One of the first things you become immediately aware of in New Zealand is the influence of the Maori culture. The vast majority of place names are of Maori origin. At first, visitors may be puzzled by the seemingly impossible-to-pronounce names. In fact, Maori has a logical structure, and, unlike English, has very consistent rules of pronunciation (kinda like my old friend Español). The Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand and it is believed they migrated from Polynesia in canoes sometime around the 10th century. Today, they make up over 14 percent of the population. Their language and culture has a major impact on all facets of New Zealand life.
One popular thing to do as a tourist is to go to a Maori performance or Haka. These showcase traditional Maori culture as demonstrated by third generation descendants of Maori tribes. I went to the Mitai Maori Village for a $70 performance, meal, and night time tour of a neighboring animal sanctuary.
The show, which took place outdoors in a beautiful wooded setting complete with torch light and winding paths, started with some eerie chants as the Maori paddled upstream in their ancient warrior canoe while giving some tribal ‘shout outs.’ They performed a few tribal dance numbers and did their ritual war dance which was actually pretty scary. You wouldn’t want to cross a Maori dude the wrong way…they mean business. We learned some Maori words and even sung along with them, even though we had no idea what we were saying. The show seemed to be half authentic and half Vegas-style cabaret complete with dancing girls and costumes. Although I was told they were all real Maori, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was just a good paying gig rather than a real traditional show.
Afterwards we were herded back into a huge tent for the traditional hangi feast. The hangi is a traditional oven made by digging a hole in the ground and steaming food in big baskets over embers. Succulent chicken, lamb, potatoes, plus rice, salad and dessert was laid out for us on steaming buffet tables.
After dinner, I toured Rainbow Springs. It was a beautiful night time tour. All the various Palm trees and ferns were lit up by colorful lights and even the fish ponds had dim lights to reveal rainbow trout swirling about hovering over the natural springs that gave this place its name. Here, I got to see what I came for, the endangered national bird of New Zealand, the cute, yet klutzy looking Kiwi. No, it is not a green fuzzy fruit. This flightless bird is only found in New Zealand and is a member of the Ostrich/Emu family. It has no tail, and horrible vision, but a great sense of smell, which helps him snort out yummy grubs and other buggies. It is the only bird in the world to have nostrils at the end of its beak. Oh, and get this, a female Kiwi gives birth to an egg that is roughly 20% of her own body weight. Ouch.
They are nocturnal so luckily we caught a glimpse of a few in the park. The one I saw seemed to have a bit of OCD—she was pacing back and forth and seemed very uncomfortable in her own feathers… or she just found out about the huge egg she’d have to ‘drop’ one day. They do have a Kiwi conservation program going on here which is a good thing because there has been a 99% loss in their population in the last 100 years. It is estimated that before human settlement in the 13th century, there were 70 million kiwi. Today, there are about 70,000 left. They say that at the current rapid rate of decline, unprotected kiwi populations will become extinct on the mainland in 75 years.
The ride home in our tour shuttle bus was perhaps the most memorable part of the evening. Our jovial driver wore big glasses and had a shaved head. He asked us all 6 of us which countries we were from.
Everyone shouted out their homelands. He had each ‘country’ sing a song from their native land. The Canadians sang their national anthem. And the Brits sang their beloved Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.” When he got to me (the lone US passenger) I asked him to join me since I was alone and did not want to make a fool of myself with a solo performance. He suggested “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Easy enough. After our amazing rendition, I had to pick the next country and I shouted out New Zealand knowing he would have to sing. He regaled us with a sweet Maori tune.
After the Indian couple finished their anthem, our driver told us his story. He’d recently undergone a heart transplant. He told us how every day is a gift for him and he really enjoys meeting folks from all over the world and singing and laughing with them.
When we reached my hostel we parted ways with the traditional Maori greeting—the hongi–the touching of noses and ‘sharing of life breath’. He said this was very special and a bond of friendship. What a sweet man—who knew my bus ride home would be the highlight of the night and remind me, once again, how important it is to make the most of each day.