Ten Days in NZ: Odds & Ends

How to make a ten day vacation last 6 months? Write a blog! With one week left before my Malay Peninsula holiday, I’m finally publishing the last of my adventures in the Land of the Long White Cloud. There are several smaller adventures that I enjoyed around New Zealand that didn’t make it into their own full post, so I have assembled them here along with the story of my last day in New Zealand. Odds:  Onehunga & Shopping (Auckland), Kuirau Park & Wai-o-tapu Geothermal Wonderland (Rotorua), Narnia (Whangarei), Stargazing (Waitomo). Ends: Planetarium & Cornwall Park, a  farewell to Aotearoa.

Onehunga, Auckland: Cute Shopping & Best Bacon Ever

I wanted to try to find some items that are rare/impossible to find in Korea, so I decided to check out the premier outlet shopping center on my first morning in NZ before leaving civilization. The Dress Smart outlet is in Onehunga, so I set my GPS a220px-onehunga_mall_layout_in_onehungand headed over early so I could snag a parking spot and some breakfast before the shops opened. In the States, Outlet malls are often far from the cities or even the suburban sprawl and exist as sort of concrete islands in what is otherwise quite unattractive farmland. Imagine my surprise when the GPS led me to an adorable little neighborhood, streets lined with tiny cafes, boutiques and thrift stores. Onehunga is adorable.

I parked the car and wandered over to find breakfast where I discovered New Zealand bacon for the first time. I’m familiar with US style bacon (cured belly meat, thinly sliced), and what we call “Canadian” bacon (from the pork loin, more like cured ham), but this was the first time I had ever been served this unique blend. “Middle bacon” served in NZ and Australia comes from a middle area of the pig so as to include some of the back (common in English bacon), some of the loin (Canadian) AND some of the belly fat (American), so it’s basically the best of all bacony worlds 20160814_094812combined and explains why it both looks and tastes like US bacon and Canadian bacon were fused together in some kind of mad-biology experiment went right. If you are a bacon fan and you are unable to get yourself down under, I highly recommend making friends with a butcher to see if you can persuade them to sell you some of this stuff.

After breakfast I walked back to explore the mall. Although I didn’t end up buying much, it did give me a really good idea of the types of shops and clothing that are available and popular in NZ. Shoes are clearly the most expensive basic clothing item in NZ. It’s interesting to see what’s expensive and cheap from place to place. The Converse outlet store was selling hightops (my preferred shoe) for 100NZD (about 73USD). I can buy the same shoe on the website for 55USD. I also looked for some better weatherproof shoes for my journey through the bush (and I plan on doing more hiking in Korea when the weather cools off), but there just weren’t any shoes that came close to being an improvement on my Chucks that were less than 200$… at the outlet mall!

Conclusion: Onehunga is adorable and worth the visit.  Dress Smart is probably best for shoppers who are looking for nicer clothes and not so much camping/hiking gear.

Whangarei: Breakfast in Narnia

Whangarei was a quick stop over between Bay of Islands and the Coromandel Peninsula where I planned to check out the Waipu Caves and the Whangarei Waterfall. I got one more fun surprise there when I set out to find breakfast. This trip wasn’t really about food, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to visit a place calling itself Narnia.


It turned out to be a simple cafe with a standard range of NZ cafe food. This is much superior to US cafe food and may include things like Eggs Benedict, or smoked salmon omelettes. The portions are generous, the food is fresh and often free range, and it tastes as good as a promo picture looks. 20160817_105844There were of course posters of the Narnia movies and copies of the books around the place, and some artwork on the walls by local artists. It wasn’t until my meal was finished and I went to find the restroom that I stumbled upon the most Narnian feature of the cafe. The back seating area (and restrooms) were through a hallway that had been hung on either side with fur coats so that you had to push past them in order to enter. It was very subtle, because even though I had seen things hanging in the hallway, I had not really realized what it was until I felt the fur on my hands as I pushed my way through to the other room. The strange and sudden realization that the otherwise very ordinary cafe had worked in a hidden-in-plain-sight magic wardrobe made my whole breakfast even better.

Rotorua: Kuirau Park & Wai-o-Tapu

market-timeWhile I was in Rotorua, I had planned to take a lazy walk around the Saturday Market and Kuirau Park (a free park that has geothermal activity). The market was a cute little local flea market kind of affair with folks selling used clothes and books, antique jewelry and dishes, and a whole lotta food stalls selling Kiwi and Maori foods. I had been hoping for more handmade goods, but it was still fun to wander around and I picked up my souvenir gifts there from the one handmade stand I found: a lady who made skin balm from the native medicinal kawakawa plant.

20160820_104641Kuirau park is interesting. It’s got lots of mud pools and a hot lake that are all gated off to keep kids or drunks from wandering into them. It also has public foot baths using the thermal waters so people can come by and have a nice warm foot soak. I suspect the park is nicer in any season besides winter because there are a lot of trees and flowerbeds as well that were bare, and what looked like fountains that were turned off for the season. However, it’s free, so I do recommend at least stopping by if you’re in Rotorua, especially if you’re thinking of doing other geothermal parks. Several other blogs I read recommended this as an alternative to Hell’s Gate unless the mud bath is on your bucket list.

Wai-o-Tapu, Geothermal Wonderland

20160820_114946_1-animationWai means “water” and tapu means “sacred”. This area is known in Maori as the sacred waters. In addition to the free hot springs, there is also a free to view mud pool and gyser (the Lady Knox). The only pay to play activity is the colorful geothermal park. In fact, it is the most colorful in Rotorua and in my view, ranks up there with Yellowstone. Most of Rotorua is shades of gray and brown (mud), but I’d seen some stunning photos of Champagne Lake and decided it was worth the 23$US to check it out.

Waiotapu has 3 trails that cover multiple types of geothermal activity. I found the shortest trail to be the least interesting because the craters are just large holes in the ground. The outer trails are where the magic happens, so don’t get discouraged. Go all the way around the park. The map says it’s 75 minutes to walk all three trails, but if you stop to admire the view and take photos it’s quite a bit longer, 3 hrs in my case. The park is so colorful because the various mineral deposits along with resident bacteria create a stunning palette. Unlike the considerably more neutrally toned hot springs I was soaking up the day before, the mud and waters in the park here can reach boiling temperatures (100C/212F) so don’t think about dipping your toes in!


The walk starts with a series of craters that can display different shades based on the mineral content of the gases escaping, but the first exciting view comes in at stop #5: the Artist’s Palette. This stunning body of water does indeed look like a giant paint palette with different colors scattered around. It is followed by a series of soft jade colored pools and above ground mineral deposit formations. It’s hard enough to describe these and not entirely effective to capture them in photographs. There are shades of blue and green that are almost milky or opalescent. There are bright splashes of sulfur yellow and dark inky black mini-pools. Some of the pools are still, but others bubble with heat and escaping gases. The ground formations look like they belong in caves but are out in the open, creating textures and color delights that range from the tiny few cm across to the large petrified waterfall.

The third part of the trail leads steeply upward through a forested area. There are lovely vistas of the colored pools, and if you’re willing to make the extra hike all the way out to the Lake Ngakoro Vista, you will be rewarded with a stunning panorama and a long distance view of Mt. Doom (Ngauruhoe). I have to admit, realizing my whole hot spring adventure was “in the shadow of Mt. Doom” made my inner geek girl squee and I may have taken a few dozen photos from this spot.

As you come back down the trail, it rejoins the second loop at the Champagne pool. This 20160820_142200.jpgdazzling body of water is the one you see on all the websites, brochures and billboards for Waiotapu because it’s deep blue water and vivid orange shoreline are such a visually striking image. Combine that with the meandering edge of the built up lip of the lake and you are just left gaping at the majesty and variety of nature. I also discovered the reason it’s called Champagne. There are teeny weeny bubbles effervescing around the pool giving it the distinct appearance of champagne in a wide glass sending a constant stream of tiny bubbles out into the world. The extreme heat of the pool combined with the cool late winter air meant that there were great plumes of steam rising up from the water and obscuring the far shore. It made for a dramatic landscape, but I did get dosed with some intensely sulfur smelling fumes when the wind shifted. Other than that, the park didn’t have much of an odor.

20160820_144422.jpgThe Champagne pool may be the star of the park, but it’s not the last surprise on the trail. After passing by a few more craters, you reach the final stop, “The Devil’s Bath”, which is a deep sided pool of the most florescent neon toxic waste movie effect from the 1980s colored water you will ever see. I’m sure you’re looking at the photos going “no way”, but yes way, Ted. A few more sight seers came around the corner while I was staring at it and were equally blown away. My best guess for what causes the crazy green shade? Bacteria, chlorophyll loving bacteria. Weather the colors of Waiotapu come from animal, mineral or vegetable, it’s a great way to spend a few hours in between hot springs. Check out the full photo album on FB, here.

Waitomo: Stargazing in the Southern Sky

I had such a good experience with the YHA in Rotorua, I decided to go ahead and book with the same company again in Waitomo. Despite being part of a chain, the two hostels could not have been more different. Rotorua YHA was a giant multi story, multi building complex akin to a college dormitory. It was also walking distance from lots of amenities including food, banking and entertainment.

The Waitomo YHA, however, was more like a farmhouse. There were maybe a dozen rooms, and a large wood-burning stove/fireplace in the middle of the common room, plus a baby sheep and baby goat on the premises in addition to the farm dog. It was clean and warm, so I’m in no way complaining, but it was a much yha-waitomo-juno-hallbigger difference than I had anticipated. I even saw an advertisement for a horse exerciser position that offered room/board/caving and a little cash, clearly intended to attract backpackers to the job. The hostel was walking distance from the main tour company that offered trips into the caves, but not much else. Because of the isolation, a local cafe did a pick up service to bring guests over for a meal and a beer.

After dinner it couldn’t have been later than 8:30 at night, but the moon wasn’t up yet and the sky was clear as glass. I could see more stars than I’ve seen anywhere except some remote mountains and deserts. I remarked on the view to the driver, but he said that it wasn’t really much compared to the “real” views of stars they get, and that he’d come to take the whole thing for granted. He forgot people in the city couldn’t see it every night.

Despite the chill in the air (aka, winter), I couldn’t just go back inside, so I turned off the back porch light of the hostel and lay down in a hammock where I could look up without straining my neck. It was awe-inspiring and disorienting to see so many stars, but recognize none of them. I’m not an astronomer, but I went to my share of planetarium shows as a kid and I can pick out the big dipper and Orion easily enough. But even if I don’t know the names of all the stars in the northern hemisphere, I know the patterns as familiar.

Imagine you go to the same Starbucks every day, then one day you walk in and the whole shop has been rearranged. You couldn’t say where everything used to be, but you know that it’s different now. These were stars, the same lights and shades of color I was used to, but sprinkled unfamiliarly around the sky. What’s more, there was a patch of milky space that was clearly not a cloud but something much farther away. I’ve seen an arm of the Milky Way once or twice, it’s hard to see in the US anymore because of the huge amount of light pollution everywhere, but if you go far enough into a dark zone you can see it. This had a similar quality, but the shape was completely wrong. I couldn’t tell if I was looking at a part of the Milky Way or some other nebula deep in space. Either way, it was entrancing.

53ff6124cc72cb8388240908b242e4a0The only constellation I’d heard of for the southern hemisphere was the Southern Cross, featured on the NZ flag. I looked for it, but at the time, I wasn’t totally sure if what I saw was the constellation or my wishful thinking. After all, how many patches of 4 stars can look like a cross if you’re trying to find one? I stayed outside until my fingers got numb, soaking in the interstellar beauty and realizing once more, NZ had granted my wish. Before I came, I thought about how much I was looking forward to seeing the night sky from the south, yet until that moment, every night I’d been outside there had been either cloud cover or a bright full moon, making the stars invisible. Yet here on my last night in the bush, the night sky collaborated to put on just one more show.

