The fertile Waikato Basin, as seen from the lookout on the top of the Hākarimata range.

Every day, the fit, the fat, the feeble and the fanatical climb a track to the top of the Hākarimata range. From the top you can get a great view — not just of the Waikato, but of a history of dispossession that remains as devastating as ever. Connie Buchanan reports.


The people who belonged to the land 

The Hākarimata range is a spine of hills lying at the western edge of Ngāruawāhia. 

The range overlooks the fertile plains of the broad Waikato Basin, first claimed for human settlement in the 15th century by the renowned explorer Rakataura as he pushed inland from the coast.

Rakataura, the high priest from the Tainui waka, arranged for boundary markers to be placed on the range. These sacred stones set forth the organising principle of Māori life: that the people who lived there would belong to the land. 

Over the next 400 years, meticulous records of whakapapa tracked the rights and responsibilities of each settling family. 

The spiralling network of whakapapa spun out and back, connecting tangata with atua and tīpua and locating these relationships within the new geography, rendering it sacred and preventing human ownership. 

Laws of tikanga set out restrictions on land access and use, regulations for resource management, and rules for food cultivation, production and trade relations.

Within this framework of tikanga, the population prospered and spread. 

In the late 1600s, a renewed alliance between two powerful families in Waikato and nearby Ngāti Maniapoto was cause for celebration. Enormous amounts of food were presented at a hākari, and the presiding hills were named Hākarimata in honour of the abundance.

Over the following 200 years, laws of tikanga continued to govern land use and supply chains. Inhabitants of the Waikato Basin managed such quantities and diversity of resources that they were able to feed not only themselves but also Auckland as foreigners began arriving from Europe. They exchanged technologies and crops with the new arrivals and began exporting still more wheat, fruit and vegetables to Australia. 

These māori or “ordinary” local people had no umbrella term for themselves. They grouped and identified themselves by branches extending from the voyaging waka on which their ancestors had travelled centuries before. These names and connections could be opaque to outsiders, and so foreigners often referred to them all as “New Zealanders”.

By the 1800s, New Zealanders still vastly outnumbered immigrants. Their laws, which did not allow for private ownership, made it difficult for anyone new to control the means of production. 

Foreigners kept coming up against centuries of precedent which conferred complex and immutable rights, activated by whakapapa, to uphold the organising principle that people belong to the land. Newcomers who were acquisitive and power-hungry needed the opposite to be true. They needed land that could belong to people.

In 1863, Governor George Grey, determined to find a pretext for the British to seize the valuable and productive Waikato basin, wrote the New Zealand Settlements Act. It made any act of rebellion punishable by land confiscation. 

Backed by armed troops, he then poked and prodded the New Zealanders into something he could claim to his faraway queen was an act of rebellion. 

Hiking the Hākarimata

In 2021, the Hākarimata range is the site of a popular and punishing walking track. The path consists of a relentless series of steps which climb 347 metres above sea level.

In winter, fingers of mist reach between the trees on the summit path long into the morning. One morning, earlier this year, the mist carried with it the faint and impossible sound of whale song.

Song and mist swirled together, as if the spirits of things fossilised deep in the hills were emerging. It got louder. A bit too musical, a bit too soothing. An unusually rhythmic whale, somehow trained in verse and chorus. It started to seem less like a tīpua and more like something Pixar.

A heartbeat joined the mix. Then a whoosh of white noise. Finally, a mother appeared with a baby strapped to her back. A portable speaker broadcast the mash-up of soothing sounds — whale, human and . . . washing machine? 

The baby was fast asleep. A plastic mobile clipped to the mother’s backpack formed a second layer of defence against the possibility of a fractious awakening. A cluster of smiling yellow stars dangled inches from the baby’s face, poised to deter and distract.

“They’re so beautiful when they’re asleep,” a passing climber said, and the mother gave an exhausted thumbs-up.

People talk to each other on these steps, often referred to as “the Haks”. The return trip takes about an hour for the fit, much longer for others, and people of all abilities come here in their thousands every year. 

To make way for each other, they climb in single file, calling their conversations to the person in front or behind, forming a real-life social channel where glimpses and snatches of lives and concerns pass back and forth.

“The ratio of patients to nurses was already way too high, and then they told her she had to . . .” — and the shouter was gone, the point of outrage lost to the speed of descent.

