This is a special wet Waitangi Weekend treat…
Now that the Tongariro Skulduggery epic 247 page “mockumentary” has been completed and distributed through TRM reception, we have been asked repeatedly if there will be a sequel? Good question! But first, now with the vast experience of publishing our first “mockumentary”, we decided it was time to determine whether we had followed the correct procedure to write and publish ourselves. Purely by luck, more than good management, we seemed to have ticked all the boxes except one. This blog is a belated effort to correct that omission.
Recently we have read several books to discover a sample chapter of the author’s next series or book in the back pages – when they try to suck the reader in for their next publication. We could not do that of course, but apparently, we should have introduced the initial chapters to explain the plot by using social media, to wet the appetite of those still wondering whether to invest…
This is not quite as simple as it seems as the story also contained many sub-plots which captured a glorious local historic tapestry and contributed to the big picture. These sub-plots or historic background details were printed on a grey background to separate them from the main plot. According to SWMBO (She Who Must Be Obeyed is the manager of the motel and of course is one of the main characters in the story) any book deliberately written in shades of grey is certain to be a best seller… These have been omitted for this initial taste treat.
We hope you can differentiate between fact and fiction…
Discovering the skull
Belt yourself in for an extraordinary fishy story of how the discovery of a skeleton shook the foundations of New Zealand compensation laws to force the Government to negotiate a compromise deal for the redevelopment of Turangi township and Tongariro River to secure their economic future for ever…. Amazing!
The main characters, an old man & his son, Sonny Jim, were fishing the Tongariro River when they discovered the remains of a very dead corpse. Not just any old corpse. The deceased had been killed about 800 years ago when Maori first arrived and conquered the moa hunters to occupy this region. The find became the catalyst for revenge with a claim by the pre-Maori civilization deserving belated compensation. But this is getting too far ahead of the full fascinating story.
In January 2020 the motel owner and his son, Sonny Jim, went off biking and fishing and hiking, to explore the upper Tongariro River. Their route was above and beyond the formed anglers’ access tracks heading for a more challenging unexplored remote location. The anticipation was heightened by some sneaky trespassing onto the nearby prison farm, which extends for about 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres) on both sides of the river. As the main prison nearby at Rangipo had been closed for several years they were confident they would not get disturbed or caught. The only other means of access were by canoe or raft down the river.
The old man was the owner/operator of the Tongariro River Motel where he had retired some fifteen years before, optimistically planning to spend his retirement trout fishing. He was often known as the “warden” after he had referred to motel guests as “inmates” for many years. Sonny Jim was a 40 years old academic from Auckland. This was on his extended Christmas-New Year holiday catch-up in Turangi. Another father-son bonding trip – depending on who caught the most trout… Over previous years they had fished together many times all over the region and were as much in exploring mood tramping upriver beyond any formed angler access tracks. As long as the warden could keep up with him, they enjoyed the hiking and biking and exploring process as much as the fishing, always hopefully trying to discover new undisturbed ‘virgin’ water that may have been undiscovered, hidden away for one hundred years as part of the prison farm.
With over fifty famous named pools in the lower river, this upper region was relatively unknown and unexplored. This involved a bike trip from the motel across the Koura Street swing bridge and up the Tongariro River Trail for about 5 km to an overgrown hidden side-track above the Duchess Pool. Then, after hiding their bikes in the bush, they followed the prison farm boundary into the mature forest. Much of this land had been converted to forestry plantations so access was relatively easy along the firebreaks elevated high above the Tongariro River TRB (Angler jargon for True Right Bank looking downriver).
After dropping back down to the river level and crossing the Whitikau Stream, a major tributary on the TRB, they easily ‘bush bashed’ through mature native bush, Totaras and Rimus and Birches to the river bank to cast into dark swirly runs and mysterious deep slow pools which promised huge undisturbed wild trout. The scenery was quite simply stunning. They were in a fishy wilderness heaven.
In anticipation of anguish and complaints by my daughter and any concerned ‘greenies’, all trout caught were thanked and blessed before being gently and carefully, lovingly released from barbless hooks without any harm or injury. In other words, it was too far to lug them back the long distance to where the bikes were hidden.
