Otamarakau

Driving from Tauranga towards Whakatane, I was on the lookout for a marae at Otamarakau. The inaugural Te Ata BOP Film forum was being held there.

I’d been told it was after the Pukehina turn-off and before the Pikowai straights. Google Maps struggled and I realised it was going to be near my cousins house, another place I had taken an age to find, travelling back and forth to Whakatane; it too was off the state highway.

As a child living in rural Aka Aka I remember my father would sometimes say he was ‘going out to the wop wops’ to ‘chase a pukeho with a long-handled shovel’ and I knew what he meant.

It’s not about a place being un-signposted, it’s about not being connected to the land well enough to recognise familiar landmarks.

Suddenly there it was - the turn-off to Otamarakau Marae. Well-signposted and leading towards the coast. I stopped at the cattle grate to take in the glistening gold dawn, the sun was lifting over the water. I was early, the gate was locked and as I waited for Tai Rapana to arrive, a gun went off. Duck shooting season had begun.

Tai and his uncle Awhi Rapana pulled up, smiles on their faces, and we continued on, curving down towards the beach. Suddenly, rounding a corner, there it was – the Wharekai at Otamarakau marae.

A stunning, contemporary and coherent piece of architecture, nestled into the hill, waiting for us, it’s laminated curved pine beams giving the appearance of a crab sitting in the sun. I ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’.  

Tai chuckled when I asked him how, why, when did this building arrive here.   

“We had this built three years ago,” says Tai.

“The previous one was a double garage.

“We approached Opus, and Aladina Harunani came down with the first group. They looked at the history of who was here and what we did.

“One of them was Maori and said: ‘well you guys would have had fish traps back then.’”

The curved beams thus represent the frame of a fish trap.

“Aladina presented this design and it worked out the same price as a conventional building.”

Later that evening, Peretini Te Whata, the koeke kaikorero (elder speaker) for the marae smiled when I told him how much I enjoyed the architectural analogy.

“Once it was finished, then people said: ‘this is the food basket.’ We were quite happy with that.

“And the ten beams represent rib cages.

“The name of the house has been dedicated to one of the ancestors, Rua Po Tongo.

“These ten rib cages or beams represent her nine mokopuna (grandchildren) and descendent lines. One of them is her brother.

“When we opened the building, ten mokopuna from within the tribe cut the ribbon at the door.

“The three seaside beams of the building were dedicated to three of the mokopuna, the rear kitchen end was dedicated to another three and the south side was dedicated to another three. That left one at the door – her brother, making up the ten.”

I’ve always longed to have the same affinity that Maori have with the land. Tangata whenua, or the people who live in a place, are closely linked to the surrounding environment. It’s not just a physical thing, but spiritual, mental and social.

Growing up, I’d moved from a Glenbrook dairy farm to an Aka Aka dairy farm to a Tauranga citrus fruit orchard to the Hutt Valley and then back to Tauranga.

In most places I’d buried a cat, left behind memories, and marked door frames showing dates and heights. Turangawaewae, the concept of a place to stand and belong that transcends generations wasn’t something we took with us through the years, although I’d revisited my childhood homes.

The Otamarakau marae “Waitaha-A-Hei” is named after a tupuna (ancestor) Tuhei-o-te-Rangi. It’s the heart of a whole community of people who link back to Rua Po Tongo’s husband Waitaha A Hei.

Waitaha was the son of Hei who came from Hawaiki to Aotearoa in the Arawa canoe, coming ashore at Maketu. I don’t know where all the strands of my family came ashore in NZ.

“What sort of events do you have here?” I ask Tai. The building has a superb kitchen, and I was prepping morning tea with BOP Film’s administrator Kristy Robinson.

“Well tangis take priority over everything,” replied Tai, as he put our dishes through  the steriliser. “When people make bookings, they’re aware of that.”

I thought about that for a minute.

“So, do you contact the older members of the iwi and say ‘don’t die on this day’?”  

He smiled at my dopey question.

“We only average about two funerals a year,” says Tai. “I don’t know how many births.

“Many!”

The hangi was going in to the ground, a train passing below, people gathering, laughing and talking, and above us the sun.

Te Ata means ‘the dawn’ and we were in the perfect place for an inaugural film forum focusing on the dawn of a fulfilling and sustainable screen media industry in the Bay.

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