A Danish photographer who spent a memorable six months on the Whanganui River in 1996 has published a book to show why it is so important to iwi.

The book is Te Ahi Kā - The Fires of Occupation, and elders from the river were in Auckland on December 5, to bless it as it arrived in New Zealand. It consists of photographs taken by Martin Toft and conversations he had with kaumātua. It is distributed in New Zealand by Oratia Books.

Toft came to the river during a troubled time. He was a naive young man looking for a project. He memorised enough te reo Māori to speak on the marae at Tieke, during the occupation there.

Some there wanted to start a second occupation upriver at Mangapapapa, a former kainga just downstream from John Coull Hut on the east bank of the river.


Toft and his new friend Te Tawhero (Harry) Haitana were among 50 who arrived at Mangapapapa in jetboats on April 25, 1996, to rekindle the fires of occupation - te ahi kā.

"It was a tremendous experience and a privilege to be part of it. There were a lot of different ceremonies. They started at dawn, with Mark Cribb, down by the river."

Toft cemented his place in the group by saying "The Vikings of the north have come to meet the Vikings of the sunrise", Haitana remembers.

He stayed there with the group for five days, and they put up a shelter. Toft put in the first post, earning the name Pouma Pokai-whenua and becoming part of the extended family.

Hokio Ngataierua greets an ancestor. Photo / Martin Toft
Hokio Ngataierua greets an ancestor. Photo / Martin Toft

Mangapapapa is a former kainga with an urupa (graveyard). It's a very old and sacred area, Haitana said. While there the group spent time in the forest, talking with the spirits of tupuna (ancestors). There was no "hocus pocus" about it, Toft said - it was a beautiful experience.

They returned to Pipiriki to find a young man had been drowned in the river, and Toft joined a group that searched for him for weeks, until he was found and his tangihanga held. By that time he had to leave New Zealand because his visa had run out.

He went to London, but stayed in touch with his extended family and the Te Wānanga o Mangapapapa Trust formed during the occupation. He researched Whanganui River matters and returned for a month in late 2016, to take more photographs and ask his Mangapapapa whānau to collaborate on a book.

It felt as if he had been away a day, not 20 years, and his return was emotional for both.


He returned to Europe where the book was put together, using late 1800s photographs of river people to illustrate the decades they have fought to get their land rights recognised.

Alfred Henry Burton photographed Rane near Taumarunui in the late 1800s.
Alfred Henry Burton photographed Rane near Taumarunui in the late 1800s.

The trust applied for the funding needed to publish it, and got $26,000 from Te Mana o Te Awa, Creative Communities and Lotteries.

The 1500 copies were designed and printed in Poland, and launched in Paris and on the Channel Island of Jersey, where Toft now lives. The book was well received in Europe, bought mainly by book collectors and people interested in contemporary photography.

It's an unusual book, with two potential covers. Inside are photographs, with the text of recorded conversations in seven foldouts behind them.

There are none of the usual cliched photographs of Whanganui River gorges, Toft said. Instead he wanted to capture the dark presence of the bush.

"I wanted images of the native bush, because for Māori people the trees are ancestors."

A minibus of Mangapapapa kaumātua was on hand to say karakia and bless the books as they arrived in Auckland on December 5. The trust will have 150 to give away, and royalties of books sold in the southern hemisphere will go to it.

The project completed, Toft hopes he will return to the river.

"I'm always there in spirit. Whenever I need some guidance I'm always thinking about my family there, and the land itself and what we did," he said.

Meanwhile, way up the river, Mangapapapa is still occupied from time to time, Haitana said.

"Mangapapapa for me is like a haven, a place where you can go and relax and let your hair down. More importantly, it's a place of wānanga, for various groups of people who want to talk about the river."

He said the Mangapapapa land was never put up for sale.

"The government of the time had literally stolen it. We weren't just fighting with DoC, it was the regional and it was all sorts of people. They were saying you have no right to be there, get off. There's no way in hell we are going to get off there."

Haitana is the chairman of the trust, which has an agreement with DoC. Its people can come and go, and host visitors they have agreed to.

There are toilets, showers and water tanks there, and the trust hopes to put up a wharepuni and fence the urupa this summer.