A hidden taonga

The magnificent unfinished waka tētē – Te Waonui o Tane – is thought to be the only one on display in New Zealand. With it is Ōtorohanga Historical Society’s president Colin Murphy, treasurer Amanda Kiddie and committee member Triton Poaneki.

The story of a fabulous old waka, unfinished and buried for years in a King Country paddock, is one that members of the Ōtorohanga Historical Society think more people should hear.

The team is embarking on its own journey in 2021, launching plans to generate wider interest in their waka and attract more visitors to the charming collection of historical buildings that make up the Ōtorohanga Museum. Also on the agenda are plans for a fundraising campaign in March to enable them to build an office adjacent to the waka house.

Putting it all into action are Ōtorohanga Historical Society president and treasurer respectively, Colin Murphy and Amanda Kiddie – both are keen to see people in the region better appreciate the collection of treasures right under their noses in Kakamutu Rd, in particular the astonishing and mysterious 13-metre waka tētē – a fishing canoe.

“A lot of people simply have no idea we have it here,” said Amanda, swiftly backed up by Colin who declared the waka as “the museum’s major drawcard”.

The restoration and removal of the waka to a purpose-built building at the Ōtorohanga Museum site was overseen in 2007 by the then Historical Society president and museum manager, Nan Owen, who despite being in her 90s remains a stalwart with an enduring interest in saving the region’s treasures.

Fashioned from swamp totara, the partially-built waka was discovered in April 2002, buried deep in the gravel of land owned by Brian and Greta Withers.  The reason it was abandoned is unknown, but experts believe the partially hollowed-out waka was shaped 150 to 200 years earlier using tools thought to be made of iron and stone.  After consultation with local iwi, it was decided the waka should be preserved and exhibited in the Ōtorohanga Museum – where it resides today, a striking exhibit in a whare that was built around it.

Besides the waka, the council-owned site is home to quaint historical buildings filled with artefacts related to the area.  There is a 1986 police lock-up, a 1912 courthouse, a police office and a 1908 church building – all packed to the hilt with interesting exhibits.

Amanda and Colin have plans to sift through it, get everything properly collated and catalogued using a newly-purchased system, and build the office so much needed alongside the waka whare.  Amanda also has plans to develop a special memorial garden.

“We are never going to be a modern museum … we’re not Te Papa. What we are is a living museum, a window in time,” said Amanda.

They are both deeply appreciative of community efforts to help out, and to volunteers for giving their time. “We could always do with more of those volunteers,” said Colin. “Not only is their help invaluable, but we get to see everything through fresh eyes.”

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