The settlement of Utiku, 11km south of Mangaweka, bears the name of its original owner, Ngāti Hauiti chief Utiku Pōtaka who seems to have commanded great respect in both Māori and Pakeha society.

Newspaper reports of the 1800s have him negotiating in the Native Land Court, donating produce to people in need and listed as a winner of a minor prize in a lottery to support the Wanganui Garrison Band.

His tuhanga (descendant) and namesake Utiku Pōtaka is the current Ngāti Hauiti representative for the Mōkai Pātea Waitangi Claims Trust but I was keen to find if there are any descendants still living in Utiku whom I could visit.

A phone call to a Pōtaka listed in Utiku was answered by Thomas and yes, he is Utiku Pōtaka's great-great-grandson.

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He will be happy to meet me he says and suggests that I also speak to Hape Lomax, another great-great-grandson living in Utiku who has many photographs and a wealth of knowledge.

The only shop in Utiku is The Wool Company - a world-renowned company selling merino and possum yarns and garments.

They have a thriving mail order business and there were plenty of visiting customers when I arrived.

The women in the shop tell me that Tom is their school bus driver and he's about but they think he may have gone in to town.

Most of the houses in Utiku are old and beautifully built with rambling cottage gardens.

Graham O'Brien was tending the garden of a house on the corner of the main road Torea St and Komako St.

He tells me he is Utiku Pōtaka's tuhanga and of the same generation as Thomas although he is a few decades younger.

"When I was a kid, this place was the shop and I used to pop in to get my ice blocks here."

He remembers an idyllic childhood exploring the landscape and swimming in the Rangitikei River.

He doesn't remember the dairy factory that closed in the 1960s, although the building is still there, and says he thinks the shop, school and service station all closed during the 1990s.

As I drive back down Torea St, Hape Lomax waves me down and asks me to follow him back to his house on the other side of State Highway 1.

Hape lives in the house that was built by his great-grandparents and generations of Utiku Pōtaka's descendants gaze down from the walls there.

There is a photo of a 1930s Utiku Rugby team that includes Hape's great-grandfather Wilson Wirihana Winiata as the coach, his great-uncle Tunihau Jack Pōtaka and his grandfather Tamawheti Te Kauru who died tragically young in a motorcycle accident in Australia.

The Utiku rugby team includes coach Wilson Wirihana Winiata, Tunihau Jack Potaka (front left) and Tamawheti Te Kauru (front right).
The Utiku rugby team includes coach Wilson Wirihana Winiata, Tunihau Jack Potaka (front left) and Tamawheti Te Kauru (front right).

"Utiku was a great man but his wife Rina Rora Te Oiroa should be credited for what he achieved as well.

"She was born at Koroniti - her mother was Te Oiroa Hohaia and her father was Wilheim Goeffe.

"He came from Finistère in Normandy, France and his name was changed to William Goff."

A scholarly man, he educated his daughter in the ways of colonial society and she was a great support to her husband, says Hape.

"She was a lady of substance and Utiku was well supported by his wife."

The establishment of a timber mill and a link to the new railway system to transport the timber brought prosperity to the Utiku settlement.

"Utiku once had two boarding houses as well as a hotel and it was a thriving place," says Hape.

Blocks of land that once belonged to his whānau have been sold off over the decades and Hape laments that later generations who are landless have lost their connection to the place.

He points to a gnarled pine tree on the hill above his home and says he believes that is where his great-great-grandparents once had a house.

"They had to return to live at Rātā Marae [in Hunterville] because as a chief Utiku had to base himself there but they did have a house here and I believe that's where it was."

Hape has such a wealth of knowledge about his whakapapa and many other things that I run out of time to meet up with Tom Pōtaka.

Tom called the next day to say that he was sorry he missed my visit and is pleased to hear that I caught up with Hape.

He tells me it is 30C degrees on his front veranda and he is enjoying the view from there.

They may be depleted in numbers but it seems descendants of Utiku and Rina Rora Te Oiroa Pōtaka are still loving the place that is their legacy.