A brunette ponytail yelled things about Māori wards to a blonde ponytail a few steps above, proud that her local council had allowed them without fuss, ashamed that it had taken until 2021.

In Covid times, tourists are stripped from the steps, leaving a microcosm of New Zealand citizenry. The predominant language is hard-core Kiwi. Popular topics include “that fucking wanker,” “that stupid bitch”, and “that total dickhead”, all of whom “think they know everything”. Te reo Māori is used for an occasional greeting, but it’s not often heard in conversation. 

The motivational maxims and aphorisms of all social channels are here too, tacked to the stair railings at intervals near the top. “Sweat is just fat crying,” declares one metal tile. Others offer encouragement from foreigners of war and industry.

“Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” — Winston Churchill.

“Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” — Henry Ford.

At the very top, the view is stunning enough to make it worth a final flight of steps to the top of a wooden platform. 

In all directions lie the 1.2 million acres that, from 1863, were confiscated from New Zealanders, ripped free of the legal system which had governed their use for over six centuries. Rendered private and divisible under a foreign law, the land was transferred to foreign ownership. 

The apparatus that laundered this theft into something clean and commercial — the New Zealand Settlements Act — was so effective that the rights of private landowners, instituted to cover an intended crime, still trump the original laws which explicitly precluded private ownership. 

To this day, the rights of private property owners cannot be contested, not even for land stolen by the Crown, not even by those whose meticulous records of whakapapa show their direct descent from Rakataura. 

Instead, the same system which processed the land theft has adapted to prevent its return. Apologies and cash compensation keep the issue of land safely dormant — like a sleeping baby strapped to the back of a new parent. An alien mash-up of soothing sounds — customary rights, consultation, co-governance — are broadcast to keep it asleep.

Other distractions are dangled. A cluster of smiling yellow stars promise that soon Matariki will be a public holiday.

On every bend, a great leader

Under the private ownership model, the Waikato Basin was drained and planted in pasture. Much of the land has been used to pump out a milk powder that the rest of the world shovels into every processed and packaged food imaginable. Chips, crackers, chocolate, cakes, drinks, muffins, biscuits, gravies, sauces, ice creams, baby food, yoghurts. 

The industrial pathology of ever-increasing production has made the water and the soils sick. But, from the top of the Hākarimata range, the rivers still look pretty as they wink silver in the sun. The thick gleaming curves of the Waikato form a cursive script which, at last, spells out a famous saying from the original powerbrokers of this land:

Waikato taniwharau

He piko he taniwha, he piko he taniwha

Waikato of a hundred chiefs, 

on every bend, a great leader.

On one bend is the high priest Rakataura, anxious to implant and sanctify the fundamental relationship of people to land.

On another is the chief Ngaere of Ngāti Tamainupō, who, at the great feast of Hākarimata, called out “Wāhia ngā rua!” to open the food pits, an instruction from which the town of Ngāruawāhia takes its name.

Another bend recalls Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, military leader and first Māori King who, as Churchill did, galvanised his people in response to great change and great threat.

Powerful women are present, too. Te Puea Hērangi who, like Henry Ford, understood and made use of the productive potential of systems and organisation — in her case, to build and establish Tūrangawaewae marae as the seat of the Kīngitanga.

None of their wisdom is stapled to the steps, but there’s plenty of pithy statements to choose from, starting with the rallying cry to right the fundamental wrong.

I riro whenua atu, me hoki whenua mai. 

As the land was taken, so it should be returned.

‘U R on Stolen Land’

From the wooden platform at the Hākarimata summit, if you know where to look, you can glimpse an area of land near a bend on the river that borders a housing development. 

On the land is a shed bearing the large painted message: “U R On Stolen Land.” 

Whānau from Ngāti Tamainupō have continuously occupied the land here for over a year now, hoping to stop more houses being built on top of some of the last few historic food storage pits.

From the summit, you can also glimpse the sparkling fringe of the city offices where the owners of the land are based. Those connected with plans to develop the property have met often about what to do next. 

At one of those meetings, one of them wanted to see the boys take the bulldozers in. He kept calling the protesters “that mob”. 

It seemed as though he’d be happy to see the bulldozers drive over the top of whatever, whoever, happened to get in the way. 

Someone else mentioned a farmhouse near the protest site, where an elderly Pākehā couple lived. These lovely people hadn’t been threatened, he said. Yet, he added. 

And, with a few swift sentences, he implied that “they” could rise up at any minute, to threaten and terrify the old people. His words were flaming and forked.

