It was 5:30am last Sunday and over 100 cars with headlights and heaters on could be seen driving in a cavalcade around the curved roads of Lake Rotoiti.
They arrived at Mount Haumingi, the sacred mountain of Ngāti Te Rangiunora Te Arawa, only to walk 100 metres to its peak where billowing fires lit up the dark and kept the whānau warm.
This was the scene set for Matariki, a time to remember loved ones who now glisten like stars in the sky and a time to prepare for the new year ahead.
Young and old called out the names of those who had moved on from this world to the next and mourners wailing for their loss could be heard under the stars of Matariki.
This annual gathering was abandoned for many years by Ngāti Pikiao, due to westernised influences, which blanketed these ceremonies.
Kaumātua Muriwai Ihakara was overwhelmed by the early morning event as he experienced the cries for loved ones passed on, the strength of unity and the embrace of ngā whetū for its people.
Ancient ceremony returns
“This is the first in a long time for us,” he said.
“However, we have come back and we are reviving this ancient ceremony, Te Hautapu Umukohukohu Whetū.”
In the ceremony food from Waitī (freshwater food), Waitā (seafood), Tupu ā Nuku (food from the earth) and Tupu ā Rangi (food from trees) are offered on an altar for the gods.
Matariki expert Professor Rangi Mātāmua explained that each of the stars in Matariki was connected to a different part of the environment.
Food from the various spaces, for example, kumara from gardens, fish from the ocean and eels from the river, are cooked in the umu kohukohu whetū.
The steam from the umu rises into the sky to feed Matariki.
Committed to revival
The food itself is placed on a tūāhu (altar) and karakia is offered to the different stars in Matariki to open the new year. A portion is taken and fed to those involved in the ceremony to remove tapu. Eventually, the remaining food is put into the ground.
“We are doing it, all of us and it will stay alive from now on,” says Jade Kameta, an organiser of the gathering. Jade has been following the world of Matariki and Maramataka Māori for many years and is elated to finally see his Te Arawa iwi take the opportunity to reignite special traditions of old.
Matariki becomes a New Zealand public holiday next year on June 24.