Exploring Indigenous Aotearoa (New Zealand) and the rich tapestry of the Maori people.
The Indigenous people of Aotearoa, or tangata whenua, arrived in New Zealand around a thousand years ago. Maori are central to New Zealand’s identity and experiencing their rich language, culture and history is an integral part to exploring Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud.
Whether you take a tour in Rotorua or are welcomed onto and sleep over on a Marae in Auckland, make sure you listen to the stories and myths of the people, as through these legends and experiences the magic of the culture comes to life.
Starting at the top, the often considered hotspot of Maori culture is Waitangi in the Bay of Islands. Waitangi is where New Zealand’s founding document - the Treaty of Waitangi - was signed and each year this event is commemorated on the 6 Feb, the day of signing back in 1840. You can wander around the Treaty Grounds and visit the Treaty House if you buy a day pass. You’ll also see the world’s largest war canoe, Te Kongahu Museum of Waitangi and get a guided tour of the Wharenui (or Meeting House) with it’s intricate and powerful carving.
If you are in the Bay of Islands from December to the end of March you can also get tickets for a captivating evening at Waitangi. After a short walk in the native bush, you will face a traditional Maori challenge - a wero - before being welcomed with a powhiri. Your evening includes both a cultural performance at Te Whare Runanga as well as a traditional Maori meal - or hangi - at Whare Waka Cafe. A hangi is not just a method of cooking but a true labour of love. The food is placed in baskets, wrapped in damp cloth and then buried beneath fire toasted rocks where it slow cooks all the deliciousness together. It takes time and patience but the experience if quite magical.
When you are in the Bay of Islands there is also the opportunity to paddle on a waka - a traditional Maori canoe - up the Waitangi River. Taimai Canoe Tours is operated by Ngapuhi, the local Maori tribe, and this is one of the few places in the country where visitors are granted the opportunity to sail in a waka, and also to share in the legends of the area and its people.
From the Bay of Islands your next stop on this cultural trip is Waipoua Forest just south of the Hokianga Harbour. In the dappled light of the forest resides Tane Mahuta, New Zealand’s largest living kauri tree. Wander on the gentle DOC track and you will round a bend and come face to face with the magnificent “Lord of the Forest”. According to Maori mythology Tane is the son of Ranginui - the sky father - and Papatuanuku - the earth mother. And all creatures of the forest are considered Tanes children.
From Hokianga it’s a bit of a windy but very awe inspiring roadie down state highway 12. Once past Kaiwaka, your next stop is Te Hana, and the Te Hana Te Ao Marama Traditional Village. The village has been built as a 17th century, pre-European village would have been and the tour will give you an insight into the intricacies of life in a pa (fortified village) on the Kaipara Harbour.
From Te Hana it’s an hour and a quarter to Auckland or Tamaki Makaurau. In the centre of the city, surrounded by the parklands of the Domain, is the Auckland Museum which hosts daily performance outlining the story of Aotearoa and particularly of Auckland. The performance culminates in a vigorous and “spine-tingling” haka that will absolutely leave you awestruck. And excitingly afterwards you can meet the members of the group, chat with them about the show and people of the land, local Iwi Ngati Whatua, before wandering the gallery and discovering the fantastic collection of Maori and Pasifika artifacts and art.
The Museum has over 1,000 Maori artefacts, from woven to carved items, tools and a large collection of fibrework cloaks - dating back to the arrival and settlement of Maori. There is also a magnificent carved gateway, that came from near Kaitaia, which is one of the earliest surviving Maori carvings.
Then there is the Maori Natural History Gallery which has been developed to illustrate the Maori understanding of the natural world. It’s a sight and sound fiesta of the creation of the universe centred around the two primal parents - Ranginui and Papatuanuku. The ceiling is a star filled scape beneath which lies a landscape of Tamaki Makaurau, (Auckland) the routes of the first canoes and the legends of the ancestors.
If you prefer to get back to nature, you can drive the short distance across town to discover the history of Mount Eden - Maungawhau - on a Heaven to Earth Maori guided walk. You will be led up the mountain to the summit, which was once a pa (Maori strategic stronghold) for glorious views of the city and the harbours whilst learning of the legends of the mountain and the land surrounding it.
Whilst Waitangi is the home of The Treaty, Rotorua boldly proclaims to be the home of Maoridom, having some of the most diverse and comprehensive ways to experience Maori culture. You can visit one of the geothermal parks, a maori village, enjoy a cultural performance, dine on a hangi meal, or watch warriors paddle in a waka. There is something for everyone’s taste on this cultural tripguide.
