Napier Māori Tours: the wildlife estuary tour

A new Māori cultural tour in Napier offers an insightful experience into the significance and beauty of the Ahuriri Estuary.

A family-run Māori cultural tour in Napier offers an intimate and insightful experience into the significance and beauty of Napier’s Ahuriri Estuary.

Across a muddy flat, a poaka - the pied stilt - crunches its way over the bed of clams and discarded shells. Overhead flies a kawau - the black shag - swooping low to the water to see what the turning tide is bringing in.

This is the Ahuriri Estuary, a protected natural area on the outskirts of Napier. On first glance, the estuary appears as empty as a desert, its mudflats and waterways stretching to the horizon. But just like a desert, it is teaming with energy - you just need the right guide to bring it to life.

Husband and wife partnership Cameron Ormsby and Hinewai Hawaikirangi are the owners of Napier Māori Tours, a new company which offers eco-cultural tours through the estuary and surrounds, aiming to showcase the beauty, mystery and cultural importance of the estuary.

Hinewai is a descendant of Ngāti Paarau, the mana whenua of the Heretaunga Plains, and a teacher of science and te reo Māori. Cameron is Ngāti Maniapoto from Waikato-Tainui - he is a hunter-gatherer as well as environmental scientist. Together, they aim to provide an intimate and meaningful cultural experience with an emphasis on manaakitanga - hospitality - and kaitiakitanga - environmentalism.

“We live in a Māori world, with a science skill set,” says Cameron. “Kaitiakitanga is important to us, and to our whānau,” says Cameron. “We have a real passion to live a life that doesn’t burden the earth, and to leave a better world than we inherited.”

The estuary tours are just one of the company’s collection, and one of its most popular - it is a diverse day out that takes visitors through a traditional greeting ceremony, an exploration of the history of local Māori and their relationship to the estuary, and a showcase of the estuary as an important traditional food source, as visitors help to catch fresh fish and share a feast together at the end.

“Everyone loves this trip for the food aspect,” says Cameron. “We catch and cook and eat together, and what could be better than that? Catch something fresh, share it, learn about the history. It’s lovely for kids and adults.”

A traditional and spiritual welcome

The tour begins with a pōwhiri - a formal welcoming from Hinewai and Cameron, and the chance to be welcomed onto an ancestral land. The pōwhiri helps guests to cross the metaphysical barrier from the busy world of cars and iPhones to a more spiritual, connected place.

In a karakia, Cameron asks for the wind to settle and the warm air to arrive. He acknowledges the ancestral mountain pā and fence sites where their families once lived. It is a moving and spiritual process: traditional, familiar and reassuring.

Visitors don’t have to sing or speak at the pōwhiri, but Hinewai believes it’s the fastest way to break down any barriers.

“Guests have come for a different experience, to learn about another culture,” says Hinewai. “To speak here gives visitors a little wiriwiri - the lifting of the hairs on the back of your necks - that little bit of fear.”

“And people can sing anything they like,” she says. “One group sang ‘You Are My Sunshine’!”

Further into the estuary

The long, narrow Ahuriri Estuary is a diverse environment. It ranges from fresh to salt water, and shallow to deep, supporting an incredible range of birds, fish and plants. The Napier earthquake dramatically altered this landscape, raising some sections by up to three metres - many suburbs of Napier were underwater before the calamitous events of 1931, and of the original 3,840 ha of Te Whanganui-ā-Orotū (the inner harbour estuary), only 470 ha now remain.

Throughout the estuary, Hinewai shows us elaborately carved pouwhenua, ancestral poles carved to represent the land’s guardians and acknowledge the connection between the tangata (people) and the whenua (land). A cluster of three in the middle of the wetlands remind visitors and locals alike that these are indeed special and tapu or sacred sites that hold centuries of Māori cultural history. These pouwhenua have stood for decades, since Hinemoa’s uncle carved them 40 years ago.

Close to the pouwhenua, Hinewai invites us to sit on a woven whāriki (mat), and passes us precious taonga of her whānau: a 500-year-old toki or adze head made from argillite and onewa (greywacke) stone; obsidian volcanic glass, which was once used in surgery and for the preparation of meat; and the mysterious and ancient pūrerehua - taking its name from the beating sound of a moth’s wings, this impressive whirring device was once used as  a lure for lizards, and is now more often used as a ritual instrument.

Visit a museum in New Zealand, and you wouldn’t be able to touch the treasures, but leading small and intimate groups - no more than six guests at a time - allows Napier Māori Tours to provide this unique opportunity to hold and examine real taonga. We learn about the traditional and contemporary uses of each item, before guests get a chance to give the poi and pūrerehua a spin.

Time to catch some kai

Following our exploration, it’s time to get down to the business of catching some kai.

More than 70 resident and migratory bird species visit the estuary through the year - many, such as the godwit and the golden plover, arrive from arctic breeding grounds, sheltering over winter to take advantage of the estuary’s abundant seafood - easy pickings when the fish get caught in the turning tide.

Cameron visits the estuary the night before each tour, laying his net in order to catch just what the birds are after - flounder, grey mullet and kahawai are all abundant here.

Gumboots donned, he leads us to the waterway, where the net is already twitching with the day’s catch - today seven grey mullet are waiting. We crunch across the bank which is rich with hollowed out shellfish, possibly the victims of the hungry poaka. “This is the base layer of life,” says Cameron.

At this point, it is time to muck in. We join him in hauling in the night’s bounty, before rejoining Hinewai, who has laid out a beautiful spread of organic and homegrown goods on trestle tables beneath a pūriri tree.

Everything served here is grown at home or sourced locally, from the marinated mussels served in the half shell to the sparkling kawakawa juice. Fresh flounder is cooking on a portable barbecue, and home-baked bread is ready to mop up the delicious juices. Paua shells are provided as small plates.

The day has taken us from the formal to the traditional to the adventurous. And now we gather under the pūriri to eat and drink as friends and whānau.