Rob McGowan - Whatungarongaro te Tangata, Toitu te Whenua

From Te Ahi Kaa, 6:04 pm on 6 June 2021

In part two of this conversation with Rongoā Māori practitioner Rob McGowan (Pa Ropata) he talks about repopulating the land with native trees, historical landmarks near his home and his ongoing mission to share knowledge with others.

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Photo: RNZ/Justine Murray

At his home on the outskirts of Tauranga he lifts a plastic door to reveal a large planter box with Kauri plants.

“So anyone of those little trees there could live for a thousand trees…six weeks ago they were actually coned from a tree up there” he says.

By ‘up there’ he’s referring to the back of his home, the forest is an official Tane Tree’s Trust plot a not-for-profit organisation that encourages the planting of more native trees.

Rob takes Justine Murray on short walk and talks about the philosophy of how the land can restore itself through nature and eco-systems.  

“Nikau used to be really is important for roofing, but all through here I find little Nikau trees coming up because we’ve got one tree that fruits and the kereru come and they’ve been spreading the seeds all over the show and so the whole ideas is that this bush will restore itself if you’ve got birds to spread the seeds, if you’ve got no birds well how is the bush going to do that?...again its connections”

Rob McGowan (Pā Ropata)

Rob McGowan (Pā Ropata) Photo: Karen Tindall

The King fern is a food source but may be on the verge of becoming extinct.

“When the leaves and branches die off you end with these little discs…but they almost become extinct because the pigs love them, they’ll dig that out and eat the roots”

The quality of water remains an important issue for local government and for hapū and Iwi.

In 2016 an outbreak of gastroenteritis caused by a waterborne disease resulted in 45 people hospitalised and over five thousand people ill with campylobacteriosis. Rob ran a series of wānanga with Te Tai Whenua o Heretaunga and local council to look at ways of restoring the mauri (life principle) back to the Tukituki River.

“Part of that restoring was to reconnect people back to those waters and their stories, and then once you’ve reconnected people then they would find within themselves the energy and commitment to help to restore that water and that river, the mauri can come back sometimes a mauri has become so far reduced as almost out of reach, but all I can say I’ve seen some astonishing things and I really believe we can if we work together the biggest sickness maybe is the fact we are attached to own importance that we actually refuse to work together”

The mountain near Rob’s home is Kopukairoa located within the tribal lands of Ngāti Pukenga, he lives near the pa site Paepae Kohatu, the area is also well known for its connection to Te Arawa and Waitaha Iwi.

“They called Kopukairoa old baldy because it was completely denuded of all forest and this is all restored forest and if you go up a way bit there is grove of beautiful young Totara trees…one fell over and we measured the number of rings it was 132 years old.”

Rob McGowan runs Rongoā Workshops around the country

Rob McGowan runs Rongoā Workshops around the country Photo: Karen Tindall

There is also the history of building waka from Totara.

“There is a story that when Tamateapokaiwhenua went on his big hikoi around New Zealand he got a Totara tree from up this way, at the foot Otanewainuku to build the new Takitimu and one story I heard was that it came from here”

In addition to Kauri trees, Rob has planted kohikohi trees which he says is important for coastal area and is good for rongoā Māori.

For over thirty years Rob has lived in the Bay of Plenty area, he continues to work for the Department of Education, and runs Rongoā and environment workshop sessions around the country. A speaker of te reo Māori he was taught by Whanganui kuia Rua Henare, and retains that relationship today, he sought out their blessing before he published his latest book.  

“…I’ve had much more connection back to Whanganui that I’ve had for a long time, and aunty Rua Henare and her family …we’re going to run a wānanga just for them at some stage…all I’m doing is repeating what they told me and making it available…they held their knowledge in a way that would guarantee that it would be there for those that follow them” he says.