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Kiwi Konexions: The Stone

...It was into one of these clearings, by the Arawata river that we had driven and discovered this deep safe pool by a grassy bank, away from the main strong current of the river, the ideal place to spend the evening. But a swim with a bar of soap was called for, so in I dived. I went deep, feeling the water pull through my hair, washing away the dust and sweat of the day, and then I found it. I reached down and touched a stone...

The stone was jade, the sacred stone of the Maori who explored New Zealand long before white settlers arrived, as Glen Taylor reveals.

To read more of Glen's columns please visit
http://www.openwriting.com/archives/kiwi_konexions/

I dove deep into the clear, crystal river, shiveringly cold but so refreshing after a long day’s walking through the bush, up hill and down dale. It was in the days when we had the Ford TX 5, you could put a double air bed in the back, much better than a tent, and we could nose into the odd clearing to spend the night.

Where were we? Over on the West Coast, near Jacksons Bay, where we had been exploring the Cascade saddle. Long ago a road was proposed through this route to link the West Coast at Jacksons Bay to the Hollyford road near Te Anau. It never came about due to expense and we are very thankful, it makes this area and the Hollyford very special places, oases of calm and beauty where only the hardy venture.

It was into one of these clearings, by the Arawata river that we had driven and discovered this deep safe pool by a grassy bank, away from the main strong current of the river, the ideal place to spend the evening. But a swim with a bar of soap was called for, so in I dived. I went deep, feeling the water pull through my hair, washing away the dust and sweat of the day, and then I found it. I reached down and touched a stone. It was smooth and soft to the touch. I liked it, so I brought it to the surface and sat looking at it and feeling it with my hands. “I’m taking this home,” I said and found a place to store it under my seat. I liked my stone, it wasn’t very big but it felt lovely.

The Arawata River is a beautiful river, blue green and racing down over pure white boulders which form its bed and its banks, edged by the deep green of the bush on either side and the peaks of the mountains, jagged grey above it. Jet boats take the musterers into the high country of the cattle station, where they find their horses waiting, to begin the long drive back to the homestead. Helicopters help to drive the cattle down into the valleys and it isn’t unusual to see a deer hanging from a net below them, after a deer hunt. The stuff of cowboy films but just a day’s work here. At the mouth of the river white baiters gather during the white baiting season, their long nets trailing out into the current of the incoming tide to gather their booty, and there is always the odd fisherman, rod in hand, fly fishing for trout or salmon.

But to get back to my stone. When I got home, I showed it to a friend of mine, whose hobby was stone polishing. He was always fossicking in rivers and other such places for pebbles to cut and polish for jewellery. “I think you have got a piece of jade here, Glen,” he said, and he took it home with him to cut and polish. Sure enough it was jade, black jade, not green, but with streaks of green running through it. It was beautiful, just one face where he had cut through had been polished, the rest that lovely, soapy, whitish colour, so smooth to touch. It sits on my oak chest in the hallway and is greatly admired and commented on.

So this was really jade, greenstone, pounamu, the sacred stone of the Maori. The greenstone, so easy to carve and sharpen, used for weapons, for jewelry and to decorate their great meeting houses.

Long before the white man came to these shores the Maoris had settled in the warmer, if wetter North Island, to grow their kumara and catch the Moa, fish and gather the abundant shell fish. They built their pas, (villages,) deep in the forest or on raised hills. But a few Maoris ventured south, paddling their huge wakas, (canoes,) down the East Coast, through the calmer Pacific, rather than the West with the rough Tasman Sea.

The South island is colder than the North and far more rugged, with the huge Southern Alps running the length of the island, but there is plenty of fish to be had and the bush offers shelter and food and, though colder, the South Island is drier than the North. So quite a few tribes of Maori settled themselves along the East Coast, built their pas and got on with life. Then the North Island Maori began to trade with the South Island Maori for the greenstone they had found. But, wait a minute, there is no greenstone to be found on the East Coast, the only greenstone in New Zealand is to be found on the western side, and fairly south at that, so I was lucky to find my stone, but how did the Maori find it, with those big mountains between him and the West.

Here we start a story which makes us realise how arrogant the white man can be. Was Livingstone the first man to find the Victoria Falls? Surely the natives had known all about them long before Livingstone found them? Man being what he is, always has this need to know what is round the next bend, so it wasn’t long before the Maori began to wander inland, exploring this corner and that corner and moving towards those big mountains. With much trial and error they found the passes through the mountains and they found the precious greenstone on the West Coast beaches and in the river beds and saw the thunderous waves of the Tasman crashing around them. With their treasure they made their way back and it wasn’t long before word reached the North Island tribes and trade began.

Many stories and legends of how the jade was found and of the routes followed, have been passed down by word of mouth, for the Maori had no written language. What we do know is that a thriving trade did exist between the Northern and the Southern tribes and we do know the routes the Maori took through those great mountains to the West Coast. Artifacts remain; places where they slept or cooked are to be found, indicating their routes, an archeologist’s paradise.

And where are they? The Arthurs Pass, the Porters Pass, the Haast Pass, the Routeburn, the Milford and the Greenstone and many more. All claimed to have been discovered by the white man, when hundreds of years before the Maori had found his way through the dense forests to the high tussock filled plateaux and over those vast mountains to the beautiful, if somewhat wet, West Coast. The West Coast where the precious jade was to be found.

The Pakeha has claimed to have discovered these routes and named them after himself and from his point of view he did, he didn’t know they were there, but the Maori had long before trod those self same trails, now tar sealed roads through the mountains, for tourists to cross safely in their cars and campervans and to explore our beautiful country. But if you pause and peer into the dense forest could that be an old Maori face which you see, a memory of long ago, or is it just an optical illusion caused by branches and lichen hanging from the trees.

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