First step of West Coast’s Pounamu Path opens with Greymouth Wētā Workshop epic

On Monday, the West Coast gains the first step in a tourism trail by Poutini Ngāi Tahu and Wētā Workshop.
07 December 2023

NZ Herald - Travel

By Thomas Bywater

Exploring the West Coast’s relationship to greenstone trading routes, Māwhera Pā in Greymouth is the first stop in a four-part cinematic epic which will span 1000 years of history and 300km.

In a first-of-its-kind move for the region, the tourist attractions will look at how Te Waipounamu, New Zealand’s South Island, was shaped by the stone that gave its name: pounamu.

Part of the $34 million project - which included $18m in Government funding and was in development for three years - the Greymouth site was finally revealed in a launch event this evening.

Visitors can expect to see some of Wētā Workshop’s hyper-realistic sculptures and experience the storytelling techniques they have honed on blockbuster projects such as Te Papa’s epic exhibition Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War. They will also be treated to West Coast Māoritanga, both ancient and cutting-edge. This includes retelling of legends from the hapū of Makaawhio and Ngāti Waewae, as well as a treasure trail app connecting the Te Ara Pounamu out into the coast’s wild natural attractions.

Over the next two years, a rolling path of “cultural rediscovery” will track along the West Coast.

The Māwhera experience centre is to open its doors on December 11, which will be followed by an exhibition in Kawatiri/Westport at the end of January, and then a revamp of the Haast-based Department of Conservation visitor centre later in 2024.

Finally, the trail will finish up in Hokitika near the famous greenstone coast in late 2025.

The project’s chief executive, Toko Kapea, says he wants the centres to become a gateway for visitors to the West Coast. Although it establishes a clear tourist route, once all the centres are open, it will be more of a “choose your own adventure” experience. Each of the four hubs will explore a different aspect of the coast, says Kapea.

“This route is not the Pounamu Pathway itself, but in celebration of [it]. The Pounamu Pathway is a collection of the old trading routes, running south to north and linking the coasts from west to east. Even 200 years ago, if you wanted to cross the mountains, like Brunner and Heaphy, you needed Māori guides.”

The project is a celebration of Māori knowledge and the trails, which are still used by tourists today.

In Haast, the DoC centre will explore the natural landscape. In Hokitika, it will be about the discovery and significance of pounamu near the country’s richest fossicking sites.

The Westport centre will dig into mining culture, and is not far from Buller and the Pike29 Memorial Trail, which is set to open this summer.

Greymouth’s Māwhera Pā site will look at the many routes crossing the divide at one of the first West Coast settlements of Poutini Ngāi Tahu, taken from Ngāti Wairangi.

Descendants of the Poutini Ngāi Tahu Warrior Chief, Tūhuru, have travelled to Wētā Workshop in Wellington to bless the first-ever hyper-realistic representation of their ancestor, as part of the eagerly awaited tourism experience, the Pounamu Pathway.

West Coast history gets a cinematic treatment from Wētā

The creative team from Wellington’s Wētā Workshop was tasked with turning these stories into four world-class exhibitions. Senior creative director Andrew Thomas said all the exhibits were designed in close consultation with a cultural committee.

The stories about the greenstone routes range from well-documented journeys, such as those of guide Hone Mokekehu, to the near mythological Raureka - the first woman who carried pounamu to the East Coast.

Thomas recently worked to deliver a new installation called Te Arawhata - “The Ladder” - at the World War I New Zealand Liberation Museum in France. The Pounamu Pathway project provided an opportunity to take on a New Zealand story closer to home.

Visitors to the Greymouth exhibition will be greeted by the giant two-and-a-half-scale likeness of warrior chief Tūhuru, who invaded NZ’s west, with an enormous mere pounamu blade. The installation was constructed in Wellington moved to Greymouth last month, following a blessing from Poutini Ngāi Tahu.

“Every time we build these figures, we’re developing extra skills, and they keep getting better,” says Thomas.

Wētā Workshop experience designer Rehua Wilson says the hubs will feature a collection of whare structures, exploring different aspects of the coast’s history.

“We want to provide a unique experience in each hub, something unexpected. There won’t be a realistic sculpture in each - but there will be performances and experiences,” she says.

“Māwhera is more about the establishment of the pā, Hokitika is the origins of pounamu, and then Haast is the natural world.”

Connecting the West Coast’s cutting-edge attraction to world-famous wilderness

Running from Kahurangi National Park and the Karamea bite in the north to Haast and the Unesco world heritage site of Te Wahipounamu in the south, the West Coast is famous for its natural beauty.

The coast’s biggest draws are free, natural attractions. However, the Pounamu Pathway is seeking to link places like the Hokitika Gorge or the Punakaiki rock stacks into their experience centres.

One way of doing this is by launching an app, produced by Christchurch-based developers Cerebral Fix.

Cerebral Fix producer Julianne Eason says the discovery app was looking at exploring the greenstone story across the whole of the West Coast, not just the discovery centres.

“It’s a call to adventure in a safe and guided way,” she says.

“You’ll be able to follow real characters from the Heaphy and Brunette journey, and follow in their footsteps where the story actually happened.”

Currently there is a treasure hunt experience around Greymouth’s Māwhera Pā and quizzes to discover along the coast. While it is still “early days”, Eason hopes there could be hundreds of similar digital experiences to explore by the time the Hokitika centre is completed in late 2025.

They’ve road-tested the app for use offline along the notoriously remote route, which also has infamously poor cellphone reception, to be able to take the story out into popular outdoor areas for visitor.

Toko Kapea says the app was an important part of bringing the story out to the regions, outside the experience centres. In the longest, least-populated region of New Zealand, the app was a high-tech way to spread the Te Ara Pounamu project.

“The goals of the pathway were three-fold: to increase visitation, to support existing visitor businesses and [give] coasters new state-of-the-art ways to tell their story,” says Kapea.

Māwhera Pā and the Pounamu Pathway will open to the public on Monday, December 11. Admission is $45 for adults and $15 for children.

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