Unpaving the path

Lake Ruataniwha In Mackenzie Country Photo By Liz Carlson
Lake Ruataniwha In Mackenzie Country Photo By Liz Carlson

It’s a trip I have taken hundreds of times. I know its landmarks and milestones well: the soccer field on one side and heritage Model T train on the other, as you roll into Pleasant Point. The forest thickening as you get closer to Fairlie, then the few scattered houses around a speed limit sign in the otherwise empty, grassy expanse of Burkes Pass. The mini golf course and military camp turnoff heading out of Tekapo, and the first corner offering a glimpse onto Lake Pukaki and the degree of cloudiness around Aoraki/Mount Cook, which will subsequently determine the number of campervans and buses you’re about to see in the Visitor Centre car park.

This time, however, following State Highway 8 out of Timaru into the Mackenzie Country feels like a very different journey.

I have been told that Matariki wasn’t often a big deal for Māori living in the Aoraki/South Canterbury region, even if it has become more popular to celebrate in the past decade or so. The Matariki (Pleiades) star cluster is difficult to see at this latitude, and any crops that did manage to grow here had to be brought in well before the onset of harsh winter frosts, which set in as early as May. However, the appearance of Puaka (the star Rigel) in the sky still heralded the new year, marking a time for reflecting, acknowledging people who have passed on, and looking forward to the seasons and year ahead. Therefore, it seems like a fitting time for me to be starting this journey.

I grew up in Timaru, and I spent about every third or fourth weekend, plus many holiday breaks, in the Mackenzie District. Several of my friends had holiday homes in Tekapo, others regularly went camping at Benmore, my girlfriend’s family owned an enormous sheep station just outside Twizel, and my own family spent a lot of winter ski weekends in Fairlie. I wouldn’t say that I am connected to this region – other than, coincidentally, by name – but I do know it pretty well. Except that, I really don’t know it at all.

Being part of Eat New Zealand’s Kaitaki collective – engaging me to seek out and share food stories from my tūrangawaewae over the course of the next 12 months – has encouraged me to confront questions and conflicts that I’ve subconsciously been ignoring for a while.

My story, and the landscape of my memories, has been supplanted over the top of others. Most of the lakes here – Ruataniwha, Benmore, and Aviemore – didn’t exist when my parents were born. I’ve eaten more Alaskan salmon from the Mackenzie Country than I have longfin eel or native kōkopu. And I never even stopped to think about how people would have travelled here before State Highway 8 was built.

Colonisation has brought so much disruption, in many different forms, to Māori living in Te Waipounamu since the 19th century. But one thing in particular has had a significant impact on traditional Māori food pathways in the Aoraki region: the building of a huge hydro-electric dam network on the Waitaki River between the 1960s and 1980s. These massive projects changed the contours of land and water, blocked eels and fish that had been navigating these waters for millions of years, and destroyed or drowned Māori rock art sites lining traditional mahika kai pathways along the river. They also brought electricity to millions of New Zealanders and formed the lakes, rowing regattas, and boat trips that set the backdrop of childhood memories for many kids like me.

Several hundred years ago, Te Manahuna (the Mackenzie Basin) was a rich mahika kai site for Māori living in coastal areas of Aoraki/South Canterbury. Those who made seasonal journeys inland to harvest food, using natural walkways alongside the Opihi, Pareora, and Waitaki rivers and often continuing over to the West Coast rivers in search of pounamu, were rewarded with good supplies of weka, ducks, waterfowl, kōkopu and tuna (eels) from Te Manahuna’s rivers and lakes. Some hapū made this chilly inland migration to the High Country in the middle of winter, taking advantage of the eels’ higher fat content between May and August. This higher fat content improved their taste, provided vital winter nutrition (in an area where root crops like kumara were hard to grow), and made the eels even better suited to the smoking and preserving process, meaning they could be stored and eaten throughout the cold months and later into the year.

Nowadays, of course, Lake Pukaki has been raised nearly 40 metres above its original level, canals have been built and stuffed with introduced salmon (which you can pay to feed by throwing into cages handfuls of Australian-made pellets filled mostly of cheap imported animal protein), and eight massive hydro-electric dams have blocked these natural waterways in order to generate a sizable chunk of New Zealand’s hydro-electricity output. At the same time, privatisation and sale of land, deforestation, building developments, agriculture, invasive species, tourism, algal blooms and pollution are among many other factors that have changed things considerably.

To say that the waters have been muddied is putting it pretty mildly.

However, I’m not saying that we should all start hunting weka (Ngai Tahu have enough trouble getting access to mahika kai as it is, and DOC have enough trouble maintaining native bird populations as it is); nor should we start trapping and packaging up our declining longfin eel populations, in order to sell them overseas under the “Mount Cook” label like we do with the farmed salmon. But surely we can do better.

In thinking about how to construct that better food system, how can or should the past, present and future overlap? How can tourism, industry, and human knowledge help rather than harm our environment, and protect our natural food sources for future generations? Is it too late to go back? Is it too soon to push forward? Or, too soon to push forward too quickly? Are we truly able to understand and respect the knowledge and practices of people who have lived on this land before us? Or, are we taking that knowledge for granted, and it’s actually not ours to take?

These are the questions I have to be comfortable with, and also uncomfortable with, asking myself over the course of the year ahead. In this way, visiting the dams of the Mackenzie Country during Matariki, or Puaka, seems like a suitable starting point, for they are a fitting symbol: they’re ugly, and they don’t fit with the rest of the landscape, at least not as well as you’d like them to; but they’re also not going anywhere any time soon, and they were put there, at least in theory, for a good reason: for the benefit of people.

It’s not the most comfortable starting point, nor will this be the most comfortable journey, but I hope it will be rewarding. Not only for me personally, but also for how we all might be able to look at ourselves, and to look at our collective relationship with food and our environment in a more holistic way. To learn from our mistakes, to make the best out of a bad situation, to incorporate different elements and sensitivities, and to think seriously about how we can make our food systems more resilient and more sustainable in the forever-changing, post-covid future.

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Words by Kaitaki Collective member - Dave McKenzie. Writer for Slow Food & Experienced WWOOFer.

I wwoof and workaway all over the place attempting to learn how to grow food - while picking up beautiful or heartbreaking stories about food heroes and food-related projects. I write about these for platforms like Slow Food International @slowfood_international , the Sustainable Food Trust, Stone Soup @stonesoupsyndicate, and my own @eatsnleaves and eatsnleaves.com. I’m currently based in South Canterbury and am looking forward to unearthing and sharing some incredible NZ food stories.

Image by Liz Carlson via AA Traveller.

Words by eatnewzealand