I hadn’t been there for about five years, and I was reminded of the beauty and serenity of that part of the country. Its relative isolation, and soaring summer temperatures.
We haunted the local beaches, especially Opoutama where we had hundreds of metres of golden sand pretty much to ourselves – apart from the odd visiting idiot roaring past on a motor or quad bike.
Of course all of Aotearoa has an ancient Cook Islands connection, but Opoutama-Mahia has a really strong one, in that Ruawharo/Ruavaro, the navigator priest of the Takitimu/Takitumu canoe, settled there after successfully guiding the fleet of seven from Avana to Aotearoa.
Alas after about a fortnight, Tinirau and I came home; he to start a new school and me to get him ready for that. But last week, we went down again, to Waitangi, to the 180th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty that gave some legitimacy to the influx of Pakeha into the country.
We wanted to be at Waitangi this year because of the 180th anniversary, and although Tinirau had been twice before but being a toddler back then, he would have little or no memory of it. Now approaching nine, his eyes were wide open and his mind full of questions, and we wanted him to start learning about the history of the country he was born in.
Derek and I have been to Waitangi many times; he observing and reporting on the events of the week and how they unfolded, and me usually supporting my old boss, the Minister of Maori Affairs – the late Parekura Horomia – whose unveilling we attended a couple of days before New Year.
We hadn’t been for four or five years and as we drove north we noted all the infrastructure work that is happening making long anticipated improvements.
Waitangi is a collection of events, not necessarily connected, but sharing about a square kilometre of land and sea, taking in the townships of Paihia and Waitangi, the treaty grounds, the Waitangi River and the bay it flows into. Kororareka – Russell across the bay once known as ‘the hell hole of the Pacific’ because of the drunken and lawless Pakeha sailors and sealers that frequented it, gets involved as a sidebar with people taking the ferry from Paihia across to the now genteel and welcoming village featuring preserved and functioning colonial buildings.
All of this we took in and recognised from our many previous visits. But what happened on Waitangi Day itself was not.
Our first shock came as we drove in the pre-dawn to the treaty grounds. There were scores – maybe hundreds of people walking along the road in the same direction. Attending the pre-dawn service has always been on our agenda, but we’d never seen a crowd like this. At the magnificent carved wharenui on the treaty grounds which was opened on the 100th anniversary of the signing, there was another surprise; seating in front of the house was already filled with hundreds of people.
In the past there has usually been a light sprinkling of Pakeha people attending. A few politicians and senior civil servants, church leaders and senior naval staff given the navy’s long association with Waitangi.
That day was different. Between those at the dawn service and later on the grounds visiting the stalls and watching the entertainment, by my count Pakeha may have made up close to 40 per cent of the attendees; a hugh difference.
There were other differences too. Those who spoke at the service, iwi reps, politicians, Pasifika leaders, civil servants, military, police and fire officers – all spoke in part if not more in Maori.
With the benefit of hindsight the scene was probably set a couple of days earlier when speaking on the Te Tii Marae – the lower marae where there has been fireworks in the past – Treaty Minister Andrew Little, affectionately referred to by Maori speakers as Anaru Paku, delivered his twenty minute speech entirely in Maori; without notes.
Waitangi has always been a mixture of smiles and sadness for me. There were smiles for the many friends and former colleagues we ran into and genuine pleasure at seeing so many Pakeha; but sadness too to notice that some of the old identities who have played such a major role at Waitangi for decades have now passed on.
Later as we joined the throng, walking round the exhibits, tents, amusements, food and drink stalls, we ran into an old journalist friend who comes from and lives in Northland. We marvelled at the much more mixed crowd than we were used to.
His laconic response will stick with me for a long time, “We might be getting there.”