Despite living in the Bay for five years, Rosie Dawson-Hewes had never climbed Papamoa Hills. So last week she joined ranger Mark Ray and a group of keen locals exploring its archaeological gems as part of the Echo Walking Festival.

The views from the summit reach all the way to Mauao. The pine tree on the pa site in this photo is destined for removal. The flat terraced areas surrounding Te Ihu o Ruarangi Pa are where Maori lived, Mark says.

The creative nail patterns in the stiles that provide grip were designed and installed by periodic detention workers. Papamoa Hills Regional Park was New Zealand's first regional park opened outside of Wellington and Auckland.

Its Maori name is Te Rae o Papamoa, which park ranger Mark Ray says means 'the forehead of the woman who is the hills'. The park entry is somewhat hidden beside a Fulton Hogan quarry, but that doesn't stop 80,000 visitors every year.


Mark says visitor numbers have quadrupled in the past 10 years.

The path to the 224m summit is steep at first, but eases off, weaving through pine forest,
native bush and pasture. Part of the park is leased to a local farmer whose family, the McNaughtons, have worked the land for more than 100 years. "It's quite hard land to farm," Mark says.

One of the main attractions of the park, aside from the 360-degree panoramic views at the summit, is the seven historic pa sites that dot the hills.

Built over 300 years from the 1400s, there used to be 17 pa sites in the area, all surrounded by deep trenches, Mark says.

"Archaeologists, their eyes pop out of their heads when they come up here, because the trenches are in such great condition. Those trenches would have been two to three as deep as what they are with palisades on both sides, so [they were] really hard to get up over."

Karangaumu Pa, at the summit of the hills, was a defensive pa. "[It was] in times of attack and battles when it used to be heavily occupied and there'd be over 2000 warriors here." One of the other pas, Patangata (towards the ocean from the summit), was where the women and children would head in times of battle.

"So if it's all going completely wrong, they've got some really good escape routes to get them off the hills and away to safety," Mark says.

He says not all the pa sites were occupied at one time. "Apart from the ones where their nine-to-five job was to grow kumara. They're the ones who would be on-site and in one particular spot the whole time."

He says balancing grazing sheep and cattle with preserving the area's heritage can be difficult.

"Being a historical site, we do try and limit the stock action up here as the stock do a lot of damage very quickly," he says. "Archaeologists like the grass the length it is now, whereas for the farmer it's not the best length."

One of Mark's roles as ranger is to protect the historic sites, which is why the paths up to Karangaumu Pa have rubber matting - it limits where people tread and thus limits the damage.

"We've come up with some remedial action to stop the damage of human traffic, because human feet cause as much damage as the stock do."

He says in addition to slowly replanting the pasture with native bush, many of the pine trees dotted around the place will also be removed in time, as they are falling apart and may do damage to the pa sites.

The views from the summit reach all the way to Mauao. The pine tree on the pa site in this photo is destined for removal. Photos/Rosie Dawson-Hewes
The views from the summit reach all the way to Mauao. The pine tree on the pa site in this photo is destined for removal. Photos/Rosie Dawson-Hewes

Walkers can also expect to see many dips in the ground, which were used for food storage.

"Because Papamoa Hills is mainly covered in grass, you don't get to see a lot of the archaeological features," Mark says, which is why he's looking to install some interpretation signs over the next few years.

He says there are also plans to put in a perimeter walk in the next two years, which will likely take about three hours.

* Papamoa Hills Regional Park is accessed via Poplar Lane, off SH2 between Tauranga and Te Puke. It takes about 45 minutes to reach the summit and is moderately difficult. Good walking shoes recommended.