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New Zealand: There’s something about Māori

To get beneath the skin of Māori culture you have to read between the lines. Beyond the bombastic noise of traditional haka displays, indigenous New Zealand life happens in the ‘small places’, in the hush of its forests and on the quiet of its lakes and shores

New Zealand: There’s something about Māori
Traditional Māori hongi greeting. Image: Getty

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Charles Pipi Tukukino Royal is surprisingly diminutive for a culinary colossus — an elfin man who comes up to my chin, with a wave of grey hair and two delicate koru (ferns) tattooed on his ears. This is rather fitting because Charles is something of a fern aficionado. The Māori chef started as an army field cook, aged 15, before becoming a restaurateur and going on to create menus for Air New Zealand — in the process, being named Innovative Chef of the Year by the Restaurant Association of New Zealand in 2003. Today, Charles runs foraging tours and traditional Māori cooking classes, as well as supplying restaurants with wild plants. All of which explains why I find myself rooting around with him in his ‘backyard’, near Lake Rotoma, half an hour east of the city of Rotorua on North Island.

Comprising five acres of century-old forest, this is a compact cosmos of plant power. Branches, thick as a bouncer’s biceps, bar our entrance. Sinewy lianas coil around them like crossed arms. I stand on my tiptoes for a glimpse of the shadowy interior, but its secrets are indecipherable without an insider. Luckily, I’ve someone to do the talking for me. Charles dips beneath the barricade of vines without a whisper of complaint from the big trees, so I scurry after him like a groupie. “Let’s say a karakia [prayer] to thank the land,” he says, delicately placing his palm on a tract of bark. From his lips spill whispers so soft and spell-like the trees seem to close in around us, listening. Logs, robed in moss, lounge against each other luxuriously and the floor is dressed in a filigree of leaf skeletons. 

Charles weaves, cougar-like, between the tangle. “There are 312 species of fern in New Zealand; 14 are edible,” he says in a hushed voice. “This one — silver fern — you can’t eat it but it glows in the dark, so if you’re in the bush at night you can leave a trail to find your way back.” Charles snaps off the tip and turns it over to show me its shimmery belly. “And if bushmen need energy, we eat this: bush asparagus — have a taste.” It’s slimy, like okra. We delve further.

Charles carries a weathered blue bag and, as we dip and dodge, he fills it with a snippet of this and a handful of that, reciting each of their names — vowel-tastic titles as delicious to the ears as they are to the tongue: pikopiko, horopito and kawakawa. “This one,” he says, fondling the heart-shaped leaf of the kawakawa, “is amazing — it can be used as an antiseptic, on sores, for eczema, even as a blood thinner. And here, lichen moss, one of the oldest plants in the world. It’s actually half vegetable, half fungus and is good for prostate cancer.” Charles strips some off and pops it in his top pocket. A few steps further, he hands me a tawhara fern. “See the cone on top? Eat it. It tastes like an overripe pear.”

We return to Charles’ house with our pocketed picnic and he whips around the modest kitchen, putting the finishing touches to a meal he’d been preparing for me earlier. I’m on one of the wild food tours Charles runs to promote Kiwi food identity. Out of the simple electric oven he hauls a whopping great rainbow trout he’d caught earlier this morning, and serves it with a roundel of soda bread sprinkled with crushed almonds and black ferns. Charles hands me a glass of kawakawa tonic and I sip the bitter brew, absentmindedly taking in the bed in the living room and a yellowing map of the area pinned to the wall. It strikes me this is exactly what I’d hoped for: a toe-dip into authentic Māori traditions. I say as much to Charles and he nods. “If you want to experience real Māori life, you have to go to the small places. Move away from the city lights — we’re a grassroots people. ”

Getty-Māori-National Park

Track to Roaring Billy Falls, Mt Aspiring National Park, South Island. Image: Getty

Māori renaissance
Travellers to New Zealand often report that they see little more than staged hakas — the famous, thigh-slapping war dance that gives rugby players the willies; that Māori culture is something of a closed book. Perhaps because it’s only recently that the indigenous population have reclaimed their identity. Pākehā (Europeans) are largely to blame for that. A good place to get to grips with the history is the Waitangi Treaty Grounds and Te Kōngahu Museum of Waitangi, which overlook the Bay of Islands on the tip of North Island. It was around these parts that Polynesian chief Kupe is said to have made landfall in the 10th century, so discovering New Zealand. It’s said his wife, Kuramārōtini, upon glimpsing the island, called it Aotearoa (‘long white cloud’). Often, this side of history has been sidelined in favour of stories about Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, the first European to land here, in 1642; and Captain Cook, who first arrived in 1769. “‘Fair-skinned people with scabs and boils on their skin’ was how my ancestors described them,” laughs Solly Hemara, my tour guide, as I follow him around the grounds.

