In my work and wanderings around the world, I have seen that history does not stay in the past; it walks alongside us in the present and it colours our future. History formed the landscapes we inhabit, the poetry of our myths, and the symbolism of our stories. There are few better places to experience this fusion than in Te Ahu Museum, the regional museum of the Far North of New Zealand, in the town of Kaitaia.
The museum is located at the hub of the community, inside the Te Ahu complex which houses also the library, council offices, concert hall, meeting rooms, an intimate theatre, tourist information centre and cafe. It is not always possible to translate a Māori word directly into English, but a staff member tells me that, in this context, ‘Te Ahu’ means ‘Our Place’. The museum interprets the past to share what it means to live in and be a part of life in the Far North.
If you are keen for stories, we can begin even before we go through the door of the complex. The tree on the left of the entrance is our native pohutukawa tree (Metrosideros excelsa), whose vivid crimson blooms in December – summer for us – has earned it the nick-name ‘New Zealand Christmas tree’. But a deeper cultural significance attaches to the centuries-old pohutukawa whose roots cling to a cliff face on the northern tip of the country, near Cape Reinga, at a place called Te Rerenga Wairua – ‘the leaping place of spirits’. In Māori mythology, the souls of the dead leap from the roots of this tree into the Pacific Ocean to begin their journey westward, returning to their Polynesian origins in Hawaiki. And it is said that the kuaka – the bar-tailed godwit – on their outward migration back to Alaska, accompany the souls on the start of their journey.
Inside the atrium, we are surrounded by trees gazing in through the glazed walls, kuaka overhead reflected in the glass gallery and, beneath our feet, blue swirls of the sea in which lies the great fish that the legendry hero, Māui hooked from the ocean to become Northland. Here, too, are seven carved wooden poles – Pou. Five represent the different local iwi, the Māori tribal affiliations that first settled the land some 800 years ago; one represents the Croatian immigrants – the Dalmatians or ‘Dallies’ – who formed a significant part of the community from the mid 19th century and brought with them their music, dances and stories; and the seventh Pou represents Pākehā, the other non-Māori part of the population, especially the relationship with Britain, the previous colonial power to whose monarch we still vow allegiance.
Already, we sense the intermingling of cultures and histories woven into the natural landscape, so let’s enter the museum and explore.
There is no designated route through the exhibits and I like to start along the left-hand wall, where display panels give us a glimpse of the region’s deep-time formation; of Northland thrust up from the ocean floor by the last of a series of seismic shifts about four million years ago; and the accumulation of the sand-spit, the tombolo of the Aupōuri Peninsular, about 100 km long and little more than 10 km wide.
This most northerly strip of New Zealand was formed over the last couple of million years by gradual depositions of volcanic sand washed up the coast from Central Northland by northward sea currents. Sands built up into dunes which nudged and overrode each other until they joined together a series of tiny islands – the isolated rocky remnants of ancient volcanoes.
As recently as 60,000 years ago, much of the area was covered in ancient podocarp forests, predominantly the mighty kauri (Agathis australis), Lord of the Forest that can grow to 50 metres and live for up to 4,000 years. No land mammals evolved in New Zealand, but the forests were teeming with giant insects, lizards, and flightless birds – notably, several species of moa.
I always need to pause at this point in the exhibits, to catch my breath at the immensity of the time-scales and processes that produced the distinctive land we know today, and the fact that nature’s fate could have resulted in a different landform. It could still, of course. The natural world is forever in transition. The oceans wrought the Far North where land and sea intersect, but both are mutable. An idea I find irresistible in the poetic version of the region’s origins: where the Māori hero, Māui, used his powerful fish-hook to haul Northland up from beneath the ocean. This was Maui’s great fish, the land’s two most northerly headlands resembling the points of a whale’s fluke.
And while we bathe in the poetry of this, let’s enjoy a love story inspired among the dunes.
It is almost a millennium since the extraordinary navigational skills of a group of Pacific Islanders brought them from Polynesia towards Aotearoa – ‘the long white cloud’ which frequently hangs over these islands and was likely a familiar sign of approaching the land. Moving along to the show cases on the back wall of the museum, we see displays of traditional Māori life: fishing, bird hunting, planting food crops; carving kauri and other timbers for waka (canoes), houses, implements and weapons; weaving harakeke (the native flax – Phormium tenax) and other natural fibres to make kete (baskets), ropes, nets, garments and artwork; and the healing arts, discovering the medicinal qualities of native flora.
Elders guarded all of these taonga, these ‘natural treasures’ that had sustained them for centuries past – and they still do. Many traditional skills are now being revived and strengthened; in a possible post-technology future, these capabilities would be needed to sustain us again.
This is the moment, wandering in the museum, when I turn around and acknowledge the dominant feature in the centre of the room: a massive iron anchor from the St. Jean Baptiste, the first foreign ship to make contact with the Far North. In December 1769, Captain Jean François Marie de Surville, merchant-explorer with the French East India Company, anchored his ship at Tokereau (Doubtless Bay), some 30 km north-east of where we are standing in the museum. The need to trade overrode mutual suspicions because de Surville was desperate to replenish his ship’s supply of fresh food; his crew were exhausted from scurvy, half had already died. But all did not go well.
