Elisabeth Easther meets Nadine Toe Toe of Kohutapu Lodge and Tribal Tours, Murupara.
My first job after leaving school was presenting the farm show at Rainbow Farm. I'd grown up on a dairy farm in a little country town called Ngakuru. After applying for the job, I was given a script that felt the size of a phone book and I had three days to learn it before being put on stage. I was really nervous. I wasn't sure I could do it. But they miked me up and put me in front of 300 people and it all kicked in. At the end the audience clapped and the boss said "well done you've got the job". Then he asked if I'd noticed anything about the audience. I hadn't. Then he told me they were all non-English speakers wearing translators, so if I had mucked up, it wouldn't have mattered.
At the end of my degree, I did a six-month internship with Tourism Rotorua which turned into a full-time job. I'd never been out of New Zealand at that stage, and it wasn't till I started in the international department that I travelled overseas for the first time. Going to trade shows promoting Rotorua as a destination, I went to Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, Korea, China, India Australia, England, Holland.
I started to lose count of the countries I went to. Flying into Mumbai at night, it was as if the ground was blanketed in stars, lights as far as the eye could see. But outside the airport, the culture shock hit.
There was noise and chaos, people were grabbing at us, and it seemed as though there were no road rules. There was rubbish everywhere, dogs, horses and carts, bullocks, tuk tuks, and so much tooting. We pulled up in front of a beautiful hotel and to get inside, we literally stepped over people sleeping on the ground. But as soon as the doors shut behind us, it was silent. Air conditioning, gold plate, marble floors, such a juxtaposition from outside. The next morning, when we were setting up our booths, housekeeping unpacked my bag, ironed my shirts, polished my shoes, they even took every bit of hair out of my hairbrush.
We travelled to Mumbai, Hyderabad, Delhi, Bangalore, and each morning the hotel would pack our breakfast in cake boxes. A hard-boiled egg, a donut with pretend cream, Indian sweets, sandwiches, cakes. At the airport, I'd gather the boxes from my travel companions and give food to people who were begging. I vividly remember one lady with a toddler and a little baby, they were sitting on a dirty rug next to a rubbish bin. I showed her the box and she reached in and scooped the mock cream out of the donut and started shovelling it into her baby's mouth like she was a little bird.
We work hard at Kohutapu Lodge and we don't have many holidays but when we get an opportunity, I love hunting with my husband Karl, who was born and bred here. One time we flew into the Ureweras and landed in the middle of nowhere. The pilot said he'd pick us up in three days. It was the time of year called "the roar", when the stags are roaring. We chose an animal to target, then the weather started to turn. Pretty soon there's torrential rain coming down, there's mud in the barrel of the gun and there's no way we're going to shoot the stag that's roaring at us insanely. Karl is aware the rivers will soon flood, and he wants us to get back to camp. It's all downhill and we're running at speed, jumping over rocks with waterfalls starting to form. Karl knows the land like back of his hand and he leads us down and we pop out just above our camp. The bottle of wine I'd left chilling in the now swollen river is thankfully still there, and a couple of beers for Karl. We managed to light a fire, and we settled in under the tarp to tell stories. The next morning the sun came out, we shot a beautiful stag, and the chopper came to fly us home with kai for the family. That was one of the best hunting trips ever.
When I was working for Tamaki Heritage Group, my husband and I used to talk about starting our own business. One thing I know, people crave authentic experiences — and you can't get more real than Murupara. We have native rainforests, rivers, lakes, mountains, waterfalls and, above all, a beautiful story of survival. Murupara used to thrive, but it really suffered when forestry slumped. The town got quite a bad reputation but it's actually a really colourful place with beautiful people. For the kids in this town, for a while it did feel like they had a limited future. But since we've been bringing tourists to the school for community visits, we've noticed a change in their confidence, behaviour and schoolwork. Our visitors help the kids see that the world is bigger than Murupara. Five years ago, we'd ask the young people: "What do you want to do?" And they'd say "nothing" or maybe "work at McDonald's". Now they want to be graphic designers, pilots, engineers. We're leaving these kids a legacy not based around money or power, but around kindness and empathy and making a difference.
Further information: see kohutapulodge.co.nz