Te Araroa sleeps in the belly of the whale, visits a small school, and walks through a rainstorm

Ratana Temple

In March 1918 Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana was camped on the coastline between the Whangaehu and Turakina Rivers. Big west coast waves were rolling in, and they suddenly disgorged two whales on the beach in front of the astonished farmer. One whale died immediately. The other lay thrashing for hours.

Two whales. A vertebra from each would later sit on the concrete gate-posts to Ratana's house. Whale oil from both would later be burned at ceremonies to mark the beginning of perhaps the most powerful Maori religious and political movement this country has seen.

I unrolled my sleeping bag. I'd left the tidy river city of Wanganui only that morning, but this cavernous space was a world away. I climbed into the sleeping bag and lay there. Above me, the ribs. Around me the muffled beat, one per minute, of the thing's great, slow, ticker. I closed my eyes, and went to sleep in the belly of the whale.

Te Araroa's most problematic bit of trail was the forty-odd kilometres from Wanganui to Bulls. It seemed best just to head out, past the Wanganui airport to the coast. It was open, easy walking, with DOC and forestry land providing a way through near the shoreline.

But then you hit the Whangaehu, an acidic river whose source is the crater lake on Ruapehu. Its mouth is too deep and swift to be wadeable.

I didn't have a solution to that. At the end of 1997, when I'd done the Te Araroa report, I'd simply written, since the land south of Wanganui was wall-to-wall farms, that the coastal route seemed best, and the Whangaehu could be crossed somehow - I envisaged a cell-phone call to a local farmer who'd come across by boat.

But I was sure of one thing. The trail should try to go through Ratana Pa, which lay just south of the Whangaehu. You'd have to deviate some six kilometres in from the coast to do it, and cross a couple of farms, but if the trail aimed to include New Zealand's historic sites, along with its most scenic ones, Ratana Pa should be there.

I stayed at Wanganui a week, writing up material from the National Park-Wanganui section of the trail, and talking also to DOC staff, and the Wanganui Tramping Club about the trail ahead. Could anyone suggest an off-road way to cross the Whangaehu River?

No-one could. No-one knew of farming swingbridges, or of anyone living near the mouth who could ferry me. For the moment it was too hard, so I left Wanganui finally by road, crossed the Whangaehu River on the SH3 roadbridge, then walked into Ratana Pa at night.

Ratana Pa does not reveal itself until you're almost on top of the town. I came over a hill, and the lights lay spread out in the hollow in front. I went on into town. Each house had, not the big settled gardens of suburbia, but a clean functional lawn. Perhaps one house in three had the outside light burning, and that stark illumination of the front wall, uninterrupted by any screen of vegetation, gave the streets a stage-set feel.

Even if you knew nothing of the history of Ratana Pa, it had drama. Shadowy dogs roamed, but beyond that the town was silent and still. The symbol of the crescent moon and star, the marama whetu, recurred, frosted onto the glass of household front doors and if you looked up, it was there again, standing above the houses on the softly-lit towers of Te Temepara - the Ratana temple .

Arepa, Omeka, the beginning and the end. I stood in front of the church. Between the towers, the pediment supported a glowing roundel segmented in red, the sun, and beneath it was the balcony where Ratana once stood to address the crowds. The stained-glass windows glowed from some interior church light.

I strolled across open grassed space to a second building. The church architecture had been stretched sideways here. Te Manuao - the Man of War - had the same twin towers, but set low and wide, a beetling verandah stretched some forty metres between the two towers. At regular intervals along its flat roofline, stood models of the seven founding Maori waka, then the Endeavour, and the Heemskerk.

I stood in front of Te Manuao. A large clock dominated the central pediment

Ka-chuk-a-chuk.The deserted streets, the stillness of the town, made the sudden sound all the more startling. The minute hand of the great clock had risen one notch, and still quivered there.

The silence closed in again, and I waited a full 60 seconds. Above the clock face, in stark black and white lettering was the word Ihoa - God - and below it, in the same lettering, Mangai - the mouthpiece.

The clock notched up another heavy minute of time. Ka-chuk-a-chuk.

