Lands of the Shining Peak: 'When death itself is dead, I shall be alive'

September 18, 2020
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THE next region I came to in my tour around the lower North Island was Taranaki, also known as the Taranaki or, very colloqually, the Naki.

Everyone in the region lives under the beautiful 2,518 metre (8,261 feet) volcano that gives the region its name, Mount Taranaki: a name that’s thought to mean ‘shining peak’, a reference to the way the mountain looks during the cooler months of the year.

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Mount Taranaki. Whites Aviation Ltd., 1969: Photographs. Ref: WA-68672-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22305211

The area around Mount Taranaki is mostly green farmland, apart from a national park which takes in the volcano in an almost circular fashion, plus a couple of eroded volcanic peaks to its northwest, Pouakai and Kaitake.

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Mt Taranaki and Environs, including the port city of New Plymouth due north of the peak. ASTER image 27 May 2001. NASA public domain image record 3000/3881/egmont_ast_2001086 via the NASA Earth Observatory. North at top.

Officially, the Taranaki Region of New Zealand extends from Waitotara in the south to Mokau in the north. About two thirds of the region’s population of just over 122,000 lives in the city of New Plymouth and its surrounding district, which have, altogether, a population of 84,400.

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The Taranaki Region in relation to the central North Island. Map data ©2020 Google. North at top.

The western part of the Taranaki Region consists almost entirely of the slopes and lower slopes of Mount Taranaki and the adjacent peaks. These slopes reach sea level at a distance of 25 km from the crater of Mount Taranaki.

The present cone of Mount Taranaki is only a bit over three thousand years old, and last erupted about 250 years ago.

It’s the latest in a long string of pretty-looking volcanoes that have grown up on more or less the same spot and then blown their top like Mount St Helens.

Scientists predict that today’s Mount Taranaki will vanish in a puff of smoke itself one day.

In the meantime we can enjoy scenic postcard views of the beautiful mountain from almost every angle, while it’s still there!

Views like this one, from New Plymouth’s Pukekura Park:

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The Poet’s Bridge in Pukekura Park with Mount Taranaki peeping over the top. Photo by Te Kaunihera-ā-Rohe o Ngāmotu/New Plymouth District Council.

The spot on which the city of New Plymouth is established is called Ngāmotu, meaning ‘the islands’ in Māori. That’s because there are several offshore islands, the eroded remains of an extinct volcano themselves.

These are called Ngā Motu or the Sugar Loaf Islands, and the city’s beach is called Ngāmotu Beach.

Ngāmotu is often used as an alternative name for New Plymouth city, for instance on the council website, though at present it’s not official.

There are lots of other famous vantage-points, such as Lake Mangamahoe, where you can get a view of the mountain reflected in the water.

I travelled north along the coast from Whanganui to get to the Taranaki: ironically following the route of Whanganui settlers and their local Maori allies who invaded in the late 1860s in the form of the Pātea Field Force, named after the village of Pātea which they occupied and took over.

There were at least three wars in the Taranaki between 1860 and 1870 and some relics of the wars remain, such as the watch-tower of the plains at the old stockade outside Manaia.

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Right troop, Alexandra Cavalry, Manaia Redoubt, by George Sherriff. The scene depicted was in November 1881. Established in 1864, the Alexandra Cavalry, now called Queen Alexandra’s Mounted Rifles, is the oldest regiment of the New Zealand Army. Purchased 2001 with Ellen Eames Collection funds. Te Papa Tongarewa / the National Museum of New Zealand, Wellington (2001–0033–1/4).

There’s also a monument to the Pātea Field Force in the middle of Manaia.

The battlefield that’s become a campground

The Manaia monument includes the name of Gustavus von Tempsky, the Prussian-born commander of a unit called the Forest Rangers, who met his end in a nearby clearing called Te Ngutu o te Manu, ‘the beak of the bird’. This is the nearest equivalent in New Zealand to Little Big Horn, in the sense of a really catastrophic defeat from which anyone dressed in an army uniform was lucky to get away.

Von Tempsky’s general had a bad feeling about the place, and ordered the major to pull out. But in those pre-cellphone days the message didn’t get through in time.

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Death of Major Von Tempsky at Te-Ngutu-o-te-Manu, New Zealand, 7th September, 1868. Watkins, Charles Henry Kennett, 1847–1933. Watkins, Kennett, 1847–1933. / W P lith; [from a painting by Kennett Watkins] Wanganui, A D Willis [1893]. Ref: C-033–006. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23254119

Te Ngutu o te Manu was very demoralising for the settlers, as von Tempsky and his Rangers had been greatly built up into invincible heroes by the local press. To this day, there are lots of place-names and street names in New Zealand that commemorate von Tempsky, especially in Taranaki.

