They’re on their morning walk up Maungawhau.
To get there they turn off Mountain Road and trace the edge of the Government House grounds to reach the bottom of the 120 steps that will carry them up into the greenery of the maunga. They wait for a group of rugby players to finish running down the steps, each one sharing a friendly ‘kia ora’ or ‘thank you’ or head nod. It’s a dry, summer morning. Pōhutukawa leaves crunch underneath their feet.
At the top, they emerge onto the remains of a road that now exclusively serves walkers, cyclists and dogs. The track directly in front of them leads to the kūmara pits and flat terraces that once hosted a Māori pā. Today, they decide to follow the road. It gives them more breathing space to talk. They turn left to start looping their way more slowly up to the summit.
A few metres along, there is a gap in the trees where they can see their house. When they started learning te reo Māori, they used to identify Maungawhau as ‘their mountain’ when delivering a pepeha—Ko Maungawhau te maunga. The kaiako explained that it was better for Pākehā to acknowledge the mountain in another way—‘if you feel an affinity with the maunga, then say I tipu ake au i raro i te maru o Maungawhau—I grew up under the shelter of Maungawhau.’
They are grateful to live under the shelter of this imposing maunga. From their bedrooms, they can see tiny outlines of people at its top, gazing out over the city.
Despite its height, the road up to the top has a gentle incline. They barely break a sweat, chatting easily as they get higher and higher until the suburbs are far beneath them, extending to the shores of the Waitemata Harbour, and the sky stretches infinitely high above them, forcing them to hold their hands up to the bright sun. They feel pinned at the centre of the earth.
They used to ask each other if they would like to walk up Mt Eden. When ownership was returned to mana whenua a few years ago, clues about the identity of the maunga started to emerge. The signs by the steps changed to display the te reo Māori name, with the English in fine print underneath. It wouldn’t occur to them to call it Mt Eden now. The word Maungawhau has crept into their limited te reo Māori vocabulary, even though they don’t really know what it means (in all honesty, they didn’t know what ‘Eden’ referred to either, but they assumed it was some colonial lord as per normal (which was correct)).
As always, they pause for a moment at the top. The volcanic crater of the maunga drops sharply in front of them. There’s a sign that tells manuhiri the crater is called Te Ipu-a-Mataaho, ‘the bowl of Mataaho’, a deity that lives in the crater, guarding the secrets of the earth. Tourists are no longer able to slide down the slopes.
They loop slowly around the edge of the crater, naming the different maunga as they see them—Maungakiekie, Ōhinerau, then out across the Harbour Bridge towards Maungauika. The maunga are scattered across Tāmaki Makaurau, each one with a distinctive shape and personality. Maungawhau is the tallest, in the centre of them all.
They complete the circuit and start to descend back into thicker foliage on the opposite side to where they came up. Halfway down, as they round the corner towards the car park, there is something new on the footpath—a sign for a cafe. ‘Whau,’ it says. It’s outside a solitary low building, shrouded in trees. They have never paid the building proper attention before. Normally they walk straight past.
‘Shall we try it?’ they ask each other. It’s still early and they haven’t had coffee.
The building is historic, long ago housing a tea kiosk that was surrounded by a series of rose gardens. Now, it is a contemporary Māori cafe.
They sit down at a soft green table on the deck outside, facing out towards the Sky Tower. The top of the table is inscribed with a topographical map of the maunga they had just traversed. As if to prove a cliched point, a kererū swoops heavily over their heads, landing clumsily on a pōhutukawa branch nearby. They take a photo of it staring back at them from a halo of bushy red flowers.
A waitress comes over. ‘Kia ora e te whānau, haere mai ki te Whau! Here are copies of our menu. Can I get you any coffees today?’ She pulls up a bright red umbrella to give them some shade.
They order four flat whites and start to study the menu. At the top are the words ‘Te ipu kai o te aroha—the food bowl of love.’
All of the dishes have Māori names. On the front is a karakia for the food. One of them notices an explanation for the word Maungawhau. It means ‘mountain of the whau tree’. They search for images of the whau tree online so that they know what it looks like. The leaves are a lemon green, with soft spikes right around the edge. They look up and see there are whau shrubs right next to their table.
They choose kūtai parai (mussel and kamokamo fritters), kūmara o rongo (kūmara pancakes), a hāngi sandwich, and kawakawa scrambled heki.
As the waitress walks away, they realise their pronunciation of Maungawhau has been inaccurate. Te reo Māori is not their language, and they’ve tended to say ‘mawn-ga-wh-ow’. They pay closer attention when the waitress comes back, noticing how she rounds her mouth around the ‘au’.
As she places their food on the table, the plating generous and considered, they ask the waitress when the cafe opened. ‘Only last week!’ she tells them. She explains that the owner started off selling fresh fruit ice creams out the back of the building. ‘He is a direct descendant of the Māori chiefs who once lived in the pā,’ she says, pointing back up to the summit that now has new layers of significance.
Their kai disappears off the plates, fresh and morish, the eggs impossibly soft and the hāngi sandwich rich with soft smoke. Instead of black pepper, horopito seasons everything. They enjoy the enlivening heat it leaves on their palates. They plan to come back to try more of the menu soon.
As they walk back down, towards home, the plants seem to erupt into sharper focus with the pieces of knowledge from the menu. Whau and kawakawa are everywhere, lining the footpaths and road, twisting together under the pōhutukawa, coming alive as they pass them. They wonder which part of the maunga the chef would have gathered the leaves from.
They end up back where they started, at the top of the steps, and notice an enormous kawakawa bush next to the gate, its emerald green leaves pinpricked with holes. Sitting alongside it is a whau tree bursting with white flowers.
With each step down they practice their pronunciation—whau, whau, whau.