On a beach close to the main street of the small town of Hokitika, I wove through a crowd of tourists and down to the water’s edge. At my back, the Alps walled in the coast with 500 kilometres of sharks’ teeth. To my left, the Hokitika River’s glittering silver mouth opened onto Te Tai-o-Rehua, the Tasman Sea. Small children darted around me like fish. Their laughter turned to static each time a breaker boomed ashore. In my hand I held two small pipi shells chalky with age. I’d picked them up next to an old village site on the opposite coast, near where I grew up: a little something from Te Moananui-a-Kiwa, the Pacific Ocean. Perhaps the remnant of some old feast.
The only Māori blessings I knew by heart were translations of Christian prayers. Plenty of families still know older rituals for starting journeys, but in mine, you had to go back to my great-great-grandparents to find that lore. But it seemed important to mark the start of this journey, even in a half-arsed, improvised way. I wanted to acknowledge Takaroa, atua of the sea. On an island, all journeys ultimately begin and end at the coast.
I crouched and placed the shells on the dark sand, then retreated up the beach. I didn’t dare take my eyes off the monster surf. The koha lay glinting in the sun; then a wave roared in and sucked back out, taking the shells on its tongue.
I smiled. A lot of Māori stories are about the disastrous consequences of improvising rituals, or impersonating priests, or getting your karakia wrong. Oh well. I hefted my pack onto my back and started up the beach towards the distant blue peaks.
Since the early 19th century, this rugged coastline has been the domain of Kāti Waewae, a hapū of Ngāi Tahu. The story of how they came to possess this prized territory starts with a woman named Raureka, who set off into the mountains from near here in around 1700.
In those days, there were separate peoples on either side of the Alps. My Ngāi Tahu ancestors were settling the east. Kāti Wairaki had lived in the west for a long time, and it was said that they held deep knowledge of the land. (Soon after Ngāi Tahu arrived, we sent delegations over to learn from their priests, but trouble started when our men were more interested in flirting with Kāti Wairaki women than learning esoteric lore.) The two tribes were distantly related, but the mountains formed a barrier between our domains.
The story goes that Raureka was a rakatira from Kāti Wairaki who left her home on the coast and headed into the mountains. From the Main Divide of the Alps, ridges extend like fingers towards the coast at Hokitika, with thickly timbered valleys and swampland in between. Lake Kaniere lies in one of these valleys. On reaching the head of the lake, Raureka walked up the Styx River, crossed over into the Arahura River and continued south until she stumbled across a pass to the east. The lake at the top is called Whakarewa (Europeans called it Browning), and the pass in Māori is Nōti Raureka. Legend has it that she was the first person to cross the Alps.
Raureka emerged from the mountains starving and at her wits’ end. According to kaumātua James Russell from Arahura, she wandered down the Rakaia River to the area around Te Umukaha (Temuka) on the plains, where she encountered a group of Ngāi Tahu men hewing a canoe. They took her in, fed her and warmed her by the fire. In return she laughed at their inferior tools. She unwrapped a brilliantly sharp toki pounamu and demonstrated the keenness of the blade.
It’s not hard to imagine the men passing the tool from hand to hand, each testing the edge with his thumb. It’s sometimes said that this axe was the first pounamu Ngāi Tahu had seen.
Pounamu ranges in colour from near black to vibrant green to a pearly green-grey, is as hard as steel, and, more importantly, is incredibly tough. Carving a single piece using traditional methods can take years, but the results are beautiful and lethal. Pounamu adzes, weapons and jewellery were as prized in Raureka’s time as they are today. Each piece has its own mauri and wairua; the most celebrated have their own whakapapa and name. The history of the West Coast is inseparable from the desire to possess the stone. And here was Raureka arriving on Ngāi Tahu’s doorstep with knowledge of a route through the mountains to the source.
Raureka married in the east, and guided an expedition back over the pass, opening a passage between the two coasts. It became a corridor for traders and war parties, and a century of intermittent fighting followed. Finally, Ngāi Tahu conquered and absorbed Kāti Wairaki and took possession of the West Coast.
