I called in to see the Waitangi Day-themed exhibitions at the Historic Village on 17th Avenue, and while walking back to the car I came across Whare Thompson busy at work in the old fire station building.
A carver, he’s also been carving out a significant national reputation retelling historical stories through his craft.
He was in the middle of working on a swamp kauri log, some six metres in length. He pointed out to me the various features of the carving, which was commissioned for the University of Waikato Tauranga site on Durham Street.
“This speaks about local history,” says Whare.
He told me the story of a group of people who once lived at Te Kaha. Apparently their chief, Apanui Ringamutu, often felt like a miserable failure as his men had been beaten so many times in battles. Depressed, their mana was very low, and they had a low opinion of themselves. During another battle retreat, Apanui called out to the tohunga of the enemy tribe Hikawera, who was watching them.
“Aue! Why am I always such a failure as a warrior chief?” asked Apanui.
“That which you seek,” said the tohunga, “will be found by following the setting sun.”
On returning home to his pa, Apanui thought about what the tohunga had said. Finally, he decided that somewhere in the Western Bay of Plenty, in Tauranga Moana, there was someone who could give him the power to succeed, and to really become a toa.
Meanwhile in the pa at Matuaiwi in Tauranga Moana, a tohunga called Kinomoerua was in his kumara patch chanting a karakia to protect the crop from the kumara grub.
He owned a pet tui that could talk, and it followed him wherever he went. The tui called out to him.
“Koka ē! Tahia te marae – Hey Dad, better get the marae ready.”
This was how the tui warned Kinomoerua that visitors were approaching and he needed to get ready to greet them and offer hospitality.
Kinomoerua went back to his Matuaiwi pa and welcomed Apanui.
After speeches, Apanui told Kinomoerua why he had travelled there. Could Kinomoerua tell him how to become a successful toa?
Kinomoerua said nothing, but led his visitor to look out over the harbour towards Rangiwaea and Matakana. As they looked, a bird swooped down out of the sky and dived into the water. It was a kawau, a shag.
Soon the bird reappeared above the water. It opened its mouth and ate the wind. It had failed to catch the fish it had been after. Several times it opened its mouth and achieved nothing.
“See that shag?” asked Kinomoerua. “Don’t you perform like that, Apanui, it gets nothing, and like you, it gets nowhere.”
The pair paddled across the harbour to Maunganui, and beached their canoe alongside Mauao where the rocks guard the entrance to the harbour. They sat on the slope and looked down on the rock called Te Toka a Tirikawa, or North Rock, as it is often called now.
The waves crashed and broke over the rock in succession, over and over again. Each time the rock reappeared as the foaming waves poured off it.
“See that rock?” asked Kinomoerua. “Look on Te Toka a Tirikawa and conduct yourself as it does. Ka ngaro ka ngaro, ka ea ka ea Te Toka a Tirikawa.”
Apanui was greatly encouraged and never forgot the vision of the waves breaking on the rock of Tirikawa. He defeated his enemy Hikawera of Ngati Porou and went on to further victories.
“This carving talks about the trials and tribulations that Apanui experienced,” says Whare, “and the wise words from Kinomoerua telling him he needs to look around him for the answer in his environment.”
Whare points out to me the various designs in his carving. The carving itself is the shape of a Pouwhenua weapon/landmarker. There’s the talking tui, and above it waves crashing on Tirikawa – North Rock. There are wave and koru patterns. As I gaze on the designs I see the story coming to life.
“The university gave me the brief for the carving,” says Whare. “I know the story, but went to Tamati Tata, an elder here, and he filled me in on the deeper meaning behind the story and how Apanui became wiser.
“So the connection between the university and learning is about coming here to Tauranga Moana to gain knowledge and wisdom.”
Whare likes to work alongside local artists, carvers and weavers, and brings them on board some of his projects. He has had the help from a couple of local artists, Pohe and Rikirau Luttenberger, to complete ‘Te Toka a Tirikawa’.
The carving stood at the entrance to the university, was covered until it was blessed on February 20 by local elders.
Meanwhile, Whare will take a break with his family overseas, before returning to start more carvings, this time for The Elms Te Papa Tauranga, the new Farmer’s building on Elizabeth Street, and Tauranga Marina.