Natalie Sutton tells Elisabeth Easther about the wonderful community work done in Te Hana to promote Maori culture.

I've been been working in Te Hana for a year, although I live in Mangawhai Heads which is a 20-minute drive away. I went to the local school, Rodney College in Wellsford, and when I was there I heard whispers about a Maori village being constructed here; that was more than 10 years ago. Then I went to university, travelled overseas, came back and was amazed at how far it had progressed. Because my mother was weaving here, I noseyed in and learnt how they were rebuilding Te Hana's community through the cultural centre. So I applied for a job and here I am.

It started because 12 years ago the community got together because they could see Te Hana was having problems. There used to be a dairy factory here, it was the main industry and when that shut down, there were serious issues with unemployment, poverty, vandalism, youth issues, it was like a domino effect and the community started falling apart. So some of them decided to build a multi-cultural centre, to do something to promote the community and rebuild it, and that's how the charitable trust was born.

We've been open a year now, although it's been a 12-year work in progress, and a lot of hard work and determination has gone into making this happen, and it's only going to get better. Originally I was the PA to the CEO, then I started doing communications and marketing, and I'm the bookings co-ordinator and sales and marketing manager too. I wear many hats. Everyone here does.

Te Ao Marama is a good base to show visitors what pre-European life was like for Maori; a lot of people stop by on their way to Waitangi, to get an idea of how life might have been before the settlers came. If you come at the right time, you can take a guided tour, and there's also a concert. We have a cafe at Te Ao Marama too, I love the cherry lolly cake slice. There are also hangi pies which are really popular.


Te Hana is a blink and you miss it sort of town, but if you stop to look around there's a fair bit going on. The Te Hana Nurseries is fantastic for native plants, we sourced a lot of our plants from there, they have an awesome variety. The Arts Factory is amazing. It's run by Kerry Strongman who is a beautiful artist, carver and painter. People don't realise that it's there, but when they go in they are blown away. He has these ginormous swamp kauri sculptures. I love it there, he also sells other people's work, bone carvings, paintings, all sorts of arts and crafts. In front of The Arts Factory is The Te Hana Cafe which is popular with truckies and locals. You can also buy hangi on the roadside, there's a hangi cart parked on the main road every day, it's great.

We also have a reserve and community garden. It's all about producing food, vegetables, things like that, which is so helpful for families who are struggling to feed their extended whanau, and it also promotes learning.

The Te Hana Community Hall is just down the road, and there's lots going on down there. Te Hana even has a gym and an indoor heated pool that's privately owned, where you can do aquarobics. Te Hana is also great for its proximity to other attractions - the Matakana vineyards, Goat Island Reserve, fishing charters on the Kaipara Harbour. Further down the path, we want to provide charters from the Kaipara Harbour and bring charters all the way up here. There's Pakiri and Warkworth for horse riding.

The Te Hana Art Gallery, Ahi Ka O Te Hana is another great thing you can go to here. It is a really small town, but it's got a lot going on, and it's only going to keep getting better.

Natalie's picks
* Te Ao Marama: 307 State Highway 1, Te Hana. (09) 423 8701. A Maori cultural centre offering marae accommodation, indigenous Maori village tours, cultural performances and event hire.

* Te Hana Nurseries: 251 State Highway 1, Te Hana, RD4, Wellsford (09) 423 8595. All the native plants you could wish for.

* The Arts Factory: State Highway 1, Te Hana, (09) 423 8069. Well worth stopping for a visit. A surprising treat.

* The Hangi Truck: Usually parked on SH1 in Te Hana, run by the Peters family. If it's there when you're passing through, stop for some kai, you won't regret it.

Natalie Sutton works at the Te Hana Te Ao Marama Maori Cultural Centre. To celebrate Matariki, Te Ao Marama is holding a fashion extravaganza, "A Star is Born". Saturday July 7, 7-10pm. Admission $50.