Moira Wairama

The Groundwater at Common Ground

Moira Wairama

The first of two commissioned essays responding to Common Ground Public Art Festival. Images: Dionne Ward.


I was born in Wellington but have lived most of my life beside Te Awa Kairangi, the river that as a child I knew only as The Hutt River.

As children, together with my sisters, our cousins and friends the river was our playground and everyone swam there, often at the famed Taita rock swimming hole. Later, my own children swam at water holes at the entrance to Stokes Valley and under the Silverstream bridge. Now my mokopuna and our whanau whanui[1] drive up to Akatarawa, Te Marua or Kaitoke where the river water is still clean enough for people to swim safely.

The focus of Common Ground Public Art Festival was the ground water of the Hutt Valley. The Festival enabled a diverse group of artists working in collaboration with scientists and environmentalists to present art projects and performances. They also provided workshops targeted mainly at tamariki from Hutt schools; and evening discussions around the Hutt’s groundwater, it’s past, present and future condition and the numerous stories the river has accumulated from local people over the years.

Awa, Awa kairangi,

Wai makariri, toka mahana,

In December last year artist Gabby O’Connor came to our kura[2] to do work with our tamariki creating rope designs which would be part of a giant flood map to be laid on the grassy flood banks of Strand Park on Te Awa Kairangi.

At the time it was hard to envisage what this art work[3] would look like. It was not till I went to Strand Park and saw the combined rope art from various schools, delineating the area of land that would likely be under water in the future, that I began to understand what this work was about

Sitting in the sun on a blue tarpaulin at Strand Park viewing Gabby’s rope map, we listened to locals, scientists and river workers talk about the floodwaters that with some regularity covered the very place where we sat, and which had only recently threatened the sturdy Ava rail bridge, which crosses the river nearby.

I immediately thought of my Uncle John, born in Petone and now resident in the large retirement home built close to the river on the other side. He had told me stories of his boyhood catching herrings in the river and swimming in the flood waters: ”it was deeper after a flood and more fun to swim in”.

I also thought of the large college[4] and another retirement village which boarded the side of the river where we sat. What would a future with higher flood waters mean for these people?

Awa, Awa kairangi

Pūkeko ki te taha, Kokopu ki roto

I had never been to the area where Inanga Love Park sits: beneath the Petone fly, next to the railway tracks and close to where Korokoro Stream meets the waters of Te Whanganui–a-Tara.

Luckily, Paula Warren’s amazing multi-sized felt balls of all sizes were decorating the wire fencing to alert me to the right path. Following it I found two young men, aided by an enthusiastic young boy, red-cheeked with exertion, pasting up huge information posters onto the grey concrete walls of the flyover support. I stopped and began reading about the history of the local iwi Love family, the Korokoro stream and its inhabitants and especially the inanga.

Walking on I found local whanau, council workers and artists enjoying picnics and sharing information and stories about the Korokoro Stream’s restoration work. Paula Warren, artist, environmentalist and scientist happily enlightened me to the situation for the banded kokopu and inanga, while I admired her beautiful paper machete Kokopu, Pukeko and Tuna. Sadly none of the real life models were in attendance – however we did spy a hungry mullet in the stream, no doubt also looking for inanga.

Awa, Awa kairangi

Rere mai i Tararua, rere atu ki te Whanga.


Saturday night beneath the stars, I joined people beside the river beyond the stop bank across from Nash St in Taita. We gazed at images projected onto the side of a large truck parked by the strategically-lit river bore. The evening chill had people drawing up their collars as we fiercely continued to believe this was summer.

A group of rangatahi from Taita College[5] dressed in formal school uniform emerged from their ghostly white school van and moved to stand before a microphone, preparing to join the night stars in song.

As Murray Hewitt’s mesmerising drone filmed footage of the Awa Kairangi The Rising Gale flowed across the truck screen, a single voice also flowed into the night and was then joined in harmony by other voices.  Waiata i te reo Maori and Pacific tongues married well with the meandering images of the real river, whose waters only a short distance from where we sat were sinking down into the aquifer that supply the Wellington region. Flowing slowly and silently into a series of underground basins, beneath the whenua and to out past Matiu Island.

As organiser Mark Amery spoke of creating art in unexpected spaces in order to help us look differently at places we often take for granted, the river sang its own voice in the background.

I thought of Kupe and his people who travelled up this river many centuries ago, a river now boarded by houses, parks and cities and re shaped not just by nature but by the corsets of stop-banks constraining her floodwaters.

In the future what changes to the river will these singing students observe, what stories will they relate about the night they sang the river?

Awa, Awa kairangi,

Wāhi pāpaku, wāhi hohonu


For the period 25 February to the 4 March 2017 the Common Ground Hub and its surrounding art exhibits, performances, workshops and discussions magically appeared inside the Lower Hutt CBD Central City Plaza, a shopping mall. Empty spaces were transformed and I gazed in open mouthed admiration at the vision that was Liana’s Parlour of Natural Beauty, and the fascination that was the Citizen Water Map Lab.  It reminded me why councils should spend money on arts projects and how artists and scientists working together can create work that delights as well as educates us about our own environment.

During the Common Ground Festival I was fortunate to accompany tamariki from our kura  who excitedly sampled Liana’s natural health and well-being treatments, before attending  Anna Bailey’s delightful bi-lingual puppet show[6], featuring a water-splashing Tuna.

Watching the community members turned scientists testing water delivered in two litre containers collected from local streams and the river to create a citizen’s water map, I felt somewhat ashamed at how little knowledge I have regarding  the health of Te Awa Kairangi.

When I walked the Waiwhetu stream with two of the artists of the Wairua, Wai-rua arts project, Angela Kilford and Aliyah Winter, I was heartened by the story of how that stream was being restored. The accompanying film by Johanna Mechen, with voiceover memories and comments from local kaumatua Teri Puketapu, alerted me to how complacent I was about my own waterway, the Stokes Valley Stream which feeds into Te Awa Kairangi. I thought of the run off from the hills by Silverstream and the effect the Silverstream tip may be having on the river, the increasing incidents of algae bloom, the constant reshaping and dredging of the river to suit human habitation, with often little regard for the river’s natural inhabitant.

The questions the Common Ground Festival left me with is: what did the river need from us to stay healthy? What knowledge or actions do I need to help my river stay healthy? I intend to find answers, not only for the river’s benefit but also for myself and my descendants.

Awa, Awa kairangi ,

Ko tōku awa. ko te Awa kairangi.


Moira Wairama is a Wellington storyteller specializing in bi-lingual tellings of of Maori legends and in creating original New Zealand stories. She writes for children in both English and Maori and has won several awards for her children’s books. She has also written for theatre and radio and has poetry in several anthologies. Together with her partner Tony Hopkins she is a co-founder of the Baggage Co-op and BACT (Baggage Arts Charitable Trust). Moira also works part time at a Kura Kaupapa Maori, is a proud grandmother and has lived beside Te Awa Kairangi for most of her life. 


[1] Extended family

[2]Te Ara Whanui Kura Kaupapa Maori

[3] Drawing Water, Low Lying, one of five Common Ground Festival project commissions

[4] Hutt Valley High School, who were one of the other key collaborators on the work.

[5] One Heart, One Voice of Taita College Poly Club

[6] Nan and Tuna

Date: March 30, 2017