After driving around New Zealand in our campervan for a few weeks, we had made our way back up to the North Island for our last few days in the country. We were already dreading the idea of leaving, but we had saved a special experience up until this point of the trip and, in my opinion, it’s one you can’t miss when visiting New Zealand.
Rotorua is famous for its geothermal sites (the sulphuric smell of which seems to always pervade the town) but it is equally renowned as the place to learn about Maori culture. There are several different tour providers offering Maori cultural experiences in Rotorua and, on one evening, we made our way into the office of one of the most popular providers in the area.
It’s here that our experience began. The central Tamaki Maori Village office, which is located within the Government Gardens off Hinemaru Street, is where all people going on the experience need to confirm their bookings and wait for their tour time. It’s also at this point that we were told the name of our group for the evening, which would come into play at various points of the experience.
What is the Tamaki Maori Village?
Located in a forest on the outskirts of Rotorua, the Tamaki Maori Village was established nearly 30 years ago as a unique Maori cultural experience. The brainchild of brothers Mike and Doug Tamaki, it all started with a single minibus and the desire to recreate an authentic pre-European Maori village.
Nowadays, the evening experience at Tamaki Maori Village is among Rotorua’s most-booked activities. An evening tour can take up to 3.5 hours and this includes transport to and from the village, traditional ceremonies, entertainment as well as a hangi meal. Thanks to the popularity of the experience, I’d definitely recommend booking in advance, especially during peak seasons or New Zealand school holidays.
If you have a car, note that there is parking (for the Government Gardens) located behind the office.
Arriving at Tamaki Maori Village
Our anticipation grew as we watched a number of groups leave for the experience, but then it was finally our turn to travel to the village. Along with the other members of our group for the evening, we climbed on board a bus and, as we made our way out of Rotorua, we heard about what we should expect when entering Tamaki Maori Village.
We were told that we would soon be witnessing a powhiri, the Maori welcome ceremony, along with a ritual called the challenge. The most important thing for experiencing this comes down to knowing the correct etiquette. The Maori warriors perform similar movements associated with the haka, the Maori war dance. This involves sticking out tongues, protruding eyes and making noises – all of which is meant to intimidate potential enemies – but we were told to react to this with no facial expression at all (and definitely no laughing).
We were also asked to choose a leader of the group, who would take part in the powhiri on behalf of all of us. Luckily, someone volunteered but, I suspect, if you visit Tamaki Maori Village on your birthday, you may end up being the default leader!
Our bus arrived at a small clearing in front of a grand, carved gateway covered by vegetation. We huddled together and there were a few nervous giggles in the group as we heard some chanting in the distance, which suddenly grew ever closer. Soon, the front of an elaborately decorated boat appeared – along with a group of heavily tattooed Maori warriors.
The powhiri was fascinating to watch, with each warrior performing elaborate movements with their taiaha (Maori spear) and doing their utmost to intimidate our group leaders, who were standing in a row right at the front of the assembled crowd. The powhiri and challenge used to be performed when other Maori tribes visited, and the warriors would use these ceremonies to decide whether the visitors could be considered as friends or foes.
Toting cameras and GoPros, we were obviously not the latter, and soon the Maori chief appeared, with his facial tattoos and outfit the most prominent of all the warriors. He performed the hongi, the traditional Maori greeting of touching one’s nose and forehead with someone else’s, with our group leaders and welcomed us into the village to learn more about his people.
With the gateway shrouded by vegetation and dark shadows created by the trees beyond, we picked one of the three entrances and wandered into the forest.
Learning about Maori traditions
What we walked into was a beautiful space, with low Maori dwellings located among the trees, the thick canopies of which blocked out most of the sunlight above. It was here that we’d learn about the various rituals and activities associated with pre-European Maori life.
The Maoris originated from the settlers from eastern Polynesia who had arrived in New Zealand by 1300 AD. Although some of the original settlers’ traditions were maintained, over the centuries that followed, the Maoris developed their own unique culture. Over time, the Maori people formed into different tribes and a warrior culture flourished. Europeans starting arriving in New Zealand by the 17th Century, and, in turn, this obviously had a big impact on the Maori population.
Nonetheless, many of the traditions have survived and there are numerous Maori marae (meeting grounds) located around New Zealand. At Tamaki Maori Village, however, we were about to get acquainted with the day-to-day activities of a typical Maori village.