It’s sometimes quite hard to find historical battlefield sites in New Zealand these days. But here we are: close to the Kapuni Water Treatment plant. You can’t miss it!

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The site of Te Ngutu o te Manu today. Imagery ©2020 CNES/Airbus, Maxar Technologies,, Taranaki Regional/Stratford/South Taranaki Councils. Map data ©2020 Google. North at top.

You can even camp in the clearing, sheltered from the winds that howl across the otherwise now-denuded plains by the same trees that once sheltered the snipers.

That’s if the whole idea doesn’t strike you as a bit freaky. Then again, there’s always a ghost-free motel up the road.

Update (November 2021): I've added a video of the modern-day campsite at Te Ngutu o te Manu, which is actually one of the better freedom campsites available, with picnic tables and public conveniences.

Smoothing over the past

Taranaki Maori lost a lot of land to the eventually-victorious New Zealand Government, which settled large numbers of European farmers in the Taranaki region. Taranaki Maori were more seriously affected by land confiscation than any other group.

A 1920s inquiry recommended an annual award of five thousand pounds to the Taranaki tribes most seriously affected by land confiscations in the nineteenth century. This became the seed-money for the Taranaki Māori Trust Board, which still exists.

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Land allocation and confiscation in the Taranaki Region, 1927. Land initially confiscated but since returned to Maori as at 1927 is in yellow, “balance of confiscated land” is in green. Land purchased from Maori is white. Valuation New Zealand. New Zealand. Confiscated Lands Commission: [map with ms annotations].. Ref: MapColl-832.2gbbd/1927/Acc.35354. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22301289

Efforts at trying to smooth over grievances resulting from the wars go back a long way in New Zealand history, often in symbolic terms. For instance, the first series of New Zealand-issued bank notes, in use between 1934 and 1940, features King Tāwhiao, the commander of the main group of forces fighting against Queen Victoria in the 1860s, on the front face of every note along with a heavy use of Māori motifs. Amazingly, the British monarch didn’t appear on New Zealand banknotes at all until 1967.

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Source: Reserve Bank of New Zealand

Still, there has always been the complaint that this sort of thing was indeed symbolic and also financially inadequate (five thousand pounds a year for a good chunk of Taranaki wasn’t really that much).

And that — most seriously — there was a large group of Māori who were really poor and landless and drifting into the towns, who weren’t really getting anything to speak of out of higher-level rapprochements even if other Māori were.

A 1954 government newsreel about New Plymouth describes the conflict of the old days as entirely smoothed over.

Five minutes in, you can see a huge statue of a colonial soldier on top of Marsland Hill, a downtown eminence which held the old stockade out of which the town eventually grew.

Well things obviously hadn’t been smoothed over, because the statue was later destroyed by protestors on February 6th, 1991, the 151st anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Two cannons were also eventually removed from the same site.

As I say in an earlier post, there’s nothing new about the toppling of controversial statues in New Zealand.

Remember Parihaka!

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Past Hāwera, there are two ways to get to New Plymouth. I decided to take State Highway 45, known as the Surf Highway because there are lots of good surfing beaches on Taranaki’s wild western extremity.

But the real reason I took the highway was because I wanted to visit Parihaka, the site of a famous act of nonviolent resistance in 1881 which is honoured on the website of the Gandhi Foundation, and may actually have helped to inspire the great Indian peaceful resister personally.

Parihaka is close to the westernmost extremity of Taranaki, an extremity known as Cape Egmont.

Until quite recently the mountain itself was also known as Mount Egmont. The mountain has now reverted to its older Māori name in everyday use: though Egmont is still used in technical circles so as not to confuse foreign scientists who know the mountain by that name.

Egmont honours a key sponsor of Captain Cook’s voyages of discovery, the Earl of Egmont, who was, himself, descended from a famous liberator of the Netherlands honoured by Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. The overture was performed recently by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

West of SH 45, a local road called Cape Road runs down to Cape Egmont, which has a light-house you can photograph in the same frame as Mount Taranaki.

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Cape Egmont Lighthouse with Mount Taranaki in the background. Photograph by Russell Street, 3 August 2013, CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

About 200 metres before Cape Road, on the right, is Mid-Parihaka Road. This leads to Parihaka Pā, where in 1881 a group of Māori led by Te Whiti-o-Rongomai III, and Tohu Kākahi, ploughed the land to demonstrate that they did not recognise its earlier confiscation by the New Zealand Government.

Te Whiti and Tohu were joined by Riwha Tītokowaru, a one-eyed ex-warrior who had been one of the most important fighters of the 1860s. It was Tītokowaru who had annhilated von Tempsky at Te Ngutu o te Manu, in the course of a devastating counterattack against the British and colonial forces whom most people, up to that time, supposed to have been winning.

