5 mins

Maori New Zealand

Explore the alternative side to Auckland and around on a wilderness trek with the local Maori

See an alternative side to Auckland and around with local Maori (Kiwi Flickr)

I’ve never kissed another man before. And if I was going to, it wouldn’t occur to me to use my nose.

But before I could protest, Blaine eyeballed me, grabbed my hand in his, leant in and pressed his nose to mine. I could feel his breath on my face – too close for two self-respecting blokes on a Saturday afternoon. And far too close for two guys whose respective peoples – his Maori, mine the European settlers who fought them – had slaughtered each other in centuries of land wars.

With my nose pressed up against his, I could feel the long history of New Zealand’s Maori; the great Pacific migration that brought his people here, the tribal conflicts, the colonial bloodshed, the small acts of compassion and grave errors of judgement that were the actions of our forebears.

Blaine’s face was engraved with tattoos – across his cheeks, chin, over the bridge of his nose. The motifs on his face were reflected in his carvings. He was working on an ornate canoe prow in his studio for an upcoming exhibition and every mark he chiselled told a story, referenced his genealogy or described the quest for terrestrial and celestial knowledge.

“I’ll never do a carving that doesn’t have a story behind it,” he said, “otherwise it’s just a piece of wood with holes in it.”

Out of Auckland

The connections between Maori culture, art and the New Zealand landscape are significant, but sometimes authentic indigenous insights can be hard for a traveller to come across. So when an opportunity arose to join a two-day adventure with Maori guides, I leapt at the chance.

We drove north from Auckland through towns with barely pronounceable names and more vowels than residents – Orewa, Waiwera, Puhoi, Whangaparaoa. Our Maori guides were in the front: Bianca hunched over the wheel of the van, driving like she had just stolen it; Tia hunched over the stereo, skipping through reggae and dub tracks.

They are both Ngapuhi, which is to say they both trace their genealogy back more than 40 generations to the arrival of the same canoe on the shores of New Zealand. Now I couldn’t tell you exactly where my ancestors were then, and certainly not the name of the boat that brought them to New Zealand all those years ago, but for Bianca and Tia it is the fundamental measurement of identity.

Tia sported an almost permanent grin and a moko (traditional tattoo) on her chin, with fine detail around her lips and a cascade of deep-green patterns below. “I was born in Australia and lived there until I was 15,” she explained, “so taking on the moko was a really important part of understanding my own identity, like a constant reminder of who I am.”

Kiwi dub thwumped on the stereo as we pulled into sleepy Mahurangi on the sparkling east coast, an hour north of Auckland. Bianca lifted three sea kayaks from the roof with aplomb. Like Tia, she’s very connected to her heritage and one of the few Maori outdoor instructors in the country.

She helped me slide the kayak into the silken water at the mouth of Mahurangi harbour and gave me a rundown on how to handle my little ship. A kayak is a bit like an earth worm – you’re not entirely sure which end goes first, which makes getting in – let alone setting off – a haphazard affair. But once I’d learnt my prow from my stern, and practised a few ungainly strokes, I set out to sea in my new command with every shred of false bravado I could muster.

The kayak felt light, fast and easily propelled, though I rather expect my form lacked the grace that Bianca and Tia seemed to exude at the paddle. It’s an elegant form of travel. The kayaks are simultaneously ancient in concept and high-tech in construction, and there’s a certain satisfaction in travelling by much the same craft as ferried the Maori from south Asia 800 years ago. 

Paddling through history

We were in a world where the loudest sound was the trickle of water under a hull. The sea was as calm as polished glass, sinuous and shiny on the paddles. Bianca and Tia led us through deep bays where rainforest dripped into the sea, and across a channel until all we could see ahead was the thin blue line of a Pacific horizon and a huddle of islets fringed in pearly beaches.

It was picture perfect – for about three minutes. At minute four a dark cloud skated ominously in our direction and hinted at a turn in the weather. Within seconds we were consumed by a pocket hurricane: driving rain, hail and a wind squall that tore the tops from the waves and threw them in my face, down the back of my jacket and pooled unsympathetically in my seat.

“Head for the island!” called Bianca over the gale, and we struck on around the point and onto the shore at Moturekareka – six vowels, no residents – a picturesque speck of an island. As the rain cleared we could see the rusted hulk of the steel sailing ship Rewa lying on her side in the bay, the final monument to another mariner caught out by a storm.

We continued around the islands, through channels and over reef systems festooned with life until the long, low form of Motuora Island drew into sight.

“It used to be called Motutohora, which means Whale Island,” called Bianca from the other kayak. “Ngati Wai, the tribe of this area, defined their territory by five whales that guarded over it. This is the southern border with the Auckland tribe Ngati Whatua.”

