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From Te Kurī to Te Mata: What you will see as you leave Gisborne for Hawkes Bay

Published
July 31, 2020
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This post was updated in November 2022, by transferring some of the material at the end into a new post called ‘Dining out in Hastings, New Zealand’, and by mentioning a link to a post about the Kaweka Range and Hawkes Bay Heritage Trails, at the end.

BACKTRACKING a little from Māhia, where the second part of my post 'From Hobbiton to Rocket Lab' ends, toward the southern end of the misnamed Poverty Bay, there’s a headland called Young Nicks Head or Te Kurī (‘the dog’). Te Kurī is short for Te Kurī-a-Pāoa, ‘Pāoa’s dog’, after the legendary captain of the ancestral Horouta voyaging-canoe, also known as Pāwa.

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Map reproduced with the permission of Hawkes Bay Tourism. The words ‘Young Nicks Head / Te Kurī’ added for this post, at top right.

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Young Nicks Head / Te Kurī from the north

The name Young Nicks Head was bestowed by Captain Cook in honour of the cabin boy, Nicholas Young, who was the first of Cook’s crew to catch sight of New Zealand, at this spot.

Its cliffs, Te Rerengaotukiriahi, are conspicuous from the north. But Cook’s ship The Endeavour was beating toward New Zealand from the south-east at that time. So, young Nick probably saw inland ranges and not the headland itself. Aged about twelve, the lad was awarded a gallon of rum for his sharp eyes. (One hopes it was kept for him till he came of age, but I doubt it.)

There’s a big wetland just to the Head’s north called the Wherowhero Lagoon and a smaller, award-winning wetland called the Orongo Wetland to its south, leading down to Orongo Beach.

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Young Nicks Head / Te Kurī, showing the local settlement of Muriwai (which has the same name as the caves at Whakatāne), the Tamanuhiri Marae, the southern tip of Te Wherowhero Lagoon, the Orongo Wetland and Orongo Beach. North at top. Imagery ©2020 Bay of Plenty Territorial Authorities, CNES/Airbus, Maxar Technologies, Planet.com. Map data ©2020 Google.

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It’s a surprisingly long way from Gisborne to the next conurbation to the south, the twin cities of Napier and Hastings. More than 200 kilometres.

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On the way to Māhia you go past the Morere Hot Springs and Scenic Reserve, which I mentioned briefly in the last post but didn’t really describe.

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As the sign suggests, the scenic reserve is dominated by lush Nīkau palms and tree ferns which give the impression of an Asian jungle. It’s a far cry from the almost Icelandic landscapes that are typical near Queenstown.

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One of several paths in the scenic reserve

That’s one thing about New Zealand. You can effectively tour the world without leaving the country: a fact that’s making our national Covid quarantine, now that we’ve more or less beaten it but can’t easily leave or come back, easier to bear. And something to think about once international travel is restored, as well.

The pools were long known to local Māori before being ‘discovered’ by Europeans, who turned them into a government resort and in so doing, saved the now-rare Nīkau palm forest that surrounded them from being logged and turned into farmland.

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I also visited the nearby Mangaone Caves Scenic Reserve, mostly notable for its rugged terrain.

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Heading on south, I first visited visited Māhia Peninsula and the small resorts of Māhia Beach and Opoutama just south of the peninsula, where last week’s post finished, when I was about nineteen. In those days the area was practically uninhabited. Now it’s quite a busy little tourist complex. There are still some reminders of the folksy old days, though.

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Opoutama Bay looking toward Māhia Beach, showing Mokotahi Lookout

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The western end of the Opoutama Bay

Along with the beaches and the rocket launching site, you can also head down Kinikini Road to the Māhia Scenic Reserve and do the Māhia Peninsula Track. Incidentally, this is why Opoutama’s also called Blue Bay.

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Until lately people were quite impressed that little old New Zealand had a space programme, launching from the seaward end of the Māhia peninsula. Now it’s come out that the CIA and Lockheed-Martin put up a lot of the money and Māhia is putting up American spy satellites. So presumably if there’s ever any real trouble between the Americans and the Chinese, Māhia might be the first place to get nuked.