Auckland Take 2: French Food, Planetarium & One Tree Hill

From Waitomo I drove back to Auckland. I found that driving away from the twisting, unlit roads that had so vexxed me just 9 days ago was sad and difficult. As the roadways became wider, straighter and streetlights appeared at regular intervals I began to feel that my time in wonderland was over as I drove back into the land of the urban and the mundane. I managed to negotiate a parking place at my hostel in the city and decided that if I was going to be urban, I might as well enjoy the city for what cities have to offer and I took myself out for a lovely meal at a nearby French restaurant.

Although there were many amazing looking things on the long menu, I decided to go with a set out of some nostalgia for my all too brief visit to France. I got a marrow bone with toast for an entree (appetizer), a duck confit for the main dish, and an apple tarte tartin for desert. I also found a type of wine on the menu that I was unfamiliar with called a Viognier and decided to try that.

20160822_211246The marrow bone was a huge bone, cut in half longways and sprinkled with a crust of herbs and sharp white cheese (perhaps a parm or asiago). If you’ve never had bone marrow, and are not a vegetarian, I would like to recommend it. It’s basically like meat butter, which is to say it’s rich rich rich like the best butter you can imagine but instead of tasting like cream, it tastes like the meat of the animal from whence it came. You will not ever have a cut of meat, however well marbled, that is as rich and decadent as bone marrow. As I scooped the marrow from the bone and spread it on the toast, I wondered briefly if I’d made a mistake in ordering so much food when the first dish was so intense.

I drank water with the bone marrow dish. Only after it was cleared away did I taste the wine for the first time. It was a light and pleasant white. The internet tells me Viognier is similar to Chardonnay, which I can see, although this particular bottle (no idea) was to my mind, neither especially sweet nor dry and certainly not oaky (a common way to age Chardonay). It was a good match for the meal and highly drinkable. I’m not a sommelier so I’m not going to get much more descriptive than that about the wine, but it’s my new second favorite white (Gewurztraminer is still number one).

The duck confit on the other hand is something I could talk about at great length. This magical way of preparing duck in it’s own fat produces some of the most tender and flavorful results you could hope for, but on top of the “regular” process, this restaurant had decided to serve the duck in a spiced candied orange sauce. 20160822_213413.jpgThe duck rested atop some caramelized onions and roasted potatoes which were themselves drowned in the heavenly sweet and spiced sauce. Atop the duck rested the candied and stewed orange slice and a small tomato, the sweet and tart qualities of which were complimentary to the sauce. At first glance I thought it was a version of orange duck, but then as the spices reached my nose and soon my tongue, Christmas exploded inside my head.

It was decadent, and the crisp Viognier was a good break for the sweetness of the sauce and richness of the duck itself. It took me a long time to work my way through the meal, not just because I wanted to savor each bite to combine different layers of ingredient in different ways and experience all the flavor combinations, but because I had to pause and wait for my stomach to make more room. When the waiter with his thick French accent came by to check on me, I told him I hadn’t had food like that since the last time I was in France he smiled demurely. I don’t know how many Kiwi’s have a chance to try real French cuisine, but he was clearly pleased that I made the comparison between the homeland and his little restaurant down under. I’d had duck confit in France, but it was lightly seasoned and focused mainly on the flavor of the duck. This warm citrus holiday spiced version just about blew my mind!

20160822_215921Finally, I considered myself conquered and had to leave some of the veggies behind to save space for my tarte tartin. This is a sort of upsidedown caramelized apple pie with ice cream on top. It was wonderfully soft and well flavored without being overly sweet. The caramelization left a light and pleasant bitterness, and the apples themselves brought a bit of tartness. In the end, I couldn’t manage more than a few bites and felt horribly guilty for letting such a culinary treasure go to waste. I apologized to the waiter, trying to assure him the tarte’s taste was not to blame for so much of it being left behind. I finished off the evening with a digestive (because boy did I need one by then) of green Chartreuse which is a fabulous herbal infusion made by French monks that is basically like Absinthe’s grown up, more erudite older brother.


I took advantage of my last day in the city to pick up items that aren’t readily available in Korea (deodorant, peanut butter cups, jeans my size), and as my shopping came to a close, I realized I still had several hours before I had to drop the car off. I began to think about some very sage advice I’d read about vacations: the first and the last thing you do set the tone of the whole trip because the first sets your expectations for the trip itself and the last seals in your memories.

I decided to have one more glance at Google Maps to see what was around me and noticed a little spot marked “planetarium” only a short drive away. I stared in disbelief. One more time, New Zealand had heard and answered my wishes. Just two nights before I had lay in that hammock under the unfamiliar stars wishing I could learn more about them and here was the planetarium practically right next to me! Of course I had to go.


It turns out that the Stardome Observatory & Planetarium is inside Cornwall Park, which is famous for One Tree Hill, one of the two main (natural) high points in Auckland to get a panorama of the city from and highly recommended on the short list of free things to do. The Stardome itself has a free gallery exhibit as well. I looked on the website to try to find times for the planetarium shows, but all I could find were things about Pink Floyd.

I decided to go in person and find out what I could, hoping that they had regular shows on the hour or something similar that I could at least use to get a general idea of what I’d been looking at the other night. As I was waiting for the lady at the counter to finish helping someone else, a young woman in employee garb came out from the back and started talking in a clearly North American accent. When I had my chance, I asked her where she was from and how she came to be working at the planetarium in NZ so far from home. It turned out she was also from my mom’s hometown! After our chit chat, I remembered to ask about the shows. I told her I wanted to learn more about the southern night sky. She pulled out a brochure with the show times, but the next one would sadly not start until after I had to be at the airport. I explained my predicament, thinking maybe I could have a look around the gallery or have a few specific questions answered when suddenly she said, “do you have a little time now?”


It turned out that she didn’t just work there, but ran the planetarium shows for the school trips that came through. Since the school day was over and the evening shows had yet to start, the viewing room was totally unoccupied and she offered to provide a private mini-show!

She went through a hasty review of the northern hemisphere, comparing Seattle and Busan for me before moving on to Auckland. It was great to be able to review my little bit of astronomy and get to ask questions as they popped into my head and the relevant images were on the screen. The Auckland night sky was much less impressive than what I’d seen in Waitomo. She pointed out a few familiar northern constellation inverted. It hadn’t even occurred to me to look for any, let alone to turn them upside down to see them from the southern perspective. She filled my head with facts and tidbits on star names, distances ages and whole new southern constellations.

Finally, we left Auckland for a night sky that she said was probably more like what I got in Waitomo and sure enough, the distinctive milky glow was right there. It turns out that it is part of the Milky Way, but not an arm like we see in the northern hemisphere. It is the center of the Milky Way itself. And if that wasn’t cool enough, there’s a void in th9029405_orige milky light caused by dark dust in the way that the Maori people identified as a type of constellation by negative space rather than connecting the dots. It’s an emu.She also taught me how to find the Southern Cross and use it and the Pointers to find due South. It’s not quite as convenient as having Polaris, but it was fun to see it in action.

The whole thing was much shorter than a show would have been, but it was absolutely a highlight of my visit to be able to get a personal tutor and starshow to help me better understand the southern skies. We stood around chatting outside the theater area for a good long while afterward about astronomy, science, history, neuropsychology and a plethora of other fun learning topics. I got the impression she’s a person I could easily be friends with if we had the chance.

The Last Farewell From One Tree Hill

I left the planetarium feeling wholly reassured that my final memories of New Zealand would help make a great last impression. I didn’t have time left to walk around the park. The airport was only 15 minutes away, but I had to fill up the tank and navigate traffic. Pulling out of the parking lot, however, I noticed a map of the park and decided I did have enough time to drive around the loop road and go look at the famous One Tree Hill.

Cornwall park is a large green space in the middle of a fairly urban area, but it’s not just any old inner city park. I drove down tree lined roads with daffodils in bloom. I passed a hillside of sheep and lambs as well as a field of cows. There were even a few chickens wandering around. As a final farewell, it brought back the pastoral beauty of the previous week’s travels. The view from the top was a complete 360 of Auckland starting with the wide greenbelt of the park itself, and ending with the sea and distant mountains with the bustling metropolis a tiny strip of urbanization in between. I watched the sun sink low and turn the blue-white sky into shades of gold and gray. Then I got back into the car and drove off to the airport. I could not have asked for a better farewell from Aotearoa.

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The experiences and memories from this very brief trip are now woven into the fabric of who I am. Every trip, every new place, person or experience changes us, some more than others. New Zealand may be one of the most magical places I’ve had the chance to experience and for whatever reason, my entire trip there felt like I was really connecting with the spirits of the land through the soles of my feet as the Maori myths imply. Ten days is too short a time to know if it is a place I could call home, but I know that Aotearoa and I are not finished with each other yet. I will be back someday, to walk more paths and breathe more forests and bask in the gifts of beauty and serendipity that are offered.

Ten Days in NZ: Mitai Maori (part 2)

Part 1 ended in the middle of the performance, just after some lovely songs and dances. The second half of the story continues with insight into Maori tattoos, weapons, gender roles, and economic preservation in the form of a glowworm hike.

Tattoos / Moko

In between the musical performances, the chief spent some time explaining the traditional tattoos. In older times, Māori-Tattoo-Art-770x957.jpgthe tattoos were done by cutting deep grooves in the skin and filling the wound with ink over and over so that it created a combination of ink and scar tissue for the design. Although the cheif joked that now they have a tattoo gun, he still pointed out that rarely do Maori get facial tattoos these days, and that the performers were all wearing make-up. Bear in mind the Maori tattoos may be the closest thing to a written language they developed and are just about as complex as any other ideographic language, so I’m only going to get the tip of the iceberg here.

The Moko (Maori style tattoo) was a way of denoting a person’s rank, lineage, and achievements in life. No two people would ever have the exact same moko. The face alone is divided many times to show parents, rank, marriage, and other important representation of identity. The legs carried symbols of strength and speed for running through the bush, arms or shoulders may tell stories of loved ones or life experiences, and it seems the buttock tattoo was mainly sensual. The Mitai chief spoke to us mostly of their facial tattoos and of the four birds that the tattoos represented. This has been driving me a little bonkers, because I can’t find any reference anywhere to these birds in Maori moko except in other blogs about the Mitai Maori Village. I don’t think they made it up, but it does demonstrate how unique and regional the moko and their myths are not only to each of the seven main tribes, but to each family. So, what they told us, as far as I can tell, is true for their family, but not necessarily anyone else’s. Each moko is entirely unique, combining common symbols and ideas to weave a story of a person’s past and current life.

t1The basic legend: Mataora was a great chief who fell in love with and married a spirit from the underworld (Rarohenga) named Niwareka. One day Mataora struck her in a rage and she fled back to her father’s home in the underworld. Mataora felt remorse for his actions and decended to Rarohenga to find her. There he met her father instead who laughed at his painted face, wiping away the designs drawn there to show how useless they were. Mataora saw the permanent ta moka on his father-in-law’s face and asked him to mark his own face the same way. The pain was such that Mataora fell ill and his suffering softened Niwareka’s heart, so that when he recovered she agreed to return with him, and he promised never to hit her again as long as the markings on his face did not fade (so never). His father in law then granted him the knowledge of te moko and the Maori people have used it ever since.

