"Heartfelt, extravagant, authentic and all-around incredible."
These are the words tohunga Mataia Keepa used to describe Rotorua's inaugural umu kohukohu whetū ceremony on Mokoia Island yesterday.
The umu kohukohu whetū involves lighting an earth oven before sunrise on the first day of Matariki celebrations, welcoming the Māori new year with food offerings to the Matariki star cluster.
Keepa, who is also the primary consultant for iKōrero Ltd, a Māori language consultancy, has attended ceremonies such as this in locations as far away as Hawai'i.
This particular event is important to him not only because it is a first for Rotorua but because of the widespread enthusiasm for Matariki events.
"[This year] the knowledge of Matariki has penetrated through the skin of mainstream consciousness in a monumental way," Keepa told the Rotorua Daily Post.
Keepa has been working hard since June last year to make this ceremony happen. Over the past week, he has been getting up before the sun to be able to properly organise how things should unfold.
He said Mokoia Island was the most appropriate setting for the ceremony.
"There is a point on Mokoia called Matariki and Mokoia is central to all tribes based in Rotorua. The lack of light pollution also means we could clearly see the star cluster. I thought it would be perfect to have the ceremony there."
Then two months ago Keepa was amazed when Lakeland Queen general manager Markus Dietzel agreed to ferry ceremony attendees to the island.
"I told him it was too good to be true," Keepa said.
At 4am yesterday, all of Keepa's work came together.
A crowd of 170 gathered on the lakefront to be ferried across Lake Rotorua by the Lakeland Queen.
The journey across took one hour. Guests were given a presentation about the meaning of Matariki by Hōhepa Tuahine, the understudy of Dr Rangi Mātāmua, as well as Keepa.
From the shore of the island, a 20-minute walk took attendees to the most eastern point where they were greeted with the warmth of blazing braziers as well as the aroma of the food offerings nestled in the sacred earth oven.
There the ceremony was presided over by Keepa and incantations were performed by Te Matapunenga.
"It was breathtaking," Keepa said.
Many Māori communities used to celebrate Matariki with an umu kohukohu whetū. The practice has since been revived largely through the efforts of Dr Rangi Matamua and Ruānuku Sir Pou Tēmara.
This inaugural Rotorua ceremony was organised with the help of Te Puni Kōkiri, Toi Tangata, iKōrero Ltd, Hīkina Ltd and Te Mātāwai.
Keepa hoped the umu kohukohu whetū on Mokoia island would become an annual event for Rotorua.