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The Māori tribe protecting New Zealand's sacred rainforest
9 June 2020

By Jacqui Gibson

A forlorn scrap of white mist hovered in the bush flanking the only road into Te Urewera, one of the most isolated rainforests in New Zealand. It was a sign I was in Tūhoe country, the tribal region whose people were named “Children of the Mist” by ethnographer Elsdon Best in the 1890s due to an ancient oral tradition linking Tūhoe to Hine-pūkohu-rangi, the mist maiden.

Outside my window, views of pasture and rundown farmhouses gave way to dense emerald forest and waterfalls gushing from cliffs cloaked in cloud and shadow. Turning a bend in the road, two stocky ponies with unkempt forelocks appeared on the dusty verge in front of me. Slowing down, I scanned the bush for kererū, the native wood pigeon long associated with this fertile landscape, and instead locked eyes with a lone palomino chewing on ferns as the asphalt road turned to earth.

Te Urewera is the largest rainforest of New Zealand’s North Island, spanning 2,127 sq km of rugged hill country, vast blue-green lakes and fast-running, north-flowing rivers. In 2014, a world-first law brought an end to government ownership of Te Urewera National Park and recognised the rainforest as its own legal entity and the Tūhoe people as its legal guardians.

Today, the Tūhoe – who number approximately 40,000, with around 7,000 living in Te Urewera’s river valleys and bush clearings – are legally responsible for the rainforest’s care. They protect the precious site through an ancient Maori practice known as kaitiakitanga, which can roughly be translated to mean “guardianship” and is a way of managing the environment based on a Māori worldview.

Kaitiakitanga involves understanding the close connection between people and nature, seeing humans as part of the natural world and protecting the mauri, or life force, of the forests, rivers and lakes under their care. On a day-to-day level, it includes monitoring the health of the forest, lakes and rivers through observation and data collection, native tree planting, controlling pests such as possums and deer and maintaining the health of important fish stocks such as river tuna (Māori for eels).

Tribal leader Tamati Kruger told me that increasing numbers of people are coming to Te Urewera to hunt, fish and hike around its most popular lake, Lake Waikaremoana. Although the Tūhoe welcome visitors, the challenge, he said, is to manage tourist numbers and the impact of tourism on the environment, while taking over the care of the former national park after nearly 70 years of government management.

“For many visitors to Te Urewera, a national park system is all they know,” Kruger said. “They have this idea that you save up for a holiday in a beautiful part of the world, you go there, pay for a service such as access to a night in a clean, dry hut, and then you return home and plan your next trip to the next destination. For many people, that’s the extent of their experience of travelling in nature.

“We’re asking people to completely change that approach. Instead of seeing nature as a set of discrete resources to be managed and used, we’re asking people to see Te Urewera as a living system that others depend on for survival, culture, recreation and inspiration. It’s about relating to Te Urewera as its own identity in a physical, environmental, cultural and spiritual sense.”

As kaitiaki (guardians), this is how the Tūhoe have always experienced Te Urewera, Kruger said, and that visitors need to be prepared to do things differently here. “Maybe it’s not about getting the best photo of yourself near a waterfall or the ultimate deal on a hunting trip. Maybe it’s about meeting the locals, staying with us, learning some of our history and hearing some of the stories and values that make up our lifestyle.”

With Te Urewera now reopened to domestic travellers post-lockdown, tourism guides throughout the rainforest increasingly offer an opportunity to do just that. In Tāneatua, at the Tūhoe’s tribal headquarters located at the northern entrance of Te Urewera, visitors can take a self-guided walking tour of the site for an overview of the tribe’s history, culture and an introduction to its environmental approach.

Within the rainforest itself, staying on marae (traditional Māori meeting grounds) and experiencing a traditional settling-in ceremony, or taking a bush walk with Tūhoe guides who understand local tīkanga (protocols) are other ways outsiders can immerse themselves in Tūhoe culture and learn how to relate to Te Urewera in a different way. More options include honey tasting, home-cooked dining experiences and hunting and horse riding adventures.

And while with New Zealand decalring the country to be coronavirus-free, tourism providers are hoping the country’s borders will open to international travellers from “safe travel zone” countries such as Australia as soon as September.

I got to experience a bit of Tūhoetanga (culture) for myself prior to lockdown. In Ngāputahi, a small village about an hour’s drive from Tāneatua, I was introduced to a traditional welcome ceremony with Tūhoe guide Hinewai McManus, who performed a mihi whakatau, a ritual designed to transition newcomers from the everyday world into the spiritual world of the rainforest.

