Culture amid geothermal wonders

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The Pōhutu Geyser

No trip to Rotorua is complete without a visit to the geysers. After we’d finished our wonderful show at the Agrodome we went to the Māori Cultural Centre at Te Puia where we met a lovely young lady who was to be our guide. This visit wasn’t just about geothermal manifestations, it was to educate us about Māori culture.

We started with a visit to their kiwi rehabilitation centre. The kiwi is dangerously endangered mainly due to predation by introduced species like rats, stoats, ferrets, weasels, cats, possums, and dogs. They were all introduced into a country which had only two mammals (tiny bats) before humans arrived. The flightless birds had little defence, although adult kiwis can look after themselves. But the eggs and babies can’t. Captive breeding programs can be found all over NZ. The birds are released as soon as they’re big enough to look after themselves.

Check the size of the eggs

They’re fascinating birds, related to Australia’s emus and cassowaries but they have some unique, almost mammalian characteristics. Their feathers are almost furry, they have two ovaries (birds have only one), their nostrils are at the tip of their beak, not up near the face. The female lays enormous eggs, usually two, maybe three in a clutch. That done, she’s out of there. I don’t blame her, I bet it smarts even if the eggshells are soft at that stage. The egg takes up most of her body cavity. Here’s a short video of a kiwi laying an egg.

Now it’s over to dad to brood. But unlike male emus and cassowaries, who care for the kids after they hatch, kiwi babies come out fully formed and ready to go. Dad probably doesn’t even wave goodbye. Which, of course, is why they’re so vulnerable to predators.

Te Puia has three kiwis in a night house. They are solitary, nocturnal and have poor eyesight. Before we went to see the birds we were asked, no photos, please. And fair enough, too. But it seems people in a previous group thought that didn’t mean them. One flash photo was enough to scare the female out of a month of Sundays. I hope they kicked the person out of the park.

Inside the night house the kiwis scratched around through the grass tussocks. They were difficult to spot until they moved, blending in perfectly with the grass. One of the birds will be released in the wild as soon as he’s big enough. It’s hoped the other two will mate.

From there we went to see the mud pools looking like a horrible looking, unappetising, gently simmering casserole.

It’s hot in there

The Pōhutu Geyser was much more impressive.

Our guide took us to Te Puia’s school where young Māori are able to learn native crafts such as carving greenstone (pounamu), wood carving, and weaving.

Drilling Pounamu

Pounamu is a hard mineral, rating around 6 on the hardness scale. These days workers use diamond-tipped tools to carve it but at the school students learn the long, patient way, polishing with river rocks, carving with simple drills.

The art of carving

Wood carving requires an understanding of the wood but also knowledge of what is to be carved. You’re not considered a master until you’ve carved a Marae. One of the masters from the school completed the Marae where we would attend a performance.

The art of weaving

Preparation of flax for weaving is a job for women. It’s an intricate process to prepare the fibres and dye them for the garments the Māori wear. Some of it is a little like tie-dyeing. The ladies patiently answered our questions.

I was reminded of a story I heard on Norfolk Island. Europeans thought the plant that grew there was the same as NZ flax so they kidnapped a couple of Māori warriors intending that they should show them how to process the flax on Norfolk Island. Of course, they didn’t know how – it’s women’s work.

Ah, the arrogance of the white male 😊 Apart from that, it’s a different plant on Norfolk Island, not suitable for making into fibres.

We enjoyed a wonderful buffet dinner in a restaurant with a wonderful view of the geyser, not quite the traditional hangi I expected – you know, lots of hot coals and steam, or maybe a joint cooked in a hot pool – but very nice food for all that. Linda told us the chocolate mousse was awful and we shouldn’t bother. Sometimes she tells lies 😉

Dinner done, we trooped out to see the show. Before we could enter the marae where the show was to be held, our chief would have to face a haka in which he would establish that we came in peace. Normally this part of the proceedings would take place before we could enter the marae but since it was raining we were allowed inside.

Understandably, we were just twenty people of a much larger audience but in keeping with the Ultimate experience, Linda was asked to choose a chief from amongst our number who would act for everyone. This person had to be male, tall, handsome, of commanding demeanour and overall a super guy. Well… it could have been any of our boys, couldn’t it? Linda must have put names in a hat. She picked out John. All hail Chief John.

John had some experience with this haka business. He had attended the All Blacks Experience, next door to Weta Workshop Unleashed in Auckland. As part of that tour he faced down the entire All Blacks team doing a haka. He was already a pro.

Having selected our chief, the mistress of ceremonies asked who was “Miss Chief”. Amid titters from the rest of us, Jane owned up and was duly installed in the front row.

Three warriors appeared on stage and performed a haka, a ceremonial dance intended to display the strength of the tribe. You know that bit where they bulge their eyes and poke out their tongues? It apparently means to say to the enemy “my mouth waters and I lick my lips for soon I will taste your flesh.” [source] Nice to see you, do come in, stay for dinner.

One of the warriors placed a peace token (a fern leaf) on the ground. If the opposing chief picks it up, it’s all okay.

John picked it up.

From there we were treated to a number of songs and dances by both the men and the women. They were very vigorous, with much leaping, slapping, and stomping, as well as song. All of the performers shook their hands rapidly back and forth in a sort of fluttering motion. This is a form of expressing the dancers’ life force and is an important part of the haka.

See the vigour in the dance

It had been a long day. We were happy to clamber up that steep staircase to our bed that night. Tomorrow we’d be off to Napier.

By the way, if you’ve happened upon this page by accident and you’d like to read more about the tour, go to the tour page where you’ll find the rest of our adventures.

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