Nine postcards from the Great Bay of Hei
When the Endeavour sailed down the Bay of Plenty toward Te Whanganui-A-Hei -the Great Bay of Hei - in November 1769, Joseph Banks told his captain that the cultivations and 'towns' they observed must be part of the domain of the 'King' of some great southern continent. James Cook was sceptical, but nonetheless remarked on the size and apparent prosperity of the settlements he was sailing past.
On November the third the Endeavour sailed beyond the western end of the Bay of Plenty, and passed close to the islands Cook named the Court of Aldermen, after the assemblies of learned and frequently aged gentlemen which pondered minor legal cases in the towns and villages of the old country. To the surprise of the Endeavour's crew, a few dug-out canoes emerged from the maze of perpendicular rocks and approached their mighty ship. The waka were small and unadorned, and their owners were almost naked; nevertheless, Banks recorded, these 'few despicable gentry sang their song of defiance and promised us heartily as the most respectable of their countrymen that they would kill us all'. The Endeavour soon sailed off, leaving the Aldermen to the enormous condescension of history.
Over the past couple of decades scholars have lavished attention on the synthetic region they call 'remote island Polynesia': they have camped for weeks in the windy fragile forests of Henderson Island, a remote outlier of super-remote Pitcairn Island, and ventured past icebergs to the Auckland Islands, hundreds of kilometres south of Fouveaux Strait, and braved ten foot waves to crash land dinghies on the ledge-like beach of 'Ata, the reefless island that sits in the vast tract of ocean separating New Zealand from Tonga. The cataloguing and analysis of remote sites has been seen as the logical next step in Polynesian archaeology, now that digs have been executed and culture sequences established in large and important islands. But island groups like the Aldermen, which are neither close-at-hand nor remote, have sometimes ignored by scholars. Perhaps they constitute a new sort of archaeological frontier.
In 1972 the University of Auckland Field Club attempted a preliminary archaeological survey of the Aldermen. Although club members spent ten days in the group they were confined to a single islet, Ruamahua-Iti. Twenty-seven years later, Graham Ussler expanded on the work of the Field Club when he passed fourteen days on Ruamahua-Iti and its western neighbour, Hongiora. In the report on his expedition, Ussler says that he spent most of his time on the islets studying 'tuatara population dynamics', but that he continually came across human artefacts and ancient habitation sites during his lizard-hunting. On Hongiora Ussler found a three metre high 'rock retaining wall'; on Ruamahua-Iti he scrambled over terraces and around kumara pits. Ussler found 'rounded, smooth stones' beside streams, and adzes on eroding ridges. Noting that the 'pre-European history of the Aldermen is poorly documented', Ussler lamented the damage that burrowing petrels were doing to earthworks on Ruamahua-Iti and Hongiora.
Bracken At the northern end of Hahei Beach a series of signs advertise the walking track that goes further north along the coast to the famous Cathedral Cove. As we drove in yesterday I spotted a party of tourists - elongated, albino-blonde Scandinavians, and bulbous Americans, whose beltbags seemed to have grown naturally out of the folds of their bellies - getting ready to set out down the coast. From a distance, their preparations bore an odd resemblance to religious ritual: a guide stood at the head of the group, reading solemnly from a copy of Lonely Planet as bulky as a Bible; one of the Scandinavians smeared sunscreen on her bony shoulders in two quick motions, so that it looked like she was crossing herself. Te Pare Point Historic Reserve can easily be reached from the southern end of Hahei Beach, but few tourists follow its trails to the ancient Ngati Hei fortresses of Hereheretaura and Hahei. From the beach the terraces of each pa can be seen clearly, but hip-high grass and cultivations of gorse mean that the earthworks are hard to examine up close. When I find a kumara pit near the summit of Hahei pa I nearly whoop in delight. At the bottom of the pit bracken puts out its tough tendrils.
Bracken poses both taxonomic and political difficulties for botanists: the species, which is technically a fern but has much more in common with various hardy shrubs, is undeniably indigenous, and has pushed its way into most Kiwi ecosystems, but its success has come at the expense of other natives. Maori ate the roots of bracken, and discovered that the plant grew prolifically on land disfigured by fire. They routinely used fire to clear forests and thereby cultivate bracken. Archaeologists are perhaps more fond of bracken than botanists. Like taro, the plant can be considered a 'living fossil', a legacy and record of ancient human occupation.
