It was still light when Bill Matthews, looking more like a sheep rancher than a Maori sage and storyteller in his black oilskin duster and work boots, picked me up at the Copthorne Hokianga Hotel on New Zealand’s northwest coast.
By the time he stopped the SUV at a dizzying height above Hokianga Harbour, the sun was beginning to slide into the sea. Matthews killed the engine, we got out and he swept his arm to encompass the platinum mirror of the bay below.
“A thousand years ago, the great chief of the mythical land of Hawaiki set out in pursuit of a giant wheke, or octopus…” he began. The chief, Kupe, eventually vanquished the octopus and discovered a new land called Aotearoa, “land of long white cloud.” He departed from the very bay below but vowed to return, which he did. His descendants, the Maori, have populated Aotearoa ever since.
In the liquid subtropical twilight, it wasn’t hard to imagine the carved red waka (canoes) drifting to the beaches below, their wide-eyed passengers overwhelmed by the wild lushness of their new home. But this lookout wasn’t our destination, and the story of the coming of the Maori to New Zealand was just a prologue.
At the verge of the fabled Waipoua Forest, a primeval rainforest and sanctuary for the vast native Kauri trees, the last light filtered through the silver ferns, symbol of New Zealand and as big as rooftops. After cleaning our shoes to prevent introducing any plant diseases, we ducked into the underbrush. Matthews, walking several feet ahead of me, began a low chanting prayer to greet the ancient gods.
It’s not surprising, really, that the misty ranges, bubbling hot springs and vast forests that were such inherently sacred sites for the Maori have, in more recent years, inspired and attracted pilgrims of all spiritual stripes.
Lonely Planet’s guide to “experiences of a lifetime”—Lonely Planet Code Green—includes Footprints Waipoua, for which Matthews acts as guide, as one of its 82 most life-changing experiences in the world.
Before we met Te Matua Ngahere, Father of the Forest, Matthews asked me to stop while he chanted a blessing. As if summoned, a light rain began, silencing the cries of the kiwi and tui birds that had been keeping us company.
“ You are a seed. Even though you are small, you have value.”
Then there was the tree itself: 3,000 years old, 52 feet/16 metres around and as wise and silent as a vast monk. The Maori believe that the giant trunks of the Kauri trees hold up the sky and, indeed, Te Matua Ngahere gleamed like a temple. We watched and waited in silence as the rain filtered through the ferns.
Bianca Ranson started her company, Potiki Adventures, in 2004, partly because “I was having trouble finding work that allowed me to live my values as a Maori person,” she told me as she introduced me to Waiheke Island just off of Auckland. After a five-year high school unit of total-immersion Maori and a further year in an intensive Maori outdoor-skills course, Ranson decided she wanted to work with young Maori to re-acquaint them with aspects of traditional culture.
A benefactor suggested she also give visitors a taste of New Zealand from a Maori perspective. Many awards later, she is still imparting Maori traditions to Maori youth and giving Pakeha hands-on experience of Maori activities, perspectives and spirituality. Guests stay in the Marae, a traditional ancestral meeting-house, visit historical pa (power) sites and participate in activities such as ax- weaving, poi-making and mau rakau (martial arts).
“The name for afterbirth in Maori is whenua,” Ranson said in a TEDx Waiheke presentation. “The name for land is [also] whenua. It shows the direct connection between us and the land.”
In fact, according to traditional Maori belief, the land was Papatuanuku, the earth mother; Ranginui was the sky father. In the beginning, “Papa and Rangi” weren’t separated but clung tightly together, shutting out all light and making it impossible for their six sons to see. The sons squabbled among themselves about how they might separate their parents. Finally, Tane Mahuta, Lord of the Forest, New Zealand’s largest known living Kauri tree, braced his head against the earth and pushed mightily against the sky with his feet until the two parents were pushed far apart, light flooded in and the humans they had parented were revealed.
Tane Mahuta still dwells in Waipoua Forest, and I was on my way to meet him.
After Matthews and I offered a final prayer to Te Matua Ngahere, we followed the forest path in silence until he asked me to stop once again while he chanted a greeting. Ahead, Tane Mahuta stood in a clearing. Standing at nearly 170 feet/52 metres and with his head lost in the night sky, he wasn’t hard to imagine as an ancient creative force. Although the rain had stopped, the forest was quiet. Matthews drew a piece of hardened resin from his pocket and lit it with a lighter while he said another prayer. The forest seemed to let out a sigh as Matthews extinguished the smoldering resin and handed it to me. But he had one more gift. He leaned over, felt the ground for a kauri seed and presented it to me with a traditional ancient Maori message: “You are a seed. Even though you are small, you have value.”