It's a long way from the Maori Land Wars to professional rugby league, but Nga Kahikatea bridged that gap. No one quite knows how old she was, but relatives reckon her to be 127 years old when, in 1974, she passed away.

With at least five husbands Nga had many mokopuna. As the years stretched on, the numbers of her descendants multiplied. One of her great-great-grandchildren is 1990s rugby league stalwart Tawera Nikau.

Nikau's mother, Anne, remembers her great-grandmother-in-law as a "marvellous old lady".

She recalls that Kahikatea's wizened visage sometimes frightened her younger descendants.

"All the kids were dead scared of her because of her face - it's a scary face. But I believe that in her day she was a fine-looking woman."

This photo was taken in 1970 by Olaf Petersen, for a photo essay on the moko in Auckland's now-defunct Weekly News, a long-running off-shoot of the NZ Herald.

Kahikatea was the inspiration for Michael King and Marti Friedlander's book Moko. King wrote in the introduction of his 1968 meeting with her: "She was draped in blankets and looked very small. With the mist behind her, she seemed to be walking out of history. In a way she was."

King wrote that Kahikatea told him she knew people who were alive when Captain James Cook visited New Zealand in 1769, and that her moko were tattooed by Te Aho Rangi Wharepu - who was immortalised in the 1905 Goldie portrait A Good Joke.

Anne Nikau says Kahikatea fought in the Maori Land Wars alongside her male kin. The centenarian-to-be picked up some lifelong habits during this time: "What she drunk was whisky - that's what they had when all those Scotsmen came over during the Maori Wars."

And that pipe? "She smoked all her life, right up until the day she died."