Kia ora koutou katoa. This story explores the history of one of the most significant landmarks to have ever been in our district, the ancient matai, Hine Paaka, who stood proud in the Ashburton District for many, many years – a taonga for our region.
Also known as Hinepaaka, this famous tree was named after the wife of Maru, the Ngāi Tahu chief who is also remembered in the names of the New Zealand towns Timaru and Oamaru. Maru was famous for both war and diplomacy, and lived in the late 1600s. Later, European settlers named the tree ‘Single Tree’, a much less evocative name for such a noteworthy sentinel.
For centuries Hine Paaka marked an important stopping place for travellers through and around the district. The majestic tree could be seen from a great distance, so was a significant wayfinding landmark and good place to break a journey.
It’s hard to know how old Hine Paaka would be today. Estimates range from 300 to 1000 years. A descendant of a pre-Māori rainforest that once covered much of the Canterbury Plains, Hine Paaka was probably a sapling when Māori first visited this area.
Hine Paaka grew near the area today known as Alford Forest. The tree was used by people walking the trails from the coast to Ō Tū Wharekai, the area also known as the Ashburton Lakes and Upper Rangitata River.
Ō Tū Wharekai contains a mosaic of diverse wetland habitats, including the braided upper Rangitata River and the twelve lakes that make up the Ashburton Lakes. This area is recognised as one of the best examples of an inter-montane wetland system remaining in New Zealand, and is a nationally important area for wildlife. It is one of just three sites that make up the national Arawai Kakariki wetland restoration programme.
Kai and pounamu
Over 30 bird species regularly use these lake, rivers and wetlands. This meant that the Hakatere, Rakaia and Rangitata rivers were important travel routes to get to the rich mahinga kai of Ō Tū Wharekai, and to the mid-Canterbury foothills.
During the summer months, these foothills were a vital hunting ground for forest birds such as kākā, kererū, kākāpō and tūī. The birds feasted on the ripe fruits of the native trees, kahikatea, mātai and pōkākā, so were plentiful to catch. Hine Paaka too, was a rich source of bird life for hunters, who set snares and climbed the tree to catch pigeons and kaka.
Other sources of kai in the area and along the awa (rivers) included tuna (eels), weka, pūkeko, freshwater mussels, bracken (aruhe), kōkopu (trout), inaka (whitebait), mountain daisy (tikumu) and the cabbage tree (ti kōuka). Kiore (rats), and pūtakitaki (paradise duck) were also hunted along the awa.
The area was also a significant pounamu trail and an ara (path) to the West Coast, Poutini. Travellers would make their way from Hine Paaka over the Browning Pass to bring back greenstone at designated times of the year. Janet Benfell from Hakatere Marae has also written about how Hine Paaka was a landmark for travellers that walked along the foothills before making their way over the Whitcombe Pass, when travelling to seek greenstone from Poutini. Read more from Janet here.
Ko taikākā anake
Hine Paaka was already old by the time Pakehā settlers arrived in the district. She was used as a reference point by the surveyor Robert Park, in the 1860s when sketching the district. His drawing is on exhibition at the Ashburton Museum.
It is thought that Hine Paaka’s survival was due in part to a deep swamp immediately south of the tree, which had helped save the tree from many fires that had swept through the area. But there is more to this. Early Pakehā admired the tree but they also discovered that when they tried to cut it down, this was not possible. A story told is that on two occasion’s farmers tried to cut down Hine Paaka. Both times, when they returned the next morning they found Hine Paaka standing erect with no signs of axe marks. It was not until 1945 that the tree would topple, and that, as the result of a nor-west storm.
Today, the story of Hine Paaka is recorded at a roadside memorial on Scenic Route 72, where a small piece of the tree is embedded in a memorial wall. It’s worth a drive to see where Hine Paaka once stood and imagine her impact across the district. A few pieces of her also remain. One is on exhibition at Ashburton Museum, in an exhibition area devoted to the story of Takata Whenua, the first people of this District.
The name Hine Paaka also lives on in the new kitchen-dining room built at Hakatere Marare in 1986, where the wharekai is also named Hine Paaka.
Hine Paaka provided guidance, shelter and sustenance for an uncounted number of travellers. And she carried the mana of the many travellers that had sheltered at or visited her on their travels, especially the great chiefs that are known to have visited. Kia kaha, Hine Paaka.
- An historic photograph of the majestic Hine Paaka when still standing. ©Ashburton Museum.
- Surveyor Robert Park’s sketch showing Hine Paaka as a reference point, 1860s. ©Ashburton Museum.
- Map of Ashburton District. Hine Paaka stood near Alford Forest, near Staveley and Mount Somers.
- A section of Hine Paaka on exhibition at Ashburton Museum. ©Ashburton Museum.
- A piece of Hine Paaka embedded in a memorial wall on Scenic Route 72. ©Ashburton Museum.
- taonga = treasure
- kia kaha = be strong, stand proud
- kai = food
- pounamu = nephrite jade, a taonga
- Pakehā = non-Maori people
- mana = a mix of prestige, spiritual power, status, charisma
- Ko taikākā anake = from the proverb, Ruia taitea, kia tū ko taikākā anake, Cast aside the sap wood, let the heart wood stand alone.
Author: Tanya Zoe Robinson
Acknowledgement: I would like to acknowledge the excellent online resource written by Janet Benfell of Hakatere Marae, and the many other researchers before me who have been inspired to write about Hine Paaka.