Over the next ten days I was going to retrace Raureka’s route over the pass and through to the eastern plains, along what is now a remote tramping track. Crammed in with my food and fuel were a dozen versions of her story, from early published sources to oral history from the present day. As with so many old tales, its truth is hard to pin down. Some say she went wandering, others that she was visiting relations. Historians say Ngāi Tahu had encountered pounamu long before Raureka arrived—yet it’s the only story we tell about seeing the stone for the first time. Most accounts agree she was a historical ancestor—except for one, which claimed she never existed at all. My plan was to read the stories in the landscape, and to study the mountains for clues. I’d try to walk where she walked, camp where she camped, and do my best to get inside her head.
There was one problem, though. Most of the divergent accounts tended to agree on one thing: that Raureka was pōrangi. Mad.
By mid-morning on the second day, heading east along the shores of Kaniere, the day was breathless and fiercely hot. Sweat dripped down my face and plastered my shirt to my back. I’d decided that out here, anything could be a clue; as I walked, I studied the landscape in a way I’d never done on a normal tramping trip. An hour on, I noticed a cloudy green stone the size of a fantail egg embedded in the dirt.
With a flicker of excitement I prised it free. It looked a little like pounamu. I spat on the stone and gave it a quick polish. It glowed green, then quickly faded as it dried. Damn. Serpentine—‘serp’, as some call it—looks exactly like pounamu when wet, but it’s a fool’s gold. By contrast, raw pounamu is usually covered with a whitish rind, and looks almost indistinguishable from ordinary river stones.
Even if I found pounamu here, I had no right to take it. All pounamu belongs to Te Rūnunga o Ngāi Tahu. You need permission, or specific local rights determined by whakapapa.
In Raureka’s day, her Kāti Wairaki people controlled pounamu on the Coast. As a high-born woman of the tribe, her whakapapa would have secured her claim. I had no direct bloodlines to Kāti Waewae, who are kaitiaki of pounamu in this area today.
Still, I was tempted to pocket my pebble. I wasn’t enough of a novice to mistake it for the real thing, but serpentine has a beauty of its own. It seemed fitting because I wasn’t exactly the real thing, either, with my tall, skinny frame, pale skin and blue eyes. I dropped the stone into my pocket, added a handful of rough polishing pebbles and pushed on. The stones clicked and rasped with each step.
The further I got from the coast, the more I saw Ngāi Tahu in the landscape. A recent storm had toppled dozens of trees, and through a gap in the canopy I glimpsed Tūhua pushing up into steely cloud on the other side of the lake. Tūhua was Kāti Waewae’s sacred mountain, presiding over the greenstone rivers, and their touchstone when introducing themselves. The minute someone said, “Ko Tūhua te mauka” (Tūhua is my mountain), you knew where they were from. Senior leader Lisa Tumahai, chair of the Ngāi Tahu’s overall governing body, and the elected representative for Kāti Waewae, later told me, “I’ve got whānau who’ve walked to the top of Tūhua. It’s an easy climb in the scheme of things, but being up there, there’s this absolute sense of knowing who you are.”
Further on, I paused on a sandfly-infested beach to study the rumpled green hill at the head of the lake. Its English name is Mount Upright, but the old name, Te Taumata-o-Uekanuku, dates back to Raureka’s time. When she shared knowledge of her pass with Ngāi Tahu, they sent fighting expeditions back across the mountains almost immediately. One of the earliest was led by my ancestor Te Rakitāmau. Here at this lake he and his party encountered a Kāti Wairaki force led by the famous chief Uekanuku. In the ensuing battle Uekanuku was killed. The summit above me commemorated his life and death: taumata can mean summit or height, and also resting place.
