70 years ago, in 1951, 13 year old Mei Whaitiri (then Mei Irihapiti Robin) of Ahuriri was chosen as the model for the Pania of the Reef Statue in Ahuriri.
3 years after the modelling photos were taken, the commissioned statue was finished and unveiled on Marine Parade in Ahuriri where it still stands today and is a highlight for tourists to visit and take photos with when visiting Ahuriri. Most locals have visited the statue and many have taken photos with it too.
Justin and Sarah from The Breeze Hawke's Bay caught up with 83 year old Mei recently to chat about the experience and what life has been like as "Pania".
Mei talked us through what it was like to model for such a famous statue at such a young age, her dismay at not being allowed to have her whānau at the 1951 unveiling, how she felt when the statue was stolen several years ago (and the happiness of being able to have whanau attend the second unveilling in 2006) and the significance of the Hei-tiki she wore when modelling for the statue.
During the chat, they discovered that even though she is famous as the model for Pania, Mei has never actually been to Pania Reef, which lies just off the coast of Ahuriri. A member of Mei's whānau tried to take her out on a boat one day but the weather turned and Mei has never had the opportunity again.
So Justin and Sarah organised to take Mei out to the reef for the very first time on one of Napier Port's boats called Te Pania. Mei was transported to the Port in a 1938 Packard by a man she used to work for some 40 years ago.
Justin and Sarah joined Mei, some of her family and a couple of Napier Port staff on the journey out to the reef which was a very special event to be part of. Mei took the Hei-tiki that she'd worn all those years ago out as we sat on the water over the top most part of the reef and spoke about the importance of that moment.