In early 1864, the British established two redoubts at Te Papa, near the mission station above Tauranga harbour. Governor George Grey had instructed that no local Māori who were genuinely neutral were to be provoked. The Ngāi Te Rangi leader Rāwiri Puhirake had resisted Wiremu Tāmihana’s request for help during the war in Waikato for fear that this would lead to bloodshed in Tauranga. The arrival of British troops in his territory caused him to reconsider his neutrality. Believing that the British were merely biding their time until it was convenient to attack, he decided to take the battle to them on his own terms.
Tensions in the broader Bay of Plenty–East Coast region increased as it became known that some Ngāti Porou and other iwi were gathering in support of Ngāi Te Rangi. A small force from the 43rd Regiment was sent to Maketū, south-east of Tauranga, to support Arawa warriors (the traditional enemies of Ngāti Porou) in preventing any move west. On 28 April the Arawa routed the invaders at Matatā in a battle that has been overlooked because of the events in Tauranga next day.
Meanwhile Ngāi Te Rangi had rebuilt the old pā of Te Waoku, which was within 5 km of the British camp at Te Papa. Puhirake sent a message to Lieutenant-Colonel H.H. Greer, the new commander of the British force, inviting him to ‘bring his soldiers to fight at Te Waoku.’ Puhirake goaded the British further by offering to build a road for the ‘convenience’ of the troops. Greer did not reply to this invitation.
Ngāi Te Rangi leaders now gathered at Poteriwhi, the pā of Pene Taka Tuaia on the lower Wairoa River, west of Te Papa. Here they prepared ‘laws for regulating the fight’. These were written down by Hēnare Taratoa of Ngāti Raukawa, a former mission schoolteacher. This code of conduct stated that those who surrendered or were wounded would be treated fairly. An assurance was given that ‘unarmed Pakehas, women and children’ would be ‘spared’. A copy of the code was sent to Greer on 28 March – along with another challenge to attack. Greer did not respond to this ‘curious document’, either.
On 2 April (as ‘Rewi’s last stand’ was coming to its dramatic conclusion across the Kaimai Range at Ōrākau) Rāwiri Puhirake and several hundred Ngāi Te Rangi warriors gathered close to the British camp at Te Papa. Puhirake was finding it increasingly difficult to keep his force together with no fighting in prospect. He still hoped to provoke the British into action. When once more the baiting failed to achieve its aim, Ngāi Te Rangi retired to Pukehinahina, a small hill within 5 km of the British camp. Here they began building a pā on the boundary between Māori and mission land. This pā was also known as the Gate Pā because a gate had been built here to allow livestock and carts to pass through the boundary fence.