The Mitai Version: This version is very similar, but when Mataora asks to have the ta moko, his father-in-law scoops up the four birds and uses them and their gifts to adorn / punish his son-in-law. 1614493167001_2285182574001_video-still-for-video-2210296148001.jpgThese four birds are the bat (go with it), the parrot, the owl and the kiwi. The bat represents knowledge. The head of the bat rests in the center of the foread and the wings spread out to either side. The parrot is situated along the nose, particularly the beak on either sideof the nose. The parrot is a talkative bird and this represents oratory skills and is very important in an oral culture. The owl sits on the chin (the only facial tattoo typically available to women) and represents protection. Finally the kiwi, envision it’s long beak open, rests on the lower cheeks, meeting the chin moko in a fluid design. The kiwi represents stewardship of the earth.

Like I said, I cannot find any corroborating reports of the Mitai story that are not self-referential, so take it for what it’s worth and know that these four birds are probably not the symbols found on other tribes’ and families’ facial moko. I can tell you that everyone agrees the face is divided into 8 main regions and the ones the Mitai described are 4 of those 8. However, the facial regions all represent things like lineage, rank, job, responsibilities, marital status and prestige, so it’s hard to say why the Mitai describe these four birds as being so central to their moko.

Them’s Fightin’ Words

The next main topic of the presentation were traditional Maori weapons. These are mostly long weapons, a fighting staff, a pointed fighting staff and an axe-like fighting staff, along with the spear. The main difference is that spears are thrown but staffs are held and used for beating, stabbing, or blocking. The men came down and gave us short demonstrations of the techniques for each weapon. 339_mere-pounamu_medThe only real hand to hand weapon is the club, or patu. The patu can be made from wood, bone or stone and resembles a paddle being narrow at the edges although not sharp enough to be a true bladed weapon. In addition to being carried to war like the long weapons, the patu were also used by women who remained at the village when the men were away hunting or fighting so that they could defend themselves against any hostile raiders. Women were expected to be skilled enough with the patu to kill their attackers. The chief pointed out that due to the shape of the patu, if one hit the skull of an enemy with the edge and twisted, it would pop the top of the head right off, handily combining village defense and dinner. Yes, the Maori used to be cannibals, too, but don’t worry, he told us “now we have McDonald’s”.

Following the introduction of the weapons, there was a short demonstration of fighter training activities that included an obstacle course of sticks that was meant to imitate the protruding roots of trees in the bush so warriors could practice running without tripping, then a sparring match between two young men using the fighting staffs. I do believe it was actually sparring and not a choreographed fight.

May I Have This Dance?

After the sparring, came one final dance of the men and women together, a cute little song expressing the women’s appreciation of the men. In the video I managed to take, the cheif actually translates their words, including “look at this handsome man, he’s so handsome he is almost ugly, but he has stolen my heart, so let’s dance”.

Finally, the warriors came together to perform the haka or war dance. This was a ritual designed to build courage and confidence and get the fighters riled up before a battle. The haka involves the same kind of intimidating face our potential chiefs had to make earlier that night, opeing the eyes as wide as possible and sticking out the tounge. There is lots of foot stomping and thigh and chest slapping, as well as a variety of lyrics that are fairly similar to modern day sports chants in other languages on a general theme of “we are awesome and you will die”. Nowadays, there are no battles, but the Maori use the haka before sports matches to psych themselves up and intimidate the other team.

We applauded our hosts, but I couldn’t keep myself from more mixed feelings as we went back into the dining hall to eat. The songs and dances were stylized and modernized and the chief had used any number of references to modern Western culture to crack jokes. I’m still torn between my fascination, my happiness that they have some way of sharing their culture and history and my total devastation that most of the visitors in that room were treating that culture and history like a theme park or a dinner theater. I’m not trying to sound like an elitist, I just want visitors to have enough interest and respect that sharing sacred land and legends doesn’t have to seem like vaudeville.


Dinner was simple, chicken, lamb, potatoes, kumara (sweet potatoes), stuffing, some kind of seafood chowder, garlic bread and lasagna. The meat, potatoes and kumara were all cooked in the traditional method in the ground as we had seen earlier, but the other food made no pretense at all at being anything other than imported tastes. Dessert gave me a chance to try, if not Maori dishes, at least some traditional Kiwi dishes including steamed pudding and pavlova. Pudding in this sense is like the British word that equates to the American term “dessert” and in this case was a gingerbread style cake that had been steamed rather than baked and was served with a warm custard. pavlova_2949_16x9Pavlova was a dessert that by it’s name made me assume it was from some Slavic country, but the natives at my table told me firmly it was invented in New Zealand, no matter what lies the Australians are spreading. The pavlova is named after a Russian ballerina, which explains why I thought it seemed linguistically Slavic. It’s like a merenge but more complicated, having a crispy exterior and fluffy interior. It’s also supposed to be very tricky to make and prone to collapse if it’s cooled too quickly. It’s traditionally served with whipped cream and fresh fruit. I found it unique and delightful.

Groups were put together at long tables during dinner. I found myself seated next to several different folks, some native Kiwis, one student from Norway and one lady from the UK. We exchanged some stories about where we’d been and what we’d done and I settled into seriously picking the brains of the two locals which is how I came to learn about the water laws in New Zealand, some of the history of the Maori treaties, the origin of the pavlova and other interesting local tidbits.

As the meal wound down, our guide came back to give us a chance to ask questions, anything we wanted. The first time I read Harry Potter and Hermione raised her hand, I knew right away she was like me. I am an incessant class participant. In my later years I did learn to share the classroom stage with others, but it was an uphill battle. So when it became clear no one was asking, I raised my hand to break the ice. One other person did ask a question after mine, but as the silence drew out, I couldn’t help but ask again and again, until it started becoming obvious no one else was really into it.


450px-IwiMap.pngHow are the tribes delineated and what are the differences between them?

I already described the first part, the seven waka that came from Polynesia became the seven main tribes, but our guide went on to elaborate about some of the linguistic differences between the tribes. The “wh” that I had so recently learned was pronounced  “f”? It turns out some tribes pronounce it “w” or “h” instead of “f”. Additionally, the “ng” sound can be pronounce as a “k” or “n” in certain tribes. I later found this handy map that shows the tribes by geography.

What are the gender roles in Maori culture, historically?

1474328365_large.jpgI had noticed during some of the talks that there were some unfamiliar gender roles being described. For example, the chief had to be male, and it was possible for a man to take more than one wife, but women were the landholders. Pre-colonial Maori gender roles appear to have been definitive, but not derisive. That is to say, women had very clear roles and responsibilities, but they were not thought of as lesser than men’s roles, nor were women seen as belonging to men. A woman did not take her husband’s name nor relinquish her membership to her own family or tribe at marriage. Women were seen as the progenitors of life, responsible for childrearing and the home. The main difference is that these roles were not seen as lesser to men’s roles.

The Maori believed in balance and had a very holistic view, meaning that all parts were essential to the health of the whole. War was the purview of men. Women did not go to war, not because they were incapable but because their role in the balance was peace. Women did learn weapons (mainly the patu), but only to defend the village. Women also carried out song, dance and storytelling except for the war dance, making them the main guardians of history. The house itself is seen as a woman, the peak of the roof being the spine, and the four corners the arms and legs, while the doorway represented the womb.

The women also all work together to raise all children and the Maori relied heavily on the village or family collective model until they were forced into a nuclear family model by the British. The guide tried to describe Maori culture as matriarchal, but I think he may have used the word incorrectly out of a desire to contrast Maori to the western patriarchal cultures. What I have read since indicates that the culture may have been a little weighted towards men, but it was one of the more egalitarian societies I’ve read about. Of course, that was before the Christian missionaries showed up and started treating the Maori women as inferior. If you want to read more about that history, check out this site.

If the moko (tattoos) on the faces are no longer done, what about the tattoos on other places such as arms?

traditional-tattoo-ta-moko.jpgThe two main reasons modern Maori no longer wear traditional facial tattoos are the painful physical process and the social stigma. As I described earlier, the moko isn’t done with a needle, but by carving grooves into the skin and coloring the wound. This process is both painful and dangerous, and although could be replaced with a tattoo gun, there remains the second issue. Even as the moko mark them like each other, they also mark the Maori as separate and other from the British colonials. Due to years of colonial mistreatment and outdated ideas of “savages” that boil down to little more than racism, the presence of Maori tribal tattoos can still be cause for discrimination in modern day New Zealand.

Many societies consider facial tattoos especially to be unprofessional at best or representative of criminal behavior at worst. Because of this the Maori stopped the practice of facial tattooing in younger generations, but continued to use traditional symbols and art to make personal moko they could wear elsewhere on the body, trying to adapt their history to the demands of a western society. Unfortunately, there are still people in NZ who will discriminate on the basis of these moko, and not because they don’t want to hire people with tattoos. They will hire whites with tattoos of knives or skulls or whatever on their arms, but will not hire Maori with their traditional tribal art in the same place.

How do you (directed to my guide and his family) feel about cultural appropriation?

Because someone in the audience had just gotten a new tattoo in Maori style, I waited until after the groups broke up to ask this one. There is some difficult talk in the US about people using Native art and dress for sports, fashion or advertising. There’s no doubt that the stereotypes are less prevalent than they were, but since “Sexy Indian” is still a Halloween costume, it’s clearly not over yet. One of the things that happens is non-native people getting tattoos of Native symbols without really understanding what they’re doing simply because it’s cool or trendy or pretty. But since arriving in NZ, I’d seen several adverts for tattoo shops that specialize in Maori styles and I wasn’t sure if this was for everyone, or just to serve the Maori themselves.

Kirituhi Tribal Tattoo 04.jpgMy guide said that he generally felt fine with other people getting Maori tattoos or wearing their art or jewelry as long as it was respected. These Maori tattoo artists won’t just put any old design you want on your skin, they will listen to your story and make something unique to you using the traditional Maori symbols and styles. So, while I suppose it is possible to print something off the internet and go to a non-Maori tattoo artist to replicate it, that doesn’t seem to be what’s going on in NZ and so it’s far less an issue of misappropriation and more a way of sharing and honoring. Later research revealed that the name for Maori style tattoos for non-Maori (Pakeha) is kirituhi and so most Maori don’t even see the kirituhi as being the same as the moko (even if it appears similar in design) because it lacks the spiritual and familial connections of a true ta moko.

Although the Maori have survived colonialism far more intact and with greater rights than nearly anyone else the British invaded, it is obvious that colonialism has done some damage in terms of women’s roles, the family collective, and the lingering prejudice for non-conformity. Many Maori around NZ struggle to fit in or get by, often suffering from the issues that plague many colonized peoples such as alcoholism, abuse, and crime that stem from living a purgatorial existence, neither able to fully embrace their own culture nor fully integrate into the dominant culture around them. At least these families in Rotorua are doing their best to revitalize the old ways and spread awareness and acceptance of the Maori to Kiwis and foreign visitors alike.

A Walk in the Bush

After dinner and the q&a were all finished, we were invited back into the bush for another walk to go and see the glow worms that lived in the area. To limit the light, they only gave a small flashlight to every other person, asking us to stay in pairs. At this point, I noticed several people actually complaining about having to go back into the woods, it was too cold or too dark. I couldn’t help wondering why they’d come if they felt that way.

47-mitai-maori-villageBefore beginning the glowworm hunt, we passed by an outdoor village replica so that we could get a better look at the housing construction and village arrangement. This picture is in daylight, but when I was there it was night. It was a little hard to see in the dark, but the guide gave a good description of the house (as a body) and of the general village construction on a hillside that allowed for greater protection. Before we moved on, he reminded everyone not to shine the lights on the glowworms and also, to cup the lights in our hands and point them only at the ground, so we could see where we were walking without obstructing the night view. I think about 5% of the group listened to this, because most people were busily shining their lights all over the woods.

