Maori people rock

Trip Start Dec 20, 2008
Trip End Jan 10, 2009

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Flag of New Zealand  , North Island,
Friday, January 9, 2009

We got on our bus in the morning and headed towards the stink. To be honest, I don't actually mind the smell of sulfur, despite disliking the way egg yellows taste. Our tour guide, Cousin Ben, was extremely knowledgeable. He is a Maori local and so has lots of connections with the area and the people in it.
At our first stop was the mud pool area near Wai o tapu. Here, the ground was wet and muddy. The difference between this mud and the mud at home though, was that this mud was boiling. We watched as hot water pushed its way through the mud to the surface, causing the mud itself to jump feet into the air to let it through. The whole area even sounded like it was boiling. If you've ever boiled a thick stew, that's what the ground around us sounded like and looked like. There was popping everywhere. Apparently, the other difference between this mud and the mud at home is that this mud has all sorts of minerals in it. Maybe that's why it's more of a gray color than a brown, I don't know. All over town there are spas that use the (cooled) mud from the area to put on people and make them feel better. However, as the mud is a depletable resource, they do some sort of recycling with it.
Our next stop was the Wai o tapu thermal wonderland. Here, there are various thermal pools, mineral buildups, and other signs of the subterranean geothermal activity in the area. The whole area is on/near a fault line that is part of the ring of fire (which also includes Hawaii), so there is plenty of underground excitement going on.
On the surface, this appears in many ways. In one hole in the ground, the water and steam escaping apparently sound like deep drums doing some sort of beatbox thing. According to Cousin Ben, Peter Jackson recorded the sound coming from the earth in this spot, spiced it up just a little, and used it in Lord of the Rings as the sound of orcs underground.
Cousin Ben himself was an extra orc in the movie. He reports that lots of local Maori were, as they already are really good at making orc noises. (I didn't really understand that comment until later in the day.) While he was talking about what it was like to be in LotR, he also pointed out some mountains overlooking the thermal area and identified it as one of the mountains they taped Legolas running over. Shanaenae was in heaven. This is what she came to New Zealand to see, and didn't think she was going to get to. But here were her LotR sites, and we just happened to stumble upon them.
In addition to steaming and boiling water, there was cold water pockets. One such cold water pocket was bright green because it had leeched lime out of the surrounding rock. We're talking green to match the colors of my house green. BTW, cold doesn't mean cold like it come from the tap. Cold just means that it wasn't steaming. It still might be the temperature of hot water from the tap, but compared to the boiling, it's cold.
After passing a whole bunch of pockets of water that were steaming, or even boiling in the ground, we passed through another LotR site. Cousin Ben says that they brought in some grass, some plants, and filmed the scene where the Hobbits left Hobbiton (which is only a few hours drive away in Matamata) in a tunnel created by some trees. They did this all after the park was closed to tourists for the day and before they were going to come back the next. I think that's pretty impressive. They also digitally altered the trees from that area to become Ents.
When we were done in the main thermal area, we moved over to Lady Knox Geyser. Unlike Old Faithful who erupts every day at calculable times, Lady Knox Geyser, if left to her own devices, erupts every 2 or 3 days, and is erratic. In order to put on a show for the public, the park rangers force a scheduled eruption each day. Basically, the cold water under the ground where the geyser comes out of sits on top of the hot water. When they combine, she erupts. To force them to combine, the rangers break the surface tension by throwing a soap-like substance down into the mouth of the geyser. The cold water mixes with the hot and the geyser begins to erupt. She erupts for quite some time and is taller than a couple of people standing on eachothers' shoulders, although not nearly as tall as Old Faithful.
When we were done seeing the results of current geothermal activity, we moved on to see the results of past geothermal activity. I had mentioned that the area lies on a fault line. As a result, there are daily earthquakes in the area. Usually around 4 per day, although not all of them are able to be felt by humans. The hills however, clearly show the results of these earthquakes. The hills have ripples in them, almost like somebody wrinkled a giant blanket and laid it down on the land. These ripples are caused by the constant shifts of the land. They make the immediate area difficult to grow crops on, although there did seem to be a small amount of livestock in the area.
Also related to the fault line, there are plenty of volcanoes in the area, both active an dormant. The active ones change the land drastically when they erupt, creating lakes, changing hilltops, moving the land.
Cousin Ben walked us through the Waimangu forest area so that we could have a look at how previous eruptions altered the landscape. In some cases, there were even photographs of what the land looked like before as the eruptions happened in the 1900s.
As we walked through the forest, Cousin Ben also told us all about the various plants. He showed us some that were poisonous to people, some that the Maori cooked and ate, and the plant that the Maori used to use as TP. It's got a pretty solid leaf that actually feels like it's made of plastic. The only way I could tell it wasn't was because I saw him pick it off a living tree. It even makes good paper as one side is white and holds ink well.
We got to the valley area of the volcanic mountains and saw some more thermal activity in addition to a baby blue pond. This pond was not a normal pond color. Just like the lime green pond in the Wai o tapu area had leeched lime from the rocks, this pond was leeching silicon from the rocks. After viewing the water holes left behind by the volcanic activity, we went to the top of the mountain for a snack.
I had real cola nut cola (organic, caffeine free) with my lunch. It was eye opening. Just like Capri Sun fruit punch tastes sugary and fake when you're used to real juice, this cola put all the fake colas like Coke and Pepsi to shame. It tasted earthy and real (because it was). If you ever see it, try it. I also had a caramel "slice" that was delicious. Based on the raspberry "slice" I had on the way down, I've decided that "slice" is one of my new favorite desserts. I just hope there are recipes on the internet under "slice" because I don't really know the word for what exactly it is a slice of.
