A day with the Maoris in Napier
In New Zealand, the writer has a chance to delve deeply into Maori culture.
Travel without a window into the local culture is pointless, as far as I am concerned. That’s why when in Napier, on the eastern coast of the North Island of New Zealand, I sign up for a personal encounter with indigenous Maori culture and its food with Hinewai Hawaikirangi and Cameron Ormsby, who run Napier Maori Tours. This husband and wife duo of Maori descent make the most affable of ambassadors; tiny and petite Hinewai is a secondary school science teacher and tall and strapping Cameron is an environmental scientist.
Hinewai and Cameron meet us at the Otatara Pa- a knob-like grass-covered hill which was an ancient, fortified Maori settlement in the past, home to the chief who dominated the region. Today it’s a preserved historic site. Both are wearing traditional blue cloaks made of harakeke or local flax. A ‘pa’ is a village settlement where the Maoris used to live as a community. This Pa complex, which covers over 40 hectares and is one of the largest and oldest in Hawke's Bay, was favoured for its strategic location, providing panoramic views over the surrounding landscape. Long ago, the land had access to a tidal lagoon, rich in seafood, until the earthquake of 1931 changed the landscape. The site was heavily farmed and quarried until 1973, when part of the pa was designated a historic reserve, to protect its remaining features.
Our tour begins with a traditional pōwhiri - a formal welcoming from Hinewai and Cameron, and the chance to be welcomed onto an ancestral land. “The pōwhiri helps guests to cross the barrier from the materialistic world to a spiritual place,” explains Hinewai. Karanga forms part of the powhiri, a Māori welcoming ceremony. It’s to help us move onto the marae or into the formal meeting area.
Hinewai explains that Karanga is carried out almost exclusively by women and in the Maori language, and when initiated by the hosts, is responded to by the visitor. I love the ringing tones of the Karanga - usually it includes a tribute to the dead and an exchange of greetings; it’s a blessing that prays that the weather be fine and that westerlies be calm. We also exchange the traditional greeting known as the Hongi, which is done by two people briefly pressing noses and foreheads together at the same time. I find the gesture intensely moving - what can be more intimate than the sharing of the breath of life?
We pass under the carved waharoa (gateway) to enter the Ōtātara Pā.“In the 1500s, if you arrived here you would have seen houses or whares on terraced hills. Some people would have worked in the garden, others would have gone out hunting or fishing,” explains Hinewai, as we walk through the path looking at the rolling hills populated by grazing sheep and thick grass.
Elaborately carved pouwhenua, ancestral poles like totem poles stand tall, to represent the land’s guardians and symbolise the connection between the people and the land. As the track winds uphill, we see deep trenches where once tall defensive wooden palisades would have stood. We pass archaeological features such as tūāpapa (terraces), whare (dwelling) sites and kumara (sweet potato) pits. Kumara or sweet potato is an integral part of the Maori food culture, which the ancestors first brought on the long boat journey from Polynesia. “Kūmara would not grow in the winter – so it had to be stored and planted out again when the weather warmed up,” explains Cameron.
We reach the heart of the pa or village - single warriors lived in the outer ring, the middle ring was for warriors with families, and the innermost circle was for seniors - this protected the community. Hinewai talks about how the typical houses in a classic Māori settlement were very simple; they were made with reeds and bark – a room for sleeping with a low roof, an earth floor, no windows, and a single low doorway. A fire burning inside kept the inmates warm. Hinewai explains that the Maori language was always oral - not written down. “Instead of books and literature, we passed our stories down through the generations by song as well as carving, knots, and weaving,’ she explains.
Hinewai and Cameron are involved deeply in their communities; Hinewai is a Trustee of a Māori community complex with cultural and artistic heritage for their local tribe. They are also rebuilding a cultural complex for the benefit of the Māori people and visitors. Cameron is involved in a project for growing 2000 native trees that they plan to plant around the Ahuriri waterways, for improving the ecosystem.
Hinewai tells me that the Maoris were so in sync with nature that they would watch the constellations and find out what was the right time for harvesting their crops. The country was originally covered with dense native bush, and its wild ferns, vines, palms, fungi, berries, fruit, and seeds became important foods. Cameron points out the native trees that grow in the pa. There are Koromiko trees, which the Maoris have used to cure diarrhoea and dysentery, as well as used as poultices for wounds. Tall cabbage trees with their sword-like leaves grow all over. Hinewai explains that the cabbage tree being fleshy and starchy was an important food source for the early Maoris, as well as its fibre being very useful in making bags and fishing lines.
While quarrying the land in the 60s, many bones were found, and at its peak, the settlement is thought to have had as many as 6000 people. Hinewai reaches into her bag and takes out a black, shiny piece of volcanic stone that she calls Toki; it is sharp argylite and is over 600 years old. It was found on the site near a cabbage tree.
The walk then continues uphill to the Hikurangi Pā from where we have a panoramic view of the surrounding area of Napier up to Cape Kidnappers - farms, the meandering Tutaekuri River that snakes its way to the ocean, the roofs of houses, and the ocean. I muse on the landscape that must have existed hundreds of years ago when this was inhabited by the Maoris and they could watch the land for any intruders.
We end our afternoon at Hinewai’s home where she lives with Cameron and their two kids. She has set up a tray of local food for me - from karaka lemon cheesecake, stuffed kumara with onion and capsicum, and Maori super food kawa kawa mixed with soda, honey, and lime. ‘Kawa kawa is the super healer of the forest. It has been used traditionally to treat cuts, wounds, stomach and rheumatic pain, skin disorders, toothache. I pick and simmer it for five hours and get an extract,’ says Hinewai.
I am in love with this couple who seem to fuse modernity and Maori traditions into their lives almost seamlessly. Sustainability, love for the land, and a gentleness which seems rare in this digital world. Like their business tagline says, they manage to ‘connect your being with our being.’