Baby Derek with his grandfather Tinia, or “Big Nan” as Derek called him once he’d got the hang of English. (Photo supplied)

Well before these days when some of our mainstream media organisations have become uncomfortable about their poor coverage of Māori news and Māori issues, Derek Fox had begun his career in radio and then television.

And, in the 1980s, he began showing that there was — in fact, there always has been — an alternative for journalists. They didn’t have to ignore or misrepresent Māori news. Another option was to do their job professionally and recognise that te ao Māori is part of Aotearoa. 

So he and Whai Ngata launched Te KarereAnd a few years later he teamed up with two mates to set up Mana Māori Media. Then he had a hand in developing the Māori Television Service.

But his start, as he explains here, was on Mahia Peninsula.


I can still remember the day that my grandfather died nearly 70 years ago.

I was about five at the time and he was 52. His name was Tinia Totoru, or Mita, and he was my world.

I was named after him. My middle name is Tinia — Tini for short — and that’s how I was known in the remote East Coast communities where I was brought up.

Tinia and his wife Mereana had taken my mother in and raised her as a daughter. Mereana was my mum’s aunty, and they took me off my parents when I was a baby and raised me as their son. They didn’t have any children of their own and this sort of arrangement wasn’t uncommon at the time.

Tinia used to address me in the respectful way that people greeted each other in our area back then. He’d say: “E Tā.” That’s “Sir”. Once I could speak, I called him Pā.

He couldn’t read or write, which again wasn’t all that unusual back then. But that didn’t seem to inhibit him too much. We spoke Māori, or at least the local version of it. Back then, in the late 1940s, the drive to discourage young people from speaking Māori was strong, so a kid who spoke nothing but Māori was an oddity — so much so that Mereana and Tinia’s middle-aged friends frequently popped round to engage me in conversation.

I was born in 1947 in the Wairoa Hospital. Although my parents were living up the coast at Ruatorea, my mother was still coming back to her mum and aunty to give birth.

Shortly after my birth, I was very sick with pleurisy and wasn’t expected to live. But Tangitangi, a woman from Ruatorea who was a friend of my parents, wouldn’t give up on me and sucked the fluid out of my congested lungs through my nostrils — giving me life.

Years later, as a young man, I’d visit her in her old age and thank her with hugs and kisses. And I’d take my children to visit the lady who was responsible for their existence, too.

A few years later when I needed a chest x-ray in the course of my pilot’s medical examination, the doctor got very excited when he saw the scar on one lung. But he calmed down when I was able to persuade him it was historical scar tissue.

We lived on a farm at the end of the Mahia Peninsula. It’s the farm from which rockets are launched these days to release satellites into space for good and maybe questionable reasons.

Now there’s a well-formed and maintained road to the tip of the peninsula to carry the rocket componentry to the launch site. There’s a mini control room back a bit from the launch pad. It’s like Cape Kennedy. Well, perhaps a little more modest. But at least our district now has one of the best internet wifi services in the country thanks to the enormous IT needs of the launch company.

In the 1940s, even the county road was nothing but a dirt track which turned into a muddy mess when it rained. And that road came to a halt at a beach which is now a world famous surfing spot known simply as “Dinahs” — named after an old bat who used to live there.

It’s also miles away from where we lived on the farm. From Dinahs, we had two choices. We could go on horseback along the beach or across the hills. Or we could take a ride on an ex-army truck through the sea and across the rocks at low tide. The route was marked with railway irons driven into the papa rock. And, providing the sea wasn’t too rough, the journey could be carried out up to about half-tide.

One of our journeys out from the farm on that truck provided me with an unforgettable childhood memory. We had come off the rocks and on to the track along the top of the beach. A little further along that track was a garage where my grandfather kept our “town truck”, a 1947 Ford V8 utility or pick-up, which was pretty flash for those times.

However, lying across the track, taking a lunch break or something, was a huge sea elephant. It completely blocked the track and showed no signs of moving.

I suppose we could have run into it, but we didn’t. Instead, Tinia climbed down on to the road and began teasing it. As he approached, it would sit up and roar at him. That’s when Tinia would take the opportunity to lob a pebble into its mouth.

I was frantic. Trembling, crying, calling out: “E Pā, E Pā, hoki mai, hoki mai!” Fortunately, the sea elephant soon tired of the game and lumbered away off the track — and we carried on.

