Te Kāraka Magazine

developed for Te Kāraka magazine, Te Rūnunga ō Ngāi Tahu

Writing for the Ngāi Tahu tribal magazine Te Kāraka has been a real highlight of the last three years. It’s a superb publication, and the assignments have taken me from one end of the South Island to the other to hang out with some incredible people. It’s also been awesome getting to use more te reo Māori in my work. Check out the archives of my pieces for the mag here. And here’s one of my favourite pieces below, on the unique combination of Olympic sport and high opera that is the national Maori performing arts championships. The piece was anthologised in Tell You What: Best New Zealand Non-fiction 2016.

Te Matatini

My house is full of aunties. Suitcases in the hallway, laughter in the kitchen, too much kai and a barrage of questions. It’s like someone’s turned up the world’s volume.

How are you? What have you been up to? Hungry? Sit down! Anyway, but he’s married to … yeah, but she’s one of ours, right? Right!

They’ve come all the way from Murihiku. They’re excited.

Must be time for Te Matatini.


Hagley Park is full of aunties. There’s an eddying river of people hugging and kissing, young and old, waving and looking. Grass-stained schoolboys jostle in for a look at the trophies. Everyone photographs everyone else.

I’ll say. Never seen so many hot Māori boys in my life!

The powhiri’s about to begin. Two great encampments stand before the manuka palisades, Ngāi Tahu to the east, the motu to the west. The Ratana band lines up. Warriors pad through the crowd to take their place out front, patu pounamu cradled in their arms. One breaks away to greet a kaumatua. They grasp shoulders in a quick fierce hongi, voices quiet.

Tena koe.

Tena koe, boy.

From somewhere, everywhere, comes the sound of pounamu. A resonant underwater clang echoes from all sides. It’s a pahū pounamu, a greenstone gong, struck once, twice, three times, then comes the deep fluttering sigh of the porotītī. Eyes up. Ethereal calls fill the paepae. Pūtōrino and pūmotomoto in surround-sound. Karanga weka. The puru gourd booming like kākāpō. Then comes ororuarangi, the two-voiced flute, the human world. Conversation dies away. Only yesterday I saw these instruments behind glass in a museum. It’s great to hear them full of life. There’s a blast of tetere, flax trumpets seven strong, calling the people on. The Ratana marching band starts marching. It begins.



The morning air is full of aunties. Their kāranga rise one after the other, calling the thousands onto Ngā Pākihi Whakatekateka ō Waitaha: the proud, strutting plains of Waitaha, named for Rakaihautu and Rakihouia’s joyous reunion. The river of teams and their whanau flow past the kaikaranga to pay their respects and receive gifts of pounamu. They’re in tracksuits and piupiu, scarves and korowai, sunglasses and suits. It’s one of the biggest gatherings of Maori in the south since Te Matatini was here in ’86, back when it was known as the Polynesian Festival. Last time we hosted was before cellphones, laptops, Maori TV, neck minnit. Before the earthquakes. Before the Treaty Settlement. There’s tears galore out here. Pride and tears.

Tahu Pōtiki! Maraka, maraka!

Tahu Pōtiki! Rise up! Rise up!

Three hundred of the thirty thousand faces of Te Matatini surge forward to perform ‘Tēnei te Ruru’. There’s warmth and fire in the welcome. The kaupapa of this year’s festival is ‘he ngākau aroha’. Ngākau is the heart. It’s also a token sent to allies asking for aid in troubled times. He Ngākau Aroha: a loving heart, and gratitide to all these northern iwi who sent help when the city was crushed.


The chairs around me are full of aunties. They fan themselves in the heat or work at their smartphones. Up on the paepae speeches pass back and forth. The first three waiata tautoko from the manuhiri are all old moteatea chants, the voices and bodies standing and speaking as one. Heads nod in appreciation.

Get that, all sixteen verses of Pinepine te Kura. First time in my life I’ve heard the full version done.

