Veering off the beaten track.

The first assignment that ever captured my imagination at school was to devise a three-week tour of New Zealand.

It was the 80s, the era of Top Town, a TV show where teams from different towns showed off what they could do. I knew we had beautiful scenery, but I was convinced that our most appealing places lay off the beaten track. Small country towns with interesting people.

I knew my itinerary was going to take in attractions like the AMP show. And culinary delights like the triple-decker ice cream cone dipped in chocolate. I pictured rope swings into rivers. Gumboot-slinging competitions and freakishly intelligent sheep dogs.

So, while everyone else set about planning routes that took travellers from the mud pools of Rotorua to the snowy heights of Mt Cook (as it was called then), I sent off letters to the councils of Taihape and Bluff, Timaru and Matamata.

Pre-Google, research was tough. Hardly anyone replied to my letters.

Despite the difficulties, when I finished my itinerary, I’d never been prouder of a piece of schoolwork. My teacher had a different opinionA little on the dull side, he wrote in the margins of the itinerary beside “Sheep Muster in the Mackenzie Country”. He wasn’t too impressed either with “Day trip to gather pipi at Kawakawa Bay”.

You seem to have gone out of your way to avoid every major tourist site this country has to offer, he wrote.

Well, precisely. Who wants to go where everybody else is going?

A few years on, my views haven’t changed much.

This summer, we headed to Northland in our 1978 Bedford house bus. But with camping grounds in the Bay of Islands teeming with people, I felt like a sardine in a tin. I consulted the map and suggested we aim for the opposite coast. I put my finger on the spot between 90 Mile Beach and Tāne Mahuta in the Waipoua forest. The Hokianga. Surely no one goes there?

We fired up the bus and turned west. Northland is often described as tropical, which means it rains a lot. Especially in summer. Even more so on national holidays. And rain pursued us from the Bay of Islands to Kaitaia.

It was still raining when we arrived in Kohukohu, a historic town on the northern shores of the Hokianga. It gets its name from its characteristic morning mist. Either that, or an undercooked hangi that Kupe, the great explorer, ate there. As with many Māori place names, our ancestors left us just enough clues about our history to keep us wondering.

By the 1830s, Kohukohu was the shizzle — the heart of New Zealand’s timber industry and the third largest town north of Auckland. Nowadays there are a few art galleries, a cafe and a library. The busy port that was once a departure point for vessels loaded with ancient logs now services a car ferry to Rawene. And, on our particular crossing, its freight also included a group of mates on their way to see Katchafire at the Opononi Pub.

When we arrived in Rawene, another historic mining village, the rain finally eased. State Highway 12 took us the final stretch to the mouth of the Hokianga — and the sun shone all the way.

 

Kupe described this place as Te Puna-o-te-ao-mārama — the spring of the world of light. Spend a little time here, and you get to know what he was talking about. Even on a gloomy day, the 170-metre high sand dunes seem to radiate warmth, a constant glow on the horizon. Kupe likened the northern shores to fire: Te Pouahi.

The golden dunes roll down to the sea and turquoise waters that split the land in two light it up like a jewel. The harbour weaves inland for some 30 kilometres before branching off into the rivers of Mangamuka and Waihou. Back when Kupe sailed through here, the harbour would have been flanked on both sides with dense kauri forests. Now it’s mainly farmland with the odd crop of pinus radiata.

The place where the mouth of the Hokianga meets the Tasman sea is a treacherous bit of ocean that has claimed many lives. Before Kupe returned to his Pacific homeland, Hawaiki, so one kōrero goes, he placed two taniwha at the entrance to the harbour as protectors. Arai-te-uru on the southern side, and Niua to the north.

They’re needed. We stood on the rocky outcrop at South Head and watched as a small launch battled the swell on its way out. It thrashed through the white caps looking for a gap in the sand bar, which, just to complicate matters, can move around in heavy seas.

It made me wonder what skill it must have taken Nukutawhiti to negotiate these waters. He was the captain of the waka Ngātokimatawhaorua. I’m glad he managed it, otherwise I wouldn’t be here now.

On the southern shores of the Hokianga sits Opononi, a town where you get the sense everybody knows everybody. In the 1950s, it had tourists from all over the world coming to see Opo, the tame dolphin. The tourists still come, usually headed for a spot of sandboarding in the dunes.

We skipped that and headed to Koutu, a crooked finger of land jutting into the bay just beyond Te Maunga Whiria. This is the whenua of Rāhiri, founding ancestor of my own and all northern iwi.

The land at Koutu has been in Sid Matthews’ whanau for as long as he can remember. A few years ago he cleared it of gorse and thought to himself: “That’d make a nice spot to pitch a tent.” That’s a bit of an understatement. The campsite enjoys near 360-degree views of the harbour, boat access, two private beaches, and a flat piece of land perfect for touch rugby. And the best bit? Hardly anyone seems to know about it.

It costs just $10 a night or $20 a week — which goes towards mowing the lawns.

“That’s pretty generous,” I said to Lance, kaitiaki of the grounds.

