Experience Maori Culture in the North Island

We recently stayed at a marae at Mourea. This is a traditional Maori cultural visit in the North Island of New Zealand

Staying in a wharenui (Maori meeting house) is not a typical experience for tourists or even New Zealanders. Maori people are very protective of their spiritual houses, in the same way other cultures are protective of their temples or churches. By staying here you help support families in the local community who otherwise may have no other source of income, and you’ll discover a culture steeped in history that has adapted to remain alive and relevant today. A stay on a Marae is a unique experience, we are lucky to have it included in some of our trips.

The experience begins with a bush walk in the Okere Falls Scenic Reserve. We arrived in the Bay of Plenty and were met by our local Maori guide. We took a short walk through the cool shaded native bush to the Kaituna (Okere) River (“Kaituna” means fish food in Maori). Here the significance of the area to the indigenous Ngati Hinerangi people of this region was explained to us. We visited the viewing platforms of the picturesque Tutea and Okere waterfalls. The Tutea Fall is the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world. This is the same waterfall I plummeted over in an exhilarating white water rafting trip with Kaitiaki Adventures the very next day.

We then headed to our overnight stay in a localwharenui (Maori meeting house). Tonight’s accommodation was on the edge of the stunning Lake Rotoiti and Rotorua and home to one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen in New Zealand. The orange glow from the setting sun and the reflection on the lake was simply breathtaking.

We were welcomed onto the Marae atea (the grounds in front of the wharenui) with a very special ceremony called a powhiri. For the Maori people the powhiri is a spiritual welcome, traditionally used to figure out whether a visiting guest is friend or enemy. In the present day, it’s a customary way to form a kinship between the visitor and host.

Usually before visitors can enter the tapu (sacred) grounds a women from the visiting tribe would perform a karanga(opening call) which establishes the purpose of the visit. The karanga can only be performed by a woman (women are also considered tapu because of their ability to give life), it cannot be performed by a man, so it was the women of our group who led the men onto the sacred grounds.

We were asked to remove our shoes out of respect for the founding tipuna (ancestor) and  introduced to our host whanau(family) Richard, Ruth, their children and the aunties. Wharenui’s are designed to represent the body of an ancestor – Richard pointed out the head, arms, legs, backbone and ribs of the body – and as you enter the building you are entering the ancestors body therefore, it commands respect. Hence the removal of shoes, plus it keeps the floor clean.

Richard performed a whaikorero (formal speech) and the whanau sang a waiata (song). In Maori culture the oratory holds great mana (prestige) and is a display of knowledge, genealogy and mythology of the host. Apart from a few odd words I didn’t understand much, but I’m always impressed by fluent Maori speakers, considering at one stage it was considered a dying language in New Zealand.

The powhiri process concluded when we were invited to participate in a hongi(pressing of the noses together) which for me involved a bit of nervous laughter, a few accidental head-butts and some concern about my breath; but for the Maori people the hongi is actually an intimate gesture signifying the joining together of the tangata whenua andmanuhiri (visitors) and to acknowledge the spirit through the sharing of breath.

Tonight’s feast was a mouth-watering roast, with several choices of meat and vegetables, a selection of desserts followed by unlimited cups of tea. But beforehand we were treated to fully interactive Kapa Haka (Maori song and dance) and even got to participate ourselves, ensuring we worked up a mighty appetite. The boys learned the haka (traditional war dance) and the girls learned the poi (a dance using a ball on a string, which is swung rhythmically to song – believe me, the locals make it look easy). We then performed for each other, and one of the local kids judged who did the best performance, with the losing group being responsible for washing up the dinner dishes. I’m sad to say the girls lost… but I’m pretty sure it was rigged!

That night we slept like a local – the traditional way visitors sleep when attending a tangi (funeral), hui (meeting) orwhanau (family occasion) -  mattress on the floor, cuddled up in a sleeping bag whilst Richard shared stories of history and culture of his people.

If your visiting Aotearoa (New Zealand in Moari, meaning land of the long white cloud) this stop is well worth the visit. This really was an unforgettable, genuine and educational experience, but don’t just take my word for it, haere mai (come here – welcome) and find out for yourself!

For more information on Maori Culture in New Zealand click here.

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