By TIM WATKIN



Still Pohaturoa stands. Enduring but ever-changing, raised by eruption and worn down by erosion, this hill continues to exist on the banks of the Waikato River, maybe half a million years after it was born.



In recent weeks - more like seconds in its long life - it has been a hive of activity as chainsaws and helicopters have buzzed over and around it, taking its trees like pollen from a flower. The oldest remaining trees of the great North Island pine forests, planted in the 1920s, have been coming down.



Ah, but that is just one of the hoard of tales this mountain holds: of this land, its geology and its peoples; of volcanoes and murder, religion and industry.

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Thousands of people tear past Pohaturoa each week in their cars, especially during the summer holidays, some ignoring it in favour of a peek at the adjacent Atiamuri dam, others giving it a mere second's thought before it shrinks away in the rear-view mirror. Few, if any, ponder its life story as they fly through the vacuum of forest. But it's a story that encapsulates much of this country's history.



Carter Holt Harvey knew nothing of this story when it decided to harvest the hill in October 1995. Harvesting operations contracts manager Dennis Bomford says the plan had been to clear the sides but to leave the top. It was just too difficult to access.



Before work started, however, CHH staff consulted the local iwi and sent Perry Fletcher, a local historian who had first climbed the hill in 1972, to investigate the site.



Their responses prompted a new plan. Ngati Whaita was determined the hilltop must be preserved and Fletcher, well, he stumbled on a historical site of rare significance.



What he found were 31 whare sites, plus gardens and numerous storage pits estimated to match the number of families that once lived in the pa - a well-preserved insight into New Zealand's pre-colonial past. Fretting that trees could fall at any time due to old age, he warned that "if these trees are not removed they will cause significant damage to the historic features."



At last, someone was paying attention to Pohaturoa's story.



Pohaturoa appeared in the Pleistocene era; best estimates putting its birthday somewhere between 350,000 to 500,000 years ago, long before Lake Taupo existed. That's about as precise as volcanologists such as Brad Scott, of the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences at Wairakei, can be about any of the 50 or so lava domes in the Maroa volcanic centre that extends from Waiotapu in the north to near the top of Lake Taupo in the south.



"Dating domes like Pohaturoa is a pain in the butt to be honest," he sighs. "It's too old for carbon dating and too young for isotope dating."

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Like opening a can of Coke, says Auckland university volcanologist Dr Ian Smith, there would have been an explosion of gas followed by froth. In this case the froth was "a pile of steaming rock" - sticky, rhyolite magma heated to 900 deg C - forced through a vent in the earth.



"It would have grown internally, by magma pushing up inside it and pushing it out," he says.



But from its birth this mountain has been wasting away; being slowly eaten by the insatiable Waikato River that runs by its base. Originally, Pohaturoa would have been two to three times larger than it is now - wider, not higher - but its soft sides have been cut into and eroded, so that only the harder core remains.



There's no way to be sure of New Zealand's climate in those formative centuries, says geologist Dr Phil Shane. Throughout the era in which Pohaturoa was born, climate fluctuated every 40,000 years or so - from much as it is today to an average of four degrees colder - with birds and forests migrating to the coasts during the cold periods.



What is known, Smith adds, is that between 200,000 and 300,000 years ago there was a period of violent volcanic activity that would have made the region "a pretty unpleasant place for a while." The mountain survived it all.



It has been 14,000 years since the last eruption in the Maroa zone. After that everything went quiet, except for the bird song, the river's flow and the occasional crash of a falling tree.

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Then, many thousands of years having passed, Pohaturoa would have noticed a new sound. Human footsteps. The canoes from Hawaiki had landed.



The first people believed to have arrived in the region, says Perry Fletcher, are known as the Tini o Toi.



"That was just a loose name for these ancient people. They were spread throughout the country from one of the original peoples - you had Kupe and you had Toi," he says.



Some say that Arawa explorer Tia came there and his children lived in the area, but the first people known to occupy Pohaturoa were a people of mystery, the Kahupungapunga. None can say where they came from, and in a final stand at Pohaturoa 400 years ago they were cut down like today's pines, suffering what the Waitangi Tribunal called "their final extinction as a tribal identity."



Fletcher says they could barely be called a tribe to start with. More a collection of scattered families, they arrived in the area around 1400 and were known as the People of the Pumice Lands. Over the next 200 years, they lived in the area alongside the Ngati Hotu and Ngati Ruakopiri.



