Why I Travelled Eight Hours in a Car to See a Lady I Don’t Know

‘These are no ordinary waters
We are not ordinary beneficiaries.
We are kaitiaki in the truest sense.
We are tangata whenua.
Anything that upsets these waters or interferes with their flow should never be permitted.’

Ron Wihongi, Ngawha Kaitiaki (1924–2016)

My flatmate gave me a strange look as I opened the car door.

‘Why are you going there again?’

To be honest, I didn’t really know how to answer. Why I was driving all the way to Kaikohe. An eight-hour-long car ride crawling through traffic on a beautiful sunny Friday afternoon was the last thing I wanted to do.

But I knew I needed to go.

Earlier this year, I tried to find Ngāwhā locals when I went to visit the hot springs. I needed to talk to them about the Ngāwhā prison. Get their perspective.

The nice man behind the counter wasn’t a local. He pointed me in the direction of a Māori lady bathing in the water.

‘She looks like a local, talk to her.’

‘Um, that’s my mum,’ I told him.

He grinned sheepishly and then shrugged his shoulders.

‘Sorry.’

I trawled through books and websites, trying to ‘research’. All I knew was that a prison was built in Ngāwhā, tangata whenua protested and a taniwha was somewhere in the middle. But I felt like I hit a brick wall every time I tried to ‘research’.

And then I had a breakthrough. Don’t ask me how it happened, but it did. I found a name and number online.

‘Hello?’ A lady answered.

‘Kia ora! Can I speak to Riana Wihongi please?’

There was a long pause.

‘Riana passed away.’

I felt terrible and apologised profusely. I told her that I didn’t know Riana and had never met her. I was writing a book based on the events that happened in Ngāwhā, and I wanted to hear someone’s perspective on it. Someone preferably from Ngāwhā. 

‘Well, I’m one of Riana’s friends and one of the protestors.’ Her name was Toi Maihi.

‘Come over to my house,’ she adds as if she lives just up the road.

But I lived in Tauranga and Kaikohe’s a bit of a drive away (eight hours!). I suggested I come and visit her in December sometime.

She agreed, but before we hung up, she clears her throat.

‘Before Riana died, she told me someone needed to write a book about this. I’m so glad you called.’

I went back to my computer, but my fingers couldn’t type anything. Something kept nagging at me. And I have learnt from past experiences, when you get that strong feeling you need to do something, you do it. Don’t ask, just do it.   

I pulled up into her home in Kaikohe two days later. A small woman with white hair opened the door. She’s tinier than I expected. Just as nice on the phone. She ushered me in and told me to take a seat.

She pushed a scrapbook in my hands. Toi had kept every newspaper clipping and photos of everything to do with the Ngāwhā prison. Before it was built, during and after. She even scribbled notes that were weaved throughout the scrapbook.

‘Who’s that?’ I asked, pointing to an elderly man holding a tokotoko. He’s wearing sunglasses, and there are two police officers walking alongside him.

‘I can’t remember his name,’ she says. ‘But he’s blind. One of the elders that were arrested for protesting.’

Arrested. I take another look at the photo and see the elderly man’s hands behind his back. I suddenly feel really sad.

I find out later Toi suffered a stroke earlier this year. She can’t remember names or faces any more. She even forgets words.

The closer I look at her, the more I see sadness all over her face. There’s anger. Hurt. A lot of pain. I wonder if it’s all from the Ngāwhā prison being built.    

‘We fought for four years,’ she said. ‘Four years.’

For hours she talked. I listened.

I learnt more about what really happened. What online news articles could never tell me.

I leant that Toi, with many other Ngāwhā locals, fought for years to stop the Government spending $100 million on a prison in Ngāwhā. Court battles, trips around the country to other iwi asking for help, multiple hīkoi, hui, court battles and protests.

I learnt about the people behind the protests. The faces behind the names. Many whom have passed away, during and after the protests.

I learnt more about the why. The spiritual aspect. That the healing and sacred waters of Ngāwhā are under the prison. That in the battle of Ōhaeawai, the Māori brought the wounded Pākehā soldiers down there to bathe so they would heal quickly. And how that water still heals the people of Ngāwhā today.

I learnt that Ngāti Hine offered a place for the Government to build a prison, but it was declined.

I learnt that Northland MP John Carter said he was ‘absolutely delighted’ when kuia and elderly were arrested outside the prison site for protesting.

I learnt about the travesty and injustice my people faced trying to protect our taonga and sacred land.

Toi walked me to my car and gave me a hug. It was a longer hug than a usual hug.

I went back to my car and broke down in tears. And then my car broke down, and I cried even more because my car was getting towed away, and I was stranded in Kaikohe with no idea how to get back to Tauranga (but that’s another story for another day).

But I’m so glad I made the drive to Kaikohe.

My previous ‘research’ was no substitute for the raw emotion I felt from meeting Toi.

It’s a story of heartache and oppression and injustice, but it’s also a story of hope and inspiration.

For like Toi Maihi said, ‘We will not let them trample on our mana.’ A story that I hope will inspire other tangata whenua to continue fighting. Because truthfully, the battle is only lost when we stop trying.


Shilo Kino (Ngā Puhi, Tainui) is a journalist who previously worked for Fairfax Media and has had stories published in Huia Short Stories. She speaks fluent Mandarin from serving a volunteer mission in Hong Kong. Shilo is delighted to be selected for Te Papa Tupu 2018.

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