Myths, legends and folklore - there are plenty on Motiti Island. A rugged paradise that’s just a 15 minute flight from Mount Maunganui, yet it’s a world away, and a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of the mainland. Here, time is as slow as the 4WD truck that is driving us to the other side of the island, and so far the only real hazards are the deepening dirt roads, gates and wandering cows feasting on the wild fennel.
The private island is home to around 20 permanent residents, mainly retirees who have come home to honour their roots. They are Ngati Awa, and their hapū, Te Patuwai, have such a deep, long-held connection to the land that it’s hard to picture this place being any other way. This is an old place, and that day I walked in the footsteps of locals, ancestors and time.
An Italian, an Asian and two
How did I, someone with no family connections to this island, find myself standing before Tamatea ki te Huatahi marae(1) for a traditional powhiri(2)? It started with a simple a conversation with Angelo the day before. He’s an Italian designer and documentary maker, who was part way through his 300-day journey to produce ‘Ephemera - A Mobile Documentary About A Disappearing World.’ The aim is to capture the most fragile places and cultures of the world, to see them before they are gone. To understand how indigenous cultures have held onto their traditions and sense of identity in a modern world - their feet anchored between two worlds, something I truly resonated with.
As we drank and chatted over coffee at Javaman Cafe (it was my second cup of soy mocha that day), I decided to ring Uncle Rik and Aunty Lisa for help. What happened next was so much more than I could have ever imagined - they connected me with Briton, who’s family is from Motiti Island. I can’t even begin to express how grateful I am for their kindness, and for allowing us the opportunity to be on the island and meet their family.
We are storytellers, taking a snapshot of time
After the powhiri, we sat down for a hot drink and biscuits. My role in this visit was to help the locals feel comfortable enough to tell their story, because to be honest, I was probably just as curious as Angelo to understand what truly makes this place home for them. What is home - is it a place, a feeling, a sense of belonging? Those are questions I’ve asked myself time and time again, and the locals at Motiti helped me to find my own answers to that question.
We are storytellers, and this is only a snapshot of time. None of us will be here forever, yet I can help to capture those memories for them. In his work, Angelo creates visual poetry, and in mine, through my love of words, or even simply just by listening. How long before the knowledge of the old world and traditions disappear?
Briton and I actually went to the same high school, and his wife, Anita and I were in the same year. I may be a Whakatane local, but he was like a walking encyclopedia, explaining to us about his heritage and the history of the island. I asked a lot of questions in that hour. Also on the drive over from Whakatane, I learned that the island is self-administered, meaning they don’t have to abide by the same laws from central government - instead reporting directly to the Department of Internal Affairs.
Eddy the local
After the interviews, we hopped into Eddy’s 4WD because in Briton’s words, “The other truck doesn’t have brakes, we’ll need those where we’re going.” As the roads aren’t sealed, the tracks deepened over time through erosion and the weather. The locals don’t seem to mind and joked that the rugged conditions were island-style speed limits.
Eddy is a retired truck driver - his wild, gray hair tamed only by the sun hat he wore. It was fascinating to learn that he considered himself a realist, as he was a wealth of knowledge on the legends and folklore of the island. During our island tour, he was articulate with his words, had a quick wit, and a humility that I admired.
A lot of the North-Eastern part of the island is covered in wild fennel. It grows like a weed, and there aren’t enough cows on the island to make a dent. I also noticed the choko that grew amongst the overgrown bushes.
We drove through many of the old pā sites, before arriving at a sandy beach. Angelo and Briton were further down the beach with the drone, when Eddy turned to me and said, “That rock over there is tapu, don’t stand on it. Unless you want to stay here for awhile.” He said that it never goes underwater, although couldn’t remember how it became tapu.
Our flight back was for 4.30pm, so we slowly made our way back to the airfield.
The future of Motiti Island
The idealist in me hopes to see this place kept untouched - having seen the effects of tourism in places like Thailand. If development does occur, which is most likely in the future, that it is made with the interest of protecting the island's flora, fauna and marine life. The locals have discovered that seven native New Zealand lizard species are on the island, and it’s here that a thriving Sparrow Hawk population (also known as the NZ Falcon) calls home.
Before this trip, I never considered myself an active advocate for the environment. Yet on the island, where life is simpler and time is slow, I can’t help but hear the cry of Mother Earth. The beauty of this place lies in its old soul, an entrenched culture of connection to the land, and a knowing that none of us will be here forever. In the here and now, for these locals at least, it is simply one word - home.
Maori word translation
1) Marae = Maori meeting house
2) Powhiri = A welcoming ceremony for guests