I abandoned my “partner” with the light and dropped back to the rear of the group where I was able to find some glowworms. I pointed them out to a Japanese tourist and her daughter, but it took me a few minutes to get across to her that she had to turn her light off to see them. She did seem appreciative once she figured it out and got a good view of the little fairy lights under the bush, but quickly moved up to rejoin the main group. A couple of early 20s Americans were also interested so I got to help them find a few more clusters of glowworms and answer some questions about the little bugs. I have decent night vision, so I wasn’t worried about treading a well beaten path without my light (plus I had a phone if I really needed it) and I managed to find several more patches of twinkling insects while I caught up to the group who had arrived at Fairy Springs.


Patupaiarehe is the Maori name that is translated into English as “fairy”. patupaiarehe_by_typthis-d7qb21wThey were a tribe of supernatural beings that lived deep in the forest, ate their food raw and shunned the light. They were described as having pale skin and red hair, and it is thought that the red-haired Maori are descendants of a union between Patupaiarehe and Maori women. The gloworms are sometimes said to be they eyes of the Patupaiarehe, since they can be seen only in the dark places. They were not spread evenly around New Zealand, but seem to be concentrated in certain areas including Rotorua where they are rumored to have come down from the mountains to drink from the pure waters of this spring. The spring puts out more than 24 million litres of water each day. The dark spots in the photos at the bottom of the pool are not rocks, it is the constant billowing of the seditment as it is churned by ever arising spring water from the bottom.

While the floodlight was on, showing off the clarity of the spring, 20160820_203045we saw one of the native fish swimming around, but after the light was turned off and people started moving on, the freshwater eel resident of the spring came out. The second guide who was bringing up the rear tried to turn the light back on so I could see it better, but the light sadly drove it back into the rocks. However, having realized that I was more interested in the land than the majority of the tourists who were rushing ahead to get back to the halls, he stayed a little behind with me and started pointing out various interesting things around the bush.

He tried to find some of the river fish for me, but they were all hiding, and we talked a bit about the uniqueness of NZ flora and fauna. 620454-292773-14.jpgHe told me about a kind of mud-skipper fish they have, and about some of the extinct land birds. He left his flashlight off and we found many more glowworms. I tried to show some of the other tourists on the walk, but they were too busy chatting to stop and look. The Mitai tribe has been watering their forest areas in order to boost the glow worm population. They aren’t seen above ground in great numbers because the atmosphere is often too dry, but a hydration program was having a profound effect on the local population and I saw probably hundreds throughout the walk all along the rock-sides sheltered by roots and leaves.


I’m glad I went to the village. I learned a lot and it opened the door for me to learn even more about who and what the Maori people are and what the land of Aotearoa is all about. Nonetheless, when I returned to my room that night, my feelings were all over the map. Too many times I saw someone be impatient, ignore what was being offered, or flat up say out loud that they weren’t interested. There was too much focus on diner and boozing (because there was a bar in the dining hall) and too much modern western humor added to the performance to placate the guests.

Our hosts told us that the spirit of a person mingles with the spirit of the land through their feet, and by setting foot on the Mitai ancestral land, we mingled our spirits with it. They performed the hongi with our elected chief, making us more than visitors. They shared food, history and hospitality that was deeply meaningful, and yet so many treated it like nothing more than entertainment. It left me feeling profoundly saddened.

The Maori culture is no longer practiced day to day the way it once was and these villages are a way not only for us to see into the past, but for the modern Maori to reconnect with their ancestors and the spiritual values that shaped them before the influx of Christian missionaries. It is beautiful and interesting and fun, but it is not a theme park. If you visit them, remember their space is sacred, like a temple or church, and treat it accordingly. Enjoy their intimacy and openness, their delicious food and beautiful singing. Take delight in their wilderness, their spring and it’s wildlife. But most importantly, take a moment away from your regular life to reflect on what makes this place tapu, special and scared, and let the spirit of the land touch you through your feet before you wander on.


Ten Days in NZ: Mitai Maori (part 1)

Ever wonder about the aboriginal people of New Zealand? I had the opportunity to visit a Maori village in Aotearoa and it inspired me to learn a lot more about them. Not everything I have written about the Maori was something I learned in New Zealand. I did a lot of follow up research after I got home to help me understand what I had seen and to put the experiences into a greater context. For the purpose of this blog, I will be mixing the information I found afterward with the descriptions of the experiences to help make the connections clearer.

Feelings & History

When I found myself suddenly spending an extra night in Rotorua, the girls at the reception desk of my hostel recommended the Maori villages as a good activity. This was something I had some strong yet mixed feelings about while I was researching the trip. A lot of websites put one or another village in the top 10 experiences of New Zealand, to the point where it felt like an integral part of the national experience. The issue for me, however, was a leftover white guilt for the way that First People are treated in the US, now and historically. As I write this, tribes are coming together for one of the biggest united protests in our shared history in order to draw attention to a planned oil pipeline that is questionably off their land but would have serious impact on their water. (#NODAPL) Native American reservations already have some of the worst land and water in the continent and are rarely heard when they try to talk about the pollution, the violence against them that still pervades, the lack of access to healthcare or the justice system (only federal courts can hear their cases). Nevermind all the insane horrific murder, rape and mistreatment they suffered for centuries at the hands of European colonialists.

Then, there’s the fact that as a child, I traveled around the American west. It’s not a frontier anymore, but people like to pretend, like to see a show or visit a replica old west frontier town. I went to these and a lot of them are about cowboys and famous historical figures like Wild Bill or Calamity Jane, or Annie Oakley where you can see replicas of the shootout at the OK corral or a modern version of the Wild Bill show. That’s ok, I guess, not that different from going through replicas of colonial villages in New England, it’s a glorified version of history. But I also went to shows about the “Indians”. I watched an outdoor play one night, I don’t remember the story, but I know there were white characters and Native characters, and I remember being riveted. I got a rabbit skin from the souvenir shop and had the whole cast sign it for me… I don’t think I was more than 10 years old.

indian_gamingYou can’t go anywhere in the US without being on some tribe’s ancestral land, though. I learned about the tribes as we moved around the country. I learned their words in each new place because white settlers used the names the Natives gave to things long after the people were relegated to reservations, forced to wear western clothes, speak English and go to church. And in the few places where they are reclaiming their place, they are still only known for 2 things: casinos and tourist attractions. Casinos because crazy sovereign land rights make gambling legal on reservations. These buildings are decked out in the tackiest stereotypes of Native imagery with wooden carved Indians in giant feather headdresses adorning the entryways and sacred patterns hanging on the walls, using the images of their culture to draw in suckers. Only slightly less crass are the informational tourism spots where descendants of colonialists can come and see an authentic teepee or wigwam or rain dance. Sometimes they even sell sweat lodge experiences. And as much as I want to learn about the people and the culture, because that is maybe my greatest passion in this life, it feels cheap and tawdry whenever I see these displays outside of museums. This is not to say they shouldn’t live their own culture, but there is a difference between living your lifestyle and putting on a show.

Why I decided to go anyway

With all of this heavy history in my head and my heart, it was not an easy decision to visit a Maori village, to cross onto someone’s sacred ancestral land and be… “infotained”. Several factors helped to bring me around.

One, I really like to learn. It’s hard to separate me from an opportunity for knowledge, even if it is uncomfortable.

Two, it turns out the Maori are not “native” to New Zealand. It is believed that the Moriori were actually there when the Maori arrived from Polynesia and were gradually driven South and out (by the Maori) until they finally died off in the 1930s. Unlike the Native Americans who are believed to have travelled to the continent about 10-12000 years ago when there was a land-bridge from Russia to Alaska, the Maori are believed to have arrived in New Zealand only 1000 years ago. I don’t think it gives them less claim to the land, but it does mean that they have more in common with the European colonists than the Native American tribes.

Three, the Maori have not been nearly so hard done by as I had feared. This is not to say they did not suffer at the hands of the British colonists or that new European diseases did not ravage their population, but overall, there was nothing quite like the Trail of Tears or the massive amount of betrayal and backstabbing that went on during the colonization and westward expansion in the US. Captain Cook didn’t even land on Aotearoa until 1769, and for nearly the next hundred years, New Zealand was sparsly colonized, new British arrivals consisting mainly of whalers, seal hunters and missionaries eager to convert the trouserless heathens. Possibly the most damage done to the Maori during this time was the introduction of the gun to their intertribal warfare so that they could kill each other more efficiently.

Fun Facts:

maori-fishing-up-the-landMaori Colonization: The explorer Kupe took a really big boat and ventured across the ocean, leaving his home in search of new land. It’s believed that colonization of NZ from Polynesia was deliberate and slow after this. It took several hundred years of ocean faring boats going back and forth bringing more and more Maori. In fact, the seven main tribes now identify by which boat (waka) their ancestors arrived on. For those who have been wondering about why I keep using other names to refer to NZ, Kupe named the land Aotearoa which roughly translates to “land of the long white cloud”. There are a few legends on why, but no consensus. The seven waka hourua (ocean going boats) and later the seven tribes, are called Tainui, Te Arawa, Matatua, Kurahaupo, Tokomaru, Aotea and Takitimu.

23054085.jpgThe Treaty of Waitangi was basically an agreement the Maori signed with the British crown stating that New Zealand was under British sovereignty, but that the Chiefs and tribes would keep their own land (selling only to British settlers, no filthy French or Dutch here, please), and that the Maori would have the same rights as British citizens. Of course they’ve been arguing over the terms and ignoring the details since it was signed in 1840, land was stolen anyway and wars broke out, but it was a big deal that the warring tribes came together to deal with the colonists (which did not happen in America) and that they never completely lost the power to leverage this document (also unlike every treaty the US government ever made with Native tribes). I actually passed by the treaty grounds when I was in Piahia, although at the time, I didn’t understand the true historical significance, as I had only US/Tribal treaties as a reference point.

12061-2Modern Maori: Are there arguments about land rights, water rights, fishing and hunting rights… and every other aspect of sovereignty? Of course, but it’s much more like an argument between people of (nearly) equal footing than in the US where we’re still ignoring the fact that our reservations don’t have safe drinking water or can’t fish their own streams/ coastlines for a food source. I found lots of news articles about the modern issues between the Maori and the State and the general tone is much more like dealing with a neighboring country or even another political party than anything else. Nowadays Maori language is taught in schools and there are a guaranteed number of Maori seats in parliament based on the numbers of Maori who are enrolled to vote. Meanwhile, Native Americans are struggling to regain their languages from the time the colonists forbade their use, tribes like the Haida in Alaska no longer have any members who can speak the old tongue and the last recordings of their language were made almost 100 years ago. And while there are people of Native descent in congress, they must run as representatives for their state, not for their Tribes.

Of course the Maori need to keep working to preserve their heritage and the colonial injustices are bad. I don’t want to say their issues are somehow less because other people have it worse. But, it did go a long way toward helping me see that these Maori villages that were offering shows and dinner to visitors were not being exploited or financially trapped into feeling like turning their culture into a show was the only way to earn a living. Rather that they were more like our Native Hawaiian population than our mainland Natives and, so far, I don’t feel guilty about luaus.

I met many Maori in New Zealand. I was surprised, actually at how not white the country is. It’s still about 70% European descent, but the census reckons about 15% of the population is Maori and the remaining 15% a mix of various Asian and non-Maori South Pacific. (In the US, only 2% are Native, and more than half of that greatly mixed.) I gave a ride to a Maori farmer who’s car had broken down and he talked about wanting to do something with his farm to bring in tourists like offering horseback riding tours and lessons. He told me how they used to use Maori language as a secret code when they were kids. Once I learned to recognize the features and not just the tattoos, I saw Maori integrated into every part of New Zealand, often displaying traditional jewelry or smaller tribal tattoos in more discreet places, keeping their culture close, but not ostentatious.