From the head of Kaniere I dropped down to the Styx River, thinking about the choice Raureka had to make. Left went up the Styx River valley; right, to the flats where the Toharoa, Kokatahi and Hokitika rivers flowed out of the hills. Rivers are the pathway into the high mountains, but none of these suggested an easy route. I stood under the weight of an overloaded pack, wishing I’d left the fresh fruit and books behind, thinking: which way would you go? If you were travelling solo, with limited supplies? If you were wandering mad? Raureka went east, up the Styx, and so did I.[Chapter Break]
At the edge of Styx Saddle I got my first glimpse of the Arahura, far below. The river ran north through a green-and-gold valley, in two slate-blue braids. I’d known I’d reach the Arahura, but now, looking down at the sacred river from the spot where Raureka might have stood, an idea suddenly put down roots: perhaps she knew where she was going.
I looked up the riverbed towards the Main Divide: shattered mountaintops and reefs of intimidating cloud; nothing to suggest a pass. Yet Raureka was meant to have wandered up that way and accidentally discovered the only viable route in the area. Faced with the landscape itself, the story made little sense.
But the Arahura—that was a sacred landscape down there, the most famous source of pounamu in the country. Kāti Waewae are guardians of the river today, and their people know every inch of its banks. In Raureka’s day her Kāti Wairaki people would have been the same. It only took the first Polynesian explorers a few decades to track down all the sources of useful stone in the entire country, including some well above the bush line. They found traces in riverbeds, then followed the rivers up into the hills to find the source. In the search for pounamu, surely Raureka’s people would have explored the Arahura to its headwaters. If you followed the river through its bends, hour by hour, where did you end up? At Raureka’s pass to the east coast.
I was speculating, of course, but perhaps she’d seen it on a previous expedition. Perhaps her iwi knew about it, but no one had crossed it before. But whatever the case, when she stormed off into the mountains, she may have had a route in mind.
I continued on in a great mood, climbing steadily above the Arahura’s western bank towards Raureka’s pass. The nor’west afternoon swelled at my back, and within the hour a dirty wall of cloud came sweeping up the valley behind me. I decided against an exposed campsite at Whakarewa, the lake at the pass, and stopped instead at the simple six-bunk Harman Hut.
I had the place to myself, and after dinner I slouched on the deck to watch the storm break. A final sunbeam slanted through the thunderheads to strike a massive landslide coming off an unnamed peak to the west, turning the raw stone to burnished gold. Beyond the peaks, the western horizon was one great line of fire. This was a mythical place—the Arahura valley is the setting for our creation myth of pounamu. I’d brought the tale with me, thinking it might shed light on Raureka’s journey through the same landscape.
Back in the ancestral homeland of Hawaiki, two taniwha were locked in a long-running feud. Poutini was the guardian taniwha of pounamu, while his nemesis Whatipu guarded hōaka (grindstone, which could cut pounamu).
One day when Poutini was being chased across the ocean, he took refuge from Whatipu in a sheltered bay on Tūhua Island, off the North Island’s east coast. There, he saw a beautiful woman come down to bathe. Her name was Waitaiki, and when she stripped off and dived into the sea, Poutini fell in love—or maybe lust.
Poutini swam silently across the bay and, with a faint ripple, snatched Waitaiki up and sped across the ocean to Tahanga, on the Coromandel Peninsula. By the time they arrived, she’d turned blue with cold. The great serpent lit a fire on the beach to keep her warm.
Waitaiki’s husband was the powerful chief Tama-āhua. Back on Tūhua, he found Waitaiki’s discarded clothes and knew something had gone wrong. He gathered his men, and hurled his magic tekateka spear into the air. It hung quivering, pointing to Tahanga. They paddled to the mainland at speed.
They were too late. Poutini’s fire had gone out, leaving cold ash. He’d taken Waitaiki south to Whangamatā, on the shores of Lake Taupō, where a new fire burned. And so a great chase began, south to Rangitoto, across Cook Strait to Whangamoa, to Onetahua at Farewell Spit, past Pāhau out the back of the Barrytown pub, and down to Takiwai in Milford Sound.Finally, Tama-āhua’s tekateka led him north again. Crossing the Arahura, he noticed its waters were warm. Through powerful karakia he knew his wife was in distress somewhere upriver. He began preparations for war.