From Māhia, I drove on to Wairoa on the much larger Hawke Bay. The region that has Hawke Bay for its seafront is known as Hawkes Bay with an s, and no apostrophe strictly speaking either. So Wairoa is on Hawke Bay but in Hawkes Bay. Which seems a little odd: but there you are.

Wairoa has an attractive riverside embankment called Marine Parade even though it’s on a river. There are no buildings on the river side, only a park, and many fine old buildings face the river from across the street.

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The Wairoa County Club

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The River side of Marine Parade, Wairoa

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Marine Parade

It goes without saying that this is the sort of place that would look a lot better in summer! Wairoa has a long history of Māori occupation and many historic sites in the town, and it also sits at the heart of a number of tracks and scenic reserves in the surrounding country.

The next big town or city is Napier, a town that has literally risen out of the sea. Napier was founded on an island known to Māori as Mataruahou and to the colonists as Scinde Island.

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‘Napier — 100 Years of Progress’ Map (1965). Hawkes Bay Digital Archives Trust, CC-BY-NC 4.0

Here’s a modern view of downtown Napier from Mataruahou. The modern town has a really classy, Riviera-like quality enhanced by a tree-lined Marine Parade of its own, actually marine this time, as well as a lot of crisp-looking 1930s architecture.

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‘Taken from the walkway between Brewster Street and Onslow Road. Ah, the blue sky, blue Pacific and attractive buildings of Napier’. Photo (22 April 2006) by Robin Gallagher, Auckland, New Zealand, CC-BY-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mataruahou is not the official name of the former island, though there is pressure to make it so. Officially, it consists of two hill suburbs called Bluff Hill and Hospital Hill. Bluff Hill is at the seaside end and Hospital Hill is at the western end where the old Napier Hospital was located and which also had significance for Māori as a healing place, interestingly enough. Locals also refer to the whole of Mataruahou as Bluff Hill. Or Napier Hill, or just ‘the hill’.

In the old days many Māori lived on Mataruahou, where at one location a stream descends down a cleft in a local cliff. In a local legend a mermaid named Pania, who lived on an offshore reef, was drawn to this stream (which still exists) and fell in love with a chief’s son named Karitoki who used to drink from the stream because it was the purest on the island. The two were secretly married, but Pania had to return to the sea for the duration of each day and could only be with Karitoki at night.

Pania could not continue to return to the sea if she ate cooked food on land. So, one night, Karitoki put cooked food in her mouth as she was sleeping in the hope that she would swallow it and thus stay with him all day. But just at that moment Pania was awakened by the warning cry of an owl and ran to the sea in horror, whereupon the sea-people dragged her down and she was never seen by Karitoki again.

A statue of Pania, generally known as 'Pania of the Reef', was unveiled in 1954. Here's a photo taken in 1967 for New Zealand's National Publicity Studios by Gregor Riethmaier.

'"Pania of the Reef" on the Marine Parade, Napier'. Archives New Zealand AAQT 6539 W3537 68 A80964, CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

And here's me beside it!

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Māori and other Polynesians are related to the majority populations of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines as well as to certain minorities in Taiwan. Collectively known in scientific parlance as Austronesians, meaning ‘southern islanders’, this group of peoples originated on islands and peninsulas in southern Asia, were good at sailing, and used that skill to fan out across the islands of the Pacific.

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From a sign information board I saw at the Waitangi Regional Park, south of Napier

Some words haven't changed very much in the course of Austronesian migrations: words like 'mata', meaning eye or eyes. The supposed World War I spy Margaretha Zelle's stage-name Mata Hari meant 'sun' or more literally 'eye of the day' in the everyday language of the Indonesian islands where she grew up. Thousands of a kilometres from Asia the similar-sounding Māori word Matariki refers to a constellation that rises in the middle of winter and signals the Māori New Year. In Māori, Matariki literally means either ‘small eyes’ (mata-riki) or ‘eyes of a chief’ (mata-ariki). As for Mataruahou, this was originally Mataruahau, a name that meant the reflection of a face in a pool, since mata can also mean face in Māori.

