Sometimes when you travel, you do so in the company of remarkable people. They may only enter your life for a short while, but they stick in your mind for much longer. I’ve met many such people, but this one is different. She’d already been dead for over eighty years when I met her.
On the wall of the Te Puia centre at Rotorua is an exhibit which tells . The daughter of an Englishman and a Maori mother, her formative years were spent with her Maori family, after which she continued her education in a more traditional manner at school in Tauranga and Rotorua. Shortly afterwards, with the region beginning its recovery after the Mount Tarawera eruption of 1886, she moved to Whakarewarewa at what’s now part of the Te Puia centre. There, she trained as a guide, calling herself , using a nearby geyser as inspiration for a Maori surname.
The fame of Maggie Papakura spreads
After welcoming the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York to Rotorua in 1901, demand for Maggie’s guiding services grew. She travelled to Australia and, due to her penchant for wearing Maori costume, she was a popular subject for photographers. A keen advocate for the Maori culture and way of life, she was invited to travel to England. There, she put on a show at a number of venues including Crystal Palace, entertaining crowds with song, dance and story-telling in the Maori tradition. At the Henley Regatta, a 45-foot canoe, Te Arawa, was launched. Although it was a popular success, financially it was a disaster and Maggie Papakura returned to New Zealand shouldering most of the blame.
Romance leads her to Oxfordshire
One good thing came out of Maggie’s dismal tour: romance. She returned to the northern hemisphere and married a wealthy landowner called Richard Staples-Browne in London in 1912. It was her second marriage, and, as with the first, it ended in divorce, but she remained in England after their split. That choice wasn’t indicative that she’d forgotten her heritage; on the contrary, she displayed a large collection of carvings and ornaments at her Oxfordshire home and was keen to show them to interested visitors. Once a guide, always a guide, it would seem.
After Maggie Papakura died suddenly in 1930, her remains were interred at Oddington cemetery in the heart of Oxfordshire. Even today, it’s a sleepy village, dominated by the imposing structure of the church of St Andrew where she chose to be buried. I paid my respects to Maggie in this beautiful part of the English countryside, only a half an hour drive from the more-famous Cotswolds, an area known for its pretty villages crammed full of honey-coloured cottages.
A memorial fit for the queen of the guides
Unsurprisingly, the Maori family of Maggie Papakura were disappointed that she’d not chosen to be buried in New Zealand. A year later and eleven thousand miles away, back in Whakarewarewa, they erected their own memorial to this inspirational lady. If you travel to Te Puia today, you can see the impressive Pohutu geyser, the plopping mud pools of this extensive geothermal area and explore Maori culture and craftsmanship. It’s undoubtedly one of New Zealand’s must-see destinations. But don’t forget to visit Maggie’s memorial while you’re there. Who knows, you might even have one of her descendants as your guide.