Cameron James McLaren

Postcards from Ngāruawāhia

For one week in May, 21 photographers documented a small town at the confluence of history. What they found was beautiful.

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Asher and Julie Morley have five children. Asher, a teacher at a local bilingual school, encourages the kids to be connected to the land and often takes them camping and hunting. On one excursion, above, they were targeting peacocks—a local pest—but settled for turkeys.
The Turner family home is a papakāinga—a household bringing three generations together under one roof. The home is also a base for the whānau business, a mussel fritter food truck. Every Friday night they shuck mussels together, preparing the batter for the Ngāruawāhia markets on Saturday.
Colin Jenner is a member of the Bush Tramway Club, which runs the Glen Afton Line Heritage Railway. Photographer Aaron Smale joined Jenner as he went about preservation work on a train that once dragged coal out of the area. Every Sunday, the historic trains are fired up for visitors to ride.
Turangawaewae Waka Sports is one of more than 90 Waka Ama clubs throughout New Zealand. The Ngāruawāhia club has over 120 juniors, including Karma Johnson, among a membership that spans all ages.
For Maraea-Lilly Pu-Tamainu (left) most of the week is filled with rugby. Sunday is her day of rest, often spent with the other kids on her street, before training starts again on Monday. There, she will be the only girl on the field. Edith Amituanai spent time with the 12-year-old rising star.
Mark Porter shepherds 1000 breeding Romney ewes, all born on the farm. They will produce lambs for five years before being taken to market. Dove, a heading dog, works quietly to guide the sheep, while Cruise, a huntaway, is the louder of the pair.
Tawera Nikau has returned to his roots and is now restoring ancestral land. Photographer Adrian Malloch was struck not by the rugby league legend’s past, but by the seeds he is planting for the future. Most recently, Nikau has been re-establishing native plants on a family farm which borders Lake Waikare.
Partners in life Harley Tahu and Harley-Jo Rhind grew up in Ngāruawāhia, and have always known each other. Photographer Julie Zhu was moved by how cuddly their family of eight is, and their tight-knit community at the league club.

Drive through Ngāruawāhia, and all you’ll see is a dilapidated main strip—the butcher, the dairy, the pharmacy, the op-shop—that doesn’t spread further than two half-boarded-up blocks. The town’s name, however, stems from celebration, abundance and romance.

A marriage arranged to unite two Waikato tribes fell through when the bride, Heke-i-te-rangi, ran away with the groom’s younger brother, Te Ngaere. It was a diplomatic nightmare. But the birth of the couple’s first son provided an opportunity for reconciliation, in the form of a great feast attended by both tribes. During the festivities, Te Ngaere declared, “Wāhia ngā rua!” or, “Break open the food pits!” And so this place became Ngāruawāhia, the opened pits. The Hākarimata Range overlooking the town is named after the same feast—hākari kai mata, mountains of food.

Later, the area became a battleground, when Pākehā land hunger played out in the Waikato Wars. Ngāruawāhia was occupied by British troops in 1863 after the Battle of Rangiriri; they renamed it Queenstown, then Newcastle. In 1877, these efforts were abandoned, and the town’s original name restored.

Today, it seems the state couldn’t care less about inhabiting Ngāruawāhia. The town is neatly bypassed by State Highway 1, instead cut through by the forgotten end of Great South Road.

Yet in the 19th century, Ngāruawāhia could have become our capital. It was at the confluence of trade routes, and an important port for steamboats trading on the Waipā and Waikato rivers. It bustled with industry: a brewery, flour mill, flax mill, several sawmills and a brickworks. In the early 20th century, Te Puea Hērangi—Princess Te Puea—established Turangawaewae Marae here. She’d wanted to create a hospital for a community still reeling from the 1918 flu pandemic, and when the Ministry of Health refused, instead established a receiving hall for the Māori King. Ngāruawāhia became the seat of the Kīngitanga, the Māori king movement.

This is where New Zealand Geographic invited 21 photojournalists from around the country. Hosted at Turangawaewae—sleeping in the wharemoe and eating in the wharekai—photographers heard from some of the world’s best photojournalists, edited their portfolios, and shot new assignments. Each photographer was assigned a local story to capture, creating a 10-frame photo-essay, captured in the video below (edited by Melanie Burford).

They documented the land, the people, the river, and the connections between them. Photographers visited people’s homes at dinner time, turned up to milking sheds at dawn, and attended rugby matches played by staunch rivals who were about three feet tall. Rather than being “taken”, the photographs were gifts to the community, returned at a final gathering and presentation on Sunday afternoon. The workshop closed with participants standing in a circle, each taking a turn to reflect. For them, photography is a way of taking notice, active care, and a conduit to forming relationships and acting in the world. The course was not about the complicated lenses, the metallic shutter sound, or even the light. It was about people, people, people.

Anna McKay, the oldest volunteer firefighter in Ngāruawāhia, wears the same 25-kilogram protective gear as everybody else—but she has a smaller mask that’s custom-made for her.
Izabel Wright helps her dad train the family’s working dogs twice a day. Ralph Piezas joined the family of four at home where they have a food forest, market gardens, and a milking cow from which they make their own cheese. They’ve lived in Ngāruawāhia since 2007.
The throttle of five-year-old Charlotte McLaughlin’s motorbike has been adjusted to slow her down. Scott Sinton documented the McLaughlin family while Chris, centre, was home from his job on an oil-rig platform. When he’s away, Amanda holds down the fort, looking after the four children and her floristry business.
The Te Koi whānau is one for sports: rugby league, softball, netball, surfing, and waka ama. Nan keeps the family fuelled—when games are played on home ground, she takes big pots of stew along to warm up the players.
Ripi Joseph started carving at six years old, learning from master carvers at Tūrangawaewae Marae including his dad James Joseph. When photographer Dominico Zapata spent time with him, he was focusing on the maintenance of a ceremonial waka.
On cold mornings, the hose, warmed by milk pumping through, is a comfort. Monica Knight told photographer Andrew MacDonald about how she would press her face to it as a child, watching her parents milking. Each of her long days as a dairy farmer begins and ends in the milking shed.

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