Trip Downunder Sept 07 – Entry 3: Waitangi

Waitangi God carving
Success with the car, fortunately – courtesy of a nice young man at Auckland Central Police Station who stamped the print-outs of my scanned documents as corresponding with my passport, and allowing me to drive until next Saturday on this stamped photocopy. AVIS were satisfied, and I finally got away from Auckland in my automatic Mitsubishi Lancer at about 10am. I have to say it performs pretty well, and I am content with it.

The drive north from Auckland along State Highway 1 is blessed with stunning scenery, which ranges from the volcanic to the sub-tropical into the deciduous and quasi-savannah, descending finally to the delightfully tranquil Bay of Islands.

Here are the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, and the very experience of ancient, native New Zealand that I hoped for, and will treasure for a long time to come. Some 2-3 weeks before the main tourist season, I was fortunate enough to get all three Maori guides at once, practicing their ‘spiel’ together on the season’s first Guided Tour. There was a young man, brimful of enthusiasm and belief; an early 40s woman, wiry, earnest, at once worldly and mysterious; and an older man, in his late 50s or early 60s, wrinkled with wisdom, solid, knowing, both serene and simple. Their tour began with the young man walking backwards before me relating the creation myth of the Maori people, telling me the names of their gods and goddesses, and some of the foundational stories of their people. It was fascinating. They asked me questions and I had to confess my own genuine interest in the ancient peoples of the world and the oral tradition of native wisdom found the world over; my own interest in the Celtic oral tradition in Europe; my genuine interest in the Maori, more than in the settlers, on this, my first trip to New Zealand. Indeed, as I told them, since arriving in New Zealand yesterday evening, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds is my first stop, my first ‘tourist attraction’, the first place I wanted to see – three and a half hours non-stop drive north of Auckland.

Largest war canoe in the world
The young man took me down to the shore and introduced me to the largest war canoe in the world, the tribes whose stories are carved pictorially into the sides of it, the wood and twine technology of its making, its annual 6th February launching into the sea where it soaks up water, doubling its 6 ton weight, and the joints seal as the wood expands. They dance the Haka on either side, chanting to the Gods of the Sea and of the Winds – that the water will keep it afloat, and the winds guide it in the right direction. The tall prow and stern act as lines of sight to the stars, sun and moon for direction, and it takes minimum 80, optimum 125 men to carry and row it.

Then we began to walk back up the hill to the lawn where the treaty was signed, and the woman took over, telling me about the Busby’s – the christian priest who was the first British resident here, the story of his house, how the australians didn’t like him and sent only half the materials he ordered to build it, such that he had to redesign it and build it half the size, how he was a good man to whom the Maori owe much, because he defended their way of life from the fate that befell so many others. He went back to England and died of an eye infection, but his wife and children remained and his wife taught the Maori people the ways of the pen – before this their wisdom was always spoken and sung, passed from generation to generation, but Mrs Busby taught them to read and write and this was an immense help to them in dealing with the onset of the future. She is so completely accepting of the inevitability of British rule, even proud of the flags that we gave to this country, yet her affection for the Busby’s is down to their protection of her ancestral inheritance. All through this I nod, make noises of understanding. My initial rather dismissive question “who was this Busby”, meant to say, “I am interested in the maori not in the invaders” has been answered very earnestly – the Busby’s, although in some sense the representatives of the invasion, were also its temperers, the careful supporters of the Maori way of life in the face of conquest, and clearly are held in high esteem to this day.

Waitangi Meeting House
At last, the old man takes over, and leads me towards the meeting house. His weight and gravitas, tempered with joviality, at once respect me as the paying tourist, and suss me out as the intriguing stranger who seems to have more understanding than most. He leads me up to the meeting house and tells me about the sculptured wooden frame – their great ancestor Kupe who was the first to come from Hawaiki (Land of the Ancients – about 950AD) stands proud at the apex of the frame. He left a small group here, returned to Hawaiki, and later (about 1350AD) his grandson arrived with a great migration of people on a huge flotilla of wakas (war canoes). The grandfather at the top, the grandson at the bottom, with the central beam running up between them. Then it is the grandfather’s outstretched and protecting arms that run down the sloping roof on either side. He leads me up onto the porch, where we take off our shoes, in respect. This is a meeting house where the community gather to worship, to discuss, for meetings, for funerals, for the important things of community life. Each tribe has such a house, and this is the house of all the tribes, here at the Waitangi Treaty grounds. Inside there is a meeting going on, people sat on rows of chairs, in modern dress, some with laptops, a few standing at the front, one talking, all in their wonderfully lyrical native tongue. He takes me in – this is a special moment – normally if there is a meeting the tourists don’t enter – but brought in by him I follow, honoured and a little awed. He whispers to me, telling me about the carvings on the beams, how each tell stories about one of the tribes of people who are here, or about their gods. Here is the carving of the story the young man told me about the creation of the first woman, and how she had trouble with her pregnancy and gave birth through her ribs under her armpit. Suddenly all the people in the meeting house stand up, and begin a communal song. It is uplifting and mournful at the same time, and deeply deeply spiritual. Yes, ‘spiritual’ is a word all three of my guides have used in almost every other sentence, when describing the Maori, and they maintain this spirituality to this day. Indeed as the gathered people sang I could feel my own spirit answer with both respect and humility amidst what was both an alien and an all too recognisable otherworld. Here the tales and the images are so strange, and yet the truths so familiar to one who has studied the Celtic, Norse and Vedic traditions. Yes these are not Indo-Europeans, and the similarities in the stories of the Celts and Indians will not extend to the Maori, but the sentiment and the human truths seem all too recognisable. I tell the old man I can feel it. I find myself using the kind of gestures I use with those I know in England who share my interest in Celtic mythology and the oral tradition of the druids. He seems to understand. He leads me behind the people as they sing, to the far end of the hall, where he introduces me to the central column, the Guardians who protect this house. I am honoured, nod my head in humility; I touch my fist to my solar plexus and then open it palm outwards to the column. It is a gesture meaning my heart and honour and strength are offered in recognition of your rule in this space. The old man seems to recognise, somehow, what I mean. He leads me back, behind the singing crowd, out onto the porch, where we rejoin the young man and the woman. He tells them, immediately, “He feels it” and they both smile warmly at me. It’s as if suddenly I am accepted by them in a way they did not expect of a tourist. We wander slowly away from the Meeting House, back towards the Busby’s house, and there is such a strange but warm feeling of togetherness, although necessarily so brief, and in all truth across the gulf of cultures and backgrounds necessarily all too shallow, a connection nonetheless that has my soul standing to attention. They seem almost sad that it is all over, and we all shake hands and wish each other well.

I walk away, utterly enchanted. Here, in New Zealand, is a culture still alive and well, literate, English speaking, with unbroken connections and continuity from the ancient past. I could learn so much from these people, if only I could find what I could usefully give in return. I promptly went into the shop and spent $400 on wood carvings and jade jewellery, like any good tourist should !!

I then went and checked in at the Copthorne Bay of Islands Hotel and was given Room 230 🙂

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