“Well,” he said. “It’s the Hokianga way.”

The only downside to Koutu was a lack of fresh water. That’s why it pays to know a local whenever you head off the beaten track. My good mate, Vanessa Peters, took us to a spot along the Whirinaki river and showed us how to lather up a fistful of leaves from a nearby plant to use as soap. It was thick and frothy and lightly scented. Flash enough to rival any High Street beauty spa. I asked Ness what the plant was called, but she shrugged. “Dunno. We all just call it Māori soap.”

The Whirinaki, like so many of our rivers in New Zealand, is the stuff waterparks are based on. Fast-flowing gorges that give way to deep rock pools, surrounded by thick, overhanging bush. The only difference is you won’t find any queues at Whirinaki. Apart from the eels, no one around here has priority access.

After a wash and a ride on the rapids, we lay back on the rocks and let the water massage our shoulders. Nature’s jacuzzi. Whirinaki means to lean against a support, a reference to the whakapapa links between Rāhiri’s two sons, Uenuku, the first born, and Kaharau, the second born.

There’s a famous whakatauki underpinning this korero which reminds us that the descendants of Rāhiri, whether from the east or the west, can always count on each other in times of need. That’s why, when the masses converge on Waitangi next weekend, you can be sure that hapū from all over the Hokianga will be there in force.

My one concession to high tourism was a visit to our ancient kauri tree, Tāne Mahuta, in the Waipoua forest. In Māori mythology, Tāne Mahuta is the one who separated his parents, Ranginui and Papatūānuku, so that we could have light in the world.

You can read all the stats about this giant before you arrive — four and a half metres wide, 17 metres tall. In typical Kiwi fashion, a signpost not far from the car park just says “Big Tree”. But nothing can really prepare you for the moment you come upon Tāne Mahuta.

I was reminded of when I first saw the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest building. At a height of more than 800 metres, nearly three times the Sky Tower, it took 7000 labourers more than six years to build. Workers toiled around the clock in the desert heat, 150 storeys in the air. To stand at the foot of the Burj Khalifa is to marvel at the magnificence of man.

But to stand at the foot of Tāne Mahuta is to marvel at the insignificance of man. It took nature more than 1200 years to grow this ancient kauri. Tāne Mahuta has survived the most inhospitable conditions — poor soil, lack of nutrients, flood soaked lands. All while sustaining the lives of others. More than 30 different species of bird life and plants, so they say, have made a home in his crown, not least of them, a 100-year-old bonsai tōtara.

Tāne Mahuta was here when Nukutawhiti negotiated the bar. When moa roamed the forests. When European explorers came in search of fortune. Their footsteps left no trace in the soil and neither will ours. When the Burj Khalifa returns to dust, Tāne Mahuta will be growing still.

For all that, 100 years ago, our kauri forests were no match for the blade of a saw. A single kauri might have been growing for thousands of years, but it could be brought to the ground in a matter of days.

The felling and removal of kauri, like the construction of the Burj Khalifa, is a testament to man’s determination and skill. There were no cranes in those days and the valuable kauri was located in the most inaccessible places. Some of the logs had to be hauled out of the bush by oxen. I saw a photo at the kauri museum of 32 oxen hauling a single log of kauri.

Other logs were floated out on man-made floods. It wasn’t the most reliable of methods — around a third of those logs ended up at the bottom of the river. The ones that did make it were swiftly milled into long, wide planks of faultless timber and loaded on to waiting ships.

The legacy of our lost kauri is also testament to man’s greed. In the mid 1800s, kauri towered over this land and made dwarfs of people. But in less than 100 years, the quest for kauri had stripped the land bare.

Trees just like Tāne Mahuta, some twice the size, all destined for some other purpose. Timber for ships, bridges, fences, railway sleepers, furniture, and frames for houses in foreign lands. You’ll find our ancient kauri in Sydney and on the streets of San Francisco. Kauri gum, the other great prize, was bled for use as varnish, sealing wax, torches, fire-starters. And as pigment for moko, jewellery and ornaments.

They say that, back in the day, the cacophony of birdsong in the forest was so loud people had to shout to hear each other. Nowadays, when you take a walk through the Waipoua forest, you can whisper and, if you’re lucky, you might just make out the distant call of a tūi.

Words like “timber industry”, “logging” and “historic milling town”, don’t convey any emotion. I wonder if that’s why we use them. It makes it easier to drive through places like Kohukohu and Rawene without fully comprehending the devastation that was wrought there.

When Kupe returned to Hawaiki, he said: E kore ahau e hokinga mai. I shall never return. Me? I’ll definitely be back. I know I’ve barely even touched the surface of the kōrero surrounding this whenua.

The most important thing I learned in the Hokianga is that we don’t need to travel to Europe or Africa or the Middle East in search of history. Ours is a rich, living story, and it is all around us, all the time. It lies in the scars on our landscape and in the stories of ancestors. Those stories are being told and retold, every time we drive through a town with a Māori name.

You just have to slow down, or maybe even veer off the beaten track, to find them.

This article first featured in E-Tangata on 31st January 2016.