A family's love letter to Whangarei

by Elisabeth Easther / 01 September, 2018

Otuihau (Whangarei Falls) – one of the many scenic spots on Tu Tika Tours.

Rangimarie and Mervyn Harding launched Tu Tika Tours to share both their Māori culture and the natural beauty of the landscape that surrounds their home base in Whangarei.

“I’ve known Merv all my life,” Rangimarie Harding explains, “but when I was young, he was the last person I thought I’d marry.”

She erupts with laughter, because the Hardings have now been married for 23 years and have five tamariki, aged four to 13. And their shared love of Māori culture has seen them launch Tu Tika Tours, a tourism experience based out of their home in the heart of Whangārei.

Before falling in love and getting hitched, Rangimarie was climbing the career ladder, while Mervyn was performing with Pounamu, one of the country’s leading kapa haka groups. “When I joined the high-school culture club, my love for it blossomed,” he says. “And when the opportunity to audition for Pounamu came up, to perform at the Auckland Museum and around the world, I had to take it.”

He was just 17 at the time, and his father needed a bit of persuasion. “Dad didn’t believe kapa haka could pay the bills; he said I needed to get a real job. Our culture wasn’t seen as a career but, when he watched me grow as a person, his views changed and he became one of my greatest supporters.”

The seed for Tu Tika was first planted when the couple were newlyweds. They even sat down and wrote a draft itinerary for a tour of Whangārei Heads, but that didn’t pan out. “The timing was wrong and it was put on the backburner, but I still have that piece of paper,” says Rangimarie.

The Hardings.

Later, on a family trip to Hawaii in 2013 with Mervyn’s mum, four of their children and a “fifth in the oven”, the dream was rekindled. They created a business plan, drew up an itinerary, and transformed their suburban home into a mini marae. The first tours began running last year.

The family are members of the Mangakāhia Mōrehu Brass Band and the name Tu Tika – which means “Stand True” – was chosen as a reference to the drum major’s call to stand to attention.

At the start of a five-hour Māori and Cultural Experience tour (there’s a two-hour option, too), manuhiri are welcomed with a full pōwhiri. Warrior Merv lays down a fierce challenge as the neighbourhood hounds join in with howls and barks, then the women (including Rangimarie and cousin Puingahei) lead the karanga, a formal exchange of calls.

After helping to prepare a hangi, guests are whisked away in the family van to various points of cultural and historical interest. Stories are told, music is made, then it’s back to the whare to eat the kai that’s been brewing in the backyard – pork, cabbage, stuffing, fresh rewena bread, homemade jam – all eaten in the family kitchen.

During holidays and weekends, the couple’s two eldest children, Rangimarie, 13, and Stella, 11, are becoming involved, training as kaikaranga, or callers. “It brought tears to my eyes the first few times they did it,” says their mother. She was in her 30s when the death of her father reminded her of the importance of whānau. The unexpected loss of her mother, in 2014, was another difficult challenge.

“But her death brought out my inner strength and I started looking at life differently,” says Rangamarie, who threw herself into getting Tu Tika off the ground. “I said, ‘Let’s just do the mahi [the work], Merv – let’s take this bull by the horns.’” 

This was published in the June 2018 issue of North & South.

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