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New Zealand Trip Report

Day 3 of 24

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Sunday, March 3rd
Rotorua - thermal areas and Maori culture

It was a bright sunny day and we decided to visit Rotorua today. Rotorua is known for its geothermal areas (geysers, hot springs, etc.). After breakfast we drove to Hamilton, about a one and a half hour drive from Auckland. We drove past rolling green hills, and not much else. We flipped through the radio stations (I'd forgotten to bring the CD's we bought the previous day), finally settling on ZDFM (98.6). On the way home, we listened to the same station, which actually has a "love songs 'til midnight" show.

There are lots of fast food restaurants in Hamilton -- Burger King, McDonald's, and KFC were all there. We stopped in a McDonald's for lunch. One thing we noticed was that most of the kids (even up through teenagers) were not wearing shoes or even socks. Is there some rule that you have to go barefoot until you reach 18 in New Zealand? The adults all wore shoes.

It was about another hour and 15 minutes to reach Rotorua. With the stop for lunch (and a couple other stops), we didn't get in to Rotorua until almost 2pm. The first thing we noticed when we reached Rotorua was the smell! If you've ever been to Lassen or any other geothermal area, you probably know the smell. We stopped in at the visitor's center (there are prominent road signs to direct you there) to get some information. Some of the attractions at Rotorua include Agrodome (sheep show), many places to see geothermal activity, the lake itself, and Maori performances and dinners.

We decided to visit the Maori Arts & Crafts Institute. The Maori are the Polynesians who arrived on New Zealand before the European settlers. There were wars and treaties and it's an interesting story which I won't detail. I did notice that there are many Maori place names (such as Rotorua), and there are many signs with both English and Maori words. For example, all Department of Conservation signs also say "Te Papa Atawhai."

We arrived just before one of the regular guided tours, which gave us a few minutes to first browse the gift shop. Among other stuff, they sell bone and greenstone necklaces. They're very popular in gift shops and arts and crafts stores throughout New Zealand. The greenstone is called pounamu in Maori; you'll probably think of it as jade. Here's an interesting web resource on greenstone, pounamu, and jade:

Entrance to Maori Arts & Crafts Institute

The guided tour turned out to be much too crowded, with 30 or 40 visitors and one guide. So we decided to go off on our own. We visited the wood carving school. They carve wood like totem poles, but more human-like. The hands are often carved to be set on a large tummy. We continued on to a large canoe set on a small pond. If I recall, the canoe seats about 75 warriors and is about 20 meters long. After the canoe we went next door to the weaving house. Two women were there, weaving. They happily agreed to be photographed.

Maori wood carver

Wood carving in progress

Weaving studio

We now left the buildings and walked onto the trails through the geothermal areas. We explored boiling mud pools and geysers, some of which smelled worse than others. There are some places along the walk with some nice views, but the smell makes it a bit hard to enjoy. As we approached the largest geyser, the Pohutu Geyser, the wind carried the mist all the way to where we stood, at least 50 yards away. I turned away to protect my camera and waited for the wind to shift. One interesting point: there's actually a hotel right behind a large boiling mud pool. I can only imagine the smell from the balcony!

Boiling mud pool

Smoking pit

Pohutu Geyser

There's a kiwi house, which houses the nocturnal bird. It was dark inside and we were instructed to be silent as we walked inside, so as not to disturb them. We did see one walking slowly in the dark, but of course I can't show you a picture.

When we walked back to the buildings, we noticed a performance on the lawn. It's a welcome ceremony called the Powhiri. It was being performed for one of the busloads of tour groups which comes through, but we were welcome to watch from the gate; we'd witness the same for ourselves later. We'd signed up for the performance and dinner later that night. We had a bit of time to kill now, so we drove back into the city and visited a grocery store. Jean began her persistent search for wine gums; she found they sold them in bulk at this store! I resisted the temptation to buy Tim Tams, which we'd originally seen in Australia.

Maori warrior

Maori house

Hut and carving from the village recreation

We drove back to the Arts & Crafts Institute late in the afternoon to witness our Powhiri. Two people were picked from the group of us (about 50 or 60 of us) to be our chiefs in the ceremony. The ceremony began with 3 men taking turns yelling and twirling their weapons as they advanced on us. Then the third man placed a leaf on the ground which was accepted by one of our chiefs. I'm not sure of all the timing anymore, but the same was done for the second chief. The women Maori then called to welcome us into the meeting house. We took off our shoes and went inside, where there were Maori speeches.

Blowing the conch shell

Maori warrior

Painted rear of a Maori warrior

Maori warrior with club

Maori warrior with club

Finally, the head Maori ended the formalities and welcomed us to sit back and relax (or even come forward and sit on the floor, as we did), and enjoy the show. And we did enjoy it. There was singing, dancing, and music -- including the Maori's favorite instrument, the guitar. They performed with a ball attached to a string, rhythmically bouncing it from shoulder to arm. They performed with club weapons. They performed with sticks, throwing them to each other like juggling performers on the street. They also demonstrated hakka faces -- the hakka is used to intimidate an enemy; the faces used generally involve sticking the tongue out as much as possible while making some intimidating sound. It is often performed before rugby matches.

Maori women dancing

Maori woman performing with ball and string

Maori woman performing with long stick

Stick passing

Stick throwing

Song and dance during the Maori performance


After the show (which included audience participation), we moved to the banquet room for a hangi feast. There was salad, soups (the seafood chowder and kumera soup were excellent), and meats. And lots of dessert. The meat was a bit dry -- a bit of a disappointment, but there was enough good stuff to satisfy us. We sat at a table with 7 others, and we shared stories of our travels in New Zealand so far. Interestingly, we were the only Americans in the entire group of 50 or 60; the others were mostly Europeans. They had the people from different countries sing songs related to their countries. Jean and I tried to hide (well, at least I did), as I had no idea what we could possibly sing. I couldn't think of a song which is distinctly American but not grossly patriotic.

After looking at the lit Pohutu Geyser (not very exciting), we started the long drive back to Auckland. We left Rotorua around 9:30pm, not getting into Auckland until about 12:10am.

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