New Zealand Notebook 4 – Bay of Islands and Rotorua

Exploring Land and Culture

He aha te mea nui o te ao?
What is the most important thing in the world?

He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!
It is people! It is people! It is people!

-Maori Proverb

The view from Harbour Bridge departing Auckland is postcard-perfect; yachts moored, skyscrapers reflecting the sun, hills, sandy bays and an azure sky punctuated with puffy clouds. I try snap it but on a moving bus with a camera phone I do it no justice.

I realise that in trying to capture the view, I’ve also missed it.

The landscape on the journey varies from encircling forests to jagged bays, rivers to mountains. It’s rugged and green like Ireland but on a much, much vaster scale.

When I get to Paihia at 5pm, it’s still 28 degrees outside. The Northlands have a subtropical climate. I pant towards my hostel, gladly dumping my bag once I’m checked in and go for a walk along the bay. Ferries, canoes and cruise ships zip across it. Locals hand line fish over the bridge for a fresh supper, the evening sun remains strong.

There’s a sign for Waitangi. I recognise the word from the public holiday ‘Waitangi Day’ on February 6th. I follow to the sacred grounds where the Waitangi Treaty was signed in 1840 between Queen Victoria’s representative William Hobson and over 500 Maori chiefs. This gave Maori people full equality as British subjects in return for British sovereignty.

The Maoris currently make up 15% of the population and haven’t been marginalised the way Australian Aborigines or Native Americans were. New Zealanders adopt a positive bicultural approach to their society, respecting cultural differences of their citizens.

I spend the next afternoon in Russell, a place described by Charles Darwin as the ‘Hell hole of the Pacific’. It was the first European settlement in New Zealand and a docking bay for whalers and oilers. Prostitution, drinking and violence were rife in the olden days of this little village earning it a bad reputation but nowadays, it’s a tranquil place with a quaint harbour, cosy restaurants and tourist shops. Trekking the surrounding hills, I observe a heavenly panorama of the Bay of Islands.

My next trip is to Tauranga, on the east coast of New Zealand in the Bay of Plenty. It’s all bagpipes and mosquitoes though. A pipe band practices outside the hostel and as I claw the swollen bites on my legs, I decide to move on.

My destination is Rotorua, Maori capital of the world. I treat myself to a touristy but cultural ‘Maori Experience’ whilst there.
On the outskirts of Rotorua, the smell whacks me. It’s a geothermal area and sulphide bubbles under the thin layer of the earth’s crust. The smell wavers between a kind of burnt hair to full on rotten eggs odour but after a couple of minutes, I become accustomed and indifferent to it.

Rotorua is a busy town and just outside there’s a wonderful Maori thermal village where I find bubbling mud pools, spurting geysers and steaming thermal lakes.

I stay in Downtown Rotorua Backpackers and the friendly receptionist Kat gives me a map, shows me to my room and introduces me to other guests and workers. She talks about Ireland, New Zealand but isn’t intrusive or over-burdening. Great staff makes this mediocre low-budget hostel feel quite special.

One of my new roommates, Betina from Norway, is also going to the Maori Experience so we buddy up.

Our bus driver is great craic and teaches us Maori words e.g. Kia Ora – a greeting meaning ‘be healthy.’ After an initiation ceremony, the tattooed warriors and women welcome us in. A deep spirituality connects the Maori people with the natural world and their ancestors and we’ve to respect that while we attend. We’re brought into a forest and learn about different aspects of the culture, most entertaining moment is when a bunch of older European and North American volunteers learn the haka, emulating the bulging eyes and protruding tongues of the warriors.

We discover that Maori tattoos are a visual language which signify the ancestral background and significant achievements of the wearer.

Our feast (hangi) for the eve is steamed in massive trays placed under the earth in the thermal pools. The Maoris incorporate the natural world around them into their lifestyles.

After a performance, including the famous war cry – the haka – we’re shown a video on the history of Maori people in New Zealand up to the cultural revival of modern times.

I’m salivating as we go to the banquet hall for the feast. Before us are trays of traditionally cooked potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, salad, stuffing, fish, lamb and chicken. For dessert is a peach pavlova and a traditional Maori pudding (that tastes like my granny’s homemade treacle cake) and custard. My company is a bunch of older couples from Britain, Scotland, Russia and Australia. The Aussie woman beside me is driving around New Zealand with her husband and she has funny anecdotes about their quarrels when they get lost on the road.

We’re all made hold hands and sing along to some Maori songs after the meal and after initial awkwardness, it becomes something very special and warm. Everyone leaves the banquet smiling.

On the bus home, the driver puts us in an even more jovial mood by having a sing-along. Every nationality offers a famous song from their country. Luckily, there’s a Dub onboard who bursts into a loud rendition of Molly Malone.

Before disembarking, we do a ‘hongi’ with the bus driver, pressing our noses together – an intermingling and exchange of breath or lifeforce with each other.

This Maori tradition means we’re no longer strangers and are welcome in the land.

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