by Edward Wilkinson Latham

Photography by Marina Dempster

Outpost Magazine #46

New Zealand’s remote Eastland province on the North Island has been the heartland of the country’s Maori peoples for centuries. Driving the spectacular coastal scenery of Highway 35 is a road trip of discovery into their independent ways of connection to the past.

SOMETHING IN THE CAR IS GROWING – or maybe dying. I can’t be sure. We are somewhere on the edge of Whakatu and the odour has been building over the last hour in the scorching New Zealand summer sun. Locating the offending item is not going to be easy. Our car may only be the size of a styrofoam take-away container, but every square inch is crammed with our belongings and our bodies. The air bags are situated somewhere around my testicles and the steering wheel belongs on a sink.

“Get back there and try to find what's making that niff!” I implore my wife Marina.

She looks at me for a second, like a sailor chosen to save the rest of the crew on a leaking nuclear submarine. Bravely she unbuckles and climbs into the back seat. The entire back seat is a heap of miscellaneous items that includes dirty laundry, watermelon rinds, six loose iced cinnamon wheels gathering hair and five bottles of Chardonnay. There would be sea gulls in here if they could fit. Marina bounces from side to side with every corner, difficult to avoid in a country where the roads are as straight as the wires in a bundle of steel wool.

“Hey this is like In-Car Fear Factor,” I shout over the deafening funneled roar of all four windows wound down. I can hear the sound of heaving behind me.

“It’s the cheese!” She holds up a bag of now liquefied New Zealand brie, something we had bought in Wellington some five hundred miles and four un-refrigerated days previous.

OUR WEDGE-SHAPED, YELLOW MICRO CAR momentarily achieves lift-off as we cross a small humped bridge and land on the other side. We motor past a sign: “WELCOME TO EASTLAND – THE WAY NEW ZEALAND USED TO BE.” What’s that supposed to mean? Mullets are the latest hair do? Polyester is still considered a revolutionary fibre? Then, of course, I get it. We haven’t seen a town for miles, let alone a bungalow. It’s as though we are entering an exiled part of a country, an annex where development ground to a halt some years ago. The mountainous, northeast corner of the North Island may represent 10 percent of New Zealand’s landmass but is home to only one percent of its population. There are no large fibreglass kiwis at the side of the road advertising holiday homes and caravan parks. As Eastland is the least visited area of the country’s mainland there are no tour buses the size of apartment blocks. In fact there’s a joke that the only vehicles you see on the road here are maintenance crews.

Most importantly, Eastland is the sacred and much treasured Maori heartland to the Ngati Porou tribe. This land was never appropriated by the crown as the rest of New Zealand was, and thus never developed in the same way. Some outsiders, mainly city slickers wary of these communities, have got it into their heads that Eastland is potentially unfriendly. Locals on the other hand know they have a good thing. They just don’t want everyone to know about it.

A landscape of graduating greens lay before us like a fanned-out colour chart and while hillsides in some areas are stripped bare of trees, naked with their rugged corrugated contours exposed, other parts are heavily wooded and have a virginal and wild appearance. It’s a land sculpted by earthquakes, wind and water, where starkly eroded heights, deep canyons and crashing rivers lend it distinction. This was once the realm of Tawhirimatea, the Maori god of storms whose winds cleansed the spirit, and Tan, the god of the forest, who was never more revered than here.

Highway 35, the road we will use to navigate Eastland’s coast, is chiselled into the land like a moko tattoo – the only passage in or out of the region. Apart from the odd pub and pie shop, the further you travel around this 330km Pacific detour, the fewer the services and amenities. The province’s interior is dominated by the ragged Urewera and Raukumara mountain chains, a twisting vertebrae of earth that runs the length of the North Island, dividing the land like tent poles and isolating the east coast. For Maori, the Eastland’s high point, Mount Hikaranbgi, is the spiritual heart of the country, immortalized in the myth of Maui-Tikitiki-a-Taranga, a god who fished local shores with only a hook and whose canoe subsequently came to rest on the peak of the mountain.

