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Whāia te iti Kahurangi, ki te tūohu koe me he maunga teitei’ 

‘Strive to succeed, and should you bow your head, let it be to a lofty mountain’,”

Of the many kōrero tied to Titirangi, this Whakataukī was chosen to be the guiding sentiment of Whāia Titirangi – a restoration operation unfurling on one of Gisborne’s most loved sites. 

The pūrākau tells of Tawhito, descended from Taiau and Tamahinengaro, who lived on Titirangi maunga. He enchanted the beautiful Te Aoputaputa of Te Whakatohea, who was overcome by the desire to be with her love. She decided to leave Opotiki, but her father was worried about the long and arduous journey ahead of her. He gave her a mantra for when she felt like she couldn’t go on – ‘Whāia te iti Kahurangi, ki te tūohu koe me he maunga teitei’. This sentiment is used today “to encourage young people to strive for excellence in all their pursuits”, and be relentless until they achieve them, says Whāia Titirangi project manager Ranell Nikora.

When urgent actioned was needed to address the unruly pest-plant growth on the maunga, Whāia Titirangi was the answer. Whāia Titirangi is a strategic plan committed to the comprehensive and continuous management of Titirangi, that integrates both the Gisborne District Council and Ngāti Oneone. 

Two young women have contributed to a mountain of changes through Whāia Titirangi. The programme is spearheaded by Jordan Tibble and Mihikura Te Pairi, who have been elected as the operational cadets. The cadet programme was born out of the desire to build capacity for kaitiakitanga, to give young people the skills to be the future guardians of the whenua. Energetic, passionate and not afraid of hard work, these two wahine fit the bill. Guided by the knowledge of senior staff and the Biosecurity team, a large part of Mihi and Jordan’s work involves weed management, but they also find time to lead group planting sessions and manage the Whāia Titirangi social media. 

It is hard hard mahi, often involving exhausting physical work and long hours, but Jordan and Mihi are proud to do it for their whenua and their iwi. The Whakataukī, shortened to ‘lofty mountains’ comes in handy on hard days, as it reminds them to keep going. For such active cadets, they find the hardest part of their work to be the hours spent indoors in the office.

Ranell is adamant that the stance for the cadet programme is not ‘what can we get out of our workers’, but ‘what can we do for them’, a perspective which bolsters their holistic development. She has always been supportive of the cadets’ other interests and pursuits and insists that investing in their well-being leads to happier, healthier, more fulfilled people. Jordan and Mihi explain that from an employee perspective, they also feel looked after. With a strong emphasis on the cadets’ professional development, the cadets have received vocational training such as drivers licencing, first aid and chemical handling. 

After delivering a season of planting sessions, often for large audiences, they have found themselves more confident speakers and have grown socially, appreciative of the new relationships gained. The cadets also undergo a thorough cultural education, with regular wananga covering topics such as the Titirangi Maunga korero, whakapapa, tikanga and kawa. This understanding is integral to the role of kaitiaki and nurturing the spiritual connection to the maunga. 

Community education and passing on Māoritanga is a key component of public planting days. Jordan and Mihi have been praised for their role as advocates for celebrating Māori knowledge and perspectives, and sharing the unique story of the land. Many new feet have been introduced to Titirangi soil; there have been regular public planting days and korero about the maunga flora and fauna for volunteers, council, learning institutions and schools. 

It is easy to grasp the impression that Jordan and Mihi have left on their people, with tamariki including them as characters in their stories at school. For Ranell, putting Jordan and Mihi in visible positions of leadership is key in challenging the typical ideal of ‘success’, and showing the young people of Gisborne that people who look, speak, act and think like them can be leaders too. 

Titirangi has undergone a drastic transformation since the Whāia Titrirangi team began their work in October last year (2018). The threat of weeds has dwindled, and the roadside and main amenity areas look like they’ve been given a bit of TLC. It is estimated that under the programme, 5500 new natives will be planted on Titirangi this season. Truly built from the work of many different hands, the native trees used for plantings days are the fruits of labour of The Women’s Native Tree Project. Since Whāia Titirangi’s inception, The Project has generously donated upwards of 450 trees and provided a nursery space to foster new seeds sourced from Titirangi. 

With the maunga’s new look, Whāia Titirangi is noted to be “the most successful and cohesive programme in maintaining the reserve” and being of such unique structure, it has already caught attention from afar as a model of iwi-council partnership. 

The continuation of funding would see a weed-free, pest-free, ecologically enhanced Titirangi. Hopefully, the replenishment of forest will welcome the return of more native birds and reptiles, and we could even expect community fruit and vegetable crops to appear. 

Ranell knows the cadets won’t be here forever, and they might not need to be – Whāia Titirangi has been responsible for passing on a healthy legacy of kaitiakitanga, aiming to inspire the current and future generations beyond that to be the new ‘cadets’ of the maunga.  Ranell wants to see the operation expand, taking on more cadets as kaitiaki with Titirangi as their training ground– who can then spread their skills around the East Cape region where our biodiversity needs it most. Thanks to the work of Ranell, Jordan, Mihi, and the Whāia Titirangi team, Titirangi has been a site of growth – not of just plants, but people and passion as well.

Story by Lauren Turner.

Photographs by Tom Teutenberg.

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