Murder at Mapoutahi

Today I teamed up with KL’s Self Discovery to find an adventure suitable for a busy mother and a person starting out on the path to a healthy lifestyle. I settled on a walk to the old Mapoutahi pa site – easy and flat, and it suits my nerdy inclinations because it’s historical.

imageThere was only one catch – somebody had to carry the spare baby. Well, I won’t have anyone say I don’t go the extra mile to bring someone on an adventure.

I’m not sure this baby trusts me…

To get there we had to pass Port Chalmers and take the road up the hill, following the signs for Long Beach until we reached Purakanui School Rd which took us through the sleepy suburb of Osborne, a place none of us had ever been before. We crossed a neat little gravel culvert over the Purakanui Inlet while KL enthused about what a perfect place this would be for a horse ride. We continued to the end of the gravel Osborne Rd, parking on the grass near a sign that warned us the track beyond was not suitable for vehicles.

Babies secured, we headed down the sandy road, pine trees on one side and a sheer cliff on the other.

Road to Mapoutahi

Soon after, we emerged on to the beach at Purakaunui Bay, with the bulk of the Mapoutahi headland on our left.

The site of the fortress

This narrow headland was once the strategic location of a pa that was the scene of the last dreadful act in a feud that tore through the pre-European Maori community of the Dunedin area.

It began sometime in the mid-1700s when a leader named Taoka failed to make an expected visit to his cousin Te Wera, who took this as an insult. In response he took a war party to the Waitaki River and slew Taoka’s son. He sent two minor chiefs to bear the news to Taoka, perhaps hoping that he would slay the messengers and no further utu would be forthcoming. However Taoka was away when the messengers arrived, so they passed the news on to his wives and beat a hasty retreat, likely thanking their lucky stars.

The outraged Taoka laid siege to Te Wera’s fortified pa at Huriawa (which we will no doubt visit in future), but Te Wera had prepared for the attack by stockpiling preserved food, and fresh water could be obtained from a spring on the highly defensible Karitane peninsula. Eventually Taoka was unable to feed his war party and forced to leave. Te Wera quickly took the opportunity to leave for Stewart Island.

But Taoka still needed to settle the score, so he turned his sights on Te Wera’s ally, Te Pakihaukea, who chose to make his stand here at Mapoutahi, perching his pa atop cliffs that could only be accessed via a narrow strip of land. Back in his time, the water was deeper around the isthmus, making it an even more secure position than it appears today.

Taoka laid siege, but could not breach the fortress. Then one winter night he sent a scout to check the defences, and discovered that dummies had been set up in place of the usual sentries. The vengeful chief seized this opportunity, broached the pa, and slaughtered the inhabitants. It is said that only one man escaped, by diving into the ocean.

Once the massacre was over, the bodies were left piled up like a large heap of wood, which is the translation for the name of the bay – Purakaunui.

Today the site is a beautiful contrast to its grim past, a haven for penguins and a scenic destination for family outings. We climbed up some steep wooden steps onto the isthmus and headed up the slope.

Steps up to the pa site

I kept a look out for any remaining defensive ditches while we walked, but couldn’t spot any under the bushy undergrowth. The ground was also disturbed when the railway line was built in the 1870s, which may have obliterated the old trenches.

View from the headland

It wasn’t a long climb to the end of the bluff, where we could look out on to the open ocean. To our left came the happy cries of surfers in Blueskin Bay, while on the right our view extended to Potato Point, which separates this bay from Long Beach. I edged towards the cliff, ignoring the nervous mother as she pleaded with me to bring her baby back, and gazed down at the rough rocks below. Would I jump from here if I had to?

Would you?

Heading back down the slope, we met some DOC agents setting predator traps. They target possums, ferrets, stoats and hedgehogs but the number one threat to the vulnerable Mapoutahi penguins is something they can’t set traps for – the average family dog! So if you’re planning to bring your beloved pooch this way, be sure he stays on his lead.

A peaceful scene belies a bloody history

With that, we left the white-gold sand of Purakaunui Bay behind us and headed back down the forested path to our vehicle. We farewelled the beautiful little headland with the haunting history and wended our way back home.


The welcome of strangers : an ethnohistory of southern Maori A.D. 1650-1850 by Atholl Anderson

PURAKANUI PA. Otago Daily Times , Issue 20764, 9 July 1929, Page 13

The Archaeology of Otago by Jill Hamel

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