Even though it's early Monday morning, the beach in front of New Zealand's longest wharf at Ūawa (Tolaga Bay) is surprisingly busy. Cars are parked on the sand among the driftwood, windows rolled down while their occupants swap stories from the weekend past. Sunshine bounces off the white sandstone cliffs — the East Cape being the first place in the world to greet the sunrise each day — while waves gently fold in towards shore.
Gazing out at the scene, I wonder what it looked like when Captain James Cook first arrived here, the Endeavour's anchor sinking deep into sublime blue waters.
My train of thought is far from original. History buffs have long made the trip to the Tairāwhiti region to see where Cook first landed in Gisborne's Poverty Bay and later at Ūawa.
But I'm not here to learn about Cook. I'm here to explore the more than 400 years of history that came before that. The spot in Tūranganui-a-Kiwa (Poverty Bay) where Cook landed is also where waka hourua or ocean-voyaging canoes first docked, bringing Polynesian explorers to their new home.
As a Canadian Pākehā traveller, it's clear to me how deeply ingrained colonial narratives continue to be in tourism. So I'm attempting to reprogramme the lens through which I view Tairāwhiti's history, starting with walking the Tupapa Heritage Trail. Launched last year, the path and its accompanying app tell the story of Polynesian exploration and settlement through the eyes of local iwi.
Starting at the statue of Young Nick, I set out with my phone in hand. On the banks of the Tūranganui River, I watch locals fish while I listen to a video about the importance of kaimoana (seafood). Further along, near the marina, I learn about the ancestral wakas: Horouta, Takitimu and Te Ilkaroa-a-Rauru. They travelled more than 4000km across the open ocean, with only ancient navigational techniques at their disposal.
Glancing up, I see a real-life example moored nearby. Operated by Waka Voyagers Tairāwhiti, the double-hulled canoe is one of only nine in the world. On day trips aboard the floating classroom, local students learn from Te Aturangi Nepia-Clamp, an expert in ancient Polynesian navigation techniques. He's also one of the personalities featured on the Tupapa app.
Next, I reach the Puhi Kai Iti Cook Landing Site, where the obelisk to commemorate Cook pales in comparison to the stories spilling through my headphones. It's also overshadowed by the site's latest addition, a memorial to the Māori who were shot by the Endeavour crew, which stands where there was once a whare wānanga (place of learning).
"The ancestors deposited all their knowledge here," explains Nick Tupara, the Ngāti Oneone artist behind the installation. With circular steel tukutuku panels (the largest in the world), paddles representing early explorers and wakas, and giant gourds, Tupara says the site was designed as a gathering place. His hope is that it's used by locals and travellers alike to share stories of their journeys — much as how it may have been used centuries ago.
"We get to stand here today because of our ancestors. I hope that in the future this will be the Tairāwhiti story," he says, gesturing around him.
At my final destination — the summit of Titirangi — a 3D map explains how Polynesians navigated thousands of kilometres of open ocean, following birds and using constellations as their guides.
I'm no longer thinking exclusively of Cook, but navigating the history of Polynesian explorers still feels disorienting. Narratives vary from region to region, with stories that intertwine, complement and even contradict. Oral traditions were never designed to fit neatly on an interpretative panel.
Yet, despite it all, the threads of this history are infinitely more rewarding to untangle than that of Cook's legacy alone. As colonial statues are being toppled around the world, Tairāwhiti Gisborne is pioneering what the future of social justice in tourism may look like, with an emphasis on New Zealand's dual heritage and our common bond as voyagers to Aotearoa.
As I walk down the hill, I notice the kōwhai are beginning to bloom. Tupara tells me that their flowers are a reminder that the anniversary of Cook's arrival is near — and a signal that the whales, which the Polynesians followed to reach Aotearoa, are ready to return once again.
The Tupapa Heritage Trail and App
Starting near the statue of Young Nick at Waikanae Beach and ending atop the summit of Titirangi, the Tupapa Heritage Trail passes 10 markers that tell the story of Polynesian exploration, Māori settlement and the arrival of Europeans in the Gisborne area. For a fully immersive experience, download the free Tupapa app, which features video narration and graphic novels in both English and te reo Māori. Budget at least two hours to take it all in. tupapa.nz
If apps and interpretative panels aren't your preferred method of learning, Tipuna Tours offers guided excursions of the six-kilometre Cook's Cove Walkway at Ūawa (Tolaga Bay), one hour north of Gisborne. Run by father-daughter duo Hana Sky-Walker and Victor Walker, Tipuna's tours explore the area's heritage, including the first encounters between Captain James Cook and the local tangata whenua in 1769. A five-hour tour includes transfers from Gisborne.
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com