Northland: Where traditions run deep

By Jim Eagles

Locals have a soft spot for Tokatoka mountain, said by some to be an aid to fertility at certain times. Photo / Jim Eagles
Locals have a soft spot for Tokatoka mountain, said by some to be an aid to fertility at certain times. Photo / Jim Eagles

There are two very different legends of Tokatoka, the great cone-shaped volcanic plug which stands guard on the banks of the mighty Northern Wairoa River as it approaches Dargaville: one is Maori and the other Pakeha.

I got an indication of the significance Tokatoka holds for Maori when we stopped for lunch at a picnic area on the riverbank a short distance from the mountain itself. A newly erected plaque proclaimed that "Tokatoka is the mountain, Northern Wairoa is the river, Kaipara is the harbour waters ... Ngati Whatua is the tribe."

But to find the legend of the rock's origin I had to call in to the Tokatoka Tavern which has served the people of the area - initially bushmen and gumdiggers, now mainly kumara growers and dairy farmers - for well over a century.

The walls of the tavern are lined with photos telling the history of those people, from early settlers with their bristling moustaches and big-boned horses to the present-day locals competing in the Big Five competition the tavern runs every May to see who can get the biggest eel - and some of those photographed were monsters - snapper, pheasant, duck and peacock.

They also get a lot of pigs in this area and owner Joe Hovell showed me an amazing water-powered spit on which they cook pigs for special occasions. "Pork cooked on a spit is just beautiful," he said, licking his lips for emphasis. "There's nothing like it."

Among all these relics of a lively past Hovell pointed out a sheet telling the story of how Tokatoka came to sit just behind the pub. It seems the peak was among a group of small mountains that arrived in the area from Hawaiiki looking for a new home. The biggest of these, Manaia, strode far ahead and soon came to rest at the head of Whangarei Harbour. The others hung back, worrying about whether it was safe to cross the Wairoa River, and when they did take the plunge one was drowned.

As a result the remaining mountains, including Maungaraho and Tokatoka, decided to stay put and are still there today.

The great dome shape of Maungaraho is easy to spot, sitting a few kilometres inland from the river, amid the farmland of Arapohue. It's a pleasant drive out there, a walking track goes round the base and you can climb to the summit from which there would obviously be great views. But I have to confess that the signboard advising that the ascent would require ropes and ladders put me off.

In any case I was more interested in Tokatoka, which has the more unusual shape and the more prominent historical role.

The great Ngati Whatua war chief Taoho was said to have had his home near the top of the great rock. And the historian James Cowan has recorded a Ngati Whatua war chant calling on warriors to stand as firm as "the steadfast rock, the rock of Tokatoka's height."

Later, when settlers arrived on the banks of the Wairoa River and Dargaville became a busy timber port, the river pilot lived at the base of Tokatoka, which he climbed to look out for sailing ships arriving in the huge Kaipara Harbour.

The rock remains important to locals today; it features prominently in many of the landscapes by local artists you find in galleries around the Kaipara area, and on a roadside picnic table just opposite the hotel there's a particularly good mosaic representation created by residents at the nearby Kaurilands Skills Centre for the intellectually disabled.

But I mentioned earlier that as well as the Maori legend of Tokatoka there is also a Pakeha legend, one which was sent to me by Destination Northland, just before I headed north.

This proclaims, "Now be it said that the folk of Dargaville know that when the wind is in the right direction and the sun/moon above then it is the time to take your loved one on a pilgrimage to Tokatoka.

"You leave your transportation at the side of the road below and make your way to the summit. On reaching the top you will find a flattened area of grass and you can see your car below.

"You know it takes about 20 minutes to get to the top so if anybody else turns up you have 20 minutes before you are interrupted in anything you might be inclined to be doing.

"Such is the power of the legend of Tokatoka it is lore that the majority of Dargavillians should in fact be named Tokatokarians."

Naturally enough I was quite intrigued by this but for some reason my wife was less interested. In fact when I suggested she might like to climb the rock with me, she declined. Which was perhaps just as well because when I got there, puffing and sweating after the steep ascent, I found four guys already there.

But it was well worth the climb for the magnificent views from the top, stretching all the way south to the Kaipara Harbour, west to the rolling surf of the Tasman Sea, east to the dome of Maungaraho and north to the houses of Dargaville and the Waipoua Forest beyond.

And, sure enough, at the base of the peak I could see our car parked by the roadside ... and my wife talking to a horse.

CHECKLIST

Further information: You can find out more about Tokatoka and the Kauri Coast at kauricoast.co.nz

Destination Northland has lots of information about the region's tourist attractions.

A great place to stay in the Kaipara area is Tangowahine Farm.

Jim Eagles went north as guest of Destination Northland.

- NZ Herald

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