Thousands turn out to greet Pacific flotilla in Gisborne

There were spine-tingling scenes in Gisborne on Saturday as thousands of people turned out to greet a Pacific flotilla.

It's the first big milestone in the week-long commemorations, which mark Captain Cook's arrival in New Zealand 250 years ago.

Powerful, impassioned and filled with the spirit of Tuia 250 - the flotilla was welcomed ashore by a powhiri which stretched along the coastline, weaving together New Zealand's unique dual heritage.

Local warriors laid down a series of wero (challenges) to the Manuhiri (visitors) as they journeyed along the coastline.

It was a welcome fit for the occasion as crews from three Pacific waka finally arrived in Gisborne. It marked the end of a five-hour approach to land that started at dawn this morning - a huge milestone for a voyage, that for the Tahitian waka, started a month ago.

"It's just a special, special privilege," says waka crew member Stanley Conrad. "An honour, that we have done this for our ancestors, honouring what Aotearoa is all about." 

Māori and Pākehā alike were sharing in the hope of what this commemoration could mean for New Zealand's sense of togetherness.

"I think this could be the start of something very special, it opens up hearts, it opens up minds, and it opens up our souls," one woman told Newshub.

"I think it'll be a good turning point if everyone really embraces the actual facts that happened," another said.

Dignitaries including Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern joined the crowds of old and young gathering on the shore.

Then, a long wait as the waka battled winds to come into the harbour, close to 100 warriors pouring 250 years of history into a pohiri of epic proportions.

The atmosphere was electric. There was a real sense of heart, of togetherness and a sense that this moment is a special one, not just in terms of honouring New Zealand's history but also in setting the tone for our future.

"This is unlike anything pohiri I've been part of," Ardern said.

But today is just the beginning.

"This has been an incredibly positive day but there will be moments in this commemoration where we have to acknowledge the parts of this story that led to loss of life and caused harm, it's all part of our history, we have to be open about it," Ardern said.

It's been 250 years since Captain Cook arrived in New Zealand. The European tall ships are next to arrive in the bay, bringing with them a whole new series of challenges.