms following the clearing of the bush over a century ago when the King Country was first settled.

A small shelter was set into the edge of the bush. The shelter had a roof and one wall along the back. Behind the shelter was a large rainwater tank fed by the water falling from the roof. The rainwater in all the camping grounds were safe for drinking. New Zealand is one of the few remaining places in the world where water from small streams and tanks is still safe for drinking. A small brass pump provided safe drinking water. The shelter covered a picnic table and a sink and bench were set up along the length of the back wall. It was a good basic set-up for camping. Tents could be pitched on the terrace on the grass below, room for twelve tents making this one of the smaller camping grounds along the river. A short track led through the bush behind the hut to a fibreglass long drop toilet. Toilet paper isn’t supplied along the river, so Cameron had a few rolls with him for us to use. From there the forest continued for a short distance before changing to pastures rising towards the top of Kawatawata hill, about two hundred metres above the river.

We had only travelled a short distance over two hours, and still had plenty of energy to keep going to the next camping ground where we will be staying tonight. People starting at Cherry Grove in Taumarunui would normally stop here for the first night, having paddled about thirty five kilometres.

Shelter at Poukaria

Shelter at Poukaria

Behind the thick bush on the other side of the river the road was still sealed, but there weren’t any cars going along it. It did feel very remote here even though we were in farmland.

There was another picnic table in front of the shelter, and a couple of small wooden platforms nearby for campers. We were the only group here, so we set up on the open picnic table. We had some thin buns which we cut and put all sorts of tomatoes, cheese, cucumber, lettuce and ham onto. There was also tea, coffee and muffins. We obviously had the freshest food first before it deteriorates in the latter part of the trip.

Following lunch we packed up and returned to the river, loaded the food bins onto the canoes. We all changed our positions. I was now in the front of the boat just providing power without needing to know where to steer. Cameron wanted to mix and match us a bit so each boat would be going at about the same pace without any of us falling behind. Mum was at the back steering.

We set off, quickly heading towards the other side of the river into the deeper water to pass through the Poukaria rapid. We had already travelled 14 kilometres since setting off from Ohinepane, and had 17.5 kilometres to go to the next camping ground at Maharanui, where we will be spending the night.

Lunch on the terrace

Lunch on the terrace

The waves broke slightly as we followed the river to the right of the main current which was going into the willows growing on the far bank. From here scrub covered the steep hills on either side of the river.

From there we quickly paddled across towards the other side of the river to a slight bend where a gravel bank to the left funnelled the river into the Otukekawa rapid which passed swiftly but wasn’t turbulent. The name means place to push away bad attitudes. Perhaps this was due to what was to come.

The rest of the straight was relatively calm so we started getting used to our new positions having battled the two rapids on adrenaline. For me it was a lot easier without needing to steer, and when I did the steering wasn’t backward. I think Mum was picking up the steering well, perhaps through having more kayaking experience and having better coordination.

We were near the end of the straight when we reached another swift non-turbulent area, the Topahehipehi rapid. The name probably means to soar and to lie in wait of an ambush, perhaps referring to the taniwha. There was a flat mudstone islet to the left called Pehipehi-a-aurangi which Maori legend said was the haunt (or tuputupu) of the taniwha Tutanatakino, the god of the stomach. The Maori say that for good luck on the river, you pay tribute to the taniwha by pausing here and placing a simple offering of a fresh leafy branch on the rock.

Well so far we hadn’t had any incidents apart from my boat getting wedged in the rock earlier today, so I think we were all feeling safe, and not to mention non-superstitious, so we didn’t put any leafy branches up on the rock in the hope that the remaining 109 kilometres to Pipiriki would be easy going and incident free.
Maori legend says that the taniwha Tutangatakino was the guide that swam in front of the ancient canoe Aotea as it sailed from the legendary land of Hawaiki somewhere in Eastern Polynesia around five hundred years ago. The monster led the canoe and its onboard settlers here to New Zealand. The commander of the canoe carried the taniwha on his back up to this location.

