Opua, Paihia and Waitangi are all within a short drive of each other, across the harbour from Russell. We visited all three but the highlight was Waitangi.
Waitangi is where the Treaty of Waitangi was drafted and many signatures gained in 1840, creating a formal agreement between the indigenous Maori people and the Pakeha people who were arriving on New Zealand shores in ever increasing numbers, and would move to form a government within a few more short years.
We paid $25 to get in (non NZ residents are charged $50) and that gave us entry for two days. Waitangi receives no government funding so depends on the entry fees in order to keep running. Back in the early 1930s the governor general and his wife, Lord and Lady Bledisloe, tried to gain government backing to buy the Treaty grounds as they realised it was going to have huge historical value. No government members were interested, so they ended up purchasing the 1000 acres themselves; officially donating it to the people of New Zealand in February 1934 to be run via a trust – which they stayed involved in all their lives. They were fabulous people by all accounts and were acknowledged by both our tour guides in the first moments of their talk.
On the actual day of annual Waitangi celebrations, February 6th, entry is free and anyone is welcome to be there and celebrate – apparently it’s packed out and a fantastic day, very social. The huge sea going waka is paddled out in the harbour, and anyone left at the end of the day is roped into helping haul it back into the shed.
Our first activity was to spend about an hour reading our way through the visitors centre, where written information was succinct and easy to follow and focussed around the relationship and history between Maori and Pakeha. There were many original documents on display – behind glass – with the lighting dimmed for their preservation.
We took a guided tour – actually we did one on each of our days which worked well as each guide shared quite different information. We had earpieces to hear the guides which meant we could stray and take photos and still hear everything that was said – perfect! Even though it’s winter, there were a lot of people present – each of our tour groups had about 50 people.
The buildings and grounds are beautifully maintained and there’s a cafe on site with small eels in the pond. There was a lovely bit of native forest in the grounds and some of the plants and trees were labelled so you could learn a bit more about them. There was also an art gallery upstairs, above the visitors centre.
There’s a heap more information I could give – stories, facts, learning, quite interesting and challenging discussions we had, but it would take a lot of writing, so just go for yourselves if you get the chance.