Want to learn more about Aotearoa's rich history? Simply pay a visit to one of Tohu Whenua's Heritage destinations, writes Ewan McDonald
When was New Zealand's first Christmas? What's "the Bat's Nest" and what's so important about it? Did the first arrivals land here … or there … or was it there?
As Te Wiki o te reo Māori Māori Language Week 2021 continues, only those of us outside Auckland can get out and about the motu to see our significant sights at first hand.
Not to worry: it's a good chance to bone up on places that have been, and still are, important landmarks in our national story. Perhaps you could start a must-see list for tamariki who'll be studying the new history curriculum next year.
Best place to do some homework is Tohu Whenua. Tohu Whenua is a partnership between Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage, the Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai and Heritage NZ Pouhere Taonga. Sites chosen as Tohu Whenua are "places that have shaped Aotearoa New Zealand and created our defining stories."
Then head to the Department of Conservation, because many cultural or heritage sites lie on conservation land, and the department's site is a trove of useful info about trails, huts, campsites, getting to places, wildlife and more.
There are currently 24 Tohu Whenua in three regions – Te Tai Tokerau Northland, Ōtākou Otago and Te Tai Poutini West Coast. The long-term goal is to roll out the programme across the nation.
Naturally, each region focuses on the prime aspect of its contribution to our narrative. Northland charts "the birth of a bicultural nation" as the place where our Māori and European ancestors arrived, centuries apart, and where their identities were defined, so we'll take a close look at those here.
In the Far North, Rākaumangamanga Cape Brett was the landing-point of the first seven waka that followed the beaconing – or perhaps beckoning - lights of crystalline rocks to landfall in Aotearoa.
In 1906 it became the site of a lighthouse that continued its tradition by assuring safe passage for new arrivals. Located above the famous Hole-in-the-Rock Island, you can reach it on foot (eight hours) or water taxi (35 mins).
At Rāwene, Clendon House is a little-known, fascinating glimpse into the earliest days of our bicultural story. Captain James Reddy Clendon was a ship owner, trader, businessman, politician and witness to Te Tiriti o Waitangi the Treaty of Waitangi.
However, the house is more concerned with his wife Jane, of Hokianga Māori descent. Left a widow in 1872, with little money, huge debts and eight children to raise, this remarkable woman took an interesting course of action to pay the debt, save the house and educate her children.
Taking a slight detour around geography and chronology, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds is Ground Zero for our nation, the place where the Treaty was signed between Māori chiefs and the British Crown on February 6, 1840. Highlights: the world's largest waka, the intricate carvings of Te Whare Rūnanga, museums of colonial history and cultural performances.
When I was a kid, you were taken to Kerikeri to see the Stone Store and Kemp House. The site has rightly been recast as Kororipo Heritage Park and its focus restored to the water rather than the real estate.
Boats can sail inland from the Bay of Islands and anchor here, so the pā was a strategic site for more than 500 years, becoming the famed Hongi Hika's fortress in the early 1800s. He permitted the Anglican Church Mission Society to establish its settlement under his protection, an idyllic spot where Māori and Europeans came to trade, talk and learn and where missionaries tried to convert Māori to Christianity.
In an afternoon, you'll see more of our shared history than anywhere else in Aotearoa: take the easy, short, 200-year-old walk through regenerating native forest between the pā and the Stone Store; visit the store, New Zealand's oldest stone building, and the former mission house; cross the footbridge to Te Ahurea, a replica fishing village named after Ngāpuhi chief Rewa.
We live in a secular era when it's difficult to imagine the important role that missionaries played in 19th-century life; not just as religious counsellors but also as teachers, translators, diplomats, doctors and influencers. Not always to good effect, it must be said.
However, we can't rewrite history. To understand the birth pains of our nation, we must remember that "the Church" is not one united front but a collection of different philosophies. Visit: Māngungu, established as a Wesleyan mission in the Hokianga and scene of the largest signing of Te Tiriti by more than 70 chiefs. Good place to start the Twin Coast Cycle Trail.
At Kororāreka Russell, Pompallier Mission time-capsules the impact of Bishop Pompallier in introducing Catholicism by producing written works in te reo Māori; at Rangihoua Heritage Park, Ruatara and evangelical Samuel Marsden saw benefits for their people in living side-by-side, missionaries began writing down te reo and New Zealand's first Christmas Day service was held in 1814.