Along with Mataruahou, various other elevated points nearby were also inhabited by Māori, who used the lagoons as mahinga kai, or food resources. The particularly enormous lagoon to the north and west was known as Te Whanganui a Orotū, the great harbour of Orotū, and also as Te Maara a Tawhao or the garden of Tawhao. There are eleven recorded pā or Māori villages on the shores of the great harbour of Orotū alone.

I popped into the local museum and saw a carved panel called a poupou, advertised as the last remaining in the region from a failed 1870s project to build a great, new, Māori meeting-house to be called Heretaunga III, which would have been erected at Pākōwhai, just outside Hastings.

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The project was initiated by Karaitiana Takamoana, Member of the House of Representatives for Eastern Māori in the 1870s, a man whose biography reads like an adventure novel. The meeting house, which would have been an astonishing architectural creation and a significant reassertion of Māori cultural identity in the face of colonisation as well, was sadly left unfinished when its political sponsor died in 1879, even though the hard work of carving at least sixty-one poupou had been done by then. The poupou ended up being exibited to tourists by the government of colonial New Zealand, which from 1867 on included a handful of Māori politicians but was dominated by the settlers in practice, and was then dispersed to museums all over the world. It’s as if the museum was the only officially-sanctioned place for Māori culture in those days!

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Like the whole of New Zealand and many parts of the North Island in particular, Napier has a strong Māori heritage. But the area was soon lost to European colonists. According to an article about Napier published in 1932,

The purchase of Mataruahou, now Scinde Island, was completed in 1856, cost the Government only £50 and a reserve of two sections for the Chief Tareha and his family “when the land has a town.” The site of Napier and an area up to the ranges inland cost only £1000.

In Hawkes Bay, the local iwi or tribe is Ngāti Kahungunu, whose traditional territory extends from Māhia to Cape Palliser at the southern tip of the North Island. Ultimately, the Ngāti Kahungunu would lose the best part of their realm, the sites of Napier and Hastings and the surrounding Heretaunga Plains, the only flat land for miles around, for a comparative pittance.

Including the purchase of Napier and the land back to the inland hills from Napier, the total for all Ngāti Kahungunu’s local land sales came to a few thousand pounds. Such low prices reflected a mixture of coercion, the unwillingness of British purchasing agents to pay more and a belief that British settlement would bring prosperity to remaining Māori lands even if the Māori didn’t get very much for the land that was sold. Plus, a failure to foresee just how valuable the coastal real estate that the colonists were most keen on acquiring would soon become.

The chief purchaser of Ngāti Kahungunu lands was Donald McLean, a figure admired by the other colonists for driving hard bargains with the Māori and getting their lands, indeed, as cheaply as possible.

McLean, who thus served mammon, is buried in an old colonial cemetery on top of Mataruahou beside several famous missionaries. Missionaries such as William Williams, the first translator of the Bible into Māori, and William Colenso (cousin of John Colenso after whom a town is named in South Africa), who printed the Māori text of the Treaty of Waitangi.

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Information Panel at Waitangi Regional Park, south of Napier, where Colenso had his mission station

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I think old cemeteries are amazing regardless of who’s buried in them, don’t you?

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All that, to reiterate, was when Napier was basically an island. For some time, the colonists wrestled with the surrounding waters, which they regarded as a nuisance and in no sense a great resource, in contrast to the Māori. After a great flood in 1897, some of the land to the south of the island was reclaimed, but the north and west remained an open lagoon.

And then on the third of February 1931 there was a massive earthquake, followed by fires. The whole region was affected, though it is called the Napier Earthquake because the damage was worst in Napier.

Buildings that were wrecked included the many brick buildings of the commercial district, which was on the flat right next to the hill.

