Sports » Features

Travel Story

Meeting the Maori challenge



New Zealand's historic Bay of Islands

The drone of a conch shell announced our arrival and three Maori warriors dashed from the Ware Runanga (Meeting House). Wearing traditional dress and carrying six foot taiaha (jade tipped weapons used as both spears and clubs), they advanced toward us, stamping their feet, lashing out their tongues, uttering threatening grunts, and thrusting their taiaha at us – every fibre of their bodies tensed for combat.

As the appointed "chief" of our small unarmed group I stepped forward to meet the challenge. One of the warriors dropped a small fern leaf on the ground, pointed to it with a thrust of his spear, then stepped back and waited. Having been well briefed I picked it up, an indication that we had come in peace. The warrior spun around and escorted us silently into the Ware Runanga.

Almost every tourist who visits New Zealand has participated in this re-enactment of the traditional Maori challenge but here at Waitangi, on a grassy slope facing the Bay of Islands, the ceremony has a special poignancy. A short distance from the traditional Maori structure stands the Treaty House, an example of English Georgian architecture. From 1832 until 1880, it was the home of James Busby the "British Resident" appointed by King William IV. In front of the two buildings, on a gentle slope facing the harbour, a flagpole marks the spot where, on Feb. 6, 1840, 46 Maori chiefs met with newly appointed Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson, James Busby and a group of British officials to sign the Treaty of Waitangi. Regarded as the founding document of modern New Zealand, the treaty established a partnership of sorts between the British Government of young Queen Victoria and the indigenous people of New Zealand.

With my fern leaf held firmly in one hand I followed the warriors into the Meeting House. The lofted ceiling of woven flax and carved rafters covers a huge open space. The walls too are adorned with intricately carved panels, symbols of tribal prestige and a monument to the tribe's ancestors. We have come to see a "sound and light show" depicting the history of Waitangi. Put on by local Maori, the story is told through the recollections of a grandmother talking with her grandson. In a series of flashbacks using theatre, dance and music we are taken, spellbound, from the first arrival of the Maori's Polynesian ancestors, through their early contact with Europeans, to the integration of Maori people into modern New Zealand society.

For Betty and me the performance was a fitting introduction to Maori culture. We abandoned our tourist bus, checked into a motel in Paihia, and spent the next few days exploring the rich historical heritage of New Zealand's Bay of Islands.