Dining with Willie Apiata

Sixteen-year-old Maraea Ranui isn’t too nervous about speaking at tonight’s Battle of Gate Pa Commemoration dinner – instead she’s steadying herself ahead of meeting Victoria Cross recipient Willie Apiata.

The Tauranga Girl’s College student will sit at the same table as the Kiwi war hero, who grew up in Bay of Plenty’s Te Kaha, and hopes to ask him on his thoughts when fighting for New Zealand.

Sixteen-year-old Maraea Ranui will meet Victoria Cross recipient Willie Apiata at tonight’s Commemoration Dinner, where she’ll also make a speech. Photos: Sarah Webb.

Winning the Battle of Gate Pa speech competition on April 14, Maraea has gained the chance to meet Willie, a former corporal in the New Zealand Special Air Service who I 2007 became New Zealand first Victoria Cross recipient, recognising his bravery under fire during Afghanistan conflict in 2004.

Maraea will also re-perform her winning speech at the Trinity Wharf-based dinner, which will be attended by about 200 dignitaries, including Maori and Pakeha descendants of those who took part in the battle, Government Ministers, NZ Defence staff, UK Defence Force representatives; senior iwi representatives, mayors and councillors.

“My speech talks about how everyone should be treated the same and I finish it off with a Maori Whakatauki [proverb],” says Maraea.

Asked what she’ll chat to Willie about, Maraea says her speech will provide some topics for conversation.

“He fought in war and he will know how my solider [in my speech] feels – so I will talk to him about that,” says Maraea, who is looking forward to meeting Willie and artist June Grant. “I‘m so excited and I’m nervous.”

To enter the Battle of Gate Pa speech competition, Year 11-13 Western Bay of Plenty secondary students were given the topic: “It is the morning of April 30, 1864, and you have participated in and survived the Battle of Gate Pa – what are your thoughts? If you could send a message to the future about the battle what would it be?”

Maraea says her speech talks about a solider and what he saw when fighting in battle “but also what he saw afterwards – if perceptions among people had changed”.

“It covers the aspect of land confiscation and that it wasn’t theirs [the British] to take in the first place.

“I want to ask Willie what he really was fighting for – as I’ve learned some soldiers didn’t know what they were fighting for beforehand – so I want to ask him what he was fighting for when he went to battle,” says Maraea.

Willie will speak at the dinner, which has sold out of tickets, as part of commemorations of the 150-year battle.

Plus Major-General David Cullen OBE, who holds a distinguished military career since first commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1982, will also make a speech.

Dinner guests are invited to wear formal black tie or 1864 attire, with menu offering food inspired by that of 150 years ago.

In another twist, the dinner will take place from where General Cameron’s Tauranga force gathered for a hearty dinner at the Elms Mission Station the night before the battle – exactly 150 years ago.

“We also recall it was on this very same night, April 28, 1864, nine of the off-duty army and navy officers, who were part of General Cameron’s Tauranga force, gathered for a hearty dinner at the Elms Mission Station – not far from where we’ll sit – as invited guests of Archdeacon Brown and his wife,” says Pukehinahina Charitable Trust board chair Simon Collett.

“Meanwhile, in their artillery-proof bunkers and concealed trenches within the Pa, the

Maori defenders passed an uncomfortable night waiting for the dawn.”

Simon says the dinner is a chance to remember a significant event in the establishment of the place that many of us call home.

“The Battle of Gate Pa is part of our identity as a city and part of our history as a country which should not be forgotten.”

Maraea, who is wearing her school blazer to the dinner, says her family will watch her speak tonight, as they did in the speech finals where her father Grant Ranui was asked to close the event with a mihi (prayer), and also got to say how proud of her he was.

MC Chris Wikaira will welcome guests before they’re served a dinner, with speeches to follow.

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