This essay was originally published in The Spinoff on 25 March 2018.
There’s a way of looking, where, if you’re not paying attention, you won’t see anything at all. Nuhaka is a place like that. It came up so fast, it was already in my rear-view mirror by the time I realised I’d gone past. I did a u-turn and pulled up opposite the general store. I’d been told Nuhaka sold the best fish n’ chips in the country and I wanted to try for myself.
At first, I wasn’t sure I had the right place. The faded blue writing above the matchbox-size store said simply: ‘Fish Shop’, making me wonder whether chips were even on the menu. But I went inside and ordered, and I wasn’t disappointed. While I ate, I sent a text to my mate, Dee, thanking her for the tip-off. She replied that since I was in Nuhaka, I may as well call in on her parents.
I wasn’t in any great hurry, and I was intrigued by this unassuming little place, so I went.
When I arrived, Dee’s father swung open the front door and greeted me as if he’d been waiting for me all day. I tried clumsily to explain who I was, but Ted Whaanga wasn’t much concerned for the details. I was manuhiri, a visitor, and I was welcome. His wife, Hana, appeared behind him and wrapped me up in a warm hug before disappearing into the kitchen to put the jug on.
Inside the front room, I could have sworn the house was new. Everything was immaculate, not a crooked photo or ornament out of place. But Hana told me the house has been here for over 60 years. She said that when they first moved in as 20-year-old newlyweds, this room was the entire house. They didn’t have running water, back then, but there was a fireplace in the front, a kitchen annex, and a long-drop outside. They’d slowly added rooms as time passed and the family grew.
In Nuhaka, manaakitanga is a way of life. So after making our connections, I was given the royal tour of the town. It started at the back of Ted and Hana’s house where the boundary of their property meets the local school – the same school Ted attended as a new entrant some 80 years ago, and the one Hana worked at for over 40 years. She taught the new entrants for a few decades, and later, when a rumaki unit was opened, she became the kaiako Māori. Hana caused a few ripples back in the day when she informed the visiting inspectors that they couldn’t come in to do their observation unless they spoke Māori. None did. They waited respectfully outside until the bell went and the children had gone out to play.
We took Hana’s old commute out the back door and through the garden. She nodded a greeting to Moumoukai, their maunga kaitiaki, calling him their ‘weather man’. “Always lets us know if rain is coming,” Hana said, smiling up at the mountain like he was an old friend.
The garden was brimming with lemon trees and oranges and apples and passionfruit. Lawns freshly mowed, cicadas trilled persistently in the dry summer heat. We passed what I assumed were three carved wooden seats under the shade of some apple trees, but they turned out to be enormous whale bones. They’d washed up on the beach years ago and Ted had dragged them up and put them in the garden. They were smooth and white from decades of exposure, heavy in their final resting place.
The walk wasn’t the gentle stroll I had been expecting. Ted’s pace was so brisk, I struggled to keep up. Nuhaka rugby boy, you see. 140-year legacy, the same turf that raised All Blacks greats George Nepia and Hawea Mataira. It is said that a Nuhaka player isn’t fully dressed unless wearing the Nuhaka star on their chest.
When we arrived at Kahungungu, the great carved wharenui across the road from the school, Ted sprinted off to find a key to open up. Watching him go, I asked Hana if he was always sporty.
“Oh yes,” Hana said. “We played everything around here. There were tennis courts and table tennis and badminton and basketball. Lots of rugby, of course.” She pointed to the kaumātua flats and told me there used to be a picture theatre there once, and a dining hall where they played cards every other night of the week. Her voice got wispy and faraway.“Nuhaka was a teenager’s paradise.”
She first spotted Ted walking home from work. She was not long out of teachers’ college, from Iwitea, a few miles down the road. Ted was working as a farmhand along the route she used to take to catch the bus. She could just make out his shape in the distance, a fistful of tools and strong shoulders.
He’s a neat looking guy, she thought to herself, and asked her dad who he was when she got home.
Her dad looked at her with a raised eyebrow and said, “He’s a Whaanga from Nuhaka.”