March 1918 was a millenarian time. The New Zealand dead in World War One was climbing towards its total, at the November Armistice, of 16,700. And as the war bowed out, the Spanish Lady swept in. Maori turned to their tohunga for protection, but there was none. Only the tangis, for the influenza epidemic was particularly deadly to Maori, killing about one in 25, amongst them several of Ratana's own hapu.

Ratana's aunt, Mere Rikiriki, was a Maori seer who lived at Parewanui Pa, over by the Rangitikei River. She had prophesied in 1912 that someone would soon rise up to lead the Maori people, but no local would have picked Wiremu Ratana as the Messiah. He was aged 45, a hard-drinking man, he smoked, enjoyed parties, some even called him a hell-raiser. But then came the whales, and eight months later, on November 8, the vision. Ratana sat on his verandah that afternoon looking south-west towards the sea. A small cloud appeared there. It sped towards the house, and a voice spoke: "I have travelled around the world to find the people upon whom I can stand. I have come back to Aotearoa to choose you, the Maori people. . . Cleanse yourself . . . Unite the Maori people, turning them to Jehovah of the thousands." That evening Ratana saw an angel at the window of his house: Destroy, it said, the power of the tohungas.

Ratana clock

Ratana began to read the bible. He seemed invested with the power to heal, within his own family circle, then outside of it. He toured New Zealand in 1921, preaching and faith-healing. His reputation grew, and he turned his farmland into a community for morehu, the tribal fragments. His followers pressed for a formal church, and when he came to build it, Ratana reflected on the whales. Te Temepara, the temple. He, or his ministers, preached the gospels there, he was Te Mangai there, the mouthpiece of God.

Ratana saw the spiritual mission as cleanly accomplished, like the whale that had simply crashed and died. But he built also Te Manuao, the Man of War. It housed the movement's political side, where the big conferences met to plan action. It had its religious and messianic symbols, but its processes were necessarily slower, half-sunk in the material world. Te Temepara was centred on the bible. Te Manuao was centred on the Treaty of Waitangi, and Maori grievance. Te Manuao was the second whale, the one that had lain thrashing and in pain on the sands.

The Ratana Church was the new face of the old struggle begun by the King Movement and Pai Marire. It sought to unite all Maori, but less as a pan-tribal movement, and more as a gathering point for Maori under a morehu, or tribal remnant banner. It sought not an independent Maori state, but redress within the Westminster structure. Its political power grew rapidly, and it came to win the four parliamentary Maori seats as a matter of course. In 1935, four years before his death, Ratana sealed an alliance with the Labour Party.

That political leverage perhaps climaxed when Matiu Rata, a Ratana man, and Minister of Maori Affairs in the 1972-75 Labour Government, steered through Parliament legislation establishing the Waitangi Tribunal. From a small and largely powerless start in 1976 the tribunal became a potent forum for asserting Treaty of Waitangi principles, investigating Maori grievance, and recommending compensation.

I found two kids on the street, and asked them if there was a camp-ground at Ratana Pa. They pointed to a nearby corner store. It would open at 7 pm.

Two tinkling brass bells rang as I opened the door. I introduced myself to Naka Taiaroa, who ran the store, and suggested I might pitch a tent down by the park toilets.

Naka brought out a stool and made me a cup of tea. I spent my last $3 on two pies, and sat down to watch Ratana Pa's main commercial centre pick up speed. People poured into the shop, collecting mail, purchasing provisions, and teenagers milled about inside and outside the shop, buying cans of fizz, selecting their 20c bags of lollies, seeking change to feed the video games, or talking.

Everyone seemed to call Naka uncle, and the atmosphere was family, with a well-practised ritual and no embarrassment when someone's Eftpos cards went through the swipe and failed to locate a credit balance.

"That's declined," Naka would say matter-of-factly.

"Declined!" shouted the delighted shop audience, while the declinee made the appropriate exaggerated gestures of frustration and despair and handed back the can of soft-drink, or began to rifle the wallet for another card.

"Declined!" crowed the chorus outside the shop, noses pressed to the glass.

