Māori myths or Māori reality? Quakes and Christmas in Hawkes Bay

Tess picks me up at Napier airport. I have been invited to spend Christmas in Hawkes Bay with her sister and Brazilian husband and various other members of this extended family.

Art Deco architecture in Napier

Tess takes me on a tour of Napier, rebuilt in Art Deco style within 3 years of the 1931 earthquake. This, and the subsequent fire that swept through the town, killed 256 people – more than the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

Clock on waterfront in Napier

We walk through the landscaped gardens along the waterside and stop by a beautiful flowered clock. Tess wants to show me a lovely sculpture of Pania nearby. In Māori mythology Pania was a sea creature who could not resist the allure of the land. I expect a mermaid but Pania looks quite human.

Earthquake gallery at Napier Museum

While Tess does some shopping I pop into the Museum. In the basement are horrifying accounts of the 1931 earthquake. I read the quotes, in large letters, taken from people’s testimonies.

‘I can see it now. Oh it was terrible – the shrieks of the wounded, the moaning of the dying and the terror in the eyes of the girls.’

‘The air had a hot, sticky feel to it, a sort of gasp before a coughing fit.’

‘Napier has been practically wiped off the map. Today is a smouldering heap of ruins, the sepulchre of a prosperous port and the gaunt remains of a beautiful seaside town.’

I peer at telegrams pleading for help and letters from children who were evacuated soon after, some of whom were now orphans. It’s all moving material but, disappointingly, there is no mention about how the town recovered and transformed itself within just 3 years.

Statue of Pania, Napier waterfront

I buy a book about Pania from the museum shop and read it in the sun by the waterfront while I wait for Tess. Often, in the evening, Pania would leave her people in the depths of the ocean and swim through the surf to the beach. At the base of the Hukarere cliff she hid among flax bushes and spied on a young chief. One evening the young chief saw her and was struck by her calabash eyes. He took her back to his whare in his pa where they slept together as man and wife. At dawn each day Pania kissed her young chief on his tattoed cheek and swam back to her people in the sea but returned to her husband each evening. After several months Pania gave birth to a son, Moremore.

But this was not enough for the young chief. He wanted Pania to renounce the sea and was afraid she would take his son away. An elder advised him to put cooked food on Pania and Moremore while they slept. This didn’t work. Pania returned to the sea with her son who became a shark. But Pania was so heartbroken that she became a rock. Now rawura fish swim around in her left arm pit, tamure in her right armpit and hapuku swim in their hundreds between her thighs. At low tide Pania can be seen, just below the water, stretching her arms towards her lover.

“It’s a beautiful story about Pania,” I say when Tess picks me up “But it’s so sad. Are all Māori love stories so mournful?”

“Wait till you hear about Te Mata,” Tess replies. “ We’ll see him on the way to the farm.”

But first we stop off to see Tess’s father who tells me about his memories of the 1931 earthquake. He and his parents were not in Napier at the time.

“But I remember my father and his brother desperate to get back to my grandmother. When they did get through, five days later, she was fine.”
The position of the house on the cliff top had saved the family and their home.

“The city was rebuilt in just three years,” he adds. “Christchurch could learn a thing or two from Napier.”

Black Barn vineyards, Hawkes Bay

Tess and I visit a couple of vineyards to stock up on wine for Christmas. We taste both a red and white at Te Mata Estate, New Zealand’s oldest winery. But it is at the more hip Black Barn vineyard that we find a rose to suit our palate.

We pass a huge mass of a mountain.

Te Mata mountain

“That’s Te Mata”, says Tess. “He’s heartbroken at not having passed the tests set by his lover to prove his commitment. That’s why he’s lying on his back. He’s given up.”

Near Te Mata mountain

Centuries ago tribes from the plains were under constant attack from those on the coast. It was decided that Hienrakau, the beautiful daughter of the chief, would make Te Mata, a giant, fall in love with her and turn his thoughts from war to peace. But she too fell in love. The people of the plains demanded that Hienrakau make Te Mata perform impossible tasks to prove his commitment. The last was to bite his way from the plains to the coast to make it easier for people to pass but Te Mata died choking on the earth. Hienrakau covered her lover with a blue cloak before jumping to her death over the cliff, creating a huge gully at the base of the cliff at Waimarama.