Visiting the Mitai

p-e6223960-c944-2800-c81f093ea594b12b-3747524Armed with a better understanding of the history and a strong desire to learn more, I booked myself a table at the Mitai Maori Village for that evening. The Rotoua area tribes (iwi) are said to all be part of the Te Arawa iwi from the original seven. There are at least 4 villages offering tours, shows, and dinners around Rotorua. I didn’t really do a lot of research into each one because initially I had not planned to go at all. When I did decide to go, I went with the Mitai Village because the hostel I was at was able to get a substantial discount from their regular price. Sometimes we make decisions for very practical reasons.

During my visit to the Mitai ancestral land, two main things happened to me: I learned a lot about Maori which was awesome, and I watched a whole bunch of obviously materialistic tourists treat the whole thing with the respect and solemnity you might expect from a Medieval Times Restaurant, that is to say, none, which was sad.

You’re Saying It Wrong

Now that I’m about 2000 words in, let me start from the beginning. The first thing I learned was that I’ve been pronouncing the word “Maori” wrong my whole life. I don’t know if it was from some well meaning documentary or just some assumptions about the transliteration, but I always said may-oh-ri, with three distinct sylables. I was wrong. It’s a two syllable word that sounds more like maw-ri  or mow-ri, the vowel sound is actually about half way between ma and mo and not common in English sounds. It was more like the Korean vowel ㅓ, and the r is more of a flap than a glide with the tip of the tounge tapping the roof of the mouth gently. I had already learned about the strange wh=f issue and now I encountered my first major dipthong (“ao”). I have no idea who Anglisized their language. The Maori had no written language and all of their words are now written using the English/Roman alphabet that is clearly unsuited for the sounds they make, so much so that I didn’t always realize words I heard that night were words I’d seen written on signs around New Zealand as I traveled.

sam_2253_01We were greeted at the entrance by a woman in traditional dress and (makeup) tattoo with the Maori greeting “Kia Ora” (key-or-ah) and escorted through to the dining hall for our introductions. Here, our host greeted us again and taught us to say kia ora then proceeded to offer introductions in the native language of every visitor there (although he did have to ask about a few). I thought this was a good idea because it felt like an exchange and not a lecture, and seemed like a good way of engaging the audience and personalizing the experience as much as you can in a group of 50. He told us a little about what to expect for the evening and taught us a few more Maori words, nearly all of which I have subsequently forgotten, but it was fun and as an amateur linguist I really liked having the opportunity to hear and practice the Maori phonology.

The Quick Tour

20160820_171604Next we broke into smaller groups and bundled outside to see some of the village. Our group first visited the boat displayed by the front gate. Our guide explained to us about the word “waka” (boat) and the three most common types of waka for daily use (fishing and transporting goods), for war, and for long ocean journeys. She pointed out to us the way in which this particular waka was made using planks and that was how we could tell it was a replica and not a traditionally made waka. In fact it was the prop from the movie The Piano. I appreciated the fact that they were so upfront about the fact it was a replica, using the movie prop to point out the similarities and differences between the prop and a traditional waka. It felt honest. Film and museum replicas are great for showing off history, but should never be passed off as originals.

After admiring the waka, we headed over to the cooking pit. Here, our hosts had dug a deep pit in the earth which was filled with hot coals. The food was carefully wrapped and lowered on a tray into the pit, then covered with blankets to keep in the heat, cooking what would soon be our dinner. This is one of two historically traditional methods the Maori used for cooking, the other being to use the geothermal heat of the region to steam the food instead of a manmade fire. I understand at least one village in the area still has access to a nearby hot pool they use to prepare dinner for guests with, but the Mitai lived with a vibrant freshwater spring rather than a geothermal one. Our guide told us that although the Maori cooked this way in the past, that mostly what they ate were the native ground birds which are now all extinct or protected and so the only traditional food in the meal would be the sweet potatoes (kumara) and that the rest of the chicken, lamb, potatoes and stuffing were all brought in from the British settlers. I suppose to some, this revelation may have been a disappointment, finding that our Hangi feast was really made of familiar food, but again, I appreciated the honest discussion of history and the unique way that a living culture had adapted to the changing times far more than any fake recreation of an imaginary past. Our guide said a prayer in Maori over our meal, before covering it back up and leading us once more into the dining hall.

Here he went more into details about Maori culture, language and history. He asked us to choose a “chief” from among ourselves to represent us as a visiting tribe. He told us the Maori called foreigners “the tribe of the four winds” or Ngā Hau e Whā, to represent that we come from everywhere. There were more than 21 different countries represented in the audience that night. Women are not allowed to be chiefs or you can be sure I would have raised my hand, but two men both volunteered and the guide decided to have a contest between them. New Zealand_Maori Culture_APT_740_LLR.jpgHe taught them how to make the traditional war face which involves opening one’s eyes as wide as possible, sticking out the tongue toward the chin and doing an aggressive war cry. One of the men took this task quite seriously, doing his best to make an intimidating face and sound as he was shown, buy the other (and younger) was too cool for school and sadly sought audience attention by laughing at the process and doing a poor imitation of the war face, perhaps unwilling to look foolish, but in the end failing. We were asked to vote by applause and the man who went all out won by a landslide, which was nice, because I felt like he would at least take his duties as our chief for the night seriously and not treat it like some kind of opportunity for laughs.

Maori Greetings

The guide then explained that when we went into the meeting hall (performance hall too), their chief would meet our chief. When two families or tribes meet, one puts a small offering on the ground (often a silver fern leaf). If the visiting chief picks it up, it is a sign that they are peaceful and pleasantries, trading, or feasting can commence. If the visiting chief refuses to pick it up, it is a declaration of the intent for war, and fighting promptly ensues. The next thing he showed us was the Maori greeting. We had already learned how to say kia ora (key-oh-ra), which means not only hello, but also goodbye and is a general well wishing like “be well” or “good health to you”. If someone says kia ora to you, it is polite to say it back. Next he taught us the body language that goes with it.

In the west, we shake hands, and in Asia, people bow, but when the Maori meet they touch foreheads and noses at the same time. Called the hongi (not to be confused with hangi, our dinner), it is an intimate greeting that breaks down the barriers of personal space immediately. The touch is done twice. On first touch, you do not breathe. This stillness is for the dead, for those who have come before and gone beyond. On the second touch you breathe, mingling the breath of life (ha) which can also be seen as a co-mingling of spirits. It is a representation of the creation of the first human. Tane (the giant tree who separated his parents to make room for life) created a woman (yeah, first human is a woman here) from the earth and breathed life into her. Once this is done, visitors are considered part of the village for the duration of the visit and share in all rights and duties that the villagers themselves do.

River Raid

With our chief prepared to meet the Mitai chief, we headed out into the bush to watch the warriors paddle their waka down the stream in a recreation of a traditional war party. This waka was made in the traditional manner, unlike the movie set replica at the front gate. Perhaps in the summer, this part of the performance is more visible. I’ve seen some pictures online that look like they are happening in daylight, but during August, the sun was setting around 6pm every night and it was quite dark by the time we were led down to the stream. Nonetheless, the warriors in the waka had torches (fire, not electric) and it was impressive to see them coming down the stream, chanting and going back and forth between paddling and using the oars in a type of dancing display.

Sadly, my cameras are really lousy at low light. Maybe one day I’ll run a go-fund-me for a new one, but somehow every time I come face to face with the choice of spending my money on a new camera or on a new country experience… there is no actual competition. As a result, I have pretty old cameras. I usually am able to share my own photos of the places I’ve seen, but in low light the best I can do is share the photos of people with expensive cameras who went to the same places to give you a better idea of what we saw.

Show Time

20160820_183118After the outdoor display, we headed into the performance hall. It was somewhere during this time that I started getting flashbacks to my childhood wild west/cowboys and Indians shows. The stage was set up to look like a Maori village, and once again, the guide was quite clear that it was a set and not real. The performance started with singing and dancing, then the cheif came out and gave a speech in Maori that of course none of us understood. While all the Maori performers were wearing traditional costumes, it struck me at once how different the cheif’s clothing was, especially the white fur cloak he wore. New Zealand has only one native land mammal, which is the bat, so where did this fur come from? It turns out that the Maori brought dogs, kuri, with them from Polynesia. The dogs were rare and their fur was prized as one of the elite materials for chieftain cloaks (along with fur seal skin), and because white was a common kuri coloring, I expect this was meant to represent a white kuri skin cloak and was quite prestigious indeed.

He presented the peace offering as we were told to expect, and our “cheif’ picked it up accepting the peace. He introduced us (his tribe) and thanked the Mitai chief for hosting us on their land. Then they performed the hongi (touching nose and forhead) and our chief was able to return to his seat. Following the formal introductions, the Mitai chief switched to English and gave a brief introduction of himself and the tribe, reminding us all that the Maori now live in modern houses, wear regular clothes and enjoy using facebook, and that all of that night’s show was a way of demonstrating their history and traditions that are no longer practiced except for purposes of historical preservation or special significance. He was easygoing and had a good sense of humor that kept the audience engaged, but it was still sad to me to see the fact that their history was being almost Disneyfied for our consumption.

The Action Song

The performance is known as waiata a ringa, or action song. In the early 1900s, there was a movement to revive traditional Maori music that added dancing and the guitar to the traditional singing, and eventually developed into a standard performance used all over Rotorua today that includes a sung entrance, poi, haka (“war dance”), stick game, hymn, ancient song and/or action song, and sung exit. Our performers (kapa haka) did not do it in exactly that order, but really close, and nowadays the action song is used in competitions between iwi (tribes) around New Zealand; it’s not just a tourist attraction.

337207941_48fcda1c62_zAfter the sung entrance and the chief’s introductions, they introduced traditional Maori instruments of which there are two main kinds: melodic and percussive. Melodic instruments (rangi) include flutes made from wood or bone, gourd instruments that are blown into or filled with seeds and shaken, and trumpet instruments made from shells. These are considered the domain of the Sky Father but each group and specific instrument has it’s own god/goddess or spirit associated with it. Percussive instruments (drums, sticks, poi -the white flaxen balls on strings, and a type of disc on a cord) are considered the heartbeat of the Earth Mother.

They showed us how some of the percussive instruments like the poi and the sticks had started out as training activities to strengthen the warriors, but had quickly been adapted as games and dances by the women. The poi were used in dances, but also to imitate sounds the Maori people heard around them, including the more modern sounds of the imported English horses and the railway. The short sticks were used in group dances combining rhythm and agility as the men and women tossed the sticks around the circle while singing and beating out the time (the stick game).


They also performed some beautiful songs that included the hymn and the ancient song as well as some lighter-hearted love songs. One of the cuter love songs included the lyrics, “hey pretty lady, your boyfriend he’s no good, so come with me instead”. The hymns were not translated for us, so I’m not sure exactly which gods they were honoring, but at least one of the ancient songs was a sort of Maori “Romeo and Juliet” about a pair of star crossed lovers named Hinemoa and Tūtānekai. They lived in villages in Rotorua, across the lake from one another, and their families forbade their marriage. Unlike Shakespeare’s famous couple, however, Hinemoa and Tutanekai had a happily ever after, because after his family had taken Tutanekai’s waka to stop him, Hinemoa swam across the lake to reach him instead.

The performance is far from over, but this post is reaching my self imposed limit for avoiding TLDR syndrome. I hope you’ve enjoyed what you’ve learned so far. I’m not posting an album on Facebook for this experience because my photos are too dark, but you can find my YouTube Channel if you want to see more videos of this and other travels. Part 2 is coming soon!


