About 16 years ago, Robert Mac Donald made a surprising rediscovery that would one day turn a scruffy, inaccessible Waimarama hillside into a nationally recognized Maori heritage and archaeological site. It would also prompt Robert to create and lead an innovative community and cultural development enterprise: Waimarama Maori Tourism (WMT). The local nonprofit is a finalist for this year’s forthcoming Chamber of Commerce Business Awards. But its origin is, quite literally, the stuff of legend…not business.

On a chilly grey afternoon, Robert is leading about a dozen people across a remote, rocky hilltop rising out of Waimarama’s awe-inspiring Te Apiti valley. Simple stockades and a meeting house, built in keeping with ancient Maori custom, stand proud against the menacing clouds. Sacred, traditional Maori carvings, statuary and artifacts hold pride of place around and within the compound. The man-made things appear valiant but out-scaled by the panoramic vistas of hills and sky.

This is Hakikino, the 15th Century Pa site that is the centerpiece of Waimarama Maori Tourism and the culmination of Mac Donald’s long ago discovery. With encyclopedic knowledge and the skill of a master storyteller, he shares with the group the legends and history of this ancient battlement and surrounding community. “Look,” he says, “the ancient sorcerer’s school was somewhere on that ridge.” He points to a high, mist-cloaked crest. “Getting in was like getting in to King’s College. You couldn’t just show up at the door; you had to be referred,” he says with a grin. And then he tells of the peace and prosperity of the Rangitane people who first settled the region; of the fateful battle with Kahungunu invaders; and of the forced marriage of the noble Rangitane princess to a Kahungunu conqueror. Today’s Waimarama people owe their lineage to this fateful union.

The Hakikino site is strikingly simple and powerfully affective. All the more so when the call of the warrior’s conch shell pierces the air and the “home people” sing ancient songs of welcome to small groups of visitors. With the help of descendants and local residents, WMT has been hosting Hakikino public tours since 2008. Skilled in traditional Maori ways, the WMT team enables visitors to participate in the ceremonies, customs and crafts that were the daily staples of their ancestors. To date, over a thousand visitors have walked Hakikino’s hillsides, learned its legends and glimpsed its ancient customs.

Were it not for Robert, Hakikino might still exist in legend only. As the son of a prominent elder from Waimarama’s long-established Gillies family, he learned from childhood the lore and history of his community, along with traditional Maori customs and beliefs. “Like everyone else, I had no idea of Hakikino except from the stories.” But when an archeological survey of the area was conducted in the 1990s, Robert took notice. The survey identified a remote area with which he was already familiar. “They gave it the name Ruben’s Spur. But they said the ancient name was Hakikino. I suddenly realized this was something really special.”

At the time, “it was just a hill and a paddock. You had to climb over fences and you could only go in the summer,” says Robert, “but I started taking our people up there because I wanted them to be as amazed as I was with what had happened here.” Soon enough there were outside visitors as well. “I realized they were having moments of deep appreciation. It was something that I didn’t expect to see, and I said to myself, this is important.”

Chairman of the Waimarama Marae for many years, Robert was already heavily involved with community development and the search for viable local employment opportunities. Slowly it dawned on him that cultural tourism might provide a solution to the area’s economic plight. But opening Hakikino to outsiders raised serious concerns. Commercializing Maori heritage or putting the community on display was unacceptable. On the other hand, Robert argued, “The more people we tell about this, the safer it’s going to be. If we get far enough along this track, Hakikino will remain a heritage site, instead of falling back into paddocks. We could develop tourism and we could all win.”

With a university science background, but no knowledge of tourism, Mac Donald sought mentors. He found them in Paddy and Anne Maloney, former business executives and loyal Waimarama residents. In 2004, Robert created The Hakikino Reserve under covenant with the Department of Conservation and launched a comprehensive site renovation shortly thereafter. Sustainable eco-system management was a top priority. The WMT team worked to protect the native eels inhabiting inland waterways on the site; and they established a native tree nursery to reforest the hillsides and to serve the local community. The stockades and other structures were erected, along with tourist friendly, state-of-the-art eco-toilets.

One of WMT’s most critical challenges was developing tours that appealed to visitors while remaining true to Maori heritage. But according to Mac Donald, “Soon enough, we realized there is no need to bury our culture or compromise. We can do things we’re comfortable with. It’s not performance stuff. We’ve never tried to tell visitors anything we’re unsure about just because it makes a good show.”

Through partnerships with Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery, Hastings and Napier i-sites, Venture Hawke’s Bay, and Tourism NZ, WMT is gradually raising Hakikino’s visibility in the international tourism arena. But a high volume, mass market business is the last thing anyone at WMT wants.

“Our emphasis is on sharing Maori traditions with integrity and protecting a historically and culturally important asset for Waimarama and Hawke’s Bay,” says Anne Maloney, who manages WMT’s public outreach and promotion.

Hakikino today is a stunningly beautiful reserve, cultural discovery site, and eco-tourism destination, and the tours mean different things to different people. For the local community, they offer employment and the chance to reconnect with their history. For many native New Zealanders, they are a cliché-shattering change from typical, strictly scripted Maori cultural displays. And for overseas visitors, they offer a striking, often stirring encounter with an unfamiliar people and their powerful heritage.

For Robert, the WMT enterprise comes down to something more elemental. “I’ll walk up the road to Hakikino on a beautiful moonlit night and feed the eels, and it’s like you’re at the top of the world. One of the things I get the greatest thrill out of is seeing our visitors pick that up too. There’s always been something remarkable here that people respond to. If we ever lose that, well, then the whole thing is lost.”

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