Scale model captures drama of Maori wars

By John Cousins

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BATTLE VISTA: A south-north perspective of the Battle of Gate Pa, captured in this diorama built by Rob Hicks of Omokoroa.PHOTO/JOHN BORREN
BATTLE VISTA: A south-north perspective of the Battle of Gate Pa, captured in this diorama built by Rob Hicks of Omokoroa.PHOTO/JOHN BORREN

The most defining event in the history of Tauranga has been recreated in a dramatic diorama of the Battle of Gate Pa.

Four years of research and work by amateur historian Rob Hicks has culminated in a model worthy of this year's 150th anniversary of a battle whose impact is still being felt today through the Treaty settlements.

The diorama of the main battlefield where British forces were pitched against Maori defenders of a fighting pa has been done as faithfully as Mr Hicks can manage, even down to the autumn-toned landscape.

His inspiration for the project came from the fact that the April 29, 1864, battle was the single biggest event to have happened in the history of Tauranga.

It was a project that Mr Hicks has relished, involving hours of studying documents, drawings and paintings done in the aftermath of the battle, including witnesses and participants, to ensure the diorama was as historically accurate as possible.

It will go on display in Tauranga Airport's terminal from early March as part of the lead-up to the 150th commemorations being planned by the Pukehinahina Charitable Trust.

Mr Hicks, 76, has always been a bit of a history buff and used his passion for military modelling to create a diorama that embraced the main thrust of the attack directed by General Cameron.

The lead models were exact replicas of the soldiers who fought in the conflict, right down to the weapons, uniforms and even the brass buttons.

The Wairarapa manufacturer also supplied him with models of the exact howitzers and canon used to pummel the Maori positions. When a request could not be accommodated, the factory actually added a new weapon to its range. This happened when Mr Hicks needed coehorn mortars, making them the first mortars of this type to be modelled in the world.

He still has a bit of work to do to complete the model, such as recreating the fennel on the hill, which translates in Maori to pukehinahina. And he was eagerly awaiting the arrival of General Cameron, right down to his corduroy trousers. "The general is in the mail. He should arrive in the next couple of days."

General Cameron will be placed next to the howitzers on the mound that later was in the area chosen to become the site of the former Tauranga RSA beside the hospital.

The defenders of the pa were also depicted extremely accurately, from warriors to chiefs. "You can almost pick out Hori Ngatai."

He has worked on the project on and off for four years, paying for the materials from his own pocket. Much of the time was spent on the preparations, including researching archival material. It was accurate, even to the battle lines of the soldiers, and he has had the details checked by a military historian.

The practicality of size in which the diorama was mounted on a single sheet of plywood meant it was not quite to scale, but it did not detract from the scene. "It has given me a lot of satisfaction."

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the commemoration organisers, Buddy Mikaere, said preparations were well advanced for the event, which will include the arrival of a platoon of Gurkhas representing the British Army.

One of the highlights will be a massed march up Cameron Rd to Gate Pa where naval and army representatives will be met by a 1000-strong haka.

The guests of honour will include the Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae and Willie Apiata, the former corporal in the SAS who was awarded the VC for bravery under fire in Afghanistan.

A West Coaster in his 80s, the great-grandson of Coxswain Samuel Mitchell who won a VC in the battle, will also attend the anniversary.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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