Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Place of Whales
I didn’t step onto the beach at Whangaparaoa on East Cape, which I regret now. It’s where the famous canoes the Tainui and the Arawa landed after their journey from Hawaiiki around 1350AD. It would have been nice to have stepped onto a place of such historical importance. I did however, stop outside Whangaparaoa’s Kauaetangohia Marae, which sits just to one side of State Highway 35 – that marvellous road that takes you right around this spectacular Cape from Opotiki to Gisborne.
Whangaparaoa, near Cape Runaway, was named by the first Maori warriors who landed there. When the Arawa and the Tainui canoes landed, they found a whale on the beach and both sought to claim it as their own, so they could used the valuable flesh and whalebone. Whanga means bay, paraoa is Maori for sperm whale. Later, after the arrival of Europeans, the area became a busy whaling centre.
It was blowing a gale when I stopped in the tiny settlement at 3.30pm on May 8th. There was no one about, although smoke was curling from the chimney of a little house across the highway from the marae and an old school bus was parked beside the health centre near the gates of the marae. A small inter-denominational church made a solitary statement on the adjacent hilltop. Whangaparaoa forms the boundary of the Opotiki District and also that of the local tribe, Te Whanau-a-Apanui. Onwards to the north and east, the land becomes home to Ngati Porou.
Across the highway from the church, sits the little Maori school, Te Kura Mana Maori o Whangaparaoa, which according to Ministry of Education statistics, had a roll of just 29 in 2008. It’s a pretty place, with traditional Maori designs painted along the railings of the entrance pathway. I was especially intrigued by the little shelter in front of the school, which appeared (from a distance) to house a large sculpture of an octopus. The octopus, or te wheke does have a number of mythical associations for Maori, chief among them, the legend of Kupe and his battle with Te Wheke-a-Muturangi, which is far too long for me to re-tell here. But if you have an interest in the legend, it is detailed on Google. The concept of Te Wheke, the octopus is also sometimes used to define family health. The head of the octopus represents te whānau, the eyes of the octopus as waiora (total wellbeing for the individual and family) and each of the eight tentacles representing a specific dimension of health. The dimensions are interwoven and this represents the close relationship of the tentacles. Perhaps that’s why it’s outside the school – but I can’t be sure. Next time I'll pray the wind isn't blowing so hard and I'll take a closer look.