"The area was rich," says Fletcher, standing at the foot of the mountain, the chatter of chainsaws and helicopters all around.

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"But you can't see these people as tribally based. They were very scattered, mainly hunting groups, living loosely off the land."



In those days Maori society was mostly nomadic, and permanent villages were rare. Pohaturoa was mostly used as a lookout and, when the tribes felt threatened, a place of refuge. It was, in their stories, a wife of Putauaki (Mt Edgecumbe), taken after he had been rejected by Pihanga.



Nevertheless by 1600, Ngati Hotu seem to have been living on the hill. As castles were being built stone by stone in Renaissance Europe, so Pohaturoa became known as a near-impregnable natural fortress.



It was at that time that the Ngati Whaita and Ngati Waerangi, hapu of the Raukawa iwi, which is in turn part of the Tainui iwi, came east from Kawhia.



According to the evidence of their descendent Hare Reweti Te Kume at a native land court hearing in 1868, they "desired to possess the land.



"At Pohaturoa they saw kouras [freshwater crayfish] and huahuas [preserved birds stored in the settlements they visited], at Tuata they saw plenty of kai."

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As with European monarchs, the hapu arranged a strategic alliance, marrying a chieftainess to a man of the Kahupungapunga for the sake of peace and access to the region's natural wealth. But the arrangement, it is said, turned sour.



Fletcher: "People here saw her as imposing their [Whaita and Waerangi] mana on them. They could see a loss of the area with more people coming in. They murdered her and made it look like an accident."



But the woman, most commonly thought to be named Kiroukore, had a slave. He discovered Kahupungapunga's treachery and carried the news back to Kawhia. The Raukawa hapus were furious and, that same day, gathered together a war party 500 strong. The warriors moved across the land, conquering several pa as they went. Finally they met the Kahupungapunga in a battle called Taurianuku. Defeated, the remnants of the Kahupungapunga fell back to Pohaturoa, where their Hotu allies lived, there to make one last stand.



The Hotu pa has been described by historians as "formidable." According to The Cyclopedia of New Zealand 1902, "the spot [Pohaturoa] as fortified by the Maori is understood to have stood a good many sieges, and never to have been captured." But the cyclopedia was wrong.



Said Te Kume: "The pursuers crossed the stream to Pohaturoa, each party fought valiantly, the Ngatiwairangi were several times repulsed but in the end they drove back the others and captured their great toa [fighting chief] Hikaraupi. The great stones on which the bodies were cooked can be seen still."



Sitting on the front porch of the sun-faded Ongaroto marae, Waerangi kaumatua Koti Te Hiko speaks of this past.

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"We've never actually spoken very widely about the things around here. There's not many hills in New Zealand that have ever been conquered. Normally, the inhabitants maintained their hold and the enemy always lost. But this one here," he says, of the hill that can be seen over his shoulder, 3km down the road, "they lost and were completely wiped out. So it's not a thing we've bragged about because we have always fresh in our mind the toll of death that was involved, that enabled us to have what we have today.



"Today and tomorrow we will always pay acknowledgment to the Ngati Kahupungapunga for the wairua [spirit] they left behind on the hill that didn't hurt us. For us, being here today, we have always maintained that we will always pay honour to them, because no doubt they too would have been crying for their maunga [mountain] when Ngati Raukawa took over."



Despite that victory the Raukawa hapu have not been the only ones to occupy the hill since the 1600s. Around 1805 the famously fierce Ngati Muru fought their way through the central North Island, conquering then abandoning Pohaturoa as they went.



Later in the 19th century a cross-tribal collection of 100 warriors attacked the pa and for a while the Ngati Tahu were said to have lived there. But Whaita and Waerangi remained in the vicinity and, through ancestral claim and land court rulings, came into possession of the nearby land. Missionary Henry Williams became one of the first Pakeha to climb Pohaturoa on January 3, 1840, just a month and two days before he would spend a long, historic night translating the Treaty of Waitangi from English into Maori.



After significant achievement through the 1830s, the 40s would bring Williams war and scandal, and he would be increasingly torn between evangelical mission and racial mediation. But he could have guessed little of this as he struggled up what he called "a very steep and high hill" that day.



"I was however amply repaid by finding a pleasing little band of enquirers after truth, who had formed a pa at the summit of the highest hill that could be found as a place of refuge from the tribes of the Waikato," he wrote in his journal. That is the last record of people living on the hilltop.

