I stopped at Wairewa’s pretty Mako Marae on my way to Banks Peninsula recently. The marae sits on the edge of Little River Village about 30 minutes from central Christchurch and I last visited when I was writing the kai (food) series for TE KARAKA. As always, drawing memories of traditional hunting and gathering methods from the kaumatua (elders) was a delight – so much information about the old ways is fading and it’s important that as much as possible be saved before its gone.
One person who was generous with his memories was John Panirau, who had been eeling at Wairewa since 1948. He remembered around 30 family drains but he said the barrier between Lake Wairewa and the sea was much narrower then.
“The width of the bar has trebled since then and the sea no longer comes over all of it. The eels were much more plentiful too and it was nothing to catch five or six hundred in a night – and there was still plenty left for other whanau. “I remember one tangi we had, three of us lads were sent down to the drains and we were back in an hour with a hundred eels. The tuna were so keen to get to the sea they’d slither across the shingle in broad daylight and we’d just rake them up.
“You don’t see that now,” he said. As kids, he and his friends had to help prepare the drains and learn how to make the parua. “And if we made it too deep we were told off – and we were always sent home if we stepped over the drains. All those rules have been broken over and over since then. Nowadays people actually put bridges over the drains and that’s very upsetting for the old people. Tuna and the whakaheke is still a very important part of our community but as the elders disappear, the young ones change the tikanga. Many of them have not been brought up here so they don’t have the same feelings that the old people instilled in us. If you’ve been steeped in the protocols you’ll follow that pathway but when our kids are brought up in the cities the values are different,” John said.
Francis Robinson, 81, remembered the days of the horse and gig – days when his job was to run the bags of eels from the drains. It was his job to look after the horses and at twelve, he often joined in the catching and listened to the stories the old people told. “There’s always been a lot of mystery about where the tuna go and what they do and when it comes to catching and preserving them I’ve seen a lot of different ways. But it all comes back to one thing – hard work.” John Panirau agreed: “Learning to catch tuna is one thing but learning how to prepare and dry them was something else altogether,” he said at the time. Francis said the job of preserving a catch of 500 tuna was a huge task that could take several weeks.
“We had to wipe the tuna clean, bone them and then string them up by their heads with harakeke to dry. Then the salting and curing would start. That was hard work and I’d always run and hide to avoid the job,” he laughed. The Wairewa kaumatua all agreed that their local tuna are the best in the country. “When you’ve eaten eels from all the different parts of New Zealand, you know that these are definitely the best,” said Francis. The environment is different here; maybe that’s what makes our tuna taste so much better. Our tuna are definitely sweeter.