Wish You Were Here: The Birthplace of Aotearoa and the Māori People – Hokianga Harbor, New Zealand

by Carolyn Sotka

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After what is now New Zealand’s discovery, the islands were named ‘Aotearoa’ which means ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’; seen here in the entrance to the Hokianga Harbor from the Tasman Sea. Photo by Carolyn Sotka.

With the ancient Kauri forest shrinking in our rear mirror, my family set off for the west coast of New Zealand with a calm, revered silence from being in the presence of the giant 2000 year old trees. As we slowly lumbered through the woods, thick trees thinned and gave way to rolling hills. A final corner turned and we were met with one of the most magnificent vistas I have ever seen.

Ahead lay the Hokianga Harbor, with bright, golden sand dunes, contrasted against turquoise waters and cliffs peppered with bushes and flowers. Everything about our trip to New Zealand was unexpected, especially this moment. Reminiscent of Big Sur, California with a mix of Vermont and Ireland and pinch of the Swiss Alps in summer, this place was so unique, yet so familiar.

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The Kauri coast leading to the Hokianga Harbor. Photo by Carolyn Sotka.

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Hokianga Harbor is in the Northlands, of the North Island on the West coast.

Immediately you sense the vibration, energy, history and significance of this special place. Located approximately three and half hours from Auckland, the harbor is known also as ‘Te Kohanga o Te Tai Tokerau’ or the nest of the northern tribes. Most Māori people trace their ancestry to the discovery of this harbor, making it the birthplace of the New Zealand nation.

According to the Māori, the first explorer to reach New Zealand was the Polynesian navigator, Kupe. It is believed Kupe settled in Hokianga in approximately 925 AD, after his journey from the ancient homeland Hawaiiki, aboard his waka (canoe) with his wife Kuramārōtini.  It is said, it was Kuramārōtini that named the island Ao-tea-roa (‘long white cloud’) upon seeing the North Island for the first time.

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Kupe, a Polynesian explorer whose battle with an octopus led him to discover New Zealand and plant the seed for the Māori  people. He arrived with his wife in a double-hulled ocean going canoe known as ‘waka’. Image from New Zealand to the World.

The ancestral homeland of Hawaiki cannot be found on a contemporary map, but there are distinct similarities between the Māori language and culture and others of Polynesia including the Cook Islands, Hawaii, and Tahiti.

Kupe was accompanied by two taniwha, supernatural monsters that live in deep pools in rivers, caves, or the sea; especially in places with dangerous currents or deceptive breakers. The sand dune headlands of the Hokianga Harbor are now guarded by these taniwha, on the north head by Niniwa and the south head by Arai-te-Uru. The eleven rivers that feed into the Hokianga Harbor are the paths the taniwhas’ children, carved out to connect the land to the sea.

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The Hokianga Harbor is flanked by towering and beautiful sand dunes; sand-surfing is a popular local activity. Photography by Carolyn Sotka.

In their role as guardians, taniwha are vigilant to ensure respect of ‘tapu’. Tapu is a Polynesian traditional concept denoting something holy or sacred, with spiritual restriction and implied prohibition or rules. The English word taboo derives from this later meaning and is to have originated  from Captain James Cook‘s impressions upon his visit to Tonga in 1777.

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Entrance to the rivers and tributaries that extend from the mouth of the Harbor. Photo by Carolyn Sotka.

When Kupe left Hokianga, he declared that it would be the place of his return and left several things behind including the bailer of his canoe. Later, Kupe’s grandson Nukutawhiti returned from Hawaiiki to settle in Hokianga and set in motion, the great migration of Polynesians to Aotearoa at the end of the warm, medieval period. New Zealand is the last major landmass to be settled by humans because of its remote location. The Harbor was named Hokianga-nui-a-Kupe – “the place of Kupe’s great return” and today supports the highest concentration of Māori in New Zealand, mostly from the Ngāpuhi tribe.

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Replica of the waka hourua (voyaging canoe) which Kupe sailed from his ancestral homeland of Hawaiki to the shores of the Hokianga Harbor. Photo by Carolyn Sotka.

There are two small towns, Omapere and Opononi, nestled on the southern shores of the Harbor. By a stroke of good luck we stumbled upon the Copthorne Hotel, with stunning views of the sand dunes from each room. The first morning we where there, we woke up to what sounded like a helicopter about to crash into our room. Sure enough, with our kids half asleep and rubbing their eyes in disbelief, a helicopter landed right in our front yard.

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Quite an unusual sight for our kids to wake up to. Photography by Carolyn Sotka.

This little hidden gem we discovered was so beautiful that luxury hotels, like the Kauri Cliffs Lodge of the Northeastern coast, bring their guests here to take in the view and lunch by the pool. These hotels have nightly stays ranging from one to ten thousand dollars, but their guests come via chopper to this modest, little hotel for the stunning vistas.

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Our little hamlet, the Copthorne Hotel and Resort, in Hokianga Harbor. Photo by Carolyn Sotka.

During our stay, we met an instantly likeable chap named Martin, who was visiting with his family. It turns out, he was NZ’s most famous sportscaster, Martin Devlin and the main announcer for the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups and for the largest sporting event in NZ’s history – the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

What we later realized after reading the local papers was that Devlin has escaped to our villa to avoid a PR nightmare of National Enquirer magnitude in New Zealand. The day before, he had been arrested for disorderly behavior in Auckland, for sitting on the roof of his car in stopped traffic and preventing his wife (or anyone else) from driving away. Since then charges were dropped and he admitted he “behaved like a right plum that morning.” Regardless, we enjoyed chatting with him, learning more about the country’s passion for rugby and chalked up our encounter to another unexpected experience. Indeed, the unexpected is a constant while traveling in New Zealand.

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Fishing, other than rugby, might be the most favorite pastime of New Zealanders. Photo by Carolyn Sotka.

From breathtaking scenery and serene seascapes, to mythical beings and quirky characters we met along the way, this trip began my love affair with New Zealand. And we never even made it to the Northern beaches, of the Northlands, of the North Island. It is impossible to fathom, that there is an entire South Island to explore, with even more majestic sights à la Lord of the Rings that await. I can’t wait to go back! – CS

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