One of the things I love most about travelling is seeing different cultures. I’m a nosy person at the best of times so I love watching the way other people live their lives; listening to their stories and traditions and having those moments where you think ‘you’d never see that at home’ (said in a broad Yorkshire accent, obviously). Nothing puts me off a place more than when people say: “It’s just like England, but with nicer weather.” If that’s the case I may as well save myself the money and just sit under a heat lamp at home.
So I was excited when, purely by chance, I found myself in the Bay of Islands as Waitangi weekend approached. Waitangi is one of New Zealand’s most important historical sites as it was where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by Maori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown in 1840.
Now I’m not for a moment going to pretend that I understand everything which has gone on in the past, and is still going on today, between the Maori people and various governments over the years. But needless to say there have been many problems, not least that the leaders signed two different translations of the treaty all those years ago. But what I loved about the weekend was that it was a chance to see a totally different side of New Zealand. People from all over the country descended on the town to celebrate their heritage and, as with most celebrations, it involved lots of food, lots of singing and lots of dancing.
The day itself began with a waka (boat) race between members of the different tribes, dressed in their traditional costumes. Before setting off each group performed a haka, a war dance complete with stomping feet and frightening facial expressions designed to instill pride and scare the enemy. It was followed by some rather formal performance by the Navy, but I much preferred the singing and dancing which came later from the Maori groups. Although I couldn’t understand the language, the songs were so beautiful to listen to. And then, of course, there was the food. Lunch was a hangi – meat and vegetables which had been cooked in an underground pit overnight. Nothing beats sitting on the beach, eating a feast (preferably one prepared by someone else.)
The day did include a number of peaceful protests, but it was quite calm on both sides (definitely no kettling tactics from the police here). It was also an interesting experience just to sit and listen to what was going on and not have to be chasing people around to report on it for a change.
Since Waitangi day I have seen lots of different ‘Maori cultural evenings’ advertised in different towns. But I preferred seeing it this way, when people had travelled from their homes across the country not to entertain the tourists, but to show that they were proud of their past and hopeful for their future.