How to immerse yourself in Maori culture without becoming an All Black

2019-03-08 19:00 - Gabi Zietsman
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New Zealand is filled with beautiful scenery and extreme sports that makes it a must-do destination for any adventurer - but you can't experience New Zealand without immersing yourself in the Maori culture.

Originally the Maori came from Polynesia, settling in New Zealand around 1250 - 1300, and from there developed a wholly unique culture and mythology, eventually turning into a warrior culture.

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Their populations took a hit when European settlers made it to their shore, introducing their Western lifestyles and new diseases, but today through passion and societal inclusion Maori culture is flourishing once again.

Here are a few must-do activities to fully immerse yourself into an expressive and beautiful culture that might have you chanting the haka like the All Blacks.

READ: What you need to know about watching a rugby match in New Zealand

Visit a marae

This is the tribal meeting grounds of the Maori, similar to the compounds in South Africa, and is the best starting point to learn more about the cultural traditions of New Zealand's 'tangata whenua' - indigenous people.

At the centre of the marae is a beautiful carved meeting house that displays the history of the tribe.

But please note, you can only visit one as part of a tour or if you're invited.

Where: There are maraes throughout New Zealand, but the most popular ones are Rotorua's Tamaki Maori Village and Te Hana Ao Marama Marae in Auckland - both also offer overnight stays in their marae.

Enjoy a hangi feast

Maori has a deep sense of hospitality and this is especially reflected in the food they cook for visitors.

Their traditional cuisine is cooked in a hangi - an earth oven made from fire-heated rocks. Beforehand food is wrapped in damp cloth and then buried with the rocks in a pit, where the steam slowly cooks the food.

This kind of feast takes quite a bit of time to prepare, so plan your activities accordingly.

Where: In the Bay of Islands book an evening of hangi and performances with Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where you'll enjoy a guided bush walk while your food gets delicious.

SEE: From Maori Hangi to wine tasting in Marlborough: Your food & wine guide to New Zealand

Watch a kapa haka

The Maori's performing arts - or kapa haka - is a swirl of singing, dancing with balls on a chord and embellishing the famous warrior dance of the haka. 

It's normally performed in a marae, and you should pay attention to the face and hands of the performers, as Maoris are extremely expressive during these shows.

Where: Performances can be found throughout the country, and Rotorua's Mitai Maori Village has quite a beautiful setting to watch a kapa haka in.

Be inspired by Maori art

Another aspect that the Maori are famous for in the world is their intricate tattoo art, sometimes adorning their whole face.

But their stunning artwork isn't restricted to ink on skin. Their traditional carving - whakairo - and weaving - raranga - also present beautiful craftsmanship, and you should definitely take a pounamu adornment for a loved one at home.

Where: For whakairo and raranga, the best place is to see artists at work at Te Puia, home to New Zealand's Maori Arts and Craft Centre.

SEE: Maori, settlers and world-class art galleries: the cultural highlights of New Zealand

Listen to Maori  legends

How did the Maori make their way to New Zealand? According to legend, the demigod Maui-tikitiki-a-Taranga went on a fishing trip and pulled the country's North Island from the ocean, and today Mount Hikurangi is considered sacred as part of this mythical fish.

In another legend, the Lord of the Forest created the world of light by pushing his sky father and earth mother apart to let the light in because he was feeling claustrophobic.

Where: You can listen to these stories firsthand from a local guide while hiking Mount Hikurangi, or explore Waipoua forest, where trees are more than 2 000 years old and named after the one who brought light to the universe.

Learn the language

One of New Zealand's official languages is Maori , spoken by around 3% of the country's population.

The language is often referred to as 'te reo' and through learning it you have a better sense of the indigenous names of places around the country - as well as pronouncing them correctly.

Where: Print out a few phrases before your trip and ask friendly guides and staff at your accommodation to help you with pronunciation. Any cultural centre will also love to teach a visitor more about their language, and through that their culture.

QUIZ: How well do you know New Zealand? 

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