Elisabeth Easther talks to Merv Harding of Tu Tika Tours.

Growing up in the early 70s, we had two whenua in Northland — Whangaruru on my dad's side and up near Kaeo in Whangaroa on mum's side — and in the holidays we'd go to those beaches and camp out. The only thing I remember us buying was heaps of oil and flour for the bread, everything else we got from the land or the sea. Every day was one big adventure, and we didn't realise we were learning important lessons at the same time.

We were a rugby-mad family — still are — and I got my first chance to be a traveller when I was about 11. I made the rugby team going to Australia and if I thought Whāngārei was big, all of a sudden I'm flying into Australia, and that really was big. The things that stood out for me there were the brownness, the red brick and their Pepsi cans were made of aluminium. And I will always remember my first time seeing a crocodile and a snake.

When I was at Whāngārei Boys High, the principal kindly gave us a week off to visit Rotorua for kapa haka and rugby. You can just imagine, all that testosterone rolling into town, and they all go: "Check out those Ngāpuhi, still sending their waka down here to steal our wāhine." Only this time we're on a bus.


Once I got into kapa haka, I became really interested in my ancestors and where I came from. And when I finished School C, some family friends were starting up a cultural group to capture tourists in Whāngārei and they asked if I wanted to join. My dad said, "No boy, no. You go back to school and you learn a trade. You get your education. You're good at kapa haka, but you're not going to make money out of it." So I went and asked Mum. There was an audition and an interview and when I got accepted, eventually Dad gave in. I did two six-month terms, then I had an offer from Te Waka Huia. They were running the same thing in Auckland, and because they had the contract at Auckland Museum, that was next level for me.

About 20 of us went to Hawaii to perform and that was a real eye-opener. But I was only 20 on that trip — I'm blaming my age — and on our second to last night we decided to have a bit of a party. Along the way I got hungry so I go to McDonald's to get a feed. Unfortunately I got into a ruckus and I ended up behind bars. They let me go, but that was pretty traumatic and I was seriously reprimanded. But they had faith in me and I was very lucky to be able to call myself part of Pounamu whānau after that.

Years later, we took our kids to America and when we applied for the visa, they asked if I had a record. I had to be honest so I ticked yes because of what happened in Hawaii. Although they couldn't find any record of me over there, so we're faxing all these documents and it all looks cool. When we get to the airport, my mum, four kids and my wife Rangimarie, we're lined up when someone says, "Come with me, please sir, your visa isn't issued". So they all carried on to America and I cried like a baby as I watched my family walk through departures.

I came home and jumped on the internet. I sent emails with "Desperate Father" in the subject line to local parliamentarians — and I turned up at Anaheim Disneyland where the family was staying and snuck into the motel. I didn't tell them I was coming and I waited for them to come home. When they saw me, everyone was on a big high and we had a blast from then.

When we got to Hawaii, we were staying with a tour guide called Demont Connor and the stories from his culture really resonated with us. We could feel their sorrow and the love, and we wouldn't have felt it so strongly if we'd not been staying with his whānau. When we were first married, Rangimarie and I had talked about starting a tourism business and Tu Tika Tours was reignited because of that trip. We knew we wanted to welcome people into our home, and share our stories. We offer visitors authenticity, they sit at our table and share our food. It's manaakitanga.

What I'm learning from the people who come to us, they're doing the travelling but it's like I'm on the trip too because even though we tell them about us, we're also discovering things about their lives without having to go anywhere. I'm definitely the lucky one.

Further information: see tutikatours.co.nz