Learning the ways of Te Urewera is an enlightening and humbling experience, writes Jacqui Gibson
Te Ika-a-Māui - the North Island - is home to one of the most isolated rainforests on Earth, and one recognised by law as its own legal identity since 2014. In a New Zealand and world-first approach to protecting nature, Te Urewera now owns itself and exists for its own sake. Six years on, Ngāi Tūhoe are welcoming tourists to their region to show Kiwis how they care for and live in the forest. We set out from Wellington with a three-night plan to immerse ourselves in the culture, manaakitanga (hospitality) and beauty of Te Urewera.
First stop: Tāneatua
Our first stop was Tāneatua, the unofficial gateway to Te Urewera, about 15 minutes inland from Whakatane or 75 minutes' drive from Rotorua. It's here you'll find Tūhoe's tribal headquarters, an award-winning, sustainably-designed "living building".
We took a walking tour of Te Kura Whare with iwi chair Tamati Kruger and tribal authority chief executive Kirsti Luke. Anyone can drop in for a self-guided tour to learn about the building itself and the iwi's role as kaitiaki (guardian) of the forest.
When I asked Kruger and Luke what tourists should make of this new era, they said: "We're asking people to completely rethink their experience of Te Urewera when they come here. Instead of seeing nature as a set of resources there for your unlimited pleasure and use, we're asking people to see Te Urewera as we do – a living system people depend on for survival, culture, recreation and inspiration. We're inviting people to view Te Urewera as they would a much-loved relative or member of the family; someone you love and care for."
Glamping at Whakatau Rainforest Retreat
With that in mind, we jumped in the car and headed into the forest to meet Hinewai McManus, a Ngāi Tahu tour guide who's lived in Te Urewera most her life. The nearly two-hour drive took in views of lush tawa and rimu forest draped in curls of white mist, wandering ponies and the occasional weather-beaten cottage. That morning, McManus welcomed us with a mihi whakatau (a traditional settling-in ceremony), made us tea in an outdoor kitchen and showed us to our rainforest whare (hut), where we slept under the stars encircled by native bush.
The retreat is an off-grid camping experience with all the glamping frills. Think: comfy, plush bedding, easy access to an outdoor bathroom, plenty of stunning forest and river views and a good selection of craft beer and New Zealand wine to enjoy by the open fire at night. But it's a one uniquely rooted in Tūhoetanga.
We learned about McManus' aspirations for Tūhoe ("to flourish socially and economically as a people, while bringing back the mauri or lifeforce of the forest"). We foraged for traditional foods during a half-day hike. And we listened to her take on the origin story of Tāne Mahuta, god of the forest and birds, as we relocated two lancewoods saplings to a less crowded part of the forest.
Dinner with the Mitai whānau
Dinner at The Blackhouse is not-to-be-missed for anyone keen on locally-grown kai and giving back. The Blackhouse is a social enterprise and small-scale restaurant, just down the road from McManus' retreat, run by Ngapani and Nick Mitai. Diners are treated to a seasonal menu prepared by Nick in the family kitchen, with a percentage of the proceeds paying for initiatives such as music lessons for Tūhoe kids.
On our visit, we sat at the family table as Ngapani explained their vision for The Blackhouse and sang waiata. We tucked in to a platter of organic veges grown by local tamariki and fresh Te Urewera venison. You can book online (you'll find The Blackhouse on Facebook) or talk to any local tour operator to add dinner at The Blackhouse to an organised tour.
Honey tasting on horseback with Manawa Honey
The next day, we caught up Brenda Tahi, Tūhoe guide and chief executive of Manawa Honey Tours. Seated in her home office, we jammed wooden paddles into pots of delicious wild tawhero (bush) honey and listened to her describe the centuries' old tribal tradition of honey harvesting known as te nanao miere. "Honey became a revered food for our people in the 1830s, when the honeybee was introduced to New Zealand. Today, that's still the case. Bees help pollinate our plants. Farming honey and honey tourism creates jobs for our people and funding for forest conservation."
That afternoon, we jumped on horses and trekked Te Urewera's steep ravines and quiet river valleys with Tahi's son, Maaka Tamaki, and beekeeper Nick Mitai. We checked out Manawa hives, stopped to stretch our legs at historic Ōpūtao marae and set up camp by the river as the day faded and rain began to fall.
After a swim in the river, we regrouped around the fire to eat. Dinner was a delicious wine-paired menu of wild venison casserole with dumplings, followed by Mataatua pork, kamokamo and earth vegetables. We rolled onto our camp mattresses after a compote of Te Umu Toi orchard plums, tawhero honey and cream and drifted off to sleep listening to the sounds of the river.
Overnight at Maungapōhatu, sacred mountain
Maungapōhatu village is a special place to visit. Not only is it home to the historic marae of Tūhoe prophet, Rua Kenana, it also takes in views of Tūhoe's sacred mountain of the same name. You can hike there or go by car. We jumped in a ute with tour guide Atamira Tumarae-Nuku, a descendant of Rua Kenana, for an overnight stay on the marae.
During the afternoon pōwhiri, dozens of kereru flew out of the bush and gathered busily above our heads as if in communion with ghosts. It was an extraordinary sight. That night, we ate crayfish, oysters, chicken, vegetables and fried bread inside the wharenui by candlelight. In the morning, we walked with Tumarae-Nuku's grandfather, Richard Tumarae, to the historic family home Rua Kenana shared with 12 wives, as Richard explained the site's history. Today, much of the prophet's mountain village is gone. Yet his original home still stands where it was built more than a century ago – a tangible reminder the man's spirit lives on.
How to prepare for your trip to Te Urewera
Pack for the outdoors
The dress code in Te Urewera is casual. It's warm in summer, but it's best to prepare for all weather because you'll spend most of your time outdoors. Take hiking boots, thermals, a raincoat, togs, a sunhat and sunnies. Remember: shoes off inside wharenui (meeting houses). Take socks if you're staying on marae.
Be open to doing things differently
Tūhoe iwi leader Tamati Kruger says visitors need to be prepared to do things a bit differently in Te Urewera. "Maybe it's not about getting the best selfie or a cut-price deal on a tour. Instead, make your trip about meeting the locals, staying with us, learning some of our history, hearing our stories and understanding how to help care for Te Urewera."
Ask locals to help design your stay
You'll find many operators in Te Urewera aren't online or primarily operate through word of mouth. To learn what you can do as a tourist, drop into Te Tii, the community hub at 5906 Ruatāhuna Rd, or call Kerewai Morunga, the manager, on (07) 366 3228 to organise your trip beforehand.
Don't worry if you're new to Māori culture
Spending time in a Māori community as manuhiri (guests) is a great way to learn about Aotearoa's history. In Te Urewera, you'll find the local tourism operators warm, friendly and generous with their extensive cultural expertise and knowledge.
CHECKLIST: Te Urewera
Tūhoe Tribal Centre, ngaituhoe.iwi.nz
Whakatau Rainforest Retreat, teureweratreks.co.nz/stay-with-us
Manawa Honey, manawahoney.co.nz/tours
The Blackhouse, facebook.com/pg/BlackHouseUwhiarae/about
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com