Thousands in Bay of Islands for Waitangi Day

8:26 pm on 6 February 2013

Waitangi Day celebrations have wound down in the Bay Islands, after thousands of people flocked to both the upper and lower maraes on the hot, sunny final day of celebrations.

Over the last three days more than 15,000 visitors flocked to the place where New Zealand's founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, was signed on this day 173 years ago.

The events at Waitangi began with a dawn service on Wednesday. About 300 people gathered inside and outside the meeting house, Te Whare Runanga, led by a Ngapuhi elder and followed by karakia (prayers) by representatives from many Maori tribes.

The dawn service was held at the upper Treaty house at Waitangi.

The dawn service was held at the upper Treaty house at Waitangi. Photo: RNZ

Politicians paid their respects, giving praise for the Treaty and to New Zealand.

Prime Minister John Key led the first prayer and gave thanks to those that had the wisdom and foresight to lay the foundations of the Treaty. He said it had become the platform for modern-day New Zealand and told those gathered that it is a peaceful, prosperous and proud country.

Mr Key asked people to support those serving in Afghanistan in their final few months before being withdrawn. He also paid tribute to New Zealanders who had died in the past year, making special mention of broadcaster Sir Paul Holmes.

Metiria Turei became the first Green Party co-leader leader to speak at the dawn service: "May we have the courage and the grace to live in harmony with creation. To nurture and protect those wild places that we love and which sustain us," she said.

Ms Turei told those present to look to their children for inspiration in solving the inequities that exist in New Zealand and said the Greens would continue to stand alongside Maori fighting on issues such as water rights, housing and jobs.

Labour leader David Shearer told those gathered that Waitangi Day celebrates what it means to be a New Zealander.

Mana Movement leader Hone Harawira used his speech to raise the issue of poverty and what it will take to overcome the huge challenge facing the country.

The Te Tai Tokerau MP said it would only be met if people had the courage to set aside their individual ambitions and personal aspirations. He said the Treaty was signed so that everyone in New Zealand would prosper and have peace.

The service was organised by the Waitangi National Trust and ended just before 6am with the sounds of a lone bagpiper beneath the Treaty flagpole and the putatara (conch).

The Air Force's Red Checkers put on a show above the Treaty grounds.

The Air Force's Red Checkers put on a show above the Treaty grounds. Photo: RNZ

Waka and military firepower on show

Later in the morning, a flotilla of up to 20 waka set sail in what has become a major highlight of the commemorations at Waitangi.

Waka were blessed before the hour-long paddle around the bay, led by the giant war canoe Nga Toki Matawhaorua which is normally housed on the Treaty grounds and carries 80 paddlers.

Members of the Navy band with frigate Te Kaha in the bay.

Members of the Navy band with frigate Te Kaha in the bay. Photo: RNZ

On board this year were paddlers from overseas, including Native Americans, Dutch and Ainu people from Japan.

After returning to shore, crews performed a mass haka in front of a large crowd who turned out to enjoy the family atmosphere in hot, sunny weather.

About 120 sailors from the Navy took part in a parade, along with a brass band at the upper Treaty grounds. The Navy conducted a 21-gun salute from the frigate Te Mana in the bay about midday.

Commander Shane Arndell, the officer in charge of the vessel, said the Maori culture is embraced by sailors and the Navy has a long association with celebrations at Waitangi.

Commander Arndell said the Navy assisted Governor William Hobson, who signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, when he first arrived in New Zealand. It has been attending celebrations every year since being invited by Te Tai Tokerau in 1947.

An aerial display was also performed by the Royal New Zealand Air Force's aerobatics team the Red Checkers just after midday.