Two days had already passed, and it was time to set out on the real trip. But before we left Auckland there was one more thing for me to do. After some serious persistence on my part I managed to get in touch with a Maori tattoo artist that my own tattooist knows. Since he was not in NZ during my visit, as my luck would have it, he then in turn referred me to one of (supposedly) the best in Auckland. I found the website, the FB page and some more information about Inia, but his phone kept going straight to voice mail so I thought I’d have to drop by.
Unfortunately, when I tried to I was told Inia had moved shop, and I couldn’t get a hold of him so I left Auckland with as little information about the possibilities of getting a Maori tattoo as I had arriving on the North Island.
Since this plan for the day fell through, I thought I’d make up for it with a hobbit hole. So we drove down to Matamata and then followed the signs (and branded buses) to the movie set itself. It was a hot day though, and the set was in a large open field, plus we wanted to get to Rotorua as soon as possible so we were looking into a quick self-guided tour to snap a few cute round doors and be on our way.
However, we quickly started to pick up on the trend that anything that can be made compulsory for tourists has been, and at a steep price at that. In other words, there is no self-guided tour through Hobbiton. If you want to take a peek at the set you have to spend two hours of your time (not counting the detour to the location) and NZ$70 per person for the “privilege”. I decided I am not such a die-hard fan. I actually only wanted to see it because of the books and not so much the movies anyway, so Nikola took this quick snap of me and off we went towards the heart of the North Island.
It was quite rewarding too. The roads were great, the weather was great and we had a Maori experience booked for the evening. But there were a couple of hours before we were picked up from our hotel so after checking in a quaint little room at a maze-like hotel we went in search for the lake.
One thing I proclaimed on the social networks via photos was that New Zealand puts Switzerland to shame when it comes to lakes and rivers. And that was before we had even crossed the North (smaller) Island. It was a statement that, even though it sounded a little premature at that point, nevertheless held out against the test of time and experience and proved to be correct. Exhibit One is the gorgeous view of Lake Rotorua:
North Island’s second largest lake in surface area (at nearly 80 km2), Rotorua is only one of the many lakes of volcanic origin in New Zealand. That’s hardly surprising when you know the active volcano Mount Tarawera is right there next to it.
After idling in the sun by the lake for an hour, we finally had enough of posing Chinese tourists (not to sound racist but they were everywhere – on the grass, at the pier, with the seagulls… busloads of them!) so we started back to the hotel. We were just in time, too – as soon as we had left the room we met the woman from the reception telling us that the antique-looking bus out front is the one that’s supposed to take us to the Mitai Maori village.
We hopped on and were greeted by a smiling Maori man who, as soon as we answered that we’re from Bulgaria, gave us a crooked but not incorrect “Dobar den” (lit.: good day in Bulgarian) and asked how do we say “chocolate cake” in Bulgarian. We were the first ones he picked up, so we sat in the first row where we could talk to him and also listen as he greeted every person after us in their native language. It was very unexpected so we, as well as other passengers that sat near the front, couldn’t help but ask. It turned out he was planning on applying for a Guinness World Record in most languages spoken. The requirements sound easy enough – you need to know five words (don’t know if they’re your choice or pre-selected) of all the languages and must have perfect pronunciation. He said the current record holder has 40-something languages, but he reckoned he’s got about 80!
You can imagine how amazed I was by this encounter. I believe it will stay forever in my memories as The time I met the world’s most extraordinary bus driver. A little bit of the astonishment subsided once we got to the location, sat down at the table we were assigned and the evening began. There was an “Aaah, now I see” moment once the person who was our driver minutes ago picked up a microphone and led the evening along. He was a member of the Mitai family, which is just one family in the Maori tribe (who’s name I couldn’t repeat or remember) whose land it was. He wasn’t the Chief, but he was the host and entertainer for the first half of the night.
There was a long count of the number of different nations that were present (it went up to 16 different countries), and we were, as a tribe of our own, assigned a Chief for the night – a chubby white-haired Canadian who had a small part in the cultural performance later on.
The performance itself was really entertaining. It included an introduction into Maori life, their vocabulary, their rituals and games. There were dances, songs, fighting demonstrations and stories about the origin of the Moko – the facial tattoos Maori are so famous for.
Before we went into the tent for the performance there were a few other things. First, the hangi. It’s the huge crate of food you see on the picture here. There’s lamb, there’s chicken, sweet and normal potatoes, as well as stuffing (in the foil) that have been covered, buried and baked in the underground oven they’re propped up over at the time. While we were gawking at the cute chief leading the cultural performance (all right, it might have been mostly me, but don’t tell Nikola 😉 ), all of this food was carved and served at long buffet tables, along with salads, pasta and desserts for all of us to pile onto plates and seriously overeat with.
After the host/bus driver showed us the hangi we were lead down a narrow path to see the sacred Fairy Spring, that releases over 24 million litres or pure spring water every day! It sure doesn’t look like such a prolific source but you can see the water is stunningly clear. And the little grey spots all across the bottom – those are outlets through which the water comes out.
All the visitors gathered along the two banks of the spring that goes all the way through the Mitai land (and into the Rainbow Springs Park, but we’ll get to that) in wait for the Maori warriors who came up the stream in the waka or canoe, rowing and singing a haka. They went up and down twice before they got out of the waka, and we followed them into the tent for the rest of the, well, show.
The performances were interesting and well coordinated, even though there were a few imperfections during games or poi demonstrations, but it didn’t hinder the overall experience. It was interesting to know that the poi is a Polynesian invention, but it was even more interesting seeing a double poi dance, accompanied by a traditional Maori song. There were also little jokes at the expense of the audience that brightened up the history-lesson-like parts. Later, after having generously filled up on New Zealand lamb and stuffing, a bunch of us were called to go on to the kiwi tour.
The kiwis are ridiculous birds that are surprisingly big. They’re night creatures and quite shy so the chances to meet them in the wild are pretty slim. It was fun watching one trot around in its little private yard, stopping to listen in a weird stretch to the side. You can easily find a picture of a kiwi on the internet, but it was very amusing to see them move around – they look like little guys with a straw in their mouth, trying to run around with their hands in their pockets.
In the same park we saw a kea for the first time but we had a couple of close encounters with these alpine parrots in the wild, so I’ll be telling that story once we head for Fiordland.
That was all we managed to get out of Rotorua before we headed further south to another part of this very smelly area. Oh, I haven’t mentioned the smell? Well, you’ll know all about it in the next few days 😉