The people who live by the ocean are known as “coasties,” a testament to a way of life that is more wild and untamed than that of its neighbours, epitomized by the sight of men on horses, packs of dogs and the nervous sheep they herd. Maori culture is evident in every small settlement you pass along this road, with ornately carved maraes (meeting houses) and children riding bareback on ponies.

A number of legendary big surf beaches line this part of the coast. Retired caravans put out to stud can be seen not far from the thundering waves; dilapidated, they function as rough overnight cabañas for the surfers and stand like aging monuments, slowly corroding with moss and algae.

It’s not long before we meet Eastland’s most numerous residents – sheep. A Land Rover has pulled over on the side of the road and in the back six barking dogs loudly inform their handler that they are the guys for the job. On the road is an entire regiment of sheep out for a paranoid march. Before I know it the car is surrounded by the wooly brutes, which attempt to hump the hatchback and leap over the bonnet. We grind to a halt, unable to retreat or make any ground.

“It’s the car. They probably think we’re one of them,” laughs Marina and she opens the window.

“No!” I shout, but it’s too late. One of the furry fiends pokes his head in the car, faces Marina eye to eye and lets out a foul smelling bleat. Marina bends over and screams in disgust, blindly groping around in desperation for anything to wipe the sheep spittle from her face.

“Not my sleeve woman,” I say. But my protest is useless. Shirt sleeve it is.

As the sheep try to join us in the car, a rancher on his horse, some way up the road, sees the roof of our little yellow car over run with sheep. He musters his steed and gallops to our rescue, three eager dogs following at his heels. Arriving along side the car he yells at me to drive forward.

“Gone on! Get right up their arses mate. Go on! And do up your bloody windows. They’ll get it.”

“I know, I know,” I say. He continues shouting and waving frantically with his free arm while the other hand draws back on the horse’s reins. The sheep kick their back legs against the car in protest. The horseman whistles and the dogs fly into action, nipping at the legs of mob. Finally we are able to nudge our way through.

“I think I’ve got foot and mouth”, cries Marina.

I guess this is the way New Zealand used to be.

WHILE SHEEP ARE AN INTEGRAL part of the country’s economy, horses are highly regarded on the east coast as ideal transport for the terrain. Ngati horses are what mustangs are to the American West, what Brumbies are to Australia. Wild tempered, many still roam free in Eastland and the men who once tamed and rode these beautiful animals are famed in New Zealand’s history books. During World War II a contingent of Maori soldiers from Eastland, known as “The Cowboys,” earned a fearless reputation as outstanding members of the Maori Battalions.

The soldier most revered by the Maori is Lieutenant Moana-nui-a-Kiwa Ngarimu of the Eastland Ngati Porou, whose heroism and ultimate sacrifice were acknowledged by the highest military award the British Commonwealth could bestow: the Victoria Cross. While fighting at Tebaga Gap in Tunisia in 1943, 2nd Lieut. Ngarimu led his men in to the face of fierce German defences, personally destroying two enemy machine gun posts. Wounded, he fought with gun, bayonet, grenade and eventually with stones. He was finally killed just after dawn, on his feet, fighting off the enemy at the forward-most point of the battle. In many of the small, largely Maori communities on the coast, the memory of Ngati Porou soldiers who have served and died in conflicts from WWI to Vietnam are woven into tribal histories and ancestral mythologies. This is a land of brave warriors who never forget.

Today some have traded their horses in for iron ones, as we discover at a roadside pub swamped with weekend bikers eager for refreshment. Despite their menacing appearance and remarks about the large lens on Marina’s camera, they seem to be quite friendly as we sidle past them beaming idiotic smiles. “Nice car,” says a voice. I turn around to see a large man with arms the size of my thighs. On one arm is tattooed “I’d rather see my sister in a whore house that my brother on a Jap bike.” On the other there’s a depiction of laughing leprechaun holding a pint surrounded by a large Maori tribal design of twisting fern leaves.

“Thanks a lot,” I say, in a voice higher-pitched voice than I am normally the owner of and push Marina inside.

