Antony Millen writes and teaches in Taumarunui. He wrote “From the North” as he travelled through the King Country between Taumarunui and Otorohanga aboard the Northern Explorer train service. Antony has published several novels, short stories, and essays in the past five years. He blogs regularly at


From the north

As you enter Taumarunui from the north along State Highway 4, you’ll see a new sign greeting you. It’s a new sign, but it depicts the same man as its predecessor, and this time the local council and iwi have left travellers, manuhiri, and immigrants no doubt as to who this man is, labelling the bottom right corner of the portrait: King Tāwhiao.

The original sign, the one that welcomed me to Taumarunui me twenty years ago, had no such label. I had no idea the figure was royalty, no idea of his mana or his legacy. Nor did I care. After an exhausting journey from Nova Scotia, involving multiple flights across the second largest country in the world and the largest ocean in the world, and finally, ushered by my new principal, a four-hour car drive from Auckland, my little family only wanted to reach our new house and beds. The sign was just another new thing to see, along with all the sheep, the sub-tropical podocarps, and the cars driving on the wrong side of the road.

But the sign was worth noting. It was oval, like a broach or a medallion, with a white background. The man’s tan face appeared to me like an Indian brave, as I would have called him then. Perhaps Native American warrior would be apt now. It was the feather he wore, standing in salute, matching the grey-blue colour of his hair and his shoulders which, I discovered later, were wrapped in a korowai. Of course, Native Americans did not wear ta moko on their faces like Tāwhiao, but the green lines left little impression on me—they appeared cheap, as if drawn with pastels, not carved. His lips were thin and straight, severe even, below high cheekbones and indistinct ears. His eyes were resolute as if they had seen many battles, and this gig of greeting travellers was done with resignation. Below his face read the words, Taumarunui Welcomes You.

We had entered the wharenui of Tāwhiao, the heart of the King Country. After processing through the modern protocols of immigration in Auckland, we crossed the boundary of his marae ātea. This boundary no longer exists, really. In town, we saw the hat on the rock and soon learned of the legend: Tāwhiao tossing his white top hat on a map of the North Island at the close of the Waikato Wars, establishing Te Rohe Pōtae, the boundary of the hat, and drawing an aukati from Aotea Harbour through Pirongia to the Puniu River near Kihikihi.[i] Otorohanga has a similar monument, but theirs resembles a bowler on a plinth. Like a marae ātea, the rugged and claustrophobic hills of the King Country served as a buffer between Pākehā and Tāwhiao, and to all whom he granted sanctuary, away from the encroaching European mass of settlers. It was a boundary that lasted over twenty years. The penalty for crossing: death and the resumption of the Waikato Wars. “The land for the Maoris” was the cry; “you pakehas with your booted feet on that side of the aukati, and we Maoris in our bare feet on this side”.[ii]

Yet we crossed it so easily, unaware of the ease, and when we reached his country’s heart, under the sign posted like a koruru at the top of a wharenui, we trusted our new employer to lead us in. Like Tāwhiao’s kingdom within a British colony, St Patrick’s school became our marae, our sanctuary, our faith home, as we navigated our way through a new landscape and culture, learning to read signs of acceptance and rejection. On my first day at the school, a teacher-only-day, I wore what was expected of a teacher in Nova Scotia: long trousers with a long-sleeve shirt and tie. It was hot. My principal wore shorts. The remainder of the staff, all women, wore shorts and airy blouses. We were planning swimming lessons. The assistant principal scolded me: You are to wear shorts tomorrow! My enculturation had begun.

I visited three marae in our first year in Taumarunui. Several locals have told me they’ve not visited one in their entire life. The year was 1997, the year Princess Diana died, followed by Mother Theresa. One autumn Saturday morning, my principal rocked up to our house. Our school’s kapa haka group were at Kākahi, preparing for the Tūwharetoa Festival in Taupo. With no car of our own, he drove us out to the beautiful Kākahi Valley, where the Whakapapa River meets the Whanganui, parking off the metal road where the marae shares real estate with a Catholic church. That same road would puncture a tyre of mine in a later visit. We were welcomed on with a full pōwhiri including a haka from the boys, an over-the-top gesture for such minor dignitaries, usually reserved for a new principal. Twelve years later, I received no such gesture when I was appointed Acting Principal of the school. We stayed for the afternoon, we manuhiri: my wife, my two pre-school children and I. We hung out in the wharenui watching the students play games. My daughter pinched one Māori boy’s face and we were sure his crying would see the end of our visit. But we got away with it. I taught that boy and my daughter when they were teenagers, and his older brother with my son before him. Recently, I taught alongside his oldest brother at the high school.

