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Tramping the Maori way

A tangiwai tarn marks the campsite on the ridge east of North Borland Hut. Photo: Nic Low
On a traverse of Fiordland and Southland, Nic Low takes a look at Mãori tramping in the 21st century

By the time we turned into Anita Bay at the top of Piopiotahi/Milford Sound, we were running late. I sat forward in the small grey inflatable as the rocky arc of the beach swung into view.

“Hope they’re still here!” I shouted over the roar of the outboard.

My friend Bridget Reweti shrugged and smiled. Nothing phased her.

On the shore we saw what we were looking for: a group of Ngãi Tahu elders combing the shingle. Though they were searching for pounamu as our ancestors had, their transport, parked next to them, was a helicopter. I grinned. There was a ship riding at anchor out in the bay. Though the passengers were taking a modern cruise, their transport was a faux-colonial sailing ship, done up in wood and brass.

Aunties Jane Davis, Betty Rickus, Vera Gleeson and Rangimaria Suddaby waved us in. Rosco, the friendly, piratical owner of Rosco’s Kayaks, nosed the inflatable into shore. We hauled out our packs and dumped them beyond the reaching surf.

“See you in a couple of days,” Rosco called. “Good luck!”

It had taken months of planning to finally plant my boots on that beach. We’d come to Anita Bay with a Customary Authorisation permit to gather a type of greenstone called tangiwai. With the help of nearly 30 friends and family from the Oraka-Aparima Runaka, the southern-most of Ngãi Tahu’s tribal areas, we would carry the stone over old greenstone trails to our marae on the Southland coast. We’d kayak Milford Sound, walk the Milford Track in reverse, paddle lakes Te Anau and Manapouri in waka ama and then carry on through the bush to Te Waewae Bay.

Before the usual tramping rituals of planning routes and laying out gear, we’d sought advice and permission from elders, sourced satellite maps starred with ancient place-names, and roped in everyone from parents to cousins and kids. There’d be feasting along the way and a powhiri at the end. We were getting out into nature, and into history; and celebrating contemporary Ngãi Tahu life in the far south.

Welcome to Mãori tramping.

Bridget quenches her thirst from cliffs above Te Moana o Nohorua, Lake Ada. Photo: Nic Low

Bridget quenches her thirst from cliffs above Te Moana o Nohorua, Lake Ada. Photo: Nic Low

In December 2013, Wilderness published a thought-provoking article about why so few Mãori, Polynesian and Asian people go tramping. I’d just started working on a book about Ngãi Tahu in the mountains, so I knew we’d once regularly crossed the Southern Alps on foot. Raised a keen tramper by a pãkehã father and a Ngãi Tahu mother, I thought: what would modern Mãori tramping actually look like? Standing there on a Fiordland beach, I was about to find out.

Few tramping trips feature blessings from airborne aunties, but that was how we began. After they had clattered home, the bay felt like the Carribbean. The sound of laughter and cocktails wafted across from the sailing ship. But come morning there was no mistaking Fiordland. We woke to misty bush and a cold and empty sea, with a heavy swell pushing in ahead of a storm. Rosco’s crew radioed to say they’d be picking us up a day early: in about six hours the gale would hit. We had to finish our search for tangiwai and get off the beach.

Tangiwai is a rare translucent member of the pounamu family, ranging in colour from inky green to a smoky oxidised teal blue. Its beauty and ease of carving means for centuries Ngãi Tahu have braved the waves to visit Anita Bay. Families, marae and museums all over the country hold tangiwai treasures, including pendants shaped to resemble a sperm-whale tooth. These last are ancient, recalling styles brought to New Zealand from the Pacific. Fossicking along the shoreline, each time we found a green jewel glowing among the black pebbles I felt a thrill to be a small part of that tradition.

Bridget and I carefully chose what we would carry as our gift to the marae: a handful of teardrop slivers, a few exquisite natural pendants, and two small frosted green cobbles. The two of us would carry them as far as Te Ana-au (Lake Te Anau), where a dozen paddlers would share the load. Placing the collection in my pack and heaving it onto my back, I laughed, thinking of the old tramper’s prank where you sneak rocks into your mate’s pack.

We clambered round the shore to a sheltered pick-up point at the western-most edge of the bay. Rosco’s launch powered through the swell with kayaks strapped to the roof. Chief guide Adam led us out into a following sea, slicing through the gunmetal water with his paddle. The sheer walls of the fiords soared into cloud overhead. We swapped stories of natural and Mãori history, and the legend of Tu-te-raki-whanoa digging out the fiords.

Pãkehã tramping culture taught me to be interested in early explorers, and Mãori tramping is the same. Many peaks throughout the sound were named after the crew of the explorer Maui’s waka, the Mahanui. In fact, Ngãi Tahu explorers, hunters, family groups and greenstone parties all paddled these reaches in wooden waka. Travelling by kayak, it was easy to imagine their journeys from that same perspective.

