New Zealand (1999)

It is Asia week in Auckland. Under the glass-fronted skyscrapers of the Central Business District, stalls are selling noodles and Bollywood videos. Chinese lanterns and coloured streamers hang over busy shopping streets in which Tibetan activists collect signatures while Bharata Natyam dancers perform to a throng of contented, dhosa-munching Indian families.

Over the festivities rises the science-fiction silhouette of the Sky Tower, at 328 metres the highest structure in the Southern Hemisphere and symbol of contemporary New Zealand. This country is no longer an outpost of the British empire, but a nation on the Pacific Rim, twenty-first century capitalism's wild frontier. Dragging my jetlag through the wide streets I can sense change, a subtle but fast moving undertow to the Saturday-afternoon current of shoppers.

Sitting in a café I snack on prawn crackers and notice that a photo of one of the Indian dancers has made the front page of the New Zealand Herald. Beneath it are some telling statistics. In seven years time New Zealand's Asian population will overtake the number of resident Pacific Islanders. By 2050, the white or 'Pakeha' community will make up only half the total, down from around 70% today. During the same time period, numbers of Maori are set to double. Turning to the business section I read that New Zealand's economy is shifting focus as Asian investment flows into the country and its once-special trading relationship with Britain fades into history. It seems Asia week is about acclimatising white New Zealanders to more than spicy food and unfamiliar music.

The pace of change may account for the Estate Agent's icy smile. Blonde, well-manicured and conspicuously mobile-phoned, she is selling units in a "luxury serviced apartment complex" in Auckland harbour. We stand at the balcony of the show flat, watching people drink lattes in the line of new waterfront cafés. The bay sparkles like new-minted currency, and she tells me how the forthcoming defense of the Americas cup has unleashed a flurry of development. Her building is directly across the water from hangers that will house the international yachting teams. Sales are brisk. Yet when I ask if the development is backed by Asian cash, her face darkens.

"No," she says from between gritted teeth. "It's good old New Zealand money. We can do some things on our own."

It takes a few days before I realise why my question irritated her. Self-reliance is one of the cornerstones of Pakeha identity, and it's this very quality that the globalism of Asia Week subtly puts into question. Up on Mount Eden, an extinct volcano which gives some of the best views of Auckland's leafy sprawl of houses, there is a delapidated obelisk, a memorial to the pioneers who "transformed a wilderness into the smiling land you see before you." The rhetoric is old-fashioned, but this nineteen-thirties inscription gives a taste of the conservative pride that is threatened by the appearance of a sushi bar next to the London bookshop, or the spectacle of cricketers in Victoria Park playing beneath murals of Jackie Chan and Gong Li.

Travelling in New Zealand is a delicate experience. History is layered finely over the land, easy to miss and easy to misunderstand. The kind of rapid transformation showing itself in Auckland has already happened at least twice before in this country, a thousand years ago with the landing of the Maori war canoes and again with the coming of the Europeans. Then, as now, the idea of nationhood, of what it means to belong to Aotearoa, the 'land of the long white cloud', has been in flux.

Drive North from the city and you pass through a series of spotless coastal towns. Peaceful and pretty, they are the kind of places with a rotary club, a war memorial, and a fiercely-competitive garden society. Some are called after long-dead Scots or Englishmen, traders and missionaries from the pioneer days. Other names tell more troubling stories. The town of Waipu now attracts birdwatchers, keen to catch a glimpse of the rare New Zealand dotterel that lives on its river estuary. Yet the name means 'red tide', in memory of the day the beach was drenched in the blood of English regulars who fought (and lost) a battle with a Maori war party.

North of Waipu is the Bay of Islands, a watercolourist's fantasy of blue sea and bobbing yachts. The bay presents nightly textbook sunsets for the delectation of the sunburnt families eating fish and chips in the cafés of Paihia, its largest tourist resort. As they gather on their motel balconies, it is a fair bet that the the trim retirees planning tomorrow's sport fishing trip don't have the area's history uppermost in their minds. This sleepy place was once known as the 'hellhole of the Pacific'. The encounter between European whalers and the Maori of what was then called Kororareka, brought violence, disease and eventually annexation to the British empire.

