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Why not take an hour to watch how the British Establishment go about their business, with the excellent ‘Waitangi – What Really Happened.


What I really liked about New Zealand wasn’t the spectacular scenery. The scenery was spectacular. I liked the way palm trees and tree ferns exploded like green fireworks from the centre of what looked like ordinary forests (by which I mean, the ones I’m used to seeing). I liked the way you could look down into the craters of Mounts Eden, and Rangitoto, the former spewed of red rock, the latter of black. The dust of Rangitoto, which was as black as coal and as fine as flour dulled our shoes with a grey patina and each step we took ground out a teaspoonful more from the pumice-like scoria. And the phrase itself has such a rhythm about it – The Dust of Rangitoto – there’s got to be a ballad/poem in there somewhere!

But we have scenery. We even have volcanoes, though not dormant ones, and Arthur’s Seat is a plug that you look up at, rather than down into. At Waiotapu the hot springs were colourful and spectacular, and smelly, but the vents you could stare down into and not see the water that you could hear boiling below were, to my ears, the most spectacular (which is a mixed metaphor you might recoil at – though I rather like it). What struck me most there was the way the birds were nesting in the volcanic cliffs’ letting the geo-thermal heat do the work of incubation while they flew in and out of the rock vents catching the insects that lived even there. By the mud pools, where min-geysers (guysers, the Kiwis call them – yis!) threw handfuls of grey gloop a few feet or even only inches up into the air, and the concentric ripples of their falling back moved slowly outwards, the pool-edge bushes grew close enough to get coated in the hot, killing, grime. Life pushes in as far as it can go, and sometimes further. We’re not alone, then, in such follies.

But what I really liked, apart from the wonderful coffee, and the Asian food, all along Ponsonby Road, or on the more edgy ‘K’ road, that turns downhill towards the CBD, was the fact that in New Zealand, the drivers don’t just wait patiently for you to cross at the zebra crossings, they actually wait for you to get to them! And on the lights controlled crossings in the CBD, with not a car in sight for two hundred yards in either direction, the pedestrians wait, equally patiently, for the green man to expose himself. This isn’t waiting the way the Germans are said to, because it’s the rules, or doesn’t seem so, but seems instead to be, well, because they can, and who’s in a hurry? Now that’s what I call civilised.

While I was in New Zealand I visited the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. This museum, Art Gallery, and general tourist trap, offers a history of the founding of the modern state. That involved the agreement of Maori Chiefs, in 1840, to a handing over of power to the British Throne. It was, as you might perhaps expect, a stitch up. The translation of treaty items is shown to have varied widely in meaning between British and Maori versions, giving to one side the reassurance of empty promises, and to the other the sense of entitlement that the British Establishment always cultivates. The more I read and saw, the greater my disquiet, disgust, and shame.

In the case of land holding, for example, apparently Maoris could own their own land, but sell it only to the Government. It’s easy to see where that would lead, and did.

A Maori guide took us around the site, and fed us tidbits of information, including that the tongue, stuck out in the traditional Haka, or Maori ‘welcome’, signified that you looked tasty, and might be eaten.  As at the museum in Auckland, there were wonderful examples of Maori wood-carving, and the equally intricate tattooing. Both tell, in detail the cultural and personal histories of the different tribes, and their individuals. Linguistically the Maoris, perhaps in the way the English have been (are?), are diverse with tribal languages that overlap, but are not quite the same. What wasn’t made clear – at least in what I saw – was whether this was due to the disintegration of a single language – like that of Celtic into its Ps & Qs and so on – or was a stage in the development of a single language out of many – as happened with the creation of English after 1066.

The Haka formed part of a Maori ‘experience’, referred to by one of its ‘cast’ as a ‘show’. In addition to singing, there was a demonstration of traditional Maori fighting skills, with the wooden clubs they once used to kill each other, in what the Auckland Museum displays seemed to suggest had been a state of continual inter-tribal warfare. The ornate carving in the illustration above is on the prow of a huge ‘war canoe’ on the site – the Aircraft Carrier of its day. The metal-bladed weapons, and muskets, that European traders sold to the tribes later, weren’t demonstrated. I thought of the English Morris, and the monarchist Trooping of the Colour, but neither quite matched what we were seeing. I speculated too, as to how a demonstration of drill with the AK47 or some other contemporary icon of slaughter might go down with tourists somewhere – a Native English Reservation perhaps – in 200 years time. I hadn’t realised the extent to which the pre-European, Maori, New Zealand, despite its single, celebrated father figure, had been populated by such parochially antagonistic Polynesian settlers. The guide also told us the nick name for Australian Maoris, whom, she said, ‘could stay there’. We, I’m reminded, as I have been before, are basically the same for all our cultural diversities – not all the reminders have been tinged with such sadness.

The Haka is perhaps best known to us in the west from All Blacks rugby matches, but it took on a different hue when explained by our Maori guide. Part greeting, part defiance, part challenge, it is a cultural tradition but when seen on the street outside a bar, staged by a group of Maori youths, to intimidate some others, it carries a potent threat, perhaps even to the extent of seeming an assault.

The Maori population fell, we were told, to a mere fifty thousand, but has been on the rise again, and the provision of education, including in regional tribal languages has vastly improved. That must be good news, for if Auckland is anything to go by, New Zealand seems to be in a turmoil of new building and nascent prosperity. That Maori ‘experience’ though was rooted in the past. An equivalent might be for us to offer a Dickensian tableau to represent the ‘English’ experience. The phrase ‘Victorian values’ springs to mind, but which ones, and who would get to choose?

There’s a powerful dramatisation of the Treaty Signing: Waitangi – What really happened, on YouTube (, and much other material worth taking a look at, on the Waitangi Treaty Grounds Museum website.