Volume 52 1943 > Volume 52, No. 4 > Waitaki Maori paintings, by G. B. Stevenson, p 191-198
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- 191

In The rugged country at the head of the Waitaki gorge where the waters race between steep rocky mountains, are the only known Maori paintings on greywacke rock in New Zealand. The first is situated on the Canterbury side at a bend in the river, known as Gooseneck, about sixteen miles up from Te Akatarawa homestead. The second is three miles further upstream on the Otago side, and near the junction of Shepherds creek and the Waitaki.

Although on opposite sides of the river, the rock faces on which the paintings have been made in each case are of northerly aspect. Both have a smooth water-worn surface which appears to have suited the ancient Maori artists, as, while there are other rock walls in the vicinity, none of these has received attention.

The Gooseneck shelter would accomodate perhaps twenty people, and Shepherds creek about a dozen; both are away from the old trail to the west coast, and would be merely hunters' camps. It is also probable that they were used by remnants of the Waitaha and Ngati-mamoe, as these tribes were forced to seek refuge away from the east coast.


(Te Piri-a-wakataka-kura, Te Piri-a-whakataka-kura=N. isd.)

About 1889 the late Mr. James W. Murdoch of Oamaru discovered a group of rock shelter paintings in the Waitaki gorge. At that time he was making frequent trips along the river between Black Forest and Te Akatarawa Stations.

In discussions with me he had often expressed the wish to have another look at this shelter after a lapse of fifty years, to see what change, if any, had taken place. He was doubtful if the paint would last as well on greywacke as on limestone.

Eventually the trip was arranged. Mr. D. Burnett of Te Akatarawa kindly offered to provide horses, without which the journey would not have been possible. Mr. Murdoch considered that we would find the shelter about a mile beyond the junction of the Ahuriri river, but neither Mr. Burnett nor his sons could confirm this, as they had no knowledge of the paintings.

The day on which we set out was not at all promising, and we soon ran into a fine misty rain; but after about an hour of this the clouds lifted, and we had occasional glimpses of Benmore, the highest peak in this region. About a mile from the homestead we entered the gorge, and from here the bridle track follows the old Maori trail up the river.

The junction with the Waitaki of the Otematata stream, which is about five miles up river from the homestead, is an interesting locality. It was here that the Maori from Canterbury crossed the Waitaki when travelling to the west coast, via the Lindis and Haast passes, in their quest for greenstone. The flax which grows quite luxuriantly along - 192 the river edge is not found beyond this point, the last clump was just opposite the Otematata mouth. Mr. Murdoch informed me that the true flax (phormium tenax) has never been found past this spot.

A few miles further up, on a small area of flat ground, there was plenty of evidence of old-time Maori occupation. Burnt stones in fire-blackened earth, flint knives, pieces of crumbling moa-bones, and the unmistakable white quartz moa crop-stones, told the tale of stone-age feasts. Here also we saw a rectangular fire-place made with four stones; it was half buried in the earth, and it marked the site of a long-vanished whare.

Leaving the flat, we passed along a fairly-steep hillside about 300 feet above the river; here there were one or two difficult places where floods had scoured the path away, but the horses were sure-footed, we had a lot to thank them for that day.

The next point of interest was the bridge-site located by the Hon. W. B. Mantell, M.L.C., in 1852. 1 The terraces are there, just as he described them, and so are the vertical walls of rock, each more than thirty feet high, through which the river rushes smoothly but with irresistible power.

Mantell estimated the width of the river at this point at less than 300 feet, and from our point of vantage it appeared to be well within that estimate. Ninety years ago that explorer forecast that a bridge would be built there, and that a big town would be constructed on the terraces around it. Some day the bridge may be built—the project has been discussed more than once, as it would considerably reduce the distance to the Mackenzie country—but the town is likely to remain a dream.

The Waitaki gorge here is a gloomy place. The big river is dwarfed and overshadowed by forbidding mountains whose steep sides are broken by desolate gullies and covered by dark grey rocks and still darker scrub. It is a wild lonely place, well described by Mantell as dismal.

At the river edge there was a large willow with nearly all the branches on one side torn off by a recent gale. Some of the limbs were nine inches thick. They had been carried about a chain and were neatly arranged with the thick ends all pointing in the same direction. It was clear evidence of the force of the wind in this narrow gorge.

