Herald journalists show a different side of our politicians in the series Leaders Unplugged. Today, Jamie Morton calls into Māori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer's spin class in Hāwera
I hear Debbie Ngarewa-Packer before I see her.
It's mid-morning in Hāwera, the sleepy Taranaki town at the south end of the mountain, and I find the Māori co-leader in an old hall, perched upon an exercycle, stirring on her spin class.
This is the IronMāori ki Whānau Gym, where you can come for a fun work-out, no matter your age and shape, and not have to worry about feeling judged.
I've turned up in jeans and merino and politely wave "no thanks" when one of the members points me to a vacant exercycle at the head of the group.
Ngarewa-Packer shoots me a smile and leads the class into one final push. For a moment I'm amused at the thought of your work-out instructor also being a major political candidate.
But this is Ngarewa-Packer, the high-energy, high-achiever who's been known to finish a meeting and then dash off for a run or a quick surf.
And this is Hāwera, population, 9810. When we swing by McDonald's drive-through to get coffee, a local spots her and they wind down their windows for a quick yarn.
Later, when she starts chatting to a recently-arrived developer, I note she doesn't introduce herself as Debbie Ngarewa-Packer – a well-known name around these parts – but just "Debbie", cousin of another local the guy might've met already.
The 53-year-old has already been many things. The young single mum-cum-entrepreneur. The Stanford University scholar. The deputy mayor. The boss of Te Reo Irirangi o Taranaki, the National Māori Radio Collective and Te Runanga o Ngati Ruanui.
The grass-roots community activist who's campaigned on everything from local school closures and seabed mining to racism.
But before all that we had Debbie, the kid from a Pātea freezing worker family, who grew up in a three-generation homestead. There were cousins, marching, Brownies, netball, endless days at the beach, surfing and gathering kai.
"I'd just kick out with my friends and cousins. I don't ever remember missing school. At night-time we'd listen to the radio. My koko, [Ueroa Hohepa Ngarewa, whose own family became prisoners after the infamous invasion of Parihaka] and I would just sit in bed and talk. It was like The Waltons, really."
Hāwera was the big smoke. Whanganui, 47 minutes down State Highway 3, was "basically overseas".
"Once, I snuck to the pub," she recalls of her teen years in Pātea.
"I remember doing it thinking no one is going to see me with my cousins. It must have been about two hours after I left – don't forget, this was when there was no internet and very few landlines – and all my aunties and Mum and Dad knew. There was no neighbourhood watch, but there were Māori wardens on a whole other level."
Home today is a farmhouse on local tūpuna land, where she lives with husband Neil, two children and a son-in-law, two mokopuna, dogs, sheep and chooks.
Instead of heading there, we keep moving down the highway, and then turn off to Pariroa, her 125-year-old home marae.
It was founded by Ngarewa-Packer's ancestor, Tutange Waionui, who once fought alongside the legendary Riwha Tītokowaru. Hanging on the wall is another famous face, Dalvanius Prime.
Anyone who's seen 2016's Poi E: The Story of Our Song, will know how that anthem Prime originated helped lift morale following the devastating closure of Patea's freezing works.
Ngarewa-Packer is happy to talk about those hard times, where communities held together with the help of some "amazing aunties". While she experienced the impact herself at the time, moving back home in the mid-30s still proved a wake-up. But she points out Pātea was just a chapter in a wider story; the legacy of land confiscation still causes pain today. An "overwhelming sense of unfairness" is how she puts it.
"When I was at New Plymouth Girls' High School, I was one of a handful of Māori boarders. There were a lot of farmer's children and I'd listen to them talking about the names of farmers. My koko would tell me, that was our land. I could not reconcile that, to be honest. I couldn't understand why they were on our land."
Our last stop is Pātea beach. The surf here is typically punchy and hollow, and Ngarewa-Packer looks out at the waves like she wished she'd brought her board. That's one way she keeps clear-headed.
Otherwise, she loves browsing second-hand shops and up-selling her finds on TradeMe.
And then, of course, there's whānau and fitness, which IronMāori ki Whānau Gym happily combines for her.
"The hardest thing I've found in the life I live now is staying mindful. You've got to stay well - and put everything in the right space."