Ten Days in NZ: 3 Hot Springs at Rotorua

Here in Korea, the cold weather is starting to seep into my bones as the days grow shorter and the need to apply extra layers of clothing grows more intense. Looking back on my summer (or first winter) in Aotearoa, I yearn for the beautiful and soothing natural hot springs I found in Rotorua. 

I have a deep abiding love of hot springs. Not just spas and indoor hot baths, but the wild and natural heated water that springs from the geothermal centers of the earth to bathe us in the mineral rich (slightly sulfur smelling) warmth. I love spas too, goodness knows that I will treasure my Riyadh spa treatment for many cold winter nights to come, but this holiday wasn’t about pampering, it was about wilderness. Whether you believe in the healing properties of these waters or not, it’s still fantastic to spend a day soaking in hot water surrounded by natural beauty instead of tile and grout.

Finding a good natural spot, however, can be a real challenge. When I started looking around my US home of Seattle (also rich in hot spring activity) what I found was that nearly everything was either on private land, had been developed into a spa, or required a massive hike to get to. The shortest hike we found was still 11km from the car park and the campsite nearby had no drinking water and did not allow any fires. If we wanted to stay the night, we would have to haul in all our gear, our water, and our cold food. The most “natural” resort I found was a 5 hour drive away in the next state, required a 2 night minimum booking and cost hundreds of dollars.

However, due to NZ’s water laws, it’s much harder for private owners and companies to monopolize all the accessible springs and rivers. Rotorua is one of NZ’s main geothermally active locations and has bountiful natural hot springs. Some of these have been diverted/converted into lux spas where the water is filtered and even chlorinated and the environment is suitably sterile. I hear they’re nice. I didn’t go. Instead, I sought out three natural and free locations that I’d learned about online during my pre-trip research: Kerosene Creek, Hot and Cold, and Waterfall Spout Bath.

A note on wild hot spring safety:

 20160819_144111There are signs at every natural hot spring that basically warn you of 2 things:getting burned and getting sick. Because these are natural springs, the temperatures are not regulated, and water that is hot enough to burn you sometimes rises up from the ground in the river and pool beds. You can be sitting in lovely water and suddenly a hotter current will come by. You can take a step to the left and land on a patch of mud that is scalding hot. However, these are not insurmountable problems if you exercise a little caution and common sense. Don’t dig down into the mud/sand at the bottom. It’s hotter below the surface. Feel before you put your weight down, test the bottom gently with a hand or toe before you put your weight down so you can move away quickly if it’s too hot. If you’re really worried about it, you can always wear water shoes. The other thing to bear in mind is that hot water breeds microbes. In the case of the Rotorua springs, there is a small concern of amoebic meningitis. That sounds scary, but it can’t infect you through your skin, only if it gets up your nose, so just keep your head out of the water and you’re in the clear. If all this sounds like too much work, that’s why the spas exist.

Finally, it’s worth noting that NZ is having some issues with campers and tourists visiting these places being targeted for car theft. I received many differing accounts of the severity, but everyone agrees it is something to consider. Campers are known to be carrying all their belongings in the vehicle so they make great targets for theft. If you can leave your stuff in a hotel, hostel, bus station locker, etc. that’s probably the best solution. Otherwise do your best to make it look like the vehicle is empty and carry your most valuables (passports, money, jewelry, etc) down to the creek with you and lock them to a tree (preferably one you can see from the water). Honestly, if you’re roughing it and don’t have a hotel/hostel to leave valuables in, you should own one of those lockable, cut resistant backpacks for your valuables anyway. It’s sad that these places are becoming targets for theft, but it’s an easily avoidable problem and there are no reports of personal injury or violence whatsoever, so please don’t let it deter you from the experience.

Kerosene Creek

Kerosene Creek is easily the most famous of these three sites. I understand that during tourist season it can get somewhat crowded, and even in August when I was there, I saw about a dozen other people. It’s far from what I would call “comercialized”, but be prepared to share.

Kerosene Creek is also searchable on Google Maps, so if you have GPS this is the easiest one to find. As you drive south of Rotorua toward Wai-O-Tapu there is a little road called Old Waiotapu Road. It is gravel and filled with potholes. I drove very slowly down the 2 km it takes to get there. I also passed Lake Rotowhero (pictured here) which is another hot swimming spot that I didn’t know at the time if it was safe to go into due to the complete lack of signs or other indications of occupation. I have since learned the lake is debatably swimmable due to a potentially skin damaging pH balance and a tendency for the temperature to get to burning hot levels quite quickly once away from the shoreline. But it’s a beautiful lake with the plumes of steam rising up into the air, so it’s worth pulling over for a looksee on your way to Kerosene Creek.

The carpark is clearly marked with signage, and there’s even a toilet facility (hole in the ground style, not flushing) that doubles as a changing room if you arrive here without your swim gear on. The path down to the swimming hole is not long. It took me about 5 minutes of walking along the creek (which is also warm) to find the main area. 20160819_122343.jpgThere’s a beautiful and fairly large waterfall there and a pool that’s deep enough to sit in and have the water come up to a comfortable chest level. This spot is the spot, but if it’s too crowded, bear in mind that the whole river is warm and the path does keep going, so you could keep wandering to find a smaller more private area. There were some people leaving as I arrived, and two other campers came at the same time I did. At one point I think there were maybe 6 people in the pool, and another half dozen or so came by to look at the waterfall but did not want to get in. I also went on a Friday, a weekday, so it is almost assuredly more crowded on a weekend when families can come down from Rotorua for the day.

The entrance to the pool is a steep set of rocks that I actually had to sit down on to reach the one below. There is no stairwell or gentle descent into this particular pool, although there are many shallower areas along the creek. The water was actually not as hot as I had expected based on my experience at Hot Water Beach and all the warning signs. I didn’t have a thermometer but I’d say it was close to body temperature, maybe even a little below. Of course it felt wonderful in contrast to the crisp 16C air. The bottom of the pool was mostly small rocks and was safe to walk on barefoot, but not soft. I quickly discovered that getting closer to the base of the falls made me feel like I was getting a gentle massage just like a jacuzzi jet. There’s not much to tell about soaking in a hot pool for a couple of hours. I chatted with the other bathers and just relaxed, taking in the feelings, the waterfall air and sounds, and the beauty of the sunlight through the trees around us.

Eventually, the water stopped feeling as warm. I’m sure I just became accustomed to it, but it was time to move on. Getting out of the pool is a little tricky because of the steep entryway and I basically went backwards, pushing up from the bottom rocks until I could sit on the upper rocks and scoot back up. Because it took a little while to get out and back to my towel, I got quite chilly on the way, but once dry and rejacketed, the walk back to the car wasn’t too bad.

Hot & Cold

I was going to try to find the Waterfall Spout Bath next because I’d gotten some GPS coordinates from another backpacker online. Basically, you keep going to Wai-O-Tapu and take the Waiotapu Loop Road (paved, yay!) to a road called “The Avenue” which leads to Lady Knox Gyser (on Google Maps, easy to search). The path is just off the Avenue. Sounds easy enough, but when I got there, I discovered that there was a locked bar across the entry to the Avenue. The sign next to it indicated that the road was closed from 5pm to 9am, but it was only 2 in the afternoon, so I was a bit flummoxed. I headed up the road a bit to the visitors center and went inside to find out what was going on.

When I asked, it took a while to get through to the girl at the counter that I wanted to go up the road toward the Gyser. I had to repeat myself a few times that the road was blocked despite the posted signs indicating it should be open. She eventually led me over to an older lady who told me they close the road at 11am after the gyser is done doing it’s thing because there’s just no other reason to go down that way. Taking in my swimsuit under my jacket asked me rather tartly if I meant to go swimming and then told me there was absolutley no place to go swimming down that road… at all. I gently argued that I had seen it on the internet, which earned me a beleaguered sigh and an “of course you did”. She then went on at great length how dangerous it was because my car would be broken into, and I’d burn my feet and I’d get meningitis and and and. She told me that she’d lived there for 15 years and never even wanted to go look at it because it was sooooo dangerous. If I absolutely HAD to go swimming, I could go to Hot and Cold by the bridge, but she was sure I’d have my car broken into if I did.

When I asked her how this waterfall compared to Kerosene Creek, she told me how awful that place was too, covered with used condoms and needles (no it isn’t). I realized I was dealing with a genuine Paranoid Old Person™ and decided to humor her and back away slowly. “Can I just go look at the waterfall if I promise not to swim?”, (fingers crossed) I asked. “Well, I can’t stop you.”, she grumped back at me. I thanked her for her advice and indicated I’d head to Hot and Cold as she recommended, and leave my car in the visitor’s lot for safety if that was ok. She warned me they would lock it up before 5pm so I should hurry (it was still only 2pm).

Based on her directions, Hot & Cold was right around the corner from the visitor’s center, and since the Avenue wasn’t going to magically open for me, I figured I’d check that one out before assessing my plan of attack for the Waterfall. I did leave my car in the visitor’s car park, and if you’re worried about break-ins you can do the same while they’re open, but there is also plenty of roadside parking by the bridge. It was a short walk from there to the bridge that goes over the Hot of Hot and Cold. I saw several other cars parked around and sure enough there was a small handful (4-5) of bathers already enjoying the water.
Hot and Cold is an interesting geothermal phenomenon where a cold water stream and a hot water stream converge. The hot water stream runs under the bridge and the cold water stream runs along one side of the road. A nice shallow pool rests at the mixing point before they continue on as one merged stream. The Department of Conservation actually built wooden steps that lead down into the pool on one side of the bridge and into the hot stream on the other. The hot side is quite hot, so be careful if you decend into that side. I spent the majority of my time in the mixing pool, not for fear of heat, but because the sensation of being swirled around in hot and cold water is a uniquely pleasant one.

The pool is not merely warm water but active currents of HOT and COLD. Of course, it is generally hotter or colder as you near the appropriate stream, but the currents in the pool get everywhere. You can be soaking up a nice hot spot and suddenly a cold tendril wraps around your legs. One of the interesting activites the old foks in Washington taught me was that it was fun to go dip in the freezing cold river then dash back into the hot spring. I tried this exactly once, not because it wasn’t neat, but because the river was REALLY cold there. The hot and cold pool in NZ isn’t anywhere near so extreme, but it is a fun experience. It’s impossible to overheat in this pool since all you have to do is drift over to the cooler side, and because of the regular changes in temperature, the cool currents are refreshing and invigorating but don’t last long enough to make you cold, while at the same time your body doesn’t adjust to the hotter temperature meaning you get that ‘ahhhh’ sensation of new hot water on your skin over and over.

The water is a bit cloudy, no crystal clear mountain stream water here. You have to be careful walking around when you can’t see the bottom so you don’t stub your toe on a rock (most dangerous thing here). The bottom on the warmer side is sandy and rocky, while on the cooler side there is more algae growing so it gets a little softer (squishier) and muddier. That texture is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s pretty harmless. One of the locals I talked to here said in the 10 years he’d been coming up, he’d only had his car broken into once, and that was at night. I personlly did not go to these pools after dark partially for concern of my car, but also because I was travelling alone and still suffer some lingering paranoia about my single woman status and my saftey. If I’d had a travel buddy, I would have happily dumped all my stuff at the hostel (empty car is less tempting) and gone back for a candlelit soak.

Waterfall Spout Bath

20160819_174226Not wanting to find my car locked up in the visitor’s spot, I only spent a couple hours at hot and cold before venturing out to see what I could do about this waterfall situation. I was very determined not to miss out. Even if the water or mud turned out to be too hot, I just had to go and take a look since it was so nearby. I parked my car on the side of the road just in front of the barrier and off the main road. I’m not sure how advisable this really is, but in general it’s safe to park in NZ if you can get your whole vehicle off the road so that it isn’t blocking traffic and it was almost closing time for the visitors center anyway, coming around to the posted closing time for the road itself. The GPS coordinates I had said the falls were just 500m up the road which isn’t a far walk. As I was locking up the car, two more travelers walked out of the bush. They had parked a bit further away and were using the same set of coordinates to track the elusive bathing spot.