Further along the sound, the sky darkened and wraiths of mist suddenly formed and raced away east. I didn’t know ocean weather, but in the mountains I’d have been concerned.

“Check that out,” I called to Adam.

He was instantly on the radio. “You see that above Copper Point?”

“I’m watching it too,” crackled back the reply. “Any time now.”

Adam flashed us a grin. “Time to get moving. Let’s go!”

The storm struck that night. Bridget and I were grateful to have bunks on loan in a DOC staff house in Milford to wait it out. When the rain eased four days later, Rosco’s crew dropped us across Te Awa o Hine (the Arthur River) to start our walk up a deserted Milford Track.

Tangiwai was usually taken around the coast, but the Milford Track was also an overland route. Sandfly Point, where walkers finish and get picked up by boat, was a canoe landing-place; archaeologist Peter Coutts found firestones and a midden up the bank. South of Lake Ada, where Bridget and I brewed coffee among dripping trees, 19th-century artist Samuel Moreton came across a whata, a raised storehouse. Higher still, an adze was found near the track to Sutherland Falls, buried under 60cm of mud. Cruising along in our Crocs, I imagined the excitement of finding tangiwai dropped by an earlier expedition.

Ascending the eastern flank of Mt Titiroa. Photo: Nic Low

Ascending the eastern flank of Mt Titiroa. Photo: Nic Low

But more than forgotten artefacts, it is place-names that keep the memory of the trail alive. Ngãi Tahu’s Cultural Mapping Team had given us an astounding set of maps of our entire three-week journey, showing the landmarks according to their Mãori names. It’s part of an ambitious project to map the whole of Ngai Tahu’s tribal area which combines cutting-edge GIS technology and oral history. Many of the thousands of names in the system were given to historian James Herries-Beattie by elders in the early 20th century. He discovered that all along the Milford Track, the landscape was named and known.

Whenever Bridget and I passed a landmark with an old name, we built a cairn from the tangiwai. Each was a tiny monument to the pounamu trail, and to the tramping and cairn-building traditions we’d inherited from our European forebears. Sadly, we couldn’t leave them for future explorers. We photographed each, then packed the stone away and kept moving south.

A minute south of Pomplona Lodge, on dusk and in pouring rain, we scanned the scoured bed of Marlene’s Creek.

“Can you see a bridge?” I asked.

“Yup, there,” Bridget said, pointing to a tangle of half-buried steel. “This must be where everyone else got helicoptered out.”

We’d been warned one of the bridges had washed away. It’d been hammering down for a couple of hours, and we’d raced along the Clinton Canyon hoping to get across in time. In front of us, the dirty torrent twisted between the boulders like a giant eel. It looked lethal, but orange flagging led to a marginally better pool. Markers on the far bank beckoned us across. We listened for rolling boulders then linked up. Maybe it was okay. I shuffled in calf-deep and the current just about ripped off my leg. I stumbled back. It was like the creek had teeth.

“No way,” I yelled over the roar. “I can’t stand up in that!”

We looked at each other. What were we thinking?

We pulled out the map, found better contours where the creek braided out, and splashed across easily. Later, we realised we’d been on auto-pilot. After two days on a beautiful track with every stream bridged, we’d delegated our critical decision-making skills to a scrap of orange tape. You couldn’t afford to switch off in the Clinton Canyon. One old tale talks of a kui and koro who disappeared along the Clinton at a place called Te Re-Korare. The way the story’s told, the elderly couple were eaten by giant eels.

Early the next morning, we reached the shores of Te Ana-au. A feature of early Mãori mountain travel was to go by water wherever you could. Old settlement sites around the southern lakes were all connected by boat. I couldn’t wait to cover that same distance by waka ama, the modern fibreglass equivalent of a wooden canoe.

To make up for days lost to rain, Real Journeys ferried us to Te Motumotu-a-huka (Te Anau Downs). There, a dozen paddlers and their families were waiting to greet us, eager to see the tangiwai they were going to carry. Another common feature of early Mãori travel was collective involvement, and our modern tramping was the same. The Oraka-Aparima Runaka was providing history, hospitality and support. My family ferried food and dry socks. My cousins Karina and Rewi Davis had organised the paddlers and support boat, and Tane Davis got us underway with karakia, a blessing for the journey ahead.

Out on the lake, each of us pushed our paddle into the water, and felt the boat drive forward with the power of a dozen arms. The shore fell away. Banter faded as the crew’s breath synchronised, our shoulders torquing and reaching as one. That is, until the lead paddler flung herself overboard with a splash. The crew cracked up, and the support boat fished her out.

“Must have been busting!”

“Couldn’t wait!” we teased.