The next landmark was the junction with the Waitaki of the Ahuriri river. A little upstream from this stands a high flat-topped rock which is a favourite nesting-place for black shags; there were seventeen very prosperous-looking birds sitting on it as we passed.

About two miles further on we crossed Scrubby-gully creek (Te Awa-o-taka) and reached a more open section of the gorge, where the track follows a narrow terrace. Along the terrace the ground was strewn with numerous clusters of the familiar quartz gizzard-stones. These great birds must have perished here in hundreds; there was nothing to indicate the cause, neither Maori ovens nor flint knives were to be seen at this place. Each little group of pebbles was fairly uniform in size, thus giving some indication of the size of the bird that had died there. The colour of the stones was almost invariably white, with one exception where the heap included one red and one blue stone; this bird had been partial to the national colours of the future - 193 Presently we came to the down-stream end of the Gooseneck: it was then getting near mid-day and time to turn for home, but we pushed on toward the upper bend, which was to be our turning point. With the exception of one little corner that we could not see into there was nothing promising in sight for at least another mile. A bad washout blocked us, but I scrambled over, and here in the sharp corner at the upper end of Gooseneck was the shelter we had been searching for.

It consisted of three small shallow bays or alcoves under a rock about 300 feet high; the stone had been hollowed out and worn smooth by the river when it was about forty feet higher than the present level. There was little overhang in the rock to give protection from above, and altogether it appeared to be a rather uncomfortable place; but it had been decorated.

We found a crossing for the horses, and commenced an immediate examination of the old camping-place.

The paintings were rather badly faded; some were indistinguishable, and a few were half buried by debris on the floor. Of those still in fair condition two were sketches of birds, one of which was a shag; this was quite well drawn; there was also a spiral, a huge centipede, and a figure of a man, all of which were in red. Then there was a small drawing in black of what looked like a large plum (natural size) complete with a curved stem. Drawings similar to this have been found in other shelters, but in those places the stems have all been straight. The only thing we can be sure about, is, that they were not intended to represent plums.

Presently Mr. Murdoch announced that, although they were definitely of Maori origin, they were not the paintings he had previously discovered. I suggested that after a lapse of fifty years it would be difficult to remember the designs exactly but he was confident.

We paid particular attention to the drawing of the shag. The artist had portrayed the bird standing in a characteristic attitude, even details such as the tips of the wings and the webbed feet being clearly shown.

The drawing of the man was not so well executed. He was shown in the act of climbing up the rock wall, and was provided with one arm and one leg only. The hand had three fingers and the foot three toes, as is usual in much ancient Maori art.

Some of the drawings appear to be contemporary with those of the last period of Maerewhenua and would be Ngaitahu work; others probably belong to an earlier tribe.

We had no time to search the debris on the shelter-floor or to examine the immediate surroundings or even to boil the billy before starting on the return journey which was commenced after 1 o'clock.

On the way back we stopped while Mr. Murdoch gathered one of the many little clusters of gizzard stones. These are being dispersed by the winds and the feet of passing sheep. One or two other halts were made in order to obtain photographs, but we passed by the site of the whare without stopping.

If another rock shelter is discovered in this locality near the junction of the Ahuriri it will be the one Mr. Murdoch was expecting to find. He had a retentive memory and the designs he described to me were certainly not to be found at Gooseneck. Yet it is difficult to understand how such a keen observer came to pass this shelter without

- 194
No. 1 Bay.
No. 2 Bay.
- 195
No. 3 Bay.
- 196
No. 4 Bay.

noticing it: perhaps it was at that time hidden by scrub which has since disappeared, like the men who once sheltered there.


(Piri-karakaraka=N. isld. Parikarangaranga 2)

This is situated about a third of a mile down from the junction of Shepherds creek and the Waitaki river on what was once the Benmore station. It is reached by an easy walk of less than two miles from Mr. G. McAughtrie's homestead which is thirty-two miles by road from Omarama.

My companion on this trip was Mr. Lance Finch of Auckland; we reached our destination after a motor journey of 110 miles from Oamaru. As the last few miles of the road would have been impassable for our light car in wet weather, and as there were signs of a storm over the Benmore range when we arrived, no time was lost in getting to work. Leaving the car at the homestead, we traversed about a mile and a half of gently sloping fiat country towards a rocky point situated about 600 yards down from the junction of Shepherds creek. This proved to be the place we were looking for.

