Have you ever been told that, in the place you are about to go – the headmaster’s office, the police station – under no circumstance, must you laugh? And what usually happens? Well imagine it’s been made very clear that giggling, guffawing, tittering, chortling, smirking or any vague noise or facial expression that so much as hints at mirth or merriment will not just be seen as inappropriate, but culturally offensive. And then imagine that there’s a man standing in front of you: naked, but for a skirt. He’s got face paint on and he’s twirling a stick about like he thinks it’s the coolest thing in the world. Meanwhile he’s dancing – badly – and sticking his tongue out in your direction. Like that’s the rudest thing ever.

And yet, in possibly the greatest show of restraint since Big Brother’s Chantelle last went a day without saying something mind-bogglingly stoopid, not so much as a “pppfff” passed my lips. The bus journey hadn’t helped one jot. The merry driver had had us in stitches with all manner of wind-ups and sing-alongs (on the way back she would take the full-sized bus round a mini roundabout three times as we sang “the wheels on the bus…”). She’d got us all cackling, then said, “Whatever you do, don’t laugh at the Maori greeting.” Yeah, thanks for that. The welcome had started with Te Wero (The Challenge) – the amusing, yet intimidating, tongue-sticking-out dance – and, thankfully, moved on to The Karanga (The Call Of Welcome). Then we were welcomed into their village grounds where the Tangata Whenua (people of the land) demonstrated poi twirling, weaponry displays, tribal chants and cultural activities of yore – most memorably, the fearsome Haka. We were welcomed into the Wharenui (The Meeting House) with some speeches, then some dancing and the type of songs you’re unlikely to hear in the charts any time soon.

It’s all very jolly – it seems we can all be friends after all. We sat down to a large Hangi feast, apparently cooked using traditional methods (slowly and underground), though it tastes just like contemporary cuisine, if not better. Despite the fierce battle with my laughing glands, it turned out to be an insightful, entertaining and very enjoyable evening. Earlier that day I had been taken on a guided tour of Whakarewarewa Thermal Village where Maori still live, partially using traditional methods. The hot thermal waters bubbling from small holes in the ground around us make ideal cooking pots and today, instead of hunting for birds or fish they simply nip to the supermarket, grab their boil in the bag feast and lob it in. Well, I imagine there’s slightly more to it than that – but near enough. No electricity bill, no harm to the environment. A swell way to live. That said, Rotorua is a bit smelly though. Tamaki Tours cost $85, including transport to and from Rotorua and food. For more information, Ph: (07) 349 2999 or visit www.maoriculture.co.nz. Admission to Whakarewarewa Thermal Village is $20 and cultural performances take place at 11.15am and 2pm daily and guided tours go every half hour between 9am-4pm. For more information, Ph: 07 349 3463 or visit www.whakarewarewa.com.

Long, Long Ago…

How New Zealand came into being is a source of much debate. Geologists will argue the North and South Islands were part of a super-continent called Gondwanaland – consisting of Africa, India, South America, Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica – and broke away with the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates. However, Maori legend tells of Maui Tikitiki a Taranga, a mythical man who sailed to New Zealand from the Pacific island of Hawaiki. A fish he hauled on the voyage became the North Island – Te Ika a Maui – and his canoe became the South Island – Te Waka a Maui. Now the scientific boffins may try to convince us with theories of shifting plates and gravitational pull, but stories of long Pacific voyages by canoe and giant fish seem to sit more comfortably with the strange and mystical country I found on my travels. Although tales about how New Zealand was discovered differ from tribe to tribe, many oral histories speak of Kupe, who, around 800AD, sailed from Hawaiki, an island believed to be somewhere near Tahiti. Legend has it he named his discovery “Aotearoa,” or “Land of the Long White Cloud” after his first sight of land. Contrary to many who will tell you there are always long white clouds hanging over the South Island, what Kupe saw was the snow-topped peaks of the Southern Alps.

