On a pre-lockdown visit to the Ōhope Beach area we followed the signs to a ‘scenic lookout’ and found ourselves at Kohi Point scenic reserve with magnificent views of both Whale Island (Moutohorā) and Whakatāne. We had planned to take a tour out to the island but, alas, the weather was against us – fine, but windy.
A plaque embedded into a rock caught my eye at the lookout, which includes an historic pā site – one of the oldest settlement sites in New Zealand – and is also known as Toi’s Pā or, more correctly Kaputerangi. The reserve also forms part of the 16km Ngā Tapuwae o Toi Walking Trail.
The plaque records that Toi had two names, one of them being Toi-kai-rakau which means ‘wood-eater’ because of the need to eat fern root and forest food – early Polynesian migrants to Aotearoa must have been shocked to find very little growing that they recognised and a much colder climate.
(Added September 1: I have just read in Witi Ihimaera’s book Navigating the Stars that according to one story Toi had brought only one plant to Aotearoa with him – the hue (gourd) – so when kūmara landed here centuries later, for all that time his progeny had been ‘wood eaters’. However, Ihimaera notes another legend that gives the honour of introducing the kūmara to Toi.)
The plaque said Toi was said to be living at the pā site in 1150 and tradition records the site still in use about 200 years later ‘when a most important event occurred, viz. the introduction of the kūmara or sweet potato’ [to New Zealand]. Concrete details about the arrival of kūmara (Ipomoea batatas) in Aotearoa have necessarily been difficult to establish with hints having to be gleaned from oral histories and archaeology, including that Polynesians obtained the staple crop from South America.
However, it was nice to be standing in a place with a strong link to the story of the vegetable we Kiwis love to love.
Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand includes some details around the planting of kūmara, which I share here, click on the link to read the original article for more details.
Māori developed large kūmara gardens, often on sloping, sunny land. They grew the plants in mounds of soil, adding sand and gravel to make it drain better. Fences protected the gardens from wind and pūkeko birds. The plants were sometimes attacked by caterpillars of the kūmara moth, and Māori kept tame black-backed seagulls to eat the caterpillars.
Tubers were harvested around March and stored in underground pits over winter. Some were eaten and some saved to be planted out the next spring. Kūmara, which were much smaller than the vegetables we know today, were cooked in hāngī (earth ovens), boiled, or steamed. These and fern root were the main sources of carbohydrate for early Māori.
Northland is New Zealand’s biggest kūmara -growing area and where most of the commercial operations are, go here to see some of the modern varieties available.