Before Diana and Theresa died, Sir Hepi Te Heuheu did. I knew less about him than I did Tāwhiao. But there were many Hepis in our school, and the Te Heuheu name was associated with Catholicism. We joined a contingent attending the tangihanga in Little Waihi on the southern shore of Lake Taupo. It was winter, and shelters had been erected to relieve manuhiri from the intermittent rain. It was a long wait. After supporting our principal through his stuttering whaikōrero, we joined the throngs under a tent, an extension of the wharekai. My wife wanted to exit with an extra piece of bread for our daughter who had fussed and not eaten. An old Māori woman glowered at us. This is not a restaurant.

In spring, we organised a school programme at Ngapuwaiwaha marae in town, the marae that gave a name to Marae Street. I was told by someone that the wharenui used to face the river. I don’t see how that could be true, but it made sense to me, and I like the lamentable yet industrious image of Māori adjusting their homestead to acknowledge changing transport facilities. We were welcomed on as a group and I felt I knew how it all worked by then. During the prolonged speeches, I struggled to settle a Māori boy. I mustered my most self-righteous expression and mouthed to him, “I’m so disappointed in you.” I see his mother around town occasionally. I don’t ask how he’s doing.

Even after the aukati was lifted, and marriages were being consummated across cultures, including Alexander Bell whose name proliferated around the place, Tāwhiao prohibited Māori children from attending European schools. His King Country had the lowest literacy rate in New Zealand at one point, with subsequent effects on standards of living.[iii] I lead Literacy at Taumarunui School. I administer standardised testing and stream our pupils into classes based on how well they have ticked their multiple-choice boxes. I ensure teachers create quiet, structured environments for students to concentrate and do their best on these tests. Then we plan to teach the specific skills students need to do better on the next test. I hear this is done in America in spectacular fashion.[iv] Nova Scotia … I’m not so sure about any more. It’s been a while. Tāwhiao’s prohibition lasted until the turn of the century, just before schools like St Patrick’s and Ngapuke were founded. They both celebrated centenaries last year.

We lived in Ngapuke for four years, a thirteen-minute drive from St Patrick’s, in the school house coveted by locals. We learned it was available because a Canadian teacher who lived in it was returning home, and the person hired to replace him was working at our school and already had a place to live. We snapped it up. My son cried desperately when we left it. On the weekends, we either had no neighbours or hundreds, depending on activities at neighbouring Kauriki marae. I remember shyly creeping onto the grounds in search of a school parent I knew, but aware I had never been ceremonially welcomed on. It was no problem. I was later invited on with the rest of our staff for a tangi. Our school’s caretaker had died in a car crash. After the pōwhiri, his mother embraced me and said, You’re tangata whenua now. I wondered if this was because of the pōwhiri or the shared grief. Was the process that simple? Like turning bread and wine into body and blood, I had been transfigured from visitor into person of this land. I threw soil on her son’s box. I taught her troubled grandson and loved him and his grandmother. Last I heard, she was resident in the nursing home four properties up the road from mine. I have yet to visit her there.

Besides the nursing home, we live round the corner from one of the older cemeteries in town. My wife says we’re living next to the only two ways we’ll leave one day. I don’t know if she’s joking. We never came here as immigrants or tourists. We came to teach for three years, gain some experience, and return home. It’s an old lament and one that others in Taumarunui have shared. It seems it’s an easier place to enter than to exit. What would Tāwhiao think of that? Have you been to the South Island yet? No, I’m not a tourist. In twenty years, I’ve not been to the South Island. You came straight to Taumarunui? I hope you don’t judge the rest of New Zealand by that! Why not?

