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Nowadays Russell is a very different sort of place. Home to some of New Zealand's oldest buildings - such as Christ Church, built in 1836 - the town has the look of a meticulously constructed film set. Elegant houses with white picket fences line the shore, and the many seafront restaurants are full of well-heeled patrons. Eating freshly shucked oysters and sipping a glass of local pinot gris while watching the sun descend over the harbour, the view is nearer heaven than hell.

  • A day sail aboard R Tucker Thompson costs £64, including morning tea, lunch and ferry transfer from Paihia (tucker.co.nz)

Learn about local culture aboard a traditional Maori war canoe
'Tohiki!' the chief bellows, like a warrior calling from a different age. 'Hiiii!' the crew respond in unison, 40 paddles drawing against the water in time with the chant. As the double-hulled waka (canoe) surges forth, Hone Mihaka turns to me with a satisfied smile. 'We are the waka, and the waka is us.'

Hone is a proud member of the Ngapuhi, New Zealand's largest tribe and the one to which most Bay of Islands Maori belong. His company Taiamai Tours offers waka voyages on the Waitangi River, allowing visitors to explore the area while learning about his people's relationship with the land. 'It's about sharing who we are, involving people in our living culture - not turning it into a product,' says Hone. He is scornful of the Maori 'cultural shows' put on by local hotels. 'With us, what you are paying for is a three-hour trip in a canoe with a couple of storytellers. But our customs and traditions, they are not for sale; these are our gift to you.'

The journey begins in the Waitangi River's tidal estuaries, with a lesson in waka paddling skills and chants. As we make our way upstream and the bush land along the riverbanks grows greener and denser, our strokes pull deeper; our rhythmic calls become more emphatic. Hone stands at the waka's ornately carved prow, thumping his paddle in time, but occasionally breaks rank to point out a bird or plant, a good fishing spot, or the family marae (meeting house), a low wood-plank building with a grass-covered roof.

Today I am the only tourist aboard the waka - the rest of the crew are all members of Hone's whanau, or extended family. Cousins, aunts, brothers, grandsons - from a seven-year-old boy to a woman in her 70s - all have come to take their place in the canoe for Waitangi Day. A public holiday, 6 February commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand's founding document, in 1840. Each year, just after sunrise, it is marked by the ceremonial procession of a waka fleet, and tribes from all over New Zealand come to take part. 'For my ancestors, Waitangi Day was about bringing together different tribes, nations, peoples,' says Hone. 'And for me it is the same thing - a coming together.'

There are few 'pure' Maori left in New Zealand, most share heritage with the Pakeha (British, Irish and other white European settlers) who colonised their land. Hone wears a red tartan blanket wrapped around his waist, but when I enquire about its significance he shrugs and laughs. 'This is the first thing that came to hand when I got dressed this morning. You want to talk about my clothing? This is my clothing,' he says, placing a clenched fist on his bare chest, at the heart of an elaborate tattoo: his 'moko'.

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