The walls and carpet of the pub’s interior are stained with nicotine and good times. A stocky barman with eight gold rings across his fingers struggles under the siege of black leather at the bar.

“What’s that? Six pints of Speights and a what?” The barman screams over the noise.

“Grapefruit Juice,” wheezes a gaunt, grey-haired biker. “It’s for the wife.” He looks like a candidate for one of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, but is probably a successful dentist. The lardy pies, pickled eggs and porky scratchings have already been consumed by this mongrel bunch of road warriors, and as our prospects of getting the barman’s attention seem slim, we decide to press on. Outside, we raise fists in salute and bid farewell to the tattooed two-wheeler fraternity. We climb inside our motorized wedge of cheddar and 20 bikers watch in ridicule as I reverse (with beeping recognition on) out of the car park and then stamp on the gas, failing miserably to leave them in a cloud of dust and gravel.

THE PACIFIC HIGHWAY WAS OFFICIALLY DESIGNATED and paved in the 1970’s and yet many sections seem to revert back to gravel, perhaps to remind us just how good we have it now. The near continuous succession of undulating turns and switchbacks keeps me entertained in the long stretches between encounters with local drivers, who seem to navigate this road like they have set fire to their hair. There’s a saying here, “You can get your kicks on Route 66, bit if you want to feel alive, try 35.” That bit about being alive may refer as much to the splendours of the scenery, as it does the adrenalin-inducing traffic.

With no signage and no one on the road to ask for directions, it takes us a while to find the turn off for Whangara. This tiny coastal village is best known for its place in Maori mythology as the beach where in the eighth century Paikea, the original ancestor of the Maori, first arrived in Aotearoa – the “land of the long white cloud,” eventually to be known as New Zealand. According to legend, he was riding the back of a whale.

The story was inspiration for the novel Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera, about a Maori girl, her grandfather and the legend of their ancestors, which was later translated into an internationally successful film directed by Niki Caro. The village is a collection of 20 or so buildings with corrugated metal roofs, built overlooking an arching sandy bay and the mighty grey-blue Pacific. Quiet and empty, Whangara’s bay is dotted with boats in varying states of disrepair. Wild flowers blow in the sea wind along the fringes of Whalers Road and a retired bus named “Basil” lays waiting for attention in someone’s garden. At his home we meet Hone Taumaunu, otherwise known as Uncle John, a Ngati elder and cultural consultant to Whale Rider. He’s proud of the film and the empowering effect it has had on young Maoris, and the fact that Whangara has since become a window onto Maori culture and tradition. Taumaunu has known Ihimaera since the novelist was a boy, and says that his love of Whangara was the real inspiration point for Whale Rider.

“He lived in Gisborne,” Taumaunu tells us, “but he used to bicycle up the 35 to our marae and stay in the meeting house. There I used to tell him the sea mythologies of the local Ngati.”

The film’s popularity has thrust sleepy Whangara from obscurity into an unexpected limelight. Shortly after its release smatterings of unexpected tourists descended on the village, snapping photographs and walking into people’s houses uninvited. The tiny population of roughly 20 was naturally offended, despite having already lived through its filming and even starring in the movie themselves. Taumaunu, a scholar and retired teacher of English literature, decided with his son to start small tours of his village, guiding the curious to the film’s locations and speaking about the history and mythology of the place. It’s an open road and nothing prevents anyone from just turning up, but Taumaunu naturally would like to remind visitors that this is a living community, not a film set. “The tour can help to make people more respectful and aware of our traditions,” he says. “Otherwise, how else can Maori ways be imparted to outsiders?”

We take off our shoes and Taumaunu invites us into the marae, where the carving of Paikea on the back of the whale guards the entrance. Inside, beautifully woven flax panels and skilfully carved gods representing ancestors decorate the walls.

“The Ngati Konohi are deeply involved with our sea mythology”, Taumaunu says. “Paikea, our was an off spring of Tangaroa, the great god of the ocean. Once the entire planet was water through which their ancestors moved.”