At St Patrick’s, I led several senior camps in Rotorua. I wanted to plan excursions exploring our local attractions—the Tongariro Crossing, kayaking the Whanganui, mountain biking—but the parents wouldn’t have it. We want a city camp. Our kids see that stuff all the time. I understood. We have friends on the North Shore of Auckland. They like to go on bush walks and once wanted to take us to Waiheke Island. We wanted the beach, the shopping centre, a movie theatre. We have plenty of bush walks in the King Country. They’re from Nova Scotia, too, but sometimes it’s like we’re from a different culture altogether. In my job interview, conducted over the phone, my principal asked me, How would you adjust to living in rural New Zealand? I told him it couldn’t be that different from rural Nova Scotia. I would have a more difficult time moving to a city in Canada. That wasn’t true.

My face doesn’t give me away here. My voice does. I assume that, when people see me here, they diagnose me as Kiwi. I once called the iSite in town to ask about road conditions. Very kindly, the woman asked, Do you know Taumarunui at all? I assured her I did, having lived in the area seven years. My accent does allow me provisions (or provides me allowances). Tourists are treated differently here. I read a blog post recently, by an American who was dumbfounded by the friendliness and generosity of New Zealanders, their openness, their lack of fear, as compared to his compatriots and the culture generated in his homeland.[v] It’s all true. But he doesn’t live here. Was Tāwhiao so open? Should he have been? When I mispronounce words in Te Reo, I am politely corrected or it is ignored. He’s trying, I can hear them thinking. The same attitude is not extended to natural-born Kiwis. It’s not good enough. Fair enough.

In Rotorua, we’ve visited the Whakarewarewa thermal village, a living marae if ever there is one. I’ve been there four times for camps and once with my parents when they visited. It was a perfect place to show them mud pools, steaming craters, geysers, and Māori performing arts. This is the tourist’s experience of the pōwhiri, of marae life, of New Zealand’s indigenous culture, complete with its most hospitable and war-mimicking aspects. It is brilliant. Over those five visits, I have seen some performers and guides come and some go. Some were there every time. For the tourist, the experience is fresh—they are new, they are visitors, they are manuhiri. For the performer, it must be stale. And whenever I’ve been, I’ve thought about my three marae in 1997. Each pōwhiri was for something real—not just a meeting between those on either side of the fence, on either side of the aukati—but the beginning of a relationship, complete with responsibilities as well as rights.

My cousin came to live here a few years ago. I was very excited. Not just a fellow Canadian, a fellow Nova Scotian, but a member of my own family, the daughter of a dear couple, my uncle and aunt. She and her partner sold everything they owned and moved here. They weren’t visiting as tourists. But I knew they wouldn’t stay. After a few days in the country, they met us in Taumarunui. She had been reading my novel, tracking the parallel journeys made by her and my character, Conrad. We set them up in a house of a friend who was vacationing overseas. We took them to Kākahi to see glow worms. Her partner would later win an award from New Zealand Geographic for a photo he took of the glow worms in Waitomo. We took them to Cherry Grove and I told them partially-informed stories about kaitiaki at the confluence of the Ongarue and Whanganui Rivers.

We took them to Ngapuwaiwaha marae. Standing outside the gate, admiring the waka just inside the fence and the wharenui across the marae ātea, we heard a neighbour call out to us. You can go in if you like! I gestured to him, palm up, to ensure he was legit. Go ahead! he called. Chur, bro’, I thought, but I didn’t say it. We approached the wharenui and I explained the layout of the grounds, the little I knew about the structure of the whare, the maihi, and the ancestor at the top. We studied the kowhaiwhai patterns above the paepae my students had copied fifteen years earlier.

My cousin went on to live in Wellington after an extensive sojourn around the country. Together, over two years, she and her partner blogged and vlogged about their experiences in New Zealand under their brand, Living the Kiwi Life. They climbed Taranaki, bungee jumped in Queensland, explored Fox glacier, and slid the Rere Rockslide, vlogging it all. They recently won an award in Sri Lanka for their work. They were brilliant.

But they weren’t living the Kiwi life. I was tempted to call them out on this. However, they changed their brand. It felt like a wrong had been righted, and it struck us that it was we who were living the Kiwi life, as are our neighbours and millions of Kiwis who can’t access the activities my cousin and her partner were enjoying. They’ve returned to Canada. They were able. They are young. They have no children. They have ambition. But I am happy I could lead them onto a marae in Taumarunui, a more intimate encounter with this land and its people than a tourist usually gets.

