A never before told story of a warrior who ran to warn tribes of the arrival of Captain James Cook’s Endeavour is being played out 250 years on through the hosting of an adventure race across the Coromandel Peninsula.
The adventure retraces the journey of Ngāti Hei warrior Te Oma Karere as he traverses the Coromandel on a race to get ahead of Lieutenant James Cook and tell other tribes of the HMB Endeavour’s arrival.
It's a story that came to light during my work on a book project with the Te Whanganui o Hei 250 Trust. With the full support of Ngati Hei, the Trust had decided to collate and retell the experiences of this tribe and of Cook and Joseph Banks, who spent 12 days on the Coromandel on his first voyage of discovery in 1769.
Cook gave European names to many places on the Coromandel, and these remain. Cooks Beach is where he witnessed the Transit of Mercury moving across the sun - allowing the great navigator to accurately chart Aoteroa-New Zealand on world maps for the first time - and he named the tribal rohe (area) of Ngati Hei 'Mercury Bay'.
For me, it was an honour to hear the oral history of Ngati Hei from kaumatua Joe Davis, and find out more about the original names of places on the Coromandel Peninsula, and what these names reveal.
While working with Joe, the story of a Ngati Hei messenger, Te Oma Karere, came up.
It was obvious that there were opportunities to bring this story to life through a race regularly hosted by another of my clients, the Spirit of Coromandel Trust.
This Trust has been working toward establishing an outdoor pursuits centre for young people on the Coromandel for many years, and hosts three large sporting events a year to raise money towards this goal (the ARC Adventure Race, the Great Kauri Run and the K2 Cycle Race).
You can find out more on their website www.arcevents.co.nz
Trustees Andy Reid, Keith and Rita Stephenson embraced the Te Oma Karere story, and hope to draw international teams as well as more Maori teams for their February 2020 adventure race, retracing Te Oma Karere's incredible journey across the Coromandel Peninsula.
“We have hosted our adventure race every year for almost two decades, but with the anniversary of Cook’s arrival this year, we decided that in 2020 we would theme it around the true tale of 250 years ago, and the journey of Te Oma Karere,” says Andy.
In a spirit of team work, competitors must kayak, abseil, mountain bike, trail run and boulder hop through Coromandel terrain that’s rarely explored while following clues revealed through this story.
Ngāti Hei kaumatua Joe Davis says Te Oma Karere was the son of a Ngāti Hei paramount chief called Tōawaka.
“When Cook sailed into Mercury Bay in 1769 he met with local Maori including Tōawaka, who paddled off the HMB Endeavour and sat watching as the initial trade and relationship-building between these strangers and Maori took place.
“Tōawaka, when invited onboard, then drew with charcoal on the timber deck of the ship, a map essentially explaining to Cook and his crew where they were and the layout of the Peninsula. His son Te Oma Karere was quietly instructed by Tōawaka to warn the other tribes on the west coast about these visitors and their ship.”
Ngati Hei is commemorating the 250 years since their people met Cook and were introduced to European culture for the first time, with a series of events beginning in November this year as part of the Tuia Encounters national commemoration.
In Tōawaka and Cook's day, writing did not exist in the Māori culture. Te Reo Maori was an oral language, and skilled orators (Joe is among them) would keep traditions and knowledge alive through the telling of stories, and through the arts.
Whilst huge amounts of material has been written based on the journals of Cook, Banks and others onboard the Endeavour, there had rarely been any sharing of the experiences from a Ngāti Hei perspective.
And 250 years on, surely, it is time.
Te Oma Karere’s name translates as ‘the messenger’, and he ran through ancient Maori trails over the hills from Mercury Bay to Thames, where he told the Ngāti Maru tribe on the pa at Totara of the Endeavour’s impending arrival.
Joe reflected on the importance of the message being conveyed, and the need to send a man of mana (prestige) so that his unbelievable message would be taken seriously by the other tribes.
The selection of the man was particularly important, given that the Coromandel at this time was a place of unrest and weariness among tribes.
Te Oma Karere would then have run up to the Tupuna Ariki (sacred mountain) of Moehau, to see Cook’s ship sailing around the tip of the Peninsula.
The Endeavour, as we know, sailed down to the Waihou River. Cook and a party including Joseph Banks came ashore here and measured the huge trees, though they did not record the mighty kauri tree. This would be reported upon some years later by subsequent navigators to our shores and the devastating consequences for the forests of northern New Zealand are still being felt.
But this is another story.
Those taking part in the adventure race of Te Oma Karere will actively bear witness to Te Oma Karere's feat.
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