In the late 1970’s, master carver Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell was on a boat trip around Lake Taupo when he was struck by inspiration.
On a rocky alcove he saw a blank canvas begging to be transformed. His vision to sculpt a giant tattooed face directly into the rock would go on to become an icon of Taupo.
The resulting artwork stretches over 14 metres and took a team of four artists four summers to complete by hand – wearing nothing but speedos and safety goggles if you can imagine it! You can only access this work by water and it’s one of the few Māori carvings ever created in rock. The unusual story of this carving is also riddled with controversy, something Kasha and I were both completely unaware of as we embarked on a journey to discover this mystical stone relief by kayak.
An early start and a soggy arrival in Taupo meant we were both feeling a little groggy. It wasn’t long though, until we met our kayak guide for the day Ben, from Canoe and Kayak Taupo, who turned all feelings of lethargy into anticipation for the adventure ahead.
By the water’s edge we unpacked our gear: a single Kayak for Ben, medical kit, radio and a double kayak for Kasha and I nicknamed the ‘marriage breaker’ for its innate ability to start arguments among couples. We donned out kayak skirts – which are very fetching I must say – and took to the water like a pair of newborn ducks. As you might imagine, getting into the right rhythm and cadence in a double boat is essential, so a few paddle slaps or U-turns are inevitable – just keep calm and carry on.
Once we got into the swing of things we could enjoy the serene atmosphere on Lake Taupo and learn a little more from Ben about the man who created the carving. According to the story, Whakataka-Brightwell asked permission from his tribe to create the sculpture. The elders were unanimously against the idea, as Māori carvings are traditionally fashioned from wood or bone. Despite this, the chief asked Matahi if he would carve the image whether or not he was given permission. An affirmative reply gave the answer the chief wanted – he told the carver that because he felt like this, he knew his heart wanted to do it, and the chief gave his permission.
Back on the lake, it wasn’t long before the great Mine Bay cliff face appeared before us, with its striking carving of visionary Māori navigator Ngatoroirangi towering over the water’s edge. Breathtaking isn’t a word I’d use lightly, but in this case it’s one of the few I can use to succinctly describe the feeling of being in the presence of this staggering work. Every swirl and shape you see is imbued with meaning, from the Koru spirals to the way the artist chooses to display the mouth or eyes – everything has a story.
According to sources, the artwork came into being after Mr Brightwell’s grandmother asked him to create a likeness of Ngatoroirangi, thereby sealing their family’s connection to the land. In the absence of a suitable canvas, Brightwell got creative. The rockface artwork isn’t standalone however, as smaller sculptures of tupuna (ancestors) and kaitiaki (guardians) flank the carving as well as Celtic carvings depicting the south wind and a mermaid.
A boat ferrying a stag do arrived at the carving, so we took this as our cue to leave and made haste to a nearby island. This little pitstop allowed us to regain some energy, and after a quick biccie and a brew we bushwalked to a nearby cave once used by Māori hunters where some local kids had created an artwork of their own. We also managed to pull off a terrifying impression of the Haka after finding a statue among the bush – as you can see below.
Sorry to be leaving so soon, we took our last snaps on the water of Lake Taupo (well, I took pictures while Kasha paddled – shhh!) and headed for shore, the midday sun gleaming off the surface of New Zealand’s largest lake.
Our experience on Lake Taupo was as guests of Canoe and Kayak Taupo, but all opinions expressed – as always – are entirely my own.
Liked this antipodean adventure? Check out my bungee experience at the Shotover Canyon Swing in Queentown!