If you base it on the number of pictures I took, we had already done more in just that morning than we had done most other full days. But the day was far from over. We headed out to the local redwood forest. "Wait," you say. "Redwoods aren't native to New Zealand." No. No, they're not. About 100 years ago, a company decided to start some plant experiments. They planted trees from all over the world, including California Redwoods. Because the volcanitc ash leaves the land very fertile, in only 10 years, the trees have grown to massive sizes. While their biggest trees are still only normal size for the California Redwood forest, you have to remember that the NZ trees are about 100 years old and the CA ones are hundredS. I don't doubt that in another hundred years NZ may have some of the largest living redwoods.
We headed over to an area near where Cousin Ben used to live. Here, the green lake met the blue lake. Why are they called that? Well, he green lake looks green and the blue lake looks blue. Despite the fact that they are only about 3 road widths apart, they have drastically different coloration.
The last place Cousin Ben took us to was the Buried Village. Basically, people had set up a tourist town ear the volcano. It erupted, covering the town with ash. Instead of leaving it for hundreds or thousands of years like Pompeii was left, people rediscovered it less than 100 years after the eruption and started unburying it. It still contains so me mostly in-tact artifacts from the past, but many of the houses are at least partially made of materials that biodegrade and therefore are biodegrading if they are not protected. Additionally, there is a lovely waterfall on the site that is worth the walk unless you can't really do stairs at all.
Mom and I did a supermarket/souvenir shop walk when we got back. It was funny that we couldn't find dried kiwi fruit anywhere. The grocery store was pretty similar to US grocery stores, although some of the flavors were different. Just like in Australia, there were tons of chicken flavored chips.
We got back just in time to get picked up for our evening event. We were going to a Maori hangi (feast). Our driver, Mark, got us prepared for the event. First, he explained "kia ora" to us. That phrase is a both a coming and going greeting, thank you, you're welcome, but literally translates to something like "I'm glad to be alive." He explained this by giving the translation for something like 54 countries. While Australia, UK, and US were similar, he did the accents perfectly, making it harder. Beyond that, in some languages (like Polish) hello changes based on the time of day and he hit both the morning and the evening greetings. Plus, a bunch of the languages were reasonably obscure. I was impressed.
He then turned us into a proper tribe with a proper chief. He told us and our chief what to do and how we would get greeted. The Maori apparently show off by doing some dances with spears, making orc noises (Cousin Ben suddenly made sense here), and sticking out their tongues. They then lay down a branch. If the visitors come in peace, their chief picks it up and backs away. Then the local chief and the visiting chief greet by breathing each others' air. It looks like a nose kiss, but there is no rubbing the noses, only breathing in.
When we arrived, the ceremony went just like Mark told us it would. I didn't quite get the orc noises and the tongue thing until I was there. It's one of those things you just kind of have to see to understand.
Then, the Maori acted out a piece of their history. They are really bad actors, but we understood what was going on. They left their play in the middle and invited us in to their recreation of a pre-European Maori village. The village was neat. They had buildings that showed how they stored food, they had people showing how they would have trained, and tons of intricate carvings all over. You could almost imagine being there before the Europeans invaded.
They brought us to the meeting house to complete the play. Only, they left us hanging. They didn't tell us what happened. There was no conclusion, which made it seem like there was no plot. But that was fine with me. They spent the rest of our time in the meeting house dancing and singing. They may not be great actors, but they sure can sing. The songs were in the Maori language, so I didn't understand the words, but I sure did understand the music. It was lively and entertaining. With the drum beating in the back and the sound of the clapping sticks in the front, I was in love with their songs. (I even bought a Maori CD later.) Plus, the girls had these white balls on strings and were swinging them around in rhythm and unison. In some ways the whole thing reminded me of the Polynesian show at Disney World. However, this was much more real. You could tell that these people were not professional dancers/performers who were taught cultural dances, but were real Maori who were taught to perform. I had a lot of fun.
After the dancing, they brought us in for dinner. Dinner was supposedly cooked in a hangi. A hangi is a pit of rocks that are heated by fire, then covered with food and dirt. The layer of dirt insulates the whole thing and allows the rocks to retain their warmth long enough to cook the food.
The actual food they put out was pretty normal. There were a few kinds of meats, some veggies (or veges as they're spelled there), and some salads that were clearly not cooked in the hangi. The most interesting vegetable was the kumara potato. It is a sweeter potato with some flavor, but it looks just like a yellowish potato. It is not the orange thing we associate with the term sweet potato. I liked it a lot. Now I just have to see if Wegmans carries it. The other thing that excited me was dessert. Again, I had pavlova, Australia's food, in New Zealand. It was damn good. I went for seconds.
On our bus ride home, Mark was up to some antics again. He is hilarious! First, he had all of us sing our national anthems with him- and he knew them all. Then, he somehow manages to get a bus full of adults to sing "the wheels on the bus" and honks along with the part that goes "honk honk honk." Crazy. It was a great end to a great day though, as I would rate today as one of the best days of the whole trip. A lot of what made the day great were the various super-friendly and absolutely hilarious Maori people. Both Cousin Ben and Mark had great senses of humor, seemed to know half of everybody in town, and were extremely knowledgeable about what they do. Maori music rocks- go buy some for yourself to see. Everybody was so nice. I'm ready to convert to Maori, just tell me what kind of genetic therapy I need to go through to become Maori.
Tomorrow: Zorbing!!!
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