To escape the drizzle, we shelter under the porch of a white clapboard house. “It was on this spot at 11am on Thursday, 6 February 1840 that Captain William Hobson encouraged 34 Māori chiefs to sign the Treaty of Waitangi. They erected a marquee out the front of the house here,” says Solly, pointing to the damp spread of grass before us. The document was the first of its kind to try to protect the rights of a tribal people. In return for granting Great Britain the right to rule New Zealand, the chiefs would keep their land and chieftainships and all Māori would enjoy the same rights as British subjects. “The treaty stopped infighting between tribes and saved us from the French, who were coming back to ransack and conquer the islands,” Solly explains. He’s a fourth-generation descendent of one of the signatories and puffs out his chest proudly.

However, lapses in translation led to misunderstandings. The government believed the treaty permitted complete ownership of lands and resources, but for the Māori, it wasn’t so clear cut. “Whenua [land] belongs to Papatūānuku [Mother Earth], and can only ever be looked after, not owned,” says Solly. Land wars ensued in the 1860s, with territory confiscated as punishment for ‘any rebellion against the Queen’s authority’ and redistributed to European settlers. The Waitangi Tribunal, set up in 1975, is still sorting out Māori claims of breaches of the treaty. During the Second World War, many young Māoris were forced to relocate to cities to work in factories, cutting them off from their land and tikanga (practices). And to make matters worse, te reo Māori (the Māori language) had been suppressed in schools from the mid 19th century onwards, to the extent that by 1980 only around 20% of Māoris could speak the language (it remains on the UNESCO list of endangered languages).

Today, a renaissance is in full swing. Māori was reinstated as an official language of New Zealand in 1987. It’s sometimes used in parliament and there are 22 radio stations and two TV channels exclusively in Māori. Rotorua is set to become the country’s first official bilingual city, while a Māori Language Week is now hosted every September.

But if I am to continue my search for authentic Māori experiences, it makes sense to head for the water, since they’re a seafaring people. Biting winds are bullying the surface of Lake Rotorua when I meet Warner Rahurahu, owner of Aotearoa Waka Experience, the next morning. I’m late to the party: close to 20 people — from kids to grandmas — are milling around in life jackets, eager to jump into the waiting waka (canoe).

Warner is delivering the safety briefing: “Don’t rest the tongue of the paddle on the ground,” he instructs. “Is that because it’s sacred?” I ask. “No, it’s because they cost 68 dollars each!” he laughs. I’m a little disappointed. It feels a bit touristy. I’m directed to sit in the waenga (middle) section, squashed up against the wooden ribs of the boat. My paddling partner is a teenage girl with dyed red hair and chipped nail polish. “Is this a school trip?” I ask her. “No, this is my family. We own part of Mokoia Island and are paddling out to pay our respects,” she says. My mood flips instantly and, with Warner bellowing commands from the stern, we dip our oars into the water as one, ploughing towards the arc of land on the horizon. After just a few strokes, my shoulders are burning. Waves splash over my misplaced oar, soaking my trousers, but moral stays high as Warner chants poi waka (canoe songs) to help us keep rhythm. He calls out and in unison we shout ‘hei’, banging our oars on the sides of the boat.


Pohutu and Prince of Wales Geysers, Te Puia. Image: Getty

Tā moko tales
One of the women on the boat has mataora (facial tattoos). I’m keen to learn more, so, once docked, I wander Rotorua’s grid of streets in search of Moko 101, a tattoo studio run by Hohua Mohi. There are no black books with laminated pages of barbed wire and dolphins here. No point-to posters on the walls. Hohua sits at the end of the long, empty room tattooing tauri kamare (cuffs) onto his niece, who’s reclined on a leather bed. His nephew plays video games in the corner. No one looks up as I approach and I feel a little shy. Hohua is a large man, covered head-to-toe in ta moko (tattoos). “Everywhere except my arse,” he laughs, switching off the humming needle for a break. “The lips and eyes were the most painful.” Full facial tattoos like Hohua’s are slowly gaining popularity again. “It means you’re a ‘person of the people’, so your community have to tell you you’re worthy of it,” he says proudly.

Having tattooed over 10,000 clients, it can be agreed that Hohua is something of an expert. Each ta moko is unique, and you don’t just wander in and tell him what you want — he tells you. “They don’t have a choice over the design — only the story they tell me. You see, everyone has a journey inside them — I just bring those stories to the surface of their skin. There’s no tracing paper!” I scan the markings covering Hohua’s arms and hands. “You can trace the genealogy of our people through ink. We may have stopped using traditional tools like albatross bone, but the language of patterns never left us.”

“But what do the symbols mean?” I ask. “All moko patterns are taken from nature — it’s what connects us Polynesians. But it’s actually the empty space between the designs that’s key, because it lets manawa (the heart of a person) shine through,” says Hohua, picking up the needle once more.

“There are rules, though: you can never put an ancestor on a foot, and the space around the ears is for someone who taught you something,” he continues, wiping away the ink and blood on his niece’s wrist with a tissue. “The ink binds us to our family, our ancestors.”

“And how do you feel about non Māori getting the tattoos?” I ask. Hohua smiles. “It helps to normalise it,” he shrugs. “And that’s my mission.”