There’s a cocoon of focussed attention around the kaumatua and kuia under their white shade marquees. Over distance and time, concentration spreads and relaxes at the margins of sprawled schoolkids, gossips and catchups, breast-feeding and sun-screening.

Nice taonga, bro. You look like you’re gonna catch a taniwha with that thing.

It’s hot. A camera drone fizzes overhead. A young performer in piupiu strides through the crowd with his shaved head held high, expression fierce, hand resting on the patu in his belt. An auntie grabs him and kisses him and points to his wrist. They crack up. He’s forgotten to take off his watch. In the front row, Deputy Prime Minister Bill English blinks in the sunlight. The latest waiata tautoko from the manuhiri begins, and ends.

Oh, that was quick. Next!

How many more? Six?

Nah. One, two, three; three more. Better hurry up or we’ll be all Matatini’d out!


The kai tent is full of Aussies. Two teams of our relations who live in Australia made it into this year’s finals.

Yeah, she’s from Aussie, but she knows all the words.

Along with the other kaumatua, their elders are stocking up on kōura, tītī, tuna and kina. Everyone else gets a feed too. It’s the first time they’ve had a hākari at the Te Matatini powhiri. Dozens of volunteers hand out thousands of bento boxes full of delicacies from the south. It’s all traditionally harvested, or donated by Ngāi Tahu businesses. Feasting people fill every inch of shade.

Imagine if you got this on Air New Zealand! Instead of some shit pasta and a bread roll, you got tītī and paua.

Dream on!

I get two trays and sit chatting with North Island visitors while waiting for Dad. He’s nowhere to be found. It’s not safe to hang onto his kai for too long in the heat. Can’t let it go to waste.


The lawn in front of the stage is full of aunties. It’s Te Ihu, day one of the competition and they’ve come early to stake out their turf. The ground’s covered with blankets and tarps in a giant patchwork quilt that looks like the Canterbury Plains. They’ve brought water, sunscreen, cushions and kai, though most have left their cameras at home.

No filming please, or you will be tasered.

The MCs are in good form. They ask how many Te Matatini first-timers are in the crowd. About a third raise their hand.

Ka pai! We’ve just heard that this is officially the most brown people ever in Christchurch. At least since the opening of McDonalds.

The third act is local kapa Te Pao A Tahu. Their teal costumes gleam like Aoraki’s glacier lakes. When they emerge onto the vast stage they’re greeted by name.

Go Corbin! C’mon Ana!

A young conductor in suit and tails leads their opening chorale. He flourishes his baton. It’s a striking sight, this slight figure in formal black against the body of traditional cloaks. After the final waita there’s warm applause, but at Te Matatini applause doesn’t matter so much. A good chunk of the crowd rises to its feet to haka, and you know they like what they see.

He pō! He pō!

Ka awatea.

Next is Te Waka Huia from Tāmaki-Makau-Rau. A buzz runs through the crowd. They won last year, and they won in Christchurch in ’86. You know they’re good, from the flash of red beneath their cloaks when they turn, and the full-body quiver of their haka.

It’s the same with Te Ahimōmau A Hamoterangi, the next Waitaha kapa. The men begin in circle formation facing inwards, kaitātaki tāne in the centre. The pulse is slow, sustained, intense. Piupiu swish and crack. Two policemen stand to my left. One grins with pleasure. The other, plainclothes, watches stone-faced. The judges’ heads dip and write then rise and watch. A guy turns to his wide-eyed kids.

Pretty wicked, aye?


On Saturday Ngā Manu a Tāne, who won the Waitaha senior regional competition, stand with an extra-solid performance that earns them the highest place of the three Waitaha rōpū here.


The kai tent is full of aunties. The Maori Women’s Welfare League are hard at it making chicken baps. There are kai-babs, cuzzy pies, tītī kai and whitebait sammies. The whitebait queue is massive. The man on the till makes chitchat to distract bored customers. At his back the kitchen is frantic, except for one auntie standing still as a tōtara. She whisks egg to perfection with steely concentration. There’s no rushing her.

