Travel Story 

Meeting the Maori challenge

New Zealand's historic Bay of Islands

The drone of a conch shell announced our arrival and three Maori warriors dashed from the Ware Runanga (Meeting House). Wearing traditional dress and carrying six foot taiaha (jade tipped weapons used as both spears and clubs), they advanced toward us, stamping their feet, lashing out their tongues, uttering threatening grunts, and thrusting their taiaha at us – every fibre of their bodies tensed for combat.

As the appointed "chief" of our small unarmed group I stepped forward to meet the challenge. One of the warriors dropped a small fern leaf on the ground, pointed to it with a thrust of his spear, then stepped back and waited. Having been well briefed I picked it up, an indication that we had come in peace. The warrior spun around and escorted us silently into the Ware Runanga.

Almost every tourist who visits New Zealand has participated in this re-enactment of the traditional Maori challenge but here at Waitangi, on a grassy slope facing the Bay of Islands, the ceremony has a special poignancy. A short distance from the traditional Maori structure stands the Treaty House, an example of English Georgian architecture. From 1832 until 1880, it was the home of James Busby the "British Resident" appointed by King William IV. In front of the two buildings, on a gentle slope facing the harbour, a flagpole marks the spot where, on Feb. 6, 1840, 46 Maori chiefs met with newly appointed Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson, James Busby and a group of British officials to sign the Treaty of Waitangi. Regarded as the founding document of modern New Zealand, the treaty established a partnership of sorts between the British Government of young Queen Victoria and the indigenous people of New Zealand.

With my fern leaf held firmly in one hand I followed the warriors into the Meeting House. The lofted ceiling of woven flax and carved rafters covers a huge open space. The walls too are adorned with intricately carved panels, symbols of tribal prestige and a monument to the tribe's ancestors. We have come to see a "sound and light show" depicting the history of Waitangi. Put on by local Maori, the story is told through the recollections of a grandmother talking with her grandson. In a series of flashbacks using theatre, dance and music we are taken, spellbound, from the first arrival of the Maori's Polynesian ancestors, through their early contact with Europeans, to the integration of Maori people into modern New Zealand society.

For Betty and me the performance was a fitting introduction to Maori culture. We abandoned our tourist bus, checked into a motel in Paihia, and spent the next few days exploring the rich historical heritage of New Zealand's Bay of Islands.

Although the small town of Paihia is the hub of tourist activity on the Bay of Islands the atmosphere is decidedly laid back, and the commercial area of shops and restaurants is concentrated in a few short blocks. From our room at the Paihia Holiday Motor Inn a 20-minute walk along the waterfront took us back to the Treaty Grounds where a Maori "warrior" greeted us with a friendly "Kia Ora" and pointed us in the direction of the track to Haruru Falls.

A sign at the beginning of the trail warns that dogs are strictly forbidden – this is Kiwi territory and the shy flightless bird, with whom New Zealanders proudly identify, is in serious decline. The narrow track leads through dense forest of gnarled Ngaio and giant fern trees, skirts the mangrove-choked shore of Waitangi River estuary, and finally winds along a boardwalk through the mangrove itself before arriving at Haruru Falls.

We didn't see any kiwis but the early morning air was filled with the metallic "ding-dong" calls of bellbirds and tuis. Tiny fantails fluttered along beside us, occasionally dropping almost underfoot to display their impressive tails like miniature peacocks. For a few hours we escaped the tourist scene and glimpsed the natural forest that has so profoundly influenced the art and culture of the Maori people who first discovered these islands.

No one knows when the first people arrived in what is now New Zealand. The great human migration across the Pacific began thousands of years earlier somewhere in Southeast Asia – a nebulous place known as "Hawaiki" in Maori mythology. Succeeding generations of seagoing explorers spread southward through the islands of the South Pacific and ultimately that first "fleet" of canoes blew ashore on Aotearoa (land of the long white cloud). Some historians believe that the Maori's Polynesian ancestors came from the Cook Islands, if so their canoes had to cross 3,000 km of open ocean.

The occupants of the traditional "fleet" canoes settled the various spots where they landed and as populations expanded Aotearoa was carved into smaller units, each claimed by an autonomous tribe or sub-tribe. The inevitable squabbles over land lead to inter-tribal fighting and once lives were taken the rival tribe demanded utu or revenge. Warfare became an ever-present part of Maori life and the need to avenge past insults was passed on from generation to generation.

In 1769, when Capt Cook entered the Bay of Islands, the area was controlled by the Ngapuhi tribe whose struggle for supremacy was the cause of constant inter-tribal turmoil. Cook, the first European seen by the local Maori, spent a week there and left with a "favorable impression." But two years later a French expedition lead by Marion Du Fresne did not fare so well. After a series of misunderstandings with the Maori chief, Du Fresne and several of his men were killed and eaten, not so much as a culinary treat butrather as the ultimate ritual insult to avenge their grievances.

Feeling good after our previous days hike to Haruru Falls we took the ferry from Pahia across the bay and climbed to a lookout for a magnificent view across the Islands before stopping in the small town of Russell for a bite of lunch. With the story of Marion du Fresne still fresh in our minds we passed on the BBQ ribs.

The town of Russell, formerly known as Kororareka, was once the capital of New Zealand. Sitting with our fish and chips, looking out across this sleepy backwater town, it's hard to believe that it was once known at the "Hell hole of the Pacific." In the years following Cook's discovery of this great natural harbour the Bay of Islands became a destination for sealing and whaling vessels. Kororareka quickly grew into a sordid agglomeration of brothels and grog shops catering to a lawless gaggle of transient seamen. It was also the scene of early contact between Europeans and the Ngapuhi Maori.

Early whalers and sealers traded with the Maori and the Ngapuhi became the first tribe to acquire muskets. These were used to inflict enormous casualties on other tribes as the Ngapuhi sought to settle old grievances. Questionable land deals and other injustices toward the Maori sparked more discontent and the inter-tribal disputes spread to open conflict between Maori and European settlers in the Bay of Islands. The appointment of James Busby in 1832 and the subsequent signing of the Treaty of Waitangi were designed to bring the violence and injustices to an end, but war between some of the Maori chiefs and the Europeans raged on until 1846, and disputes regarding the intent of the treaty are still being worked out.

During my brief stay in the Bay of Islands I was repeatedly drawn back to the Treaty Grounds. I got to know several of the Maori staff, some of them direct descendants of chiefs who signed the Treaty of Waitangi. Above all they were dedicated to the preservation of their culture, concerned that their art remain true to its tradition and not be exploited by commercial interests. I sensed that the Treaty of Waitangi, 162 years old, flawed by questionable translation, and tarnished by perceived breaches of good faith, was only the beginning. Both the Maori and the New Zealand Government are continuing to strive for the truly equal and just partnership that Busby and the 46 Maori Chiefs attempted to achieve, here at Waitangi, a century and half ago.

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