It’s fitting that I sit down on Waitangi Day to write about a recent visit to Okains Bay. The only thing that would be more fitting is if I were actually there for this day, as each year I intend to be, but somehow life gets in the way. The celebrations at the tiny village on Banks Peninsula are the largest held in the South Island to commemorate our national day. This year marked the 43rd consecutive celebration for this small, but surprisingly significant, place which contains some of the country’s most important taonga.
Yet it is also a place where time seems to have stood still somewhere in the late 19th century. Colonial buildings line the main street – which is, in fact, the only road of any significance in the tiny settlement. Opposite the historic store, and adjacent to the old school house, is the waterfront marae where two enormous waka are housed. But treasures such as these are but a part of the incredible museum which is the heart and soul of the settlement. The Okains Bay Māori and Colonial Museum is a must-see for anyone who wants to garner an understanding of our national identity. People may ‘ooh and aah’ about nearby Akaroa, and it was formerly a favourite place for me – until I ventured to Okains Bay.
I loved it at first sight, because it was reminiscent of my birthplace, Tasmania, where there are many pretty colonial towns whose streets are lined with perfectly restored buildings and dotted with enormous European trees. But of course Okains Bay is not simply a place of exquisite natural beauty with a breathtakingly lovely estuary and ocean beach. There’s also a waterfront campground of the old-fashioned kind, where vintage ’vans planted on sandy soil under a grove of pine trees speak of family holidays through the ages. And there is but one general store, and a workshop with a petrol pump. It’s a simple, lovely place to immerse yourself, in a world that is all but lost.