My niece Isabel stands on the beach. Isabel is nearly one, which means that she can stand long enough to wriggle her toes in the sand, and has hair long enough for the wind to blow about. While the adults labour to defend a sandcastle from the weather, scooping out moat walls that erode instantly, and patting down the pillars and archways of a tower that the wind wants to crumble, Isabel stands and stares out to sea, past the fanged cave mouths of Goat Island, towards a mass of low cloud on the horizon.
I take a break from the abstract sculpture I am making from driftwood and seaweed on the far side of the moat, and walk through the wind to the little girl. She is speaking - to herself, or to some one or thing I cannnot see? - in a voice as beautiful and incomprehensible and repetitive as the waves which break near her feet. Isabel's father has noticed her using the word 'gook', which he takes to be not an old-fashioned piece of racist abuse but a fusion of 'look' and 'good'. The rest of her vocabulary is a mystery. If we could understand her words would we find that they were shaped into phrases, clauses, sentences? Could we analyse her syntax, write a guide to her grammar?
We drive down the coast to Whangamata, where an old friend of Skyler's is staying with her baby daughter in a bach. Isabel and Arabella crawl toward each other over a worn sand-coloured carpet, then sit back on their heels and exchange giggles and grunts and whispers. Each nods her head occasionally, as if to reiterate a point. I decide that that all infants share a language, a sort of secret, infinitely flexible Esperanto, which they use to complain and gloat and plot under the noses of adults.
Coromandel Coast In the decades after World War Two primitive technology and prohibitive fares meant that international air travel was the preserve of wealthy Kiwis. During the same period, cars became affordable for many Kiwi families. Soon oil companies and a fledgling tourism industry were urging New Zealanders to take to the open road and explore their own country. Dozens of guidebooks were produced, in an attempt to direct the traffic that issued from cities and towns on long weekends and at the end of December. The 1973 Shell Guide to New Zealand, which was written by Maurice Shadbolt and illustrated - the word 'illustrated' scarcely seems appropriate - by Colin McCahon and Doris Lusk stands as perhaps the finest example of the commercially-motivated travel literature of the postwar decades.
Shadbolt's guide, with its novelistic accounts of New Zealand history and its subversive recommendation of Parihaka and Ratana Pa to holidaymakers, was published at about the time that Air New Zealand began to offer relatively cheap flights to Australia, and to Pacific Island destinations ike Rarotonga and Fiji. Soon Kiwis would be going abroad in large numbers, and the local tourism industry would be focusing its propaganda on Britons and Americans and Japanese who had arrived on new-fangled 747s. I lie on Hahei Beach drinking a Lion Brown and reading Coromandel Coast, the book husband and wife team Eugene and Valerie Grayland published in 1965 in an effort to make the peninsula a 'Mecca for tourists and holidaymakers'. The car journey from Auckland to the Coromandel would nowadays be seen as an absurdly mundane subject for a travel writer, but the Graylands are able, at the dawn of the golden age of the motor car, to see it as a small adventure:
Off to Coromandel tomorrow. It was a Saturday night and we had planned it all to the last detail. Go to bed early was the scheme...Once out on the road, our enthusiasm of the night before began to return, and enjoyment of the morning made us wonder why we didn't rise early more often. The number of cars on the motorway, some with caravans or boat trailers, showed us we were not the only people going places...
Unfortunately, the Graylands lacked Maurice Shadbolt's understanding of New Zealand history, not to mention his aversion to cliche. Their book sometimes seems less a guide to the Coromandel than a list of the lazy assumptions of middle class urban Pakeha in the 1960s. For the Graylands, beaches are always 'glorious' and locals are always 'friendly'. Anecdotes from Pakeha publicans or farmers are cited solemnly as historical fact; 'Maoris' are always 'said' to have lived here or there and done this or that, but are never actually confronted and asked about themselves. When the Graylands find some bones - are they even human bones? - on the sandhills at Jackson's Bay they decide - simply to give their narrative a certain exotic 'colour', perhaps? - that they have the remains of an ancient 'cannibal feast' on their hands.
