Treaty Grounds of Waitangi: Visiting New Zealand's most important national monument

It's somehow appropriate that the main approach to New Zealand's most important national monument should include nothing more ceremonial than a humble one-lane bridge, requiring an approaching vehicle at one of either end to patiently wait their turn to cross. Such bridges are an integral part of the Kiwi countryside: a sizeable, though sparsely populated, no-fuss nation stretching nearly 3000 kilometres from north to south with a limited budget for fancy roads and crossings.

Yet despite the low-key nature of my arrival to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, recognised as the birthplace of New Zealand as a nation, I have a nagging sense that I'm about to enter a special, if not spiritual place. It's a feeling similar to that which I'd experienced when I've visited Uluru on the other side of the Tasman. 

The rock is a sacred site for Indigenous Australians and one with which their non-Indigenous compatriots can also spiritually identity – even if some of the latter still persist in climbing over it – and, at the same time, Waitangi itself represents a bridge, albeit a rickety one at times, between New Zealand's European and Maori tribes.

The Waitangi Treaty Grounds is the place where in 1840, Maori chiefs first signed their accord with the British Crown – the Treaty of Waitangi, or Te Tiriti o Waitangi – New Zealand's founding national document. A large ceremonial flagstaff marks the spot where the treaty was signed. 

Nearly a century later, on February 6, 1934, the then governor-general Lord Bledisloe, in whose honour the famed trans-Tasman rugby international cup was named, formally gifted the Grounds to the people of New Zealand and at the same time inaugurated the country's first Waitangi Day.

Today, the site's original historic Treaty House, which dates to 1833, and the more recently built carved meeting house and war canoe, or waka, have been joined by the impressive and newly opened $14million Museum of Waitangi, or Te Kongahu.

Designed to blend in with the surrounding hilly landscape and to compliment the existing visitor centre,  built in 1981 to plans by John Scott, one of New Zealand's greatest and most sensitive architects, the unobtrusive museum powerfully traces the first tentative contacts between Maori and Europeans leading to the signing of the Treaty in 1840. 

The museum's powerful, up-to-the-minute displays includes significant taonga, or treasures, that were dispersed across New Zealand after the Treaty signing but which have been returned to Waitangi. But perhaps the museum's main attraction is its documents room, which allows visitors to view a version of the Treaty with its hundreds of signatures from 1840, while elsewhere there are exhibits detailing the wars, protests and rancour that followed in the more than half-a-century after its signing. 

I feel genuinely privileged to be on such hallowed ground. Yet, though aware of the historical tensions  that exist between pakeha (non-Maori) and Maori, I'm surprised to later learn that a good many New Zealanders of European extraction do not share my enthusiasm for this undeniably special place.

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Nor is Waitangi somewhere that many New Zealanders, let alone foreigners, feel compelled to visit, what with the Bay of Islands and adjoining Northland region themselves notably a bridge too far, as it were, beyond Auckland, for many Kiwis. I'm again reminded of Uluru, a place integral to the ancient and modern psyche of  Australia which relatively few Australians visit in their lifetime.

For many New Zealanders, Waitangi is symbolic of protest and conflict, with many Maori, activists and otherwise, viewing the Treaty of Waitangi as a fraudulent document that has never truly recognised indigenous sovereignty.

At the 150th anniversary of the signing of the treaty, the Waitangi Day commemorations, as Te Ara, the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand points out, at the Treaty Grounds were marked by a T-shirt having been flung by young Maori woman at the visiting Queen Elizabeth II.

That act was seen to have been exacerbated by a speech by a Maori bishop highlighting the failure of the Crown to honour the Treaty, a core Maori grievance. Former prime ministers Helen Clark and John Key were both jostled at Waitangi Day commemorations at the Treaty Grounds, leading to politicians eschewing Waitangi and marking the day elsewhere.

Some New Zealanders have even called for Waitangi Day to be abolished and replaced with a "New Zealand Day", reminiscent of the one marked on January 26 across the Tasman and dubbed "Invasion Day" by its critics.

"...'New Zealand Day' would allow us to feel comfortable with the fanciful myth that this country is a paradise," wrote James Robins, an Auckland-based columnist, last year. "A way to imagine that Aotearoa's supposed richness comes from hard graft and No.8 wire [for sheep fencing], not the theft and plunder of a people.

"A way to forget that even today's industry still exploits and subjugates on the basis of colour. It liberates white New Zealand to sunburnt beaches or rugby stadiums to drink cheap beer, content that none of those 'loonies' and 'hate-fuelled weirdos' up North are allowed to get any attention." 

Yet, putting aside the controversies that surround the site, for an outsider like me the Treaty Grounds of Waitangi are a perfectly beautiful and absorbing place to wander for hours.  The grounds encompass 18.5 hectares of native bush, boardwalks, tracks, beaches, lawns and coastal cliff-tops, all of which afford superb views of the surrounding Bay of Islands.

One of the most attractive man-made features of the site is the aforementioned Te Whare Runanga (House of Assembly), a carved Maori meeting house, as well as the Treaty House which served as the office and home of James Busby in his role of the British government's representative in New Zealand between 1833 and 1840.

The home boasts a passing Australian connection, with the original house having been pre-cut in Sydney of Australian hardwood and shipped to New Zealand for assembly in 1834. But surely the Treaty Ground's most impressive feature is ceremonial Maori war canoe Ngatokimatawhaorua. At35metres long, the canoe is theworld's largest and requires more than six dozen paddlers to propel it.

Remarkably, it weighs six tonnes when dry and 12 tonnes when saturated after immersion in the waters of the Bay of Islands.  Even more remarkably, perhaps, it's said that the canoe achieved speeds of 50 kilometres an hour during a royal visit to Waitangi by Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

The intricately carved and decorated waka is launched – with some considerable manual effort – every year on February 6 as part of Waitangi Day commemorations, which start at 5am with a traditional dawn service in the carved meeting house and then continue throughout the day.

If I had more time at Waitangi there would be even more to do including attending a cultural performance in the meeting house and a hangi pit (earth oven) dinner and concert. But, as I pass back over that wonderfully unpretentious one-lane crossing, I've spent long enough here to realise that the relations between the indigenous and the non-indigenous are as elusively complex to bridge here in New Zealand as they are across the Tasman.

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