“Kia ora (hello) and welcome to Te Urewera,” she said when I pulled into the carpark. Today, McManus explained, two trees would play a role in the ceremony: a Californian pine planted by her grandmother would represent me as manuhiri (visitor), while a native kanuka (found throughout Te Urewera) would embody Hinewai’s ancestors as tangata whenua (the people of the land).

As the ceremony unfolded, I walked slowly from one tree to the other, guided by McManus as she spoke and sang quietly in te reo Māori, her native tongue (and one of New Zealand’s three official languages; the others being English and New Zealand Sign Language).

“The [mihi] whakatau is a less-formal Māori welcome,” she told me. “It’s a way of introducing you to this place – all of you, your physical, psychic and spiritual self.”

McManus told me that I’m one of few New Zealanders who come to Te Urewera to understand the tribe’s culture and relationship with nature. More common are visitors from Europe (Germany and the Netherlands, particularly), China and the United States – travellers keen to tap indigenous knowledge for inspiration on how to live in a world straining under mounting environmental pressure.

To teach me more about the role of guardians, McManus led a guided tree planting and kaitiakitanga experience called Tāne Mahuta – God of the Forest, where she recounted the Māori creation story that framed the experience, explaining Tāne Mahuta, son of Ranginui (sky father) and Papatūanuku (earth mother), was the father of all the birds and trees of the forest.

In our tree-planting prayer, we addressed Tāne Mahuta for guidance on what tree species to plant where. In the end, we translocated two hohoeka (lancewood) saplings from a cramped, tangle of undergrowth in the bush to an open, sunlit area on the riverbank.

Our two saplings, said McManus, added to the rising tally of more than 12,000 trees planted or translocated since the Te Urewera Rainforest Restoration Project began in 2008. “It’s about growing the global oxygen supply, offsetting carbon miles and boosting the habitat and food available to our native birds. But people are drawn to the spiritual side of things too. They want to know why my tribe feels so much respect for the environment. Is it just because we live here or is there something more to it?”

Brenda Tahi, Tūhoe guide and owner of Manawa Honey Tours, is sure there’s more to it.

“We respect the environment because of our tīpuna (ancestors) and the knowledge about sustainability and living alongside nature handed down to us,” she told me at her family home in Ruātahuna on the western edge of Te Urewera. “But we also respect nature because we want to live amongst it and it needs our help right now.”

She explained her family business is a case in point. The company produces native tree honey from 1,000 hives located throughout Te Urewera, drawing on a nearly 200-year-old tribal tradition of wild honey-gathering known as te nanao miere.

“Honey became a revered food for our people when the honeybee was introduced to New Zealand in the 1830s. Our ancestors harvested it quite differently though, climbing high up into trees, using buckets. Keeping bees is integral to our commitment to maintaining our indigenous ecosystems in Te Urewera,” she said. “They help pollinate so many of our plant species. But farming honey is also about economic self-reliance and giving our people a reason to stay or return to Te Urewera.”

Trekking Te Urewera’s steep ravines on horseback with Tahi’s son and tour guide, Maaka Tamaki, and beekeeper Nick Mitai, I was invited to clamber into a protective suit and check out Manawa hives first-hand. Later, we picnicked by the river, visited a historical marae and that night set up camp by the river under the stars.

Serving me a hot lime and honey tea after dinner, Tahi explained that she designed Manawa Honey Tours to help visitors bond with the place as they might bond with a new friend. She wants to wow visitors with the rainforest’s beauty. She wants them to delight in hearing the rush of the river and breathing in the rainforest’s fresh, clean air.

“There’s nothing like the silky feel of river water on your skin after a long day hiking or the taste of our bush kai (food) – be it a simple pork boil up or flash compote of orchard plums and tawhero (bush) honey,” she told me. “To me, these things are all part of falling in love with this place. They’re the things that keep you coming back for more.”

Kruger agrees, believing this approach has the added benefit of strengthening people’s experience of Te Urewera: “It will move you beyond a way of thinking that says: ‘I’ve paid my fee, I want a service’, to a mindset that says: ‘I love this place, I feel a connection to it. Now, what can I do to care for it?’.


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Blog Post The Māori tribe protecting New Zealand's sacred rainforest
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