Photographs from the time show near total devastation in the commercial downtown area, along with images of sailors helping out. A small British warship called HMS Veronica was in Napier’s harbour at the time, and its crew was soon joined by the crews of two larger warships based in Auckland, HMS Dunedin and HMS Diomede.

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Sailors in Napier after the 1931 earthquake (Napier City Council)

About 256 people were killed, a rather surprisingly small number considering that the downtown area ended up looking like Dresden in 1945: a lot worse than Christchurch after its 2011 earthquake, which otherwise killed a similar number of people.

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Downtown Napier after the 1931 Earthquake: this view includes the Anglican Cathedral, which was entirely rebuilt in reinforced concrete (Napier City Council)

There are a more photos where those came from on this Napier City Council web-page. What the photos also show is that many wooden structures were largely unscathed even in the downtown area. Indeed, provided they were not consumed by the fires that broke out after the earthquake and completed the destruction of the downtown, many wooden buildings from before the quake survive to this day: all the more so if built on solid ground such as that of the hill.

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Wooden buildings often survived the earthquake, provided they were not destroyed in the fire that followed

One of the effects of the earthquake was to see a ban on any further construction in unreinforced brick in New Zealand, along with a renewed appreciation for the merits of otherwise ‘old fashioned’ forms of wooden construction, the preferred technology for building houses in New Zealand to this day.

The downtown area wasn’t rebuilt in wood, however, but in a more recent form of comparatively earthquake-proof technology: reinforced concrete.

Reinforced concrete lent itself to modern architecture, since it was easy to cast it in long, straight forms, smooth surfaces and streamlined curves. In fact, modern architecture is pretty much inspired by the idea of ‘what’s easiest to do with reinforced concrete’.

And so the whole downtown was rebuilt in reinforced concrete as a Depression-era public works project, in record time — about two years —and in ways that looked eye-poppingly modern by the standards of the early 1930s. Today, we call it Art Deco, though purists insist that that’s not really correct. Well, whatever you call it the city gets a lot of tourists who come to admire the early-1930s time-capsule quality of its downtown area, which is apparently only matched in one or two other places such as South Beach, Florida: and some say that Napier is better, its Art Deco more — well, decorative.

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Napier’s 1930s ‘Sound Shell’, an acoustically modern stage on the waterfront

An organisation called the Art Deco Trust operates out of one of the downtown buildings, running bus tours.

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Modernism and the idea of rebuilding everything from scratch isn’t confined to the central city. There’s a whole suburb of early-modern-architecture houses called Marewa, which is also surrounded by a belt of parkland with walking paths along it.

Marine Parade, itself a product of the rebuilding years of the 1930s, fronts onto Napier Beach. Which unfortunately isn’t very good.

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Napier Beach

Fortunately, Ahuriri Beach, adjacent to Spriggs Park on the northern side of Mataruahou, is much better. So is the beach on the former sandspit that used to guard the old lagoon to the west is much better, the beach known as Westshore Beach, which only has the disadvantage of not being so close to town.

It was really the 1931 earthquake that sealed the demise of the Napier lagoons, by raising the land a couple of metres. I saw the following remarkable pair of images on a billboard describing the Whakamaharatanga Walkway, around what used to be the beaches of another hilly island in the region. Nuff said!

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During the World Wars, New Zealand suffered a certain amount of naval raiding by long-distance German naval forces, and overflight by Japanese aircraft in World War II as well. A number of ships were sunk in New Zealand waters both in World War One and World War Two. The biggest was a large passenger liner, the RMS Niagara, a fairly large and handsome ship launched in 1912 and initially compared to the Titanic, a comparison hastily amended to Queen of the Pacific for the remainder of the ship’s twenty-two years of life, which sank after striking a German mine laid off Auckland in 1940. Fortunately, everyone was saved before the Niagara sank, and so the sinking of the Niagara is little-known: in history, as on the news, ‘if it bleeds, it leads’.