Although these trout were feeding in the river, they were Lake Taupo trout that had entered the river on their spawning migration. They usually take over a month to proceed this far up the river so may have entered the river at the Delta over a month previously in November. Most had already spawned and recovered. Redds – clean gravel spawning beds – could be identified from the elevated track so they made their way down and then waded upriver along the bank, where the contour permitted.
Both were nymphing ‘dry & dropper’ rigs with a cicada pattern used as an indicator supporting a small, size 14, bead-head pheasant tail below. Fly fishermen are very finicky and need to know these little details.
Then without warning, the river surface texture changed when it thickened from crystal clear to a cloudy colour as a murky pumice loose raft of floating gravel drifted down. Erosion from soft pumice slips is not uncommon along the Tongariro River banks. That signaled the end of sight fishing to spot trout, so the two explorers pushed through the secondary scrubby bush to try to tramp up above the slip.
After wading and climbing up the bank for about half an hour they could clearly see eroded steep contour upriver where the bank had caved in to reveal something curious poking out of the hole formed in the slip just above the river flow. Further up river above the slip the river was clear. The slip occurred in a bypass on the TRB of the main flow where it would never be noticed by rafts of tourists floating down. But it was in the hollow at the base of the slip that revealed something more interesting. There was definitely something unusual exposed.
Sonny Jim arrived first to discover, to his astonishment, an old parched human skeleton had been revealed under an ancient dugout canoe that appeared to have been used to protect the skeleton like a primitive sarcophagus or vault – but without any coffin to secure the body remains. (Sonny Jim immediately remembered reading about similar upturned canoes discovered in nearby Tokaanu being used to protect dead bodies of chiefs or priests, exposed during the excavations of the tailrace for the Tokaanu Power station.)
His old man eventually arrived slowly cautiously relying on his wading pole to prevent any chance of slipping down the soft wet pumice gravel into the river.
Only the skull cranium – a grey-brown paper-thin shell – remained fully revealed, balanced finely on the edge about ten feet (indicates the warden was another old fossil who had still not adjusted to metrics) – three metres – above the river level. Other skeletal bones had been buried in a crouched foetal manner.
The immediate danger was the skull could easily slide into the river if disturbed. Even at first glance, it was evident the delicate skull was very old and had met a violent death. The back of the skull – the parietal, as he discovered later – had been partly crushed by a blunt weapon or club. It was precariously positioned close to the river edge in the crypt-like exposed space.
The initial reaction was a futile attempt to phone the police but there was no cell phone reception deep in the river gorge. So action man took over. Sonny Jim was instantly morbidly fascinated by their discovery. A surge of unfamiliar adrenaline surged through his body. He felt his pulse quickening. His face became hot with feverish excitement.
Without hesitation, even before waiting for his old man to catch up, to save what was left of the cranium from slipping into the river, he carefully lifted it off the skeleton. It easily lifted from what may have once been other facial bones. Then it was gently sensitively wrapped in his wading jacket parka and placed in his creel – his fishing bag. At the same time, he felt he was crossing an imaginary threshold from his world into the ancient spirit world. The old man was more concerned just to keep his balance while worrying whether they should cross themselves to keep any spooky spirits at bay.
Afterward, even before wading out, both reported they experienced strange feelings, which could only have come from unfamiliar spiritual vibes caused by their meddling. Scary stuff. Sonny Jim recounted from somewhere deep down in his memory bank was some Maori protocol to gently brush any human bones with a fresh green leaf before touching, but it was too late. There was no green vegetation within reach as it was all buried under the slip. Both experienced an uneasy feeling that any remaining spirits would be upset, but they could not leave the exposed skull in such a precarious position. If only they had wiped it with a green branch. It may have prevented the chain of events to follow, but nobody could ever have anticipated what they had just initiated.
On their return they confessed their most memorable sensation was from the moment Sonny Jim touched the skull, the surrounding gorge darkened and the monotonous hum and buzzing of cicadas in the bush went deathly quiet. It was spooky. Quite remarkable. Or did their memories just imagine that to add more drama to their experience which was to be subject to intense questioning and re-examined many times?