One of our chief Pākehā historians in the King Country attends the same church as I do. His wife was board chair when I was hired by St Patrick’s.  He informs me that he has no evidence that Tāwhiao ever visited Taumarunui, his heartland. But he did visit Te Koura, a marae near Ongarue. It was this visit to the tohunga, Rangawhenua, that profoundly influenced his direction as King. Tāwhiao was a spiritual man. A close friend who is a History teacher, as well as an artist and a writer, tells me that Tāwhiao’s crossed eyes were a sign of his prophetic nature. These eyes can be seen in the Josiah Martin photograph that seems to be the source for both signs.[vi] Neither sign depicts the king as cross-eyed.

In 1884, three years after laying down arms before Major W.G. Mair, Tāwhiao led an expedition to England with several other prominent Māori including Topia Peehi Turoa and Te Wheoro. The trip lasted three months.[vii] His aim was to present to Queen Victoria the concerns of all Māori, not just those of his people in the King Country.[viii] Famously, the king was denied an audience with his counterpart. But he had a good time. He and his troupe were a hit in the streets of London with their facial moko. Tāwhiao slept on floors, uncomfortable with the comfortable beds. He ran away from a wax likeness of a Zulu warrior, and played euchre.[ix] But I don’t envy him his return to his people, to the King Country he had established but had opened to traders and surveyors, opened to those who would eventually build the roads opposed by Te Heuheu and who would complete the Main Trunk Line, that iron spine of the colony running through the heart of the King’s country.[x] When he returned, I wonder, did he feel like an immigrant in his own country? He had reached an aukati in England, a line he could not pass, forcing him to deal with those back home who, like it or not, were now on his side of his borders.

We tried, too. Tried to maintain the home land of our hearts despite displacement. My wife bought books about Canada for our children and, whenever the opportunity presented itself, made them choose their native land as a topic for homework assignments. She made my son study French at high school. I tried to love rugby and cricket, but as soon as the Internet was fast enough, I returned to following ice hockey. My son visited Nova Scotia for six months. My daughter has only just made a visit back. A colleague at St Patrick’s bluntly told me that homesickness was a form of depression and that, until I committed to living with both feet here, I would continue to suffer my brand of melancholy. I didn’t like that. When I made my first trip home ten years ago, I wondered how I would feel returning to New Zealand. A self-proclaimed prophet in our non-Catholic church community told me I should pay attention to how I felt as the plane arrived back here. He knew, he said, that he was home when he first landed in this country as a missionary. I paid attention. I felt nothing. We have yet to obtain New Zealand citizenship. A Canadian passport does me fine.

I first heard about the change in Taumarunui’s sign on Twitter. We all knew something was up at the entrance. A metal canoe had been erected, Canadian, like me, overshadowing a gallery of photographs highlighting the historic nature of this place as well as the adventure activities awaiting people who cross the Ongarue bridge. Seeing photographs of the original sign on Newshub was like seeing it through fresh eyes.[xi] There was the face that had greeted me, and that face would soon be gone. I found I cared, very deeply, about what would happen next. My concern was that we would be left with just the canoe—just another Ohakune carrot or Te Puke Kiwi fruit or Taihape gumboot. Nothing to welcome and warn sojourners, nothing with the protection and gravitas that only a warrior-king can offer.

I was pleased when I saw the image planned for the new sign and it has turned out brilliantly. The painting was conceived by another foreigner, Gottfied Lindauer, a Czech trained in Vienna.[xii] The huia feather is there, still the same colour as Tāwhiao’s hair and korowai, but we see more of his cloak, made of Kiwi feathers, reaching as low as his waist. The feather is white-tipped like the bell-topper hat given to Tāwhiao’s father, Te Wherowhero, by Te Heuheu to acknowledge his kingship. Tāwhiao’s moko is realistic, cut deep into the skin, intimidating. His eyes are less tired, but wizened, as if he’d lived a longer life but had a better sleep. If the caption below his image doesn’t convey his royal status, surely his whalebone patu does. He holds it across his chest as if beginning a ceremonial wiri or preparing to defend his pā, even if it now includes the BP and MacDonald’s signs behind him.

Below his picture on each side of the new sign, there are written two stories of Tāwhiao. One of them relates his visit to Te Koura and the prophesy he received from Rangawhenua. Tāwhiao is famous for uttering some tongi of his own. This one is held dear by Kingites in the Waikato:

Māku anō e hanga tōku whare
Ko tōna tāhuhu, he hīnau.
Ōna pou he māhoe, he patatē.

