Ko Ruamāhanga te awa. Giving voice to the river

In the Wairarapa Valley, nature exerts itself through three dominant forces; tectonic upthrust in the mountainous west builds new land; wind and rain causes the erosion of those heights and the Ruamāhanga River system spreads sediment, creating the valley floor.

The Tararua Range is what protects us, and the Ruamāhanga is what sustains us.

Several years ago, I made a journey on foot from the furthest reaches of the Ruamāhanga, north-west of Eketahuna, following it down to the sea.

In the mountains, the relatively small stream picks up water from hundreds of tiny tributaries in the tree-clad depths, until it leaves te ao ngahere, the forest world, and pushes out onto the valley plains near Pūkaha.

I found that in the forest the river sings, chuckling as it tumbles over large boulders and sighing as it eases through the steep fern-covered sides of its many gorges. Its rhythm is accented by the call of the many manu that inhabit its space. Riroriro flit among the manuka on its banks; tui call as they swap from side to side; kawau follow the path of the stream, looking for fish as they travel; kereru blunder through the trees while high above them all a karearea glides, looking for prey. The river’s banks are clad with koromiko and native brooms, their soft mauve flowers relieving the deep green of the ngahere. 

Upper Waters of the Ruamahanga River. Photo Gareth Winter

As I approached Pūkaha, I walked through a metaphorical door and entered the transformed world. I left Tane’s realm, and the beech trees turned to pines, the wood pigeons became rock pigeons, and gorse and yellow broom encroached onto the rocky shoulders of the river. Blackberry plants rambled across the river’s edges, and other garden escapes littered the gravel.

The first bridge brought the hum of transport, then it was two days walk down to Masterton, through what was once Te Tapere nui o Whatonga, the great forest of the Rangitāne tipuna. His trees, said to be so dense torches were required even during the day, had nearly all gone – sheep and cattle grazed where the forest once stood. Pine plantations were a desultory reminder of the long gone ngahere.

Mt Bruce Pukaha Bridge. Photo Gareth Winter

I passed untidy cliffs marking the spot where the 1855 earthquake formed the Hidden Lakes above the river, and then the first major tributary from the east, the Kopuaranga, joined the river under Matapihi whose hilltop urupa has watched over the river for centuries.

Hidden from sight, a different world lives on the river.  I watched black fronted dotterels racing across the gravel and sand; tarāpuka, black billed gulls, screeched in the air as I passed their nesting site among the boulders,  Paradise shelducks zonked out warnings of my approach, and the yapping call of the poaka, pied stilt, was never far away

Closer to town, civilisation intruded too. I came across the bloated carcase of a cow, and the rusting shell of a car body trapped half in the river, the rest wrapped around some willows. I saw the gravel beaches had been trampled by the tracks of a large bulldozer, and I followed its path, walking from one beach to another, carefully crossing the rushing waters at the head of the following pool.

Another day and I left Masterton, accompanied by the odour of the sewage treatment plant nearby. Soon the Waingawa joined the Ruamāhanga, bringing its own rush of water and boulders, heading through Te Whiti towards Gladstone. I was reminded of the korero of Makere Waito, whose testimony in the Māori Land court, included lists of waka that travelled up the river from the sea.

Passing Te Ana o Parakawhiti that tower over the river at Hurunuiorangi, I thought of the legend of the taniwha Ngarara Huarau and how he threshed around, changing the landscape as he moved. But more than that, I mourned over the multitude of other river stories that have been lost, only hinted at as names on old maps, or heard as whispered stories when the night falls in the wharenui.

Martinborough Morning. Photo Gareth Winter

As the days unfolded, I pushed on – past the haunted house at Kokotau, the confluence with the Waiohine, alongside the cliffs at Moiki and past the dried up bed of the Huangarua, where I found children playing on a sailboard, the only craft I saw. At the Martinborough bridge I discovered the large bulldozer that had been laying a track for my journey, pushing gravel aside as it tried to impose its shape on the riverbed.

I left Martinborough on a misty morning, travelling down the slowing river. At Pukio I slipped into a kayak and swept along the river as it widened and twisted, sometimes facing the Remutaka Range, sometimes the Aorangi mountains. Another day, at Tuhitarata, I took to my feet again, walking along a new stop bank, created when the Ruamāhanga was cut off from Wairarapa Moana.

The river had changed – what was once a bubbling torrent had become a constrained stream. The crystal clarity of its headwaters had been diminished by the towns and farms that spread their waste into the giant Ruamāhanga catchment and irrigators were pumping litres of water onto bright green paddocks. I realised the boulders I had seen in the mountains were ground down by the river, becoming smaller and smaller as I travelled.

I reached the top of Ōnoke and skirted around its sandy edges to where the river punches through the spit and into Te Moana o Raukawa. I watched it surge through the narrow channel and into the sea and thought of how that water would evaporate and be recycled through the system. It would continue the earth’s oldest story – the struggle between mountain forming tectonic forces, and wind and rain eroding them, building new land as they did.

I walked back to the Lake Ferry pub and sat with a cold beer, thinking about my journey. The sun glistened on Lake Ōnoke, but even then, my mind went back to the cool chasms at the starting point of river’s journey and mine, to where it is untroubled by man. I thought of the trees, the birds, the insects and the fish. I knew I would return there, time after time, to allow the river to restore me.

© Gareth Winter