2nd July – Stray Bus: Kohutapu Lodge

The Stray bus picks me up from Rotorua at 12:50, so I have the morning to check out and do whatever I need.  I intend to have one last look around town to get gloves (most of yesterday was spent walking around Government Gardens and shopping in Boutique Street for a winter coat), but get so caught up in catching up with my blog since it was several days behind, that I ended up staying in the hostel all morning and missing when the bus arrived.

My new driver is one of the very few females Stray has in their employ – Nat.  The bus is also white instead of orange, which is how I missed it so easily.  Also coming along were mother and son A&B who were previously on my bus and have been managing to tick a lot of people off (before I hopped on Mavericks, he’d actually begged someone to take the front seat before she did, because the day before she’d driven him up the wall all day).  Not happy their still on my bus, but what can you do?  We also pick up two girls from Base who were also on my previous tour, and reunite with a girl who stayed in Raglan earlier, before heading out of Rotorua.

Today is a little different as we won’t be staying in a town but at a small lodge next to lake Aniwhenua.  Before we get there though, we’re getting a short tour of the area from a Maori local, who drives up to meet us about an hour or so from our destination.  Her name is Hariata Murphy, a Maori woman whose great-grandfather was Irish, and she’s very proud of it.  She’s also pretty new to guiding, as it’s only her sixth bus.

The first stop is literally stopping at the side of the road, slipping into an almost non-existent path in the woods.  A few minutes later you come across a tiny stairwell, and at the bottom, surrounded by a cage, is a collection of rock carvings embedded in the rock sheltered by the cliff.

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Hariata explained that these are the oldest known carvings in New Zealand, carved by the Polynesian Marangaranga people who got lost while trying to travel to the East (and quite possibly predated the local Maori tribes).  Sadly, the ran afoul of the local Maori clans, who systematically slaughtered them and took the four most beautiful women as his brides.  These four brides were then separated and placed in separate Marae’s on his land – which still stand and have been named after them.  These carvings were found in 1925, and the cage was erected after tourists started defacing the wall in 1971, writing their name, the date and covering a wall in beer and other designs, completely obliterating one of the larger boat carvings in the process.

Despite their historical value, most people – even the locals, aren’t aware that the carvings are even here.  Hariata herself only learned of their existence after starting to work for the lodge we’re staying at.  It’s one of the rare things in New Zealand that most would never see, and their rather beautiful to see.

We then drive through Hariata’s home town, ‘Murupara’ which has been suffering the last several decades when the government sold off all the trees in the local area (most of the forest actually belongs to Harvard in America).  Before this, the town was fairly isolated but thriving through its logging industry.  When the jobs vanished, poverty, crime and gang life started to take its place.  It’s only through recent years with the lodge trying to revitalise the area through tourism that they’ve managed to start injecting money into the town.  It’s a small area, with a Maori-school (where thanks to a Japanese teacher, children can learn Maori, English, Japanese and Mandarin), ‘Rumble Hill’ where you went if you had a problem with anyone, a Marae, one police officer, one doctor and a handful of shops.  It’s a tiny little town that still lives by the ‘everyone knows everyone’ philosophy.

We then drive past our home for the night, Kohutapu Lodge, and off to check out Lake Aniwhenua.  There are two dams that are used to generate power, one at Lake, the other at Lake Aniwhenua.  This has helped with power problems, but has had an unforeseen effect on the wildlife.  The local Maori tribe which Hariata is a member of, is the ‘Ngati Manawa’ – The Eel people.  The lake is full of eel, which they eat regularly.  However, eels reproduce by swimming up the rivers and hitting the ocean, eventually coming back the way they came.  Thanks to the dams, the rivers are no longer easily accessible, and many of the eels end up swimming through the waterways leading to turbines.  Due to this, there’s been a significant decrease in the eel population – the local conservationists currently put nets in the waterways in order to catch eels during spawning season and drive them 40km past the dams in order to help them survive, and they’re desperately campaigning to get eel corridors put in the dams to make it easier for the wildlife, but so far it’s fallen on deaf ears.