Then Naka closed the shop. He had a map of the town with the names of every family in a town of 900 written onto the section of land they occupied. He'd rung other church elders, and got agreement. Te Araroa should sleep not down on the wet parkland, but in Te Manuao, which was dry and had toilets and showers.

Naka Taiaroa
Naka Taiaroa

Naka opened up the building with a complicated set of keys, and switched on the lights. It was huge and cavernous, with red steel girders overhead, and a polished wood floor the size of a basketball court that stretched away to a stage at the far end. A big kitchen stood behind that, and led through to the toilets and showers. Naka laid out a yellow plastic-covered mattress. I could choose where I wanted to sleep, and he left it to me to turn out the lights.

I stretched out on the stage and the regular beat of the clock insinuated itself until the rain drowned every other noise, and I slept, warm and dry inside the whale.

In the morning Naka came across, and I thanked him..

"Well, for what little it was. You came out of the night, my dog barking at you, looking so unwanted, so - out of this world."

"Oh?" I said. It wasn't the image I had of myself, but there you go.

"Yes. But that was deceiving. You came with all the information, and with this report on a walk from Cape Reinga, in the north where many of our people live, to join up with the Manawatu and so on. I think history has been made, and I have talked to the elders, who are amazed."

We left Te Manuao. It had come, by 1998, to the brink of success. The Crown had accepted that the fishing rights, taken by default, and the illegally alienated land, should be either returned to Maori, or compensation payments made. I made the point to Naka.

"Yes, the things he fought for have finally come to fruition," said Naka. "As it turned out, because of distribution through iwi we have now become isolated so far as the economic benefit is concerned. But we wouldn't have it any other way. It's ironic, but they say God works in mysterious ways. The Maori people would say it's a God sign - e tohu na Ihoa."

We walked back to the store. I asked the shop-owner to swipe my own card through the Eftpos slot, punched in the pin code and waited.

"That's declined," said Naka mildly.

"Fine - okay." I slipped the card back into my wallet. At least the chorus had disappeared. Everyone was at work, at home, or at school.

I walked down to the coast on farmland, crossing the Turakina River on a farm bridge, to reach the little rivermouth settlement of Koitiata around nightfall.. A camping ground stood beside the river, with a couple of caravans that looked inviting for a full-scale storm was coming in, but I had no cash. The only dry place in town was the toilets. I went in and bedded down.

"Get up bro."

I awoke in the morning staring at a pair of boots.

"Come on up to the house and have some breakfast."

Swinging my gaze up: jeans, a studded leather belt, big buckle, a black beanie, a Maori guy leaning at the entrance with his hands in his pockets.

"You get started early," I said.

"Yeah. The toilet isn't working up home, and my little brother came down a while ago. 'Hey - there's someone sleeping in the toilets!' 'Right - I'll check that out.'"

We drove back to a small crowded bach. The television set was revving high on a game of Rush - Extreme Racing, with a couple of dedicated racers punching the playstation buttons. Pat Ngamoki introduced me to the rest of the clan, then began grooming the two kids, Te Aturangi and Te Moana for school, and making a cup of tea and a pot of porridge, building a pile of toast, turning to me between-times.

"If we'd have known, bro, you could have come up here. At least it would have been warmer. We haven't got much, but it'd be better than that."

The kids were giving the Leki sticks a workout.

"Good for spearing eels," said Pat.

We chatted over breakfast. The Ngamoki brothers were East Coast Maori. Pat's last job was planting native trees on the Pokeno motorway extension for Chelsea Landscapes - a good job, he'd liked it, would have wanted to go on, but the work had tailed out. He'd come south to join his brothers where living was cheap.

Then Rush finished, and Pat's other two brothers, Harry and Mauhikitia, wanted my story.

"What's an old man like you doing that for?" said Harry. "It should be us young fellas doing it."

It wasn't the image I had of myself, but there you go.

We talked about route. Pat suggested a forest road through the pines. It began just a few hundred metres away, headed south.

"It goes all the way to Santoft. We know those forests, we take the buggies in, burn up the gas, a bit of hell-raising. The old people don't like it eh."

I wanted to get onto the beach though, and said I'd cut into the forest later and intercept the through road.

