Not long ago I had the great pleasure of visiting Te Puia within the historic Te Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley, on the edge of Rotorua on the North Island of New Zealand.
Te Puia is home to the world famous Pōhutu geyser, mud pools, hot springs, silica formations, and the native Kiwi bird. However, it is also the home of the national schools of wood carving, weaving, stone and bone carving. Te Puia have shared these treasures with visitors for over 170 years and I was lucky enough to get to experience it myself.
I’ll be honest. I had no idea what I was walking into when my personal guide Sean picked me up. I thought I would be simply viewing a demonstration of the native culture’s songs and dance. While I did get to enjoy these traditions, what I experienced was so much more.
First I was led on a tour of the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute. By the 1920s the culture and traditions of Māori were in serious danger of being lost forever. NZMACI was established in 1963 by an Act of Parliament to maintain and preserve traditional Māori art forms. Te Puia’s responsibility is about much more than the visitor experience, and includes the sustainability of the geothermal environment, and the protection and continuation of Māori culture, traditions, arts and crafts.
On the tour of I was able to watch as students from around New Zealand train under the guidance of master craftspersons at creating hand crafted jewelry out of bone and green stone, carving beautiful native designs into wooden sculptures, and weaving masterpiece clothing from natural materials.
After a tour of the school, we moved outside to tour Te Puia’s enthralling geothermal wonders. Bubbling mud, pools of boiling water still used for cooking, and stunning geysers. My guide recounted when he was young and was able to walk right up to the boiling water’s edge (a practice no longer in use for obvious safety reasons and concern for the landscape itself). As well as being a spectacular sight, Pōhutu is the most reliable geyser on Earth. Eruptions can last from a few minutes to much longer and occur once or twice an hour.
For hundreds of years, the many geothermal hot pools in Te Whakarewarewa Valley have allowed people to use hot water for cooking, washing, bathing and preparing flax. As we awaited the beginning of the evening’s performances, I gathered around a large pit with the other visitors. The hāngi is a popular Māori cooking style. A large pit is dug and hot rocks placed at the bottom. Meat and vegetables are placed in baskets, wrapped in leaves, lowered on top of the rocks and covered with soil. The geothermal heat infuses the kai (food) with a delicious flavor.
While we waited for the food to be ready for the evening feast, it was time to experience Te Puia’s cultural performances. As the evening crowd gathered around the Marae - a traditional gathering place. Te Aronui-ā-rua is Te Puia’s carved meeting house. Meeting houses are usually named after a tribal ancestor but because our carving school embraces all New Zealand tribes, it is named after a ‘basket of knowledge’ in Māori belief. Surrounded by the beautiful carvings, intricately decorated panels and impressive weaving I experienced entertaining stories told through song and dance.
As the haka was performed, I was caught up in the energy and force of the performance. It is little wonder that opposing forces would baulk at the sight of a group of seasoned warriors performing their ancient dance. Songs of romance, community, and history were performed as well making for a fantastic look into a vibrant culture.
After the performance it was finally time to enjoy the feast followed by a nighttime visit to the geysers and a hot chocolate.
There are many cultural experiences you can have in New Zealand, however Te Puia would be my pick. There is a truth and legitimacy to the efforts being made to preserve culture and educate visitors on Māori history and traditions. The artistry and craftsmanship in their work is astounding. I look forward to returning to visit their new art gallery and to visit their new tattoo studio.
I’ve included a lovely video from Te Puia’s visit to Venice Beach, California for you to get another glimpse of this amazing cultural experience
The road is calling, must dash.
Holly Mann is an Independent Contractor affiliated with Vista Travel Consultants specializing in adventure travel, family travel, sustainable travel, and immersion travel. You can find her on Instagram, LinkedIn, or Twitter.
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HOLLY MANN: As an Independent Contractor of Vista Travel Consultants, Inc. a member of the Virtuoso Network, my access to the highest quality of vetted global travel partners allows me to create rich, culturally immersive, and liberating travel experiences.