Derek (bottom) with his brother Pete and uncles Lee and Trevor (top). (Photo supplied)

We had two homes in those days. One was on the big sheep and cattle farm called Tawapata or Onenui Station, where Tinia worked and where he also had a 90-acre block which has since been absorbed into the station.

It was right down on the beach on the eastern side of the peninsula. There was a small community of us in houses spread along the seafront. The other was miles away at Opoutama but also by the sea.

There was a Pākehā farm manager who had children from whom I began to pick up the rudiments of the English language. And further along the beachfront was the Te Hau family. Unfortunately, their tipuna had planted a boxthorn hedge which meant clumps of boxthorn lived on to be a bane to humans and farm animals alike — with the exception of the local feral goats who took a fancy to the young boxthorn shoots.

The only use we kids ever found for them was to use the strong, sharp spikes to prise pūpū, edible sea snails, out of their shells.

Life was pretty simple back there in the late 1940s and early ‘50s. There was no electricity at Tawapata, so no electric lights or appliances. No shops for many, many miles either — and no access apart from that truck ride through the sea or on horseback.

The only sign of outside life was the occasional passing ship and the Portland Island lighthouse warning ships of the dangerous shoals further out to sea.

On nights when the wind and tide were right, we’d hear Bull Rock roaring. Bull Rock is acres of reef which would emerge at low tide. It must’ve had a tunnel running through it, and, when the tide rushed through, it’d sound like a bull bellowing. In recent times, it’s been quiet, probably because the tunnel has worn through. I should check on that, on my next visit.

One thing we were never short of was seafood. The cracks and channels leading out to where the sea dropped off into deeper water were packed with kai. Kina, paua, pūpū and crayfish. Certain rocks grew lush karengo seaweed and there were plenty of fish to be caught on handlines off the outer rocks. There were eels in the dams and creeks on the farm too.

I recall Tinia coming home after a day’s work on the farm to be met by Mereana suggesting that crayfish for tea wouldn’t be a bad idea: “Kei te hiahia koura ahau.”

He wouldn’t even blink. Just collect his flax crayfish handpot, get back on his horse and ride it into the sea to a place where he’d bend down from his saddle and flick some paua off a rock with his butcher’s knife.

Then he’d shuck and beat the paua a bit, place them inside the small flax basket which he’d dangle into the sea at another spot. The crays would yield to the temptation to come out of their holes and crawl up the sides of the flax pot, where they’d hang on grimly and suicidally. And there they were on their way to our dinner table.

One of the trappings of Pākehā civilisation arrived at Tawapata about 1950. That was a school. It was a one-room affair with toilets and washbasins attached and a place to hang up bags and coats.

It was prefabricated in Napier, then the sides were fastened together with long, diagonal bolts. The building was then broken down into parts which were taken by sea to Tawapata, put in the sea, rafted ashore, and then put back together again.

There were eight kids and one teacher. One of the earliest teachers, if not the first, was Emerson Mason. He was a good enough footballer to get into the Hawke’s Bay side, if my memory serves me right.

To get to a Saturday match down the Bay, he needed a quick getaway from school on Friday afternoon, which meant riding a horse to the Kopuawhara railway station many miles away and then catching the afternoon railcar from Gisborne to Napier. He’d reverse his tracks on Sunday, reach Kopuawhara late that afternoon, and be back at the farm on his horse late Sunday night.

Mereana, also known as “Little Nan”. (Photo supplied)

He was my first school teacher. The school was right next door to our house, and although I was too young to go, after months of nagging Mereana, I was allowed to go sometime in 1951. I was still only four but I became the ninth pupil.

I knew all about the trappings of attending school, because I’d been watching my older fellow farm-dwellers heading past our place each school day for ages. For example, I knew you needed to take lunch.

Nicely sliced bread sandwiches weren’t a goer, of course. From memory, a staple of my school lunch was miti tahu. Mutton off the farm would be deep fried in fat and then stored in the solidified fat until you needed it. Then you dug around until you found enough chops or paua (or whatever was stored there) for your immediate needs.

So, armed with my miti tahu tina, I’d head off next door to school, carefully hanging my bag in my spot. At morning tea time, I’d eat my miti tahu and then head home, deeming that quite enough work for the day. A longtime friend and observer unfairly suggested some years ago that it was an approach not only that I adopted early in life but one that I stuck to throughout my career.