Any fishing or exploring for the rest of the day was forgotten. Playing at archaeologists became more interesting. Little did they realise, that decision to retrieve the skull would be like winning lotto power-ball several times over to change Sonny Jim’s life, to become his ‘Indiana Jones’ moment.
They could just discern a hollowed pointed end of what appeared was the remains of a dug-out canoe with cobwebs suspended like stalactites, as the rest was buried in the loose pumice. Regretfully, they were so nervous and hyped simultaneously, they completely overlooked the opportunity to take any cell phone photo images of the shallow exposed hollow crypt.
In the circumstances, they decided to return immediately to Turangi taking the remains of the skull as evidence of their unexpected find. They returned on much the same winding route marking their new track by breaking branches in case they had to find it again. Eventually, after climbing the bank and hill beyond to recross the Whitikau Stream again they reached the forestry track and firebreak about two hours from the location of the slip. About one hour later they biked back along the Tongariro River Trail to TRM, anxious to examine and report their unusual “catch” of the day.
A call to the local police immediately followed and an inquisitive young duty constable called at the motel soon after to proceed with the first of many questions. Her first concern was asking why the police were not informed earlier. She was naturally concerned that picking up human bones would violate every tenet of legal evidence – her police training suggested the procedure needed for a possible murder victim? The lack of any cell phone coverage in the river gorge was accepted. She hesitated to take the remains of the skull shell back to their police station as Sonny Jim advised of his intention to investigate the age through radiocarbon dating with independent experts.
The truth was he had no idea if that even worked but he had instantly become an enthusiastic amateur archaeologist and forensic anthropologist. He confidently suggested it predated early Maori occupation as indicated by the crouched positioning of the skeleton. Typical academic know-all? There was a difficult question and answer session as the anglers were aware they were trespassing on DOC (Department of Corrections) prison farm, all in the name of fishing. They were relieved that was not an issue, at least not with the police anyway. The real difficulty was trying to accurately identify on maps for them to know exactly where on the remote river they discovered the exposed grave. Due to the late hour she left the skull remains at the motel overnight, to return with more uniforms the next day.
After a brief conference the next day Indiana Jones guided the extended party of seven curious officials to investigate the gravesite – comprising one local policeman, one Ranger from Department of Conservation (Taupo Fishery Managers), one Corrections Department (land owners), one from Taupo coroners office representing Heritage New Zealand Archaeologist Department (spooks), plus two from the local Maori tribe, hopefully representing tangata whenua, the tribal rununga iwi authority or local marae (tribal interest). They were loaded up with everything that might be needed such as latex gloves and camera equipment and tools including spades, trowels and scrapers, all prepared for a more thorough archaeological dig to investigate the burial site. For the return trip the police had quicker direct access driving through the prison farm road directly off SH1 to the location.
The old man was excused – still exhausted by all the emotional excitement and recovering from the physical ordeal. Instead, he spent the day more fruitfully googling to explore the procedure to assess the DNA plus carbon dating and trying to check any legislation or precedents on how discovered human remains are dealt with by the authorities. He was surprised how easy it was and paid online for a full independent examination to determine the age of the skull and any likely DNA provenance. Before anyone could object and prevent him, it was posted off for analysis to the Massey University Institute of Molecular BioScience based on the North Shore in Auckland, one of a small handful of ancient DNA specialists in New Zealand.
Meanwhile, the investigation team’s descent down to the river flat near the slip was much easier from the road. But to Sonny Jim’s astonishment, all evidence or signs of the hollow gravesite had disappeared, been buried overnight by a further larger slip. Loose pumice was still falling into the river. He estimated the grave was now about another two to three metres buried somewhere in the pumice landslide and the contour was now too difficult to access.
This pattern of constant change was typical of the steep loose different coloured layered banks in the upper river. The river often changed course within the ravines with various bypasses forming and reforming small tributaries following each small flood. River anglers and rafting companies are particularly aware of how the shape and contours of the river flow into pools regularly change.
