Tens of thousands of people packed Waitangi yesterday for a day of ceremony, culture, music, kai and scorching sunshine marking the 179th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty.

As in the previous few years, the atmosphere was more like a family festival than the charged, protest-dominated Waitangi Days of old. The only protest of note was a hīkoi aiming to draw attention to pollution of the Hokianga Harbour.

The day began before sunrise with the traditional dawn ceremony, which drew an estimated 1000 people to Te Whare Rūnanga, the carved meeting house on the upper Treaty grounds.

Those early risers were rewarded with a breakfast cooked by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her ministers.

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern cooks breakfast at Waitangi. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern cooks breakfast at Waitangi. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Ardern cancelled her planned walkabout with the waka crews – a display involving hundreds of chanting kaihoe (waka paddlers) is always one of the highlights of Waitangi Day – and headed back to her hotel instead.

At least 11 waka, including a waka hourua, or double-hulled voyaging canoe, took part in this year's display. The waka landed around 9.30am in front of Te Tii Marae for a blessing and karakia.

The great waka Ngātokimatawhaorua, which easily seats a crew of 80, did not take part this year, staying in its shelter at the Treaty Grounds instead.

Rutene Gabel recites a chant as the waka prepare to leave Tii Beach on Waitangi Day. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Rutene Gabel recites a chant as the waka prepare to leave Tii Beach on Waitangi Day. Photo / Peter de Graaf

One of the things that made this year's festivities different was the atmosphere of devotion, even religious fervour, brought by Brian Tamaki's followers, especially to the grounds of Te Tii Marae.

Tamaki claimed 2000 members of his Tu Tangata Man Up movement had travelled to Waitangi; a 10am sermon he led in a marquee next to the marae drew a crowd of at least 1000 who filled every corner of the tent and spilled across the grounds.

His gathering took place at the same time as the official Waitangi Day service up the hill at the Treaty Grounds, led by Anglican Bishop Te Kitohi Pikaahu with a sermon by NZ First MP Shane Jones, which drew about 300 people. The double-up had been touted as "the Battle of the Bishops".

Tamaki used his sermon, which was punctuated with cheers and applause, to hint at a possible foray into politics by his movement.

Members of the Destiny Church-aligned Tu Tangata Manu Up movement led a peace hikoi of several hundred people to the flagpole. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Members of the Destiny Church-aligned Tu Tangata Manu Up movement led a peace hikoi of several hundred people to the flagpole. Photo / Peter de Graaf

His followers were everywhere at Waitangi yesterday – leading a hundreds-strong "peace hīkoi" to the flagpole at 9am, greeting the waka paddlers with a haka on the beach, and rumbling up and down the waterfront on their motorcycles.

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Later, the once-traditional land rights hīkoi was replaced by a small but vocal march of about 100 people protesting degradation of the Hokianga Harbour and calling for better sewage treatment.

At noon, after a concert by the Royal NZ Navy Band, a 21-gun salute by the HMNZS Wellington echoed across the Bay while a Seasprite helicopter flew over the Treaty Grounds.

That was also the signal the day's formalities had ended and it was time for entertainment. Bands, solo artists and kapa haka groups performed on four stages – at the Upper Treaty Grounds, Waitangi sport fields, Hobson's Bay, and next to Te Tii Marae – until just after 7pm.

Festival-goers also enjoyed three separate, sprawling market areas offering kai, crafts and information, while local kids practiced that other age-old Waitangi tradition of doing bombs off the bridge.

Those who wanted something more intellectual attended a series of talks and panel discussions in the marae forum tent. Yesterday's speakers included Tautoko FM founder Cyril Chapman, Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson and Mana Party founder Hone Harawira.