Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Double vision

[As I prepare Ghost South Road for publication, I've been 'filleting' the chapters by inserting accounts of some of the fascinating people I've met on my journey up and down the road. Here's a passage about my encounter with the remarkable Wiremu Puke.]

The last time I had visited East Hamilton my feet had been aching. Paul Janman and I had met Wiremu Puke at a café here, before beginning the third day of our walk up the Great South Road. Puke was a local. He’d arrived before us and settled behind an enormous bowl of latte. 

Paul and I had walked the twenty-six kilometres from Te Awamutu the day before, arriving in the dusk and rendezvousing with Ian Powell in the bar of Hamilton’s casino, where we’d eased off our shoes and drunk whiskey and cokes, and showed Ian photographs of the empty bottles and used condoms and Warriors caps that fly from passing cars and settle on the road’s grassy margin like driftwood on the beach of a desert island. Now we were hungover, with toothaches in our heels. Puke chuckled as we winced into our seats and ordered Diet Cokes.

Wiremu Puke has double vision. When he looks at the towns and villages of the Waikato he sees, behind and beneath and before their pubs and steeples and war memorial parks, the ancient landmarks of the Tainui people. In an essay he wrote to accompany a collection of photographs of the Waikato by David Cook, Puke imagines travelling in space and in time, to the summit of the sacred maunga of Taupiri centuries before Pakeha landed in Aotearoa, and looks down on the prelapsarian rohe of Tainui. He sees fleets of waka bringing kumara and pounamu up and down the river, swamps seething with guardian-taniwha, palisades sharp as dragon’s teeth protecting smoky kainga. 

For Puke, the past is as real, as palpable, as the present. The Waikato was the Nile of Aotearoa, his essay argues, and Tainui must restore the civilisation that the river nourished and demarcated. 

Puke is an expert on Tainui arboriculture, architecture, carving. He campaigns for the replanting of native trees along the river, for the extirpation of willows and poplars. He cuts pou for kohanga reo. He blesses buildings raised by Tainui’s commercial arm, like that boozy casino on Hamilton’s mainstreet. 


Wiremu Puke had worn a Waikato Chiefs jersey to the cafe. He had the lumpy, artificially elongated nose of an unlucky hooker or prop. He introduced himself by talking about his relatives in Yorkshire, his blood links with Whitby, James Cook’s hometown. ‘I was there a few months ago’ he said. ‘I carved for them. I’ve got connections to both civilisations.’

Paul had begun to talk about our walk, about our obsession with the Great South Road. ‘We want to do what Lord of the Rings did, but in reverse’ he said. ‘We want to document the real history of this place, not plant a fantasy from abroad.’ 

Puke had laughed. ‘Some of my rellies, they look a lot like the creatures in Lord of the Rings. Some of my cousins, you look at them, you think: ogres, trolls.’ 

But then he had grown sombre, and talked about his double vision. ‘The East Hamilton shops, the café where we sit right now, right under our feet – there are caves, and people are buried in those caves. The bones are still there, even though the entrances are buried. It’s the same all over Hamilton. The past is tarsealed over. They think they can forget it.’

Puke’s father was a Maori All Black, and one of the team of negotiators that got Tainui a Treaty settlement in 1994. The son saw his work as a continuation, a consolidation, of what the father had won. ‘It is a slow struggle’ he had told us. ‘One tree at a time. One mind at a time.’

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, October 02, 2017

A reckless scheme

Paul Janman and I went to the University of Auckland's School of Architecture to give a guest lecture a couple of months ago. 
In one of the school's shadowy, open-plan buildings we met with Bill McKay and his students, who were together researching the architecture of the Pacific. I showed the students slides of a series of buildings raised by innovative religious and political movements, like the campus of the 'Atenisi Institute founded by Tongan pro-democracy campaigner Futa Helu, the psychedelic shack of the Seleka Club, Tonga's movement of kava drinking artists, and Fanafo, the utopian village that prophet and politician Jimmy Stevens had his followers hack out of the bush of Espiritu Santo in the years before the independence of Vanuatu.
After the lecture, Paul and I talked with McKay and his students. The teacher explained that he and several of his charges were trying to count and catalogue the churches of Tonga. This seemed to me then, and still seems to me know, a recklessly ambitious task.

Tonga is, after all, the most religious nation on earth, and its galaxy of Christian denominations multiply and divide more quickly than a junior maths champion. This month Bill McKay has published an article in Architecture Now that includes descriptions of one of the most remarkable Tongan churches, the Catholic cathedral of Nuku'alofa. It is marvellous to think that the cathedral's creators, who lacked any formal training in architecture, are gaining new admirers.