In a few hours, we’d covered a day’s walk. After a night’s feasting, a talk from Auntie Jane about recent political history, and an early morning run along the Kepler Track to link Te Ana-au and Motu-rau (Lake Manapouri), we paddled off towards Hope Arm.

Paddlers put their back into it on Te Ana-au. Photo: Nic Low

Paddlers put their back into it on Te Ana-au. Photo: Nic Low

Safely on the far side of Motu-rau, it was time to take the tangiwai on our backs again, and to say goodbye to Bridget after a memorable 10 days. She jumped back into the waka with the other paddlers and turned for home, while my brother Tim and I set off into the hills. The greenstone trail followed the Waiau River and plains out to the coast. But we would visit lakes Mano-ki-wai (Monowai) and Hauroko, and pay homage to the tramping tradition, both Mãori and pãkehã, of the good old-fashioned slog through the bush.

From Hope Arm Hut we climbed to Mt Titiroa, the pale fin of rock visible for miles across the Southland plains. After camping on the ridge above North Borland Hut, we descended to Borland Biv to meet our next walking companion, Dave Taylor, who works as a liaison between Ngãi Tahu and DOC. We sped to Monowai Hut, then slowed to a crawl bush-bashing around the lake’s western rim. We should have built a mokihi, a quick, disposable raft of flax stalks that Ngãi Tahu used on rivers, lakes and coasts.

“We need packrafts,” I called to Tim and Dave. “That’d be the modern mokihi!”

At Electric River, we sweated up onto the Kaherekoau Mountains to camp above Eel Creek, dining through a sunset that burned long and low over Mano-ki-wai. From there, travel south across the tops was satisfying and fast, with sweeping views to the coast. But after a long lunch, and a scenic detour over Pt1481 that saw us bluffed, we ran out of time to go over Oblong Hill.

“Those contours look pretty tight,” Dave said.

I followed his finger down the south ridge on the map. Our planned route meant a bluffy descent to Hauroko in fading light.

“What about dropping off the saddle to the east?” I said. “We can just follow the river out. It’ll be fun.”

Famous last words. After an hour we were facing-in to descend an active landslide. Two hours on we were slithering and tripping over fallen trees in a gorge. Then rain blew in and the light failed, and we slogged back up into the bush to camp. I’d been in the hills for a couple of weeks by now and tiredness was setting in. It’ll be fun, I muttered. But, sitting around a fire with a full belly, telling stories while stags roared in the mist, it was.

Was fun a feature of Mãori travel in the old days? Of course. When night fell, people gathered around fires just like us, passing the time in korero purakau (storytelling), waiata (songs), haka and taonga puoro (music). There were myriad games for kids. Songs and proverbs often refer to the power and beauty of mountains, so we know our Mãori ancestors appreciated the terrain. What we don’t know is how they felt about the tramping itself. Was it a pleasure or a pain? Perhaps, like today, it was both.

We were at Lake Hauroko, washing off the blood after a shortcut through a bush-lawyer-infested swamp, when the Wairaurahiri Jet boat pulled in.

“Where are you guys off to?” the driver asked.

“Teal Bay Hut. The guide says nine hours, so we thought seven. What do you reckon?”

He laughed. “Two guys went through there a few weeks back. Took them fourteen. Want a lift?”

“How long by boat?” we queried.

“Nine minutes!”

Catching a jetboat wasn’t exactly authentic, but then, authenticity was never the goal. Our Mãori ancestors married our pãkehã ancestors, and adapted to new ideas. They honoured the past, but they also looked ahead.

Coastal tracks became overgrown once whaleboats became available, and use of some remote alpine passes faded with roads. There was none of the through-hiker’s desire to walk every step. Pragmatism, long a feature of Ngãi Tahu thought, had to be part of contemporary Mãori tramping. When we roared off across the lake, I told myself our ancestors would have approved.

Everything ends with a feast. After a satisfying grunt over Okaka, the Hump Ridge, and a barefoot stroll along Te Waewae Bay, we were welcomed by the elders onto Takutai o te Titi marae in Colac Bay. With us were the paddlers and families, walkers and friends.

The tangiwai was passed hand to hand, blessed, and given a home in the marae’s cabinet of treasures. Sixty of us feasted on donated crayfish, mountains of salad and a lasagne I could barely lift.

After dishes were done and the kids packed off to bed, we sat and chatted, exhausted but content. Ours was just one form of Mãori tramping; around the country others create their own. Some are strolls, others multi-day hikes. Ngãi Tahu’s Manawa Hou programme gets school kids tramping, while the flagship Aoraki Bound course takes two dozen adults into the mountains every year. Each venture is different, but they have things in common. They tend to celebrate specific landscapes, involve multiple generations, and focus on remembering ancestors while encouraging the young.

But if one trait links them all as an emerging Mãori tramping culture, it’s this: you go bush not to find wilderness, but history.