Embarking on a noble bid to soak up heritage

19:17, Dec 05 2012

New Zealanders, on the whole, are not a people of formal pilgrimage. There is no rite of passage required to secure citizenship or mark the transition from whippersnapper to adult, at least not one that has any significant social consensus around it. As residents of a young nation mercifully free of fundamentalist religion or binding superstition, it's up to each individual to cherry pick the aspects of the culture, the history and the geography that resonate with them. Some might be content with attending an All Blacks match. Others might feel the need to get out of the country altogether, camp out in the motherland for a spell, and perhaps visit Gallipoli. Sport, war and the colonial roots loom large on the patriotic agenda, especially for those of a Pakeha persuasion. Maori no doubt have a different perspective.

Last week the young lady and I engaged in a self styled pilgrimage, taking in the sights at the top end of New Zealand. It was the first time that either of us had ventured north of Auckland. From a base at Paihia we would drive up to Cape Reinga, ferry across to Russell for a day's sailing on a tall ship and see the historic sites of Waitangi. At age 46 I was finally going to experience an area rich in symbolic importance - for many, the birthplace of the nation.

Before I start reflecting on all this a word of practical advice for any who might likewise seek to squeeze in too much sightseeing in too little time. Driving from Auckland to the Bay of Islands on Friday morning is one thing, finding Haruru Falls for some midday canoodling is another but deciding to damn-the-torpedoes and continue on to the top of the country, returning to Paihia that same night, comes close to madness. Getting slightly lost at the outset of each of the three expeditions didn't help either. The things a man will do to drink at the northernmost pub.

Actually, this man did next to nothing and the pub was closed by the time we arrived back there with a celebratory thirst. It was the young lady who was the driving hero/martyr. In terms of glory, about all I could claim is that I paid for petrol at New Zealand's highest end pump.

Whatever the trials and tribulations of the holiday - and funnily enough I would endorse the experience of sailing into a heavy storm, if only to get a small taste of what the early settlers must have endured - Cape Reinga and the Treaty grounds made it all worth it. At both spots we enjoyed perfect weather. Overcast - even bleak - for most of the journey, as we approached the Cape the sun broke through and it seemed as though our humble little quest had been given divine blessing.

Of course, Cape Reinga is more than just a geographic end point or a vantage from which to observe the blending of Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean. Technically it isn't even the northernmost point. For the indigenous, the significance is as much spiritual. Our own pilgrimage was inspired by a naive perception of the place as that of departure for dead Maori souls returning to their ancestral home.

It was only after we had completed the walk down to the lighthouse, taken untold photographs, marvelled at the spectacular view, native flora and playful birdlife, that we realised the extent of our cultural misdeed. I have since learned that for Maori even the seemingly discrete positioning of the toilet and information area is considered a violation of the sacred. To have a couple of ignorant if well-meaning Pakeha actually eat fish and chips at the Cape itself compounds the desecration.

I thought about the faux pas two days later as we toured the Treaty grounds. For all the rancour that has grown up in recent times around what was begun at Waitangi - and for all the years that the Treaty itself, James Busby's house and surrounding property fell into obscurity - the place and the idea behind it have undeniable power and ongoing resonance. Somehow, our own mistake at the Cape, an action which ironically was born of respect, fitted into the history of both the Treaty itself and subsequent betrayals thereof. Whatever the good or ill feeling on either side, we are different cultures aspiring to get on. A hundred and seventy-two years after the signing, New Zealand is still a work in progress.