Unlike nearby Whitianga, which has since the 1960s metastasised into an outpost of Auckland's North Shore, or of Australia's Gold Coast, Hahei has not changed unrecognisably since the Graylands visited. But the village's lack of condominiums, marinas, and five-star restaurants does not signify a commitment to egalitarianism. Locals have resisted changes to zoning regulations and proposals for large-scale developments out of a well-founded belief that the small size and traditional appearance of their settlement boosts, in the long run, the value of its sections. Today Hahei, with its carefully maintained impersonation of a postwar Kiwi bach community, is one of the most expensively exclusive places on the whole of the Coromandel. Hahei's holiday camp, which was once a low-key, low-tech example of the egalitarian culture of postwar welfare state New Zealand, has in recent years undergone a 'makeover', so that it is now divided into a series of zones which correspond with the socioeconomic divisions that are a feature of any healthy capitalist society. On the swampy land furthest from the beach there is provision for proletarian campers and caravaners; further east, at the foot of a set of sandhills which block a view of the sea, modestly respectable cabins are available to holidaymakers prepared to pay a little more. A handful of new villas ride the crests of the dunes, offering exclusive views to those willing and able to pay even more. I'm staying in a villa, of course.
Whitianga Rock On the eleventh of November 1769, the Endeavour anchored near the place where the Whitianga River flows into Te Whanganui-A-Hei. Joseph Banks admired the pa site on the south head of the river, reckoning that 'the best engineer in Europe' could not have chosen a better place 'for a small number of men to defend themselves against a greater'. The site was 'strong by nature' and 'made more so by art'.
Banks noticed, though, that the people who had built this impressive pa, as well as the forts down the coast at Hahei, seemed poor, compared to their compatriots in the Bay of Plenty. Their houses and canoes lacked carvings; their clothes lacked feathers. When Cook and friends came ashore and climbed the pa now commonly known as Whitianga Rock the locals explained that another iwi raided Te Whanganui-a-Hei regularly, stealing their harvests and burning their villages. As a small and relatively isolated tribe, Ngati Hei could only survive by retreating to their forts and waiting out the raiders.
In 1818 or 1820 - different dates are given by different historians - attackers from the north almost destroyed Ngati Hei. Armed with muskets, Hongi Hika's Nga Puhi fighters were able to overrun the ancient redoubts and drive Ngati Hei to the forest margins of their coastal rohe. The iwi has never completely recovered from the attack: even today, it has a population of only four hundred. Skyler and I climb Whitianga Rock. With their hundreds of pipi and mussel shells, the middens eroding slowly down each side the ridge we tread look from a distance like strange drifts of snow. The ridge gets narrower, and we notice smooth round holes in its stone: Ngati Hei sunk palisades here, centuries ago. On our right we have a view across the heads to the city of Whitianga; on our left a dead man's trail scrambles down through scrub and over scree to Back Bay, on the south side of the river. The Pakeha millers and traders who took most of the Whitianga area from a depleted Ngati Hei dismantled the walls of this fort, and used the stones to build a kauri boom which still stretches into Back Bay.
Painterly abstraction While waiting for a ferry across the mouth of the Whitianga I take photos of the hull of an old dinghy someone has leant against a cliff. With its abstract swirl of blue, green and silver stains, the hull looks like a canvas by Pat Hanly or Toss Woollaston. Ralph Hotere's greatest work, the 'installation' known as Black Phoenix , was a burnt-out fishing boat left in an art gallery. What if I dragged this dinghy into one of the white rooms of Auckland's dealer galleries and leaned it against a wall?
A group of Japanese women are watching me with the reflexive curiousity of tourists; I wonder whether, if I click away long enough, they might decide that this dinghy must be a notable artefact, something given a sentence or two - a sentence or two which they unaccountably missed - in Lonely Planet, something worth thirty seconds and a photograph.
I find an orange crumbling implement lying near the dinghy, and wander over to show it to Isabel's father, who is dangling his legs off Whitianga's antique stone wharf.
"Check out this thing. Doesn't it look like an octopus turned to iron?"
"Not iron. Rust."
"The tentacles that spread from the base - don't you think it looks like an octopus? That's the head, here are the tentacles - "
"It's a sand anchor."
"An anchor? Surely it's too insubstantial to be an anchor?"
"It's not an anchor now. It's rust now. It used to be an anchor."
"But what was it anchoring - a lilo? It's so small - "
"A sand anchor's used when a dinghy or some small boat gets pulled up onto a beach. The spiky end goes in the sand so that the boat doesn't get pulled out when the tide comes in."
"I see. Sorry."
"You're not going to take a photo, are you?"
The Churner Whitianga Museum occupies the shell of a dairy factory built in 1911 over the site of Hukihuki, a palisaded urupa which was established in the sixteenth century and used until the middle of the nineteenth century. Rae Katene is about to retire from her job on the front desk, but her enthusiasm for the museum she has served for many years is not about to decline. "I'll stay involved as a volunteer - I love this place" she tells me, as I write my name in the Visitors Book.
