YOU might notice that in the few posts I have written from New Zealand, I have not indulged nor learnt much of Maori culture, certainly in comparison to my interest in Australian Aboriginal culture. Partly this is because - contrary to the advice of our travel agent - you really cannot do New Zealand in three weeks, and therefore we have been racing around, rarely stopping for breath or chance to learn something of the local people. It is also because we have spent more time in the south island, a visual spectacle of a landmass and the true treasure of the land of the long white cloud, but also home to only a quarter of New Zealand's population and far fewer Maori settlements.
We have just spent the last few days in Rotorua, a city in the Bay of Plenty region of New Zealand's north island. It is fascinating on several levels, from the geothermal fields that surround it, sending up plumes of steam from random draincovers and some notable geysers, to the sulphur-rich lake and atmosphere which, frankly, pongs a little. It is also, at least for KiwiExperience passengers, the place to be to experience Maori culture. So on Monday night, Tamaki tours took us to a Maori Marae (meeting ground) to view a concert and share a hangi feast. It was a truly memorable evening.
Each bus was to represent a visiting tribe who would accept a peace offering and be welcomed into the village. For a chief, our group chose Kent from Oregon, who was in New Zealand to celebrate his tenth wedding anniversary (and to have his vows renewed, Maori style). Along with the three other visiting chiefs, Kent had to stand alone and face the Tamaki tribe's challenge, in which several toa (warriors) made threatening and violent gestures, supported by war cries, fire poi and sword demonstrations. This Powhiri (formal welcome) is designed to ascertain if the visiting tribe come in peace - if so the visitor will stand and not retaliate, waiting for a peace offering (a Teka) to be presented. Though the near dance-like movements and sticking out of the tongue might sound by description a little amusing, in a serious setting they are truly quite intimidating.
Once granted permission to enter by a Karanga (call of welcome), we all walked around the village, in which Maori crafts such as woodcrafts, weaponry and cooking were displayed. From here we entered the Wharenui (meeting house) for the concert, a display of chants, hand games, poi, stories, song and dance, including the haka (minus the rugby strips). The standard of it all was fantastic, the tone far lighter than the threatening entrance display by the toa. Indeed, applause may not be a Maori invention, but it was fully welcomed!
Lastly we moved on to the hangi feast, a buffet of food cooked in the traditional manner, underground with hot rocks. For a backpacker it truly was a banquet, with roast chicken and lamb, more vegetables than you could imagine (including kumara), and for pudding the most divine pavlova I have ever tasted. I had a few too many helpings, I just couldn't help myself.
It was a fantastic evening in which I learnt a lot about Maori tradition and folklore. It was in essence a tourist attraction, but it was delivered with such pride and respect, and also immense gratitude. The Maori are far greater appreciated in their home country than the Aboriginals are in Australia, and they are truly thankful.
*a line from the Haka, meaning "Stamp the feet as hard as you can"
Photos: (top) A demonstration of the Haka; (middle) a Maori carving at the entrance to the Rotorua botanical gardens; (bottom) a carving in the Tamaki village