Other Maori ancestors would follow with shoals of fish, or by bird, and even on a rainbow. But Paikea was a demi-god, able to change his form and appearance. Sometimes he would ride on the back of the whale, sometimes he would become the whale. When he arrived in Aotearoa, he generated the future generations of Maori. Before we leave the marae Taumaunu sings a chant dedicated to Paikea's journey and his sea mother – the whale who helped him in his epic journey.

Outside the lawn rolls down to the beach and a large rocky outcrop near the shore. The two-humped outcrop is believed to be the fossilized remnants of the whale that brought Paikea to these shores. The beach is littered with debris from a storm, but thankfully no stranded whales. Instead, the sea spray from the crashing waves wafts over the houses and rose bushes of the quiet village.

IT IS SAID THAT HIGHWAY 35 IS NOT JUST A ROAD, but a way of life. It’s a route that has connected the east coast Maori with the rest of the world. Ihimaera once wrote, “Before the road was tar-sealed half of the dust I’ve ever eaten came from that highway.”

The opening of the sealed, or paved, road coincided with the emergence of the Maori civil rights movement in the 1970s. Many Maori began to learn and speak their language for the first time. One surprising voice of inspiration came from Bob Marley whose tour of New Zealand in 1979 had a profound effect on the Maori youth. His music found its way up and down the 35 and drifted through the poor neighborhoods of Eastland. His influence amalgamated with a strange form of Christianity called Ringatu founded by the prophet Te Kooti Rikirangi Te Turuki around 1860's. From his reading of the Bible, Te Kooti saw himself as a Hebrew-style prophet and, like Moses, sought to lead his people to liberation under the direction of Jehovah. With 200 warriors he waged a fearsome guerilla war against government troops and became the target for the biggest man hunt in New Zealand history. Today this Rastafarian-Christian Maori sect exists in an around Routoria. They see themselves as knights between crusades, a sort of ganja-inspired Once Were Warriors sect who believe they are a lost tribe of Israel. Many wear full-face moko tattoos and have red green and gold flags, lions of Judah, swords, shield and scrolls etched on their bodies – the tattooing process a ritual pain that reminds them that their life is engaged in a holy war. In the mid ’90s trouble with police erupted that resulted in 27 charges of arson being laid. Today they are trying to make new start and prefer to be known as the “Rainbow People.”

A few bruised clouds float over us and out to sea as we arrive later that afternoon at Anaura Bay. We follow the shingled track road around to the north end of the beach. Rangimarie Beachstay is a comfortable and peaceful retreat located below hills covered in thick dense bush, overlooking long golden sands and crashing surf. A small and attractive lodge, it attracts those who want to get away from it all. Not that difficult to do in New Zealand, but here it seems even more wild and virginal, like you had stepped off a boat 200 years ago, faced with an unmapped country. June, a former chef and food writer, and retired yachtsman husband Frank, run this peaceful little spot. “He was once a much respected yachtsman,” June says of her mate, “although you’d never guess it to look at him now. Don’t worry he cant hear us.” I look over to see a large man in his late 50s wearing a floppy hat trimming the grass whilst wearing a pair of flip-flops.

“See what I mean.”

Marina and I race down to the beach for a closer look, leaping across the rocks like children to hunt for crabs in rock pools. After a while rain starts to pelt us in warm sheets, but rather than run we enjoy the long walk back.

I awake the following morning startled, having forgotten that we had set the alarm clock for six to watch the sunrise. We stagger down to the beach with a cup of tea and watch rays of milky light illuminating the waking sea. The tide is coming in and we follow the water line along the beach for a while, inspecting shells and watching sea birds with bright legs and long bills digging in the sand for a morning snack. On a green bluff above the beach a flock of sheep corralled in a small pasture watch me suspiciously, huddled around a caravan as though each was waiting for a turn inside.

