'The Kawhautahi dragon attack'

READ MORE: My favourite Kiwi mysteries - Part 1

The "Kawhautahi dragon" - said to have attacked a King Country survey party in 1892 - is a New Zealand "cryptid", an animal whose existence can be neither proved or disproved.

Generally I've no time for these pagan monsters, but I do hope that this one will - like Nessy - provide some useful tourist dollars for its remote home, which is in the Kaitieke Valley.

Locals say their beleaguered King Country community could use the cash, having been, "done over by the big forestry companies".

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Reeds surrounding the lagoon seem reminiscent of the painting by Downes.
Reeds surrounding the lagoon seem reminiscent of the painting by Downes.

Pine plantations have swallowed too much productive pasture land in this part of the world, they told me.

The controversial land use has damaged roads, plus driven out many farmer and farm worker families from the area, to the detriment of this community and its school.

My association with this magical river valley, a place famous for its pre-historic fossils, goes way back . . .

During the mid-1970s I was a cadet reporter for the Taranaki Daily News, stationed in Taumarunui, and occasionally covering the "sports days" held here.

Men still worked the hilly sheep and beef farms in those days, and spent their wages in Taumarunui, not just - as now - a few out-of-town pruning gangs who appear briefly in the valley, then move on.

For example, there were strong communities at Owhango, Upper Retaruke and Kaitieke.

Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw met many Maori, some at the Owhango Sports Day.
George Bernard Shaw met many Maori, some at the Owhango Sports Day.

An elderly sports day organiser I interviewed, Sandy Devereux, recalled that the Owhango Sports Day was particularly popular, drawing athletes from Te Kuiti and Huntly.

While making his way through the country in 1934, George Bernard Shaw had even dropped in. "Shaw, he found it fascinating," Sandy recalled, and I could see why ...

Maori and Pakeha bushmen seemed to arrive in from nowhere, big blokes in woollen singlets and trousers, invariably with a curved sheath knife and sharpening steel at the belt.

These guys hacked away at great lumps of wood with their axes and saws, sometimes playfully wrestling one another in between bouts.

There was once no shortage of tough bushmen in Kaitieke Valley.
There was once no shortage of tough bushmen in Kaitieke Valley.

They looked like "the tough ombres" I'd read about in my Western novels ...

So how astonishing to think that men like this ran away screaming the day the dragon attacked.

The incident 125 years ago was depicted in a famous painting by Thomas William Downes.

This shows the menacing beast scattering the gang of land surveyors, who'd arrived to begin the process of parcelling up settlement blocks.

Downes based the painting and a later magazine article on first-hand accounts he collected from the bushmen concerned.

Such giant reptiles once haunted the upper reaches of the Whanganui River, he wrote in an article published by The Journal of Polynesian Society in 1937.

According to Downes, a Pakeha surveyor named Charles Taylor persuaded three Taumarunui Maori - Warahi (Wallace), Pita te Aitua, and Piki - to work for him as linesmen and chainmen at a location called the Waimarino Block.

'Like a galloping horse'

Doug McFadyen guided us to the waterfall, just below the monster's lair.
Doug McFadyen guided us to the waterfall, just below the monster's lair.

The Maori, who believed a man-eating taniwha held sway over the area they were heading to, were uneasy.

"In the old days, none of their ancestors would go near, yet when the Waimarino Block was being surveyed, and the Pakeha laughed at them for being frightened, some Maoris decided to risk it for the big money being offered, said Downes.

The men worked all the first morning, cutting lines through the scrub and raupo and had almost forgotten their fear when Warahi happened to get a glimpse of the lake.

Suddenly, there was the taniwha, rushing toward him on the surface of the water with the speed of a galloping horse ...

Warahi cried out the alarm.

One glance and all the men went in different directions, fleeing for their lives through the flax and swamp.

The European was the worst off as he had his heavy instruments, which he did not wish to lose, but in trying to save them he slipped and a slasher badly cut his leg.

He lay quiet for a time and as he found he had eluded the taniwha, he tied up his wound with strips of his shirt and then crawled back to the camp, which he reached the same night.

The dragon attack is depicted in Thomas William Downes' painting.
The dragon attack is depicted in Thomas William Downes' painting.

Pita and Piki also reached the camp later on that night, but they were covered with cuts and scratches and their clothes were practically torn off them. For three days, no one would venture out of the camp, not even the Pakeha. But on the fourth morning, the Maori men went out to search for their companion, whom they eventually found, unable to walk and quite dazed.

Also, there were marks of the scratches of the taniwha all over his body; he must have been caught and left for dead but he himself could never remember what had taken place.

"Each of the Maori affirmed that Kawhautahi chased them, and they certainly believed it. The theodolite, chain, and slashers remain at the lakeside to this day," said Downes.

The remarkable Ron Cooke

Historian Ron Cooke tracked down two of the men who fled the taniwha.
Historian Ron Cooke tracked down two of the men who fled the taniwha.

Now Cut to 2014, when I was assigned to write about this legendary dragon attack for Herald Driven.

I contacted Taumarunui historian, popular author and Ruapehu District Councillor Ron Cooke, who tracked down photos of two of the men mentioned in Downes' account. Their descendants still live in the district.

Ron was always good for a story in the old days, could he locate the lagoon where of the dragon attacked?

"I'll see what I can do," said Ron, whose King Country networks are formidable.

A few weeks later he introduced my wife and I to former farmer Kaitieke Valley farmer, the late Doug McFadyen, who had often visited the lagoon in younger days.

Ron also linked us with two farmers living still close by, Kawhautahi Rd residents Michael and Joan Petersen, who squared our visit with the current owners, then drove both us and Doug to the location.

Doug explained that the lagoon was just above a waterfall, tucked in beside a 40-metre pumice cliff, having been formed following a big backwash from the Kawhautahi Stream; "very deep, with raupo edges, no shoreline and a big spring bubbling up out of it".

He'd shot black shags there that feed off fresh water mussels growing in the river. (We later observed these shells).

McFadyen's theory

The lagoon itself is stocked with native trout and giant eels.
The lagoon itself is stocked with native trout and giant eels.

Doug also shot an enormous eel, one of many living in the lagoon, and he theorised one of them might have been mistaken for a taniwha, causing panic among superstitious surveyors.

Well, the lagoon - when we eventually hiked in - looked eerily similar to the scene depicted in the Downes' painting.

True, there was no discarded surveying gear lying around, or any troublesome dragon to contend with.

But the area is stunningly beautiful, with magical-looking trees bearded in lichen.

The track leading to the historic lagoon has trees festooned with lichen.
The track leading to the historic lagoon has trees festooned with lichen.

At the site, I turned on my video camera and stood on a clod of earth, which began to sink into the deep "taniwha pool".

Somehow black shags get fresh water mussels at this spot.

The water boiled with native trout, rising to feed on tiny pieces of meat Joan Petersen threw in while the video was running.

It raised memories of the Beowulf, an Old English epic poem which my dad was fond of.

For I could stare into that pool . . . "Till the lake was filled with gleaming eyes, luminous amazed, and now they were moving, heaving huge coils from the murky deep".

It was one of the most beautiful and dreamy riverside spots imaginable - an historic location, which - in a perfect world - everyone would get to see.