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Our last stop is close to the power station, checking out the waterfall a little further down the Rangitaiki river.  Thanks to the rain, it’s extremely powerful and looks pretty impressive.  It’s also been taped off with ‘do not cross’ tape…that Hariata chooses to ignore and we follow.

Finally, we head back the way we came and drive into the Kohutapu lodge which is situated on the Lake.  The owner is Nade, a Maori woman who doesn’t look it thanks to a white parent, who is also heavily pregnant but doesn’t let it stop her from being infectiously enthusiastic.

The lodge is separated into living areas and communal areas.  On the left is the rooms, consisting of two sets of bunkbeds and a heater.  I’m a little late to getting a room so end up with a top bunk, before heading out and looking out over the lake.  This place has an incredible view of the lake, it’s spectacular, even in the cold.  The lodge also has a collection of animals, including calves, a pig, a goat, some deer and a very moody ostrich.  Tonight allows us to try a few activities before having dinner, and having another question and answer session with Hariata about the area and local Maori tribe.  It’s $75 for the accommodation, tour and food, and the activities cost extra.  For Stray passengers its $10 for one activity, and $15 for two, with the exception of kayaking which isn’t running due to the weather, and eeling which is $20 (and also not running because of the weather).

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Once everyone’s settled in, it’s time to watch our dinner begin cooking.  At the lodge, we get food cooked by the traditional ‘hangi’ method.  Normally this would involve digging a hole in the ground, but as the lodge has so many visitors, they’ve built a permanent oven.  First you get a specific type of rock (usually found in the rivers or spat out of volcanoes and has a large amount of quartz) and heat them until they glow white.  Then you take your food, and place it on top.  Traditionally they would have used flax containers, but nowadays use metal cages, and you place it depending on cooking times.  The pork goes on the bottom, chicken in the middle, and the vegetables on top.  Then you cover it with a thin linen material, and pour some water on it to make it steam before covering it with hessian sacks to contain as much as possible.  Finally, you put on a protective cover, and then men come in with shovels to bury said cover in sand/dirt.  By the end of it, your fire is nothing but a giant mud mountain, hiding a steam oven.

It’s actually a very healthy way to cook, as there’s no oil or extra ingredients added in order to cook the meat.  It should take about 2 ½ for everything to cook so long as the hangi was done right, so we have time to do some activities before we eat.  I’d paid to try my hand at weaving and poi making, so head into the living area (with the fire!) to try my luck.

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The weaving involves taking a large flax leaf (which you can find in a lot of areas in New Zealand), splitting the top part into four and grabbing a thinner piece about the width of the four split pieces.  You then wrap the big leaf around the widest part of your hand, and use a clothes peg to hold it in place.  Once you have the width sorted out, you pull down two pieces of the flax, and pop the thinner piece between them and the pieces still upwards (leaving a tail at the front).  The small piece is then pull tightly around the flax you measured against your wrist, creating a circle and taking it back to the front, before doing the same with the pieces of flax you didn’t bend down the first time, and repeating until you reach the end of the bracelet.  This creates a pretty patchwork pattern, and when you finally get to the end, you have to cut the remaining flax at an angle and slip the large pieces under the already existing design to finish it off.  Everyone had trouble with this, and the teacher (Aunt Marge) generally had to do it for us.  At the end of the day, I had a pretty awesome bracelet…although it was too big for my hand as I’d clearly overestimated when measuring it.

This type of weaving was used by the Maori a lot, as even now they use it to create bowls, containers and clothing.  It’s really simple and a pretty awesome way to use the local plants – if I find some flax on my route I might try my luck at making a smaller bracelet next time.

The next activity was poi making.  Originally this was meant to be some kind of weapons activity, but the man who normally does it wasn’t available, so Hariata stepped up to provide an alternative.  Since I’ve been looking for poi ever since Australia, I jump at the chance at making my own.  This doesn’t quite work as well as the bracelet though – you first have to get six chunks of heavy string, braid 3 together to make the ropes (which is a lot harder than it sounds with so much loose wool), then tie it round soft toy foam before wrapping it in plastic sheeting.  Mine ended up being pretty awful, and Hariata let me take one she made earlier, but they’re clearly not as good as I’d hoped.  Least I have an idea on how to make them now though.

