Hold firm. Hold fast. Maunga.
The below story by Helen O’Connor has been republished FROM NARRATIVE IMPERATIVE, A COLLECTION OF MORE THAN 200 STORIES BY NEW ZEALANDERS ABOUT WHAT THE UN’S SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS MEAN TO THEM
‘Whāia te iti kahurangi ki te tūohu koe me he maunga teitei.
Seek the treasure you value most dearly: if you bow your head, let it be to a lofty mountain’[i]
‘How often have you been climbing, Helen?’ Annie asks, gently. I pause. It’s been two weeks since I left Mount Maunganui. Two weeks of settling back in to Wellington and missing Luke and not knowing what to write about.
‘Every single day.’
She nods. This appears to make perfect sense.
Annie is my younger sister and ever-patient flatmate. As a resource management lawyer, she’s had the privilege of witnessing the immense connection Māori have to the world around them – the sky, the sea, the land, the mountains.
She begins to describe the significance of the mountain, or maunga, in Māori culture. How each iwi or hapū has a maunga that they whakapapa to, that they recognise as an ancestor –
I stop her. ‘Go back,’ I say. ‘Tell me everything. Go back to the beginning.’
‘Rising towards the realms of Ranginui the Sky Father, remote from human settlement, mountains loomed over the Māori world. The mountains, or maunga, were places of great awe and spiritual presence.’[ii]
Growing up, Palmerston North felt like the flattest city in the world. I was born and raised there. Not a hill in sight.
We spent every single summer in the East Coast beach-town of Mahia, at my grandparents’ bach on Kahawai Street. If Palmy was my base, then Mahia was my peak. Mahia is the place that introduced my grandparents to each other. The place where we played George Michael’s ‘Jesus to a Child’ over and over and over until we felt carsick. Where I learnt that boys think boats should go slower with girls on board. Where we played spotlight along our street, giddy with the shock of seeing Mum climbing over the neighbour’s fence, glass of wine in hand, to avoid being caught by the other team. Where Dad accidentally wore Mrs Dixon’s yoga pants on a bike ride with my uncle and his friends.
Along Mahia’s main road, rising up from the sun-bleached houses and sandy scorched grass stands Mokotahi Hill.
Day after day, happy or anxious or hopeful or mad, I would wake up early to brave the cold sleepy shore. I would follow the curve of the sand, treading over driftwood and shells and lonely jandals, until I reached the part where the down here stopped and the up there began.
‘Knowledge or mātauranga is a blessing on your mind, it makes everything clear and guides you to do things the right way …. It is the man who goes with his spiritual and his mind and his heart, believing in all these things, who will climb to the high summits.’[iii]
Annie arrives home. She looks at me with wary intrigue, then asks how I got on with my writing.
I shake my head.
She tells me to keep perspective. To write about something close – something I want to understand. Like home. Or missing home.
On my last trip to see Luke, I struggled with intense, unexpected homesickness.
She presses on. ‘When you were homesick in the Mount, what did you do?’
‘I walked,’ I tell her. ‘I climbed the mountain. Mauao.’
‘Every single day. Sometimes twice. Some days were worse than others.’
It was the only thing that helped.
I close my eyes and go back. Back to the first moment I felt it. The unmistakable invasion of my happiness. The creeping, intrusive sense of unease. The out-of-place-ness that lingered like the last guest at the tail-end of a bad party.
I knew I needed to be near the mountain. I would go to the beach, cover my feet with the cooling sand and just look. I could sit in the same spot and gaze at the immense silhouette for hours, drawing comfort from its stillness. I would walk to the base and carry on up, along the sturdiest tracks and the kindest paths.
I would stand at the highest point and let everything just be. The mountain gave me a feeling of stability. Of control, relief and same-ness. Feelings I couldn’t or didn’t need to explain.
Maunga; Mountain. The mountain, along with the waterway and the waka, is part of a person’s turangawaewae – their standing, their right to be counted as a member of an iwi, and thus, their sense of belonging.
