Waitangi Treaty Grounds (Paihia, Bay of Islands, New Zealand)

This post is The Intrepid Pea's first foray out of Sydney. On a recent trip to the north island of New Zealand, I visited the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, a place that I have had on my "to visit" list for quite a while. The grounds are located in the beautiful Bay of Islands region a three and a half hour drive north of Auckland, in the small town of Paihia.

Entrance to the site is through the modern looking visitor centre, with admission as an overseas tourist setting you back $50 per adult. Admission for children is free, and if you're a NZ resident the discounted price is $25. This ticket includes access to the site and museum, and a free guided tour that runs every hour, on the hour.

Tours leave from just beyond the entry area, and each participant receives an earpiece device that is  connected to the tour guide's microphone. We had a few minutes to spare and ducked into the Museum of Waitangi for a quick preview, before joining our tour group outside.

Our tour guide was of Maori descent and introduced us to some words in the Maori language, also informing us of programs provided by the NZ government for people to learn Maori. It was refreshing to be taught about  the heritage of the site by a descendant of the traditional owners of this history. Our first port of call, the Maori war canoes, directed our eye along the intricate carvings on the edge, all the way to the sparkling blue water in the bay at the other end.

The canoe provided a segue into the story of the Maori people, and how they came by sea to New Zealand by following bird migrations from the Pacific Islands about 1200 CE (read about BCE and CE here). The distinctive Maori culture developed among the descendants of these initial settlers who were the first people to reach the islands of New Zealand.

The tour throughout the treaty grounds exposed picturesque views of the bay beyond, with cultural elements including the carved meeting house nestled on the grass between trees on the shore.

Flagstaff and view of Bay of Islands
Maori Carved Meeting House

This house is the venue for a half hour Maori ceremonial performance that is included in the entry ticket. The experience of the performance was all the more engaging against the background of the intricately carved interior of the meeting house. As this is a sacred place, visitors are asked to remove their shoes prior to entry. The coolness on our socked feet as we entered and walked across the dark wood floorboards enhanced the sensory ambience.

Information about what the Treaty of Waitangi is, and copies of the treaty in both the English and Maori languages are housed in the Museum of Waitangi, which provides a contextual background to the signing of the treaty and Maori-British relations in the historical period. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed on 6 February 1840 by representatives of the British Crown, the chiefs of the Confederation of the United Tribes of New Zealand, and many other Maori tribal leaders. This day is commemorated annually as Waitangi Day, and is a national public holiday.

Inside the museum was a reproduction of this intriguing image, which depicts a Maori chief trading a lobster with an English man who is offering a piece of cloth in return. 

The treaty was signed at what is now known as Treaty House, the residence of James Busby, the representative of the British crown in New Zealand. The interior of the house is maintained as a museum documenting life for the Busby family in the 19th century and containing information about the treaty. 

Treaty House

Next to the Treaty House is this tree planted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 during a tour of the Commonwealth nations that took place shortly after her coronation. Whenever someone of importance visited the site, they would plant a tree here, and now there is a long row of trees of different sizes at this spot.

Tree and plaque commemorating tree planted by Queen Elizabeth II
The Waitangi Treaty Grounds ended up being a great way to spend half a day exploring the site, learning about the history of Maori-British relations, and looking out to the bay dotted with islands behind us. The information provided by the tour guide and signage around the site and museum was informative and engaging, and appeals not only to history buffs, but also to overseas and local tourists visiting the region as a unique part of the nation's history. 

The engagement of Maori people in this history and their ownership over their own heritage is a fortifying experience that felt in stark contrast to the situation in Australia. It's clear that there is still immense space for greater consultation and collaboration between the Australian government and Indigenous peoples in the custodianship of Indigenous Australian natural and cultural heritage, including that of the colonial period. While I acknowledge that Australia and New Zealand have quite different histories and demographics, perhaps we can learn a little something here from our neighbours across the Tasman.

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    1. Cool write up. I found the Treaty Grounds to be a great destination, and very educational! The fact that the Maoris originally rowed to NZ across the Pacific in canoes in nuts!

    2. i like the lobster trading image


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