Sure enough, 500m down the road we began to hear the water and there was a small track off to the right. Just at the opening of the bush, the path is fairly wide and clear, but it quickly narrows and becomes overgrown. I’m glad I was wearing my jeans over my suit because I got snagged by a low growing thorn bush that bit right into the fabric. It’s not a long path and you can hear the waterfall sounds to know you’re heading in the right direction. 20160819_163144_1The first thing you see is the top of the falls. These are quite lovely and worth a gander, but the water up here is too shallow to enjoy a soak, so head on down the trail a little further and you’ll find the pool. Despite it’s lack of popularity, it was indeed marked with another Dept of Conservation sign warning us about mud burns and amoebic meningitis, so the government was clearly aware of the fact that people were coming here and was just as clearly not prohibiting it. Ostensibly, this is a result of the Queen’s Chain policy of reserving 20m of land around bodies of water (and prohibiting the private ownership of said water).

We made it down to the pool and quickly skinned down to our bathing suits and waded in. Of the three places I visited, this was easily the most rustic and the most amazing. The bottom of the pool is especially temperature variable. The other lady there singed her bum because she moved onto a hot patch without realizing it. No lasting damage fortunately, but it made us all aware that the hot patches on the bottom were not to be ignored. The pool was less than knee deep, but the bottom is not visible, so it’s necessary to carefully navigate. The water isn’t “dirty”, but the waterfall stirs up mud and leaf debris from the bottom. You can easily see in the stream above and below the falls that the water itself is quite clear. It’s still got microbes tho, so don’t get it up your nose.


Aside from it’s remoteness, and the fact that we slightly felt like we were doing something forbidden the most appealing aspect of this location is the waterfall itself. It is not a tall fall, perhaps 2 meters maybe a little more. It is very powerful, but still narrow enough to be approachable. Some people straight up “shower” in these falls, and given that water falling down on your head is unlikely to get up your nose, it’s not as risky as putting your head under in the pools themselves, but it was still more of a risk than any of us were willing to take. But, and a very important but, the falls are moving quite fast and the water comes at an angle so the bottom is further out into the pool than the top. It is, therefore, possible to get your back and shoulders under the falls while keeping the front and top of your head completely out. It’s a slow process to get there because of the hot mud pockets and the need to move slowly across the ground of the pool to avoid being toasted (considering some waterproof shoes next time) and then backing into the falls to find the sweet spot that hits high on your shoulders without dunking your head, but ah when you get there… the deep tissue hot water massage that mother nature gives you as a reward is oh so sweet.

Blessed by the Gods

After lingering around for another hour or more, I got a feeling it was time to move on. I wasn’t sure of the time, but could tell from the light it was getting dark and I had not left all my stuff in my hostel. My car looked totally lived in and I didn’t want to become an after dark target for thieves ruining what was otherwise an amazingly perfect day full of soaking and nice company. I said my farewells and struggled damply back into my jeans to guard my shins on the way out. Remember how I said I felt like my trip was being divinely influenced for maximum awe? Somehow 3 gorgeous natural hot springs and two waterfall massages was just not enough of a message, because when I emerged from the narrow path in the woods onto the main road I was greeted with the most beautifully gaudy display of sunset color I have seen in a long time. I stood in total shock before remembering to snap a picture and within about two minutes the whole thing was gone, returning the sky to a darkening gray. If I hadn’t listened to the little ‘time to go’ voice in my head, I would have missed it completely. I went from feeling like the gods of the land were putting on a show to wondering if I was instead being wooed by a heavenly being.


Some things are just too wonderful to attribute to mere coincidence and I’m a lousy monotheist. I tend to ascribe to a more fantastical yet practical version of divinity outlined by authors like Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. I tend to think that gods are “real” in precisely the same way that “truth” or “honor” or “love” are real.


You can’t, of course, but we accept these as real. That’s basically what I mean when I talk about the gods of some place or another (up until the Diaspora, all gods were linked to the land and the local people). It’s not about religion or worship for me, but I do believe it’s important to express gratitude for the good things in life and it can help if that gratitude has a focus. Plus, it’s fun to imagine being courted by a god like a beautiful mortal maid from the old legends.

Once More With Feeling

I ended up spending 3 nights in Rotorua. On the first day I went to the springs, then on the second I did some more touristy things including a visit to a Maori village (post forthcoming). That second part was rough and emotional, so on my final morning, I decided I needed one more cleansing bath in the hot pools before I bid farewell to Rotorua and Waiotapu. First and last activities in a place go a long way to defining our memories of an experience, and as much as I valued my Maori visit, I didn’t want those feelings of sadness and conflict to be my last ones for Rotorua. Matamata was only an hour away by car, and the Hobbiton facility runs tours every 30 minutes until about 4pm, so I wasn’t worried about getting an early start for that part of the day. Instead, I woke up early to return to the Waterfall Spout Bath, easily the most remote and most beautiful of the three pools I had visited 2 days previously.  Now that I knew where I was going, it was much easier, and since the gate was open, I was even able to park at the trailhead.

This may have been the best decision I made in all of my time in Rotorua. The pool was completely empty, I had it all to myself. I like company often, but I relished the opportunity to quietly absorb the beauty of the surrounding bush as a means of replenishing my spirit, my joy and my gratitude from the night before. Once more, I could not help but feel that the land or the gods heard my requests, because the waterfall was, if you can believe it, even more beautiful on this morning than it had been the first time I found it. It was as though, having shown me the loss and sorrow that incautious tourism and exploitation brought, they now would show me the best and most beautiful that the untarnished land could offer.


The pool is set down below the level of the main road and most of the surrounding bush. When the morning sun came through the trees that surrounded and enclosed the pool, it was like beams of liquid gold pouring through fine black lace. Spiderwebs still dripping with condensed steam, gleaming like strings of diamonds between the branches drew my eye again and again as the patterns of sunlight changed. The steam itself rose up from the waterfall and the pool in great plumes, turning opaque in stripes and beams where the sunlight penetrated the canopy only to remain invisible in the shadows. If I had seen it in a movie, I would swear it was a computer generated effect, that no real thing could be so amazing all at once. As I lay in the pool, my body relaxing and revitalizing in the mineral water, the shining ribbons of light moving with the steam but also with time’s passage of the rising sun, there came a moment when I was directly in line with the sun itself, my vision becoming the center of a radiating circle of glowing sunbeams, dancing steam, and dark winding branches as though I were looking down a tunnel into another world, or even the afterlife. It was one of the most profound moments of natural beauty I have ever experienced.20160821_101856

I made another stop off at Hot & Cold that morning as well, and the sunlight was no less stunning. Once again, when I arrived I had the place to myself and the sun reached down into the riverbed through the trees not in rays and beams this time, but a spotlight to light up the steam from the hot river as it rose up the steep walls and curled back on itself in an endless spiralling dance of thermodynamics. Feeling wholly restored and incredibly grateful, I didn’t mind at all when other visitors showed up to the creek and promptly encouraged them to come on in. It was the best farewell to Rotorua I could have wished for.


I’m trying my best to get all the stories from my visit to the Land of the Long White Cloud up for viewing before the end of 2016. The good news is, since these stories are not linked to world events, they make sense whenever you read them. And, if you happen to be a northern hemisphere dweller, the weather from my trip is finally starting to line up with what you’re experiencing outside. As always, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed it. Please check out the Facebook page for all the photos, and my Instagram for updates on day to day life in Korea. 🙂


Ten Days in New Zealand: An Overview

Having spent the last few days recovering from the cold I managed to give myself at the end of my trip, I’m now feeling much better and ready to tackle the slightly overwhelming task of writing about these 10 awe inspiring, action packed days and the truly daunting goal of winnowing down the over 2000 photos I took into something that is beautiful and interesting rather than something that resembles the family holiday slide show from hell. As you can imagine, this might take me a bit of time. Furthermore, I’m starting school again this week, and I have an upcoming long weekend trip to Jeju Island. I also don’t want to dump a novel on you all at once. So, be patient. The stories will come, and they will be no less wonderful just because you read them a few weeks or even a few months after they happened.

My Route:

I made a little road map to show you the relatively small section of NZ I managed to explore, and here’s the basic itinerary. (As they get written, I’ll be linking the full story to each counterpart in the short list below).

NZ drive map (1)

Day 0: Auckland (arrival, rental car, sleep)
Day 1: Auckland (Onehunga), Piha (black sand beach), drove to Dargaville (sleep)
Day 2: Waipoua Forest (giant Kauri trees), drove to Piahia (sleep)
Day 3: Piahia (Bay of Islands, dolphins!, Haruru Falls), drove to Whangarei (sleep)
Day 4: Whangarei Falls, Waipu Caves, drove to Hot Water Beach (midnight low tide)
Day 5: Hot Water Beach, Cathedral Cove, drove to Rotorua (sleep)
Day 6: Wai-O-Tapu – hot springs (Kerosene Creek, Hot & Cold, Waterfall Spout Bath)
Day 7: Rotorua (Saturday market, Kuirau Park), Wai-O-Tapu (geothermal park), Maori
Day 8: Wai-O-Tapu (hot springs), Matamata (Hobbiton), drove to Waitomo (stars!)
Day 9: Waitomo (glowworm caves, black water rafting), drove to Auckland
Day 10: Auckland (shopping, Planetarium, Cornwall Park, One Tree Hill), Airport

It was a jam-packed holiday to be sure. I intend to breakdown the stories based on geographical region and/or type of activity, therefore while it will mostly be in order, it’s not a strict blow by blow of the 10 days. In the remainder of this post, I want to share a few interesting things I learned about New Zealand that are useful if you want to travel there and are just generally neat.


This bizarrely internationally inconsistent cultural habit changes drastically from country to country and making a mistake while you’re visiting can be awkward or even offensive. Quick guide to NZ tipping is that you don’t. It’s not a tipping culture except…

1) let taxi driver’s keep the small change. It’s not precisely a “tip” it’s just inconvenient to make them dig out exact change.

2) similarly, tip jars if present in cafes are not looking for anything more than the small change (under 1$).

3) exceptional service – if you feel like a waitperson has just gone above and beyond, leaving a tip is a way of thanking them for that, but it is not expected at most restaurants or meals.

4) fancy restaurants – I didn’t go to one, but I hear a 10% is standard at these. Every place I ate at did not have a tip line on the credit card slip, thus it was actually impossible for me to leave a tip if I wasn’t paying in cash. Maybe big fancy places are different, I can’t say.

While I do cough up the cash where tipping is standard (don’t even get me started on tips as wages), I prefer non-tipping cultures because there is no awkward math or trying to judge my server’s performance. I typically find that I get better service when tips aren’t on the line because my servers aren’t busy calculating which of their tables is going to make them the most money. Plus, having done food service before, I’m convinced tip wages are some kind of anxiety induced torture because staff never know how much money they’ll actually make. So just be polite and courteous to your servers, say please and thank you and don’t worry about dangling a financial reward in front of them for doing their job well.


For some reason, despite all the research that I did before going to New Zealand, I did not realize that they drove on the left until the day before I got on the plane. I even read about NZ traffic laws because I planned to rent a car and drive around, but somehow the government sponsored website failed to put that in an obvious place. As a result, when I landed in Auckland and got the shuttle to my rental car company, I was frantically trying to watch the traffic and the driver as closely as possible. On top of that, it was dark by the time I got my car, so I had to navigate my way to my airbnb in this backwards car on the wrong side of the road and in the dark. I do not think I have gripped a steering wheel that hard in years.

