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Story: Te Urewera - A Land of its Own Pt. 1

Te Urewera has always enthralled me. The history and isolation alone are enough to draw in anyone searching to get off the grid. But, be warned: Te Urewera deserves - and should be treated with - the utmost respect. The land and its tanata whenua are relentless. The iwi, Tūhoe, has a philosophy of mana motuhake (self-determination). I saddled up and was eager to explore this remote part of Aotearoa.

The Area: For centuries, Te Urewera has been home to the Tūhoe people, or 'Children of the Mist', in reference to the legend that they are the offspring of Hine-puhoku-rangi, the celestial mist maiden. Tūhoe traditions are strong and their links with this land run deep; they have been an enigma to outsiders for 150 years. As you enter Te Urewera you can sense the ghosts of an unquiet past. It was confiscated by the Crown in 1866 through a combination of punitive zealotry and bureaucratic ineptitude. Even when the mistake was realised—that the wrong tribe had been punished—the evil was compounded in that the land was never returned. Tūhoe, it should be noted, did not sign the Treaty of Waitani - the iwi was not given the opportunity. But, because the Crown undertook treaty obligations to all Maori when it proclaimed sovereignty in 1840, Tūhoe’s grievances fall within the tribunal’s remit.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, starvation was a brutal weapon in the government’s arsenal. The phrase ‘scorched earth’ is almost too familiar to the modern mind to capture the terror of what it meant to those upon whom it was visited. Yet it was carried out with relish. The Crown came in and destroyed potato crops and broke down fences surrounding the garden, so that wild pigs would root up the entire crop. What the pigs didn’t eat, the frost would spoil. At Lake Waikaremoana, the officer in charge of the expeditionary force gloated that his men had destroyed a quantity of potatoes that would have fed 1000 men for 15 months.

In recent times, Tāmati Kruger was Tūhoe’s chief negotiator leading up to the iwi’s 2013 settlement with the Crown, and the landmark Te Urewera Act 2014 — world-leading legislation which declared the Tūhoe homeland a legal entity in its own right. Not owned by anyone, but “with its own mana and mauri” and, “an identity, in and of itself, inspiring people to commit to its care”. The agreement transferred management of the former Urewera National Park to a new entity, Te Urewera, run jointly by the Crown and Tūhoe.

For Tūhoe, this sense of blood relation to the land is not metaphorical, it is real. One of their great ancestors, Potiki-Tiketike, was born from the union of mountains and mist. He sprang directly from the land, and because of him all Tūhoe trace their ancestral links to the land. When Tūhoe call themselves ‘children of the mist’, they are not making a poetic statement about a romanticised past, but declaring Te Urewera to be indispensable to their sense of identity. “We are this land and we are the face of the land,” Tamati Kruger told the Waitangi Tribunal. “Wherever those mountains come from, that’s where we come from. Wherever the mist emerges from and disappears to, that’s where we come from.”

The history is devastating and requires a stomach for tragedy. The more I learn about the atrocities, the more I understand the battle of Tūhoe. It makes me feel some resentment towards times gone by. It always captures me, every time I research Te Urewera. I tend to learn more when I’m on the ground riding in these places – I need to ‘feel’ the land and its people. I always come away with a better understanding and then get caught up with looking into the history of an area. For me, the bike helps me connect with the land and it’s then I find out more about our beloved country and its (often) rocky past. In this article, I can’t highlight all of the history and stories of Te Urewera, but I ask you to do your own research. And, if you are in the region, connect with the people – they are warm, welcoming and will always invite you in for a korero and tea.

The Plan: There’s a sense of escapism that makes me continue to search far and wide for remote riding terrain. And, as my desire - or rather addiction - to get deeper pulls me, often one day is not long enough. I’ve found bikepacking the best way to experience these far-flung places; staying a few nights can often feel like a lifetime. And this way, you get to take in way more of the region. This would be an out and back, the sheer isolation and severe mountainous terrain of the region doesn’t easily allow for a loop, and, I only had a few days to spare. For those inclined, you could loop it in around four to five days depending on where you start from. On this occasion, however, my plan was to ride in and out of Waikaremoana. I would start in Ruatahuna and ride to Waikaremoana, then return back to Ruatahuna the next day. The mileage isn’t huge on paper, but I like to take my time, take in the scenery and enjoy the adventure, rather than racing from A to B. Not to mention, this allows more exploration on the ride, without the constrictions of time.

The Weather: Some initial email correspondence with the kind lady at Te Urewera Visitor Centre revealed the following: “Please keep an eye on the weather, it is not shy to snow here, and the wind can pick up beautifully”. It was the middle of winter - but snow, really?! The elevation, proximity to the central plateau and the fact that our weather systems can offer anything on any given day meant I needed to be prepared. Exploring these places is enthralling but doesn’t allow for error, so I got my pack list dialled.


Words: Liam Friary

Images: Cameron Mackenzie

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