Kris works in our Stray head office and recently embarked on an adventure to the newest Stray stop, Lake Aniwhenua.
You don’t get much more remote than this! I am a Kiwi (New Zealander, not a flightless bird) and this stop is definitely off the beaten track, even for me. To be honest, if I wasn’t travelling with Stray I probably would have driven right through this region without a second thought, but this is a pretty amazing place steeped in history and local culture, so I’m glad I got the chance to hop off.
Entering the Te Urewera National Park, we picked up our Maori guide, Morris (a respected elder from the Ngati Manawa tribe and one of the nicest men you’ll ever meet). He travelled on the bus with us to our remote lodgings at Kohutapu Lodge, sharing stories of the taniwha (mystical creatures), history and culture of these tribal lands along the way.
A highlight of this journey was jumping off the bus on the side of the road in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, only to discover a secret path that lead us through flourishing native New Zealand bush to some incredible Maori rock art, said to be dating back to the earliest Maori settlers in New Zealand. We really had a sense we were off the beaten track now!
Further on, the bus pulled up at a closed gate and we took a short walk to the impressive thundering Aniwhenua waterfall on the Rangitaiki River. The eel is a highly valued source of food for the local tribal people in this region and this is the spot where the eel departs each year for their journey to the ocean for spawning.
Our lodgings for the night were set on the edge of the stunning Lake Aniwhenua, surrounded by green grassy plains where local farmers grazed sheep, cows, deer and the occasional ostrich.
Some passengers took kayaks out on the lake to check out the local springs, others learnt the art of flax weaving (it’s harder than it looks, believe me!), whilst others cooked Maori fry bread that was to be served with our dinner. Yum!
Our night’s feast was the best hangi (meat and vegetables cooked in a Maori earth oven) I have ever tasted! The fry bread, still warm from the cooker, was shared among the tables, and we ate from traditional Maori woven flax food baskets called Rourou. We even got to sample smoked eel, freshly caught by a previous group of Stray passengers from the lake two days earlier. It was delish!
That evening Morris shared stories of taniwhas (mystical creatures) and Maori culture over candlelight.
What really struck me about this place is the generosity and selflessness of this new tourism venture. The local town Murupara (named after a water taniwha that lives in the river where the local kids swim) was once a thriving logging town, but unfortunately, new technology has led to unemployment in the region. Our hosts Nadine, Carl, Morris and the whanau (family) believe that by growing tourism in the area they may be able to reduce the rising unemployment among their people.
Also, with every Stray passenger who hops off here, a portion of the cost of their accommodation will contribute to the continuous preservation of the Maori rock art and, what’s more, any leftover food from the hangi is generously donated to the local school so the kids can have a healthy lunch.
There’s a real sense of whanau and community here and this is remote New Zealand at its best. A truly magical place, well worth hopping off for!