Peter Karena is a gifted horseman whose gentleness and respect for his animals are implicit in his approach to his family and the land on which he lives. Words Ann Warnock; Photos: Tessa Chrisp.
PETER KARENA IS A MAN whose natural habitat is the hills where he lives with his horses and his family, far from the madding crowds. But the unprecedented success of the film This Way of Life, a documentary which tracks Peter’s life over four years in Hawke’s Bay as he and his wife Colleen (Ngati Maniapoto) nurture their young family of six children and navigate adversity, has plunged a very private life into the public eye.
The quietly spoken horseman, bushman, hunter and voracious reader (from Steinbeck to psalms), who moved from Sydney to Omahu at the age of nine when his mother remarried, is a reluctant film star. “Of course it changes your life because everything that happens brings change. And we had no idea the film would screen so widely. Colleen and I saw it for the first time when it showed at Te Papa; the children have seen it too. I’m not in town much so in that sense I don’t get involved although I’ve had the odd person shake my hand. But it’s good if people can find something within the film to make them strive to be better or to feel inspired because others have done the same for me without knowing it.”
When This Way of Life screened at the Berlin Film Festival in February, Colleen and the oldest of the Karena children, 12-year-old Llewelyn, flew to Germany to answer questions about the film at a media briefing and later travelled across Europe. “I encouraged them to go; for Welly (Llewelyn) especially it was an opportunity to experience so much. He has loved it but he’s also missed home.”
For Peter, the corollary of having a home has been a source of anguish and joy over the last five years. He and Colleen had harboured hopes of purchasing his family home in Omahu. But their plans were dashed and later, when the family had relocated to Waimarama Beach, the house burnt down with many of their belongings stored in it.
“We loved that house and the community. But then, if it wasn’t for the house burning down, perhaps we wouldn’t be living like this. I don’t know if we want to live in a house again. This is a good life; it feels right.” Over the summer the family has been living in a teepee in a pine forest above the Tukituki River near Havelock North. Peter leases the surrounding 280-hectare block and operates his horse-trekking business from its horse yards with the help of nearby Black Barn Vineyards.
Peter operates short treks up through the pine forest, across the hills above Ocean Beach and back down the valley. Rides along the Tukituki River are also an option. “We swim the horses. It’s fun; you get pretty wet.”
The herd of trekking horses has been bred over the years on a tract of land in the rugged Ruahine Ranges. Some are from the original breeding stock Peter rode as a youngster at Omahu, Ohiti and Kuripapanga and include the quarter-horse lines of Clydesdale, Welsh Cob and thoroughbred. He first rode on his cousin’s farm at Orange in New South Wales but it was at Omahu that, through observation, he developed his natural empathy. “I sat and watched how horses behaved and how they treated each other.”
The income from Peter’s horse trekking allows him and Colleen to sustain a simple lifestyle close to the land. “The children are in tune with the environment. If they want a warm shower at sunset they have to collect firewood to heat the drum of water. It gives them skills and we hope they’ll be survivors in life. I’ve seen kids who go to school, come home, turn on TV … they have no idea of their environment. All they see is the inside of buildings.”
Peter says that while growing up at Omahu his family’s self-sufficiency (vegetable gardens, house cows, pigs and chickens) was born out of necessity. “If we don’t grow our food we lose a connection with the land and something inside ourselves. Living here I shoot rabbits and turkeys. We eat a lot of vegetables and rice and we cook on a grill over a fire or a camp stove. When my nieces come over from Omahu and we cook up wild pork bones and puha in a pot they laugh and say, ‘Hey, we don’t eat that stuff uncle!’”
Last winter Peter worked on two sheep stations up the East Coast, breaking in and training young horses for stock work. Colleen and the children were based near Golden Bay at Puponga where they lived in a yurt, a round Mongolian-style canvas house. They will return there as soon as Peter heads to the South Island looking for horse-training work. He’s trucking six horses to Picton to tow a small gypsy wagon he has built with a bed and a pot belly stove. Three-year-old Salem, the youngest member of the family, will travel with him. In September Peter will be back in Hawke’s Bay to resume his horse trekking.
“I don’t know what weekends are. The days are all days to me because I enjoy what I’m doing so much. It seems strange to me that people get stuck in jobs they find mundane just because the money is good. Life’s worth so much more. I had an uncle who loved hunting and fishing. He was a supervisor at the freezing works, a job he loathed. He was always budgeting his time then he died of cancer when he was close to retirement. He sold his life away for what?”
Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick were several of the classical characters that engaged Peter as a child. “That idea of fishing and camping … as I got older I kept doing it. Other guys played sport – I headed to the bush.” The resonance of those masterful adventures has remained and the power of literature has been passed on. “I just love Black Beauty. Do you?” asks Aurora, draped over the neck of her horse Peaches on the hills above the teepee. “It was so, so cool and so amazing. Poor Black Beauty.” “Did you know you’re on the farting horse?” asks a giggling voice from the horse behind. As we head back to base, the sun has released its glow behind the craggy hills. Salem, in her sparkling skirt and blue beads, has been rolling in the long grass on the hill above the ocean like a fairy creature. Now she’s burrowed into her father’s arms.
“There are things in life that we can take goodness from. It might be in the written word – a metaphor or an allegory – or something in nature that gives us some direction. When I’m peaceful I can talk with God but horses also do that for me. Horses make me feel I want to be a better person.”