They were married in 1954. Four children followed, but Hana never stopped working. She’d feed the baby at 8am, slip out the door with a wave to Moumoukai, and return again at lunch time for the next feed. Giving up her job wasn’t an option. To Hana, working was independence, as prized as her identity itself. She managed the juggle with nannies, often coming home to find Ted drying nappies in front of the fire or cooking dinner. “I think some people used to look at me like, what’s she doing letting her husband hang out the washing?”
But Ted was used to strong women. His father died when he was 10, leaving his mother to raise 12 children on her own. Work was work. No divisions about it.
Still, it was a big day when the dryer was delivered. It was the first electrical appliance Hana ever bought, and it gave the Whaanga’s 50 years of service. From nappies to jeans to school uniforms, kids grew up and went to boarding school and eventually all over the world…
…and the whole time, that faithful dryer kept drying.
When Ted returned with the key, we entered under Rongomaiwahine and into the wharenui of Kahungungu. Like Moumoukai, Ted and Hana speak of this place as a person. The intricate carvings lining the walls were completed by returned servicemen under the tutelage of the Taiapa brothers, Pine and Hone. Hana knows the story behind each and every one, but there isn’t time to hear them all. Likewise, the tukutuku panels are not flat, but layered with whakapapa that Ted can recite as a kind of lyrical poetry. His ancestry rolls off his tongue faster and more reliable than any Google search.
I felt very solemn, especially looking up at the names of the men and women who served in two world wars. But Hana and Ted smiled and told me there used to be grand balls in here. The ātamira, the stage, used to be framed with thick velvet curtains. A full brass band played swing and rock n’ roll. No carpet in the wharenui back then. In those days, the floor was for dancing on.
Ted held up a finger, “But there was no drink in here. You arrived sober and went home sober.”
Mormon roots run strong through this whenua. The Mormons provided the roofing iron to build the wharenui back in 1947. But there have always been other faiths here too. Anglicans, Presbyterians and Catholics, all living and working side by side. They played cards together three nights of the week in the Unity Hall, Kotahitanga. There was a General Store, five schools, a butcher’s and a TAB, a cheese factory, Bluck’s Trucks and dairy farms all around. Hana uses the word “thriving.”
Things have changed. The work dried up, and people moved away. As roads improved and cars got faster, the distance between Gisborne and Wairoa got shorter and shorter. A trip that would have taken four days in the early 1900s can now be done in a pinch. Except for a feed of fish n chips, there’s little reason for passers-by to stop.
Hana pointed to the kōhanga reo that I first noticed when I came in, and said it used to be the Post Office where Ted worked on the exchange. I looked closer, and sure enough, I could just make out the old New Zealand post logo beneath the kids’ mural painted over top. There aren’t too many balls in Nuhaka anymore, and the cinema and dining hall are long gone. The Nuhaka star still shines bright, but since the town has shrunk the rugby club feels like it’s a long way away. Most of the houses that used to line the avenues have disappeared, as though someone just came along and rubbed them out of the picture.
But much remains, too. Kahungunu, for one. Moumoukai hasn’t shifted, either. The house where Ted and Hana once lived in a single-room bach is here too, although these days, they’ve got a new dryer. Kotahitanga, the Unity Hall, leans into the wind on the main road, its red roof and faded weatherboard a venue for whānau who return from afar. A couple of the churches look abandoned from the outside, but don’t be fooled by appearances. The pews are glistening with fresh polish inside.
Most importantly, people remain. Hana can probably say she’s taught most, if not all of the kids who’ve ever called this place home in the past 40 years. That’s a lifetime of memories.
Before I left, I got out my camera and asked if I could take Ted and Hana’s picture.
“Come on, Dad,” Hana said, waving at Ted to come and sit down beside her.
But Ted moved away, cheeky with it. Hana rolled her eyes like she’s seen it all before, and for a moment, they were just two teenagers kidding around across the cards table.
“Oh, alright then,” Ted said, blue eyes sparkling. He shuffled over with a smile, and took her hand in his.