Liz Light visits Ruatahuna, deep in Te Urewera National Park, the setting for the latest New Zealand film, White Lies.
Richard White's alarm clock is set for 6.30am and every morning he wakes to the deep, sweet tones of Louis Armstrong, "I think to myself, what a wonderful world."
Ruatahuna, a village that straggles along a valley in a big bubble of Maori land in the middle of Te Urewera National Park, is Richard's wonderful world.
Green farmland is surrounded by steep mountains clothed in dark, primeval rainforest. The forest seems to be quietly creeping down, reclaiming land that once belonged to it, making a mockery of man's futile attempts to farm and nudging the cattle and horses further down the valley.
The Whakatane River that carved this valley is young and sprightly, dancing around rocks and sometimes slowing down in pools where trout swim.
This is heartland Tuhoe territory and the 260 people who live in Ruatahuna speak Maori, their first language. It's also the location of the latest New Zealand movie, White Lies, and one of few such places that welcomes and hosts tourists wishing to experience a unique landscape and lifestyle.
The valley has 10 hapu and each has its own marae. Oputao Marae belongs to the extended White family and has done for hundreds of years. Richard and Meriann, and their youngest son Paraki, live here but over Christmas the whanau — uncles, aunts, brothers, cousins, and lots of children — return from all over New Zealand, and some from Australia. Then there might be 60 people celebrating family and reconnecting with their place.
Richard was born and raised in Oputao Marae and went to school in the valley but he moved to Rotorua and worked as a mechanic for 25 years. A growing family needs money and there is not much of that here. It's the sense of place, the overwhelming feeling of belonging, that brought Richard and Meriann back after their older children had flown.
Richard thought visitors would love this place, too, with its elemental scenery and the hunting, fishing and hiking that is the way of life here but is a novelty to city folk. And the horse trekking; there are more horses in the valley than people. Plus, there is the attraction of a Maori cultural experience; sleeping in the marae and cooking, eating and socialising with the family.
So he set-up Ahurei Adventures, had a website built and, bingo, people arrive from all over the world; ecology students from California, German hunters, Danish fishermen, endurance-riding enthusiasts and people simply seeking peace. My friend and I arrive mid-morning and Richard welcomes us to the marae. The karanga, the welcome call, is given by a woman but Meriann is in Rotorua so, instead, Richard slowly rings a brass bell.
We enter the wharenui, the meeting house, and sit on the floor beneath photos of ancestors. Richard says a prayer to Tane, the God of the forest, asking him to keep us safe during our visit.
The wharenui was built in 1860 to celebrate the return of young men who fought beside Rewi Maniapoto in the Waikato against land-grabbing Pakeha. Sticks and spears were pitted against guns. The battles were was lost. Rewi realised Maori would never win against Europeans and sent the survivors home. The marae was built in memory of those killed in battle.
By the mid-1940s, the boys from the valley had gone to fight again, this time in a European war. The Depression and the war impacted on Ruatahuna and families left the land. There were no Whites living here and the wharenui was in a sorry state.
Richard's father felt the pull of this place and returned in the 1960s to raise his children in the valley. In 1975 he replaced the dirt floor with concrete and the rusting corrugated iron roof. The ornate interior, the porch and the carved wooden maihi along the front have survived 153 years of all the wild weather that Ranginui, the sky father, could throw down.
It takes four hours to walk to White's Clearing, 1½ to ride there and half an hour in a ute over a gouged-out track that crosses the same stream nine times. The 900ha block, straddling two valleys, was worked by Richard's grandfather until he had to walk away during the Depression. Now it is being reclaimed by Tane's green forest fingers.
We meet four of Richard's eight horses. No bridle, no rope, just Richard's soft voice and years of love and trust and Whitiwhiti comes to greet us. He approves.
His one brown and two white friends can't resist joining the horse and human huddle for nuzzling and stroking.
Stags roar, loud and insistent, so we quietly follow the sound down a valley to a steep, mostly grassy, hillside. The stags are playing macho games, trying to steal each other's hinds while roaring and waving their antlers. Richard often takes people hunting but we are all delighted to simply watch the performance.
The bunkhouse, where hunters, fishers and horse-trekkers stay, is unexpectedly luxurious (solar-heated hot water, a nice shower and flush toilet). We sit on the veranda in the sun, enjoy tea and look for birds. Kereru, tui, fantail, bellbird, kaka, North Island robin, grey warblers, tomtits and moreporks live in this area, as do stealthy pekapeka (native bats).
I browse through the comments in the guest book.
2/12/2012: "Choice spot. Woke to the bird's dawn chorus. Spooked five deer, shot a pig and caught four trout. The kids loved it."
26/10/2012: "Great stay, great hunting, great food, great bloke."
It's dark by the time we get back. Paraki has chicken and vegetables roasting and has made a feijoa pie. The kitchen is toasty and the conversation is lively.
Women sleep on the right side of the wharenui. I look closely at the photos of the ancestors on the wall and lay my mattress below that of Richard's grandmother, Witoria. She has a kind, proud face and looks beautiful.
During the night rain on corrugated iron is a cosy sound for sleep and by morning Ruatahuna is shiny and dripping.
The farmed land is absolute green; horses and cattle are heads-down grazing, their damp coats steaming in hot sun. The forest is breathing; exhaling mist that swirls and changes shape.
I revel in the realm of Tane; fern fronds with dripping points, skeins of hanging moss woven with diamond drops and giant trees that thrust their crowns above the others.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: It is two hours' drive from Rotorua to Ruatahuna. The mostly dirt road is challenging but magnificent. Ahurei Adventures — (07) 366 3941 — takes guests fishing, hunting, horse trekking or tramping from October until late May.
Liz Light was hosted by Ahurei Adventures.