Downstream from Poukaria

Downstream from Poukaria

There have been no recent sightings of the taniwha no doubt due to the farming of the local area and the jet boats using the river having scared it away. The Maori tell of the taniwha being active here up to about the time of the first arrival of the Europeans. The stories handed down the generations describe this creature as being about ten metres long with four legs and looking like a dinosaur. It was a man killer swallowing people whole, but not as bad some some of the other taniwha told in old legends. The Maori people agree though this taniwha was the most notorious in the Whanganui River.

Although there are close parallels of the descriptions of taniwha with that of the crocodiles of the tropics (the Papua New Guineans actually use the name taniwha for their crocodiles), even the largest crocodiles are only around seven metres in length. Usually a fully grown crocodile is only two or three metres in length. It seems strange to think that a ten metre crocodile could live here where the harshly cold New Zealand winters would certainly kill it.

Perhaps the taniwha were a species of dinosaur that had somehow evaded the mass extinctions of sixty five million years ago. New Zealand is such a unique lost world cut off from the rest of the planet that one could be tempted to believe dinosaurs could have survived here following their mass extinction around the rest of the world. After all New Zealand is about as far away as you can get from the main asteroid impact area in Mexico, and likely to have been less impacted by the volcanic fallout of the huge eruptions that preceded the asteroid.

No evidence has been found for any species of large dinosaurs surviving in New Zealand beyond the impact of 65 million years ago. This indicates this area was as badly affected as the rest of the world. The Zealandia continent, as it was known at the time, was still splitting off from Gondwanaland. The land mass was still joined with Australia and Antarctica so land animals could have easily migrated between the continents.

Only the smallest theropods survived the mass extinction. These had by then already evolved almost completely into modern birds. There have been no fossils or remains discovered of large reptiles or any other creatures that could qualify as the taniwha in recent geological history. That being said though, New Zealand has been geologically surveyed extensively over the past one hundred and fifty years so it is pretty safe to say that there is no evidence of recent dinosaurs here in New Zealand.

Downstream from Poukaria

Downstream from Poukaria

Another explanation is the taniwha could be sharks. There are legends of a taniwha coming into the mouth of the Whanganui River around two centuries ago attacking and eating canoeists. Whilst that explanation is very plausible at the mouth of the river where it is tidal, it is highly unlikely sharks would swim two hundred kilometres upstream and permanently settle here. The varieties in New Zealand only live in salt water.

The legends tell of a number of taniwha along the length of the river. Each taniwha has a different temperament and form. Some were friendly guarding over their villages. Others altered the landscape (perhaps reference to landslides and earthquakes and floods) by lashing with their tails. Others were said to trouble the river travellers (would we encounter one?).

Another explanation for the taniwha is they are the deceased ancestors that take on the taniwha form. The Maori culture has a strong reverence for their ancestors, along with the spirits of the trees and landforms, and of the river itself.

Some Maori claimed to have seen one. Seeing some taniwha spelt impending disaster or death. Seeing others indicated good fortune. None were gods though, they were all considered mortals that could be killed by natural events or by humans if the need arose.

The legends of the taniwha are not unique to the Whanganui River. Captain Cook recorded in 1777 that the Maori of Queen Charlotte Sound at the top of the South Island accurately described gigantic pythons and crocodiles even though they had never seen them, nor have they ever been here. Clearly those were descriptions handed down the generations from when the ancestors of the Maori had travelled through places like Papua New Guinea and South East Asia.

The European settlers did not believe in the taniwha, picking up they were a collective explanation for a range of phenomena explained through the Maori spiritual beliefs. The Maori quickly became reluctant to talk of the taniwha. There were a few Europeans who did believe, and even a select few who claimed to have encountered them.

Fortunately we weren’t amongst this select group – so far...

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22 February 2016

 

King Country

New Zealand

 

38°59'S
175°07'E

104 - 116m ASL

 

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