Aotearoa: Rotorua, Culture

So aside from spectacular Thermal Wonderlands, Rotorua also has some cultural elements to it. It's considered a center - er, centre? - of Maori culture, particularly in terms of the culture being on display for tourists. As you really shouldn't wander on to a marae - the central part of a Maori town center, a sacred space usually in front of the whare runanga meeting house - uninvited, and as your average tourist doesn't really get such invitations as a matter of course, Rotorua fills in the gaps.

Photo of Rotorua museum
Rotorua's museum
Photo of Rotorua outdoors
Pretty pleasant place, even when you're not next to geysers.
Photo of Rotorua outdoors
I think this used to be a bathhouse. Could be wrong. Either way, it looks nice.

If you've done any traveling around the U.S., you know that displays of and about indigenous culture pretty much run the gamut there, from white folks in fiberglass teepees selling Made In China "Indian Jewelery," to a wide range of self-representations, including not just the omnipresent craft stands but also museums displaying the history and stories of particular tribes or regions. Some of these displays are offensive in their lack of awareness of local Native culture - stop with the teepees in the Southwest already! - or in their willingness to treat people as if they were museum objects, while others challenge visitors' preconceptions and insist on the specificity of their particular history.

Photo of Rotorua statues
Two statues, and unfortunately, I've forgotten what they represent.
Photo of Rotorua outdoors
In front of the museum, senior citizens play croquet.

So I was a bit apprehensive about going to Te Whakarewarewa, wondering if it was going to be the Maori equivalent of fiberglass teepees. However, in a country where 15% of the population is indigenous, it seems a lot harder to get away with large-scale offensive displays. There were still plenty of souvenir stores featuring sacred features of Maori heritage on ashtrays and the like, but Te Whakarewarewa is run by both the government and local iwi, and the latter are the actual landowners. It's at least as much self-representation as anything else, and that makes a difference.

Photo of Maori Cultural Centre
The small, intricately carved red house on stilts traditionally served as a storehouse, either for particularly delectable food items or for the sacred items of the tohunga (priest). (I got two different explanations, so you get them both.)
Photo of Maori Cultural Centre
This is the entrance to the marae, where the important business of the iwi happens. While this one, built for tourists as it is, is slightly different, you would ordinarily not just wander onto someone's marae. There are protocols for welcoming that should be observed.
Photo of Maori dancers
Here one of the dancers is demonstrating a type of haka, which is both threat and welcome. You'll also see the haka performed by the All Blacks, one of New Zealand's national rugby teams, prior to their games.

So Te Whakarewarewa (or "Whaka" for short, though when it's shortened the "wh" is no longer pronounced like an "f," for obvious reasons) offered a marae and reconstructed village area, and we happened to arrive right on time for the noontime concert and dancing. The dancers (who also sang and played instruments) were dressed in traditional garb, and explained the context of each song before they performed it. There were a couple of guys in the back who kept trying to mess each other up, which was pretty entertaining, and overall, it had a pretty casual feel to it. I've also seen school groups performing such songs and dances in Wellington and Christchurch city centers, so whatever role they play in this tourist attraction, they're part of the larger cultural renaissance that the Maori have been going through for a while now. As the school groups are just regular kids wearing jeans and sweaters or school uniforms, and are not performing for paying spectators, it's a bit easier to see how they connect to everyday Maori culture in Aotearoa today.

Photo of woodworking centre
Young men learning the trade of woodworking.
Photo of thermal pool
In addition to Maori culture, the area also offered thermal landscapes.
Photo of geyser
With some quite impressive geysers and eruptions!

There's also a woodcarving school in the Te Whakarewarewa complex. It's run according to traditional precepts: only young Maori men need apply. No women, no Pakeha, no older folks. Maori culture tends to be fairly gendered; some things are for men only (like woodcarving), some for women only (like flax weaving). (If you're interested in an examination of gender roles in Maori society, try just about any of Witi Ihimaera's books; Bulibasha, King of the Gypsies, springs to mind. Ihimaera is also the author of Whale Rider, which - film or book - is also a fine choice.) The young men at the workshop train with accomplished carvers from a range of different regions in a variety of styles, going through a long apprenticeship period before they are masters in their own right. The carvings on display were stunning in their workmanship. They were also well out of my price range, which, given the amount of work that went into each piece, was not really surprising.

Photo of geyser
There were several major geysers here, but as soap was not used to regulate them, no one knew when they might blow.
Photo of geyser
Walking toward an erupting geyser requires a raincoat and pretty good vision.
Photo of geyser
And soap or no soap, we did get an eruption!

The larger area also includes a thermally active reserve, including several geysers and hot pools. The colors weren't as amazing as at Waiotapu, but in addition to geysers, there was a Kiwi House! Kiwis - the flightless native birds - are quite endangered, which means that unless you have the time and money to go to Stewart Island, you're pretty much reliant on seeing them in captivity. The birds are nocturnal, so in order to make life easy for tourists, the birds' schedules are reversed: Kiwi houses are dark during the day to simulate night, and the birds are up and about bobbing and foraging. As a result, you can't take pictures inside (the flash would freak the birds out), and so you'll just have to trust me when I say that kiwis are quite as cute in person as they are in their pictures.

Photo of Lake Rotorua
The graceful (but mean) black swans congregate around Rotorua's waterfront.
Photo of Lake Rotorua
This is the view from the Polynesian Spa pools...
Photo of Lake Rotorua which The Lawyer Formerly Known as Sarah treated me!

To finish off our time in Rotorua in style, TLFKAS treated us to a massage and hot mineral pool at the Polynesian Spa. It was fantastic, and the view from the pools was amazing (see above!). Of course, two weeks later I saw on the news that the spa had been closed down by the health department for excess amounts of certain minerals in the pools... but the newsman said it hadn't been at levels that would've affected spa guests, and I'm just going to blindly believe that assertion, thank you very much!


10. August 2003


All text and images © 2003 NoAura Productions. All rights reserved.

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