Descendants of a prominent Wairarapa Maori chief have restored an historic urupa, or cemetery, during a series of working bees that brought family home to toil from as far away as Brisbane.

Spokeswoman Marlene Matiaha-Paewai said about 50 descendants of Ngatuere Tawhirimatea Tawhao had completed hours of weekend working bees since January to restore headstones, tidy plots and grassed areas, and repaint fencing and graveside surrounds at the Te Uru O Tane (Black Bridge) urupa, which is sited near the Waiohine River and the twin bridges between Greytown and Carterton.

Mrs Matiaha-Paewai said there were more than 100 graves at the site, which was also the resting place of her renowned tipuna, or ancestor, Ngatuere Tawhirimatea Tawhao.

The gravestone of Ngati Kahungunu chief Ngatuere Tawhirimatea Tawhao, who was believed to be 117 at the time of his death despite his monument marking his age as 90. PHOTO/ANDREW BONALLACK
The gravestone of Ngati Kahungunu chief Ngatuere Tawhirimatea Tawhao, who was believed to be 117 at the time of his death despite his monument marking his age as 90. PHOTO/ANDREW BONALLACK

"There were a few people there who died in the 1918 flu epidemic. We become involved because my Mum and Dad, Ted and Marcia Matiaha, are laying here too, and my husband and I plan on coming down here as well when our time comes."


A sign was unveiled last Saturday that bore the name of the urupa, and the tangata whenua, brought together by the shared work, renewed bonds with each other and with their ancestral homeland of Wairarapa.

"What we managed to do was bring a lot of people home to reconnect with Wairarapa and with each other, and it hasn't been easy to get back for some of them," she said. "It has been excellent and it was all our people who made the tasks easy even though it was hard work in hot, hot weather."

Mrs Matiaha-Paewai said whanau members, young and old, had come from across North Island, with relatives of Ron Mark, NZ First deputy leader and Wairarapa list MP, coming from their homes in Brisbane to also lend a hand in the restoration.

"They heeded the call and came home to help and those who wanted to be here and couldn't come, sent koha and resources that allowed us to buy paint and the tools we needed to get the work done."

Urupa trustees who led the restoration included Joel Ngatuere, Wendy Hynes Thompson, Tom Hemi, Noeline Butters, Josie Matiaha, and Michael Roera, she said, while Jasen Ngatuere constructed the new urupa sign.

Trustees plan to also place a plaque at the cemetery that will trace an outline of the life and deeds of Ngatuere Tawhirimatea Tawhao. Two other whanau urupa sited near Gladstone, Ngai Taneroa and Amahua, would also be cleared, cleaned and restored.

Wairarapa historian Gareth Winter said Ngatuere Tawhirimatea Tawhao was a prominent Wairarapa rangatira about which much had been written during and since his lifetime.

There is a tradition that he had brokered peace in the region after approaching a hostile war party, either King movement or Hauhau, in the mid-1860s; and with other Wairarapa chiefs Ngatuere met Governor George Grey to discuss keeping the peace in Wairarapa.

Ngatuere was said to be 117-years-old at his death in 1890. He was buried at Te Uru O Tane urupa, which is believed to be sited close to where he was born at Te Paparu, a Wairarapa pa near Te Ahikouka in a heavily forested area of the valley. The stretch of forest that towered from Greytown to Masterton was known to early European settlers as Three Mile Bush.

The naming of the urupa as Te Uru O Tane (Black Bridge), the Maori wording of which translates to the entrance to the forest of Tane, also recalled the designation of the bridge spanning the Waiohine River that was completed by Charles Rooking Carter (after whom Carterton was named). That first bridge had been painted black.

The area was significant to Maori as the sacred confluence of the Waiohine, Matarawa and Mangatarere rivers, according to Ngati Kahungunu ki Wairarapa researcher Rawiri Smith.

Te Uru O Tane and its surrounds and nearby waterways also figure in Ngati Kahungunu ki Wairarapa claim documents presented to the Waitangi Tribunal and was at the centre of a Crown officials site visit in 2014.

Mr Winter said a second more southerly bridge spanning a Waiohine River spillway was painted white and was known, of course, as White Bridge.

Ngatuere Tawhirimatea Tawhao was also the subject of a head and shoulders portrait painted by Gottfried Lindauer sometime during the final decade of Ngatuere's life.

He featured as well in an upper body carte de visite photographic portrait created by Reverend William Ronaldson sometime in the late 1870s and there are photographic images of the esteemed rangatira still hanging in the Anzac Hall in Featherston.

The Lindauer portrait of Ngatuere, with a full facial ta moko, which had been with his whanau for more than a century, was expertly restored in 2007 and handed on long-term loan to the Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art and History in Masterton by the late kaumatua Tu Ngatuere, the chief's great, great grandson - who is also buried at Te Uru O Tane (Black Bridge).

The valuable portrait had only ever before been put on display at a handful of tangi, or funerals, and art historians had been unaware of its existence, apart from the expert who authenticated the unsigned oil painting.