Alongside traditional kai there are signs of a changing foodie culture. The stalls serve up salads, homemade aoli, slow-cooked pork belly, marinated chicken tenderloins, pulled-pork baps.

What’s a bap?

Maybe they couldn’t spell bun!

Most of the food’s healthy. Then there’s fry bread. I resist buying any, but later in the media tent there’s a big crispy golden-brown pile. I take a slice, then a second. There’s nothing on earth like that sweet, heart-stopping crunch. I try not to think about Elvis Presley, and go back for a third.

The streets of Christchurch are full of aunties. At the lights on Bealey Ave one group’s elegant black and gold scarves catch my eye. They’ve just come from the casino.

Win anything?

Yeah, a bit. Lost a bit too!

Hah! Where you guys from?

Rotorua. Here for a big kapa haka competition. You should go!

Days two and three roll by. We’re in and out of the venue by day, and watching reruns by night. By now it feels normal to watch kapa haka and hear te reo twenty-four seven. There’s humour, there’s drama, there’s kai. He Iti Kahurangi use their haka to challenge Maori Television, right down to the actions of switching the TV off.

My anger hisses in me like a distored television

You focus on negativity and sensationalism

I reach for my remote…

The sun burns down and the crowds pour in. Rains pours down and the crowds flood in. By the time the judges assemble on stage to announce the finalists the grass has turned to dirt, but no one cares. They’re too busy picking winners. Te Waka Huia are up there. Te Whānau ā Apanui, Waihīrere, Te Mātārae I Ōrehu. Everyone’s got a favourite kapa, which just happens to be full of their relations.

Shush, here we go.

And the finalists are, in no particular order…


Finals day is full of—everyone. The place is rammed.

Not just Māori here, aye? I was in Rotorua and it was just brown folk.

Yeah, good to see so many Pākehā.

I hear Maori, English, French, Cantonese and German. There are curious toddlers everywhere. A girl of about seven wins the pukana competition with a hardcore face that makes the crowd holler in delight. Heaps of tourists are told off for photographing the stage.

Can I take photos of the stage on the big screen instead?


Up on stage everyone’s lifted their game. There’s an intensity to the performances that at times brings tears. For the first time, I pop on headphones and listen to the live translation on Hakarongo Mai. It’s like the world leaps into full-colour HD. The haka we’re watching is not just powerful rhythm and sound. It’s about Te Kooti.

Where are the monuments to the women and children

Stripped and executed by musket?

Only it’s not about Te Kooti, it’s a full-body enactment of his life. The deep space of history opens around us.

Oh you detestable Governor and your drunken soldiers,


Every gesture is charged. Every song speaks to the next. The moteatea which follows is Te Kooti’s response to the soldiers. Then Opotiki Mai Tawhiti enact the hanging of Mokomoko for the murder of Reverend Volhers—a crime he didn’t commit.

Take this rope from round my neck

That I may sing my song.

The poi swing gently back and forth like a body from the gallows. Mokomoko was pardoned, but confiscated land never returned. It’s 1865 as if yesterday. Or earlier. Te Matarai I Orehu tell an old tale of love, betrayal and revenge. There’s a white dolphin, a silver pathway over the ocean, omens of adultery, chants to Tangaroa to drown an unfaithful lover with a tidal wave. The wāhine reach forward, stabbing the air with their fingers:

Serves! You! Right!

A visiting American nails it: it’s Maori opera. The crowd goes wild.


The outright winners of the Te Matatini National Kapa Haka Festival 2015 was Te Kapa Haka o Te Whānau a Apanui from the Eastern Bay of Plenty. Their overall aggregate points (Te Toa Whakaihuwaka) earned them the Duncan McIntyre Trophy. Joint runers up were Te Mātārae I Ōrehu from Te Arawa, Rotorua; and Ōpōtiki Mai Tawhiti from the Eastern Bay of Plenty.

  • Client - Te Kāraka magazine, Te Rūnunga ō Ngāi Tahu
  • Date Completed - 2014 - current
  • Details - First published in Te Karaka, April 2015
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