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RMS Niagara. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Most of these attacks took place on the approaches to Auckland. Napier was off the beaten track by comparison. All the same, in January 1945 a large long-distance U-boat called U-862 crept into Gisborne’s harbour and then, three days later, Napier’s harbour as well.

U-862 fired a torpedo at a ship called the Pukeko in Hawke Bay, but missed. Surprisingly enough the torpedo has never been never found. Maybe some high-tech sonar sweep will pick it up it one of these days.

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Gregor Riethmaier, the photographer who took that fabulous photo of Pania in 1967, had a connection with these raiders. He was born and raised in Germany and arrived in New Zealand in 1938 on a vessel called the Seeteufel (Sea-Devil) captained by Count Felix von Luckner, a World War One raider who had been captured and held prisoner in New Zealand for a while. As a recent Radio New Zealand programme explains, the whole thing was a Nazi propaganda stunt cooked up by Josef Goebbels. After spending some time in New Zealand on Luckner's propaganda tour Riethmayer grew disillusioned, and jumped ship. He ended up working as a photographer for the New Zealand Government, and died in 2004.

(Here's a good question: why are German subs called U-boats? The answer is that the German word for submarine is Unterseeboot, that is, under-sea-boat. The title of the 1981 submarine movie and more recent TV series Das Boot means ‘the boat’, pronounced the same as boat in English. People often say that Spanish is the easiest languge for an English-speaking traveller to learn. But German's not too hard either. A lot of the simple words are even more similar to English ones than the simple words in Spanish, and the words for things that are more complicated are generally made by putting the simple words together.)

While I was in Napier, I also saw an information panel showing some of the hiking, biking and wine trails of southern Hawkes Bay, which you can access here. These include visits to sites of Māori heritage such as a remarkably preserved old-time hilltop pā at Otatara, accessible via the Otatara Pā Loop Trail. You can download the trail map here, or get the Hawkes Bay Trails App.

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(Update: as of 2021, there is also a Hastings District Council brochure describing all the Hawkes Bay Heritage Trails, and linking to other brochures, here. These are full of the most detailed local knowledge that you probably won't get anywhere else, about all kinds of obscure lookouts, and so on.)

A little way south, I came to a place called Waitangi Regional Park where the Tutaekuri River, the Ngaruroro River and the Clive River all come together and flow out to the sea through a common mouth, with the Tukituki River a little further along down the coast.

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Waitangi Regional Park information panel

The Waitangi (‘weeping waters’) Regional Park has a circle of carved poles erected just in the last couple of years, called Ātea a Rangi or heavenly court, which honours the rising of Matariki and also symbolises various aspects of Polynesian navigation, which depended on a careful reading of the stars to determine latitude along with sea-state signs such as the set of the waves and the presence or absence of birds and floating plant debris from some nearby island. Sea-signs helped with the more difficult task of determining longitude or, in other words, how far east or west the sailors were along a given line of latitude, along which there would be a number of known islands whose proximity could be deduced from the state of the sea.

European navigators like Cook had the advantage of brass instruments, chronometers and sizable ships. The Polynesians must have been all the more enterprising to set out on the biggest ocean in the world in comparatively flimsy craft and to trust navigational methods that depended on such things as whether you‘ve lately seen a floating coconut, or not.

The Waitangi Regional Park has many historical information panels, including the ones I’ve shown above about William Colenso and Polynesian migration and navigation. Here’s a video I filmed as well.

This post concludes as ‘Dining out in Hastings, New Zealand’. You may also like to read another post about the Kaweka Range and its hot pools, inland from Napier and Hastings: a post which contains additional information about Hawkes Bay’s twenty-one Heritage Trails. In 2021, the Hawkes Bay District Council published a pamphlet briefly describing all twenty-one, with links to more detailed pamphlets on each. You can access it here. There is also a tourism website, which for some reason only lists thirteen of the heritage trails, but perhaps goes into some additional details.

If you liked this post, you may be interested in my award-winning book The Neglected North Island: New Zealand’s Other Half.


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