To the 19th century Tuhoe, a road through their beloved Urewera country spelt capitulation, which is why it was never completed until 1929. Hugh de Lacy continues his series series on historical New Zealand roads.
The sun glinting on the biscuit-tin lid way up there on the summit of Mount Maungataniwha was a morale-crusher to the party of Tuhoe sent to intercept the government’s surveyors and escort them from Te Urewera country.
The Tuhoe were too late: chief surveyor J Baber and topographer M Compton Smith, with a group of Maori bearers from the plains, had succeeded in triangulating the main peaks of the 300,000 hectares of remote and wild mountain country in the eastern Bay of Plenty.
And at the summit of Maungataniwha, Baber attached the lid to the survey peg for better visibility.
The year was 1883, and the biscuit-tin lid winking at them from the mountaintop was irrefutable proof to the Tuhoe that their efforts to keep the pakeha out of the Ureweras had failed, for where surveyors went, roads and land-hungry colonials were sure to follow.
So dispirited was the Tuhoe interception party that, rather than track Baber and Compton Smith through the bush in the hope of belatedly seeing them off anyway, they turned away and headed for a tribal hui being held at the hamlet of Te Mihi to discuss the surveyors’ incursion.
Unknown to the interception party, from 1400 metres up on Maungataniwha Baber and Compton Smith had seen the Tuhoe campfire smoke and, instead of scampering gratefully home by another route with their main job done, they followed the Tuhoe party to Te Mihi.
It says something for Baber that he did so, because the Children of the Mist, as the Tuhoe called themselves, were mightily angry, mightily divided, and he had no troops to protect him.
But he fronted up to the hostile gathering, which in turn displayed commendable commitment to the iwi’s policy of passive resistance by allowing Baber to state his government’s case for the survey.
Just two years later J C Blythe used Baber’s triangulations to survey a road through the middle of Tuhoe territory, and the modern road from Rainbow Mountain in the north-west to Wairoa in the south-east now follows it fairly closely.
It was not until 1896, and the passage by Parliament of the Urewera District Native Reserve Act, that Tuhoe opposition to surveying and roading largely ended.
Efforts to open a road through the Ureweras following Blythe’s 1885 survey route were slow and fitful, resulting in just a rough wagon road reaching out from Rotorua to Te Whaiti, at the foot of the mountains, in 1891.
This was gradually expanded into the hills and up to the Tarapounamu Saddle in 1896, then on to Ruatahuna in the heart of the Urewera country by 1900.
On the eastern side, by contrast, a road from Wairoa was given urgency as far back as the late 1860s by renegade Te Kooti’s flight into the Ureweras after his 1868 escape from the government and Maori forces at the siege of Ngatapa Hill, near Gisborne.
Lest Te Kooti infect the Waikato to the north-west, and the Ngati Kahungungu and Ngati Porou to the east, with his religious and rebellious fervour, an Armed Constabulary stockade was built at Whara Whara Bay, the Outlet, near Onepoto on the eastern side of Lake Waikaremoana.
Te Kooti survived three years of pursuit by government armed forces, and ended up in the King Country under the protection of the Waikato king Tawhiao.
He was pardoned in the same year that Baber triangulated the Urewera mountains, and in 1896 the Onepoto stockade was reduced to a slab hut store and tented camp for travellers, run by J R Phillips.
The relief workers forming a bridle track round the Waihirere Bluff at Hopuruahine also stayed there.
In 1903 the government established the Lake House tourist accommodation unit at Whaitiri Point about eight kilometres further round the lake, and it stayed in business until it was finally closed in 1973, replaced by a camping ground.
From the old Onepoto camp, survey parties up of up to 10 pushed north-west towards Ruatahuna, setting up new camps every 10 kilometres or so.
After the surveyors came the road-makers, many of them relief workers whose tools were explosives, horse-drawn scoops, wheelbarrows and shovels.
Finally, just as the world was plunging into the Great Depression, the Wairoa road broke through to Ruatahuna, and in 1929 Jack Tapper, the owner of Tapui Station at Tuai, was able to make his late-model Dodge the first car to travel through the Ureweras from Wairoa to Rotorua.
In the wake of the road-makers came roadmen who lived isolated lives in roadside huts, battling the weather and slips to keep the frail artery open.
These hardy loners became identities in their own right, and even after the need for roadmen was largely obviated after World War II by self-propelled machinery, the Works Department often allowed them to stay on in their huts up to and beyond their retirement.
One of them, Jim Bourke, was an Irishman who kept a bone china tea-set that he brought out only when women visited his hut at Aniwaniwa, asking them as they entered to forgive his language because, “I’m a bastard to swear.”
Another, Bill Lindigard, stayed in his hut long after he had retired and become bent over with arthritis.
To keep himself in firewood he made a splitting gun comprising a wedge-shaped piece of steel, with a cavity for explosives. The wedge was driven into a log and the explosives detonated.
When the air cleared of flying timber and splinters, Lindigard could always find the steel wedge because he used to wrap it in the cover of the Weekly News, which was red, and it stood out among the rest of the debris.
The completion of the road, still narrow, mountainous, slip-prone, unsealed and with more fords than bridges, certainly stimulated the economy on both sides of the Ureweras and, to a lesser extent, the Tuhoe.
Native, and then exotic forestry blossomed with mills at Papuera, Te Whaiti, Minginui and Aniwaniwa, with much of the harvest transported during the 1930s and 1940s by Howell Brothers.
Farming also flourished with the road’s help, though less so in the Ureweras than in the surrounding regions: sheep and cattle by the thousand were driven through from the Wairoa end to the Waikato, often with stopovers of several days where the grazing was plentiful.
Since those early years there has been only sporadic upgrading of the road through the mountains, 90 kilometres of which remains unsealed and traffic light.
The distance between Wairoa and Rotorua is about 210 kilometres, but it’s not all SH38: it begins as such at Frasertown, eight kilometres from Wairoa, under the administration of NZTA and continues as far as Aniwaniwa.
For the next 30 unsealed kilometres to the Wairoa-Whakatane District border, it becomes Special Purpose Road 38, maintained by Wairoa District.
A further unsealed 28 kilometres to Murupara is maintained by Whakatane District and, for the last 38 kilometres to the junction with SH5 at Rainbow Mountain, the road reverts again to being SH38.
If the Tuhoe who had been so dismayed by Baber’s biscuit-tin lid on Mount Maungataniwha in 1883 could see the ultimate outcome of the surveyor’s work today, they might think their protracted battle with the Crown over their land and sovereignty was by no means a losing one.
Not only are the Ureweras barely more populated now than they were in pre-European times, but they’re going to remain that way following their establishment as the 213,000 hectare Te Uruwera National Park, the North Island’s biggest, in 1954.
Add to that the apology and $170 million in compensation they’re about to receive for the Crown’s admittedly Machiavellian attempts to disinherit them, and the old Tuhoe might think Baber’s triangulation of their mountain peaks wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
Contractor expresses its appreciation to Wairoa historian Norm Robinson, whose book on the Wairoa District is to be published next year, for his help in researching this article.