Peter Johnston's tour comes with a trip to Ruapekapeka, the final battle site of the Northern War. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Ruapekapeka is the final stop on Northern War Tours. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Peter Johnston with the Sourabaya cannon on Russell's foreshore. This was one of five artillery pieces seized by Heke's warriors when they looted Russell in 1845. Photo / supplied
The Battle of Ōhaeawai happened at the site of Te Whare Karakia o Mikaere [St Michael's Church]. Photo / supplied
Peter Johnston has just launched a new tourist venture called Northern War Tours. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Northland war historian Peter Johnston has kicked off a new business venture taking guided tours of Northern War battle sites. Reporter Jenny Ling delves into the itinerary.
In Northland, after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, a series of bloody battles between European settlers and local Māori raged across the Bay of Islands.
Tensions spilled over in Kororāreka, Russell, where the British flagstaff was felled on four occasions, and the township was looted amid explosions and fires.
Fierce fighting took place at Puketutu followed by Te Ahuahu where dozens of men were killed.
At Ōhaeawai more lives were lost, mostly British this time, atop a hill on a pā where St Michael's Church now sits.
Then, at Ruapekapeka, the British hauled artillery and supplies across rugged country for a full-scale bombardment of a pā, before the fighting finally ceased.
The battles were complex and brutal, a reaction to the colonial government's increasing control over Māori affairs.
Yet not enough New Zealanders know about the Northern War fought in the Bay of Islands in 1845-46, according to war historian Peter Johnston.
Johnston is intent on changing that.
The 68-year-old retiree has just launched a new tourist venture called Northern War Tours, with the aim of imparting his extensive knowledge about the events that unfolded in the Far North.
On Monday he'll take his first group on the tour, leaving Warkworth and heading north to catch the ferry from Opua to Okiato, New Zealand's first capital, and on to Russell.
Earlier this year, Johnston tried his tour out on friends during two separate trips.
The feedback, he said, was really positive.
"They were surprised there was so much detail in our past history. They never even knew we actually had so much important history.
"That was the main message I was getting through.
"There was also some degree of dismay that they weren't exposed to this before.
"They wished they were able to learn this stuff as part of being a New Zealander."
The Northern War was the first serious challenge to the Crown in the years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.
Its opening shots marked the beginning of the wider North Island conflicts that are often referred to as the New Zealand Wars.
Although Johnston's two-day trips are essentially military history tours, he also discusses 'life on the frontier', that early contact period in the Bay of Islands from 1800 to 1850.
Johnston, from Warkworth, said the venture fits in with the growth in domestic tourism and renewed emphasis on our history, especially two cultures as they collided in the past.
The tours are small; he can take a maximum of seven people at a time, twice a week.
He'll go over the key players; Hōne Heke, Tāmati Wāka Nene, Te Ruki Kawiti, along with William Hobson, George Grey, Robert FitzRoy, and Henry Despard.
But Johnston doesn't just talk about conflict; he also explains concepts of tikanga Māori customs and delves into what life was like in that early contact period.
He'll throw in a host of other interesting facts too.
Like how wood from the puriri trees was used to build palisades around pā sites because it was so strong and resistant to rot.
At Kororipo pā in Kerikeri, he'll explain more about traditional pā design, along with the lives of European missionaries.
The tour makes a stop in Paihia for the night, then heads to the site of "the forgotten battles" of Puketutu and Te Ahuahu.
There's a visit to Waimate North Mission Station to learn about Colonel Despard and his plans, followed by a trip to the site of the Battle of Ōhaeawai.
Lunch in Kawakawa will take in the architectural wonders of Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, including the new Te Hononga community hub, before finishing up at Ruapekapeka with its intricate tunnels, rifle pits and trenches.
"It's more than just 'let's visit a battle site'," Johnston said.
"I also wanted to talk about the consequences of these wars and how it affects the North today.
"I see the wars as a decline of the North. It's a continuum of history that we need to understand.
"I don't want it to be just about war, I want to expand beyond the battlefields. In essence it's also involving our early history."
IT SEEMS Johnston was destined to become a Northland tour guide specialising in battle sites.
After graduating from Auckland University, he became a teacher based at Thames High School at a time military history was being incorporated into the curriculum.
In his late 20s, he left New Zealand on his big OE and worked as a tour guide based in London taking tourist groups around Europe.
His special interest was taking them to the battlefields of the Western Front, such as Somme and Passchendaele.
Returning to New Zealand, and after marrying and starting a family, he joined the army.
Based in Waiouru, his main posting was as officer cadet school and he instructed on communication skills, leadership, international relations and military history.
"We started learning about New Zealand Wars," he said.
"I developed battlefield tours of the country's battle sites, and the Northern War was one of them."
After six years in the army, Johnston accepted a job in Brunei where he served as a civilian education officer in the Royal Brunei Armed Forces, which involved training young soldiers and officer cadets.
While there he worked with Lieutenant Colonel Cliff Simons, who would go on to become the director of the War Studies Centre at the New Zealand Defence College.
Simons – who also wrote Soldiers, Scouts and Spies – a military history of the New Zealand Wars, which was published last year – has given Johnston a glowing reference.
Simons recommends his friend as a "resourceful and helpful person who can guide you through the fascinating stories and places in the region that is the birthplace of our country".
In 2001, when Johnston returned home, he settled in Warkworth and went back to teaching, landing a job at Mahurangi College teaching senior history.
He would often take his students on the same tour he is now running as a business.
He's intent on bringing the history alive and making it fun, and will even include a little role playing.
"It's become a real passion for me.
"That's why I'm a historian, it's actually all about people.
"I used to get a lot of feedback from the kids, and they're all 30-odd now and I've got half-a-dozen who want to do it again."
COMING BACK from Brunei marked another milestone for Johnston, who has Scottish and Irish ancestry and whose iwi is Ngāti Kuri and Te Aupōuri.
His family had little connection with their Māori heritage when he was growing up so he decided to research and reconnect with his iwi and tūpuna.
His dad, who was part Māori, went to war as a gunner and his grandfather was from Te Hāpua, a tiny Far North town on the shores of Parengarenga Harbour, 30km down the road from Cape Reinga.
Further back, Johnston's ancestors were linked to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.
One of the signatories was Wiki Taitimu, who signed on behalf of Te Aupōuri in Kaitaia. Johnston's great grandmother, Haroni Whakaruru, was his granddaughter.
"This is one way of trying to acknowledge my Māori heritage. It's become very important to me.
"It's part of me and it's part of all of us, it's our country and our history.
"Having had a lifetime learning about British and European history, there was a great need for me to find out who we are.
"It's a connection for me and if I can impart what I know and feel about it, I feel that's helpful - and isn't that what education is about?"