Warren Skerrett: There are few signs, but this was our place


OPINION: Few people believe today that Whakatipu was once a thriving local seasonal settlement, hundreds of years before Pakeha (Europeans) arrived.

The first European to set eyes on Whakatipu wai Maori (Lake Whakatipu) was Nathaniel Chalmers in 1853.

He was curious about the unexplored central lakes region and, for the payment of a three-legged pot, secured a Maori guide by the name of Reko – a powerful Maori chief from Tuturau, in Southland.

They journeyed up the Nevis Valley and, at the summit, en route to Wanaka and Hawea, Chalmers spied the lake.

Chalmers suffered severe food poisoning and, close to death, was taken by local Maori down the Matau (Mataura River) in a mokihikihi raft (traditional Maori raft, crafted from river reeds), where he was reconnected to European life.

Such is the significance of this event that debate raged in recent years on whether to name a peak in the Hector Range after Sir Edmund Hillary, Reko the famous chief or his three-legged pot, Te Kohua.

(It was eventually named Mt Tuwhakaroria. In the legend, Rakaihautu was said to have formed the southern lakes with Tuwhakaroria, his digging stick.)

So what brought Maori to endure the lakes for such a long period? Of course its beauty, pounamu (greenstone) extracted for tools and ornaments, but most importantly, the harvesting of taramea (spear grass or wild spaniard), found on the mountainous snowlines.

This was highly-valued as a perfume and only the wealthy could afford it.

The grass was heated to extract the scent, then soaked in feathers or flax balls and hung from their neck (hei). This was taken to coastal villages and traded for goods, especially titi (mutton bird), a highly-valued protein source that was preserved in giant kelp bags, called poha, for winter.

(The ancient family tradition of harvesting titi from satellite islands off southern Stewart Island still carries on today.)

Virtually overnight, Maori in the Whakatipu disappeared – at about the same time early Europeans invaded.

Employment to coastal sealing gangs and potato-cropping enabled year-round food.

Disease and disharmony decimated traditional life, almost wiping out the race completely. Hundreds of years of ancient ways were changed forever, which ultimately led to the Treaty of Waitangi.

It’s profoundly sad that few local physical examples of the people, their stories and artefacts are available to display.

Traditional tribal populations settled near the coast, where the majority of Ngai Tahu’s resources now reside.

This and European colonisation overshadowed most original names, places and culture.

With such strong local history, it’s unfortunate we do not have the facility to show how ancient Maori adapted, endured and thrived – and that their descendants still live here.

What I’m pleased about is these enduring people were great lovers of their land and connect-ed with every piece of earth.

When you are mesmerised by the beauty of this place, you can take heart.

Those pre-European occupants had already named these places with meaning and love. Their ancestors watch over this place today.

The legends endure forever, like Haki Te Kura, the first to swim across the lake, and her father chief Tuwhiriroa. Then there’s Matau, the burnt ogre, whose remnants formed the lake, where his heart still beats today.

Warren Skerrett is a Ngai Tahu resident and titi harvester