We had absolutely no idea what was coming. “I think it’s basically a walk in the woods” we told Ed, who was whining about having to get pants on and actually do something. “But it’s raining!” he whined, pantlessly. We’d just arrived from a blacked out Waiheke Island, crossing the sea to Auckland in a raging torrent, watching North Island go by through streaked van windows (my mum was right: there is more than a passing resemblance to the A1 through Yorkshire about wet New Zealand) to a blacked out Rotorua hotel.
The Maōri Pōwhiri is a ‘welcome ceremony’ and after 48 hours without electricity, we’d have been happy with a welcome from Ronald MacDonald and a mega-box of hot nuggets. All we knew was that this ‘welcome’ involved a (sodden) forest and a whole load of deliberate mystery. Oh great.
We arrived at Mount Titiraupenga and the boys barrelled out the van and charged, screaming, at some sheep. Foiled by the fence, they then had a bash on the gravel and started lobbing stones at the livestock instead. Raewyn and Nikora, the ladies from the tribe who were there to greet us, smiled beatifically, like institutional psychiatrists waiting to coax a couple of inmates back into solitary (I’m naturally suspicious of anyone with apparently limitless patience and kindness: I’m onto you, I thought, making a mental note to find the next few hours so hilariously dull, I could write a blog post full of wisecracks).
We did the hongi (rubby-nosey) greeting then jumped in Raewyn and Nikora’s cars and crawled up the dirt tracks through the forest. I was with the girls and Nikora and she talked about their particular tribe’s relationship with this forest, how they own it, maintain it, worship it, love it. We stopped at a massive 1200 year-old tree that they call ‘The Grandmother’ and we all hongi’d it. ‘I’m not a treehugger’ I thought, ‘therefore I’m going to hate this’. But the bark smelt rich and mossy and Nikora had tears in her eyes when we got back in the van.
We arrived at a clearing and Raewyn explained we were going to walk into the forest and Adam had to go first, as was traditional. We were to ‘keep an open mind’ and ‘go with the flow’. Oh sheesh: there’ll be some sort of bobbins-worthy-chanting-shizzle, I thought. This is going to suck (three months of temples combined with over-exposure to the social media news-cycle have turned me into a hopeless cynic). OK let’s get it over with. The boys wove around Adam’s legs as we walked and Nikora called them back in line.
And then suddenly, out of the blue, a figure emerges with a roar. John leapt behind Adam and grabbed his legs. Ed started whimpering. It was a ferocious looking chap with a streaked face and carrying a big stick. Properly scary. Also slightly embarrassing to be in a face-off with a half naked Maōri warrior in our family selection of cagoules. Nikora cuddled John and told him that the angry guy was her dad so it was all ok. ‘But what will he do to my Dad?’ said John.
There was a respite in the growling and Angry Chap laid a fern on the soil in front of Adam and backed away. Raewyn whispered that Adam should pick it up and proceed, so he did and we shuffled forward through the forest, technical wicking waterproof fabric rustling self-consciously in pursuit of an extremely muscly guy in a feathery skirt.
At the foot of another enormous tree stood Kimi, Cherie, Kahumako, Maie & Delani. Benoir, our warrior, joined his older brother Delani, the Master Carver, who said the welcome prayer, with Raewyn whispering the translation. Then they sang, beautifully. The canopy of trees, the delicate birdsong, the voices lifted in harmony: it was very much like being in one of the temples I’d got so fed up of visiting but the experience was quite different: unforced, joyous and yet deadly serious, reverent but welcoming and actually genuinely uplifting. Right up to the point, that is, where they asked us to sing a song back, as a family. Proper panic set in. At times like these you realise you’re only as strong as your smallest member and as we began murdering ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, I made a mental note to teach my kids more songs.
The formal bit was over and the forest had started to feel like home. The men showed the boys what to do with their staffs and they had a go on the horn. We sat in a small ‘room’ in the hollow of a tree trunk and got the lowdown on what it means to be a Maōri in the 21st Century. There are 20,000 in this particular tribe, dotted in smaller sub-tribes around Lake Taupo. Benoir told us that the government’s stance had changed to reflect modern sensibilities but centuries-old grievances remained. We got the impression they were the lucky ones and the struggle was real for most, if not all, Maōri communities, to live with the land in the way they knew they must, the way they should.
We’ve had a few ‘cultural’ experiences on this crazy trip. Sometimes the people demonstrating aspects of their culture to us seem a bit bored and who can blame them: if my job was Morris Dancing dressed as a Pearly Queen in an unrealistic grassy knoll for tourists I’d want to burn my passport. Delani and his crew not only gave us the most wonderful insight into their heritage but actually seemed to enjoy it. Performing? Certainly. Acting? Maybe. But the warmth was unfakeable.
They fed us green-lipped mussels, fresh smoked trout, ‘bush asparagus’ (fern fronds fried in butter) as well as rolls, chicken, ham, egg mayonnaise, salad… and for pudding, a truly disgusting (-ly delicious) combination of whipped cream, tinned fruit and great fistfuls of pick ‘n’ mix sweets called ‘Ambrosia’ (it’s a Kiwi thing… you’ve gotta love them). We talked about our travels and the girls asked about ‘Moana’ (big thumbs up from these guys – apparently it’s the first time they’ve seen their myths and legends faithfully represented on screen) and then the games began, including variations on childhood ‘slapsies’ where you try to unbalance your opponent and something involving sticks that not even Kahumoko and Cherie had mastered:
By now, the rain had stopped and the clouds wreathing the peak of Titiaurpenga parted. Delani played his guitar and they took turns to lead the singing. Kahumoko and Cherie (in luuurve for real) sang a love song so beautifully, it made the birds sound rusty. It wasn’t all ballads though. They have some most excellent tunes. I’ve shared my favourite clip below, hopefully you can play it.
We went into a damp forest on the other side of the world expecting nothing and their Pōwhiri (it’s pronounced ‘PO-fur-ee’) made us feel like we’d found a long lost family home. I urge anyone visiting North Island to look Delani and friends up: they make magic happen.