On February 7, 1963, 35 Aucklanders left Waitangi having participated the day before in commemorations attended by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh who were introduced to prominent kuia and kaumatua representing iwi around New Zealand.
But on the Brynderwyn Hills, between Whangarei and Wellsford, the brakes on their bus failed. Despite concerted attempts by driver Harold Parker to slow and keep the bus on the road, it crashed through a wire fence and down a 30m slope to the Piroa Stream.
Fifteen people were killed while the rest of the passengers, and driver Parker, were injured. The dead included Karaka (Clark) Wiapo, a former NZ Maori rugby representative, who had been presented to the Queen and was accompanied by friends and supporters. It became known as the Brynderwyn Bus Crash and, 54 years later, remains the country's worst road accident.
Now a play, written by Helensville drama teacher and community theatre stalwart Naomi Bartley, will travel to some of the communities the ill-fated bus passed through that day and aims to tell the story of what happened and the legacy that remains for survivors and families of those who perished.
Bartley wanted to write Te Waka Huia to honour those who died by raising awareness of the tragedy and encouraging small communities to talk more openly about how they deal with grief. She says by touring the play, she may be able to gather more memories from those like the emergency services personnel who were first on the scene and hospital staff from Whangarei.
"I have been involved with theatre all my life and I feel really passionate about theatre that has a meaningful purpose," says Bartley. "When a friend told me more about this incident and explained to me that there were survivors and community members who were still grieving - and that remained very raw and painful for some people - I thought, 'well, this is something I can contribute to try to help'."
Bartley first heard about the bus crash in 2012, having been asked to write a piece for Helensville's 150th anniversary celebrations. During her research, she happened across a small newspaper story about the accident and was haunted by the story. After speaking with her friend, she tracked down and spoke to survivors and whanau of those who died or were injured to discover more about the accident and its lasting effects.
"I was very aware I was telling their story so I checked in with whanau and offered to stop if they found it too painful."
However, public readings of the script as it developed during the last five years and feedback from those who went to those readings encouraged Bartley to keep writing. The tour starts this week at Te Pou Theatre in New Lynn, before going to Mangere then to various venues around Northland, loosely following the route of the original bus trip from Waitangi to Helensville.
The play is set in the present day when two teenagers discover an old man living in a derelict bus on the outskirts of Helensville. As he tells them his story, they discover a history they had never heard about.
Bartley says overall, it's about friendship, belonging and the long-term effects of silent grief.