I tell Rae about the only Ngati Hei artefact I have seen: a hollow-eyed, gape-mouthed face carved into a lump of pumice, found on Slipper Island, and displayed at the Waikato museum in Hamilton. Rae grimaces. "I don't like that museum. It's a black museum." I explain that the small rooms, dark walls, spare lighting, and minimal furnishings of the Tainui section of the Waikato museum had seemed to me to give the artefacts displayed there a mysterious power, a power unattainable in the bright open environments of more fashionable institutions like Te Papa.
"Oh, I don't like Te Papa either. They came up here and tried to tell us what to do."
"Are there Ngati Hei artefacts on display here?"
"No. We consulted with the iwi for three or four years and held a space for them, but in the end they decided they couldn't display their taonga on the site of an old burial ground. They are still negotiating their Treaty settlement: when it comes through they may set up their own museum."
"Is it true that Hei himself is buried here?"
"No. Who told you that?"
"A book - a couple called the Graylands - "
"The Graylands are - how can I put this? - not always reliable. Ngati Hei are descended from Kupe and Hei. Kupe came here from Hawaiiki, which many locals take to be the island of Raiatea in French Polynesia. There is a stream which flows into the bay at the northern end of Buffalo Beach, at the edge of town - it's called Taputapuatea, after a temple on Raiatea. The name is ancient. The name is a link. Hei might be buried on a sacred spot at the end of the Coromandel peninsula. But I must show you our butter churner. It's made of kauri. I spent years fighting to keep it here - it was left behind, you see, when the dairy factory closed. Some people wanted to get rid of it - they didn't think it was historic. They didn't think it was remote enough, in time." Rae walks me to the butter churner, which dominates the museum's main room. "No other museum in the world has a kauri wood butter churner displayed in situ" she says proudly. Sitting still and empty, the churner seems somehow out of place in its old home. With its capsule-like shape and its cosy central cavity, the churner looks strangely like one of the Apollo spacecraft which were fired into orbit and later crashed into the sea, in the decades before the advent of the space shuttle. The corner of the room which had been reserved for Ngati Hei is filled with a collection of Melanesian masks and spears: a treat, in a small regional museum. Rae tells me that one of the institution's most popular displays is its model moa. A sign left near the creature's plastic feet urges visitors to SAVE OUR MOA - leave the Emu feathers on the bird!
Buffalo Beach Road I buy a map of Whitianga from the town's Visitor Information Centre, then set out along Buffalo Beach Road in search of Taputapuatea Stream. Buffalo Beach, which runs north from the Whitianga estuary, gets its name from a British merchant navy vessel which ran aground on its sands in 1840. At least one of the two victims of the wreck was buried behind the palisades of Hukihuki.
Whitianga's first hospital stands abandoned on Buffalo Beach Road; its ornate kauri pillars seem sadly incongruous, amidst the steel and glass and concrete of the mansions and luxury apartments which dominate today's waterfront. The hospital is a monument to an egalitarian regional culture which has been eroded by gentrification. It opened in 1898 - long decades before the establishment of a comprehensive welfare state in New Zealand - but it operated according to principles that John A Lee would have recognised. The people of Whitianga paid for the building themselves, and forked out two shillings and sixpence a year in returned for guaranteed free treatment if they fell ill or suffered injury. A few hundred metres past the old hospital I find water emerging from the earth through a rusty iron weir. Is this the venerable and revered Taputapuatea? When, I wonder, did Kupe's stream get redirected underground? How can its demotion from a stream to a drain be reconciled with its name and history? A little further down Buffalo Beach Road, though, I discover that what I saw was only a tributary, and that the main body of Taputapuatea still flows unmolested to the sea. A bridge raises the road above the stream; a sign on the bridge publishes the ancient name.
Huts Walking back from Buffalo Beach towards the ferry landing, I notice a series of huts made from driftwood and seaweed. When he landed close to this spot one evening in November 1769, Cook encountered a group of Maori lying in rough huts. The male members of the group slept with patu and taiaha by their sides, and women and children slept behind them. The group was made up of outsiders, who had come to Te Whanganui-A-Hei to gather bracken roots and shellfish; they feared attack by locals, who might mistake them for raiders. The huts in front of me are tall and narrow; each might shelter a single adult. Standing safely above the high tide mark, they seem to mock the glass and steel buildings on the other side of Buffalo Beach Road.