Northland's southernmost Tohu Whenua site is its most globally significant and a defining moment in our national story: Ruapekapeka Pā.
Reacting to British breaches of Te Tiriti, Māori chiefs and 400 warriors made their final stand against the cannons of 1300 British troops on this hill in 1845-46. Inside the highly intricate pā of Hōne Heke and Kawiti, the "bat's nest" of defensive tunnels, rifle pits and trenches, designed to confuse the colonial attackers, the defenders lost the battle but won the war.
On the military side, the British army realised they'd been out-thought and Ruapekapeka became the textbook for army training at Sandhurst until 1918.
On the cultural side, as historian Jamie Belich writes, "The very existence of the Ruapekapeka site counteracts a powerful myth; the idea that Māori and Pākehā were miraculously joined as one after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi."
A personal perspective: everyone who calls themselves a Kiwi should walk this maunga, to appreciate the beauty of the place and abhor the futility of war.
Let's drive south, or perhaps east: past Mt Hikurangi, first to see the sun until Samoa did that sneaky trick with the dateline, and Whāngārā, where Paikea rode the whale ashore and – how bicultural is this? - Aotearoa legend met Hollywood myth.
Tairāwhiti Gisborne is seminal to the creation of our nation, never more so than on the whenua represented by Puhi Kai Iti Cook Landing National Historic Reserve.
It commemorates James Cook's landing in 1769, not far from Te Toka-a-Taiau, where the first significant meeting between Māori and Europeans took place. But it is also the landing place of the Horouta and Te Ikaroa-a-Rauru waka which carried Māori here.
When DoC was given responsibility for the reserve in 1990, it was barely more than a paddock. DoC has ensured the site's significance is honoured, including the Banks Garden cultivating plants that Joseph Banks, the Endeavour's botanist, collected here.
There are few places in New Zealand where one can gain an understanding and appreciation of the highly developed social structure that underpinned life in Aotearoa before the arrival of Pakeha.
One is Ōtātara Pā, just outside Taradale, Napier, one of the largest and best-excavated pā sites, well worth Tony Robinson getting off his backside for a Time Team programme on how the colonies were quite civilised before the Brits arrived.
On a short, easy, child- and Gold Card-friendly walk, visitors pass under the waharoa to enter the pā, passing restoration work on palisades and pouwhenua, tūāpapa, whare and rua kūmara (no, we are not going to translate. This is Te Wiki o te Reo).
Next, an interesting quirk. Did you know that rump where the Crusaders and Highlanders play was known as "Middle Island" until 1907, when the Minister for Lands ordered that it be known as "South Island"? The Geographic Board officially named the island "South Island or Te Waipounamu" in October 2013.
But we are not here to take the proverbial out of our southern brethren… OK, so just a little bit.
However, we have to acknowledge that they can claim bragging rights for New Zealand's largest freshwater springs and the largest coldwater springs in the Southern Hemisphere, with some of the clearest water ever measured on the planet.
Just outside Tākaka, Nelson Tasman, another easy, family-friendly 45-minute walk goes through the forest to a platform sitting over Te Waikoropupū Springs (TW), a taonga and wāhi tapu, a place held in high cultural and spiritual regard.
And we must pay our respects to Aoraki Mt Cook as the ancestor of Ngāi Tahu, the maunga that provides the iwi with its sense of communal identity, solidarity and purpose.
Pākehā look at Mt Cook and see and respect a majestic, snow-capped mountain, a cloud often floating above. In a perfect juxtaposition of two world views, Ngāi Tahu observe and revere Aoraki as an ancestor, a link between the supernatural and natural worlds.
So many places and events, so many stories. We haven't talked of the shame of Parihaka, the wonder of Wairau Bar or the joys of Akaroa, where our bilingual story might have taken an entirely different rue. Or the untold stories about the first Pākehā settlements, on the uncharted shores of the Fiordland sounds, in years that began with 1700.
As encounters with our bicultural story show, there's no truth to the rumour that this young nation doesn't have a lot of history. It's out there, waiting for you to find it.
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