Each season anglers try to read the fast water to peer through the surface sheen to determine the flow and feed line where they hope giant trout wait to feed. The flow regularly swops from side to side within a season for apparently no reason – it is quite characteristic of all big strong flowing backcountry rivers but enhanced in this region with the erosion of the more porous pumice sub-strata. Many photos were taken from all angles but revealed nothing of interest. Six hours later the exhausted disappointed team returned to Turangi police station.
Subsequently, procedural uncertainty and Mr. Bean-like bumbling and confusion prevailed. The police Maori Liaison Officers lost interest when they realised Sonny Jim’s discovery was formally allocated into the category of an accidental discovery of an ancient archaeological site. So they no longer had any jurisdiction, once it was established that it was not a crime scene. A Police pathologist’s team was not needed as they could not remove any remains, which were hidden and buried under tonnes of slip material. They were all off the hook.
The Maori representatives advised it may be still necessary to place a ban (a “rahui” is a temporary “tapu” to render sacred as a ceremonial restriction placed on locations or activities as a means of spiritual conservation) on access or fishing or rafting the river in the peak of the tourist season. They did not know which iwi or tribe might have occupied this remote region during pre-European Maori occupation. They needed time to consult with the whanau, hapu or iwi kaumatuas (chiefs) about the discovery. From their brief overnight study TRM’s research department convinced them the skull predated Maori occupation, predominantly due to the apparent crouched or foetal position of the skeleton facing west. In the tribal confusion, the need for a rahui was deemed unnecessary.
The Departments of Corrections and Conservation were typically more concerned about other anglers learning of an alternative new walking track providing access to the remote reaches of the upper river that could encourage more trespassing. They accepted it was too strenuous for most anglers to tramp past all the other pools just to fish a new pool. There were over fifty named pools on the TRM Bucket List map, “Fifty Pools to Fish Before You Die”.
The Department of Conservation ranger was overly cautious about having never read the Department protocols or internal procedures regarding finds of koiwi (human bones, corpse) resulting from natural processes such as slips or erosion. There was only brief mention in the office manual on the process to prepare suitable reports with appropriate notification for distribution to the Area Manager to send on to New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT) or Heritage New Zealand, police and the public health department and who else he might have missed. He was unsure of who was the DOC historic staff member with any experience to qualify dealing with koiwi (human bone, corpse). He was more excited about how many Whio (Blue Ducks) had been seen in the upper river.
To follow protocol, Sonny Jim requested approval for the age of the skull to be checked by archaeology experts and offered to send it off for DNA examination and carbon testing to determine the age. They initially resisted but all relaxed when he volunteered TRM would cover all costs involved. Just as well, as it had already been posted off by the old man. No one had any objection after further official red tape procedure requirements as outlined by the Regional Archaeologist from Heritage New Zealand in Wellington and signatures were witnessed for Coroner and Police for Head Office approval. The Maoris had lost interest as they were not aware of any other Maori burial caves or mounds in that remote part of the upper river and they swallowed Sonny Jim’s theory that the skull most likely predated Maori settlement, likely from the moa hunter era.
The next day a further search was arranged by Rafting New Zealand with Heritage New Zealand archaeologists, drifting down the river from above the burial site. TRM’s archaeologist, Sonny Jim, accompanied them again with a lecturer from Waikato University who described her professional interest as a forensic anthropologist. The landslide was easily recognised on the bypass from the main river, but there was no sign of any cave or grave, which was buried under tonnes of pumice.
Providing TRM was to organise and pay for the research, they agreed to have the remains of the skull carbon dated and DNA tested. They advised of several organisations that promoted DNA testing for family tracing on the internet, not realising that it had already been sent off before the authorities could decline.
They also suggested Sonny Jim would need to provide his DNA sample for analysis as he had handled the skull without any latex gloves, and his fingerprints would inevitably contaminate the skull. There the matter should have ended once the age was determined, but the eventual result shocked the entire nation. But before we get to that we need to understand and describe the backgrounds of those involved, as their lives would be changed forever.
