When I asked Ellie what she wanted to do when she came to New Zealand she gave me three criteria, “beaches, mountains and culture”. Having already ticked off the first two at Raglan and Tongariro respectively, this entry is about our quest for the latter. Lewis and I have done our best to impart any knowledge, regarding both Māori customs and general Kiwiana, that we’ve acquired over the last nine months, and it’s fair to say that we’ve learnt lots about Aotearoa during our travels but nothing quite compares to experiencing it for yourself. To facilitate a cultural exchange we decided to visit Whakarewarewa, the “living Māori village”, whilst we were in Rotorua. We were a little apprehensive about this particular attraction as we were unsure whether it would be a genuine sharing of culture and customs from the local iwi, or whether it would feel more like a human zoo, (which even in 2020 is entirely possible). After reading the reviews and some discussion, we decided to give it a go and we weren’t disappointed.
Things had been going pretty well up until this point in terms of my mobility, but after a week on the road the amount of activity started to catch up with my ankle and I was feeling pretty sore, (possibly due to that huge bike ride around Lake Taupo, but who can really say?). This was disappointing. I’ve been generally feeling more flexible and able to walk a bit better day by day, but fortunately this didn’t spoil our visit to Whakarewarewa as they provided me with a wheelchair to help me get around the village. Walking issues avoided, we wheeled off to meet our host Mikaere for the village tour.
Mikaere is a wiry, middle-aged guide with a mean sense of humour. Before commencing the tour he had our group attempt to say the name of the village in full, Te Whakarewarewatanga-o-te-ope-a-Wāhiao, (pronounced “Te fa-ka-rewa-rewa-tanga-o-Te-ope-a-wahi-o”). This mouthful translates to “the uprising of the army of Wāhaoi” which refers to an incident over 300 years ago, in which a war party led by the warrior Wāhiao gathered and, hidden by geothermal steam, (of which there is copious amounts in Whakarewarewa) performed a Haka before charging into battle. The people still living in the village are direct descendants of Wāhiao and aptly named Tūhourangi Ngāti Wāhiao.
Having wrapped our tongues around the village name we were led to the marae (meeting house) complex at the heart of the village where Mikaere divulged more about the people of Tūhourangi Ngāti Wāhiao. Mikaere himself doesn’t live in the village anymore, but grew up there and recalls fond memories of playing amongst the hot pools and steaming mud baths that populate the dwelling. We were led through the various steam baths as our guide explained the proud history and customs of his people. Still to this day the people of Whakarewarewa use the natural geothermal resources for cooking, bathing and heating, and in more recent times have had the good sense to turn their resource-rich homeland into a cultural attraction.
Mikaere explained that, contrary to other indigenous groups, the iwi had turned their tribal home into a successful business which now boasts a trust fund of $70 million. This may seem a little unorthodox to bring up how much profit one is making in the company of paying visitors, however in the context of a population who have been decimated by the ongoing effects of British colonialism, this is a success story which deserves to be celebrated. The money is used to pay for education, health care and any other needs of the local people and their descendants, and to ensure the long-term stability of Tūhourangi Ngāti Wāhiao. As the village receives tourists from around the world, Mikeare wants to encourage other indigenous groups to be enterprising and hopes that by sharing this information it will spark similar projects.
Watching the Pōhutu geyser erupt in the background, (the biggest geyser in the southern hemisphere), it’s easy to see why Whakarewarewa has been a popular tourist attraction since the 1800s for international visitors. Somebody even had the genius idea of building a hotel next to the village (right over the fault line) just 50m from the geyser which was open until quite recently. Naturally, the hotel experienced some subsidence and had to be evacuated, but is miraculously still (partially) standing.
After the tour we went for a mini exploration around some of the more “off road” parts of the village. This was particularly difficult in the wheelchair and we had a lot of fun/difficulty trying to navigate the softer terrain with narrow wheels and a steep incline. For our efforts we were rewarded with some bubbling mud puddles and we were also introduced to a particularly steamy hot pool, which had recorded temperatures of up to 300°C!
Then it was time for the cultural performance and, the highlight of the day, corn on the cob cooked in the traditional way in one of the hot pools-it was incredibly tasty and thankfully there wasn’t a hint of sulphur! It really felt like nothing could beat our golden delight but then the performers took to the stage and gave us an amazing rendition of some traditional songs, poi dances, tōrea (rhythmic stick throwing and catching), a Taiaha display (Māori weapon) and, of course, the infamous haka. It was a privilege to witness the live enactment of such an ancient culture. The performers were incredibly passionate and dedicated to their craft and, most importantly, seemed to really enjoy what they were doing which made it all the more special. Each person was so talented and the group showcased an amazing vocal range- they even sang (and kept time!) whilst performing with the poi’s and tōrea in a flawless routine.
We gave a standing ovation and made our way back to the van to begin the next part of our journey. Ellie was now fully recovered from her mysterious worm illness, so it was time to take on the mighty Taranaki. Our destination, New Plymouth, just a measly 292km away.