The following article was originally published in the October 2005 Nga Kohinga.
Along with Hikurangi and Whangaokena, the Waiapu river is one of the symbols of Ngati Porou. Edging onto Rangitukia beach, the ngutu awa (river mouth) has been a kapata kai for the people of Rangitukia and Tikapa since time immemorial, a ‘live fish market’ providing fresh eel, kanae (mullet), tuarenga (whitebait) and of course Ngati Porou salmon - Kahawai.
Kahawai which typically runs from November to March, is the most common catch, and the season still attracts many, locals and visitors alike. But John Manuel who was raised only metres from the river, remembers the 1940’s and ‘50’s as being much busier, “It (Beach Road) was like a motorway when the Kahawai were running! A North flowing current was an advantage to Rangitukia, and a Southern current an advantage to Tikapa, so whereever it was happening we’d just swim over. Those were the best days”.
During that era traditional fishing equipment was also in use, like home made oval shaped nets called tango which could hold up to 100 fi sh, depending on the design of the creator. Rutene and Hannah Reihana were especially good at the craft. The centre pole was made of manuka, and flax bound supeljack to create the frame.
This supplejack frame served a double purpose - it floated which in cases of emergency made it a “lifesaver”, said John Manuel. The special string the net was made of, which is no longer available, absorbed water ensuring it would sink - unlike nylon.
There are many ture (rules) to be adhered to at the ngutu awa and they were strictly enforced in earlier years. There was to be no cooking at the mouth, and no cooked food to be taken there. To ease any concerns that a kete or any equipment had been in contact with cooked kai, it would be urinated on.
There are more rules and locals John Manuel, Ngarohi Kaa and Tipuna (Nunu) Tangaere echoed them as though reciting the 10 Commandments, “No yelling, no pointing, no swearing and no horses (vehicles) to be taken right up to the mouth. Fish was to be carried by the gills, not the tail, and your first catch should be hung on a Pou (pole) or thrown back as a tribute to the Gods. And arguing before going out is a big no-no”.
Some might think these rules sound a bit far fetched, but Nunu Tangaere said, “if you disrespected the rules, you’d see the sea change - becoming rougher. You could even get carried out to sea and nearly drown”.
The rule the Waiapu river mouth is probably most well known for is no women where the men are fishing. Understandably many think this is down right sexist but there are two main reasons for this rule. First is that woman have the ability to neutralise tapu, or make things noa. Secondly, in the good ol’ days the men used to go fishing in their birthday suits, which could cause women present to develop a roving eye. So there goes the myth of sexism, it’s just common sense.
Though women weren’t present during fishing, they still had a major role. The men would fish all day, and in the evening the women’s work began. Where these days many of us can’t even pick out a fish from the supermarket, back then the women would scale, gut and fillet the fish - sometimes dozens in an afternoon!
Nanny Ngarohi Kaa remembers, “I didn’t know much about fish, but I learnt everything by watching the old people”. Fish would be soaked in a brine of salt and water, filleted and hung on a line, out of direct sunlight, for the wind to dry - this was before the days of the ‘deep freeze’.
“It was a beautiful sight” remembers John Manuel, “every house had a long line of fish hanging outside. As children our job was to run up and down with mänuka scaring off the flies, and if we got hungry we could just take a bite out of one of the fish”.
Once dried, fish was packed into cardboard boxes and stored in a dry place. It was typically served placed atop freshly cooked potatoes, kümara and kamokamo, the steam heating the fish and restoring it’s moisture. Nanny Ngarohi, John Manuel and Nunu Tangaere spoke so specifically of the tastes, smells and texture, that not only did it make me drool, but also left me wondering why we don’t eat like that anymore...perhaps there’d be less of us with diabetes?
Another thing we don’t do as well anymore is respect the rules. Around the 1960’s things began to change, “You see women there and people swearing” says Nanny Ngarohi Kaa. Alcohol bottles are also a feature there, leaving one to suspect the ngutu awa is not the sacred place it was, in the minds of younger generations.
But John Manuel is not deterred, In a time where the term ‘Kaitiakitanga’ is often heard in reference to our Foreshore and Seabed, John maintains that everyone who goes to the ngutu awa are Kai-tiaki and need to be taught, “It’s up to us, we have to teach the younger ones the rules. I’ve tried to teach my family and I think as long as at least one person in each whanau understands the rules we should be alright. So long as I’m alive our rules (at the ngutu awa) will stay the same”.