Poutini knew he’d been discovered. He also knew that he didn’t stand a chance against Tama-āhua in a fight. Being jealous and bad-tempered, he decided that if he couldn’t have Waitaiki, no one would. In the upper Arahura, he transformed her into his own essence, pounamu, then laid her in the riverbed. Then he slipped past Tama-āhua and out to the coast.
On discovering Waitaiki turned to stone, Tama-āhua wept over his wife’s lifeless form. He grieved, and then, when the time for mourning was over, he named a nearby mountain Tūhua, after their island home, and another after himself, so he could watch over his lost love.
The way that we tell the story today, Tama-āhua returned to Tūhua, where he eventually got onto Tinder, remarried and moved on. Poutini got the coastline renamed after him—Te Tai-o-Poutini—and he still swims up and down it, protecting Waitaiki and the people of the Coast. And in the spring floods, Waitaiki sends her children down the river for us to find.
I closed my e-reader and lay back on the deck, stretching out my aching shoulders as the first rain began to spot. I love the Poutini story because it’s actually an oral map. Tūhua, where the chase began, is home to a prized black obsidian used for knives. At Tahanga there was a quarry where basalt was taken for adzes. Taupō had metamorphosed argillites, Pāhau flints for drilling pounamu, and so on—Poutini’s tale maps key quarries across thousands of kilometres.
Conversely, the landscape here maps Poutini’s story. I’d set off from Te Tai-o-Poutini, Poutini’s coast. I’d passed the mountain named Tūhua near Lake Kaniere, and the mountain Tama-āhua was somewhere up on the dark skyline to the north. A few kilometres downriver, Waitaiki lay as the embodiment of the main pounamu source. And all of this was along Raureka’s route.
That night, I climbed into my bunk feeling strangely exhilarated. The pieces didn’t quite connect, but I felt like I’d glimpsed some new logic in the landscape, like seeing a campfire flickering on a distant steep ridge where you’d never expect to find life.
In the morning, the storm still hadn’t broken, and I stepped out into a valley thick with humidity and heat. Down at the Arahura I finally greeted the famous river, crouching to splash water over my face and drink from my hands. I stood, dripping, the wind cooler on my cheeks. The rugged head of the valley was visible now, and it looked essentially the same as it would have in Raureka’s time. The wind was quarrying mist from about the peak called Kaniere (Mount Harman). South along the ridge, the Arahura came pouring out of the clouds in a hundred-metre-high waterfall. Beyond that, glimpses of blue gave the first real sign that I was approaching the Main Divide; the weather was often sharply different on either side. I climbed steadily around the side of the cliffs, through alpine scrub then steep tussock, sweating hard. I quit the West Coast and followed Raureka up into luminous mist. The world disappeared.
Near Nōti Raureka, Raureka’s pass, visibility dropped to a couple of metres. Small cairns of stacked stones guided me through the whiteout, emerging a few steps in front, disappearing a few steps behind. There was no sign of Whakarewa, the lake at the pass. Then I felt a rushing sensation all around me. The mist blew away and I was suddenly looking straight at the water, only metres in front of me.
Whakarewa was more vapour than liquid: a silver arc lifting away into smoke. Again, that hurtling sensation, and the fog closed back in. It started to rain. I removed my pack and bent over, rummaging for my jacket. When I straightened to put it on, I looked up and the world had disappeared. Entirely.
One minute I’d been walking through a misty sub-alpine landscape. The next, I felt like I’d been swallowed by a black hole. Impossibly large dark curves filled my entire field of vision, shading from grey to black, surrounding me on all sides. I turned my head and the void was everywhere, seemingly inches from my face, yet stretching off to infinity. I reached out a hand like a blind man and met no resistance. There was nothing there. Vertigo shot through me. There was no sky, no earth. I blinked hard in the rain, swearing aloud.