Most unexpectedly, the skull DNA analysis results were potentially better than winning the greatest lotto power-ball ever and would change the entire Turangi landscape. But they had yet to discover that…
The story grew. The skull discovery news soon leaked out, from person to person to person until everyone in town knew. Any news as quirky as this usually takes about a day to circulate and penetrate everywhere in any small village in New Zealand. But a discovery of an ancient grave takes less time amongst the Maori tangata whenua community. Their social networking was always faster somehow but with the introduction of cell phones and ipads, their communication is faster than the police network. Sometimes it needed to be much quicker – just saying….
Most of the residents on the eastern side, in the ‘original old’ village near the motel, are retired anglers who have chosen the location due to the close proximity of the Tongariro River trout fishing. Although the main spawning runs from Lake Taupo are in later winter months the fish will run after any “fresh”. The rainfall acts as a trigger to start them on their annual spawning runs upriver where anglers wait to ambush them. The river is world-famous for being a wild fishery open all year round, attracting tourist anglers from all over the world.
TRM is particularly popular with them having the longest sixty-year occupancy record of steady regular visits from “inmates” often staying several weeks at the same time each season, depending on their preferred fishing style. The TRM website had posted fishing reports for the last fifteen years and moved over to facebook in recent years with usually several posts every day. As such it is read by a wider audience than just anglers and often comments on anything else that may be of interest in local affairs or tourist attractions or anything else that anglers send in that takes the author’s fancy. So from TRM’s facebook the news of the skull discovery spread like wildfire.
New Zealand daily newspapers missed the story or it may not have been considered relevant enough as they were preoccupied and distracted by their own problems of survival. The only mention of the skull found in the local newspaper was as a minor sideline and did not generate much interest at first. The Turangi Weekender is a weekly periodical of local news, eagerly devoured by everyone in Turangi.
Their journalist had checked their historic files and the article reported how, about fifty years ago, the Ministry of Works development for the Tongariro Hydro Scheme had excavated various ancient sites and excavated 16 villages with 246 dwellings, 20 burial sites and 71 bodies which were moved to an existing cemetery on the hill above Tokaanu. The archaeologists found the largest collection of pre-Maori artifacts in New Zealand in the Tokaanu Power Station tailrace excavations.
Then the skull story went viral – from TRM’s blog to the world on the waves of every latest telecommunication device and gadgets and hi-tech hardware which the warden hardly knew existed. That was followed by intensified pressure from the news media.
After all that study, there did not appear to be anywhere that the two anglers had transgressed or broken any laws. This was important considering what was to come… Nobody could have anticipated the storm gathering.
Before the ‘authorities’ had time to review their processing action on the skull, TRM had posted it off for DNA analysis and carbon dating, as invited on several websites. A few years ago this may have been a laborious scientific process but with modern communication technology it was the equivalent of buying on Trade-Me and only a credit card transaction away.
According to an article the warden researched on a science site, forensic technicians could test a suspect’s DNA in two hours, fast enough for police to ram it through their crime databases and determine whatever they were searching for. As recently as ten years earlier, the testing took between twenty-four and seventy-two hours, enough time for a suspect to post bail and walk out of custody. Within two weeks Sonny Jim’s father had all their answers, which is where this plot really starts….
With about the same odds as winning power-ball, Sonny Jim had hit the jackpot. The old man advised they were shocked, bewildered, delighted and mystified to discover Sonny Jim and the skull shared the same DNA reading. This suggested he and his family – Sonny Jim in particular – were the only surviving ancestors of an extinct race. The pre-Maori Korakos? Moa Hunters? The Patupairehe? Speculation spread faster than wildfire.
The old man heard from a friend who mentioned how he had played rugby for the Rangatau Railways team between Ohakune & Waiouru in the late 50’s and had many Maori friends in the district. Some of the older ones used to talk about a fair-skinned Maori tribe with red hair and had accepted it as the stuff of legend. He advised these people called “patupairehe” were fair-skinned with red hair, very shy, lived in the deep bush and on the mountains (e.g. Mt Ruapehu where a lot of his Maori friends wouldn’t go near because of “spirits”). He had seen red-haired Maori around the King Country and further north and they tended to be light-skinned so wondered if there is any connection. The seeds of a gigantic plot were planted.
