There’s no visiting the geologically fascinating land of Rotorua without delving into the historically fascinating world of the Māori culture.
What is the Māori Tribe?
Going in blind, all I knew of the Māori culture was their intimidating war chant and the face paint (which I learned later are actual face carvings) the men and women would wear. That’s about it. We were eager to learn a bit more. Who are they? How did they come to be? Are they still prominent today? We were eager to know and there was no leaving Rotorua until we did so.
If I were on my own, living in New Zealand for a while, I would get to investigating through the locals I end up befriending. But since I was on my own, with three friends and limited on time, the best way to learn about the Māori culture is to go through one of their special tours. Now I’m usually not a fan of regular ol’ tours, generally speaking, so we made sure to find one that was the most “in your face” as possible. After speaking to a friendly local in a travel center, he suggested we try out Tamaki Māori Village.
The tour would begin hours later in the day with plenty of hours to spare beforehand. What shall we do before?
“Have you guys gone luging yet?” asked the friendly travel guide.
“Luging?” I mumbled perplexed. “What the heck is that?”
Welcome to RotoVegas!
All it took was a simple gesture of a brochure and a recommendation from a local friend of mine who suggested luging to me briefly prior, to decide that it was the thing to do. There is a hill nearby that hosts an attraction called Skyline Luge Rotorua in the heart of the weirdly named RotoVegas. Why is this place called RotoVegas? It doesn’t resemble the real Vegas even in the slightest, but whatever. I was just glad to luge down a hill—something I’ve never done before. Chelsey, Mike, Ryan, and I each bought a ticket for three downhill runs each. One for the beginner, intermediate, and advance course. A gondola and a ski lift was our ticket to the top of the hill.
Helmets waited for us at the top. They were color specific according to head size. I immediately went for the orange one, the biggest one for my watermelon noggin.
The courses were straightforward—linear paths down the mountain with a few light turns here, some banks there, and a couple sharp turns painted with yellow Slow Down warnings. Steering the kart was easy to learn too—push forward to accelerate, pull towards your body to brake, and steer by turning the handles.
We first went down the beginner course, next the intermediate, and finally the advanced. With each course we gained confidence in our steering and thus our speed increased which meant more fun!
We took the gondola back down and drove to the Tamaki Māori Village Center our gateway to the Māori.
Enter Tamaki Māori Village
The Tamaki Māori Village Evening Experience, that is what they call it. Compared to other Māori culture tours, this one is completely immersive from start to finish—which is exactly what we wanted. A charter bus whisked us away from the heart of Rotorua into the Tamaki Māori village, huddled in one of the regions many forests. A group of us entered the sacred grounds and greeted fiercely by warriors practicing their ancient ceremony of welcome before entering the main grounds.
After the welcoming ceremony, our big group was split into several smaller groups and directed to different parts of the village where we would learn different aspects of the culture. The first area was warrior training where all the men in the group learned a quick series of motions for intimidating the enemy. The poi dance area is the one Chelsey got involved in. Poi dance is the art of swinging spherical weights attached to a small rope in different patterns and circular motions. Of course, Chelsey was a natural.
Other areas of the village involved warrior training, games, weaving, and face/body markings (almost like a tattoo).
What stuck with me about the markings are that men usually get a permanent face marking called a Ta Mono, carved in a distinct pattern on the skin. The men practically cover their faces while the women mainly get them solely on their chin as not to cover their natural beauty. Captain James Cook, a British explorer who was the first to record a circumnavigation around New Zealand, described the markings as follows:
“The marks in general are spirals drawn with great nicety and even elegance. One side corresponds with the other. The marks on the body resemble foliage in old chased ornaments, convolutions of filigree work, but in these they have such a luxury of forms that of a hundred which at first appeared exactly the same, no two were formed alike on close examination.”
The markings on the Māori people who hosted us put on a full display when they put on dazzling, yet fearsome performances involving song and dance for the crowd.
The village ended with a giant feast of sorts. Actually, it is called a hangi buffet meal mixed with New Zealand desserts. Since we arrived a little later to the village, we missed the whole process of how our hangi meat has been cooked from beneath the ground. What mattered to me more was eating it rather than learning how it was prepared anyways.
The Māori are settlers from Polynesia who arrived by canoes between 1250 and 1300 CE. Today, most of the Māori people live in New Zealand with much lesser populations living in Australia, the U.K, United States, and Canada among others. A popular expression in New Zealand is “kia ora” , which is of a Māori language known as Te Reo, literally means “be well/healthy” or can also be translated as an informal “hello”. We’ve been saying “kia ora” all over the place in New Zealand, which indicates a certain respect for the Māori culture exists to this day. With advancements in human resource and technology, invading age-old systematic, the Māori culture has been in a state of decline involving matters of economy and social sustainability. However, strong recognition in the importance of the Māori culture and it’s relevance to New Zealand as a whole is of value and efforts have taken place to preserve their unique and mythological culture by creating awareness such as the Tamaki Māori tour, which I highly recommend!
We ended the night with full bellies and an eagerness to explore more of the North Island. We could have stayed a few extra days in the sulphuric odorous region of Rotorua with plenty more to do, but other areas of interests peaked our curiosity. The area that peaked the apex of my curiosity in New Zealand takes place in Waitomo, an area to the west known for its many glowworm caves. Inside those caves is something that I have been hankering to do since 2011 that I’ve heard about from another traveler while in Peru.
Get ready, it’s legendary and it’s item number four on my A.T.L.A.S.