Split into smaller groups, we made our way between different work stations, with each having a particular focus. At one, for example, we learned about Maori facial tattoos and how each one is unique and full of symbolism. At another, we were given the opportunity to try poi dancing, which involves being able to perform particular movements with tethered weights (and it’s a lot harder than it sounds!). My absolute favourite station, though, had to be the one where Chris learned how to do the haka.
It ended up being the most amusing workshop to watch and I think we all realised that it takes a fair bit of skill to pull off intimidating Maori facial expressions. Even the workshop leader had to take a pause to laugh but the male volunteers soon were able to go through a full haka routine.
We thoroughly enjoyed this section of the experience, where we got to learn about so many different facets of Maori life – and got to try out certain traditions ourselves!
The entertainment at Tamaki Maori Village
After circulating around the different workshop stations – and, importantly, just as it started to rain, we were led into the wharenui, a Maori meeting house.
We took our seats and were treated to the evening’s main entertainment. This included singing, traditional dances, poi and, of course, the haka – although this time, it was done properly! I had loved everything about the experience up until this point of the evening, but the entertainment had to be my favourite part. This was where we got real insight into the sights and sounds of Maori culture and how the dances and folk songs have been passed down over time. As the chief jokingly said, referring to a guitar that one of the men was holding, some of the instruments may have changed, but many of the stories behind the songs have stayed the same.
After travelling around New Zealand for a month and hearing snatches of the myths – tales of fantastical creatures and great warriors – within Maori culture, I felt like these finally came alive through these performances.
Experiencing a traditional Maori hangi
With the last song coming to an end, the chief invited us to move into the dining hall for our meal. Earlier in the evening, we had been brought along to an outdoor space and watched as our food was dug up out of the earth. A Maori hangi, after all, is a pit within the ground, which acts like an oven using heated rocks. For about three hours, vegetables and meat are left to cook in their individual containers before all of these are dug up for a hangi feast.
It had smelled good, even then, but nothing could compare to that moment when we walked into the hall, with the tables heavy with food waiting to be dished up. Seating is organised by the groups you travelled to the village with and the food is served buffet style. It’s a three-course meal but, if you’re particularly famished, you’ll be happy to know that seconds (and thirds) are allowed. Water and tea are complimentary; additional drinks and alcohol can be purchased.
When it comes to the food, there are a few different types of meat and plenty of vegetables on offer – and I can confirm that it’s all delicious. The chicken, vegetables and potatoes were all roasted to perfection. But, as someone with a sweet-tooth, I was excited about the idea of a buffet dessert station, and I wasn’t disappointed there either! There was a choice between hot and cold desserts, and there was a Kiwi dessert staple available too: the unbeatable pavlova.
There’s always a danger when it comes to large-scale cooking, where the assumption might be that the food will always be bland. But this is not the case with the food served at the Tamaki Maori Village; instead, I was very pleasantly surprised. The food was fresh, well cooked and flavourful, and I’m already daydreaming about the next opportunity I might have to experience a hangi meal.
With our bellies full, our time at Tamaki Maori Village was drawing to an end. The evening ended with more music, some farewells and then we boarded the bus to go back to Rotorua. With an impromptu singalong on the bus (I’m not making this up) taking us back to the modern day, I felt genuinely sad that our Tamaki Maori Village experience was over.
Why you should go to Tamaki Maori Village
There are many different Maori cultural experiences you could choose from in Rotorua, but I highly recommend booking with Tamaki Maori Village. The experience was flawless, and the focus of the evening was what really mattered: learning about, respecting and interacting with Maori traditions.
I felt like Tamaki Maori Village has attempted to make the experience as authentic as possible, where correct etiquette would always be explained and where ceremonies were recreated with attention to every little detail. Our evening there was a highlight of our time in New Zealand and, if you’re also planning on visiting the country, learning about the indigenous Maori culture should be an essential activity on any Kiwi travel itinerary.
At the time of writing, an evening experience at Tamaki Maori Village costs NZ$130 per person. Overnight stays and private group experiences can also be organised on request.
Would you want to do a Maori cultural experience as part of your New Zealand trip? Or have you already done one? Let me know in the comments below!
Note: We were guests of Tamaki Maori Village but, as always, all opinions and the complete inability to pull off an intimidating warrior face are entirely my own.
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