In another heartbeat the mist burned away. The distant snow-covered peaks of Tau-a-Tamateraki snapped into focus, and I saw huge lenticular clouds immediately overhead—long, smooth UFOs, thunderous and silver-black. They were harbingers of the worst storms, and almost close enough to touch. I grabbed my camera and fumbled it to my eye. The battery died. I shook my head in disbelief.
I must have been swallowed by one of those clouds. Or maybe it had passed inches from my face, and I’d seen its underbelly reflected in the lake. Shreds of mist continued to stream past. The light flickered between dawn, noon and dusk. It felt like time was running at a different speed.
Slowly the front moved off. I flopped down on the tussock and put the billy on to gather my thoughts.
Reality is always shifting in the alpine world, from sweeping vistas to whiteout, from sunshine to storms. Normally I welcome that shift, and the feeling of being tiny and humble among the peaks. But if you lose your bearings, uplifting solitude can flip to a sense of threat.
In the back of my mind, I was thinking about another man who’d walked this trail in search of Raureka, 25 years earlier. Barry Brailsford was at the time a respected educator: a Pākehā man who’d written two notable books on Ngāi Tahu history, including one detailing our trails through the mountains. But on his expedition over Nōti Raureka, he’d started looking for portals to other worlds. He came to believe he was subject to an ancient prophecy, and could ‘time-shift’ from place to place along the trail. What had he seen up here?
I pushed the thought to one side. What about Raureka, who the stories say was mad? She’d crossed this pass hungry and alone. Even if she’d been of sound mind when she set out, could her experiences up here have left her scarred?
I’d read early colonial accounts which said that old-time Māori feared the mountains. Lightning about the peaks could be an omen of death. Walls and towers of mist, so common and so substantial in the New Zealand mountains, were considered the fortresses of the patupaiarehe, the fairy people whose distant fires left no trace. The geologist Ernst Dieffenbach, the first European to climb Tongariro in the North Island, was guided most of the way, but his guides refused to set foot in the snow. Dieffenbach wrote that, to Māori, ‘the mountains are peopled with mysterious and misshapen animals; the black points, which he sees from afar in the dazzling snow, are fierce and monstrous birds; a supernatural spirit breathes on him in the evening breeze’.
Dieffenbach and others were talking about specific sacred mountains. Every iwi and hapū has at least one local peak that embodies the tribe’s spirit. Those mountains stand as a living symbol of mana. They’re where your ancestors’ bones are buried, and a touchstone in speech and song. The summits represent the head, the most sacred part of the body. It’s no wonder Dieffenbach’s guides wouldn’t set foot on top of their sacred peak.
In Te Waipounamu, Ngāi Tahu have always lived in the shadow of high mountains. Our Alps are extensive—five times the area of the European Alps—with more than two thousand peaks that rise more than two thousand metres high. Travel through the mountains was once relatively common for us, whether for trade, pounamu gathering, family occasions, warfare or the exchange of knowledge. Years after Raureka’s journey, this pass was made tapu when an avalanche wiped out members of a Ngāi Tahu war party; up until then, it likely was not—even if the mountain-tops on all sides were. I doubted an alpine crossing alone would have shattered Raureka’s mind.
By the time I’d finished a mug of gritty coffee, the front had moved off and visibility had lifted, and with it my mood. I could now see why Raureka’s discovery was such a prize. The broad snowgrass saddle offered a straightforward path across the Main Divide, unlike Mount Kaniere on one side and the smashed teeth of Twin Peaks on the other. Whakarewa, the source of the Arahura, lay in the centre of the saddle like a giant silver eye. I padded round the lake’s edge and peered over the far side of the pass, straight down at the Waitāwhiri, the Wilberforce River, five hundred metres below.
