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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 5, Issue 1 (May 1, 1930)

Whakarewarewa and Ohinemutu

Whakarewarewa and Ohinemutu

Ohinemutu, which lies close to the north-western shore of Lake Rotorua, was founded, about five hundred years ago, by the Chief Ihenga, grandson of the leader of the Arawa Canoe. Since that day his descendents, known as the Ngati-Whakane branch of the Arawa tribe, have pursued a very pleasant existence, enjoying the good things of life without that toil and anxiety which ever follows in the wake of the white man. In the lake they found an abundance of indigenous fish; they had a climate never very cold and often luxuriously pleasant; and bubbling up at their own back doors have always been the perennial hot pools, serving the triple purposes of baths, cooking pots, and washing coppers. The cessation of inter-tribal conflicts and the coming of the white tourist introduced new elements of peace and comfort, while producing little change either in the picturesqueness of the inhabitants or the even tenor of their ways. Truly, more recent years have added many superficial modern touches, particularly to the younger Maoris, but the atmosphere of old times still persists strongly. Indeed, the Government is exerting itself to preserve in both this and the Whakare-warewa village all the essential characteristics of the typical Maori village, so far as that is consistent with modern needs in sanitation and convenience.

The main part of the Ohinemutu village faces the lake, some of it extends a few hundred yards inland over a slight rise. Naturally, the outstanding feature of interest to the visitor is the thermal activity. It is not spectacular, but eerie. Everywhere they bubble up, those fussy, energetic pools which you eye respectfully, but dare not touch. In the lake itself a tiny area close in shore steams and hisses furiously, while only a few yards further on, the water lies quiet and cool. At all points take care where you place your feet; you may be treading on solid ground, or you may blissfully be suspending yourself over the mouth of an inferno. Ordinarily, however, there is little danger to fear.

Home of Maori Arts and Crafts.

The centre of interest lies close to the lake end of the village. Here, around a large open space, are clustered several buildings of exceptional interest. The most outstanding of them is the Maori meeting house, a building of broad dimensions and a fine specimen of Maori architecture and carving. Close by it is a smaller building, finished like a pa at the front, but otherwise entirely European in style. To this place you must pay a visit, for, fascinating as you will find Ohinemutu in other respects, you have here an attraction unique and unparalleled in the Dominion, since it is the home of the only institution in the country devoted to the active encouragement of Maori Arts and Crafts. It is under the general control of a Board of that name, and is directed by a man whom it is a joy to meet, namely, Mr. Hamilton, whose father's monumental studies of Maori art in every shape and form are regarded as one of our national treasures.

During my last visit, I had a long chat with Mr. Hamilton, and spent some time in wandering around the workshop. In 1926, largely owing to the efforts of Sir Apirana Ngata, parliament passed a special Act with the aim, in the words of one of its supporters, the Hon. Mr. J. G. Coates, “of making a real move forward in the preservation of something which, in a few years, will be a lost art.” It was intended to set on foot a properly equipped school with quite an elaborate syllabus, so as to give the young Maoris that thorough training in the arts and crafts of their fathers, which they would have page 53 received as a matter of course in the more leisurely days gone by. Lack of finance, however, and some doubt as to whether pupils so trained would be able to make a living out of it, are factors which have hindered the development of the original plans. The school, if it can be called such, is at present leading a hand-to-mouth existence, concentrating on carving only, and limiting itself entirely to fulfilling orders actually received. Even so, much valuable work is accomplished.

Hive of Industry.

At the time of my visit Mr. Hamilton was working with a staff of about eight. They were all busily engaged doing the complete carving for a new and important pa to be erected in the Gisborne district. When I first entered I was astonished at the air of industry in the place. Every single man was working as if his very life depended on each stroke of the chisel. You could see the perspiration flowing off their faces. It was their evident enjoyment of the work that struck me even more forcibly than their display of energy. The explanation is interesting. In the first place their livelihood does not depend on the work. Sometimes a man approaches Mr. Hamilton in a slack period. “Oh, what chances of a job, boss?” “Nothing doing now, but you can come back in three weeks' time.” Away goes the Maori grinning cheerfully, returns faithfully in three weeks' time, and just as cheerfully departs again if he is not wanted. There is no need to worry for, in the meantime, he can attend to his little plot of ground or live on the communal resources. And when the work does come, he tackles it with an enthusiasm that Mr. Hamilton finds positively embarrassing. For example, the men pleaded with him to start work at six o'clock in the morning. Finally, he had to meet them half-way by commencing at seven. Again, on the day after New Year's Day, usually a holiday, they elected to work. They love their work, and do it very much for its own sake, since the desire to create something, to achieve some artistic effect, is an impulse deeply rooted in the Maori mentality. Perhaps I should drop one hint in case you should visit here in the near future: One or two of the present staff are of gigantic bodily size, and they are extremely self-conscious and sensitive about it. Mr. Hamilton himself is a person apart. From a life-long association with the Maoris, he is intimately versed in their ways and outlook, and impresses the observer as being more of a foster-father than a boss. Here, in a quiet way and in a quiet place, and with unbounded capacity and enthusiasm, he is pioneering a work for which the whole Maori race will have reason to thank him.

“The sunny scenery's strange extremes”.—Alfred Domett. (Rly Publicity Photo) The village of Ohinemutu, shewing the Maori Church (famed for its exquisite Maori carvings), and Lake Rotorua in the background.

“The sunny scenery's strange extremes”.—Alfred Domett.
(Rly Publicity Photo)
The village of Ohinemutu, shewing the Maori Church (famed for its exquisite Maori carvings), and Lake Rotorua in the background.

The third interesting building is the Maori Church, which stands at the other end of the open space. The carvings in the church are exquisitely done, and near the vestry are suspended the historic, tattered flags, which were carried by the loyal Arawas during the Maori wars and afterwards presented to the Church. On either side of the entrance, too, are interesting reminders of the past in the shape of hand-some tombstones and monuments erected to the memory of distinguished chiefs whose records, unfortunately for the curiosity of the page 54 average Pakeha, are locked up in the Maori inscriptions.

Penny for the Haka.

Dispense with all its special attractions and Ohinemutu is still a place where you can spend many a pleasant hour. It is delightful merely to wander in and out aimlessly among the narrow streets of the village. Here you will encounter little fellows of three and four and upwards who will clamour loudly to honour you with a haka so that you may reward them with a penny. Such a haka, too—what they lack in skill they make up for in gusto, conscientiously determined to give you your “penn'orth.” Perhaps, further along, you will meet one of the old wahines. She smokes her pipe contentedly. She stops when you come up to her, and, giving you a hearty “Tenakoi,” shakes hands quite vigorously, and says a number of things in Maori which you know from her broad smiles must be some friendly message. The wonderfully happy spirit of camaraderie which the Maoris show to everybody alike is their most delightful characteristic, which we are able to appreciate the more keenly because of our natural aloofness.

“Now good digestion wait an appetite, and heath on both.”—Shakespeare. (Govt. Publicity photo.) Maoris cooking in a hot pool, Rotorua, New Zealand.

“Now good digestion wait an appetite, and heath on both.”—Shakespeare.
(Govt. Publicity photo.)
Maoris cooking in a hot pool, Rotorua, New Zealand.

So we leave Ohinemutu. though we have touched only on the fringe of its inexhaustible charms.