To get to Paihia is a good three hours’ drive from Auckland airport. Once I left the main city suburbs the land gets greener, as the road twists and turns through wooded forests with the ubiquitous Myna birds hopping by the roadside and once an Australian harrier floats across and over the trees. The land seems parched – on a stretch of road just south of Whangarei, the acrid smell of smoke permeates the car, and a helicopter flies overhead dragging an enormous bucket – it’s one of two urgently ploughing back and forth into the river and dragging water across to put out a bush fire.
I cross the brow of a steep hill and there! A beautiful sparkling bay studded with tiny wooded islands glints in the late evening sun. I lean that the Te Reo (Maori) name of this place Paihia means “Good Here”.
I arrive just in time for the Waitangi Day celebrations. On 6 February 1840, the Waitangi Treaty was signed between the British Crown and the Maori peoples. At that time, there were an estimated 125,000 Maori and just 2000 settlers but of course we had claimed sovereignty and control in our usual arrogant, land grabbing colonial ways. Te Toriti o Waitangi ( I’m struck that the Te Reo word is just a phonetic version of our Western concept), signed by over 500 Maori chiefs, established the sovereignty of the British monarch and that Maori chiefs would retain their lands and only sell it to the Crown, rather than individual settlers – which of course proved controversial as permanent ownership of land was an alien concept to Maori, as opposed to temporary usage rights, and disputes and ‘land wars’ ensued. Still, many principles and protections around equal rights that are now enshrined in the constitution are rooted in the Waitangi Treaty, and land disputes are now arbitrated by the Waitangi Tribunal since 1975. The three official languages of New Zealand today are English, Maori and New Zealand sign language.
The celebrations at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds are amazing. As I walk along the beach in the hot sun, the sounds of chanting compete with the crashing of the waves on the shore as around 8 long waka (video link alert!) row towards the beach, commemorating the arrival of the Maori by sea thousands of years ago. Once ashore, the chiefs in turn address the men and women from the boats before around 200 men and boys from the waka turn to the shore and perform a spectacular Haka (see my little video clip!). The whole day is an energetic effusion of glorious Maori culture, including wonderful Kama Haka singing groups. A protest movement march up to the carved meeting house is raising awareness of the dangers of meth amphetamine, and a sober reminder of the drug abuse and alcoholism problems experienced by too many families in New Zealand today.
As I walk back from Waitangi to Paihia along the beach, I am on unclaimed territory. No-one can individually own the beaches here, they’re all public property – you can land your boat, have a BBQ, camp overnight right here. As long as you take care of it, and don’t destroy wildlife. I like this rule. I wish more cultures had influenced official legislation in this direction – that land is not really ever ours to own, we are merely the stewards of it for future generations.