With our new acquisitions, it was almost time to pull out the hangi.  First the guys unburied it, and once all the layers came off, the smell hit us.  All of it smelt incredible – you don’t need any additional ingredients, just the smell of pork and chicken was gorgeous.   They were taken into the kitchen to prepare, and we headed up to enjoy it in addition to all the veg and stuffing.  There was also fried bread which one of the girls had made for her activity.  It was rather sweet but really good to have with the meat.

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I don’t normally like pork, but the hangi made it soft and tender and delicious – the crackling was even soft and I had to remind myself that there were other people on the tour and I couldn’t eat the whole plate myself.  They also had potatoes, kumara, pumpkin and vegetable stuffing (that was a lot better than I expected).  As an added bonus, we didn’t have plates, but bowls created from the weaving flax that we’d done earlier – they were pretty awesome.

Once we’d eaten, Hariata came out with a petition for the eel corridors that she asked us to sign, and then handed out some letters written by children.  Normally, tomorrow Stray would take us into town and hand the leftover hangi meals to the schoolchildren.  We’d get to interact with them and help with activities – but tomorrow was a Sunday, and the school wouldn’t be open.  The food would still go to them, but we wouldn’t be able to do it.  Instead, we could read the letters the children had sent 2 years ago, when the lodge had stopped taking in Stray passengers so they could take a holiday and the kids had thought they would never be coming back.  Some of them are utterly adorable, and I really wish I’d had the chance to visit the school.  Probably a good reason to come back.

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Hariata also went into why the lodge does what it does – revitalising the area for tourism.  It’s the first time she’d ever had to do the speech, as its normally Nade, so she was a little nervous.  Did a great job though.

However, it was at this point that A (who I mentioned earlier) managed to rub some people the wrong way.  Once the speech was done, she stood up and asked to do a prayer for the lodge.  It was probably meant in a nice way, but a lot of people felt awkward, and the time felt inappropriate.  She really managed to tick me off though, when we were all cleaning up the kitchen and one of the pet cats, a fully black one, ran across the kitchen to get out the door.  I joked with Hariata that I couldn’t remember if a black cat crossing your path was good or bad luck, when A interjected with something along the lines of:

A: Don’t worry, superstitions aren’t real, there’s no proof to them.

Me: (surprised that she’s bringing it up, especially as I’d said it in a jokey manner) Well some people could say that about religion

A: (looking at me like I’m five years old) Superstitions are fake.  Religion is true

Considering she was in a building that was dedicated to celebrating Maori life, who have their own religions and beliefs, I found it rather insulting and demeaning.  I might not believe in a lot of superstitions but I still follow quite a few of them (don’t go under ladders, don’t walk on cracked pavements, no new shoes on tables), and that she could say something like that had my hackles raised.  I ended up walking away so I didn’t say something insulting to an elderly woman.

The Q&A with Hariata was a little subdued, probably as most of our questions about Maori culture had been answered at the Marae stay, and the biggest source of conversation was Hariata’s great-grandfather.  Some of the Irish girls on the tour said she should enter an Irish pageant based on personality and celebrating Irish woman all over the world.  Actually sounded very enthusiastic about the idea, so watch this space for the Maori Rose of Tralee!

Around ten everyone called it a night, but A still managed to tick people off when around Midnight, for whatever reason – she changed rooms.  Walked into ours and took the spare bed, not taking any care to be quiet, turning off the heater (which was the only reason we weren’t all freezing) and not closing the door properly.  And then she wonders why people hate sitting next to her?

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About Batale

I am an aspiring writer - though since I haven't written anything original in about 2 years, so calling me a writer is like calling a man who makes dinner every night a 5 star chef. I started this blog to force me to write. From the 1st January 2013, I intend to update this blog every day. If nothing interesting happens, I'll write about something that does interest me, whether that is a movie, a book, something I've heard about, or even some of my stories growing up.
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