In 1951, Tawapata became a movie set. It wasn’t a Hollywood blockbuster, but it was one of the first feature films made in New Zealand, by the pioneering New Zealand filmmaker John O’Shea.

It was called Broken Barrier. The script was wafer thin. Pākehā boy meets Māori girl, and then there’s some chemistry. The Pākehā boy in this story is a reporter sent into a Māori area to see how the “Mowreys” live. It was shot around Mahia and Nuhaka. The leading lady was a young and strikingly attractive Kate Ngarimu, a younger sister of the Victoria Cross winner Moana Ngarimu. Later in life, as Kate Walker, she became a very influential East Coast Māori leader.

Tawapata’s part in the movie is the place where Kate — called Kay in the movie — and the leading man, go horse-riding and, when their horses abandon them, are forced to sleep out on the farm overnight. There’s some innuendo but nothing x-rated.

The filmmakers also took advantage of the fact that some stock work was being carried out in the yards and they filmed sequences of calves being mustered and branded.

Tinia is in one of those sequences and I cherish that piece of film. I could’ve been in the movie that day, too. The farm had a swim dip and the sheep were being thoroughly dunked in the murky mix of water and sheep dip before coming out to drip dry and being turned loose on the hills again.

One reluctant swimmer somehow evaded the shepherds and the baying dogs, and I was shouted at to stop it getting away. I stepped into the path of the bounding escapee, but that was no help because it leaped up and hit me fair and square in the chest.

A four-year-old boy was no match for a rampaging, adult ewe. I was flattened. And forced to retire with badly injured pride.

Many years later, after I’d spent a few years working as a broadcaster, I ran into John O’Shea for the first time since Tawapata and he recalled our paths crossing back in the making of Broken Barrier. He’d made a number of fine documentaries and more feature films by then and, when he died, I was honoured when I was invited to speak at his funeral, held in the Embassy Theatre in Wellington.

Tawapata has some lovely flat and rolling country, but it also has some seriously steep hills, and, one day in 1952, Tinia’s horse slipped on a hillside and rolled over him.

He survived that accident and also an operation to patch up the damage. But he didn’t pull through from a second bout of surgery.

We had left the farm by then and were living at our Opoutama house. It had electricity and a few simple appliances, but there still wasn’t a phone.

So someone had to drive out from the hospital in Wairoa to tell us that Tinia had died.

I heard the vehicle arrive and Mereana going out to meet it. When she started wailing, I knew what it meant. I remember wrapping myself in a curtain covering the kitchen window, and I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. I’d never hear him greet me with “E Tā” again. And my questions to “Pā” would never be answered.

I’ve thought about that day many times. And today I’ve sat down and started committing some of those thoughts to paper.

I’m doing that more than 3000 kilometres away from Opoutama, in Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. This house, like those at Tawapata and Opoutama, is right by the sea, the same Pacific ocean that washes those shores, too. I’m sitting here less than a hundred metres from the seashore, listening to the waves crashing on the reef another hundred metres away.

I’ve been here for nearly a decade now. I first came 20 years ago for a visit and then kept visiting. There are strong connections with Mahia and Opoutama. The Takitumu canoe was part of the fleet of seven which left here a thousand or so years ago for Aotearoa.

The man who guided those waka south was the great navigator-priest, Ruawharo, who, when Takitimu reached Mahia, decided to disembark and settle there. The house commemorating him is just down the road from my house at Opoutama.

My mother and Mereana and Tinia and I are descendants of the people who braved the southern ocean on that waka with Ruawharo.

Derek in Rarotonga with wife Jaewynn and their son Tinirau. (Photo supplied)

I’m now 21 years older than Tinia was when he died far too early, as a 52-year-old. It was another 40 years before Mereana joined him, and they both lie in the ground at Tawapata down the hill from the rocket launch site.

My life changed that day in 1952. Shortly after the funeral, my parents came and got me and took me to Ruatorea where I spent 10 years going to school and milking cows on a small dairy farm.

Next I went to St Stephen’s, a boarding school south of Auckland. Then it was on to universities in Auckland and Wellington, before becoming a broadcaster and journalist for the best part of 50 years.

I sometimes wonder where I might have ended up if Tinia hadn’t been taken away that day.

Tinia prompted me to write this story. Maybe there’ll be other prompts for me to tell other stories that have happened since his time.

The original Te Karere crew (from left) Whai Ngata, Wena Harawira, Derek, and Pere Maitai.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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