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Mark Chipperfield - Journalist, Travel Writer and Beer Sleuth

Secret Maori Business

Before we set off to our mysterious appointment in the ancient beech forests of New Zealand’s Kaweka Ranges I am handed some flat river stones, a carved wooden totem called a Po, a piece of shiny black obsidian and a single rubber glove.

Following two strange men into the forest with only a rubber glove for protection fills me with apprehension. Am I about to be subjected to some vile Kiwi initiation ceremony? Will I disappear into a sweat tent never to be seen again?

But my sense of unease gradually lifts as we hike away from the modest hunting lodge at Tamau Pa and into the pristine mountain ranges – the country turning from open heath to sub-alpine forest. Leading the way is Tom Loughlin, a Maori elder who now welcomes a small number of outsiders to visit his ancestral lands, exploring the forests, catching eels in the river, eating native bush foods and gaining a powerful insight into Maori culture.

Apart from being an expert fly-fishing guide, accomplished huntsmen and City and Guilds trained chef, Loughlin is also a tangata whenua (person of the land) who has been appointed to protect the 5000 acres of Maori land known as Ngati Tuwharetoa. “We are the custodians of the land, its kaitiaki,” he says. “It’s our responsibility to protect the land, honour the gods and ensure that it will provide food for future generations. That’s how things were always done back in the day.”

Five generations of his family have lived, farmed and hunted in these mountains --- he fondly recalls coming here with his father as a small boy on camping trips -- and it’s a rare privilege to accompany Loughlin, 47, as he lays eel traps in the Ripia River, tracks wild deer through the forest or plants rows of European and sweet potato in his raised Maori-style vegetable patch.

“When our ancestors came here from Polynesia, everything was foreign,” he says. “Storing food for the winter, dealing with the winter cold were all new. Kumara was one of the few things that our people had brought with them, which is why it is so prized.”

Loughlin has brought the various strands of pre-European Maori existence – foraging, hunting, food preparation, native cooking and food storage – under a single umbrella: The Kai Waho Experience.

“The phrase Kai Waho can be translated as outdoor cuisine,” says Loughlin, who has worked as a chef in Sydney, London and throughout New Zealand. “But Maori kai (food) is only one aspect of what we’re doing here. It’s also a spiritual journey – a chance to become close with the papatuanuku (the natural environment). To walk in the footsteps of my ancestors.”

Visitors to Tamau Pa, a Maori stockade deep in the Kaweka Ranges, can expect a total immersion in traditional Maori life, with demonstrations of kai (food) gathering, and a wide range of traditional cooking techniques, such as cooking on hot stones, steaming, of course, baking in a hangi or earth oven.

A typical feast from the hangi consists of titi (muttonbird), wild pig with native asparagus, chicken, slow baked kumara and potato and a hunk of wild venison – all washed down with a glass of sauvignon blanc or a Tui beer.

Audience participation is a key ingredient of the Kai Waho Experience and today we are hiking deep into the forest to build a traditional whare (hut) once used by Maori warriors as they stalked wood pigeon; “stalked” is a slight exaggeration since the poor birds literally fell out of the sky, intoxicated from fermenting berries.

Having walked for an hour we come to a small clearing where Loughlin has already dug the foundations for the hut. Our task is to cut a series of slender branches for the walls and roof, which will then be covered with broad mountain cabbage leaves.

Before construction work on the hut can begin I’m given the task of staining the wooden Po with a solution of red volcanic clay (hence the rubber glove). The hunters believed the Po would protect their camp and bring good fortune to the hunting season.

“Positioning the Po is very important,” explains Loughlin. “It must always face East and it must rest in soil dug by hand – you mustn’t use a tool to dig the hole, just your hands.”

Building a brushwood hut may seem like a pretty mundane task, but spend three hours a forest such as this and a strange alchemy begins to work – time is suspended, the trees come alive with birdsong and you can almost see those long-dead Maori hunters waiting patiently inside their newly finished whare.

“The wood pigeon were highly valued by my ancestors,” explains Loughlin. “They would spend weeks out here, moving from one whare to the next. Men ate the prime pieces of meat. Women were given the intestines because they sustained fertility.

