It's not often we set our alarm at 4.30am while away on holiday – however that’s exactly what we did on the morning of 6 February 2020. Every year on 6 February people gather, as we did, on the Waitangi Treaty Grounds in the Bay of Islands to commemorate the signing of New Zealand’s founding document – Te Tiriti o Waitangi, The Treaty of Waitangi. The Treaty is an agreement in Maori and English, which was made between representatives of the British Crown and about 540 Maori Chiefs. The Treaty promised to protect Maori culture and to enable Maori to continue to live in New Zealand as Maori. The Treaty gave the Crown the right to govern New Zealand and to represent the interests of all New Zealanders. It took until 1934 for this day to be commemorated and many years later, in 1954 for this day to become the public holiday, known as Waitangi Day.
Having planned a trip to explore the beautiful Far North of New Zealand our pre-booked accommodation in Kerikeri lined up perfectly with attending our first ever visit to Waitangi Day celebrations in Waitangi itself. We headed out in the wee hours, along with a long stream of other cars to the Treaty Grounds. This free festival starts at 5am with a Dawn Service in the Te Whare Runanga (Carved Meeting House). Arriving in darkness was an experience in itself, navigating our way from our carpark to the location of the Dawn Service. On arrival at the Meeting House we were pleasantly surprised to find so many others who thought this commemoration was worthy of an early start. We surveyed large crowds craning their necks for views inside the Meeting House or up to the large screens to see the likes of our Prime Minister Jacinda Adern, Police Commissioner Mike Bush, Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon, Treaty Grounds Chairperson Pita Tipene. The Prime Minister called to unite in kindness and care towards one another and then concluded with the last verse of the national anthem.
Following the Dawn Service and Flag Ceremony the crowds dispersed, mingling in various locations around the Treaty Grounds, many waiting on that cloudy morning for the sun to rise whilst queuing for a coffee or a chance to be served a
bar-b-que breakfast by the Prime Minister or one of the many Government Ministers in attendance. Others gathered around the Waitangi flagstaff, which marks the spot where The Treaty of Waitangi was first signed. There was plenty of time to relax, observe and reflect whilst waiting for the day’s entertainment to begin.
The crowds continued to grow throughout the day – large family groups claiming areas to set up around the grounds. Hundreds gathered at the upper Treaty grounds to hear Brian Tamaki on the podium acknowledging breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi by the Crown, whilst others enjoyed the 150 market stalls set up, offering their array of art and crafts and food options as well as bouncy castles, and other child friendly games. The highlights of the day for us, to name just a few were the Royal NZ Navy Big Band performance, the Royal NZ Navy 21-gun salute, the fantastic Kapahaka Groups, the arrival of the Wakas and Navy ships and that moment I got to see up close, Clarke Gayford with young Neve.
Approximately 2,500 people gathered that day to commemorate the 180th Anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi. I was delighted to be amongst that crowd. Yes there were demonstrators, but mostly there were people feeling the joy and emotions of the day. With so many New Zealanders exploring their own country at present I highly recommend adding the Bay of Islands to your itinerary and like us timing it with your most memorable and rewarding Waitangi Day experience.
(I wrote this story not long after our memorable day at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds in 2020 - little did I know then that two years on no one would be able to attend and commemorate Waitangi at the grounds due to level & number restrictions brought about by Covid-19 & Omicron. I feel extremely fortunate to have had my experience that day in 2020 & can only hope 2023 makes it possible for others to experience & enjoy this special day as well).
A passion for photography and a love of travel - Liz now enjoys combing the two.
Mangonui to Cape Reinga