Inside Richie and Gemma McCaw's Taranaki weekend
It seems there’s at least one sport sports hero Richie McCaw struggles to get a handle on: surfing.
Driving to New Plymouth for a surprise lesson courtesy of his wife Gemma, he asks whether she plans to “stand and watch and laugh”.
“Usually I’d love that form of entertainment for my morning, but I’m off to do some yoga,” the former Black Stick, a sports legend in her own right, says with what looks like a mischievous smile.
Arriving at Fitzroy Beach, where the surf is predictably pumping, Richie admits to his instructor that he’s “a bit nervous” as he’s “at a pretty low base”.
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Gemma reassures him he’ll be right, saying he’ll be waiting for the big waves with the pros by the time she gets back – a prediction which, sadly for Richie, doesn’t turn out to be a premonition.
Footage of the McCaws’ recent weekend in Taranaki shows the former All Black take a tumble off the board as one wave engulfs him, and get washed over by another after failing to catch it.
“I have only tried surfing once before, unsuccessfully, but this was the first time I have had any instruction on what to do,” he tells Stuff after they get back. “(Nau Mai Tours instructor) Tama was really patient, and we got really lucky with some waves that were spot-on for learning.”
Richie does manage to find his feet at one point, and the resulting thrill is enough to make him appreciate why the sport proves so addictive to many.
“Although we only had limited time in the water, it has made me keen to get out there again to try and improve.”
No one could fairly accuse the McCaws of not being good sports on the domestic mini-breaks they have enjoyed for new Tourism New Zealand series, McCaws on Tour. They’ve risen before dawn to paddle to the steaming cliffs of Lake Rotomahana in Rotorua, hiked to the oldest hut in Fiordland National Park (Richie carrying a pregnant Gemma on his for back part of the way), and displayed their lack of fishing skills in the Bay of Plenty. To be fair, Richie wasn’t too bad for a bloke who grew up in landlocked North Otago and has little fishing experience: He landed the two fish they went on to have for lunch.
Watch ‘McCaws on Tour’ above and on Play Stuff. The Play Stuff app is available on mobile and TV.
The couple welcomed their second child Grace, a little sister for their toddler daughter Charlotte, in late May, so their Taranaki weekender is their last chance to enjoy some child-free time out together for some time. And they make the most of it, packing in adventures on Taranaki Maunga and the Whanganui River alongside surf and yoga sessions and lunch with a gazillion-dollar view of the snowy maunga (mountain) at a remote alpine lodge.
The couple’s first stop is Pūtiki in Whanganui, where Gemma promises Richie an interesting history lesson in the form of a church whose ordinary exterior belies its truly extraordinary interior.
Their guide Lisa Rewiti tells them missionaries first arrived in Whanganui in the 1840s and that the Christian influence is thought to have “led to really good relationships between Māori and Pākeha”. With its fusion of Māori and Pākeha elements, the church, Richie notes, is a symbol of that harmony.
Lisa shares the love story behind the church’s construction in the 1930s, sparked when a local woman named Lorna Metekīngi moved to Wellington and met Henare Ngata, the son of Sir Āpirana Ngata, the former politician immortalised on the $50 note.
“After a few dances and probably many weekends, he sort of said “You’re fabulous. Shall we get married?”,” Lisa tells the McCaws. “And she said “I’d love to, but we don’t have a church.”
When Lorna told him Pūtiki’s previous churches had been destroyed by a fire, a flood, an earthquake and bugs who chewed their way threw the kahikatea, Henare said he’d get his famous dad to help out.
Āpirana came through, sending a team of carvers to the small settlement to carve intricate designs onto the organ and borders of the tukutuku that line the walls. The woven panels of the latter were created by local wahine who went to Wellington to learn the craft and shared their new knowledge with others upon their return. After two years of work, Lorna and Henare got their happy ending, marrying in the church in 1940.
“Was the wedding pretty good?,” Gemma wants to know. “Well I heard it was fabulous,” Lisa says.
Next up is the Whanganui River which, in 2017, became the first river to be granted the same legal rights as a person. Gemma says she can sense something special about it now she’s finally standing beside it – a sentiment that prompts their guide Hemi Gray to tell Richie “she’s a keeper”.
Richie enjoys a paddle down New Zealand’s longest navigable river with local operator Whanganui River Adventures, which stretches for 290km between Mt Tongariro to the Tasman Sea, while Gemma sits down beside it to get stuck into what she insists is a good book.
Ordinarily, she’s as active as her hubbie on holiday, often taking him on in semi-serious competitions, and, while she has succumbed to FOMO on occasion while pregnant, she says she’s come to enjoy taking it easy.
“I loved my yoga session and I think slowing down and trying new activities was a good experience for me,” she tells Stuff.
Richie, meanwhile, has a blast on the river.
“The scenery was magic, but it was hearing the stories of what the river meant to the guides who took me on the river that really made the experience,” he says. “They are immensely proud the river has the status equivalent to a person and everything they do to preserve this for future generations.”
Richie still has energy to burn, so the couple set out on what he describes as “a bit of a walk” up Taranaki Maunga, led by Jamie Tuuta, a descendant and kaitiaki (caretaker) of the maunga (mountain).
Richie played in New Plymouth many times in his rugby days and always admired the mountain from afar, but this is the first time he actually sets foot on it.
“People from the region always talked about the mountain with pride, but it wasn’t until we actually got the chance to walk part way up the mountain with our guide that I really understood the significance of the mountain to the region,” he says.
The McCaws have tended to travel independently in the past, but their guides on their New Zealand tour have proved a highlight.
“Overseas travellers often have these guides and I can understand the great experiences they get,” Richie says. “Kiwis have a great way of making everyone feel welcome and although the activities are enjoyable, it is the people and stories that really make the experience.”
The couple end their weekend with a meal at Stratford Mountain House; their table by the window looking across native bush to the perfect cone of Taranaki Maunga– complete with snowy cap.
While they will be “stopped for a wee” with the new baby, as Richie puts it, they’re looking forward to continuing exploring New Zealand when they can.
“(W)e tried a lot of new experiences together that we may not have done otherwise,” Richie says. “We loved taking time out to make the most of these trips together, and we can’t wait to show our kids one day.”
The McCaws say they have come to appreciate that you don’t need to travel overseas for a “great experience.
Says Gemma: “There are so many hidden gems throughout our country, and also so much knowledge with our locals throughout New Zealand. Learning more about our culture and history first-hand has been a fascinating experience, and we can’t wait to do more.”
Watch ‘McCaws on Tour’ on Play Stuff. The Play Stuff app is available on mobile and TV.
This story was published as part of an editorial partnership with Tourism New Zealand. Read more about our partnership content here.