Tītokowaru was never defeated in the field. But his campaign fell apart after the defection of some his allies. Otherwise, Whanganui and perhaps New Plymouth might have fallen, at the very least.

The historian James Belich says that Tītokowaru was “arguably the best general New Zealand has ever produced.” Belich also draws attention to his labours as a prophet and, paradoxically, a peace-maker when he wasn’t making war.

After Tītokowaru’s tribal coalition fell apart, for reasons which still aren’t clear, the colonists put his war behind them, in Belich’s words once again, “as a child forgets a nightmare”

At any rate, the colonists managed to forget the nightmare until Tītokowaru turned up again at Parihaka.

In view of Tītokowaru’s reputation, Native Minister John Bryce had no trouble persuading his government to meet the expense of a huge expedition to the Taranaki, including the Alexandra Cavalry depicted above. Some accounts say that the force was 1,600 strong, others that it was more like 2,600. Perhaps it gathered strength along the way.

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Bryce’s Encampment at Parihaka. Photograph from the Alexander Turnbull Library, via Kennedy Warne, ‘Why wasn’t I told?’, New Zealand Geographic, issue 142, Nov-Dec 2016.

But the Māori of Parihaka, also more than two thousand strong by this stage, emphasised that their course was now one of nonviolent resistance.

By the 1880s, many colonists had no desire for a resumption of the wars. After all, they were the ones who stood to have their brand-new barns burned down all over again.

Was Bryce not merely prudent but actually some kind of latter-day chickenhawk, after the glory of being the man who beat the man who’d beaten von Tempsky?

On the 5th of November 1881, Bryce’s force invaded and destroyed the Parihaka Pā. The inhabitants did not resist.

Certainly, when the epic battle for which Bryce had tooled up never happened, credit was extended by some colonists to those who’d refused his invitation.

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The Lyttelton Star’s take on the story, from From Vincent O’Malley, ‘The Invasion of Parihaka, 5 November 1881: An Eyewitness Account’, 5 November 2012, on The Meeting Place — A New Zealand History Blog. The Star’s correspondent styled Bryce as “the generalissimo.”

Te Whiti, Tohu and Tītokwaru were imprisoned, released, and legally harrassed for the next few years. Here’s a sketch I saw in New Plymouth’s amazing Puke Ariki (‘hill of the high chief’) museum showing Tītokowaru and Te Whiti in the dock at one of their trials.

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As the sketch suggests, old-time Māori were quite diverse in appearance, even among those born before intermarriage with Pākehā (Europeans) had become common.

Of the three Parihaka leaders, Te Whiti was the one who looked most like a colonist himself. Tohu and Tītokowaru had darker complexions and less European features. Tohu was actually the most senior of the three and yet he is not nearly as well known as Te Whiti. Some think that Te Whiti’s appearance, less likely to meet with prejudice from the average colonist, may have aided his elevation to the status of spokesperson for the movement.

The 1927 commission recommended a payment of three hundred pounds as compensation for wrongs at Parihaka, a payment eventually granted in the 1940s. Again, a drop in the bucket really and ironically far less than the original military expedition would have cost.

In 1981 the Taranaki Museum, now Puke Ariki, assembled a great collection of images to do with the events of a hundred years before. They’re now on Youtube in the form of a half-hour documentary:

In the thumbnail, you can see the man in the background wielding a spade as his ceremonial weapon, and three white feathers on his head. All bear three white feathers actually: this was the symbol of the nonviolent resistance movement of the 1880s in New Zealand. You can see them on the monument to Te Whiti at Parihaka, as well.

By contrast, both Tohu and Tītokowaru were buried, when their time came, at secret locations. The saying that ‘over a seaman’s grave there bloom no roses’ also applies to Tohu and Tītokowaru as far as memorials go.

The fifth of November would be celebrated by the colonists as Guy Fawkes Day , as it is in England. But not as Parihaka Day, as the settlers soon forgot about the whole thing once they felt safe.

For a time it seemed as though Tītokowaru’s promise to his followers would be rendered hollow:

I shall not die

I shall not die

When death itself is dead, I shall be alive

Amnesia lasted until the first publication of the Palmerston North-born historian Dick Scott’s book Ask that Mountain in 1975.

Well, Parihaka’s not forgotten by Pakeha any more. Ask that Mountain’s now in its ninth edition, which must be practically a record. The Pā and its resisters also became the subject of a bouncy 1980s Kiwi Reggae song, almost as popular as Poi E if I remember rightly. Here’s one version of the song, against a slideshow of really terrific photos of Mount Taranaki.

Finally, a new website and app called Hello Taranaki is now in operation. This is intended to be a one-stop-shop for everything to do with Taranaki.


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