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Reflections on Waitangi Day

Just a smidge more than a 10-hour drive from Masterton, Waitangi was the place to be last week.

People drove from near and far to commemorate the first signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, something which is something of a turbulent and politically charged matter at the moment.

A delayed summer break meant that I found myself joining the masses heading up north, although my primary purpose, a lovely summer holiday in the Bay of Islands, was far less significant than many others on the roads.

At 11am on Waitangi day, I was hunched over the steering wheel, waiting in standstill traffic lining the roads a good two kilometres from Waitangi.

A man on horseback weaved around my car, one hand gripping their reins and the other gripping a flag, the Tino Rangatiratanga [national Māori flag] design rippling in the breeze.

He rode down the hill and disappeared around the corner to streets jam-packed with people. The heat, noise and visceral excitement emanated from the sand and concrete.

The days leading up to it and the 5am ceremony that morning had been attended by thousands, and many of those were still gathering when I finally made it out of my car to have a look around.

I can’t comment on the proceedings leading up to Tuesday afternoon because I wasn’t there, but there has been excellent media coverage on all aspects of Waitangi Day and its significance.

Newsroom’s Luke Fitzmaurice-Brown and TVNZ’s John Campbell both used the term kotahitanga [unity] to describe the feeling of being at Waitangi on this occasion.

Something I can comment on, however, is how the scene felt that Tuesday afternoon to a visitor coincidentally in the area.

Music was playing loudly, people walked along arm in arm under sweltering heat with plates of fry bread and mussel chowder, drifting past stalls displaying art, Rongoā [healing] remedies, clothing and education.

It was loud. It was hectic. It was joyful.

The whenua at Waitangi and its surroundings are so rich in history and Aotearoa’s journey to date that everywhere you look seems to have a backstory woven into the earth.

From out on the water, you can see the grounds where Te Tiriti was signed.

Moving south around the coast, the flagpole above Kororāreka [Russell Port], which Ngāpuhi chief Hōne Heke Pōkai felled in 1844 is visible, just a tiny glint of white poking out at the top of the hill.

The name Kororāreka literally translates to ‘sweet penguin’ referring to a story of a sick chief who was given a broth to drink made from the little blue penguin [kororā], and who declared how sweet [reka] it was.

Although Kororāreka is the Maori translation for Russell, the spot which claims New Zealand’s first national capital is actually a small town called Okiato 7 kilometres south.

Every inch of land and sea up there has witnessed a broad spectrum of historical ongoings, some written down and recorded in our history books but many not, and left to go out with the tide.

This year showed that, no matter what debates are erupting in the political sphere, the power gathering to celebrate and acknowledge a cause is pivotal in keeping its flame alight.

Bella Cleary
Bella Cleary
Bella Cleary is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age, originally hailing from Wellington. She is interested in social issues and writes about the local arts and culture scene.

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