Waiwhetū has been in the news recently, with the controversy over whether the waka Te Raukura should have a home in the new whare waka on Wellington’s waterfront or at the Te Āti Awa marae in Waiwhetū, in the Hutt Valley. Waiwhetū is a river and was the name of an historic settlement at some distance from the present marae. On a recent weekend I walked the length of the Waiwhetū, from near its source in the hills above Naenae, to where it joins the Hutt River close to the latter’s estuary. This journey along the Waiwhetū from north to south was geographical, but it was also a journey through different settings, times and histories.
The hills where the Waiwhetū rises are home to the rather confusingly named Taitā cemetery – it is reached through Naenae. But the cemetery’s name is reminder of the fact that when it was established in the early 1890s Taitā was a farming district more extensive than the present-day suburb.
The Waiwhetū then takes a course through Naenae itself, a suburb that was an experiment in social engineering through state (public) housing, which was laid out in the 1940s and 1950s. The name of Naenae’s shopping centre, Hillary Court, honours the country’s hero of the time, Edmund Hillary, who reached the summit of Mt Everest in May 1953, along with Nepali climbing partner Sherpa Tensing Norgay.
There’s not quite the same spark in Hillary Court today, yet something of the vision that made Naenae survives. The Olympic swimming pool, opened in the 1950s, and Wellington’s first of such dimensions, remains a draw card. And Naenae’s ideals also express themselves in new ways. With depictions of a variety of ethnic groups, large colourful murals are a reminder of how much the ethnic composition of Naenae and its neighbours has changed in the last half century – Sherpa Tensing would not be as out of place in Naenae in 2011 as he would have been in 1953.
From Hillary Court it is only a short walk to Riverside Drive which – as its name suggests – follows the Waiwhetū, and does so for most of the rest of its distance. In this stretch the river has a tranquil, almost rustic, air and ducks settle in happily under pūriri trees overhanging the bank.
By this point we have reached the suburb of Waiwhetū itself, at the heart of which is the impressive Waiwhetū marae. Its meeting house dates from 1960 and is a confirmation of the tribe’s history of settlement in the Hutt Valley. Nearby Te Whiti Park, named for the great Taranaki pacifist leader, is a reminder of links with that part of the country, from which Te Āti Awa hapū migrated in the 1820s and 1830s. A new cultural centre, opened in 2005, has striking architecture, carvings and motifs.
For Māori in years gone the Waiwhetū was a fruitful source of food – both eels and other fish in it, and the plants that thrived along its banks. That’s not so today. The river has to cope with run-off of many kinds, much harmful, and the problems intensify as it enters an industrial area, as signs soberly indicate. Some of the factory names are very familiar: Griffins has long had a big plant not far from the river, whilst a Masterpet plant nearby caters not to man but to man’s best friends. On the opposite bank lies the Hutt Park raceway.
We approach journey’s end, in more ways than one. Near where the Waiwhetū joins the Hutt – and across the busy main road to Eastbourne – is Ōwhiti cemetery. It is on the site of the historical Waiwhetū pā, but rather unhappily penned in today between river and fuel storage tanks. It is a mundane end to the river too, but with a certain fitness that a water course that starts with a cemetery also ends with one, yet traverses in between such a variety of past and present lives and livelihoods.