Our Indigenous Cultural Experience

Trip Start Sep 03, 2006
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Trip End May 23, 2007


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Wednesday, May 2, 2007

We woke once again to rain and a very nasty looking cloud in the sky above us that didn't have any plans of going anywhere anytime soon, so we decided that we should be the ones to move on. We were about an hours drive from Rotorua, so we made that our next destination and irrespective of the weather we would spend a bit of time taking in some Maori culture. Rotorua is New Zealand's most dynamic thermal area with spurting geysers, steaming hot springs and exploding mud pools. The drive from Taupo to Rotorua was very interesting with steam rising from the various thermal pores in the ground.

We stopped to view the mud pools along the way and were amazed to just see the mud bubbling, blowing & popping. As we approached Rotorua and we were greeted by the sulphur-rich air, and although a little bit of churn in our stomachs it was the perfect taste for what lay ahead as we took in some of the real New Zealand in the 'Sulphur City'.

As you are well aware, the weather has been against us on most of the things that we have went to do, but we decided that we would not let it bother us and that it was happening for a reason, and promised ourselves we would give ourselves a wee treat at some point along the way. We had decided that Rotorua was the perfect opportunity to learn more about Aotearoa's (Maori name for New Zealand meaning Land of the Long White Cloud) original culture. We booked a dinner and show at Mitai, as they were the only place offering a hangi actually cooked the proper Maori way as many places offer a similar version but cook it in an oven. A hangi is an unusual method of cooking food in the ground over hot river stones. The meal is thrown in together and steamed until tender, taking on some of the flavour of the earth. As luck would have it, the weather completely changed when we had clear skies and a bit of sun.

We were picked up from our campsite and brought to Mitai Maori Village where we were brought in and introduced to some of the family and taught a wee bit of the Maori language and a bit about the Mitai family's history. After the usual volunteer from the audience thing we had a guy selected to represent our group as our leader/chief we were taken to see our dinner cooking in a whole under the ground and listen as it was blessed by a Maori lady (our guide for the evening). We were then taken for a short forest walk to the side of a river, where we could hear the chanting of Maori men and see flame torches at the other side of the river approaching us as the chants got louder and louder. We all waited in silence and suspense as they got into an ancient warrior canoe and came from around the end in the river towards us chanting; as they grew nearer we could see that they were in their traditional Maori clothing with faces painted etc. They slowly moved up the river past us chanting and intimidating us - I have to say that although we knew it was all part of a show, they were quite scary. They went up and down the river a few times checking us out and trying to frighten us then went into the forest and we followed through to their marae (meeting house).

As we arrived in their marae we were seated and watched as our selected leader was taken on stage where they stood still - just staring out at us. Being greeted in traditional Maori style is an unnerving experience as the warriors test to see if you have come in peace or otherwise. The fearsome chief warrior jumped and stamped the ground in front us and probing at our leader with his taiaha, showing us the whites of his eyes and the protrusion of his tongue as he challenged and intimidated us. He then placed a tia (carved stick) on the ground in front of our leader - picking it up shows that you have come in peace, so after our leader picked it up the chief warrior lowers his stance and returns to his seat, at which point our leader approached him and introduced us and thanked him on our behalf for welcoming us into his family at which point the chief warrior stood up and greeted our leader by touching nose to nose twice.

The chief spoke to us in Maori giving English translations and again teaching us more of the Maori language. We were then given a cultural performance were we treated to many traditional dances and songs and we learnt the meaning and history behind each of them. They showed us all their weapons and displayed how they were used giving us the opportunity to see some Maori war displays. We were then taught a bit of the haka (war dance) before being treated to an actual spine tingling haka display by an actual Maori warriors - and it must be said that they were very welcoming and funny, when it came to the haka, they were still very very scary!

We then returned for our meal of chicken, lamb, stuffing, salads and a massive selection of vegetables. The taste was sort of smoky - really hard to describe, but was really beautiful! After dinner we went for a walk through the forest and were shown all the ancient fauna and were told the Maori uses for them all, stopped to see the ancient glowworms and then we were given the privilege of being taken to the sacred Fairy Spring (made even nicer by the clear sky and the full moon). All in all it was an unbelievable experience and we would strongly recommend it to anyone.

The next morning we woke to a very strong smell of sulphur, which apparently can be a clue to heavy rain to come. When we booked our night at Mitai, we also received free tickets to Hell's Gate (an active geothermal field). Initially we weren't overly impressed with it, but as walked around and caught up with a tour guide and learnt a lot and he allowed us to take mud from one of the mud pools and we had a wee hand treatment - a little bit of luxury for a backpacker is not a bad thing! We were able to drink water straight from a flowing stream, put our hand in a wee hot sulphur crater to feel the heat and see the largest hot waterfall in the southern hemisphere (quite cool with the steam rising from it!) At the end we were given a Maori blessing to keep us safe on our travels and throughout our future and were then given the opportunity to create our own Maori carving (quite a difficult task).

Just as we were driving out of Rotorua, the rain returned, but we are now both perfectly content that we have got what we wanted out of our New Zealand experience!

Love & Best Wishes,

Paul & Ciara
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