The Canterbury Plains (Photo: denisbin/flickr)

The long, doomed march of Te Puoho, New Zealand’s would-be Genghis Khan

Author Bruce Ansley follows in the footsteps of Te Puoho, who set off on an epic, 1500-kilometre march with his war party in 1836, intent on destroying an entire people – Ngāi Tahu.

I once read a piece by archaeologist Atholl Anderson (Ngāi Tahu), who was then just a budding academic. It was like discovering a hidden entrance to a dark room.

He wrote about a Ngati Tama chief called Te Puoho who decided he was going to wipe out an entire people, the southern Ngāi Tahu. He’d start at the bottom of the South Island, Murihiku, and work his way up, enslaving everyone he hadn’t killed in vast pens he’d build on the coast below Farewell Spit, his starting point.

It did not go well. Te Puoho was killed without firing a shot, and hardly anyone in his taua, or war party, lived to tell the story, which pretty much died with them until Atholl came along.

His account turned into a book, Te Puoho’s Last Raid. Atholl became a professor, then an emeritus professor and noted author whose book Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History, co-written with Aroha Harris and Judith Binney, won a succession of awards and is a modern classic.

The most remarkable thing about this story was Te Puoho’s march which, in scope and purpose, might have made him New Zealand’s Genghis Khan. He took his taua, maybe 100 men and women (historians differ), 1500 kilometres on foot, right down the West Coast, through the Haast Pass and over the Alps into Otago and Southland, deep into Murihiku.

I remembered that story when I was talking about a new book with Alex Hedley, publisher at HarperCollins. We liked the idea of wild journeys. Some of them would be my own, some others’. Following Te Puoho’s route seemed a good idea.

Haast Pass (Photo: macronix/flickr)

Kahurangi Point, high on the West Coast, is on shakey ground. The first lighthouse was built at the turn of last century, 70 years or so after Te Puoho passed this way, its keepers’ house destroyed by earthquake. Unexplored then and now, pretty much. It dawns on me, for the first time but not the last, that even 200 years on, Te Puoho would still recognise much of the country he travelled through

South of the point lies a multiple hazard area. It’s in original condition; that is, packed with dangerous bluffs, aggressive seals, untracked and intractable bush. You can’t stick to the coast, but when you leave it you’re flayed by the bush. I knew about this because I’d read the accounts of the comparatively few people who’ve tried it, often to their regret.

That’s when I came face to face with the secret life of books. You’re on a tight budget. You’re on your own. It’s dangerous. Is it worth risking your life for a few pages? Some say so but I’m not one of them. Instead I think, bugger this, I’ll skip this bit and start again way down by the Heaphy Bluff.

That part is now easy because it’s part of the Heaphy Track. Yet this is the way Te Puoho would have come.

The taua must have celebrated the coast southwards. Straight, mostly easy, a couple of moderately friendly pa around Greymouth and Hokotika. But then, oh my god, South Westland. The Alps on one side, the Tasman on the other, and some pretty dirty ground squeezed between.

The highway forsakes the coast with its swamps and river mouths and estuaries and takes to the hills. Who knows which way Te Puoho went? Probably he stuck to the coast because that’s where the food was, but you’re talking a lot of river crossings and South Westland rivers are in a league of their own.

They do not flow gently, sweet Afton. They roar and howl and bowl great rocks down their alleys. Yet Te Puoho and his people managed to cross without rafts or rigging or ropes of any kind except, perhaps, braided flax.

It must have been a relief to reach the Haast, abandon the coast and take to the mountains.

The pass was known to Māori as Tioripatea and is still New Zealand’s most feared crossing. It must have been terrifying then, scrambling under black rock in the freezing dark.

A part of their track remains, used first by Māori then drovers, running through forest whose trees are so old they must once have felt the taua padding past. You stand here in the silence and shiver.

Then gentle Wanaka, the tussock land and golden light of Central Otago. A few Ngai Tahu settlements dotted the lakes then, the people living off weka and eels and searching for pounamu. A raid on a settlement raised the alarm: word flew over the Lindis and down the Waitaki to the coast and southwards, to warn the mighty southern chief Tuhawaiki on Ruapuke. Tuhawaiki was already known among pākehā as Bloody Jack, a man not given to forbearance.

Te Puoho was down to his bones by this point, his party so hungry that one of them is recorded to have died where he sat, worn and weathered by hundreds of the hardest kilometres in the land.

Lake Wanaka (Photo: Jocey K/flickr)

But the party pressed on. Up the Cardrona River. Over the Pisa Range through ancient matagouri which may still remember his passing, then probably down the Roaring Meg (roaring so steadily when I reached it I once again baulked and turned back), across the Kawarau by a natural rock bridge whose remains can still be seen, through the Nevis Valley soon to be turned over by gold miners, and into the Mataura River valley. Oh, gentle Southland. It must have seemed a green paradise.

They passed by what is now Gore, then Mataura, and came to the place called Tuturau. A small kainga sat on a low hill, a few huts on a hill above the river flats, some old people looking after the place until eeling parties returned.

He rested here. He’d scarcely settled in when Tuhawaiki and his warriors were upon him. They sneaked up in the night and shot him dead as he shouted a warning.

There were few survivors. According to a South Island history published in 1910, by S Percy Smith, “Nga-whakawa, Te Puoho’s brother-in-law, escaped in the darkness. His was a most unenviable position. A distance of nearly five hundred miles in a straight line separated him from his own people, the intermediate country being occupied by tribes bitterly hostile to his tribe…This brave fellow decided to try and rejoin his relatives at Massacre Bay at the extreme north end of the South Island. How long this arduous journey took, I know not, but it must have been months. He dare not keep near the East Coast which was inhabited by his enemies, but had to follow the base of the mountains inland, seeking his sustenance in roots of the fern, which is very scarce, and of the taramea (or spear grass), occasionally snaring a weka or other bird. So he made his toilsome way by mountain and valley, swimming the snow-cold rivers, ever on the alert for signs of wandering parties of his enemies, only lighting fires after dark, enduring cold, fatigue, and hunger, until, after making one of the most extraordinary journeys on record, at last he reached the home of his people at Parapara, Massacre Bay. Here he was the first to bring news of the disaster that had befallen Te Puoho and his companions.”

An obelisk marks the spot where Te Puoho died. It reads: “The last fight between North and South Island Maoris [sic], in which the Southerners were victorious, took place in this locality in December 1836.”

Te Puoho doesn’t get a mention.

Wild Journeys by Bruce Ansley (HarperCollins, $45) is available from Unity Books.

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