In September 2006 I was asked by Maraeroa C Incorporated, a tribally-owned forestry business, to photograph an important occasion on the edge of the Pureora Forest Park, near the King Country township of Bennydale. It was the dedication and blessing of a very ambitious tourism project — the establishment of an eco-cultural tourism attraction called Pa Harakeke.
The site was up a dusty metal road where mature pine trees had recently been harvested. Tree stumps, dead branches and dry blackberry vines covered the landscape as far as the eye could see.
"Really?" I thought to myself on arrival. But, as the photographer, I behaved like a consummate professional, carefully screening out the desolate background behind the sign. As I left, negotiating the dusty metal road back to tar-sealed civilisation, that word — 'really?' — popped back into my mind.
In August this year I returned to the site to see the results of that dedication ceremony, photographed seven years ago almost to the day.
Turning off the main highway to Taupo, the metal side road is still as dusty as it was back in 2006. Pulling up beside the site of the original dedication sign, it was clear things were very different. Gone are the acres of tree stumps and broken foliage, replaced by gentle rolling fields of grass and strategically-placed harakeke (flax) bushes. A chip driveway leads up to a large pale yellow building housing a gift shop, café, reception area and a conference room.
To the right of the main building sits a nursery of potted native plants, while to the left is a powered motorhome parking area with two adjacent chalet-style accommodation units.
In the distance lies an ancient pa site with replica buildings made from ponga logs enclosed by a manuka palisade, and overlooking it all is Mount Pureora, resplendent on the horizon.
How very different this all looked compared to my first visit.
Edwina Panaho, my guide and companion for the morning, greeted me. Within minutes I was drawn into the world of Pa Harakeke — its origins, services and the importance of hospitality to its visitors. Pa Harakeke CEO Glen Katu says, "Visitors are overwhelmed with the hospitality afforded them by the staff and are also very surprised that such a facility exists and provides such a range of services for visitors in such an isolated place."
Before long we were donning gumboots for a leisurely tour of the extensive grounds to photograph some of the services and features. First stop was the nursery of potted native plants.
"Visitors can select a tree to plant on site," Edwina explains. "A karakia (prayer) is offered and the owner receives a certificate marking the occasion and their efforts to reduce their carbon footprint."
"Business for Pa Harakeke had increased significantly since the two-day Timber Trail was opened to cyclists and [we] saw huge potential for growth in the region with good quality accommodation particularly, in short supply," says Glen.
"The Pa Harakeke cultural tours and tree plantings are popular with international visitors as it enables them to interact with nature. When the complex opened for seven days over its first summer and provided free on-site parking to motorhomes, caravans and campervans, it proved to be a great spot to park overnight as Mount Pureora was a majestic sight in the morning and the foreground views of the Maori Pa and Cultural Walkway were quite special for visitors not acquainted with Maori culture."
One of the distinctive features of Pa Harakeke is the carvings or pou that line the cultural walkway from Puakorari (the main building) to the replica ancient Maraeroa Pa on the hillside. They are the kaitiaki (guardians) and each has a story that is explained during the tour of the walkway.
For those wanting a permanent record of the stories associated with each carving, a book called The Rereahu Chronicles is available at the gift shop.
Strolling among the flax bushes and the pou you feel a real sense of peace and tranquillity, almost like treading an ancient path that has been hidden for centuries. Unfortunately this sense of peace was not to last, as I joined Daniel Benefield, Pa operations manager, for the afternoon.
Outside, in the main forecourt, the Pure-ora shuttle was ready to go, with four mountain bikes loaded onto a trailer. Our destination was a short drive to the entrance of the recently opened 87km-long cycle way, the Timber Trails.
One look at Daniel, young and fit, I had my misgivings. I hadn't ridden a bike since I was at high school. Daniel lives in Pio Pio and makes the long commute to Pa Harakeke every day.
"Pureora is a special place to work in. Clean, fresh, crisp air and being in the original ancient forests for most of the day is my dream job. You get to meet so many different people from all walks of life and you can guarantee all of those who come here will leave with an appreciation for this special place," he says.
At the entrance to the Timber Trail cycle way two DOC staff members meet us and after a short karakia at the pou just inside the bush line, we were off. Well, sort of...
It soon became obvious I couldn't cycle and photograph the riders at the same time, so with a certain amount of relief it was decided I abandon the bike and follow on foot. But I wasn't completely off the hook — I literally had to run to keep up.
After taking the last photo, the cyclists rode back to the van, leaving me to walk back on my own. This was my favorite part of the Pa Harakeke experience, walking alone among the ancient trees, engrossed in the sights, sounds and scents of a magical, breathing forest.
And that is the key to Pa Harakeke — it can be anything you want it to be: perhaps a short stop for a coffee and a browse in the gift shop; an hour or two spent planting a native tree to offset your carbon footprint or to establish a future family heirloom; be enveloped in meaningful and authentic Maori culture and ancient histories. Commit to a day trip or a week-long stay in either of the chalets or your own campervan to experience everything Pa Harakeke has to offer. Or like me, to get lost in the forest with nothing more than a camera and a song in your heart.
What, where, how
- Pa Harakeke is open seven days a week during summer
- Bookings are required for chalet accommodation and motorhome parking
- Chalets sleep up to six people
- Bike hire costs $35 per day
- All cycle trails in the Pureora Forest are free to use