Mitai Maori Village is a fabulous all inclusive way to experience Maori culture. Set in glorious native bush, you can watch warriors paddle the intricately carved waka down the Wai-o-whiro stream, see your hangi meal being lifted from the ground - before you indulge in it’s slow cooked flavours - and the cultural performance will explain Maori history, teach you about carvings and also ta moko (tattoo art). There is a walk as part of the evening, so wearing flat shoes is a good idea (heels, whilst they look super may well leave your feet less than happy so opting for a sneaker might be a better option!)
On the edge of Rotorua you will encounter Te Puia. Te Puia is home to the Te Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley where Pohutu - the largest active geyser in the southern hemisphere lives. Meaning “constant splashing” in Maori, Pohutu fires a surge of water, sometimes 30 metres high, into the air a couple of times every hour. There are also gloopy mud pools, and Ngararatuatara, (named after the endemic Tuatara lizard) a hot spring pool that is used for Ingo - a method of cooking where baskets containing food are lowered into the boiling water to cook.
Also within the grounds are the National Wood Carving School, National Stone and Bone Carving School and the National Weaving School, all formed to ensure the survival of these wonderful Maori traditions and luckily all visitors are able to see, first hand, the artists in action as Maori have been for hundreds of years.
New Zealanders are commonly known as Kiwi’s, after the small flightless bird found only in New Zealand of the same name. Kiwi’s are endangered and nocturnal so seeing them is tricky at the best of times. Luckily at Te Puia there is the opportunity to see some of New Zealand’s national icon and learn about what’s being done to protect this curious little bird.
Offering a similar and comprehensive Maori experience is Whakarewarewa Living Maori Village, where travellers can learn about Maori culture by visiting a village where the Tuhourangi/Ngati Wahiao people use the geothermal resources for daily life - from cooking to heating their homes. You can have a tour of the Marae grounds and see the tapu (sacred) burial site. They have twice daily kapa haka performances and there are some lovely bush walks around the area, as well as the opportunity to have a hangi cooked in the bubbling hot pools that you pass on your exploration.
For more than 700 years, Ngati Rangiteaorere - Rotorua Maori - have lived near Hurutini (Hells Gate). It is an important place, treasured for it’s healing qualities. Join a guided tour around Hurutini and you will hear the stories of the area as well as being able to touch the different sorts of muds to really get a feel for the landscape. After your walk, what better way to unwind than submerging yourself in hot, luscious geothermal mud with one of their spa options or take on board Maori tradition and learn about Maori carving and the meaning behind some of their designs, as well as some basic techniques so you can create your own carving to take home with you.
After all of the options of hearty kai, a slightly more energetic way to get a perspective of Rotorua is by foot with a two hour Kia Ora Guided City Walk. Your tour guides will take you around the town and paint a picture of what life and the landscape was like in the 1800’s. They will introduce you to the key characters of that time and tell the stories behind the carvings and the people of this place. It’s a decent but not too strenuous walk, but please remember comfortable footwear, a hat, a raincoat, sunblock and some water.
The magnificent Whanganui is not only an epic river with lush, unspoilt scenery, but after 140 years of fighting for recognition by local Iwi - who recognise it as an ancestor - The Whanganui River has been granted the same rights as a human being. Make sure you travel to this unique entity and what’s even more special is if you do the Whanganui Great Walk then you will get the opportunity to stay in a DOC hut which is the only DOC accommodation that doubles as a Marae, which further illustrates the cultural and spiritual significance of the area.
After your tramping, kayaking and chilling in the Whanganui National Park head back to SH3 and then onto SH1, destination Wellington. New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, is a great little city. Radiating out from the harbour, Wellington, whilst quite windy is a fabulous place to spend a few days. It has numerous bars, cafes, restaurants, walks around the hills and coast, plus a superb range of galleries and shops. But most importantly for this cultural expedition is Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum. Te Papa has a plethora of activities and wonders to see, but one of the jewels in her crown is their collection of over 30,000 taonga or cultural treasures. You will be able to peruse ancestral carvings, cloaks and weapons as well as contemporary Maori visual art which reflects ideas around Maori culture, language and identity. Te Papa houses the largest collection of kakahu (cloaks) both contemporary and traditional and you can often watch weavers working on pieces and hear them and researchers talking about these treasures.
After wandering the halls of Te Papa go for something different and board a waka on a waka tour on Wellingtons harbour. The waka reside in Te Wharewaka (waka house) and inside Te Wharewaka live three waka on permanent display. They are launched into the lagoon and a specially built pontoon - Wiriwaka - provides easy access for passengers new to riding on a waka. If you get a little seasick and prefer to stick to dry land, then the walking tours may be a little more appealing as you will be given the opportunity to discover Wellingtons hidden Maori treasures, all from terra firma.
Banner Photo Credit: 100% Pure New Zealand