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Hot Water and a Traditional Feast


Dore and I got up a bit later than usual, but managed to get everything together very quickly, so we still managed to get out of the holiday park by about nine. We headed in to town to get breakfast and get started on the day. We parked near the info center and, since we were there, decided to drop in to see if they could recommend a place for breakfast. As expected, they were more than happy to direct us to a place, and in a few minutes we were happily munching our eggs and bacon.

After breakfast, we popped in to a souvenir shop to browse, then walked down to the shore of Lake Rotorua. The weather was gorgeous (as it had been for a few days), and a good number of people were out and about enjoying the sun. There was a really nice boardwalk by the lake, and we walked along it for a while and watched the black swans that were swimming up and down the shore. After a bit that activity lost its charm, so we turned inland and headed back to our van.

When we got there, we fiddled with the GPS for a few minutes, then set off for the Hell’s Gate Thermal Reserve. It’s a geothermal reserve with lots of hot pools, mud pits, fumaroles, and other smoking, steaming sights. It was pretty easy to find — just follow your nose, so to speak — and soon we were getting our sunglasses and sunscreen together to walk through the bizarre moonscape of the park.

If you’ve ever been to Yellowstone and seen the hot pools, this was quite a bit like that. Boiling lakes, bubbling mud pits, and the like. One fun thing that I hadn’t done elsewhere was the hot mud foot pool, where we stuck our feet in the warm, super fine mud from one of the cooler pools. (This was the only pool that we were allowed to touch, as the other ones were quite a bit hotter.)

There’s really not much else to say about the pools, so I’ll leave it at that.

After the walk, we stopped by a complimentary carving station, where we practiced our hand at chiseling designs into little blocks of wood. It was a bit silly and cheesy, but pretty fun at the same time. Dore had never done anything similar, but she picked up the technique without too much trouble at all.

Back at the main entrance and gift shop, we considered going into the hot mud spa — or, rather, Dore considered and I came along for the ride — but we decided that it was a hot day, and the prospect of being head to tow in hot mud really didn’t sound all that appealing. In addition, walking in the sun for two hours had tired us out quite a bit, and we were getting quite hungry. We decided to head back in to town to grab lunch and then relax.

We grabbed food at a Korean restaurant, which was a new experience for me. I liked it, but then again I like always everything when it comes to food. Now fed, we felt a bit better, but still tired, so we headed back to the holiday park to rest for a while before our big event of the day: the Maori hangi.

As I mentioned briefly before, a hangi is a traditional Maori feast. In particular, it is prepared by digging a big hole in the ground, which is then lined with hot lava rocks. On top of the rocks are placed various meats, vegetables, and other things. Throw on some water and cover with a big blanket and dirt, then wait for a couple of hours. Unearth, and serve to your suddenly numerous friends.

Dore and I had booked an evening at the Temaki Maori Experience, which is a recreated Maori village that is run by a group of local Maori. We met up with the tour bus at our holiday park at six, then rode the short way out to the village. On the way our bus driver briefed us on the protocol for entering the village and the rest of the evening. It was nice to learn a little of the ceremony involved, but it was a lot to take in, and there really wasn’t that much that we could learn in fifteen minutes anyway. The big lesson seemed to be, “hey, this is important to our culture, so try to be respectful,” which I definitely took to heart.

When we arrived, we grouped at the entryway to the village, where we were treated to a traditional Maori greeting ceremony. The “chiefs” (as appointed by the bus driver) of each “canoe” (bus) were met by warriors of the village. A peace offering of a fern frond was made by the warriors and accepted by the “chiefs,” and finally the greeting was completed with shaking hands and touching noses twice. All in all it was not a very complicated ceremony, but obviously imbued with a good bit of ceremony. This was probably the most elaborate performance of the evening, as each warrior did a complicated and unique war dance prior to the peace offering.

Once the greeting was completed, we were free to enter the village, where we had a bit of time to explore and look at the various elements. Dore and I stopped by a weapons training hut first, where I volunteered to play a traditional hand-eye coordination game. The game was basically to stand in a circle of six people, each holding a stick upright in front of them. Then, on command, each person had to jump to the stick to either the left or right before it fell over. If you messed up, you were out. I did pretty well, considering the commands were in Maori and I’ve never been very good at telling right from left quickly. I made it to the last three people, then got out when I jumped the wrong direction at the start.

After playing the game, we didn’t have much time left in the village, but we did see a few more things before we were herded in to an auditorium for traditional dances, songs, and haka (war chants). These were really fun to watch, and I quite enjoyed it. The overall feel of Maori song and dance is similar to other Polynesian cultures, but with a little different feel. I’m not really sure how to qualify the difference, so I’ll just have to leave it at that. I’m sure you can find examples on YouTube or something if you’re interested.

The dancing wrapped up, and the group performed a haka, or war chant, which is very impressive to watch. The bulging eyes and extended tongues that are hallmarks of the Maori haka are actually quite imposing. I certainly wouldn’t want to mess with someone that looked like that. After the haka, it was time for the main event: the feast!

We shuffled into the dining hall, where we were greeted by the delicious smells of slowly roast tasty things. After a brief introduction by one of the villagers, we were called up by table to get at the buffet. Dore and I loaded up our plates with everything we could fit and headed back to dig in. The meal was really good, and reminded us of Thanksgiving dinner. There was even stuffing and cranberry sauce! No turkey though. But they did have lamb. So on the whole not too shabby.

After dinner, we hit the dessert buffet, where we got to try pavlova, a Kiwi dessert of meringue wrapped around a marshmallowy, gooey interior and topped with kiwi fruit slices and strawberries. It was, as you might guess, quite tasty.

Finally stuffed beyond all reason, we stopped eating and rested in a dreamy haze until the end of the evening a while later. There were a few more songs, and another haka (this time by the rest of the staff — the bus drivers, emcee, and bus boys) before we piled onto our “canoes” to head back to town.

All in all the experience was a pleasant one, but a bit more touristy and “made up” than most of the things we’d experienced on the trip so far. We expected that, but it was still a bit of a letdown after all of the truly authentic things we’d done so far. But given our time frame (and number of contacts in the Maori community — namely zero), it would have been a bit tricky to attend a “real” hangi, so we settled for the best we could do. I did like one thing that the emcee said at the end of the evening however. He thanked everyone for coming, as “by coming out tonight you are allowing us to preserve and maintain our culture.” I liked the fact that we were taking part of a living culture, as opposed to a purely historical presentation. That made me feel good.

We headed back on the bus, singing songs from the various countries represented by all of the tourists and telling good-natured but somewhat crass jokes and generally having a good time of it. We finally arrived at our stop, and Dore and I got off, headed to the van, and dropped into a hangi-induced coma for the next eight hours.

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