"I want to get right across to Bulls by tonight - I've run out of money, and I want to speed up the tramp."

"I've got $20 you can have," said Patrick.

"No, I wasn't meaning that. I've got food, I've got a tent. I'm okay."

"No, you take it. I'm on the dole, and don't do anything with it but burn gas."

"It's okay, really I don't want to take that."

The brothers put on pressure.

"I've been hitchhiking with nothing in my pocket," said Pat. "Spend my last 50c on bubblegum, crash out in the sticks and wake up still chewing bubble-gum."

"Nothing worse than being on the road and you get to a petrol station and can't buy a coffee," said Harry.

"You can't even buy a pie," said Patrick. "We've been there. We're still there."

Ngamoki bros
L to R - The Ngamoki bros - Pat, Mau, Harry

Before I left, I mentioned the internet site for the first time, and suggested a photo.

"You can put my mask on the internet," said Pat. "Someone might like me."

"Hey," said Harry. "This Maori boy cracked my screen."

Little sealion

I walked away from Koitiata on a clear morning, and out to the south a RNZAF Air Tourer trainer was doing stall turns, loops, barrel rolls. Then a Skyhawk came booming through, low over the water, towards the bombing range further up the coast. The boys, burning up the gas.

I passed a small sealion that warned me off with a show of teeth, then I headed inland through the forest. Around me the sky lowered, and it began, heavily, to rain.

I came up to the isolated Santoft School. I'd never been into a school on my trek, and on impulse I walked in and offered to talk to the kids.

It was a small, single-teacher, hold-in-the-palm-of-your-hand, school, with 11 pupils, exactly the sort of school the Ministry of Education now earmarks for closure. Its logo was three pine trees, and the big annual event was the lamb and calf day.

The kids gathered and I stood at a white board and sketched the North Island. Now then, here came the inky line of Te Araroa, through an historic town here, past a lake there, down a river here, into a cave there, onto a mountain here. I talked for 20 minutes, then it was question time.

Santoft School students

"Where do you sleep?" said Todd Spring.

"I unroll a sleeping bag where I need to, then roll it up again in the morning."

"Cool," said Donna Ward. "You don't have to make your bed. You just wake up in the morning and go."

"Have you been attacked?" asked Ammiel Williams.

"No never," I said. "Well, kind of, maybe once."

"Tell us, tell us."

"Well, it's a bit nasty in places."

"We love nasty stuff," said Gabrielle McGinity.

I told them about Mt Manaia. The questions went on.. How many pairs of shoes had I been through? None, I was still wearing the original pair of boots, slightly cracked, but in good shape. What did I eat? Did I cook on fires? When the questions were done, I had one of my own.

"Okay," I said. "You've seen how the trail tries to link up the best bits of history, and the best bits of nature in the North Island. Now tell me, why does the trail come through Santoft?"

That was a serious question - I didn't have a clue why the trail went through Santoft.

"The Fuselier," said Lee immediately.

"Right," I said cautiously. "Can anyone tell me about the Fuselier?"

"It's a big ship that was sailing for England," said Todd. "It's covered by heaps of sand now, but I know where it's buried. There's a stick coming out of the ground. In the war they used it as targets. They got out their big bazookas and used it for practise, and then everything went under the sand."

"Okay," I said. "And what do you guys think about the trail?"

"I'd love to do it," said Gabrielle.

"Meet all the places in history," said Todd.

"It's awesome," said Donna. "After you finish your trip to Wellington, can you come back to Santoft and talk to us again?"

I hung about the school for 30 minutes to dodge a heavy squall. The kids had gone home, and when I set off again, the school mini-bus was coming back towards me. The driver, Lorina Spring, pulled over and leaned out. "The kids have all been talking about you. You must have done a good job. They want to travel all around New Zealand."

There's no such thing as bad weather, they say, only bad gear. I had shearer's overtrousers, bought in Te Kuiti from a stock firm. I had a hooded anorak and a storm cover for the pack. Inside the pack everything was encased in a heavy-duty plastic liner, and inside that the sleeping bag had its own waterproof stuff-bag, which I'd lined with another layer of plastic. I had good gear, but the rain had come in big bursts all day, and as I started down the forest roads, then onto the tarseal for the 16 kilometres into Bulls, it really set in. South Taranaki was deluged with over 15 cm of rain that day, and the Manawatu lay on the edge of the same storm.