This was Raureka’s Rubicon. A raindrop falling at her feet would flow into Ngāi Tahu territory, and on to the Pacific Ocean. A raindrop at her back would end up where she began, in Kāti Wairaki territory at the Tasman Sea. We’ll never know why she chose to go on. In a way she was defecting, taking state secrets across enemy lines.
Maybe she was drawn to the unknown, like so many Polynesian explorers. Her forebears had been curious about what lay over the horizon of the Pacific Ocean. Who wouldn’t be curious about what lay on the other side of the Alps?
Over the next two days, I followed Raureka’s route down the Waitāwhiri river, headed for Whakamatau, Lake Coleridge, and it was near there, reading in my tent, that I finally discovered why she had gone mad. The Pākehā writer James Cowan published a popular account of Raureka’s journey in the 1930s. The idea that she was mad seems to stem from him. His source text read: ‘He wahine nō Poutini a Raureka. Ka haere taua wahine. Ka pōrangi mai ka tae ki runga o te maunga.’ In a footnote by the leading Ngāi Tahu scholars Atholl Anderson and Te Maire Tau, I learned that Cowan got the translation wrong.
He had her wandering crazed into the mountains because he rendered pōrangi as mad. That’s the most common meaning, but it also connotates headstrong or stubborn. And there’s also another sense, when the word is used as a verb: to wander or search. The original says Raureka would ‘pōrangi pounamu’, search for pounamu. Given the context, the translation should be: ‘Raureka was a woman from the West Coast who went searching in the mountains.’ It wasn’t hunger or hostile spirits that drove her mad, but bad scholarship. (Later, not a single kaumātua I spoke with considered her to have been mentally unwell. ‘It was more like, “You want to go off into the mountains? You’ve got to be mad!”’ said James Russell from Arahura, with a smile.)
Tomorrow, I wouldn’t picture her drifting along the lake’s edge like Ophelia, trailing a hand in the water, singing to herself. I’d imagine her rugged up beside a fire, watching the blaze and thinking through tomorrow’s route. She carried valuable pounamu, and was a chief with rights to the stone. Perhaps she was hungry and tired, and operating outside what was expected of a person of aristocratic birth. But the story looked very different if you assumed that she knew what she was doing. Whatever that was.
When Raureka reached Arowhenua, married into Ngāi Tahu, and revealed her route across the pass, that effectively spelled the end for Kāti Wairaki. Tensions came to a head when they ambushed a major Ngāi Tahu party at Lake Māhinapua, south of Kaniere. Kāti Wairaki tohuka chanted up a great storm that cut a swathe through the Ngāi Tahu canoes. Tānetiki, eldest son of Tūrakautahi, the founder of Kaiapoi Pā, was the leader of the expedition. He and numerous other senior chiefs drowned. The ancestor Hikatūtae (who’s sometimes jokingly called ‘the undertaker’) cut off their heads and swam with them across Māhinapua, then carried them back across Nōti Raureka for burial on ancestral land. Hokitika, where I’d begun, was named for his grisly task. Hoki means to return; tika means directly, in a straight line, or just, correct, true.
After that, Ngāi Tahu assembled a huge fighting force from across the east coast, and brought its full force to bear. Te Tai-o-Poutini, the West Coast and its sacred pounamu rivers, came under our control. And you could argue that Raureka was responsible for it all.
What quickens Māori history is mana, whakapapa, whenua: the prestige and lineage of your people, and authority over the land. Power, in other words. What was real, what was myth; why she set out, where she camped, what she thought and felt—none of that was the point. All the old stories are both history and myth.
Which meant that Raureka was a person, and the personification of an event: how Ngāi Tahu first crossed the Southern Alps and gained control of the pounamu coast. She brought the stone to our door and, by marrying into Ngāi Tahu, she passed on her bloodlines and rights along with knowledge of the route. She joined the two great rivers, the Arahura and the Rakaia, and the two great lineages, Kāti Wairaki and Ngāi Tahu. She was our creation myth for how we gained power over pounamu and Poutini’s coast. And like the oral map of Poutini and Waitaiki, her story contained the map of her route.