You’ll probably know a little about Māori culture if you watch rugby; the legendary Haka dance performed by the All Blacks has been seen around the world. However, it’s easy to come to New Zealand still armed with the question, what is Māori culture? Descending from Polynesians who came to the island by boat over 1,000 years ago, the Māori people are the tangata whenua, original inhabitants of this great country. To learn a little more about Māori traditions we visited the city of Rotorua – famed for its geothermal activity, and historically home to Maori of the Te Arawa iwi. Here, we had a chance to enjoy a visit to the Tamaki Maori Village evening experience.
A free bus to the village leaves from their Visitor’s Centre right in the heart of town (close to the i-Site). Alternatively, you can simply ask for a transfer from your hotel. You can’t drive into the village so if you have a vehicle head to the car park nearby. Along the way, our driver was very chatty and funny, so expect a bit of back and forth to warm people up, or better yet a sing song.
Entertainment & Food
The action begins as soon as you arrive in the waiting area outside the village gates. Tribal music ebbs out from the 200-year-old forest, as you gaze up at the trees trying to catch a glimpse of what’s inside. Each bus needs to nominate a chief to represent their ‘tribe’. The lucky chosen are then centre-stage for the Pōwhiri, a Māori welcome ceremony which begins when the clan arrive by war canoe.
This traditional ritual eventually sees the Maori chieftain and the visitor’s elected leaders embrace in a hongi, a greeting where individuals press foreheads and noses. Even seen at a distance it appears so much more intimate than a handshake, and in fact the action symbolises the exchanging of the breath of life.
Once permitted inside the village, you’ll enter a startlingly well-recreated traditional Maori village. Simple wooden structures, crackling fires and carved totems of tattooed faces with their tounges sticking out – all amid towering trees. At this stage, you’re free to explore the village – who’s inhabitants can teach you about Maori craft, games and even share the story behind the distinctive Ta Moko, traditional face tattoo. There’s plenty of interaction, and it’s the perfect time to ask any burning questions you might have about how the Maori people lived.
After exploring, you’ll be led into a room to see your delicious dinner being prepared. Known as a Hangi, this traditional cooking method uses the heated rocks buried in a pit oven to cook your food. It’s probably one of the only places in the world where you can say you’ve eaten food cooked in an earth oven. This cooking method takes a long time, and it’s very difficult to get it right, but the result is fall of the bone meat, tender vedge and a distinctive smoky fragrance.
Unfortunately, you don’t get to eat straight away, the food is showcased simply to whet your appetite. First you must enjoy a performance of Kapa Haka – traditional singing, dancing and music. It’s fascinating to watch, and the cultural group are very passionate about putting on an incredible performance that combines chanting, choral singing and war dances.
When the show draws to a close, thoughts start to dwell of that delicious hangi. Thankfully you don’t need to wait long before being led into a large dining hall with your earth cooked meal before you; chicken, lamb, carrots, steaming kumara, potatoes and pavlova for pudding. If you have an appetite as large as mine, you’ll be happy to know there is a nigh on endless supply of food – no one goes hungry.
In the final moments, the chiefs may be called upon to perform another haka, much to the enjoyment of the crowd. Though, having seen the tribe show everyone how it’s done – loud, aggressive and with stretched out tongues – I begin to see why the All Blacks cast such fear into their opponents…
Though many of the ratings of the Tamaki Maori Village are very high, there have been a few people who have questioned its authenticity. Recreating a pre-European Maori village is not easy, and when you consider the effort and level of care taken in its appearance they’ve done a fantastic job. The village feels engulfed by the old forest, and the passion behind the performances is incredible.
Contemporary Maori don’t live in forest villages or have full-sized face tattoos, they’re integrated into every level of New Zealand’s diverse society – which is why it’s so important to the village descendants to share their unique cultural history with the world. Come with realistic expectations and an open mind, you’ll find you have a lot to learn and leave with experiences you’ll never forget.
Please note, we were guests of the Tamaki Maori Village, but all opinions expressed are entirely my own.
Keen for some more Kiwi explorations? Check out my canoe tour of Maori rock carvings in Taupo