Night fell. The boots went soon after. Despite all the beeswax applications, the water came through by capillary creep and they turned sodden. The stiff rain hood dripped water, wind blew it into my face, and no matter how tightly I zipped and Velcroed the collar beneath, trickles of cold water ran down my neck.

And yet - your mind stays absolutely dry. It starts to play. It begins to offer up cute phrases. Inside every wet man, there's a dry man struggling to stay exactly where he is. Head down, it picks up whatever detail is to hand - the whitened road-kill remnants run over so many times they've been driven into the tar itself - and makes a playful summary - Nature, flat in tooth and claw. Car lights arrowed towards it, and the dry mind sprang happily, in the moment of final dazzling illumination, into the mind of the unknown driver, glimpsing its own image, this dripping black lagoon critter, this Beowulf, while knowing that it was not these things at all, but simply itself, dry, resilient, civilised.

The only thing that broke the mood was the isolated house. Without neighbours to peer in, the isolated house had not drawn its curtains. They were cooking dinner in the isolated house, and the Beowulf drooled. They were sitting on high stools at their open-plan servery between kitchen and dining room, with the television news in the distance, a drink in hand, and the Beowulf could taste red wine.

Forget it. The house in the field looked frail and stupid under this great falling mass of darkness and water anyway. The Beowulf knew this was not his place and passed on by, but felt, on the instant, not playful at all, but jealous, and wet.

~~~~~~~~~~

Just outside of Bulls the Tutaenui Stream had burst its banks and the cows were retreating to the high ground. Away to the right you could hear the Rangitikei River roaring like a train. Just as I pulled into town the fire siren went off, and a flashing fire-engine pulled out, but it was to pump flood-water off the highway.

The first shop I saw was the Bullseye Video. The second was painted white with irregular Friesian patches of black, the Dairy Bull. Then a church with the motto, Forgive-a-bull. A doctor's rooms, Treat-a-bull. An antique store - Collect-a-bull.

I went into the Rangitikei Tavern seeking a cheap room. I wanted to dry out. Every head turned:

"You speak English?" demanded a guy standing at the bar.

I ignored him. The barmaid was turning over a fat wad of pink bubblegum in her mouth.

"Do you have any rooms?"

"Blugg-a-blugg-a-bluggy-blug-blug," parodied the mate, determined to turn me into a cultural alien..

"No, try the Criterion down the road," said the barmaid.

"Do you drink?" said the man.

I stared at him a moment, a big guy, half-cut, nasty, and turned to go. He upped the ante -

"Are you a rapist?"

"Shut up Chris," said the barmaid.

Fight-a-bull. I went down main street to a 24-hour service station. The blue Mobil logo with the red O stood there - if any business in town was a natural to take up the town's motif and emblazon it big, it was this one, but the Rotary chapter at Bulls obviously hadn't persuaded the corporates to join its folksy game. The closest the station got was a sign on the back wall: Mo-bulls Truckies Coffee Club, with a cup hung on a hook for each of the long-distance drivers that regularly stopped in here.

I had the Maori $20. The coffee cost $1.50. That left $18.50. The Criterion rooms cost $30. I went on down SH1 where the sign said Hospit-a-bull - the Bridge Motel. I got a cabin with a heater for $15, and hung everything out to dry.

Next day I walked the Heritage Trail out of Bulls, stopping to wander through the bush garden at Mt Lees, formerly the home of Labour MP Ormond Wilson who'd gifted the property to the nation in the 1970s. I arrived at Feilding just on nightfall. The Manawatu District Council has a long-term plan to put a walkway down the rail corridor between Feilding and Palmerston North. That then, was the way to go. Night had fallen but I walked on, down 20 km of rail line, a jolting journey across 30,000 sleepers, watching the signal lights in front turn from red to green, and stepping well to the side as the freight trains thundered through. I knocked on the door of a Palmerston North friend at 2 am.