In between showing us how to bind the framework together with flax rope our guide has been busy building a small fire in which he is heating the river stones we’ve carried here – once white hot they are used to barbecue marinated fillets of wild venison.

The lean, rich meat – marinated overnight in some light soy and chopped garlic and served in white hamburger rolls – is just sensational; gloriously rich and smoky, and as soft as butter.

“Not bad, eh?” he asks, watching the juice from my wild venison burger dribble down my chin and onto the forest floor.

After lunch we further explore the forests, making our way down to a thunderous waterfall. Here, Loughlin takes the lump of obsidian (which he has wrapped in ferns) and buries it in the icy water, behind the wall of white spray – an ancient Maori “keep out” sign.

Standing in the cold mist I listen to Loughlin recite a Maori incantation and once again have a sense of having stepped out of the 21st century and into a more human, more elemental world.

Despite its seclusion behind a series of locked farm gates Tamau Pa is only a short drive from the scenic lakeside town of Taupo (30kms away) and is also popular with guests staying at nearby Huka Lodge who come here for the fly-fishing and hunting.

For those who want to continue their Maori odyssey, Taupo is the next logical destination. Built on the shores of the southern hemisphere’s biggest lake, Taupo is a wonderful concoction of scenic beauty, high-end indulgence, adventure sports and volcanology. It is also the trout-fishing capital of New Zealand.

Taupo and Mt Ruapehu (an active volcano) are also steeped in Maori legend and I am lucky to be welcomed here by the celebrated Maori wood sculptor Delanie Brown. After a delightful lakeside picnic lunch of sea urchin, smoked trout and pheasant, we visit Brown’s workshop – where he is completing a monumental ceremonial gate, surmounted by fierce-looking warriors.

“Our sculptors are always in red, black and white,” he explains. “Red is for the soil and human blood. Black is where we come from. The unknown. White is for life – the world of light.

During our tour of the workshop the handsome sculptor demonstrates his fighting skills with the tatua (a wooden lance), plays a conch shell and talks with pride about his warlike ancestors. I ask why Maori warriors are always depicted with massive, elongated tongues. “The tongue can bring either peace or war,” he laughs. “It is the deadliest weapon in the world, eh?”

Taupo: Essentials

Must do: Soak in a geothermal hot spring; drive the Volcano Loop Highway; ski on an active volcano (Mt Ruapehu); go hiking or mountain biking; take a jet boat to the foot of Huka Falls; visit the National Trout Centre at Turangi; bungy jump at the Waikato River.

Stay:

Huka Lodge, 271 Huka Falls Road, Taupo. Phone: +64 7 378 5791; www.hukalodge.co.nz New Zealand’s most famous luxury lodge. Stunning.

The Point Villas, Lake Taupo. No published address. Phone: +64 27 477 4323; www.thepointvillas.co.nz.

Two private villas on the lake’s northern shores. Acacia Cliffs, 133 Mapara Road, Acacia Bay Lake Taupo. Phone: +64 7 378 1551; www.acaciacliffslodge.co.nz. Superb modern lodge.

Eat:

Hilton Lake Taupo, 80-100 Napier Taupo Highway, Taupo. Phone: +64 7 378 7080; www.hilton.com/laketaupo. International cuisine with sweeping water views.

The Deli at Yum Food Company 32 Roberts Street Taupo. Phone: +64 7 378 0540; www.yumfoodcompany.co.nz. Gourmet food to go.

More information:

Destination Lake Taupo http://www.laketauponz.com.

Fact Box

New Zealand touring company Ahipara Luxury Travel specialises in personalised tours with a strong Maori component. It custom designs North Island itineraries, including accommodation, transport and exclusive activities, to suit individual needs. The Kai Waho Experience with Tom Loughlin is available in either a one- or multiple-day format. Prices start at $NZ1200 for two people. Bookings: Ahipara Luxury Travel, Auckland: +64 9 446 6025; www.ahipara.com.  Air New Zealand has regular flights from Sydney to Taupo, via Auckland. Return economy fares from $641. Reservations: 13 24 76 www.airnewzealand.com.au


Mark Chipperfield visited Tamau Pa and Taupo courtesy of Ahipara Luxury Travel and Air New Zealand.

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