It is a short walk up the beach from Paihia to Waitangi, where one February morning in 1840 a British naval captain called William Hobson greeted a gathering of Northland Maori chiefs with the words 'he iwi tahi tatou'. At the time the assertion that 'we are one people' was rather wishful thinking, but the treaty they signed still forms the basis of the state of New Zealand. The Waitangi headland is now a national reserve, gardened into golf-course perfection, with a shady wooden visitors centre that shows a film about the early days of colonisation. 'These were most unhappy times' intones its narrator, tactfully.

In the giftshop Emma sells postcards and greenstone pendants. She is one of the many people who find Waitangi a controversial site. The treaty was used by white settlers to legitimise the theft of land, and initiate a marginalisation of the Maori that has only been challenged in the last thirty years. Once a year the Waitangi gardeners grease the tall pole which flies the New Zealand flag, in preparation for the angry demonstrations which still take place at the treaty ground. Each year someone still manages to shin up and swap the flag for a green-and-white Maori one.

Emma feels this history more keenly than most. "That," she says, pointing to a figure in an oil painting of the signing ceremony, "is my great great grandfather." Chief Te Kemara refused to sign at first, but against his better judgement allowed himself to be persuaded. "The silly sod," sighs his descendant, who then takes me line by line through a text of the treaty, showing the ambiguities and loopholes which are still the subject of intense legal debate.

Some days later I find myself sharing a concrete bath of steaming geothermally-heated water with Slim, an affable 16 stone ex gang-member, and a wizened old woman he calls Auntie. We are stark naked and talking politics. The baths (and my two companions) belong to the Te Arawa people, who live around the spa town of
Rotorua, south east of Auckland. Between gossiping about the fights and marital doings of an endless series of cousins, Slim reminisces about his grandmother. "She had scars on her knuckles, bro." I ask why. "They were done by her teachers. They beat her for speaking Maori at school". Those days are long gone, but Slim still resents the enforcement of Pakeha ways and Pakeha ideals on his people.

Two centuries after Captain Cook, some Maori still think of the Pakeha as interlopers. The biker I meet in a seedy Auckland bar ('no dogs, no visible tattoos') says of his white countryfolk "they've been here five minutes, mate. They've got no culture at all." Despite themselves, some Pakeha seem to suspect this too, and look sentimentally back to Europe. Tucked away in a little Auckland arcade is a Scottish shop. You can buy tapes of bagpipe music, a bottle of Irn Bru, or even a made-to-measure kilt in the tartan of your ancestral clan. It caters mainly to New Zealanders who want to feel connected to a country their forebears left after the nineteenth century Highland clearances. "I think," says the saleswoman, "that people come in here to buy themselves some roots."

But for every Pakeha New Zealander who imagines a distant mother country, there are many more who would concur with the lines of the poet Denis Glover:

I do not dream of Sussex Downs
Or quaint old England's quaint old towns
But think of what will yet be seen
in Johnsonville and Geraldine

These words circle through my sleep-deprived mind as, just before dawn, I climb up to the lighthouse on the East Cape to watch the sunrise. Five hundred miles out to sea lie the tiny Chatham Islands, the first land to see the new millennium. The next spot will be here. I am nine months early, but watching the birth of another day it's hard not to believe that 'what will yet be seen' can always outweigh history, however complex. Behind me is a huge expanse of empty land, surely space enough for everyone who wants to make a life there, wherever their canoes came from. Ten days later, back in cramped, grimy London, I will get email from my friend Sarah, in her beach house near Auckland. "I live in paradise" she writes. I will look out of the window and decide she might have a point.

- This piece was first published in The Observer.