By the time the kayaks slid up the beach at Motuora Island late in the afternoon, I was half-drowned and feeling like I’d just crossed the Pacific myself. Bianca and Tia looked in better form and I consoled my aching white writer’s physique with the knowledge that they probably had some pre-disposed genetic advantage.

We pitched tents in the failing light and told stories as the sun set and the stars rose. Ruru owls hooted in the trees and waves pounded at the shore just metres from my tent. I pulled my kayak up close and fell asleep dreaming of long sojourns across an ancient Pacific, a canoe at my command.

Trees as old as time

The second day of our adventure dawned clear and blue. Pin-sharp light laced the sea with silvery highlights as we paddled our way back across the strait to the mainland’s calm east coast.

We loaded the kayaks back on the roof and drove west across the creased spine of North Island through the thickly forested Waitakere Ranges towards Karekare on the wild west coast. The rainforest became thicker and wetter; it was almost as if we were physically travelling back in time, watching the landscape transform around us. While the east is fresh and pretty, the west seemed dark and menacing.

 A one-way road uncoiled through folds of basalt peaks, clad in prehistoric palms, and wound down towards the buttressed Tasman coast, where the ocean clawed at the cliffs like an army trying to scale a citadel wall.

The road ended at a humble carpark surrounded by the twisted and contorted boughs of pohutukawa trees, and we set off on foot over a carpet of scarlet flowers. A chorus of birds echoed around us and the rumble and hiss of the Tasman Sea came from beyond the canopy.

A short distance into the bush we bowed for a karakia, a Maori prayer, before we went deeper into the realm of Tane, god of the forest. It occurred to me that people my colour don’t typically offer a nod to the natural world before setting into it; I guess we’re more likely to bundle straight up the track in fits of environmental anxiety. It was genuinely moving. 

Our route ran parallel to the coastline south, but several hundred metres further inland, dipping in and out of dense rainforest until we waded through a shallow river deep in the Pararaha Valley. The valley ran towards the coast and was defined on each side by precipitous walls of basalt hundreds of metres high. We scrambled downstream over car-sized boulders and under log-jams that became progressively larger until it felt like we were shrinking, subsumed into a world of giants.

This was once fiercely contested ground; the front line for battles between the people of Te Kawerau a Maki and Ngapuhi tribes. “There are stories of warriors being thrown from those peaks,” whispered Bianca, pointing to the cliff-top pinnacles. Words like that make the spine tingle, but centuries later this landscape has an aura of peace, as if the horror of human conflict simply weathered away.

Bianca paused to point out notable plants and their purposes in the gamut of traditional Maori craft and medicine: harakeke for strong rope fibre, horoeka for fishing poles, and cure-all kawakawa for arthritis, toothache, cirrhosis and eczema.

This last has powerful antiseptic and antibiotic properties, can be used as a mosquito repellent, a rash-curing poultice, a herbal tea infusion, and its tangy, heart-shaped leaves are a tasty addition to salads. Indeed, it seems a good clutch of kawakawa could resolve the North Korean nuclear stand-off and find Osama bin Laden given half a chance.

I shoved a large green leaf into my mouth and munched away with a slight sense of regret; it tasted like a handful of peppercorns and left a thick, green residue on my teeth. After a few seconds my gums went a bit numb, making talking feel like an out-of-body experience. But it wasn’t unpleasant, and if I was afflicted with an abscess I’m sure I could be convinced to consume an entire tree.

But this wasn’t idle bushcraft regurgitated for tourist-wowing anecdotes. Bianca doesn’t even carry a medical kit – why bother when you have a veritable pharmacy growing on trees? “Everything you need, you can find in the bush,” she assured me with absolute confidence, “and a lot of it works better and faster than swallowing a pill.”

Apparently it’s all pretty good for the head too. Other days of the week Bianca leads violent young offenders and suicidal youths into the wilderness on overnight treks to get them out of the cities and back to their roots. It has a calming, balancing effect, she believes, working on some core human requirement to feel and understand the natural environment.

“You see the kids come alive,” she explained, and perhaps anyone who has ever found solace in the outdoors would know what she’s talking about.

We followed the convoluted path of the river over natural water slides slick with algae until we reached a broad marsh at the coast. It was as if we’d emerged from a walled bastion and were crossing an enormous moat into a desert of velveteen sand dunes that rose and rolled for kilometres.

We rested on a dune among a swirling sea of marram grass, staring out to the ocean as the foaming tongue of the blue Tasman licked at the shore. The sky was torn by fine white cloud and the ocean was a tangle of kelp and swirling eddies; forms now familiar from the lines on Tia’s chin, across Blaine’s jaw and carved with precision onto the canoe prow in his studio.

It seemed we had come full-circle, and to some new understanding of the mysterious and undeniable connection between tangata and whenua, people and land.

The author travelled with Potiki Adventures, which runs Maori-led tours in the greater Auckland area

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