John Tahana and Michael Walker meet.
John Tahana and Michael Walker meet. Walker family

My 'bucket list' visit with ancestors of Maori chiefs

AS A descendant of Captain William Hobson, who became Lieutenant-Governor of New Zealand after signing a treaty uniting Great Britain with the warrior Maori chiefs in 1840, it had always been on my bucket list to visit the county.

This year I finally caught up with some of the descendants of the famous chiefs on Waitangi Day (New Zealand's national day of celebrations, February 6) and was blown away by the experience.

My wife Sue and I started our trip in Auckland, New Zealand's biggest city, a good starting point to explore the North Island.

We walk around, looking at the city's stylish shops and restaurants, and are enjoyably startled by people whizzing past on electric scooters - what a fun way to get around.

Later, we take the lift to the top of the Sky Tower, the tallest free-standing structure in the southern hemisphere, and pause for a long sunset drink taking in the stunning views of the sprawling city and its expansive harbour.

From Auckland we arrive at Paihia at the historic Bay of Islands where the Maoris migrated from Hawaiiki five centuries before Captain Cook (first European to find the harbour) in 1769. There are about 150 islands and the mainland settlements all have melodic, tongue-twisting names; Waitangi, Paihia, Kerikeri, Opus and Kororareka, a pretty place now known as Russell.

The next day we rise with excitement in the pre-dawn darkness and take a taxi to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, joining a long queue six people wide and four kilometres long walking to the site where the 1840 Treaty, New Zealand's founding document, was signed.

We meet and are warmly welcomed by Pita Tipene, the Chairman and other members of the Waitangi National Trust and attend the dawn service at the magnificently carved meeting house, where Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and others sing and speak movingly of love, hope and a nation working together for the future of its young people.

Later, we join the huge and happy crowd in a hearty bacon and eggs barbecue and stroll through the grounds, a great beauty spot with panoramic views of the Bay of Islands and a superb ancient war canoe. We watch groups of young men and women take turns at launching and rowing in highly stylised unison (not easy) on a modern version of war canoe.

But the real highlight for me is meeting John Tahana and other descendants of the great Rangatira chiefs. John and I put our noses together and he says: 'Kia ora, Michael, welcome to the sacred site, where the Treaty 'Te Tiriti o Waitaingi was signed!'

A traditional war canoe in New Zealand.
A traditional war canoe in New Zealand. Walker family

I enjoy a long chat with these kindly, elderly men who are interested in hearing about my connection with Governor Hobson and also in my background as a musician. One of them pulls out a guitar and persuades me to join him in a Waltzing Matilda singalong and I reciprocate by showing them my latest music video on my mobile phone.

The next day we take the ferry from Paihia across the Bay, a paradise for swimmers (safe, sandy beaches, though the water is a bit cold for us Queenslanders), yachtsmen and fishermen and historians.

The ferry stops at Russell, the oldest European settlement in the country, once rife with whalers, sly grog shops and escaped convicts from New South Wales, now a charming tourist stop. It has New Zealand's first hotel, first police station and oldest church and an old Catholic printery, all painted white and beautifully restored.

On another unforgettable day we go to Cape Reinga, on the northernmost tip of the North Island. We drive past green pastures, detouring to see the famous Ninety Mile Beach (actually just 103 km, 64 miles), heeding a sign that warns vehicles may be swept away by the tides. We believe it, the surf crashes furiously on the wild, grey, forsaken sands, empty save for a couple of brave wet-suited surfers.

We drive on, some 108 km, along the winding road through the middle of the long, thin Aupouri Peninsula, past vast sand dunes and steadily climbing higher and higher until finally we arrive at the Cape. It is bleak, beautiful and eerie in its isolation, with sighing winds which can register 108 knots as the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean make a tumultuous union.

Maori legend claims these high cliffs as the leaping-off place of the spirits, whence the soul plunges 250 metres below into the depths of the wild sea and the underworld; easy to accept as we listen to the moaning and wailing of the winds.

As we leave, we feel exhilarated and overwhelmed by a sense of our smallness against the vast, endless ocean.

We have had a few very big days, been to the top of New Zealand, and learned something about the history and Maori culture of this beautiful, compact country.