A replica 17th-century Maori village is reinvigorating a town, discovers Danielle Wright.
Te Hana was once a town you'd pass through on your way somewhere else - the gateway to the North or the entrance to Auckland - and there was no compelling reason to stop.
Its people were forgotten, crime was high and opportunities were few. But, as the people around here like to say: "Out of struggle comes strength."
We've driven from Auckland to see the majestic dream of Thomas de Thierry, his response to what he calls an "imploding community" following the closure of the local dairy company, forestry work and the railways.
Thomas believes in people and communities helping themselves, and is passionate about preserving and promoting the environment.
He remembers the day his dream began. "It was 17 March, 3.17am, 1999," he says fondly as he takes us on a tour of the impressive Te Ao Marama Maori village, pa site and contemporary marae, which opened to the public last weekend.
Thomas and the Te Hana Community Development Charitable Trust, of which he is chairman, worked mostly on a volunteer basis.
The trust has also run training courses for five years and spent a good deal of time cleaning up the town, especially the dirty water supply.
Once fully completed in September, it's expected about 250 jobs, either directly or indirectly, will come from the complex. Thomas says that police anecdotally report a 90 per cent reduction of crime already as a result of the project.
Renowned architect and the trust's CEO, Linda Clapham, devoted the last four years to bringing Thomas' dream to life with uncompromising attention to detail _ even the concrete flooring around the front of the complex has the imprints of geckos and shells in it.
It's beautiful, as well as historic, and whether it's the love that has gone into saving this town, or the project itself, there's a feeling of calm that can't help but be felt here.
A replica village, based on the time the Maori Princess Te Hana lived in the area, lets you see what life was like inside the huts which my children race in and out of with pleasure.
The modern marae completes the picture and with fairy lights built into its roof mimicking stars, and a room filled with comfortable mattresses, it would be a nice place to sleep, especially on a school trip.
You can also buy local hand-made arts and crafts here and visit weaving and carving studios as well as the Te Hana community gardens.
Te Hana in Maori means "to shine" and it's hoped this special project focusing on the past will help this town to flourish well into the future.
IF YOU GO
Te Hana is an easy one-hour drive north of Auckland through the Johnstone's Hill Tunnel, the Pohuehue Scenic Reserve, and past a hubcap-laden fence and tin sheep in paddocks.
Starry night: Te Ao Marama Marae at Te Hana is the second in New Zealand to gain Qualmark certification for its facilities.
Re-fuelling: From the Puhoi pub or a cafe in Warkworth, to Sheepworld or the Honey Centre, there are plenty of places to stop. There's even a man selling a hangi combo for $12 from his trailer on the way out of Te Hana.