Under a concrete-coloured sky we walked out to take the ancestors home. The wind was brisk even at Omaka marae and it would be fierce out on The Bar. Rain was forecast. After all the travel and adreneline of the last three days it was finally the last step in the journey. When did the journey begin? When these people first arrived in New Zealand, around 700 years ago? When they passed away? When their bones were removed from Wairau Bar, 70 years ago? Christchurch, three days ago when two bus loads of Rangitane travelled to Christchurch to reclaim them? The choices are many, but the end was easy to see – we were taking the beautiful and solid wakatu papaku (carved wooden funeral boxes) containing the tupuna up the road, across the mouth of the Wairau River, and back onto the wide flat expanses of Wairau Bar itself.
Our excavations in January had already determined the burial sites, which were as close as possible to the original graves without risking disturbing them further. The tupuna were in their original groupings, although exactly how they were related is for the moment lost to the mists of time. A couple of hundred of their Rangitane ancestors had journeyed from all over New Zealand and the world to be here. There will be at least three news crews and a dozen other journalists waiting for us over the other side. By any measure it is a huge day, and by an amazing stroke of fortune I am going to play a much bigger part in it than I’d ever imagined. As I already mentioned, I’m here as a guest, but of course you have ot try and make yourself useful when there’s so much to do. The buses had arrived, everyone was buzzing and we were about to leave. I was putting my shoes on outside the meeting house, when I was summoned inside. The rimu caskets are about two metres long and extremely solid. Each one takes six (?) men to lift, and they need someone to help. Oh my God – I’m going to be a pall bearer! Let me just thank my Rangitane friends at this point because it was an incredible privlige and honour. I fall into place on the back corner of the fourth XXX, heart pounding, and we carefully carry it out to the waiting van.
It takes about twenty minutes to drive from the marae to the end of Wairau Bar road. Dozens of vecicles are stacked in the parking lot by the dock and across the other side of the river, about 400 metres away we can see hundreds of people and the TV cameras waiting for us. It was a huge logistical job to set all this up – barges and ferries have been brought in from Picton to carry everyone. We will be going over absolutely last, transporting the tupuna across in something that looks like a landing craft from Saving Private Ryan. My crew are the last ones on board, which I suddenly realise means we will be the first to get off on the other side. My pulse rate quickens even more…
We all took a deep breath and stepped off the boat, carefully carrying our precious cargo. The Rangitane women began their waiata, and we moved into the semi-circle of hundreds of people, concentrating on every step and trying to stay in time with the other five bearers.
From about here, I’m going to let Christine Cornege’s brilliant photographs tell you what happened. Those of us who were there don’t need me to you remind it was like – amazing. The emotion and electricity in the air. The release of sorrow and outpouring of joy and the feeling that this was such a good thing to be doing – returning the original inhabitants of Wairau Bar into the ground to finally rest in peace. The moment the sun came out, right after the last casket was lowered carefully into it’s resting place. For me, to be honest, it was a bit of a blur – I was focussing so hard on my unexpected role that all I could think about was holding on to the ornate brass handle, keeping my corner of the casket steady and level. I still can’t believe that I was there, a very small part of one of the most significant cultural and archaeological events to happen in New Zealand for years. Thank you so much.
You can see the One News report HERE
The Press HERE