I can’t help myself if the sign-post points to a marae down the road. I follow it. I almost feel obliged to.

Me and my darling like poking around and going down roads where we’ve never been before. That’s our idea of fun on the rare occasions we get to slip away from the city for a few days.

This addiction to checking out marae has had us ducking down side-roads for decades. And, as I offer my mihi, I’m reminded how all these wharenui, whether big or small, plain or ornate, have the same roles. To house and feed, and offer manaakitanga to all who visit.

Some marae, it’s true, don’t look much more than garages. But they all have a presence. A dignity. An appeal. It’s easy to imagine the comfort that whanau would feel within their walls on a cold winter or hot summer night.

I remember once, on a road trip from Port Waikato to Kawhia, we came across a marae in Waikaretu which a friend (a big-time Elvis fan as a matter of fact) had long encouraged me to visit. Sadly, she had died a year or so earlier.

At the marae there was no sound, bar the grunting of the kunekune pig living next door – and the cheeping from a flurry of fantails. Those darting piwakawaka can make any stop more special.

On most visits, there’s no one around. I just pull over to the side of the road, get out and mihi to the wharenui as if I’m greeting a friend. And I think about the people who may gather there even though I don’t know them.

You may think that’s a little disrespectful and that I should wait to be invited. But I feel it’s disrespectful to drive by marae and ignore them and what they stand for.

I spent a few days in Dunedin recently and took the opportunity to check out the albatross colony at Taiaroa Heads at the southern entrance to the harbour. I followed the twisting seaside road that took me through fishing villages and bays full of baches.

A few kilometres from my destination was a sign that read ‘marae’. Naturally, I had little option. I had to obey my impulse to call in and make its acquaintance.

I’m glad I did turn down that road. Standing proud was Tamatea, the wharenui for many Otakou people. These days, you don’t see a lot of evidence of the Maori presence in and around Dunedin. But here was a substantial and significant marae – with a name dating back 700 years, and with a connection to a number of accomplished and influential figures in the south.

It was a good feeling to pause there beside the hub of that community and be reminded of  its whakapapa – and of the responsibilities those families are quietly shouldering.

There’s something to be said for checking the sign-posts and exploring the side-roads.


© E-Tangata, 2015

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