It's 1976 and an energetic youth finds a large rock wall near his grandmother's land at Jerusalem Bay and begins to carve what will become one of the most visited rock walls in the world.

Matahi Brightwell's nana, Te Huatahi Susie Gilbert, asked her grandson to create a likeness of Ngātoroirangi, navigator of the Te Arawa canoe, to create a permanent connection for her family to the land.

He was expecting to carve Ngātoroirangi out of wood, but no suitable totara tree was available.

Master carver Matahi Whakataka Brightwell, artistic creator of Taupo's Maori rock carvings at Mine Bay.
Master carver Matahi Whakataka Brightwell, artistic creator of Taupo's Maori rock carvings at Mine Bay.

Fast forward to 2019 and a raft of legislation covers what can and can't be done on rock faces around Lake Taupō. Matahi is taking no short cuts, and official permission for the restoration work was granted at 1pm on Wednesday last week.


In the 1970s, Matahi sought permission from adjoining land owners.

"They believed in my concept without ever seeing my sketches. He [Jack Gower Snr] liked me, just by looking at me."

Near the end of the project he felt vilified by local Māori, and moved away in 1980, unable to bear their loathing any longer. He says all the abusers are now gone, however a particular taunt is etched in his mind.

"Get that scribbler off our rocks. Why doesn't he go carve in the Kaimanawa Ranges where no one can see them. We don't want the place looking like Easter Island."

The Mine Bay Maori Rock Carvings. Photo / DESTINATION GREAT LAKE TAUPO
The Mine Bay Maori Rock Carvings. Photo / DESTINATION GREAT LAKE TAUPO

The Mine Bay carvings were unveiled on February 6, 1980.

Depicting how fed up he was, the eyes of Ngātoroirangi were left undone, and the lower lip juts out.

"I couldn't finish Ngātoroirangi, because Māoris came to threaten me with sticks."

Matahi's ancestry is Tūrangi/Tokaanu, and in 1980 he ended up on the East Coast, because his mother's tribe is from there.

"Now she has passed away I am free to come back."

From now until October, Matahi will dedicate one week of each month to restore the smaller rock sculptures that have eroded due to natural weathering. Simon Dickie took him out to the carvings in 2016 to show him what looks like shotgun damage to the left cheek of Hautonga the south wind.

In October restoration will begin of the main carving, the face of Ngātoroirangi.

As well as restoring the carvings, Matahi is preparing to train a future generation of carvers, saying the work done by him and his three helpers will ensure the preservation of the carvings for the next 40 years.

He needs three more sets of chisels and wants the community to get in behind him, with Katie Jolly from Chris Jolly Outdoors setting up a Givealittle page to help fund the carvings' restoration.

More than $3400 has been donated so far.

He works to a set pattern each day, and says his preference is to return mid afternoon to share his knowledge in wood carving or waka ama. He is hoping for funding to organise the teaching and for tools and resources.

Master carver Mikaera Nepia and his wife Judell have come up from Tūrangi to help with the rock carvings' restoration.

They brought up a caravan and kitchen gazebo, and Matahi says otherwise he would be
sleeping under the blue canvas (pictured) with Tia, his current wood carving project.

Granddaughter Manea Swann came over on the bus from Gisborne to look after Matahi, because his family are worried about him taking care of himself. These days the talented 67-year-old greatgrandfather radiates energy and commitment, living and breathing carving and waka ama 24/7.

Bronze monoliths gifted.

As well as training a future generation of carvers to preserve the rock carvings at Mine Bay and holding waka ama classes at Jerusalem Bay, Matahi Brightwell is gifting to Taupō three bronze monoliths of demigod Māui, famous for fishing up the North Island, Te Ika-a-Ma¯ui.

Matahi's work consists of three wooden panels, 8m high by 5m across and aged, on the advice of the bronzer.

The precious panels are currently being stored by Taupō District Council and have yet to go through a moulding process by Progressive Castings foundryman Joe Crowther.

Resource consents are in process for the installation of the artwork at an as-yet undisclosed location. The work will be dedicated to the late Simon Dickie.

This will be Matahi's 50th year as an artist and he carves every day except when paddling.

In 2015 he was one of three inaugural inductees into the Waka Ama New Zealand Hall of Fame.