Art of War

Kupe’s mates couldn’t have been too impressed with his tales of a newly discovered country, as the next migration to New Zealand didn’t take place till around 1350AD, when a fleet of canoes took the original Maori settlers to the island. But when you see the size of the boats they travelled over in, you could see why it might have taken a couple of hundred years to build them. Finding an abundance of seafood and the flightless moa bird to hunt, food was plentiful to begin with. But the moa quickly became extinct from over-hunting, leading to a more agricultural way of life with the imported Polynesian staples of the kumara, taro and yam. The extra land required to sustain such a way of life led to a growing number of feuds ? and the mastery of the art of war. Maori legends and oral history are alive and well in modern-day New Zealand, and one of the best places to learn about the culture and history of this proud people is Rotorua, the Maori capital of New Zealand. However, Maori culture is also prominent across the South Island and there are a number of tours, exhibitions and galleries offering excellent insights into this fascinating culture. PH


Here’s where you can have your very own Maori experience.

Waitangi Treaty Grounds

If there’s one place you simply must visit while travelling around New Zealand, it’s this. Set in the beautiful Bay of Islands, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds has been a site of political strife for many years. The area has a history of wars between the British – who set up trading posts in the area – and fearless Maori warriors. Today, the area is home to an intricately carved Maori war canoe – weighing 12.5 tonnes and 35m long and carved out of two massive kauri trees – and a carved meeting house, which took six years to complete. It was in the treaty house on these grounds where the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi between the Europeans and Maori leaders was signed. The treaty itself is controversial as it deals with land rights issues. Best of all, however, you can take in a live cultural show to witness the traditional songs and dances of the Maori.

Visit a marae

Marae is a word used to describe the ornately carved meeting houses found in almost every large New Zealand community. These places are sacred to the Maori and there is a certain etiquette when entering. Welcome speeches, songs and a paying of respect to ancestors are just a few of the customs observed in a marae, and once the protocol has been satisfied, guests find themselves spoiled by Maori hospitality. Many maraes across the country open up to the public at certain times – with some offering overnight stays, traditional songs and dance, stick games and even performances of the haka (war dance). Ask at your hostel or nearest Visitor Information Network for more info.

Jade and Bone Carving

The Maori are famous for their carving skills in bone, wood and greenstone (jade), as you will see in their meeting places, boats and jewellery. Decorative carving was once used as a means of story telling and is still a deeply traditional Maori art form. The shapes of the jewellery are based on natural and spiritual images and each has a special meaning. For example, the tiki – a small figure with his hands and feet curling in front of him – represents a first child or ancestor and is a symbol of good luck. Jade is found on the west coast of the South Island and is valued for its spiritual qualities. Go to Hokitika, the greenstone capital of New Zealand, to pick up some souvenirs or to carve your own jade sculptures. There are many companies around the country which teach you how to carve both jade and wood in the traditional way.

Maori Villages

There are a number of Maori villages you can visit which will give you insight into what it was like to live as a Maori before the arrival of the Europeans. Take a tour where you’ll get to sit in on a cultural show, try the traditional foods and check out their tribal arts and crafts marketplace. Wander around the whare (houses) while listening to the haunting sound of ancient Maori instruments.


If you’ve seen the award-winning movie, Whale Rider, you’ll probably recall the intricately carved mahogany boat which was taken out to sea on special occasions. Traditionally used as a fishing vessel, the Waka Tangata is a truly remarkable boat and a piece of Maori culture. There are companies in New Zealand which will let you take one of these boats out for a row, and you’ll soon find out what it must have been like rowing around the islands in days gone by. There are heaps of places to mess around on the lakes and rivers, while learning more about Maori culture – ask in tourist information centres or flick through TNT’s listings pages for more tours.

Museums & Exhibitions

What is it about tattoos that is so intriguing? Now, I’m not talking about prison scratchings like black panthers and naked ladies, but markings that tell you a bit about a person’s background. Oriental lettering. A Celtic design. Tribal patterns. Just look at the Maori designs and you can learn about centuries of tradition and a unique culture. These people have survived the odds and come out as brave warriors, admired by locals, tourists and movie directors the world over. To learn more about their customs and see their artwork, head to Auckland Museum for an impressive collection of Maori artefacts, including carved tikis, pleated skirts and some beautiful pendants made of ivory, bone, shell and jade.

Wellington’s Te Papa

This museum is staggeringly impressive, hosting everything from virtual reality rides to a living marae, stories of the first Pakeha settlers, interactive natural history exhibits and art galleries. Te Papa Museum was purpose-built over four years after consultation with the local Iwi tribe and uses advanced anti-earthquake engineering.