Some 1000 years ago, he sailed across vast expanses of ocean, with only the stars and birds as his guides. He battled a ferocious tentacled sea monster. And, according to Ngāpuhi tradition, he discovered the country we call home. There's no argument; Kupe is a hero of epic proportions.
Yet, for an explorer who made such an indelible mark on New Zealand—leaving in his wake a trail of namesakes stretching from Marlborough to Northland—until now there have been few ways for tourists to learn his story.
That all changed in December, when Manea Footprints of Kupe opened. Set on the edges of the Hokianga Harbour in Opononi—where Kupe spent 40 years of his life—the $9.6 million tourism attraction is dedicated to telling his tale. But make no mistake; Manea is not a museum. The immersive 75-minute guided experience includes karakia (prayers), waiata (song), a multimedia performance and an interactive learning gallery.
When I arrive on the day of Manea's opening, the car park buzzes with the anticipation of hundreds of local people and dignitaries. We follow a long, winding path past carvings by local artist Will Ngakurua and around a viewpoint looking out to the harbour's headlands, before arriving at the whare taonga (house of treasures). When it comes time for kaumātua John Klaricich to cut the ribbon, he turns to the local students gathered.
"Just remember: This is for you; not for us," he tells them.
Klaricich is the last living member of the group responsible for Manea's inception. Roughly 20 years ago, they first met to discuss increasing visitor interest in the community's wharenui. Given the region's high unemployment rate, the importance of promoting Hokianga as a tourist destination wasn't lost on them. But neither was the knowledge that the wharenui—a meeting space for education, weddings and other events—wasn't designed for tourists. A facility like Manea was proposed as a way to fulfil their role as kaitiaki (guardians).
Klaricich's dream has now been realised. The centre, which is the area's third-largest employer, is expected to bring $5.5 million to the region annually once borders reopen, with all Manea's profits going directly back to the community.
After the traditional pōwhiri, I'm welcomed into the centre's cool dark heart—its state-of-the-art 4D theatre—where I settle in for the show. Over the next 20 minutes, I learn about Kupe's journey to Aotearoa, his fight with the monster octopus Te Wheke-a-Muturangi, and his enduring connection to Hokianga. By today's moral codes, he's an unlikely hero. He took another man's wife and sacrificed his own son; stories that Manea's live performers tackle with both humility and humour.
The young actors—all descendants of Kupe, a lineage that spans 32 generations—aren't just acting out a part in a play; they're building a legacy.
"Working at Manea is a way to stay home and financially stable," says Mikaira Pewhata-Heheremia. One of the performers, the 21-year-old moved home to work at Manea. "Since I was a young man, I dreamed of having a job in Māori performing arts. This is a way to get our youth involved in our culture and have them embrace it."
That's not to say everyone was onboard from the beginning. During town hall meetings in 2018, some expressed concerns that it would be a "Māori Disneyland" and turn history into "a cartoon fairytale".
Yet, on the day of Manea's opening, I watch as people dig into the hāngi. The courtyard's crushed shells beneath their feet, little girls in party dresses run to their aunties. Co-workers sit on the building's front steps, food balanced on their knees. Distant relatives greet one another with long hugs. It's clear to me that Manea isn't about commodifying culture for the sake of foreign tourists—it's about preserving community.
The next morning, I drive up to Pakia Hill, where the harbour spreads out below me. On its north side sits brilliant white sand dunes. Known as Niniwa (and also Niwa, Niua or Tauneri), it's one of two taniwha (protective guardians) placed by Kupe at the river's entrance. Although you can sandboard down them with Hokianga Express Charters, I'm short on time, so I decide to walk to the south head, where the other taniwha, Ārai te Uru, resides.
A short track leads me through flowering mānuka, stunted pōhutukawa and proud flax. Beyond, the ocean is angry and white. Kupe would have had to fight hard to get here. That's why some read his battle with the octopus as a metaphor for the challenges of navigating the Pacific.
For the young people of the Kauri Coast, their own journeys are just beginning—and Manea Footprints of Kupe may just serve as their guide.
Manea Footprints of Kupe costs $65 for adults, $12 for teenagers and $6 for children. Family passes are also available.