Every Māori person has a maunga to which they affiliate. Every iwi has a maunga that they whakapapa to, that they recognise as their ancestor.
Maunga symbolise solidarity, security and authority. They are a sign of prestige.
Maunga are talking chiefs, the peaks are their heads.
Maunga are moving chiefs; creating rivers, valleys and ranges through their tears and furies and passions.
Maunga symbolise pride, and are taonga. Treasures.
Maunga. To hold firm. To hold fast.
I am on edge today. The words just won’t come.
I climb Mount Vic.
I like to stand at the very highest point and find my apartment - to search for where I have come from. I like to find my world and look at it from a different angle. I’d been sitting behind my laptop for hours this morning, feeling as though at any minute my bones, muscles and nerves might erupt through my skin. The laptop seemed colossal.
Up here, my laptop is a speck. A grain of sand.
Up here, life is big. Bigger than writing. Bigger than me.
Stop, look, breathe
Arrive at base, begin ascent
Hard, harder, limbs on fire
Arrive at top, world stretched below
Stop, look, breathe
‘According to Māori belief, mountains were once gods and warriors of great strength. Tongariro was one of seven mountains that stood next to each other around Lake Taupo.
In the legend, all the mountains were male except for Pihanga. She was a stunning beauty, and the other mountains were deeply in love with her. One night, they decided to fight for the right to win her. They fought with violent eruptions, smoke, fire and hot rocks that burned the sky for days.
When the fighting ceased, mighty Tongariro was the victor.
Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu moved away. Putauaki and Tauhara headed east. Tauhara, stricken with grief, could not bear to move far from Pihanga. He stayed on the shores of Lake Taupo, perpetually looking back at her across the lake. Taranaki, consumed by anger, gouged a great trail in the earth as he moved west. The trail he left behind was filled with tears cried for Pihanga and became the great Whanganui River.’[iv]
I am nine. My cousins have been mean, and my heart is sore. I sit, wrenching stubborn blades of crinkled brown grass from the hard earth while Dad talks. He always says such kind things when we are hurting. He is kind to us full stop.
I lean into him and let my tears become little puddles on his soft, green dad-shirt. We look out across Mahia peninsula at the tiny little people going about their tiny little business. Mokotahi doesn’t speak, but it doesn’t have to. I can feel it telling us to take all the time we need.
Mau (stative); be fixed, firm, secure.
E taku ipo, ka mau tonu taku aroha mōu kia hake rā anō taku tuarā
My beloved, my love for you will remain firm until my back is bent.[v]
I am not Māori. The legends and the stories do not belong to me. But, I feel the immense significance of the mountains; the pull that they have, the grounding that they provide. Only, I had not recognised this earlier. I had been seeing things from the ground.
When I needed help in Mount Maunganui, I leaned on Mauao. For 29 years, Mahia’s Mokotahi has watched me grow. Now, when I am worried or angry, excited or tense, Mount Victoria is my first port of call.
Sometimes we need to climb.
‘Keep talking to people,’ Annie says, ‘listen to their stories. Go back to the mountains. Keep climbing.’
Keep learning. Keep making sense of your world.
Hold firm. Hold fast.
[ii] ‘Rising towards the realms of Ranginui the Sky Father…’: is from Andy Dennis, ‘Mountains – People and mountains’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, retrieved from; http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/mountains/page-5
[iii] Knowledge or mātauranga is a blessing on your mind…: is a quote from Eruera Stirling, author of ‘Teachings of a Maori Elder’. Retrieved from;
[iv] ‘According to Māori belief, mountains were once gods…’: is the Legend of Tongariro. This was retrieved from the New Zealand Tourism website;
[v] ‘Mau (stative); be fixed, firm, secure, hold firm…’: is a definition that comes from:
Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori. 2008. He Pātaka Kupu: Te Kai a te Rangatira. North Shore: Raupo. Retrieved from; http://maoridictionary.co.nz/search?idiom=&phrase=&proverb=&loan=&histLoanWords=&keywords=mau