The re-dedication of a meeting house (wharepuni) near Pipiriki was a big moment for Don Robinson and others who have spent countless hours to bring new life to a former Whanganui River marae.

On Sunday, Robinson and others held a pōwhiri to welcome those arriving on the Tira Hoe Waka, an annual Whanganui Iwi canoe journey, to the former kainga diagonally opposite Pipiriki.

The paddlers stayed the night in tents and buildings, and begin a re-dedication ceremony for the restored Koanga Rehua meeting house and its pataka (storehouse) at 5am on Monday morning.

Then, after breakfast, the workshops began as people with whaānau connections to the place talked about its history, their forebears and whakapapa connections. The Rerekura, Maihi and Waetford families, and others, were expected to take the floor.

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"We expect people will stand up and talk for hours," said Robinson earlier this month.
It will be a first visit by descendants like Jay and Eru Rerekura to the place of their forebears, and the occasion will be recorded in film and on video.

Koanga Rehua whānau have spent six months preparing for the visit, and learning waiata and karakia of the place.

A taonga stolen from the former kainga (village) may be there for the occasion, returned by Te Papa. It's a large obelisk, once the bottom of a waka, carved into a memorial to a fallen chief, which was taken, perhaps by soldiers, during battles in the mid 1860s.

Since then it's been at Putiki, then at Lake Papaitonga in the Horowhenua, then at Te Papa Tongarewa Museum, where it was the centrepiece of an exhibition of New Zealand treasures that went to Japan in 2006.

Visitors to Koanga Rehua will find a new kitchen, toilets and meeting space, a generator for power and mowed ground for their tents.

Achieving this has taken many months of work by the descendants, and help from Auckland architect Rau Hoskins and his architecture students from Unitec.

Heritage New Zealand Māori heritage experts also helped with the restoration, which used traditional building methods.

The meeting house is one of three left in New Zealand that has an earth floor. Its insulation is made from raupo and its interior has decorative paintings of flora and fauna in a fine arts style.

Robinson's great grandfather, Ihaka Rerekura, lived at Koanga Rehua. The people there would have moved around a lot to gather food — fish from the sea in summer, and kiwi, weka, eels, leaves, roots and berries.

By the late 1800s they had large gardens, grew wheat for the flour mill across the river, and traded produce.

But most left in the 1930s, when a road on the east bank of the river became the main transport route.

Until then the area, called Te Poti, was densely settled, with four marae close together on the west bank, and at least two others on the east.

It was an uneasy place after in the 1860s, when upriver tribes took on Pai Marire (Hauhau) beliefs and wanted to throw out the European settlers creeping upriver from Whanganui.

The Battle of Moutoa took place near Ranana in 1864, followed by fighting at Ohoutahi Pa and a 12-day siege of three redoubts the colonial forces had built near Pipiriki in 1865. One of those redoubts was near Koanga Rehua and it was in this time that the obelisk gravemaker was taken.

There are no plans for people to live permanently at Koanga Rehua, Robinson said. But in future the place may be open to visitors who want to learn about life in former times.