New Zealand has deep roots in the Polynesian culture, which a thousand years ago spread to many islands across the vast ocean. The country’s Polynesian background is today visible in town names and other terms, like the popular Māori greeting kia ora. Māori villages and communities still exist – and continuously build on the indigenous heritage. One of these is the Māori village Whakarewarewa at Rotorua.
Ainnelise Niyvold Liundbye UPDATED: 12 MAR 2020
We have already high expectations when greeted with a kia ora at the entrance of the Māori village Whakarewarewa at Rotorua.
Whakarewarewa is a living Māori village where the inhabitants, the Tūhourangi Ngāti Wāhiao people, are descendants of the Polynesian people who arrived in New Zealand about a thousand years ago.
The tribe has settled here in Whakarewarewa, where the daily practices are centered around the geothermal resources. The underground hot water and geothermal energy are used for everything: to cook, to bath and to heat the homes. This way of living, exploiting the natural resources, has been practiced since the tribe came to live at Rotorua long ago.
Rotorua is one of the absolutely unique geothermal areas in the world with trails along striking natural wonders. One of these is the world-famous Pōhutu Geyser which spurts up to twenty times per day – each time up to 30 m (100 ft) into the air. It is just one of the signs of the thermal activity going on beneath your feet at Rotorua.
From the Pōhutu Geyser lookout in the village you may experience all three geysers: the Pōhutu Geyser, the Prince of Wales Geyser and the Kereru Geyser – located near each other. The eruptions take place around a small crystal blue lake ‘The Blueys’.
Our Māori representative and guide lets us know that there were previously 30 geysers in the area, but it changes all the time. Some years ago the number was remarkably reduced to 2 – and now there are 3 again!
The area literally seethes with thermal activity: steaming lakes, thermal pools, steam vents and fascinating bubbling mud pools – all with boiling material of different degrees depending on the material. You can get a glimpse of the fascinating and wondrous sites by following the established nature trails around the area.
Kia ora, Whakarewarewa! Daily practices!
Our guide in Whakarewarewa is one of the local men with indigenous background. He gives us a brief introduction to their culture, their language and the daily practices in the Whakarewarewa village.
Before showing us around, he teaches us some phrases in the Māori language ‘te reo’. – for instance the well-known and commonly heard phrase kia ora. Actually, kia ora has a broader meaning than just ‘hello’, as it is being used today in many contexts. This meaning of kia ora has been adopted through the last century as a welcome to visitors – but originally it was a term used to make wishes at the end of something. In the native language kia means ‘to be’ and ora means ‘health’ or ‘life’.
Besides kia ora, we also learn a number of other Māori phrases and terms useful for communicating and relating to Whakarewarewa – and he eagerly asks us to repeat them to make sure they hang on! Some of the words are long. The longest word in ‘te reo’ contains 84 letters! However, they sometimes use abbreviations like Whaka for Whakarewarewa.
Our guide now takes us through the village, explaining about the various locations and Māori customs.
In Whakarewarewa there are in total 18-25 families living in the houses. Today, they have in addition to the traditional utensils and techniques also modern amenities. They make for instance use of cars in the village, as well as have a school for the children.
We pass the funeral areas with the Māori cemetery. In the village they have two churches: a Catholic church, which is the original one, and an Anglican church. A big eruption occurred in 1850 which destroyed the previous Rotorua wonder: the stunning pink and white terraces. This was used as an occasion to move the Anglican church to the site here. So today there are two churches in the village in addition to the Meeting House used for assemblies, marriages and funerals.
Our Māori guide now shows where they prepare the traditional Hāngi meal in a steam box. When he was a child he used to have the job to place a couple of chickens in the box on the way to school. They then cooked slowly over the thermal heat during most of the day, and he picked them up again when returning from school – ready for the family’s dinner!
Visitors can also taste a corn cob boiled in a thermal pool – the kitchen pool! This is where they cook corn, other vegetables and seafood. He immerses the bag of corn into the pool for about a minute – and they are done! The temperature in this pool can be up to 180 degrees centigrade (over 350 degrees Fahrenheit)! Moreover, the pool is at least 15 m deep (50 ft). They tried to locate the pool bottom once, but the metal rope nearly melted! As a curiosity he informs us about other cooking times. Lobsters need 4 minutes in the pool, and mussels only 20 seconds.
Our Māori companion explains that the activity level in the pool changes all the time. What was pretty remarkable, though, was what happened during the Italian volcano Etna’s eruption in 2001. As a consequence of this eruption on the other side of the Earth, the water mirror in the cooking pool here decreased with several metres! According to our guide this geothermal connection surprised everyone!
In addition to the kitchen pool and the steam box, the Māori families in general have a normal kitchen in the houses which they also use for cooking. In this way they adapt themselves to the modern lifestyle as well.
We also get an introduction to other Māori traditions like weaving, carving and tattooing. Tattoos play an important role in their society and their body tattoos are very symbolic.
The bathing ritual is also important. One of the pools at the site is the common bath. Actually, there are a couple of pools with different temperatures. The hottest pool is 55 degrees centigrade (131 degrees Fahrenheit), but for instance the children’s bath is cooler. Grooves in the stone floor regulate the temperature in the adjacent pool. Our guide now encourages everyone to touch the water. Due to minerals it is very soft and feels like silk on the skin!
There are specific bath hours – outside the visitor hours – such that the families can have their daily bath undisturbed.
Visit Whakarewarewa: Kia ora!
A visit to Whakarewarewa includes, in addition to the language lesson and the cultural insight provided in the guided tour of the village, the opportunity to take a self-guided walk on the grounds following the trails. Here you have the chance to take a closer look at all the boiling mud pools and other geothermal pools, as well as unpredictable geysers.
You can do a boardwalk through the steam mist surrounding some of the hot pools. It is of course important not to leave the trails since the grounds outside can be both boiling hot as well as toxic!
You will also get the chance to attend a passionate dance performance where the traditional performing art, the kappa haka, is demonstrated (haka means dance). It is a fascinating show where both men and women perform, dance and sing in the traditional way. It is storytelling when it is best – the talented dancers interpret and express some of their legends as well as war dance with a high intensity! Note that the dancers use their dilated pupils and tongues to scare the enemy!
At the same time you will see them use traditional instruments in their performance – and you will get time to study the different tattoos they have on their bodies! A performance varies in intensity and emotions – and you will both hear loud shouts and screams, as well as soft, melodious singing.
Finally, you may also, besides the corn cobs, be able to try a genuine Hāngi meal – cooked in the steam box!
Our guide explains that the Māori society today depends on the tourism to a large extent. There is both a private part of town where people live and act as they have always done – and a tourist/educational part to ensure an income. In addition to this income, the Māori community also receives some subsidiaries as the village has a cultural and educational value.
Today, visitors greatly help preserve the village and the Māori history, legends and traditions.
Kia ora, Whakarewarewa!
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