© NZPocketGuide.com
© NZPocketGuide.com

Celebrating Waitangi Day at Okains Bay

© NZPocketGuide.com

231 Days on the Road

On the Banks Peninsula you are always driving over a hill and today is no different! However, this time everyone else is going the same way: to Okains Bay for the annual Waitangi Day celebrations. The locals are so keen to get there that we literally follow a surfer chick (she had a “Sex Wax” air freshener) in a car that starts leaking all sorts of fluid and smoke is pouring out from under the bonnet, but hell, it’s Waitangi Day! She isn’t pulling over in concern! She has a powhiri to get to!

What is Waitangi Day?

Parking wardens are directing us to park wherever the hell we can in this super tiny beach village mainly consisting of a holiday park and the Okains Bay Maori & Colonial Museum – the base of today’s celebrations. In short, Waitangi Day is New Zealand’s “national” day: the day the Treaty of Waitangi was first signed in 1840 between the Maori people and the British to make New Zealand a nation. Of course, with any colonisation there is a bit more to it than that, involving miss-translations in the treaty where a lot of Maori land was lost to The Crown, among other things. You can read more about it in our article: What is Waitangi Day?

The Powhiri welcoming ceremony

The public holiday in New Zealand mainly celebrates the coming together of cultures and, as we are about to see today, it’s an amazing insight into Maori traditions. The first of which that we are about to see is the “Powhiri” – a traditional Maori welcome onto the grounds of the Okains Bay Museum from the Te Runanga o Kouourata/Ngati Huikai iwi (tribe).

Everyone gathers around the gate entrance of the museum, nattering away in anticipation of the Powhiri. A deep loud shout silence the crowd and the Powhiri begins. It’s a compelling performance from one man clad in Maori tattoos, holding a pouwhenua (a pointed weapon), making rigid movements with the weapon as he shouts and chants in the Maori language. He is gradually making his way toward a group of New Zealand Navy representatives, putting a fern at the feet of the New Zealand Navy’s leader to see whether they are friend or foe. Picking the fern up, the Navy leader shows that all event attendees are friend. Then we are lead into the grounds of the museum.

Singing and speeches

We make our way into a courtyard surrounded by buildings decorated in the most amazing Maori carvings. A group at the back of the courtyard sing in Maori, a joyful and passionate acapella performance, as everyone finds a place to observe the proceedings. From here, a series of speeches are given, first, from the Ngati Huikai representative speaking entirely in te reo Maori, and next from the Navy representative speaking a mix of te reo Maori and English. The speech acknowledges the wrongdoings of the Treaty of Waitangi, but it clearly is an ongoing issue with a lot to be resolved – all said in a civilised manner, of course.

A hongi moment

The Powhiri ends with a hongi where each member of both parties presses their nose and head together with their eyes closed and deeply breathes in then out. We even give a hongi ourselves with the Maori warrior who started the Powhiri. Then the celebrations continue!

Listening to the Waitangi Day speeches

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Canoes to wood chopping competitions

There is much to see in and around the Okains Bay Museum on Waitangi Day. We start by having a look around the canoe (waka) shed – what Maori traditionally used to use to navigate rivers and cross oceans. We are even going to be lucky enough to watch a waka coming down the nearby Opara River later in the celebrations.

A field next to the museum is full of stalls selling crafts, pounamu necklaces (a significant stone to the Maori culture), and food! Although we are super tempted, we are saving our stomachs for the “hangi” (food cooked in an underground oven) later. There’s wood chopping competitions and demonstrations of steam-powered machinery showing that early European settlers’ way of life when they arrived in New Zealand. There’s so much going on that we’re sure we missed a few things, there was talk of the Ngau Tahu master weavers giving demonstrations, as well as colonial bread-making.

Watching the waka paddling

In all honesty, we are just too keen to get a good spot along the Opara River to watch the waka paddling. The tide needs to be in for the paddling to work. We watch the bizarre sight of the river flowing upstream, then as the tide changes to flow back down, we see it in the distance: white paddles moving alongside a long red waka. With the speed that they are moving along the river, considering they are rowing upstream right now, along with the shouting of the rowing leader, we expect the waka to be full of beefy guys. But no! As they get closer, the waka is mostly full of children and teenagers! At the command of the waka leader shouting in te reo Maori, the kids lift up their paddles and shout in unison. It is a well-oiled machine – an impressive sight well-worth waiting by the river for.

The traditional hangi

As people start to gather around a mound of soil and spades, it must be time to lift the hangi! Since 4am this morning, a team have been putting together a feast for around 600 people and it has almost finished cooking under the mound of soil. A group of overly keen men wait in anticipation with their spades, having to wait until exactly 1pm so the food has had the appropriate time to cook. This is something you don’t want to spoil! When the time comes, they start digging to reveal rows of sacks covering something box-shaped. The sacks are taken off to reveal metal baskets stacked upon baskets of food: chicken, beef, pork, lamb, carrots, kumara, potatoes, cabbage, stuffing and so much more. It is loaded onto a truck and taken to marque with rows of tables to be served.

Queues rarely happen in New Zealand, but when they do it’s often because a hangi is involved. Almost all the event attendees have paid for their $10 hangi knowing how good this traditionally slow-cooked food is.

Indeed, after a good hour of queuing we finally get a taste of soft melt-in-your-mouth vegetables and tender meat. Worth it!

Back over the hill

Bellies full and minds cultured, we make our way back over the hill buzzing about the day! It’s so impressive to watch a communities come together to organise such an event. It felt like all the locals had a role, like Jane from down the road as a traffic warden, Garry from up the hill in charge of crowd control, Miss Barry the school teacher in charge of children’s games, etc.

Tomorrow, we meet more locals at an alpaca farm! Join us then!

Snapping up the incredible waka before it heads out on the water

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See you tomorrow!