We spent our last evening in Rotorua attending a Maori cultural experience. All of Rotorua's attractions are extravagantly and unapologetically touristy, and the Maori cultural attractions are no exception. Deciding that the opportunity to learn about Maori culture outweighed our deepseated dislike of touristy things, we made reservations for one of the evening experiences (including dinner!) at Tamaki Maori Village.
Late in the afternoon, a big bus picked us up at the holiday park. After greeting us with a hearty, "Kia ora!" our driver, Dennis, informed us that we were on the "Weka" bus (a weka is a kind of bird), and that we would therefore be the Weka tribe during the evening's activities. After picking up a dozen or so more tourists, and starting down the road to the village, Dennis told us that we needed to choose a chief for our tribe. A brave man from Scotland named Bill volunteered, and thus became Chief Willem, leader of the Weka tribe.
The first thing Chief Willem had to learn was how to perform the Maori greeting called the "hongi," in which two people greeting each other press their noses and foreheads together and share a breath.
Hongi image from a Maori cultural website.
Chief Willem and the chiefs of the other three tribes (busloads) would need to perform the hongi with the chief of Tamaki village, if we were accepted as visitors, following the "peace challenge."
Upon arriving at Tamaki Village, we lined up under a shelter (for which we were quite grateful, as it was still raining), adjoining a large open area with a stockade of sharpened sticks, behind which was the village, on one side, and a large, tumbling creek on the other. We tribespeople stood silently, our four chiefs standing in front us; the only sound the dripping of the rain on the wooden shelter.
Soon, a rhythmic booming began, drums being played in the village beyond the stockade. Men's voices, loud and extremely agitated, joined the sound of the drums. A few moments later, a large, intricately-carved Maori canoe appeared on the creek, around the edge of the stockade, paddled by eight Maori men dressed in traditional warrior costumes and sporting extensive tattoos and angry faces.
The welcoming committee arrives
When they reached the edge of the open area, the warriors stopped paddling, disembarked from the canoe, and began an aggressive show of power including facial grimaces, haka (the traditional Maori war dance), grunting, and false charges at the chiefs with their spears.
This, Dennis had warned us on the bus, was the "peace challenge," performed by a village's warriors in order to determine whether visitors came in peace or were looking for a fight. Most of the time, Dennis said, as the Maori embrace a warlike culture, the visitors were looking for a fight. We, however, were not looking for a fight; we were hoping to learn some Maori culture and have a nice dinner.
As the peace offering (a fern frond) was dropped in front of each visiting chief in turn, and the chief picked it up, signaling his peaceful intentions, the warriors decided that they didn't need to run them through with their spears after all.
Brave Chief Willem accepting the peace offering
The chief of Tamaki village, a heavy-set, heavily-tattooed Maori man,
The Tamaki Village Chief
performed the hongi with each of the four visiting chiefs, and a woman began singing a song of welcome from a ledge near the top of the stockade, indicating that our tribes were welcome to enter the village.
We followed our chiefs into the village and split up into four groups, each visiting a different cultural "station" in turn. Our first station was the canoe (waka, in Maori), where we had a close up view of the intricately-carved canoe that we'd seen earlier.
One of the warriors described the significance of the designs and the respect that the Maori have for their canoes, which carried them from their ancestral island somewhere in Eastern Polynesia, all the way to New Zealand. Not a trip I'd want to make in a canoe.
At the next station we learned about Maori poi. This isn't the same poi you'd find in Hawaii, which is a food made from the taro plant. A Maori poi is a ball on the end of a string, which is swung around.
Originally used by both Maori men and women to keep their wrists and arms flexible and strong, poi are now used mostly by Maori women as part of traditional dancing.
Our next stop was at the ti rakau (throwing stick) station, where two women demonstrated the use of these wooden sticks, nimbly tossing them to each other while chanting along to a song. Two of our intrepid tribemates gave it a try. One of them tossed the sticks a bit too hard, and a bit too low, and the other ended up with some bruises on his knees and shins. Apparently ti rakau takes some practice. Or protective gear. Or both.
Our tribemates were so bad at throwing and catching the sticks that their instructor couldn't watch.
The next station was my favorite, even though only the men got to participate...haka instruction. Haka, the traditional Maori war dance, is a flamboyant display of intimidation, involving wide eyes, chanting, slapping, stomping, grunting, grimacing, and sticking out the tongue. To the uninitiated, it can look more comical than intimidating, and in fact we were asked not to laugh when the warriors performed the haka upon our arrival at the village. We agreed, because to laugh at warriors performing a haka would be disrespectful. Plus, they had spears.
Anyway, all the men in our tribe were asked to line up, whereupon two Maori warriors proceeded to run them through the various elements of the haka: making your eyes really big, slapping your thighs while stomping rhythmically, grunting, chanting, and of course sticking your tongue waaaaay out. The guys did their best - and some did pretty well - though the end result looked less like a display of intimidation and more like a drunken yuppie chorus line.
The drunken yuppie chorus line
Eric looking fierce after performing his first haka
Next, all the tribes gathered to watch the components of our dinner emerge from the depths of a Maori hangi (earthen oven),
where they had been cooking for hours. Workers removed the cloth sacks covering the oven, and then lifted steaming racks of chickens, lamb, potatoes, kumara (sweet potatoes), and vegetables out onto tables, before whisking them away to prepare our dinner.
While our dinner was being prepared, we visiting tribespeople entered a large communal building and were treated to Maori singing, dancing, poi dancing, ti rakau, and haka by the talented Maori villagers.
Dinner consisted of three buffets containing the food cooked in the hangi and, later, a dessert buffet containing many delicious desserts including pavlova, a fruit-and-whipped-cream-topped meringue cake invented either by Kiwis or Aussies, depending on whom you ask. Everything was cooked to perfection. We sat with our Weka tribe and had fun getting to know them a little bit, people from all over the world.
On the bus ride back to our lodging, Dennis serenaded us with an eclectic a capella mix of songs including selections from "The Sound of Music," (close your eyes and imagine a large, heavy-set Maori guy singing "Edelweiss"), some of John Denver's hits, "Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong, and even a couple of Scottish tunes in honor of brave Chief Willem.
I thought the Tamaki Village people did a good job of educating and entertaining us, giving us a taste of Maori culture and cuisine, touristy though it was.