It was only until recently that I realized that New Zealand is the final significantly large and habitable place to be discovered by humans. The islands actually saw no humans until the arrival of the Maori Polynesians sometime between 1250 and 1300.
I love New Zealand, and I love that it is much less crowded than many cities in the “mainland” yet it is so developed and modernized. Having said that, the island had a rather native past with the Maoris. Kia Ora! It’s a warm greeting in Maori’s native tongue, wishing good health.
As we drove away from Auckland, the biggest city in the country, we headed south to Rotorua to explore the remaining parts of the North Island. Although the South Island has always been described as more geographically dramatic than the North Island (well, it’s true), the geothermal area, volcanoes, and caves (Check out: How Did I Overcome My Fear of Tight Space after the Waitomo Caves) and rugged coastline are places that you may not want to miss during your stay in the country.
Once we arrived in Rotorua, we checked in to our hotel and got ready for the next day to Te Puia. Rotorua is a small town situated by Lake Rotorua, and its scale reminded me very much of Alice Springs in Australia. However, the view of the town is quite different. I could see smoke coming out from the nearby hot spring resort from my hotel suite’s window, and the floatplanes gliding on the lake. The floatplanes take people to the White Island, an active volcano located in the Bay of Plenty, 48 kilometers from the east coast of the North Island.
Eating in Rotorua, trying a Pavlova
Rotorua is small, but don’t stop exploring as I see the town center has quite a lot of nice boutiques and design shops, and dining places that visitors could venture to. Our hotel provided us with a map and there were some recommended restaurants: Bistro 1284, Abracadabra, Le Café Paris, Capers, Sabroso, Pig & Whistle Pub, Indian Star, Leonardo’s, Brew, CBK, Atticus Finch, Regent of Rotorua, and Sequoia. All these places are located in the town center and could easily get to either by car or on foot. Be bold and try some of the local dishes or desserts, like Pavlova: a meringue-based cake named, oddly enough, after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. It was created in honor of the dancer after her tours in Australia and New Zealand in the 1920s and became one of the national dishes ever since.
Te Puia and the Whakarewarewa Valley
Te Puia is a popular spot for Rotorua’s visitors. There, check out the Pohutu geyser, New Zealand Maori Arts, look for a kiwi bird, Crafts Institute, Maori cultural performances, boiling mud pools, native bush, and the National Schools of Wood Carving and Weaving. This site offers a guided tour, and the tour takes off every hour, giving visitors a more in-depth introduction to the surrounding environment and the Maori culture.
Te Puia is located in the Whakarewarewa Valley. The word “Whakarewarewa” means “the war dance of the war parties of Wahiao” – who was a great ancestor to the people of the valley. He was a chief of Tuhourangi, a subtribe of the local Te Arawa tribe, and the Te Arawa waka (canoe) was one of the eight original canoes that brought Maori from their ancestral homeland oh Hawaiki – an island located somewhere in Polynesia – to New Zealand.
The largest geyser in the southern hemisphere
The geysers give the area life as it provides energy when you see steam coming out from here and there in the valley. The Pohutu geyser that we walked past is the largest geyser in the southern hemisphere. In fact, there are six geysers in the area, while “Pohutu”, which literally means “big splash” is the most impressive for sure.
So how do geysers work? To function, geysers need a water supply, a heat source, and a natural plumbing’ system of rock that can withstand high pressure. The underground chamber below a geyser fills from below with very hot water from deep inside the Earth. There are often narrow parts of the chamber where the water becomes pressurized and heated well above its boiling point. The superheated water flashes to steam in the chamber and the mix of steam and boiling water is sprayed out like a geyser. The eruption causes pressure in the chamber to be released. The chamber is re-filled with cooler water that heats up, and the process starts again. The geyser erupts once or twice each hour and same as Strokkur (the Great Geysir) in Iceland (Check out: Highlands & Golden Circle in Iceland), the eruption sometimes reaches a height of 30 meters.
Check out the geyser in motion! The geyser erupts once or twice each hour.
Cooking in the Maori way
The natural steam vent cooker (steam box) shows how the Maori cooked and preserved food. The ancestors found natural steam vents in thermal areas and placed baskets filled with food around the vents and covered them so the hot steam would cook and flavor the food. Today, the locals still enjoy delicious fresh food cooked in this traditional Maori way. In a natural steam cooker, a piece of corn cooks in around 10 minutes, while a leg of meat takes around 2.5 hours.
