Thursday, December 7, 2023

Under the sacred mountain

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East Cape farmers Rob and Mary Andrews appreciate the opportunities they have been given by people who they have worked for in the past and they enjoy returning the favour to others, as Colin Williscroft discovered.
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As the first place in the world to see the sun as it rises every day Mount Hikurangi is on a few bucket lists.

But few people venture to Pakihiroa Farms, about 20km inland from Ruatoria, where Rob and Mary Andrews live and work and which includes the mountain in its boundaries.

The farm is in an isolated spot in a part of the country that does not attract a lot of passing traffic, given it’s not on the way for most New Zealanders. 

Added to that the farm is at the end of a gravel road and reached only by crossing numerous one-lane bridges that span a braided river and streams more common in a South Island landscape.

People who live there have got to be committed to the land and their job on it. They need to be self-sufficient but also to be able to rely on those around them to make sure everything works as smoothly as possible.

It’s not for everyone but it works for Rob and Mary, who are day-to-day managers of the property. 

Isolated, for sure, but they love the outdoor lifestyle and the opportunities that brings while Mount Hikurangi, the sacred peak at heart of the property, makes it even more of a special place.

Pakihiroa was cleared and farmed by the Williams family from the late 1800s until 1990 when it was bought back by Ngati Porou to give every person of Ngati Porou a whakapapa turangawaewae (a place to call home).

For Rob and Mary it’s been home for almost four years.

They arrived in 2016 after managing the Matariki Partnership farm down the road in the Waiomatatini Valley, north of Ruatoria.

The couple, who met at high school in Bay of Plenty, had earlier briefly tried their hand at dairy farming but quickly realised they needed more variety in their lives along with something that would let them push some boundaries so, instead, they went sheep and beef farming. They haven’t looked back.

Mount Hikurangi attracts a few visitors, including the All Blacks, who were there before heading off to the Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Hikurangi is the sacred mountain of Ngati Porou and is said to be the first piece of land to emerge when Maui fished up the North Island. According to tradition, Maui’s canoe, Nukutaimemeha, remains stranded on the mountain peak. 

The mountain was bought by the Crown in the 1870s and became a state forest park. In November 1990 the Crown signed a deed with Ngati Porou, vesting in the tribe 3780 hectares that includes Hikurangi.

Access to the mountain is through a track on the farm. Until last year walkers were self guided but then Ngati Porou Tourism was established to make it easier for more people visit the mountain. The company is now the only commercial operator with permission to provide guided tours.

About 1000m above sea level and two-thirds of the way up the mountain are nine carved whakairo (sculptures) depicting Maui and his whanau. The centrepiece represents Maui while the other eight carvings are positioned to mark the points of the traditional compass. 

Created to celebrate the new millennium in 2000, the whakairo stand as a tribute to the cultural heritage of Ngati Porou and as a legacy for future generations. They are a tourist attraction and attract people who have never been near a working farm before.

Not that having strangers coming through worries Rob and Mary. The track is fenced and they don’t have to maintain it.

It also allows them to meet new people from around the world.

Rob says those who walk the track are pretty good when it comes to respecting they are on a working farm, even if they’ve never been on one before or never seen a sheep.

During summer there’s often 20 to 30 people a week using the track, sometimes more. 

Having worked on a few different farms Rob and Mary are able to see how different farming systems work and have learned from each of those, adapting aspects of them to suit new challenges.

Sometimes it’s been learning by trial and error but as long as they learn from mistakes and don’t repeat them, it’s a good way to learn, Rob says.

He has learned a lot from people he has worked with and for and he is lucky in being able to do that.

“We’ve had some really good bosses,” he says. And now they are in the position to manage others he and Mary want to be able to repay some of that good fortune.

“It’s putting something back. That’s what’s important.”


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