A small island off shore is slowly revealed by the morning sun. Motuoroi Island was once the home of Maori artisans who perfected the art of working greenstone, using the tide and rocks to shape the hard jade into weapons and jewelry. Much of the bay is now a reservation and covers 225 hectares of steep bush and ridges covered in scrub. We find a track and decide to explore its ascent through the coastal forest. The tops of large ferns and grandfather trees grow undisturbed on the slopes along the narrow path and I look down through the branches to the rocks and crashing waves below. Once we reach the high ground we traverse the backbone of a ridge overlooking pine-clad valleys with panoramic views. In the distance stands Mount Hikurangi, at 1,754 metres the highest in the Ruakumara Range. After sitting in silence for awhile, the wildlife starts up again and a number of native birds such as tui and kaka parrots, warmed by the morning sun, call out from the high branches. Their complex songs waft over me and down the descending wooded slopes.

BACK ON THE ROAD THE CAR STARTS TO DRINK HEAVILY with all the cornering I ask it to do, and for 20 kilometres the thing runs on fumes. Finally we celebrate our arrival at what would have passed for a modern gas station 40 years ago. The attendant is a middle-aged man with tuft of unruly thick grey hair, dressed in blue oil-stained coveralls. He refers to unleaded petrol as “new fangled stuff” and fills the tank, examining the car.

“So that’s what passes as a car in the city these days is it?” he asks. “Looks like it should run off of batteries.”

“A Rental,” I tell him. “We’re touring the east coast.”

“Ah, tourists are you? Thought you might be Jafas.” The rural acronym for Just Another Fucking Aucklander.

“Well, you want to visit the East Cape, just off the road at Te Araroa. My mate used to run the lighthouse out there.”

“How far is that?” I ask as I start the engine.

“Not sure. Last time I went I rode my horse, across the country. More reliable than these bloody cars, eh?” He laughs as he wipes his hands on an oily rag and nods me a farewell. He disappears into a dark office shed beside the mechanics garage, the screen door screeching shut behind him. Attached to the door I see hand drawn sign proclaiming “Ngati win Te Matatini.”

For the next hour Marina and I enthusiastically remember our visit last week to the Te Matatini Festival, a four-day national kapa haka Maori competition and arts festival drawing performance groups from throughout the country and neighboring Pacific islands. Thirty groups had descended upon Palmerston North to compete in waiata (song), haka (dance), and poi (a dance using balls on strings). Te Matatini, which means “many faces,” attracts 20,000 people per day to experience Maori drama, storytelling, dance, music, carving, weaving and tattooing workshops, and a large marketplace.

During the haka competition, the emotional crowd often replied with impromptu hakas of their own, the entire stadium filled with a high-voltage surge of pride. Friends and acquaintances met and touched noses, a traditional greeting known as hongi. Backstage, while some schoolgirls excitedly posed for photographs. A group from the Marques Islands arranged the flowers in their long thick hair and practiced blowing through large conch shells before their turn on stage. I had the honour of meeting Dr. Pita Sharples, leader of the Mana Taki group and co-leader of New Zealand’s increasingly popular Maori Party. A much-respected mediator, he promotes the importance of Maori knowledge along side pakeha (non-Maori) and is founder and board member to many organizations promoting unity and education.

Sharples told us how his group’s performance is a based on the histories of Maori’s warrior society, but like many martial arts there is a non-violent spiritual goal for those who practice today. “It is a method,” he explains. “And like the rest of the performances, it aids Maori people to reconnect to their culture and keep their spirit alive. Maori culture is like a fan-tailed bird making its way in a Pakeha world.”

A shrill cry came from the 20 or more women on stage. I peered through a gap behind the stage to glimpse them singing, their lips and chins tattooed blue. A line of men with spears and jade axes tucked in their waistbands came forward, their entire bodies covered in both authentic and painted tattoos. They cry back in response to the women’s invitations and twirl their sticks in the air in unison before pounding them on the floor, letting out a guttural roar. Each performance is an exhilarating spectacle, each group representing their regional community and ancestors with roaring emotion and pride. We had departed the festival before finding out which region’s team had won. And now, up in Eastland, we had found ourselves at their home.

