Australasia | New Zealand – See Ya Layter Kiwis!
My last few days in New Zealand are spent in the north islands famous geothermal valley. All around are bubbling pools of mud, creaking holes in the earth, steaming vents, gurgling streams, and gushing geysers over 10 m high. Sulphuric smells and a dangerous magic fill the air. Healing pools beckon, but a caution to beware of scalding water stands forth. Rotarua, just 226 kms from Aukland, New Zealand, is the heart of some of the most famous geothermal activities in the world.
Rotarua is also the home of the most easily accessible cultural demonstrations by the residents of New Zealand who predated the arrival of the Pakeha, or those of European descent. They are the Maori people, and it is they who are gradually creating a written history and language that for so many years was passed down orally from one generation to the next. Kia ora and the rubbing of noses mean a warm welcome, but in these times when diseases such as SARS can be so unknowingly transmitted, the nose rubbing is replaced by hand shaking. Many other traditions continue to take their place in modern New Zealand society.
Kia ora, means welcome in Maori, but it can also mean thank you, goodbye, hello, and many other things depending on the context in which it is used. Maori is one of the official languages in New Zealand, being found everywhere from road and toilet signs, to guidelines at attractions or office buildings.
Haka, is legendary in the land of the Kiwi, performed by national sports teams, and by Maori performers to welcome visiting dignitaries. The world famous New Zealand Blacks rugby team do it before their games and other teams do it to celebrate a victory or commence a celebration. It is a tribal dance historically used to scare and intimidate visitors to see if they were friend or foe, consisting of much shouting, chanting, stomping, and scary tongue wagging face making. Today, the average visitor sees the Haka at a Maori cultural institute such as Mai Ora in Rotarua.
The Maori Arts and Culture Institute in Rotarua is the custodian of the Prince of Wales Geyser, and other natural geothermal phenomena unique to New Zealand. Combining a guided tour of the mud pools, geysers, Kiwi nocturnal bird house, carving studio, with a cultural presentation and Hungi feast, the Mai Ora experience has set the bar for all other Maori performances.
Everyday at 4:30 p.m, shuttles hurry around town picking up tourists from the motels and bring them to the park for a look at the geothermal features. Just after six oclock, the groups meet back at the main courtyard where the evenings protocol is explained. A chief is chosen from the group in our case, a gentleman named John from California represents the people from a dozen nations. It will be Johns job to accept the peaceful offering of the fern and introduce the group.
The warriors emerge from the Maori house, chanting, yelling, and doing their best to intimidate the tour. After the offering is accepted and the Maori know that we come in peace, we are welcomed with a lyrical song from one of the women in the performance troupe. It is all a recreation of what might possibly have occurred in the past when the Pakeha came to the land. We are invited in and the performance begins in earnest. Other than a very hokey Hokey Pokey done in Maori and a lack of much in the way of production values, the performance by the early twenty-something singers and dancers, is a success.
Next is the Hungi Feast. Similar to a Hawaiian earth oven meal, the Maori cook meats and vegetables including the New Zealand sweet Potato, Kumara, in bags over steam from the earth. Laid out buffet style for the tourists, we line up and sample the evenings offerings. Soon enough it is over, and the tour is taken to the geysers for a nighttime look at them under lights before the shuttles return them to their beds at around 9:45 p.m. Bookings can be made at the information center in downtown Rotarua or at any local accommodation.
But seeing geothermal activity in Rotarua is not just at paid attractions. Steaming hot pools, mud pools, and geysers are everywhere from peoples front yards to the local park. In the Maori village at Okinemutu by the lakeside just outside of town, one can visit the Anglican Church containing some of the most intricate and creative Maori carvings in the country. It was built in 1850 and the work inside is truly amazing. Photography is not permitted, but postcards are for sale at the front vestibule. There is a feast house and examples of traditional carvings. A cemetary that marks the graves of warriors who participated in the Boer war and the Great wars has native birds, ducks, and swans feeding and resting at the waters edge. Theres also a craft shop and workshop with some excellent prices on Maori carvings and jewelry.
Rotarua is also home to an historical Bathhouse from 1933, and another big bathhouse that has been converted into a museum. The Te Awara exhibit on Maori history is worth seeing, as is the rather cheesy little movie in the theatre on the history of the building. The seats shake and animated monsters make an appearance.
From Rotarua, I fly back to Christchurch to connect with my flight to Australia. We have a beautiful day to fly out and the views over New Zealand are superb. I think to myself See ya layter Kiwis! Ill miss your good hearted sense of humour and those fabulous steak and cheese pies.