Night is drawing in so I go to say goodbye. “Do we touch foreheads?” I ask. “Ha! Outsiders are always hankering for a hongi [the touching of foreheads to exchange ha, the breath of life], but this is formal. We hug people when we know them,” laughs Hohua, enveloping me in a bear hug.

Also on a mission is 29 year-old Māori designer Adrienne Whitewood. She owns Ahu Boutique, in Rotorua, and is just back from her first solo show at New Zealand Fashion Week when I drop in to meet her.

“I realised there were no high-end Māori designs, just souvenir Māoriana styles,” she tells me, putting clothes on hangers. Her T-shirts featuring Warhol-style prints of female Māori legends such as Hinemoa (the Māori equivalent of Shakespeare’s Juliet) and Pania (a maiden who dived into the sea and turned into a reef to save her land) sought to address that, and were an instant hit. But she’s keen to spread the success. “I’ve mentored seven other designers so far,” she says proudly.

South of the city is Te Puia, a sprawling, 173-acre cultural centre built to promote Māori traditions. It’s famous for its Pōhutu Geyser, mud pools and hot springs — all evidence of the island’s volcanic geography. But behind this and the visitor-pleasing kiwi bird enclosures, real work is going on. There are schools teaching weaving, and wood, stone and bone carving to Māori apprentices.

I head to the workshops round the back to meet Clive Fugill. Nearly 70 and decked out in a fisherman’s cap and glasses, he’s been carving for 56 years and has contributed to 120 Māori marae (meeting houses), including the one at the Te Kōngahu Museum of Waitangi. “People think they’re building a house, but it’s the people who end up being built,” Clive nods, sagely. As he speaks, I notice the younger men stop and listen to him reverently. Apprentice Tukiri Tini, 22, chimes in: “If you haven’t got the passion, there’s no point — you’ve got to love every line you cut,” he says. A whale made of bone leaps through his earlobe. “A gift from the master carver,” he says, nodding towards Clive and delicately fingering the piercing.

Te Puia staff member Sheena Waerea and 23-year-old Ngaa Rauuira Pumanawawhiti, join me for lunch. Ngaa is something of a local legend, having attended Yale University at 16, and has had a film (Māori Boy Genius) made about him. We’re tucking into parcels of chicken, corn, potatoes and cabbage wrapped in leaves that were steamed in a hāngi: a pit filled with rocks heated by geothermal energy. “The ‘Māori microwave’,’’ smiles Sheena.

Te Puia will soon be getting a ta moko studio, so I ask if either of them have any tattoos. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing kauae [a chin tattoo] unless I was fluent in Māori,” says Sheena, hanging her head shyly. “My friend got one last year and I asked, ‘How are you going to find employment in mainstream industries?’ She replied, ‘I don’t want to work for them if they’re hiring me for my looks.’ It really made me think. Visibility has definitely started to force acceptance.” I look to Ngaa and ask if he has any. “Not yet — I’m still forming my journey,” he says. “But there’s someone you need to meet.”

We walk down the hill to find Katz Maihi, head of schools at the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute, at Te Puia. His face is covered in black lines, yet it’s his voice I find most striking; it sounds like far-off thunder. I tell him so. “When we speak Māori it comes from a different place inside. As I speak, it’s not just me, it’s my ancestors’ voice. I’m not speaking to your intellect, but engaging all your senses. You feel it in your body.” So maybe that’s the key to experiencing authentic Aotearoa. It’s not the rush of activities, but the conversations that convert you from tourist to tai (friend). “Stop using your eyes to view us. Feel us. We might look dodgy, but we’re quite approachable,” beams Katz.


Getting there & around
Air New Zealand flies daily from Heathrow to New Zealand via LA and other North America cities, plus via Asia. Cathay Pacific, China Southern Airlines and Singapore Airlines also fly from the UK with one stop. Average Flight time: 24h.     

New Zealand offers a comprehensive bus network, while long-distance rail operator The Great Journeys of New Zealand has a handful of routes across both islands, with fares starting at NZ$158 (£80). Hiring a car gives greater freedom, with one-way drops often available. There are regular flights between Auckland (North Island), and Christchurch (South Island), connecting with smaller airports nationwide.

When to go
Travel in the shoulder seasons (March-April and September-November) when airfares are lower, the weather is fine and smaller towns haven’t closed for the winter. Matariki (Māori New Year) is celebrated on 15 June this year, with much partying.

More info
Films: Once Were Warriors, Māori Boy Genius and River Queen.
Books: The Woven Universe: The Selected Writings of Rev. Maori Marsden, by Māori Marsden.
Apps: Emotiki — for inventive Māori emojis.

How to do it
Discover the World has bespoke trips to New Zealand; its 14-night New Zealand Highlights self-drive costs from £2,760 per person, including return flights from the UK with Singapore Airlines, 14 nights’ accommodation with some breakfasts, car rental, Interislander ferry crossings, a Milford Sound Nature Cruise, and other excursions.

Published in the April 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)