- i
Rock-shelter at “Gooseneck” (Piri-a-whakataka-kura).
Rock-shelter at Shepherds creek (Pari-karangaranga).
- ii
No. 1 Bay.
No. 2 Bay.
- iii
No. 3 Bay.
- iv
No. 4 Bay.
- 197

The shelter is very similar to that at Gooseneck, three miles down the river. It has a smooth water worn surface that reaches to a height of about thirty-five feet above the floor of the shelter which itself is forty feet above the present river level.

The existence of these paintings was known many years ago to some of the Benmore shepherds. Mr. H. C. Cudmore, now of lake Ohau, informed me that he had noticed them when mustering in this part of the country before the station was sub-divided. Mr. McAughtrie, who was absent when we arrived, was also quite familiar with the shelter and had given clear instructions as to how to locate it; he also extended a kind invitation to make use of his homestead.

As at Gooseneck there is very little cover provided by overhang in the rock itself but this may have been improved by the use of flax mats or raupo. Other features common to both shelters are the nature of the rock (greywacke) and the fact that each has a good observation point and a line of retreat into the mountains.

The work of recording the various designs was commenced immediately, Mr. Finch sketched and measured the paintings, whilst I did the easy work with the camera. These sketches proved invaluable for filling in detail where the camera failed to distinguish between the faded red paint and other stains on the rock wall.

At Gooseneck the artists had been partial to birds; but here it was little men with beetle-shaped bodies and the usual three-fingered hands and three-toed feet that were most popular, one of these was depicted upside down. Fish were also common, two resembling dolphins; there were also an eel and a crab. One of the most prominent drawings was a conventional design used in face-tattooing on the forehead. An unusual feature was a fish, complete with hook in mouth; it was not painted, but etched on the rock, the tool used being probably a piece of quartzite; the exaggerated dorsal fin on this specimen is typical Maori work. A design resembling a double crescent or) (was of special interest, as a similar drawing exists in the group with the ship, in the cave at Maerewhenua. Only about a foot above the floor of the shelter there was a very faded drawing of a fish with five barbed spears above it. Once located the outlines could be followed without difficulty. This group appears to have been painted in black (the others are all in red), and is undoubtedly very much older than the remainder in the shelter. I considered it was too badly faded to photograph so Mr. Finch sketched it in full size; afterwards it was found that the camera actually did record it.

In looking around for “locality” pictures, I wandered down to Coal creek, a rivulet which comes down from the eastern slopes of Benmore. It flows into the Waitaki through a break in the rocky ridge which extends for over a mile along the river bank below the shelter.

In a corner of a tiny sheltered flat near the mouth of this little steam there were a number of flakes of greywacke and four knives of the same material. Some old stone age craftsman had been at work here replenishing the family cutlery.

Still a little further down the river is the place known to older generations of Maoris as Anawhakairo (the cave of carved or sculptured rock). It was not the hand of man but of “old man river” that carved out the recesses in this rock wall, shaped the fantastic pinnacles and cut the monoliths of greywacke into slices, and bored holes like - 198 windows through them. Many thousands of years ago when the great glaciers that filled the beds of the Ohau, Pukaki, and Tekapo lakes were receding, the Waitaki was flowing at a height fully eighty feet above the present level. Carrying with it the ice and debris of the glaciers the mighty river has left its mark upon this “rock of ages”. Proof of the power of the river and of the everlasting quality of the stone is seen in the weird rocks and the smooth surface they have retained. From this place to the hills across the river in Canterbury is fully a mile, but two miles downstream the river turns sharply to the east to form what is known as “Gooseneck bend”. Here the mile wide valley narrows to a gorge through which the now turbulent waters race with ever increasing speed.

On a later brief visit to Shepherds creek, I had a look over an old Maori camp in this locality; the midden heaps were quite easily located, also two whare fire-places. Chert from central Otago, quartzite from Grays hills (in sight across the river), and obsidian from far off Mayor island in the Bay of Plenty were amongst the relics picked up. A few fragments of moa bones explained the reason for a camp in this lonely spot; it was probably good moa country; the name, if it had one, must have long since been forgotten.

1   Alexander Mackay, A Compendium of Official Documents relative to affairs in the South Island, vol. 1, 1873, pages 232, 233.
2   Another spelling, Parekangara (on rough sketch by Mr. G. Rutherford from information supplied by Maori friends), suggests the correct spelling to be Parikarangaranga—the ‘echoing cliff’.—Ed.