MoaTours staff and Kiwi Guides experience Te Urewera

Discover Ruatahuna and Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tane

Recently our MoaTours team visited the Bay of Plenty and Te Urewera for our annual conference. We enjoyed some of the highlights of our Te Urewera, Waikaremoana and Mahia tour and it was such a rewarding experience we want to share it with you.

Where in New Zealand are we?

Where is Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tane Conservation Park?

Travel south from Rotorua on SH5 then turn left onto SH38 and head through the Kaingaroa Forest to Murupara and keep on going. Turn off onto Minginui Road and follow the Whirinaki River up the Whirinaki Valley.

Where is Ruatahuna?

Ruatahuna is an hour further along Highway 38 from the Minginui turn off, in Te Urewera.
Ruatahuna is in the heart of Te Urewera and home to Manawa Honey.

Entering Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tane Conservation Park

Our coach parks at the beginning of the H-Tree Track in the Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tane Conservation Park where we meet our guide Himiona Nuku from Whirinaki Forest Footsteps. We’re in good hands with Himiona, or Hims, as he is known.

Hims leads us in a Karakia (prayer) before we enter this primordial, podocarp forest – lush, dark, overhung, and beautiful. The sound of birds, our footsteps, and Him’s description of the five Rangatira (Chiefs) of the forest hold us in awe.

We stroll for an hour on a loop track in gently falling rain and, one by one, we meet the Rangatira – ancient Totara, Rimu, Matai, Kahikatea and Miro.

Hims leads from the front, and his colleagues follow up behind to keep our health and safety in mind. After all we are deep in the forest, the path is only gently undulating, but the bush is so dense that on many occasions we can’t see around the next corner. When we say we get off the beaten track, we definitely do.

We came into the forest on the H-Tree track, and finally we encounter the tree, well two trees, that form an H where the branches of one Rimu tree grew through the trunk of another. Spectacular.

Emotionally we are in awe of the living beauty we have experienced.

We’re also in awe of the guides’ knowledge, not only in relation to the flora and fauna but also the stories and knowledge of the forest and their dedication to Kaitiakitanga (Guardianship).

We get back on the bus to drive to Kohutapu Lodge in Galatea where we’re greeted by the owners. Nadine and Karl Toe Toe. They’ve prepared a magnificent hangi for our dinner. While we sit around the tables we hear their inspiring story of how tourism and their lodge brings benefits to the Murupara community.

That was then, this is now

In 2012 as part of the Treaty Settlement with Ngati Whare, a co-governance approach with DOC enabled the establishment of Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tane Conservation Park. This co-governance allows the preservation of the biodiversity and enables the retention of the cultural and physical taonga (treasures) of the forest. Co-management has also led to recreational, social, cultural and economic benefits for the local communities.

A very basic translation of “Te Pua-a-Tane could be Pua, the seeds, of Tane, God of the Forest. David Bellamy, an English botantist and TV presenter regarded the conservation park as the best stand of virgin podocarp forest in the world.

The old forestry settlement of Minginui lies in a valley 8km off highway 38. Minginui, following an opportunity as part of the settlement, Ngati Whare is turning 640 acres of exotic forest to native trees. A nursery has been established and enhanced with an opportunity provided by the Provincial Growth Fund. This fully native nursery has become a local employer and propagates many of its plants from seeds sourced from within the Conservation Park.

Rewarewa Honey and Fried Bread

We drive for over an hour from Kohutapu Lodge to Ruatahuna in the middle of Te Urewera through steep, densely forested hillsides and valleys, half way to Lake Waikaremoana. Until 2014, when it reverted to the ownership and management of Ngai Tuhoe, Te Urewera was one of New Zealand’s National Parks.

Te Urewera covers around 200,000 hectares with a wide variety of landscape, from valley floors to soaring peaks. Every elevation provides a range of different flora for Manawa Honey’s hard-working bees. From Rewarewa on the ridgelines to Tawari, Tawhero, Mahoe and more.

Ruatāhuna – homeland of the Tūhoe tribe – sits at the heart of New Zealand’s largest indigenous rainforest.

Brenda Tahi, CEO of Manawa Honey, is our guiding light in Ruatahuna. We’re warmly welcomed onto her Marae with morning tea – Kawakawa tea, honey bubble slice and delicious fried bread.

We are in her place, well their place, the place of Ngai Tuhoe. Ruatahuna is also home to a recently built service centre – cafe, fuel stop and toilets.

Across the river, it’s also home to Manawa Honey.

The story of Te-Ika-a-Maui?

Before we learn from Brenda about Manawa Honey, we learn a little about this place.

You may be familiar with the story of how Maui, from his waka, which was the South Island, fished up the North Island, or Te-Ika-a-Maui – The Fish of Maui. Brenda describes the North Island as an upside down fish, with Ruatahuna at the centre.

Manawa means heart, and Ruatahuna is the heart of the fish, or Te Manawa-o-Te-Ika-a-Māui – the Heart of Māui’s Fish.

As you might imagine, there is a steep learning curve for us when Brenda describes travelling by the fish, and the fish being upside down. From Ruatahuna they travel up to Wellington, being the head of the fish, and down to Auckland, being near the tail.

Award winning honey from the bush

Manawa Honey was established by local Tuawhenua Trust as a platform to create jobs for the people of this area, and to sustainably manage their 9,000 acres of land around Ruatahuna. Brenda explains how they would take local people who had few skills and start them off to learn the basics of the honey business and work their way up.

Ruatahuna has a history of honey – it has been considered a delicacy or taonga since honey bees were introduced to New Zealand in the 1830s. Manawa Honey could be seen to be reviving a lost art, and revive it they have. In 2021 Chief Beekeeper Taawi was named the winner of the best tasting honey in the world for Manawa’s Rewarewa Honey at the10th Black Jar Honey Tasting Contest in Asheville, North Carolina, USA.

Taawi is also one of Tuawhenua’s trustees and trains the new apprentices. And so the circle goes on.

Mataatua Marae and Te Kooti

After a nourishing morning tea and the story of how and why, and a look at how a beehive works – we head next door to the meeting house.

This marae is Mataatua, which goes back to the name of the voyaging canoe that landed at Whakatane.

While we sit looking out over the grounds to the locals houses and up around the hills that surround the valley, Brenda tells the story of the wharenui Te Whai-a-te-Motu (the pursuit through the island).

Manawa Honey takes inspiration from Tuhoe leaders such as Te Whenuanui and the builder of Te Whai-a-te-Motu and their website tells the story:

“Te Whai-a-te-Motu was built as a memorial to the prophet Te Kooti Arikirangi, who had taken refuge in Te Urewera in times of war. As a great rallying point for Tuhoe. Te Whenuanui organised the builders, carvers and materials. At the time, the house was “the largest whare whakairo (carved meeting house) of purely Maori construction” in New Zealand, 80 feet in length and 36 feet in width. It took a hundred men to raise the main ridge-pole – a massive undertaking. The house was finally opened in 1888. It stood then (as now) as a symbolic statement of Tuhoe’s mana motuhake (unbroken authority or sovereignty).”

On the outside, the building has a comfortable worn feeling, but on the inside its heart beats with carvings, paintings and photographs that tell the stories of the people of the past and their undeniable links to this place, then and now.

Visit Te Urewera, Waikaremoana and Mahia with MoaTours

It was such a privilege to meet the people of this region and have them share their stories and places with us. Why not come and join MoaTours and visit Kohutapu Lodge, walk in the Whirinaki forest and spend time with Brenda Tahi in Ruatahuna and much more.

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