A Maori Introduction at Onuku Marae

You may have noticed something missing from our 365 days doing 365 activities. New Zealand is famous for its variety of epic landscapes, for its unusual wildlife, for the wealth of adventure activities… But what about the “Haka” that you see the All Blacks do before a rugby game? What’s the story behind the various intricate carvings found all over New Zealand, for instance, it was only yesterday we saw Maori stories carved into the interiors of an Anglican church. It’s fair to say that although our 365 days of 365 activities has brought us some small insights into the indigenous culture of New Zealand, such as carving our own pounamu or seeing displays in museums, we have yet to learn about the Maori culture in New Zealand from the Maori people themselves! Finally, on day 229, we are visiting a marae!

From across the Akaroa Harbour, it’s hard to miss the long red roof of the Onuku ancestral house or “whare tipuna” as part of the Onuku Marae. Since we have been cruising around the Akaroa harbour doing dolphin swimming and sailing, we have been dying to get a closer look at the place, so as you can imagine, when we are invited to come over by Mel Tainui, Deputy Chair and Historical Orator at Onuku, we are so keen to come over that we end up arriving way too early!

A change of pace in Onuku

Just a 10-minute drive from Akaroa, meandering through pine-forested hillsides, we spot magnificent whare tipuna and a small Maori-designed church just behind. We get out of the car to the sound of a large acapella group singing in the Maori language, te reo Maori. As we mentioned, we’re here much earlier than arranged, so we sit by the shore and listen to the kapa haka group (that’s Maori-style dancing and singing) practicing for the national kapa haka competition, Te Mataini. Going from the bustling cruise ship passenger-filled Akaroa on a public holiday weekend to this area full of song, surrounded by bush and beach, we feel this bizarre feeling of instant calm. It’s a complete change of pace over here in Onuku and we are certainly not sorry for arriving here earlier than planned. We could sit in the sun and listen to the music all day.

Talking about preparing the seafood in the whata Talking about preparing the seafood in the whata
We can't get over these awesome designs! We can't get over these awesome designs!
Taking a look around the church Taking a look around the church
Outside of the magnificent Karaweko Outside of the magnificent Karaweko

Stories of seafood and founding ancestors at the whata

When the time comes, Robin asks around for Mel to various people chilling outside of the marae until one family member of hers finds another until the dots connect to her! Mel and her partner, Riki, greet us by pressing forehead and nose, cheek and cheek.

After some introductions, Mel is eager to show us around, starting with the whata, a red shelter at the waterfront used for preparing seafood. It’s otherwise known as the “kauta”, the males’ kitchen. Not only does the whata serve a purpose, it’s a good place to tell the story of Mel’s ancestor who first settled around the Akaroa Harbour. As we have seen on from the amazing abundance of wildlife in this harbour, Mel’s ancestor concluded that with waters full of kai moana (seafood), this would be the perfect place to bring up his family. Hearing how the family, or “whanau” as the Maori say, use the whata today is super satisfying – knowing that the ancestor’s plans are still in effect.

A relaxing SEASIDE session while listening to the kapa haka

The quaintest church!

Just behind the whata is the Onuku Church (kaik). What was initially designed to hold 70 people, the Onuku Church ended up being built for 30 making it perhaps the cutest and quaintest-looking church in New Zealand! It’s a reminder of the once thriving community here in Onuku (if you came here on a day like today with the kapa haka group, you would think the place is still thriving), where the church was a place for community, both Maori and Pakeha (white New Zealanders) to get together. Admittedly, the church is rarely used in comparison today, yet it is impeccably maintained and respected. It’s doors are open and free for anyone to visit.

Our own private Maori history lesson!

Due to the kapa haka group using the whare tipuna today, we don’t have the space to a traditional powhiri, which is the usual welcome ceremony protocol when visiting a marae. However, Mel explains to us that many marae have their own rules or “kawa” for allowing visitors onto their marae – the Onuku Marae’s kawa being that the visitors should learn about the history of the place before entering the grounds. Well, this is a pleasing circle of events, isn’t it! Mel has given us a great history lesson so far, but we’re sure that’s nothing compared to one of the history lessons given to people inside of the whare tipuna where they usually spend about three nights at a time learning about whakapapa (geneology) and history in intense sessions before going to bed in the whare tipuna. It pays off in the way that, for instance, Mel is telling us stories with such precision, certainty with the added bonus of being compelling.

That red roof seen so vividly from the Akaroa Harbour! That red roof seen so vividly from the Akaroa Harbour!
Mel telling us the story of the Urupa Mel telling us the story of the Urupa
One of Symon's amazing carvings One of Symon's amazing carvings

Meeting the master carver and tattoo artist

Those stories continue with when Mel tells us what the carvings mean on the whare tipuna, as well as the story behind its name, Karaweko – a young man who was captured by an opposing iwi (tribe) who later returned to lead his people. The carver of Karaweko’s entrance left part of the entrance uncarved in respect the time spent away from his people where he learned his carving skills.

As Mel sees how eager we are learn more about this carving aspect of the Maori culture, she introduces us to Simon, a master carver, who takes us up to his house showing us the most beautifully-carved wooden statues and ornaments. He also specialises in ta moko (Maori tattoos) using both modern tattoo gun and traditional tools like a chisel. (Ouch!)

Right on cue, one of his mates shows up at the house sporting Simon’s art: an entire back and arms tattoo applied over a two-week “roadie”.

One last listen to the kapa haka

We leave the guys to go on their diving trip and head to the shore for a little longer, listening to the birds in the surrounding bush and what’s left of the kapa haka practice. Somehow, it’s quite hard to drag ourselves away from this calming environment.

We’ll have to leave eventually because tomorrow we are getting back on the Akaroa Harbour, this time via stand-up paddleboard and after dark. Join us then!

Laura and Robin

Mel gives us some amazing insights into the Maori culture outside the Onuku Church
Mel gives us some amazing insights into the Maori culture outside the Onuku Church Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

Want more?

Until tomorrow’s blog post, check out these articles:

We also like to hang out on HerePin, post pretty pictures on Instagram (#BackpackerGuideNZ to be featured), and post daily travel tips dedicated to New Zealand on Facebook!

See you tomorrow!

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Comments
  1. I lived in Akaroa for many years I was fishing on my Dads trawler the Seddon Park with the Skipper Lester Atkinson Pere Tainui was a very good mate and used to babysit my kids A I used to go shooting rabbits around the Kaik Great place and lots of good memories

    Comment avatar Dick Caldwell
    14/02/2017 at 4:35 pm
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