Whales and an angel are among the lesser-known stories of Te Kaha, the small coastal village off State Highway 35.
The iconic highway is the Coastal Highway, between Ōpōtiki and Gisborne, and in the summer it’s packed with families, camping, fishing, and swimming.
The Te Kaha Beach Hotel is now owned by the local iwi, Te Whānau-a-Apanui, and in winter the hotel is the perfect place to get away from it all. I stayed in a well appointed apartment, with a view on one side of the rocky coast and on the other side a picturesque wooden church in a horse pen. With an on-site restaurant, bar, pool, and spa pool, it’s tempting to spend the weekend reading and watching movies.
But I had a mission. I had heard the story of an opera singer, Princess Te Rangi Pai, or Fanny Rose Howie, who sang at the Royal Albert Hall in London, long before Kiri Te Kanawa arrived. I was told that the contralto singer of descent Te Whānau-a-Apanui and Ngāti Pōrou, had been buried in a roadside tomb, topped by an angel, under a stand of pōhutukawa trees, near Te Kaha. .
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I have often driven SH35s but never spotted the bass. This weekend I wanted to pay tribute to the woman who wrote Hine e Hine. An arrangement of the song later became the song Goodnight Kiwi which for years closed transmission on TVNZ.
Te Rangi Pai was born in 1868 and died in my hometown, Ōpōtiki, in 1916, at just 48 years old.
Te Kaha is an hour’s drive from Ōpōtiki, in a world that sometimes feels like it is disappearing quickly. A passage past the house of the pig dog trainer, who is also a bookbinder, villages where marae life is life, horses graze along the road and Red Band rubber boots come out of the boots – at least the clean.
Continue to Ōmāio, where the beach shop sells coffee, some of the best sausage rolls on the coast, vegan lollipops, and vegetables presented in woven kete.
I drive past Te Kaha to Raukokore, home to one of the most photographed churches in the country, on a rocky outcrop, almost surrounded by the sea.
I found the Kura Café, a café-caravan on the site of the now closed Raukokore school. The menu reflects the cuisine of the coast, with roasted beets and a salad of watercress and raw fish.
Back in Te Kaha, I’m struck by the idea that SH35 lives up to its name, for the many corners at 35 km / h and the need not to be mesmerized by the breathtaking views.
The next day, with the local knowledge of the hotel manager, I went in search of the tomb of Princess Te Rangi Pai. I stop to look at probably pōhutukawa stands, but no grave.
Then I spy on two children who come towards me, so I ask them if they know where the tomb of Te Rangi Pai is. Dubitiously, they shake their heads and ask who she was. I tell them she was an opera singer from here and their faces light up. “Oh, angel,” one said, gesturing to some pōhutukawa trees.
Indeed, she sang like an angel and now sits in front of her tūrangawaewae, most of the time undisturbed by curious passers-by.
What about whales? Nearby, on a beach is an old whaling station from the days when Te Kaha’s whale oil lit up the streetlights of London, when Te Rangi Pai sang there at the Royal Albert Hall.
The writer stayed at Te Kaha thanks to the Te Kaha Beach Hotel.
Te Kaha is an hour’s drive from pŌtiki on the SH35.
Te Kaha Beach Hotel offers self-catering one and two bedroom apartments. To book: [email protected]; 07 325-2830.