In the following decades, whalers, traders, adventurers, missionaries and European settlers trickled into the Far North; they cleared the bush, felled kauri trees for timber exports, and farmed the land they exposed; and they brought European artefacts and furniture; the Dunn family even brought their piano. Reverend Christopher Dunn, at one time chaplain to Queen Victoria, emigrated to New Zealand with his family and settled in the Far north in 1858. He brought with them his wife’s piano, a ‘cottage grand’ made in 1852 by John Broadwood & Sons of London, piano makers to the British monarchy.
From the 1850s, the majority of immigrants were Croatians, recruited to dig for kapia, kauri gum – the clumps of resin secreted by kauri trees and preserved in the swamps into which the trees had fallen over tens of thousands of years. Kauri resin was in demand during Europe’s industrial revolution for the manufacture of varnish, paint and linoleum, among other products.
Small fortunes were made by a few dealers who bought gum from diggers in the fields and sold it to exporters in the towns, especially if they also owned the trade stores that diggers depended on for working credit. But the life of a gum-digger was hard, the rewards in small increments. Nonetheless, many eventually acquired land or plied a trade, sent home for brides, and became part of the community. Dalmatian heritage – the family businesses and farms, the traditional music and dance – is still part of the Far North.
The museum’s exhibition space is small – one large room – but there is an advantage in this compactness. In one sweeping glance, we are made aware of the interdependence between our natural environment as the foundations for life, and the people for whom it became habitats and sources of food and livelihood over centuries. Our future depends on a delicate balance between the two: already, moa have been hunted to extinction, the great kauri forests decimated, wetlands destroyed to extract kauri gum and swamp-timber, and fragile coastal dunes remain vulnerable to thoughtless bikers and trampers. All of these challenges are deepened by the speed and force of global climate change to which we are not immune on these isolated islands.
The downside of the museum’s limited space is that only a fraction of its collection is on display at any one time. Behind the scenes are the archives, kept in an air- and temperature-controlled room where I have occupied many days – wrapped in a possum fur jacket, scarf and gloves to combat the cold – researching aspects of local history for my current work. Though principally a nature memoir of establishing native woodland to reclaim an eroded sand-hill, and living among the community of creatures it now supports, the work includes the deep-time formation of surrounding landforms – dunes, lakes, swamps and beaches – with both their geological and mythological stories, together with some more recent local history.
The museum’s collection of local newspapers was a gold-mine for me where I could, with the valuable help of museum staff, dig back to 1879. The broadsheets’ inky columns revealed the burgeoning gum trade, and then the grim days of its decline when synthetics replaced natural resin. Close on the heels of this downturn came the Great Depression of the 1930s, generating public concern for ‘the threat of starvation among unemployed gum-diggers’. A government land settlement scheme enabled small dairy and beef farms to be established on the rolling sandhills. Later, letters to the editor complained of ‘the menace of sand’, which erosion had loosened from the dunes and the wind had shifted to smother whole farms, and even fill streets in Kaitaia town – the unfortunate consequence of removing trees and overstocking the land.
These local newspapers reported events on the sands here of international note. Until the 1930s, there were no internal roads in the Far North to link scattered gum fields and settlements, only rutted cart tracks. Although the Peninsular was little more than 10 km from east to west as the crow flies, it took a day’s rough horse-riding through dunes, scrub, wetlands and bogs to cross from the rocky east coast to the west. When the first automobiles arrived in the Far North, in 1906, they were driven up the vast expanse of beach along the west coast – Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē, ‘the long beach of Tōhē’, commonly known by the Pākehā name, Ninety Mile Beach (though actually around 60 miles long), which soon became the main road north.
By 1911, the Auckland Automobile Association was holding regular car races up the beach on what they claimed was ‘the speedway of the future’. And in 1932, Australian car racer, Norman ‘Wizard’ Smith, set an official world land-speed record of 164 miles per hour on the wet strand. The following year, Charles Kingsford Smith took off from the beach ‘runway’ in his Fokker Trimotor airplane for the first successful flight across the Tasman to Australia. Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē is still officially a road.
Leaving the museum and returning through the atrium, we could find it full of musicians, artists or storytellers.
Many public events are held in this enchanting space, including frequent welcoming ceremonies for immigrants from all over the world to confirm their newly granted citizenship. If eating together is a mark of acceptance, in the main street of this small hospitable town, you can feast on authentic Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Turkish foods as well as local seafood specialities and, if you must, there are pizzas and burgers too.
As we leave the Te Ahu complex and step into the sunshine, glance back at the glazed entrance and notice the etching of two figures, one Māori, one non-Māori, whose faces come together in traditional greeting as the doors close behind us.
I would like to express my special thanks to Mary Daun of Te Ahu Museum for her past assistance in accessing archives for my research, and for reading and commenting on this article. The museum, which is free to enter, though koha (a donation) is welcome, is operated by the local authority with two full-time staff and a dedicated band of volunteers, and they have aspirations for its future. They are currently digitizing the museum’s archive and exhibits. Soon, wherever you are in the world, you will be able to browse their unique collection on their website here: https://www.museumatteahu.co.nz/
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Dr Trish Nicholson is a social anthropologist and former columnist and features writer. She has written prize-winning short stories and authored several non-fiction works. Her recent titles include a reconstruction of inspiring journeys, Passionate Travellers: around the world on 21 incredible journeys in history; a global history of storytelling, A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity; and two illustrated travel memoirs, Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals, and Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. You can read more of Trish’s work on her website www.trishnicholsonswordsinthetreehouse.com (where there really is a tree house), and follow her on Twitter https://twitter.com/TrishaNicholson