AT TE ARAROA, THE SEALED HIGHWAY ENDS and we detour on a shingled road toward New Zealand’s easternmost point. The car churns up great clouds of grey dust behind us, but before us a spectacular coastal vista appears as thundering waves crash only metres away. To our right, a curtain of lush green forest that covers the steep craggy mountains descends into green pastures and we are met abruptly with white sand dunes sparsely covered with fronds of grass. Wild horses gallop freely across the fields and beaches and wind swept Cyprus trees and shrubs face defiant toward the open ocean. Only a few well-kept wooden houses line this stunning and lonely stretch of coastline, attached to small paddocks and gardens dutifully tended. We stop and decide to go for a swim, but the fresh temperature of the ocean forces us into more of a reluctant paddle.

We continue walking along the gravel road as a seven hundred step hike leads us up a track through forest, to a gusty promontory, where the East Cape lighthouse overlooks a tabletop blue pacific like a triumphant chess piece. After some lunch, securing my hat with one hand and hoisting my sandwich with the other, we descend to the base of the hill and watch a group of wild horses cavorting in a field. A man with curly black hair roars up to us on his quad bike, a sheep dog sitting behind him for the ride. Ira is a cattle farmer who bought the land and old keeper’s house from the government when the lighthouse was converted to automatic.

“The keeper lived here with his wife,” Ira says, “and used to have to hike up that hill twice a day to operate it. Now it’s all computerized with the flick of a switch in Wellington.”

Ira is originally from Gisborne and worked abroad in Europe as a young man before returning to farm in Eastland. His farm’s large acreage allows the cattle to graze and be herded from the highlands to the coast, using either horses or quad bikes, depending on terrain and season. I ask him about the isolation here. He grins. “Indeed I do feel it from time to time,” he says. So much so that Ira will be hanging up his farmer’s boots for awhile and returning to Gisborne, while his brother takes over operations. But he knows he will back up the 35 before too long.

“Have you ever tamed any of those?” I point to the horses looking at us inquisitively over the fence. “A few,” he says. “They’re beautiful creatures. Individuals every one of them, and friendly too. That is until you try and put a bridle or saddle on them, then they get mad. They’re tough to tame, but I keep them because I like to look at them. They’re wild spirits.”

AT TIMES THE ONLY CLUE that we are still in the 21st century is the road itself. At Raukokore we pull over outside an 18th century white wooden church, reminiscent of a North American pioneer scene, hemmed in by a white picket fence on a low-lying point only a few metres from the sea. On the same beach sits an old rusting bus, advertised in hand-painted letters as the “Sovereign Land Owners Embassy.” A painting of a Maori warrior with a facial moko compliments the title and the entire vehicle is fenced in with found driftwood. The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between the British Crown and Maori New Zealand in 1840 made little impression on the people of this area. Many people do not acknowledge it today in Eastland and such roadside exhibits are a proud example of the independence Maori feel here. I catch site of an elderly man cycling towards us, crouched over his handlebars as his legs spin rapidly in low gear. I walk over to him, but he seems a little shy, wondering why I might be interested in him. After exchanging pleasantries and notes on the weather, I ask him about the bus. He looks at it, nods and rubs a hand over his tanned papery skin. “Toitu Te Whenua,” he says.

“What does that mean?” I ask.

“It means, the land remains forever,” he says, offering a smile and a nod goodbye. He gets back on the road and once he picks up enough speed, removes his feet from the pedals and freewheels around the bend and out of sight, bathed in the afternoon sunlight.

Edward Wilkinson-Latham is an Associate Editor of Outpost. His article on New Zealand’s Stewart Island, “Point Me South,” appeared in Outpost 39. Wilkinson-Latham was recently nominated for a National Magazine Award for “A Walk on the Weird Side” (Outpost 42), a piece about crop circle makers in Wiltshire, England.

Marina Dempster is a Toronto based photogrpaher and artist and a frequent contributor to Outpost. Her images of Chile accompanied the article "Moon Walk". For more information about her work visit www.marinadempster.com.