Reviving our Awa

By Amokura Panoho

Reading time: 12 minutes

The Waiwhakaiho River (awa) traverses a corridor of 40kms as it meanders from the north eastern side of Mount Taranaki to meet with the Tasman Sea; the river mouth itself is located close to Fitzroy Beach in New Plymouth. Amokura Panoho reflects on her own connections to the river and the importance of maintaining its wairua.

Five generations of our Eriwata whānau have lived at our family papakainga (homestead) that sits on the eastern banks of the Waiwakaiho River, since the early 1920s. It is literally a stone’s throw away from the New Plymouth-Marton railway line.

I know, because I used to throw stones in an attempt to try to hit one of my boy cousins running across the tracks after he pulled a prank on me and my sisters. Though the saying is ‘boys will be boys’, in this idyllic playground jumping off the rail line before a train came, into the Waiwhakaiho River below, was part of the fun of proving girls can do

By Amokura Panoho

Reading time: 12 minutes

The Waiwhakaiho River (awa) traverses a corridor of 40kms as it meanders from the north eastern side of Mount Taranaki to meet with the Tasman Sea; the river mouth itself is located close to Fitzroy Beach in New Plymouth. Amokura Panoho reflects on her own connections to the river and the importance of maintaining its wairua.

Five generations of our Eriwata whānau have lived at our family papakainga (homestead) that sits on the eastern banks of the Waiwakaiho River, since the early 1920s. It is literally a stone’s throw away from the New Plymouth-Marton railway line.

I know, because I used to throw stones in an attempt to try to hit one of my boy cousins running across the tracks after he pulled a prank on me and my sisters. Though the saying is ‘boys will be boys’, in this idyllic playground jumping off the rail line before a train came, into the Waiwhakaiho River below, was part of the fun of proving girls can do anything, too.

However, if you jumped off the railway line today, you would die. The river barely resembles that of my childhood.

My grandparents Rawinia Rangitake and Edward Eriwata’s homestead consisted of three buildings. The big house, as it was known, was a two bedroom bungalow that had all of our tupuna (ancestor) portraits adorning the meticulously-kept living room. The middle bach was a dirt floor linoleum-lined shed that housed a kitchen and a long table with benches on each side, and then there was the bach which housed my grandparents’ bedroom and a lounge with a large fireplace. When we were children the outhouse toilet sat tucked behind the bach.

It was in this humble shelter less than four metres from the riverbank, that our grandparents often laid out mattresses for the constant flow of grandchildren that spent days, sometimes years – as in my case – with them.

Our family’s relationship with the river was intricate and intertwined. We heard it at night when the sound of the water flowing past our bach would lull us to sleep. In the mornings, birdlife would waken us and many times during breakfast in the middle house, our grandmother would tell her mokopuna (grandchildren), gathered round the long table, the stories of the hapū of Tūparakino and Ngā Mahanga a Taieri and the battles they had had further up the river. She would seem quite whimsical with a far away sound to her voice as she spoke of things we thought were fairy tales. Her stories seemed so far removed from the reality of our lives that now as adults we regret not appreciating or remembering their detail.

Not only was the river our playground but it was also our food basket, with tuna (eel), flounder, snapper and the occasional mullet often supplementing the meagre funds our grandparents had available to feed the many mouths around their table. Summers were filled with walks down to the river mouth to search the rocks for crabs, or octopus, and fish for kahawai, snapper or flounder when they were running. Chasing the taniwha(monster eel) across the huge boulders that existed on the northern side of the Devon Road bridge was also a favourite pasttime.

Occasionally, depending on how the river current was flowing, we would swim out to the concrete pillars that held up the rail-line, where a swing rope would test our ability to hurl ourselves out into the deeper parts of the river. Sometimes we would just sunbathe there. As we got older, the boys would use it as their platform to whistle at the pakeha girls walking their bikes across the road bridge. Us granddaughters never had a bike, sharing instead one pair of roller skates, which we could use just as easily on the dirt tracks alongside the riverbank as on the concrete footpaths.

In June, our aunties and uncles would come in the early hours of the morning to position their hinaki (eeling nets) in the river and lay out acrosss the water’s edge the fern fronds from the ponga trees that lined the banks. Their leaves would shimmer in the water as the waning moonlight shone on them and hushed voices from down the riverbank would filter up to us lying on our mattresses. As children we found the whole occasion exhilarating, as if the adults around us had become one with the river.

