Journalist, Rarotonga resident and former Wairoa mayor Derek Fox had something of a spiritual experience earlier this year and ticked or half ticked something off his bucket list at the same time . . .
Many of you will know that the ancestors of most New Zealand Maori on their journey across the Pacific, had their last stopover in Rarotonga and the nearby islands; that a fleet of seven — there were other voyages by other waka too — including Takitumu or Takitimu and Horouta, were part of the seven that headed down about a thousand or so years ago.
I’ve often written about the Takitimu mob — they were/are my mother’s Ngati Kahungunu people — and the navigator of Takitimu who also navigated the fleet. His name was Ruawharo and when he brought the canoe to the place now called Mahia-Mai-Tawhiti, he decided to hop off and settle.
The wharenui named after him is down below my house at Opoutama on the East Coast of the North Island. His wife Nga Nuhaka had the nearby settlement of Nuhaka named after her; and their twin boys are commemorated by the settlement of Mahanga on the northern base of the isthmus facing Gisborne — mahanga means twins.
The Takitumu district of Rarotonga is one of the three big ‘Vaka’ confederations on the island from which the crew of Takitumu were drawn, and is just along the road from where we live. The hill/mountain behind our place is called Ikurangi — someone can’t spell — and the mighty mountain Hikurangi dominates the east coast of the North Island near Ruatorea, the heart of the Ngati Porou homeland and my other papa kainga in Aotearoa.
Not so well known is that the smaller waka Horouta, came from Mauke, the eastern most of the Cook Islands, which is about 280kms/180 nautical miles north east of Rarotonga. The people of Mauke and their ariki Paikea are the ancestors of my father’s Ngati Porou people.
Now, while the distance to Mauke is only 280kms, as I found out recently, it is almost a world away.
It costs a bit to get there, which is why I haven’t been up until now. But in February I was offered a seat on a charter flight taking some people and gear over for the project to install solar power on the island; my role would be to take pictures and write a feature for the local media.
I tried not to get too excited or too enthusiastic in case it fell through. Anyway we took off at 4pm a couple of days later.
Rarotonga had had a brilliant day, one of the best for the whole summer. It was temperate, fine and sunny without the heat, humidity and heavy showers that we had been plagued with in recent weeks.
As we approached Mauke 50 minutes later, the weather was cloudy and moody with occasional drizzle — a bit Ngati Porou.
The plane was met by the local policeman. It’s a good thing he told me that because I certainly wouldn’t have guessed it from his dress and appearance. Tangata wasn’t on the lookout for incoming criminals, but to pick up his weedeater/grasscutter which was part of the cargo.
He worked out who I was and immediately started speaking to me in New Zealand Maori. I was beginning to think that
Maukeans still spoke the brand of Maori that I do when he explained he had lived in Auckland for quite a while and picked up NZ Maori.
He’d had a top up last year when kids and parents from the Mauke school repaid a visit from people from the eastern Bay of Plenty area who have strong Ngati Porou ties, and then they went on around the coast to Whangara, the place where our shared ancestor Paikea, the whale rider, wound up.
It was starting to get spooky. He was very very welcoming and started talking about ‘our’ whenua, and I was starting to feel like it was a homecoming. But I had to snap out of it and start interviewing people about the power project and start taking pictures.
Over the 17 years or so since I first came to these islands I have read everything I could lay my hands on about them with a solid emphasis on Mauke. I have harboured many romantic images of Mauke, described as the most verdant of the Cook Islands. With the appropriate ‘wherewithall’, I imagined having a small and very simple holiday home there; and visiting from time to time, bringing mates over to fish and just chill out in the very simple environment.
Admittedly the rain and moody atmosphere didn’t present the island well. Maybe it was just my ancient tipuna marking my return — or more likely fringe weather off the tail end of Cyclone Gita far to the west across the Pacific.
Mauke looked a little sad. Some of the housing stock looked pretty sad too and the high cost of getting anything across that 280kms of ocean is daunting.
Mauke is big, as far as islands go. It’s about half the area of Rarotonga with much, much more arable land. But whereas Raro has a population of maybe 8000 to 9000, Mauke has 250-300. The island looked empty — there weren’t many people out and about.
There was a man mowing a heavily-overgrown section. A small crowd gathered at the hall of the famous ‘divided church’ about to hold a prayer meeting for the people who suffered loss in the recent Cyclone Gita. Down the road a bit was another church and I could hear beautiful singing coming from it.
It was early evening so the school was closed and I couldn’t see any young people around, adding to the empty feeling. Previously I’d been told that young people seem to leave Mauke for further education, to work in New Zealand and see the bright lights.
‘I imagined my long-ago tipuna here . . .’ But regardless of that, I was in awe. In my mind’s eye, I imagined my long-ago tipuna here — tending their gardens, fishing off shore, living in this remote and maybe lonely paradise.
The population would have been much greater then; but still some of them — like Paikea and the Ngati Porou ancestors — decided to leave and head for Aotearoa.
I only had an hour and a half on the ground, the plane was waiting for me. I took photos and when I got back to the coral airstrip, my Mauke cuzzy had a bag of mangoes for me. He implored me to come again and I said I would. Next time he would take me to see Paikea’s wife’s grave. He left her behind when he departed, but ever certain that he would return, she sat on a headland scanning the horizon for him and finally died on that spot. She was buried where she fell.
Many centuries later on one of my first trips to Rarotonga, I was driving into Avarua from our new home, when I started taking notice of a broadcast on the car radio. It was a report of the excavation of Mrs Paikea’s remains and reburial after appropriate ceremonies. I was gobsmacked — for the next few days, maybe weeks, I talked to anyone who would listen to me about it. And it ignited a desire in me to go there.
Our mission on this day — apart from my role — was to drop off some gear and two sparkies who will wire up the solar farm to the power house, and then wire up the distribution system to the power house, to feed electricity around the couple of hundred homes and other buildings there.
One of the sparkies was a Kiwi from Christchurch, who has already served some time on the nearby island of Mitiaro and so is sort of match-fit on local living conditions. The other guy has come just up from Christchurch, but actually hails from Birmingham. I’ll be interested in catching up with him again in a few weeks or so, to see how he’s acclimatised; not just to the weather but the food and the isolation and to life on an island my ancestors left hundreds of years ago.
We picked up two of three passengers from Mauke before flying 15 minutes across the water at low level to the third island out there and closest to Rarotonga — Atiu — where we off-loaded one passenger and picked up a couple others, for Raro.
As we climbed out for the 45-minute ride back to base, I was invited to see things from the sharp end of the plane. The stunning sunset as we let down through the clouds rounded off a very special day.
I’ve only half-ticked Mauke off the bucket list.
I will return — more than once I think. The island is too steeped in my history and DNA not to.