One of New Zealand’s best known and most fascinating features is its indigenous Maori culture. Centuries before Aotearoa (New Zealand) was even on the map, the Maori people travelled across the vast Pacific Ocean in their waka hourua canoes, calling the Land of the Long White Cloud home. Maori culture continues to play an important role in New Zealand today, with descendants of those first great voyagers working fiercely to keep their language, arts and customs alive.
If you’re planning a getaway to New Zealand’s North Island, a visit to Rotorua’s Mitai Maori Village is an enlightening and entertaining experience with something for the whole family. Spend a few hours at this sacred site where smiling hosts will guide you through the rich tapestry of traditions, offering an unbeatable introduction to Maori culture.
A Hearty Hangi Feast
Traditional Maori feasts use a pit in the ground or an “earth oven” known as a hangi, cooking away for around three to four hours. Like all Maori customs, there is a meaningful reason behind this: as the earth was the giver of life, food was cooked in the same soil from which it came. Wrapping leaves may have been replaced with aluminium foil but the earthy, smoky flavours are still embedded into the succulent New Zealand lamb and chicken, the kumara or sweet potato and aromatic stuffing seasoned with native herbs and spices. Your hangi meal at Mitai is not just a carb fix, however, with a buffet of fresh salads to fill your plate and tempting desserts such as chocolate log and trifle (not as traditional, but nevertheless delicious).
Watching the Waka (War Canoe)
Before sitting down to your hangi feast, you will first be treated to a few pre-dinner performances. Armed with torches and blankets, your guide will lead you to the banks of the tranquil Waiowhiro Stream. In complete silence with baited breath, the air is filled with intrigue and suspense until a faint rumbling makes its way around the bend from upstream. You hear the war chant before the waka, the handcrafted war canoe, comes into view, shrouded in flame on its approach. The warriors are clad in traditional garb and moko tattoos, powerful and emotional in their hearty cries and fierce facial expressions as they paddle by. It’s easy to forget these men are not actually on their way to battle and, instead, will be entertaining you with song and dance momentarily.
Listen and Learn with a Cultural Performance
The crux of the evening is an all-embracing cultural performance of song, dance and war displays – a sort of Maori 101 lesson. Wetini Mitai-Ngatai is the owner and operator of Mitai Maori Village and also New Zealand’s male leader for kapa haka, the Maori performing arts, so there is arguably no better guide to take you on this visual cultural journey. The village is set on the same grounds Wetini’s own family once lived on, adding an extra personal dimension to the experience. Along with his son and a group of young Maori, Wetini shares stories and sheds light on cultural characteristics, such as what the moko tattoos mean, the message behind the animated and sometimes frightening facial expressions and the legends behind the intricate dances. While the boys battle it out doing drills and one-on-one combat, the girls work their magic with mesmerising poi dances until the room fills with sound of the haka, the customary war dance made famous by the All Blacks rugby team.
At the start of the evening a chief will be chosen to represent your group, making a speech on your behalf and accepting a peace token. From the time you venture down to the freshwater spring to watch the waka until your chief presses noses twice (a formal “hongi”) with the Maori chief, everyone is asked to refrain from smiling, laughing or speaking during the revered ceremonies. After the hongi, however, it’s all smiles and laughter so get out of your seat and practice your best Maori moves, working up an appetite for the mouth-watering hangi that awaits.