I will build my house
Its ridge pole will be made of hīnau
Its posts will be made of māhoe (whiteywood) and patatē (seven-finger).[xiii]

The list of construction materials highlights their meekness, their commonness. Last year, my son wrote a song called Voyageurs which he dedicated to me and my wife, his parents:

Set your sails
Raise up your anchor. From the sea of guilt
That swells in your souls, just look what you’ve built

I’m forty-six now. My son is almost the same age I was when we moved here. Back in Nova Scotia, most of my family are teachers. My father was a teacher with an excellent reputation. It helped me get relief work back there. No-one has heard of my father here. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.[xiv] Every generation must use what materials they have in order to build what they need to face their own challenges. Without the stronger building materials, without legacy, without reputation, without royal lineage, without battle-earned mana, without networks, without pioneering arrogance, without a brand, we have built a family with potential for a wider whānau. We have built with character, we have built with relationships, we have built with assistance and support, we have built with long-term connection that now runs deeper than we intended or have yet to fully understand.

The council has said any new sign should not exploit the tupuna or have any potential for commercialisation.[xv] Former council CEO, David Hammond, blogged: the establishment of this King Tāwhiao sign is not a backward look, a tourist gimmick nor tokenism. It is a forward-looking statement of the area’s peoples that they walk together into the future as equal partners. And it is a statement that under that equality all peoples remain under the watchful guardianship of the local Iwi.[xvi] Mayor Don Cameron officially opened the entrance and it received a blessing from kaumātua. It’s the beginning of the revitalisation of Taumarunui, said Mayor Don.[xvii]

It’s an interesting word, revitalisation. It’s about bringing life back. In this era, as it was in Tāwhiao’s, this often means opening up to ideas and ways of outsiders, while still trying to hold on to life-sustaining traditions. It is the king who still welcomes you—tourists and immigrants alike—on behalf of us who live behind his boundary. With a royal nod, he says, Nau mai, haere mai. You are welcome, just remember who was here first, who has been here longer, and who will be here after you leave.

King Country Hard.



[i] Cooke, Ron. n.d. Roll Back the Years. Vol. 2. Taumarunui: Taumarunui & Districts Historical Society.

[ii] Cooke, Ron. n.d. Roll Back the Years. Vol. 2. Taumarunui: Taumarunui & Districts Historical Society.

[iii] Wikipedia. n.d. Tāwhiao. Accessed July 2016.

[iv] 2016. Standardized Testing. Produced by HBO. Performed by John Oliver.

[v] Barber, Lucas. 2016. Culture Shock: The Kindness of Kiwis. 11 July. Accessed 2016.

[vi] Auckland Art Gallery. n.d. Josiah Martin: King Tawhiao. Accessed July 2016.

[vii] Cooke, Ron. n.d. Roll Back the Years. Vol. 2. Taumarunui: Taumarunui & Districts Historical Society.

[viii] 2016. Kiingitanga. Directed by Mahanga Pihama. Produced by Enter the Dragon Productions. Accessed July 2016.

[ix] Blackley, Roger. 2012. “King Tawhiao’s Big O. E.” Turnbell Library Record (Victoria University) 44: 36-52.

[x] Kerry-Nichols, J.H. 1884 (Reprinted 1974). King Country. Capper Press.

[xi] Ruapehu District Council. 2016. New Sign for Taumarunui. 30 April.

[xii] Steven, Robert. 2016. “Taumarunui Receives a Royal Welcome.” Waikato Times, 17 May.

[xiii] Meredith, Rahui Papa and Paul. n.d. Kīngitanga – the Māori King movement – Tāwhiao, 1860–1894. Accessed 2016.

[xiv] Paul. n.d. “Ephesians 5:31.” In The Bible: New International Version.

[xv] Ruapehu District Council. 2016. New Sign for Taumarunui. 30 April.

[xvi] Hammond, David. 2016. The Tawhiao Sign. Cultural Empowerment. 16 May. Accessed June 2016.

[xvii] Taumarunui Rotary Club. 2015. Rotary success stories – New Zealand and SW Pacific. 1 June. Accessed 2016.