“It’s all an excuse,” he continued. 

“It’s a beautiful and valuable piece of land, right on the river, and they’ve just cooked up an excuse to take it for themselves.” 

An ignorant and racist backbone

Situations like these are a predictable outcome of a system that has made our country’s history invisible. 

The basic fact that foreign law was laid over the top of existing local law has been buried to such a degree that someone else in 2021, at a separate meeting on a different subject, was unable to see that the current system was set up for his benefit.

“We keep hearing about Māori tikanga. Which is good for Māori,” he said, his voice rising. 

“But what about a New Zealand tikanga, for everyone else?” 

Last week, in an online blog, the founder of Pak‘nSave and a member of the Business Hall of Fame, Hugh Perrett, accused the government of being hijacked by Māori activists in a manner “directly comparable with and reminiscent of the approach taken by Goebbel’s campaigns conducted in Nazi Germany”.

He blogs regularly, and there’s a theme. The Treaty is a “gravy train”, te reo Māori is a language “without meaningful utility”, plans to teach our history are “cleansing” and “dishonest reinvention”.

Read and listen to enough of this stuff and it doesn’t feel like there is still an ignorant and racist underbelly in this country. It feels like there is an ignorant and racist backbone.

There were more moderate people involved in the discussions about the land occupation. These ones were anxious to do things the right way: to talk, to listen, to offer to fence off the food pits, to try to find solutions which would uphold their property rights. 

But even these moderate voices remained perplexed that they needed to take this circuitous route. 

“Surely most people would just see it from our point of view,” one of them said. “That they can’t just go and take someone’s land?”

They are, of course, right. We know first-hand in this country what happens when you do that. People whose rights, laws and land are taken suffer deep generational poverty and sickness. They die early. 

That those who’ve been dispossessed have been willing to compromise — to back down from demands for the land back, to come to settlements and accept inadequate compensation instead — is a statement of sacrifice that should be nailed to every step in the country and understood by every person in every meeting.

People are changing . . .

All through winter, the fit, the fat, the feeble and the fanatical keep panting up the Haks. On the grimmest days, the fog hasn’t lifted even by midday and the view offers only a thick grey blanket. 

On those days, it’s tempting to see the low smudged layer as the accumulated breath of a thousand bigots and bulldozer drivers.

But also at the small summit clearing, when I was recently there, were two women talking about the RNZ documentary NZ Wars: Stories of Tainui. The women told me they’d lived in Ngāruawāhia all their lives. There were things in the documentary that they hadn’t known, that they’d now heard and learned through a mainstream media platform. They were pleased the history had an airing.

On my way back down, two others on the track were speaking conversational te reo, and a third, passing them, gave a compliment in English, saying how nice it was to hear the reo in everyday use. It wasn’t possible to tell from looking at any of them who may, or may not, have had whakapapa Māori.

The vast majority of the people on the Hākarimata path are friendly, optimistic and supportive. They make room for each other, offer advice, dish out encouragement, especially to the kids, and hold themselves back from mocking the diehard dickhead with his bare feet as hard as hooves, who announced to everyone that he’s on his third summit lap of the morning. 

The microcosm of New Zealand travelling up and down on this real-life social channel feels more open and accommodating than the distorted voices shouting in the online versions, or in the management meetings. 

The physical nature of the climb means there are generally more young people than old here. As spring creeps around the corner, burning off the fog a bit earlier in the day, it feels like you could add another aphorism to the steps.

“People are changing, and the ones who aren’t are aging.”

Drive away from the Hākarimata range and the richness of the surrounding countryside is inescapable. Thick green grass springs from the ground. In the backyard of a dilapidated house, a neglected citrus grove is heavy with perfect fruit. The fruit has started to form pulpy piles on the ground. 

Anyone passing can see the waste. But the bright and glowing branches are walled off, and a sign says: “Strictly Private.”


See also David William’s piece here on the issues around Māori land in private ownership.

Connie Buchanan has Scottish-Irish whakapapa as well as Ngāti Pāhauwera connections through her tūpuna in Wairoa. She has a degree in broadcast journalism from Christchurch Polytech Institute of Technology, a master’s degree in International Relations from Victoria University, and is a graduate of Te Tohu Paetahi at Waikato University. Connie was born in Hamilton where she lives now with her husband and two boys.

© E-Tangata, 2021

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