“That’s where Hienrakau lover is. Down by the beach. I don’t think she really loved him as why would she agree to set such impossible tasks?”

“Tribal pressure,” I reply.

Small holding in Hawkes Bay
Me relaxing in a hammock

We arrive at the farm. The clapboard house was transported whole on a truck from a farm some miles away. It has been beautifully restored and large verandahs added on two sides. We sit in carved wooden chairs built by Tess’s Brazilian brother in law, taking turns on the hammock, sipping wine as we watch the sun go down.

“The village is called Paki Paki,” says Anne, Tess’s sister. “It means clap, clap. “

I clap to be surrounded by such stunning scenery – softer than South Island but still dramatic. I clap to be spending the next three days in such a beautiful home. I clap to be spending Christmas with such an entertaining, interesting family. Clap, clap. Clap, clap.

Ocean Bay, Hawkes Bay

On Christmas morning Tess and I decide to go to the beach. Not to Hukarere to swim among the hapuku between Pania’s thighs. Not to where Hienrakau jumped over the cliff. But to Ocean Bay.

“So no more mournful Māori  love stories,” I say.

“A different kind of Māori  story,” she replies.

The sea is rough with a strong undertow. We jump under and over the waves but they get us every time, sweeping us forwards and backwards, sucking us down and thrusting us into the air again. It’s fun but it can’t be called swimming.

We move our car to allow a group of Pacific Islanders to set up for the day with tents and barbecues – everything but the kitchen sink. It’s going to be an impressive Christmas lunch. Just hope it’s a cut above corn beef.

Land returned to the local iwi

“So what’s the Māori story?” I ask as we leave.
“Over there. See those baches.”

I have learnt by now that ‘bach’ is New Zealand for second or summer homes.

“The lease on the land ran out and the local iwi have reclaimed it.”

So a justice repaid. Makes a change from a mournful love story.

Christmas day on the farm. Miguel telling us a joke – a good one!

We have a thoroughly English Christmas with crackers, bad jokes and silly hats. But we have salad instead of vegetables and pavlova instead of Christmas pudding.

View from Te Mata’s back
View from Te Mata’s back

On Boxing Day we go for a picnic on Te Mata’s back. Parachutists drift above us over vineyards, valleys, mountains, rivers and towards the sea. We envy them.Tess and her family try to teach me how to roll the ‘r’ in Māori. It’s hopeless. Sara, Tess’s niece, tells me about a Māori funeral she attended of someone she was close to. Hundreds slept alongside the open casket. It ended, on the third day, with a joyous celebration of the man’s life.

habaymaraeWe drive back through the village of Paki Paki. Anne and Sara show me the Māori  immersion school, the place where the elderly are cared for and a kindergarten. And there is a real functioning Marae (meeting place) with the wharenui (meeting house) not so different from those I have seen in Auckland Museum and Te Papa.

“The Māori  population is on the increase,” says Sara. “It’s around 20% now.”

The guidebooks say 12% but Sara should know. She works for the Ministry of Justice.

“But they make up 50% of the criminal system,” she adds.

Some say it was the drift to the towns that made things worse, severing people’s connection with the iwi. But this is not the whole story. Many Māori have made their way in the world.

“Academics at our university always acknowledge their iwi (tribe) connections. Usually multiple,” says Tess.

There are three official state languages – English, Māori and Sign Language. Māori  radio language stations abound and there is a Māori TV station. Place names that were once European such as Mt Egmont now go by their Māori name. In Egmont’s case Mt Taranaki. There is also the unique Te Kōhanga Reo – a total immersion Māori language family programme for young children from birth to six years of age. All this despite some historical grievances that still stand and discrimination that can still exist.

This is not the stuff of myth. Not the stuff of legend.

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