PAGE TWENTY THE DAILY TELEGRAPH, SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 27, 1965
JOURNEY INTO HISTORY
Digging up the past can be exciting, as much so in New Zealand as anywhere in the old world. Digging out a village where 600 people once lived under the protection of an Armed Constabulary stockade, from the broom, manuka and bracken cover of today, is an exciting adventure into history.
Opepe is 12 miles south of Taupo township and noted in New Zealand history for the action in which a detachment of cavalry was set upon by Te Kooti’s Maoris and overrun.
Graves of nine cavalrymen killed in the engagement are protected and tended under the auspices of the National Historic Places Trust. But all but forgotten is the site, on the opposite side of the road, of the stockade and village of Opepe.
The enthusiasm of an archaeologist, Mr Trevor Hosking, of Taupo, who represents the Archaeologists’ Association on the Historic Places Trust, has led to the old village of Opepe being “opened up.”
Not that there is much to see yet – a cleared road following the line of Opepe’s main street, a historic trough reached through a bush track, and overgrown depressions which were once formed drains. Tell-tale evidence is here, too, in strawberry plants now running wild, and oversized bramble bushes which were once hedges.
But enough has been confirmed by the on-the-spot comparisons with the picture of the Opepe of 1875 (printed at top right of this page) to satisfy the historian that this was the site of the village, and that here, and here, were the buildings which stood in the shadow of the stockade.
Although the area is not the most historic of those associated with the Historic Places Trust, Opepe is of special regional interest, firstly because of the engagement, second because of the strategic position of the stockade on the intersection of the track from the Urewera to Tokaanu where it crossed the Napier-Taupo route.
General Sir George Whitmore, commandant of the Armed Constabulary force, proposed to make the Opepe stockade the principal inland depot for stores brought up by packhorse from Napier. It was one of the few places on the Rangitikai [Rangitaiki] Plains where water could be obtained away from the rivers and where there was also an abundance of grass and wood.
Unrest among the [Taupo?] Maoris and raiding by Te Kooti from his hide-outs in the Urewera country precede Whitmore’s order in June 1869 to Colonel St. John to site the blockhouses, including that at Opepe. Believing that Te Kooti was still in the Urewera, the colonel left his escort of the Tauranga and Bay of Plenty cavalry at a deserted Maori pa at Opepe and rode on to the military post at Taupo.
An advance scout from Te Kooti’s force happened on Trooper George Cresswell watering the detachment’s horses at the totara trough, now a sightseers’ mecca at Opepe. The scout reported back. Te Kooti ordered some of his men to mix in friendly fashion with the detachment while he crept up the ravines with his main force to fall upon the 15 soldiers.
Only five escaped through the bush. Graves of those killed, or who died of wounds, stand whitely in a sheltered glade not far off the road where the Historic Places Trust has erected a sign-board.
These graves have been a historical landmark, yet there is history, too, in the tale of a village which grew round the Opepe stockade to house 600 people before it withered and died right away.
If Mr Hoskings’ plans are realised, about 140 acres of the old Opepe area will be preserved as a historical and scenic reserve. Most of the site is protected now, with a survey completed of a Maori land area in which the trough is sited. It is hoped to preserve this section also.
The old totara trough is not accessible by road. One of those innocuous notices invites the interested to use a bush track, neatly cleared with tree bearing name-discs lining the route. The notice says the walk takes 15 minutes, an estimate presumably made by a man with giant strides.
The effort is worth while. At the end is the trough, neatly fenced off in timber retrieved from the bush, with water running through it as it must have done when Trooper Cresswell was spied upon. A notice above the trough records its place in history, including the fact that Trooper Cresswell much later met and talked with the Maori spy, while both were working on the Waioeka Gorge road.
Cresswell escaped from the attack and walked 40 miles naked across the Kaiangaroa Plain in mid-Winter to Fort Galatea.
Opepe village is being unearthed, but gradually and thoroughly. Archaeology is not a pursuit to be hurried if the past is to come to exact life.
Mr Hosking and fellow historical enthusiasts of Taupo are re-mapping the old Opepe, using survey instruments to confirm visual impressions. From scraggly growth, the past is being picked out.
About here was the site of the hotel, now rebuilt into the Rangitaiki Hotel, and the road leading to it has been re-formed. The road at centre of the picture at the top right of this page has been retraced, and an over-grown cave-like depression in the hillside to the right of the upper track has been explored to show where a chimney vent was drilled through the rock roof. On top is the same old gum tree which was big in Opepe’s heydey.
How much more work will be done on the Opepe site is for the future to tell. Mr Hosking and his associates are eager to uncover the past, but are content in the meantime to ensure that their mapping is accurate. They know where the horse paddocks were, that crops were grown here, that this was the store and this the stockade, and more is yet to be confirmed.
Photo captions –
THE OPEPE ENGAGEMENT of 1869 is recorded on this signboard, erected by the National Historic Places Trust, at the entrance to the bush track leading to the graves of the cavalrymen who fell.
OPEPE TOWNSHIP in 1875. The hotel is the building at top right.
PIT-SAWN TIMBER used in the Opepe Hotel now forms part of the Rangitaiki Hotel. Mr K.J. Wilson, chairman of the Napier historical section, points to saw marks on the battens.
HOLDING THE 1875 PICTURE of Opepe, while standing on the plateau, is Mr R. M. Bell, leader of a party of Hawke’s Bay amateur historians who made a journey into history when they visited the Opepe site recently. The gum tree prominent in the picture at the top is shown again in this photograph. At left is Mr H. E. Phillips, chairman of the Hawke’s Bay regional committee of the Historic Places Trust, and in the centre is Mr K. J. Wilson.
SACRED TO THE MEMORY of the men who fell at Opepe are these graves, well maintained in a sheltered bush clearing.
LEFT: Hawke’s Bay students of history who visited Opepe recently walk along the bush track to the graves. BELOW: Gathered to hear Mr Trevor Hosking, of Taupo, give an on-the-spot identification of what was at Opepe once. RIGHT: The totara trough, used by the Armed Constabulary horses when Opepe was in its heyday.