Smell the Sulphur, see the mud
Apart from the geyser, the area has plenty of distinctive features in the geothermal area. From mud pool, rupture of the Earth’s crust, to the thermal pool. As we walk through these spots, the famous ‘rotten eggs’ Sulphur smell is due to the presence of hydrogen sulfide in the atmosphere, released as a result of geothermal activity. Another compound associated with geothermal activity is silica (silicon dioxide). Much of the hard mineral crusts around thermal features at Te Puia are made of silica.
The Ngamokao-a-Koko mud pool of boiling mud (with bubbles coming out) is named after Koko, a famous chief of the original fortified settlement here. The pool reminded him of the playful nature of children. Ngamokao-a-Koko translates as “the cherished ones of Koko”. While in the Blueys, a thermal pool not far away from the mud, the alkaline water has a distinctive cobalt blue color. The pool collects water flowing out from the geysers and has various minerals dissolved in the water. The water drains into the Puarenga Stream via underground channels.
If time is allowed, the two-hour hike in the Ngararatuatara track takes visitors through lush bush part of key sites at Te Puia, including the boiling Ngararatuatara cooking pool and picturesque Lake Waikaukau.
Catch a glimpse of the Kiwi Bird
There is no way coming to New Zealand not to see its national bird – the Kiwi bird. The incredible flightless birds are held in high esteem by Maoris. Kiwi birds are nocturnal and small, so you need to be really focused and stay quiet as you are observing them in their dark enclosure. If you are lucky, you will be able to catch a glimpse of the tiny bird in action.
The Maori dance and performance
The nearby carving school is an important facility to showcase and pass on the Maori traditions and culture. The carving school teaches trainees from around the country under the skilled guidance of tohunga whakairo (master carvers). The weaving school trains students in traditional Maori weaving.
There is a range of handicrafts, including carvings, weaving, and stones, created by the artists in Te Puia in the Taonga gallery and gift shop. My star product of choice is the Rotorua thermal mud mask, it deep cleanses my pores gently and now I use it every week at home. They are now even available to ship worldwide online and I am still ordering them.
Agrodome, how to shear a sheep the right way
We also caught a farm animal show at Agrodome, where we witness how the people skillfully shear a sheep and that’s how we got wool!
A fun night in the Maori Village
After spending time in Te Puia, Agrodome, and the city, we dived into the Maori culture and visited the Tamaki Maori Village in the evening. The village is established by the Tamaki brothers who had a dream to portray their culture to international visitors. Now the village is considered their sacred place and the tribe would welcome us and send out a challenge of peace before entering the site.
On arrival at the venue, nobody could enter the fortified village until the Powhiri (formal welcome) has been performed. When entering their sacred place it is customary for the host tribe to send out a challenge of peace. The warriors would go through some intimidating gestures and display certain movements with their Talaha (spear-like weapon) until the Teka (peace offering) is placed and received by one of the visitors’ chiefs. This part of the ceremony can look quite humorous, however, it is important to respect their culture and ritual.
Entering the Marae
After we entered the Marar (Marae: Māori meeting grounds), the guests of the night were separated into groups as the “Tangata Whenua” (people of the land) demonstrated different activities such as pol twirling, hand games, and weaponry displays, and reciting chants – activities of an era gone by which have been restored by the young people today.
One of the most recognizable Maori traditions would probably be “War Dance” (sometimes we could see the dance in rugby games), as the warriors dance with fierce moves and expressions (protruding eyes and tongues, and howling) before going into battle, often intimidating the enemy away before a blow was struck.
We were then gathered in the meeting house before dinner. The group shared a variety of Walata, Haka, Song, and Dance which tell stories of a proud race – Te Maori.
We had a delightful dinner as they served a traditional Hangi, which was cooked under the earth on hot rocks for three to four hours. It was a traditional cooking method and the rocks were heated to a white-hot state with timber. The rocks were then put into a pit dug in the earth, while a basket of meat was put directly on the hot stones. Earth is then pilled quickly over the food to keep the heat inside the earth oven.
The village gave us a feel for how Maori lived before the arrival of Europeans. I had a great time seeing their traditional tools, learned how crops were grown, and the food was stored. I was amazed at how much mathematics was incorporated into their weaving and carving techniques!
When I was in New Zealand I kept wondering how much the modern cities look-alike to any of those in Australia and Canada, it was the traditional culture in countries that make the difference (Check out: Outback! The Belly Button of the Earth!). The Maori shared their knowledge and interactively introduced to us their history and culture. I enjoyed it a lot and the next stop, was Canada and Hawaii!
A singing performance from the tribe before dinner was served!