It turns out the hardest part of driving on the left isn’t the left lane, it’s the car itself because the driver’s seat is now in the right and everything is backwards. The turn signal and windshield wipers are reversed. I cannot tell you how many times I accidentally turned on my wipers while trying to signal. The gearshift is on the left. Thankfully, I had an automatic and the only times I was shifting were in parking lots, but I often found myself reaching for a steering column mounted shift that simply wasn’t there because my muscle memory found that to be the default when there was no gearshift to my right. Good news, gas and brake were still the same, otherwise I might have had some nasty accidents.

Driving on the left is mostly just a matter of staying in your lane. If you’ve ever driven in a multi lane highway, you’ll have experience with driving on the left as the passing lane (although here the left is the slow lane and the right is passing only). Oncoming traffic was terrifying for the first two days, and I spent about 4-5 days chanting “left, left, left” to myself every time I made a turn to help me land in the correct lane on the other side of the intersection. NZ doesn’t have many of “highways” as we think of them in America or even Europe. Much of the country is made of tiny winding wooded mountainous treks. It was a relief to get out of Auckland and have less traffic, but it was a whole new challenge to drive down roads that twisted with scant visibility and narrow lanes that ended in cliff-sides or sheer drops. I pulled over frequently. Partly because a line of impatient Kiwi drivers behind me wanted to go faster than I felt safe driving, but largely because the scenery in NZ is incredibly breathtaking, and I needed to stop driving so I could look at it properly.

There are a preponderance of roundabouts. All the roundabouts. I usually only saw “intersections” in the more pastoral areas. In anywhere with civilization, the preferred interchange was the roundabout. These were quite intimidating at first because there are no stop indicators, only “give way” or yields. You have to check to your right to see if anyone is already there, then go. Then count exits to find yours and trust that everyone else is going to yield to you once you’re in the roundabout. I made several mistakes, but no crashes.

Lastly: one lane bridges… I don’t know why. Maybe it’s too much infrastructure? Maybe the bridges were built at a time when all the roads were one lane? Maybe kiwis just like driving dangerously? I lost count of how many one lane bridges I crossed. There are helpful signs that tell you which lane has right of way. It’s based on who has better visibility of the bridge. If you can see the bridge, you have to give way.  Only once did I have someone fail to yield to me when they should have, I assume another visitor confused by the rules, but I managed to stop in time.

As crazy as all of these things seemed when I started my journey, by the time I got to the end, I was entirely adjusted. I found myself driving at (or just above) the speed limit on those curvy roads. I barely slowed entering roundabouts with no oncoming cars. I learned how to pass the other slow drivers on the road, and was able to confidently navigate Auckland by the time I returned there on day 10. I met other travelers who were busing it, and a few who had rented campers. It became apparent that the busing travelers were highly limited in schedule and in events. They had to rely on tour groups to go anywhere outside the cities. I think the camper might be the best way to go, being able to park in free parking lots (of which there are many) and cheap campsites wherever you like is liberating, but I got turned off RVs when my dad explained the septic tank process. I think for my short trip the car was ideal. There are hostels near every point of interest that are cheap enough and I still had the freedom to track down some out of the way places at some less popular times. Conclusion? Driving on the left is challenging but worth it for New Zealand.


Ok, insurance isn’t exciting or glamorous, but most of us know it’s an important part of travelling because you never want to find yourself far from home with no way to pay for any liability you may incur due to accident or injury. Turns out NZ is one of the most traveler friendly nations in terms of coverage, so if you’re tired of expensive traveler’s insurance, this might be a good alternative.

Fortunately, I did not have any need to visit the healthcare system in New Zealand, but I did learn while I was preparing my travel plans (including insurance) that all accidental injury (regardless of the Darwinian nature of the cause or who is at fault) is 100% covered for anyone in NZ. ‘Anyone in NZ’ doesn’t just mean residents, but literally if you are injured in NZ, the government will pay for the healthcare you need. Obviously there are some limits, like long term care which you would get in your home country if you’re just visiting, but it was still good to know that if I got into a car accident or slipped and fell in a stream and broke my arm or something similar, that at very least the financial side of my imaginary tragedy would not be a burden.

Canadians reading this are probably going ‘well, duh’, because you guys never worry about healthcare costs it seems, but the Americans will get it. Accidental injury is one of the great banes of our existence where a trip to the ER can wind up costing thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. I often get some kind of traveler’s insurance that will keep me from bankruptcy and get me back to my country of residence for real care, but those policies don’t cover too much and can still leave you with poor care choices and large bills.

It’s never fun to have to limit your adventurous activities for fear of medical bills and thanks to the NZ government, I didn’t have to! Of course, I still didn’t want any broken bones. I was careful, but it was a serious relief to know that I was covered.

Additionally, all rental car companies must provide basic car insurance with every rental. You can’t decline the basic insurance (although you can choose the included basic over the extra cost comprehensive). This matters for a few reasons. One, lots of credit cards offer insurance if you pay for the rental on the card and decline the optional insurance. I spent some time trying to get a manager at Visa to confirm with me that the insurance in NZ isn’t optional and wouldn’t count against my Visa based car insurance (which would then basically cover damage to the car or other property, but not medical bills). Two, because of the accidental medical coverage, car insurance doesn’t need to include medical. Any injury sustained in a car accident will already be covered. Three, if you’re leaving the cities, you will scratch that car. The damage from small scratches from branches on the side of the road or stones thrown up from the car ahead of you are small and easily covered by the basic insurance and because everyone has it, the rental companies don’t stress trying to get a couple hundred extra dollars out of you for a scratch on the paint.

I’m afraid if your stuff gets stolen or broken, NZ doesn’t cover you for that, but I’ve found often renter’s or homeowner’s insurance has an option to cover your belongings while you’re on the road and sometimes the flight insurance will cover belongings for the duration of the holiday.


Not the drinking water (though that’s fine too), but the ocean, lakes and rivers. The vast majority of water in NZ is considered public. Water doesn’t belong to anyone. This has actually caused some controversy with the Maori population who lay claim to some bodies of water and the rest of the NZ government who say that water cannot be owned. Take a moment to savor the idea that water cannot be owned and then go write a letter to your congressman about Nestle buying up all the clean water in North America so they can sell it back to us in plastic bottles. The issues with Maori are complex and involve things like land use rights, fishing rights, and mineral rights that give them more exclusive access to waterways in some places, but not actual ownership of the water.

In addition, there is a piece of land called the “Queen’s Chain” which exists around most waterways (sometimes it does not due to environmental or safety reasons to restrict public access, and there’s still about 30% of the coastline the government is working to get back in the public domain, again, it’s complicated). The Queen’s Chain is 20m of land on one or both sides of a waterway that are public land, free to access assuming you don’t have to tromp through private property to get there. I’m told sometimes the farmers get stroppy (with shotguns) about backpackers and kayakers who are following a stream or river from a public access point into their land, so it does pay to be aware of where your river goes if that’s your plan.  If you want to read more about the laws, you can do so here.

The upshot of all these laws is that there are almost no privately owned resorts, country clubs or homes that get restricted access to a beach, river, lake or hot spring. How cool is that? I’ve been to many coastal areas with beautiful beaches that have just been developed to death because hotels can charge big bucks for access to their private beach. When I lived in Florida, the small stretch of beach that didn’t cost an arm and a leg to get into was limited and often overcrowded. In tropical paradises in the Caribbean, beaches have become little more than oceanfront bars. In Dubai they are oceanfront dance clubs. In Washington state, when we want to go to a hot spring or waterfall that’s undeveloped, we have to go into a state or national park and hike for several km. In NZ, however, these things are all near roadways with easy public access and safe off road parking. Many of them are even handicapped accessible.

Many of the astonishing places I visited on this holiday were only possible for me to see because of these laws concerning waterways and the land near them. If there were a hot spring on a beach in the US it would be a private resort charging guests hundreds of dollars for the experience, but in NZ it was totally free and natural with no looming 30 story hotels and no one selling margaritas above the high tide line, just a well-heeled campsite on the other side of the highway, a few private homes scattered through the hills, a quaint local cafe, and an art gallery. Similarly, Rotorua has fancy spas that filter the natural mineral water for clean and landscaped soaking experiences, which is fine, but less than 30 minutes out of town I was able to visit 3 natural hot pools in one day and spend a couple hours in each with no rigorous hiking or exorbitant fees.


I support paying reasonable fees to maintain public land (taxes, anyone?). I happily paid my annual public park fee in Washington when I lived there (about 30$ for all access). What I can’t get behind is the total commercialization of natural beauty.  I’m not saying visiting cities or man-made wonders isn’t worthwhile too (goodness knows, I go to ancient ruins and modern amenities all the time) but it doesn’t replace a natural experience. The earth is our home and it is full of wonders that we cannot create nor replicate. Of course sometimes that means you’ll get dirty, or get a few bug bites, but it’s worth it and you get to come home to a hot shower after all because that’s the balance. Flushing toilets and hot water can coexist in a world with fresh rain-forests and pristine beaches.  New Zealand’s water laws don’t just protect the water, but much of the land around it, preserving the environment and giving us access to nature’s best features. I think a few other countries could take notes.

Lord of the Rings & Hobbits:


All 6 films were made in New Zealand (in case you were living under a rock). Many natural features of the land are now famous Middle Earth landmarks. Most of those beautiful panoramic views were real, and not computer generated. It’s quite popular for Tolkien fans to make a pilgrimage from movie site to movie site. Most of the landscape has been carefully returned  to its wild state so you won’t see the Hall of Rohan at Edoras or the Last Homely House at Rivendell. However, walking around the bush in NZ made me feel like an adventurer in Middle Earth more often than not (the rest of the time, I felt like I was in Jurassic Park, more on that later). I also got more excited than I truly care to admit when I realized I could see “Mt. Doom” from the park in Wai-O-Tapu. I didn’t do much LOTR location viewing because most of the sets are actually further south than I ventured on my short trip, but it was fun to go to Hobbiton and see the Shire and I hope that I get to do more of the mountains and forests when I make it back to see the South Island.

Fern Gully:

Yes, that tree-hugging animated feature from the early 1990’s was based on the forests of New Zealand. Both the Maori and the British settlers contributed to a massive deforestation of New Zealand. Estimated to have dropped from 80% to 50% under Maori stewardship and then to as low as 20% under British/Kiwi stewardship, the forests of New Zealand have been under attack for nearly 1000 years. Up until 1985 deforestation was actually encouraged and subsidized by the government. However, the Department of Conservation was finally established and now native forests are protected, making up to about 15% of the land, and a further 15% are replanted forests (some of which are still logged for timber, but at a sustainable growth rate that will continue to increase forestation over time).

As a side note, Batty Coda (the insane bat voiced by Robin Williams) represents the only native land mammal in New Zealand. All other land mammals presently there were imported for fur, meat or milk. The Maori people thought of bats as a type of bird that represented knowledge and wisdom and incorporated it into their tattoos. You can see lots of NZ plant life as well as other unique New Zealand creatures in the movie including the large gecko that tries to eat Zack and the cave full of glow worms that Crystal and Jack go to be romantic in.

Whether Kiwi attitudes toward logging and preservation were impacted by Fern Gully or not, conservation has now become a significant part of life and government in NZ. With care and attention, the beautiful forests and natural landscapes that I was privileged to travel through will exist and grow richer in the decades to come.


I hope this whets your appetite for more tales from New Zealand. I’ll be working diligently to get the rest of the posts up in the coming weeks. Thanks for reading 🙂