Unlike the other Ngati-Hotu or other pre-Maori ancestry claims, the old man decided he now had material proof. Undeniable proof. It amounted to absolutely irrefutable evidence. Others had claimed links in the past based on verbal histories passed down many generations, but these had failed to impress the Waitangi Tribunal and other Government-appointed ‘experts’. But matching DNA could not lie. Sonny Jim’s family was quietly jubilant when they considered the various possibilities arising from the DNA. It was beyond coincidence.
Again this remarkable coincidence soon leaked (by TRM guests?) on social media facebook blogs etc. Fuel was added by every new rumor and eventually picked up and reported in the local newspapers. After previous newspaper reports of similar claims from the Ngati-Hotu tribe in the upper Wanganui River region around Kakahi, the report was initially downplayed locally as old recycled news. It failed to gain any traction beyond the immediate Taupo-Turangi region.
But they overlooked the immense power of modern communication over the web. Social Media! TRM reported much of the story of the skull discovery and the analysis in several segments via the motel website blog on facebook over the next week. At first, there was the usual response with a few thousand ‘likes’ and ‘wows’. Then, when the freakish DNA coincidence was confirmed, it exploded.
Despite his limited knowledge of how the internet worked, the old man had somehow read between the lines correctly. He surmised there was no journalistic integrity or morality on facebook blogs. The cyberspace market he was catering for preferred an entertaining lie ahead of boring facts. In election year the website readers had endured enough blogs trying to be ‘nice’. By now they were looking for and thrived on ‘vice’. He decided he could deliver and bluff them with an irresistible tale led by the greed motive. It was all a bit crazy and very ambitious, a bit odd, but for TRM it had to be a winner.
When the other fishing blogs got hold of the story it quickly expanded to tens of thousands. Then, within the next week, it took off into the stratosphere with millions of followers wanting more info. It was more than just the ‘finding a skull’ storyline as the potential had been completely overlooked. Sonny Jim was meanwhile more focused on rechecking his DNA for a peer review with another ‘independent’ laboratory. His DNA result came back to TRM with the same match. It took the bloggers on the world-wide-web to spell it out in potential dollar terms before he fully realized the mammoth wider implications.
Elsewhere the history of colonization, mainly around the coastal settlements of New Zealand, left an unfortunate “blame game” legacy. Where the Maoris remained peaceful and gratefully accepted the advantages of being civilized by colonisation, the “noble savages” suffered strange new diseases – smallpox, measles, influenza, tuberculosis, venereal diseases, – for which they had no natural defenses. If they did not cooperate after the Government acquired their land, or when some other tribal chief sold their land and they resisted, the “savages” were attacked and slaughtered by more sophisticated weaponry. Many tribal groups were driven away from their ancestral land by force – by others who had superior power.
Similar to many other countries being colonized in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there were faults and misunderstandings leading to many battles on both sides. Typical British colonial government was established and laws were adopted and passed to suit the colony requirements. Tribal lands were returned in many places with lines drawn on government maps declaring their tribal ownership. But over that period there was little interest in settlements on the vast central plateau region as it was too remote. It was only the demand for timber that first opened it up to development with roads and rail from the ports.
But unlike the rest of New Zealand, the land acquisition by the Government for Turangi town development occurred about one hundred years later, in the 1960’s. Even then, after so much experience elsewhere, the Government still made mistakes and failed to manage their acquisition to the satisfaction of local Maori tribes. Full compensation has since been recognised.
Throughout New Zealand this process has continued to expand with many contentious and disputed hearings fired by promises of huge settlements largely generated by consultants advising the tribes. Up until the end of 2019, over $4.3 Billion dollars in compensation had been paid out by the Waitangi Tribunal. The argument continues on how much will ever be enough and how much is political (i.e. Government buying votes?). Controversy over the Treaty of Waitangi continues.
That pattern of land acquisition by force is no different from that which happened to Sonny Jim’s ancestors throughout New Zealand when Maori raiders expanded inland some 800 years earlier.
But the skull discovery was about to completely change the method of negotiation and compensation forever. Finally, the DNA coincidence provided incontrovertible proof that other tribes were settled there first and, if they were identified, they deserved to be compensated.