First on our list of favorite things to do in New Zealand was our cultural experience at the Tamaki Maori Village. Maori are the indigenous people to New Zealand. Legend has it they were led by a hammerhead shark across the ocean to find New Zealand. The island nation boasts no native mammals. Accordingly, the Maori people were farmers and fishermen before Europeans introduced sheep and chickens. Each tribe built their settlement around food sources and protected them fervently.
The region surrounding Lake Rotorua on the North Island is heavily influenced by Maori culture. Although there are many pockets of indigenous people remaining across the country. A few entrepreneurial Maori individuals sought a way to keep their culture relevant while providing a source of income for their brethren. So was born the cultural experience at the Tamaki Maori Village.
Entering the Village
Our journey began on a tour bus. Our bus simulated a tribe seeking out another tribe for trade, or potentially a fight. We chose a chief to represent our tribe from the collection of tourists picked up at various hotels around Rotorua. Becca was not allowed to put her name in the hat, as only men can be chiefs. The bus elected Rudy.
When we arrived at the village, an intimidating war party came out to greet us. The elaborate song and dance performed helped determine the intentions of the visiting party. After our hosts concluded we meant no harm, they invited us inside the village.
Once inside, we learned about Maori culture and traditions at various stations. Topics included weapon building, tattooing, craftsmanship, games, and the ritual of the Haka. This insight really helped us later on in our travels. We no longer stared in wonder at locals with face tattoos, as we now understood their meaning.
We felt very inspired by the repurposing of some tools. One instrument displayed was previously used as a war training tool. The Maori wrapped a rock in animal hide and tied it on a string. Boys would swing it around to improve dexterity and reflexes. A repurposed version is now the primary musical instrument of the ladies in the tribe. They switched out the rock for cotton and get a crisp “pop” noise by catching it firmly.
Celebrating Maori Traditions
Once through each of the educational stations, our hosts showed us the meticulous preparations for the feast that evening, called “hangi”. A hangi is prepared by heating stones to extremely hot temperatures and placing them in a pit. Fish, sheep, chicken, and root vegetables are placed in burlap bags soaked in water atop the smoldering rocks. The cooks shovel dirt over top to aid the cooking process. Hours later, the feast is ready for serving!
Before we entered the dining hall, we were treated to a show. Each of the tribe members we met during the welcome ceremony/war party meeting and educational stations convened onstage. They performed five or six songs for us. Including a ballad recanting one of their most important legends, the love story of Hinemoa and Tutanekai. Tribe members at the village we visited are said to be descendants of this famous romance!
Once the performance was over, we headed to the dining hall. We ate alongside our tribesmen, other tourists from Germany, Austria, Canada and the UK. We thoroughly enjoyed the hangi feast along with a bottle of wine. Turns out, the village had one more performance in store for us. The village also offers overnight stays and the group that had stayed the night before learned a song for us. They performed and the chief sang a lullaby before each “tribe” headed back to their bus to go home.
Key Takeaways & Helpful Hints
We truly enjoyed the insight into Maori culture provided by this experience. We left feeling a few things. First, inspired by their desire to keep their culture alive and share it with the world. Second, saddened that we didn’t know as much about Native American cultures. And weren’t sure where (if there even is a place) to go to learn hands on like that about them. And third, excited about exploring the rest of the country with this fundamental understanding of the nation’s history and culture under our belts.
One thing to consider when booking this experience, is that the more involved you are, the more you learn and enjoy it. They will ask for volunteers for things. Raise your hand! Even if they turn you down for one thing, they will recognize you as a willing participant. They will pull you in to something else. None of it will be embarrassing, it’s all in good fun.
Well, most if it was not embarrassing… On the way home, our bus driver led us in a sing along. They asked every national group to sing a song from their homeland. We were the only Americans on the bus. Becca and I froze up when our turn came around. That’s right, we let America down. But we learned an important lesson. You always need to have a song ready to sing. We decided our song would be “Take me out to ballgame.” An instant crowd pleaser.
Cost & Where to Stay
Cost: $130 NZD per person (~$90 USD when we went, Nov 2018)
For more information and booking, check out the Tamaki Maori Village online.
If you’re looking for a place to stay in the area, we chose Waiora Lakeside Resort. This portion of our trip was still in the “honeymoon” category, so we chose a place where we could get a package with spa treatments as well. We loved the location – away from town a bit, right on Lake Rotorua. Not a problem for us transportation-wise as we had our own car. Not sure if it’s on a bus route though.
We received a nice couples massage and the hot springs on site were relaxing, although not romantic – more just a hotel pool. Our package included a cheese plate lunch – yum! Overall, the hotel was nice but not incredible. We did appreciate that there was a bar and restaurant on site, so we didn’t have to venture far for treats.