The Legend of the Wanganui River
National Film Unit, 1952
Inland from the sea in the northern island of New Zealand lies a desert plateau. From this plateau rise giant volcanic mountains and from these mountains flow many rivers.
For generations, the Māoris have told of gods who dwell in these mountains and of the legend of the Whanganui river. The Māoris say many mountains once stood here and one of these was Taranaki. But, isolated from his brothers, Mount Taranaki now stands far away beside the western sea and the path of his journey from the centre of the island down to the sea, is marked by the deep gorges of the Whanganui river.
The river begins high in the mountains, but to the Māori people it begins in the mists that swirl around the peaks and along the valleys. It begins in the mists, in the sky above.
[Man speaks in te reo Māori]
(Voice over) In ancient times there stood at Taupō, in the centre of this island, a group of powerful mountains.
Greatest of these was Tongariro. His wife was Pīhanga, who Tongariro tenderly sheltered from the East and West wind. One day, the mountain Taranaki fell in love with Pīhanga, and the other mountain gods were angry and spouted flame and smoke.
[Man speaks in te reo Māori]
The thunder god growled at Taranaki and there were dancing lights in the sky.
The mountains threw off fumes of vapor and the mists caught fire.
And as Taranaki hurried from his angry brothers, he left a deep scar in the earth.
(Narrator) And from caverns deep in the volcanic cones, there welled forth a thousand springs, healing the scar left by Mount Taranaki's departure. And the snow god sent down a thousand streams. The Arawhata and the Ahuahu. The Tangahoe and Tāngarākau, Rakura and Retaruke. The Mangamingi and the Whakapapanui. Down from the foothills and across the plain, a thousand springs and a thousand streams rushing to fill a river.
Born of snow and mountain springs, the river speaks.
River of legend called Whanganui that the Māoris used as a water highway.
[Man speaks in te reo Māori]
Along the valley of the Whanganui once lived thousands of brown-skinned men. Māoris of the tribes of Ngapairangi and Ngapamoana. They came in the great Polynesian migrations of the 13th century.
[Men speak in te reo Māori]
For 200 miles the Whanganui flows westward. Down the traditional pathway of the ancient god, Taranaki. Through uninhabited hills and dense bush valleys where the river seems to lose its way. Where mists linger long after the early mornings' first warmth reaches the valleys, and where birds - the tuis and koromikos - sing all day in giant tree ferns and tall mātais.
[Men speaks in te reo Māori]
[Sounds of river rapids]
[Bird song and sounds of water]
All the river was theirs. Its bush, its birds and fish, its deep refreshing waters. To all Māoris the Whanganui was a common highway leading to the plains of the interior and a pathway down to summer fishing camps by the sea. For centuries the tribes of Aotea day-dreamed on its waters, listening to the song of the tui, studying every leaf and fern and weaving legends around the and whirlpools and rapids of the enchanted river.
When did you leave Taumaranui? In the gloom of the river forest, in dark caves, live the mythical Māori taniwhas and [?], the reptiles and land dragons.
[Voice over] He came and made his lair in a cave that wind far into the cliffside. He's twelve feet long with a tail like a [?]. No-one goes into this cave, though a tohunga, armed with a proper karakia, could enter. But these incantations have long been forgotten and the bush creeps back over the marae and around the deserted meeting houses.
On clifftops along the river, these are all that remained of the Māoris who have gone. In the river below, the broken canoes.
[Narrator] Up the river came the white man and with the white man came red nightcaps, razor blades and rifles; and with rifles, tribal wars became deadlier, some Māoris fought Pakehā, and the river ran with blood. But within a generation the war drums that echoed down the gorges had gone. The bush was felled and burnt and gave way to grassland for cattle and sheep. Sheltered valleys and rising slopes above the river proved ideal for stock; the ancient hunting and cultivating grounds of the Māori disappeared.
Every summer out of the shearing heads comes the Whanganui wool kit on its journey to the river mouth. In settlements along the banks live the Māoris left on the river, farming sheep and cattle and over their old canoe routes, travel the wool laden steamers. Steamers now play where once Māori warriors swept along in one hundred man canoes. And to the bush valleys come tourists from other lands, speeding through rapids and rockbound gorges under the sure hand of a Māori helmsman.
The Whanganui flows out from the hills across the flats towards the coast. Soon the river deepens. Ahead lies the river mouth city of Wanganui; meeting place for town and country. Here live the people of the coast who serve the town and farming district. Shopkeepers and freezing workers, wool brokers and shipping agents; men with a stake in the river, as the Māori had when he fished for eels and hunted in the bush that stood on these banks a century ago.
The narrow gorges have gone and on the coastal flats wool stores and cold storage buildings hold beef, mutton and butter awaiting shipment to the other side of the world; to Britain, America, France and Russia. Signs and signals beckon ships in from the sea. The river is hardly a river any longer.
Behind the port lies the coastal town of Wanganui and here working alongside the Pākehā are the river Māoris of today; some wearing their army berets from Tunisia and El Alamein. But now the river hurries no more, and beyond, lies the sea.
And the earth-mother sends out her river, out into the western sea, into the hands of the sea god, Tangaroa.
And the winds of the ocean take these waters to where sea meets sky and gives them back to the heavens where dwells the sky father, from whom these waters first came.
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