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The 31 whare sites left from that time are clustered in pairs or groups. Most are about 3m wide by 4m long, "no more than a moderate room by today's concepts, but adequate into European contact times to shelter and sleep a dozen or more people," Fletcher says. On three sides there are earth surrounds, which would have acted as insulation, outside walls of totara or ponga. Some whares are well defended within a series of banks, on average a metre high, that were once topped by manuka and totara palisades. Others, presumably for later arrivals, remain outside where the fortifications would have stood.



In one place, Fletcher says, "there are six terraced houses - three on each side, facing each other - like a main street."



Portions of the palisades remained until 1927 when men came to burn off the summit and plant the pines. They had little concern for heritage then. History was still around them; they were eager for the future.



The hillsides had been planted with pinus radiata seedlings between August 3 and 17. Then, on October 22, seven men scrambled to the summit to crown it with 4280 young trees.



Within a few years many more men would be crawling over the surrounding land, planting, in an attempt to fend off the poverty and misery of the Depression.



The country has reaped the rewards of that era of planting for decades now, but Pohaturoa's harvest will be the last of that generation, the last of the first crop. They have survived the sale of the ground beneath them, from Taupo Totara Timber Ltd, to New Zealand Perpetual Forests Ltd, to Australasian Forestry Bondholders Trust Co Ltd, to New Zealand Forest Products and then, with the 1990 takeover, to CHH. These trees have grown while the 38m-high Atiamuri dam was built during the 1950s and saw the powerful Waikato River tamed when it was opened in 1959. They withstood Cyclone Bola in 1988. They have matured while CHH has grown to record $453 million profits in 1996, before slumping under the weight of the Asian financial crisis. They have stood in recent years while the jobs of thousands of forestry workers have been culled. However, by 2000 their fate was sealed.

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At a meeting of felling crew, helicopter pilots, safety experts and CHH staff in Tokoroa last October, Bomford reckoned "there are 20 potential grief trees." A detailed felling plan - allowing for the age of the trees, flight-paths, even wind direction - was needed, ways of minimising damage to the sites were discussed. The trees on the flat by the river would go first, to open up the area for trucks and helicopters. Then the non-river side of the summit, then its river side. Safety programmes were planned and weather conditions mulled over.



Bomford, who grew up in Atiamuri and used the hill as a playground, has worked for New Zealand Forest Products, then CHH, for 28 years - the same age as most radiata are when they're harvested. He says trees nearly three times that age must be treated with respect.



Cutting began on November 9 and it soon looked as if giants were playing a game of pick-up sticks on the hillside, with unwanted logs tossed across it. By the still-flowing river, chainsaws bit into trees which fell with a whip-crack and a crash. The earth would flinch, shudder, then seemed to breathe out in the aftermath. The trees were carefully graded, sawn and trucked off for processing.



Although CHH environmental planner Robin Black writes in a report for the Raukawa Trust Board that the felling is "an environmental operation rather than a productive operation as wood value will be compromised in order to get the best site result," these trees are still a cash crop - probably worth more than $100,000. Pine logs are selling for around $90 a tonne. With roughly 700 trees and 10 to 15 tonnes in a good tree, more than 10,000 tonnes are expected to be cut by the operation's end.



A few days before Christmas, with 6000 tonnes felled, the hilltop was finished, bar one tree left for ceremonial cutting in February. Black and Fletcher flew up at 6 am and were able to inspect and re-mark the cleared sites. Standing above the fog at sunrise, Black says he trembled.



"You can certainly see right to the horizon up and down the river. There's a sense of grandeur and richness, surveying all your rohe [territory]."

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Two years ago the warning was that 80 per cent of the sites would be damaged, but to Black and Fletcher's relief and thanks to CHH's clever thinking, 90 per cent of the sites are unscathed.



"Of the 31 whare features, I'd say there's only been about three that have been modified to any extent. The house floors have all been left fully intact. It's a credit to the cross-cutters."



The final two weeks of cutting begin on Monday, when the slash (the leftover bark and branches) will also be cleared. For the next 10 years, CHH will keep the site free from wilding pine trees so that native tussock and grasses can take hold and the summit will appear much as it did before 1927.



There is talk of guided tours to the historic site and talk of leaving it be. The future is another story yet unlived. All we know is that Pohaturoa still stands.