October 28, 2008 – Maouri Tour, Kaikoura, New Zealand
How many “best days” is it possible to have in one journey, one life, one journey through life? We are nowhere near the end of ours. This day was another of them.
One of my interests is indigenous cultures. First Nations friends have been patient and generous teachers, and I want to know more about the people my colonizing ancestors viewed as inconveniences rather than as hosts and allies.
I’d signed us up for a Maori tour that sounded more intimate than the big dance and feast events in places such as Rotorua. This one advertised tours for groups no larger than ten. [Check out the Web site at http://www.maoritours.co.nz/main/tour/.%5D
Our Maori hosts, Maurice and Karen, picked us up at Brook House. The only other people on the tour were a couple from Belgium.
The tour started at the pa, the fortified village, we had seen from a distance the day before. As we entered the site, Karen sang a karanga, a ceremonial call that clears a spiritual pathway for visitors.
Following her voice, we entered the site and passed a section of harakeke, the New Zealand flax used for weaving mats, cloth, and rope.
The karanga was the start of our powhiri, the traditional Maori welcome. When we came to the dedication stone Maurice’s grandfather had erected, on land he fought for years to reclaim for his people, Maurice delivered a whaikorero or welcome speech.
The dedication stone carries the wish that all people on that land will unite in peace. Standing beside the stone, Maurice and Karen taught us the protocol for a Ngai Tahu (their tribe) hongi. In this tribe one nose press shares the breath of life with the other person and is sufficient between people who know each other. The second nose press is exchanged between people who do not know each other and greets the ancestors.
Our next stop was the grounds of the tribe’s marae. Because this is the spiritual home of the community, it is not open to tourists. We were, however, able to see the building and to stop on the grounds where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by the tribe, in May 1840. The giant feather represents the quill pen used to sign the treaty.
Here and at our next stop, a rocky beach dotted with Maori carvings, Maurice told us myths passed down by the elders. He was an apt pupil as a child, soaking up the traditions of his people so carefully that when he took the tribe’s elders on trial runs of his tours, they always learned something new. Each knew a portion of the tribe’s history. Maurice had learned from them all.
Midway through the morning they took us to Maurice’s house, where his Scots-Irish wife, Heather, gave us a sample of how she won her way into the heart of her husband’s tribe. Anyone who prepares savoury treats that tasty is bound to become a welcome part of the family.
After tea, we traveled to a forested area that has been left untouched since Maori first occupied the area some eight hundred years ago. Karen, who studied at the Maori college in Otaki, knows the medicinal, cosmetic, and culinary properties of the many trees and plants found in the forest. So does Maurice, who gained his knowledge from tribal elders.
Between them they introduced us to leaves that purify the blood, berries that heal chapped lips and earaches, the “big chief” tree used for carvings and canoes, a pepper tree that soothes toothaches, vines used for roof framing and crayfish traps, and numerous other plants that continue to provide sustenance for Maori people.