Spending time with the Māori on New Zealand’s North Island

Penny Buckley

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Destination Expert Penny Buckley travels to Mount Titiraupenga in the Waikato region of New Zealand’s North Island to spend time with the Māori of New Zealand and experience their culture.

Mount Titiraupenga lies in the Waikato region of New Zealand’s North Island. Crowned by a distinctive vertical peak, this is a sacred Māori landmark and it is surrounded by one of the last ancient rimu forests – the large evergreen coniferous tree endemic to the country. I was privileged to have my first experience of Māori culture and its practices here with our excellent Māori guide, Delani, who met me one crisp and sunny autumn morning. Delani is a master carver and an exceptionally gentle, humble and spiritual man. In Māori tribes, the carver is second only to the chief – the guardian of the stories and customs.

The Māori, also known as the tangata whenua, are the indigenous people of New Zealand. They arrived here a thousand or more years ago from Hawaiki, their mythical Polynesian homeland. Today, they make up 14% of the nation’s population and their history, language and traditions are central to its identity. New Zealand’s Māori culture is an integral part of Kiwi life and adds a unique and dynamic experience for our clients.

As we walked through this protected private land owned by Delani’s tribe, the local Ngāti Tūwharetoa, we heard the booming call of the rare, native Kokako bird who loyally made this hallowed area its breeding ground. We spent the day here in these mystical forests, learning about this very special and distinct culture, connected so deeply with the rhythms of the natural world.

Our day commenced with a pōwhiri, a traditional Māori welcome. It is best not to say too much about this incredible experience, but it went deep into the spirituality of the Māori and was something we will never forget.

After the pōwhiri, we shared kai (meaning ‘food’) together, in keeping with the Māori tradition of manaakitanga (or ‘hospitality’). This was an opportunity for more conversation and the atmosphere was relaxed – as if we were family. Surrounded by magnificent, 600-year-old totara trees, we conversed with the carvers, weavers and warriors about the Māori way of life, their beliefs and customs. To cap off formal proceedings, our hosts said farewell to us with a hongi – the ceremonial touching of noses.

Waking up that morning at my hotel in Taupo, I couldn’t have imagined the day we had ahead of us. Spending time with the Māori in this intimate, private setting and encountering first-hand the magic of the New Zealand forests with such passionate people was an experience completely outside of  ‘tourism’. It was fascinating and truly authentic, and something we would strongly recommend to all our clients who are interested in other cultures, getting off the beaten track and doing something really different.