Te Araroa township, 175km from Gisborne, is situated on the foreshore of Kawakawa Bay. A giant pohutukawa tree, reputed to be the oldest and largest of its kind in New Zealand, stands in the school grounds.
The Maori of Te Araroa belong to the Ngati Porou tribe and are descended from Porourangi, but their genealogies tell of other ancestors shared with other tribes of Aotearoa. The most notable of these is Toi and it is quite possible that descendants of Toi came onto the East Coast via this northern district. Another more romantic ancestor was Paikea who is said to have arrived in this land on the back of a whale. He landed near East Cape then journeyed south to settle at Whangara. Pawa, captain of the Horouta canoe, sailed to this coast from the Bay of Plenty bringing the kumara. It is claimed locally that the first kumara grown in Aotearoa were planted at Whakaaraaranui quite close to Te Araroa on the East Cape road. Pawa also visited the Awatere Valley where the echoing cliff is called Te Reo o Pawa (the voice of Pawa) and the beautiful Punaruki Beach where there is a place called Tarere a Pawa (Pawa's swing).
Te Araroa is famous in the history of Ngati Porou as the chosen home of the tribe's greatest warrior ancestor Tuwhakairiora. This great fighting chief arrived in the area in the early seventeenth century on a mission of revenge. His grandfather had been murdered long before Tuwhakairiora was born but his mother had taught him throughout his childhood that this murder must be avenged. On the way to Te Araroa, Tuwhakairiora met and married Ruataupare at Wharekahika. The couple lived at Okauwharetoa Pa beside the Awatere River. From here, over a period of many years, Tuwhakairiora carried out his mission and became the leader of all the peoples of the northern East Coast.
Tuwhakairiora's brother, Hukarere, had married into an important family of the district. His wife, Hinerupe, was one of three sisters who were known as Nga Kopara a Rongomaitapui (the Bellbirds of Rongomaitapui). Hukarere's descendants intermarried with the descendants of his brother.
After some years Ruataupare left Tuwhakairiora to go and live first at Tuparoa then later at Tokomaru Bay where she became a tribal leader in her own right. Tuwhakairiora took a second wife and had another large family so that in this generation the great majority of Maori on this northern East Coast are descendants of Tuwhakairiora and of the Bellbirds of Rongomaitapu.
Rerekohu is another great ancestor of this area and his food was stored in a pataka by the famous giant pohutukawa. For this reason the tree was eventually given the name Te Waha O Rerekohu (the mouth of Rerekohu).
When Captain Cook rediscovered New Zealand in 1769 he sailed past Kawakawa Bay. He named nearby East Cape, East Island and Hicks Bay but did not land in this area. The coming of Cook meant that times were to change. It is not known whether the first Pakeha to the district was a whaler, a trader or a marooned sailor. However by the time the first missionary came in 1843 there were some Pakeha living at Te Araroa and the Maori were growing new crops and trading in European goods.
Hekawa, a short distance from the present township, was an early whaling settlement. Descendants of an early American whaler, Billy Hazel, still live in the area. James Peachey was a trader who arrived in the late 1840s with William Collier following shortly afterwards.
The first missionary, George Kissling, arrived in 1843. The Maori, led by their chief Houkamau, gave 2.5ha of their land for a mission station. Kissling built a house and planted an oak and a pear tree. These trees were removed to make way for a football field after being badly damaged by a storm about eighty years ago.
Prior to the late 1880s Te Araroa was called Kawakawa-mai Tawhiti (Kawakawa-brought-from-a-distant-place). The name was officially changed in 1888 to avoid confusion with Kawa kawa in the far north. When asked for a new name for their township the people suggested Te Araroa. This name had been given to the mission station because of the long box hedged path that ran from the mission house to the giant pohutukawa tree. The hedge is long gone but the thousands of jonquils that bloom every winter near the school were left by the missionaries.
Te Araroa is the birthplace of Sir Apirana Ngata (1874-1950) who was a member of parliament for 38 years. His goal was to uplift the Maori race spiritually, culturally and economically. He encouraged the development and settlement of Maori lands as well as the building of carved meeting houses and memorials such as St Mary's Church at Tikitiki.
Owing to the lack of roading in the area shipping was very important and all inward goods and outward produce had to be surfed to and from the beach. There was a small jetty at the mouth of the Awatere River.
In March 1874 there were nine European males and three European females living in the Te Araroa district. The first government school was opened in 1874 but had trouble retaining teachers. By 1887 the school was permanently opened. As Te Araroa was very isolated the school also served as the post office and the head teacher held medical supplies.
The present township of Te Araroa was formed in 1890. Prior to this time the stores, smithies and the hotel were clustered around the marae. The post office opened in 1908 and a cottage hospital in 1912. There were several shops and two banks in the main street. Around the corner a billiard saloon and a hall provided plenty of entertainment for the growing population.
During the mid 1920s farming productivity declined markedly and the freezing works at nearby Hicks Bay closed. The depression of the 1930s, followed by serious erosion in the headwaters of the rivers, saw hundreds of people leaving the area. In an attempt to stem the erosion and provide work a pine planting programme was commenced in the mid 1970s.
The Te Araroa district is an interesting area with a great deal to offer. A 21km drive to East Cape and a climb of about 500 steps leads to the most eastern lighthouse in New Zealand. East Island stands a short distance from the cape. The coastline from Haupara Point in the west through to East Cape has been the scene of many shipwrecks over the years. The vast areas of rocky platforms exposed at low tide are a mecca for geologists, skin divers and kaimoana gatherers while the towering cliffs on the inland side of the cape road are also of geological interest.
Historic Whetumatarau, the towering prominent pa site overlooking the township, offers superb views from the summit but advice must be sought before attempting this scenic bush climb.
From the well-appointed camping ground, complete with movie picture theatre, it is but a short walk to Punaruku Beach for safe swimming, surfing, and beach fishing. A fine bush walk around Haupara Point leads to excellent rock and underwater fishing.
Inland drives can be enjoyed along both the Whakaangiangi and the Karakatuwhero Valleys where pleasant picnic spots and safe swimming holes can be found. The Pukeamaru Scenic Reserve of virgin bush is of great interest.
Safaris can be arranged for various activities such as pig and deer hunting, fishing trips, scenic drives, camp cuts and Maori history tours.
Te Araroa offers all forms of accommodation including campsites, cabins, motel units and hotel facilities with a licensed restaurant. There are dairies, a general store, postal facilities and a garage.
With its mild climate and its varied and extensive coastline Te Araroa is a pleasant place.