Getting back into bed with my hands caked in the slime of piharau (lamprey eel, or lampreys) was not that much fun though. There was little choice when a call from our grandfather would summon us out of our cosy blankets to catch the piharau that had been flung onto the banks with the ferns. Squirming just as much as the piharau as they attempted to slither back into the river, we would deposit them into a sugar sack instead. Tired from our efforts we would hop back into our beds with little thought of the smell and stickiness that covered our hands.

Then in the early spring months, we would be waking up by the rivermouth banks after having been tucked up the night before in the little camp our grandparents had created. We had fallen asleep to the sound of the river trickling over the stones and the splashes of water and the squelching of their gumboots in the sand, as our grandparents set their whitebait nets up in their traditional fishing spots.

Greeting us in the morning, was the smell of whitebait fritters and Creamoata porridge so thick the wooden spoon stood erect. Sometimes our grandfather would have fried up in dripping a freshly caught flounder or snapper that, with a dollop of worcestor sauce added, got us dunking thick slices of bread with glee as we picked away the flesh from the bones. All complemented by the pakeha farmer who traipsed across the stream to the consternation of other whitebaiters, to bring my grandparents a pail of freshly milked cream. With puku(stomachs) full we would wander off to Fitzroy Primary School returning at lunchtime to pick up a little trolley full of glass jars of whitebait. All delivered with much responsibility to the local golf club before we returned to school.

These beautiful childhood memories are built on the relationship our grandparents, aunts and uncles had with the river. As our grandmother would say: “Look after the river and the river will look after you.” Her anguish would ripple through the family when after a flood, bloated dead livestock were strewn on the western side of the riverbanks or the weir. Soon our uncles and the elder boys would be harnessing each other with ropes, and despite the heavy torrents would work all through the day and night to remove the animal debris that had made our grandmother so upset.

Many other local Māori whānau (families) also maintained a strong cultural connection to the Waiwhakaiho River and like our whānau have whakapapa links to the local hapū Ngāti Tawhirikura.

Glen Skipper, Ngāti Tawhirikura spokesperson, describes the name of the river Waiwhakaiho as representing the spiritual connection between Mount Taranaki and the sea. “Wai means water, whaka to make happen, and iho the umbilical cord – so in essence it has a real connotation around connectedness. That is the way our ancestors saw the mountain and the river, the ancient pathway to the sea, as wherever there is water there will be food.”

In reality, since colonisation the Waiwhakaiho River had been subjected to many stresses including land use changes, habitat modification, loss of wetlands and riparian areas. Water abstraction for industry and consumption and discharge into the waterways, as well as poor fisheries management have also been major contributors to the physical and spiritual decline of the river. In turn, this impacted on the ability for Ngāti Tawhirikura to retain their customary traditions of harvesting for their whānau.

As was the case for our whānau, the intergenerational kōrero (talk) and matauranga (knowledge) Māori associated with these traditional practices has not been passed down through the generations.

Glen Skipper still encourages whānau and hapū members to remember the importance of the connections we have with our whenua, our maunga (mountain) and in this instance, our awa.

Through his leadership and that of his whānau and hapū members, a new strategic relationship has emerged that has seen the establishment of the project Ka whakaaraara te tangata, ka whakaora te wai, ka whakahoki te taonga – Restore and revitalise taonga species habitats on Waiwhakaiho River to encourage mahinga kairehabilitation and enhancement.

Mount Taranaki

This strategic relationship has culminated in a collaboration between local iwi Te Kotahitanga o Te Atiawa Trust, Ngāti Tawhirikura Hapū and local Māori Health organisation, Tui Ora Limited. The objective of the project is to restore the ecological corridor of Waiwhakaiho River from Mount Taranaki to the sea through planting, weed control, fencing and pest eradication, increasing the habitat for taonga species and improving migratory fish flow.

The project is funded with $927,000 from the Department of Conservation’s Jobs for Nature fund and $400,000 from Project Crimson, signed off by Minister Kiri-tapu Allen (prior to her going on sick leave).

As the project gains momentum, up to eleven young people will be employed to work with the hāpu to deliver the cultural and ecological outcomes agreed.

Knowing this project is underway is a great relief for those of us whose connection with the river is an integral part of our identity as a tribal and hapū member. We can now actively contribute to our grandmother’s wishes: to look after the river, so that it will look after us, and the generations to come.

And it starts with telling our stories.

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