The elderly German tourist looked a little trepidatious as the teenage Maori lad, dressed in a traditional loincloth, pressed their noses together to show trust and respect.
Like a slightly bizarre round of chicken, the German pulled away first, reclaiming his personal space and achieving a round of applause from his watching tribe (us).
New Zealand's one of the top destinations for gap yearers and young travellers, but aside from all the white knuckle adventures on offer, there's another, more cultural side.
And as part of my attempt to get under its skin, I was watching the Cultural Ceremony at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, in Bay of Islands, a couple of hundred kilometres above Auckland.
After the nose-touching, the German tourist-turned-arriving-Maori-tribe-leader pulled off a rather impressive impromptu ‘speech’ on behalf of ‘his people’ and was allowed to sit down to watch the festivities, which included a selection of traditional Maori dances, beautiful music playing and singing, and impressive poi and weapon shows.
Replete with intricate embroidered costumes and plenty of extreme facial expressions - all wide eyes and sticking out tongues - it’s quite a display, and makes you understand why the All Blacks picked up the Haka war dance as their pre-match battle cry, and more importantly how impressive/terrifying being greeted by a tribe would have been to a stranger.
The Maori of New Zealand
Waitangi is quite comprehensive, but my introduction to Maori culture started further down the North Island - in Wellington.
Landing for the first time in the country I’ll admit I didn’t really know what the Maori were. I had the misguided assumption that they were basically the Australian Aboriginal peoples of this neighbouring island - and that there would be a difficult and complicated history and modern fallout to get my head around.
I was half right - the history and co-existence is complicated. But to compare the Maori with the Aboriginal people is a mistake.
Because really, there are no aboriginal peoples in New Zealand. Originally these islands were a bird paradise with not a single mammal - human or otherwise - to spoil the peace. The Maori would land in boats from their ancient Polynesian homeland of Hawaiki - and decide to stay.
Find out more about the original Maori at newzealand.com.
Everyone I met in New Zealand was super proud of its Maori heritage. Many of them were falling over backwards to tell me of their own Maori gene pools. And though it’s not always been a case, there’s a definite upwards trend for appreciating the island’s unique history.
I was first introduced to it on my first, incredibly jetlagged night out in Welly, at San Fran's comedy try out night, with several of the comedians proudly laying out their heritage. Though with a Kiwi accent, a hard 'R' and a 'AO' that sounds like an' L' I heard 'Maori' as ‘mouldy’. Why on earth were they calling themselves ‘mouldy’.
I was REALLY JETLAGGED, alright? The penny took a while to drop.
Once I’d got my head around the pronunciation, I headed to the impressive national museum of Te Papa to find out a bit more about them. And it’s an ideal place to start.
To get you going, the main thing you need to know is that the Maori are not native, but they are the original visitors to and inhabitants of the land of New Zealand - or Aotearoa as it is in Maori - and have the longest claim on it.
You need to visit to truly understand their impact on the land and how it’s impacted them, but needless to say it was the bloody European colonists that ballsed everything up. Once you’ve got a handle on who the Maori are you can start appreciating the arts and crafts, and storytelling all around you, as you move North towards Maori lands.
A working Maori village
The best way to understand the Maori is to visit a village where they still live and work according to their traditions. Rotorua is probably the most famous jumping off point for this as there are a few of options - Tamaki, Mitai and Whakarewarewa. You can walk into the town and take a look round, or you can do an organised tour and even stay overnight.
Either way, make sure you eat a traditional Hangi meal, and talk to the locals about their traditions. As well as fascinating myths and stories, you’ll notice a really connection to nature and a unique sort of spirituality. Plus, you’ll get to experience a cultural show that includes the dancing, music and incredible poi and weaponry skills passed down for hundreds of years.
Another thing you'll notice is the amazing skills and beautiful craftsmanship around you. From bone carving to poi making, the Maori continue to use their traditional methods to create incredible arts and crafts. I helped craft a bone necklace that I'm still wearing as a talisman months later.
Waitangi Treaty Grounds
Further up north in the Bay of Islands, you get the history bit. The best place to really understand the struggles, history and decline in numbers of the modern Maori people in New Zealand is at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where we began our story.
A Maori guide will give you a great intro and background, show you round the site and explain the very impressive Waka (rowboat) before taking you to see the cultural show. They’re very knowledgable but make sure you leave plenty of time to look round the museum, which is packed with information on Captain Cook and the problematic European arrival and colonisation, and the misunderstandings over the treaty itself.
The original houses are still there and the reminders of colonial rule, and the museum goes into detail about how the treaty was actually written into law.
I have to admit, when I left, I still wasn’t quite sure if the treaty was considered a good thing. As you exit, the walls are covered in photos of Kiwis, next to their quotes and opinions about it - and it’s a mixed bag. Some people are keen to keep the treaty as is, while many others believe it should be scrapped.
It’s definitely food for thought, and will help you enjoy the rich cultural diversity of New Zealand as you travel around.
Maori history runs through everything in New Zealand, from white water rafting guides explaining the Maori stories behind particular rapid names, to the language you’ll see on all the street signs. It really gave my trip extra depth, and because of the integration of many modern Maori into New Zealand culture it’s easy to find out more and feel informed. New Zealand might be the land of adventure, but don’t miss out on its history too.
Get loads more info and travel tips about New Zealand at newzealand.com, and keep the action alive using #NZMustDo (so we can oggle at your pics).
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Return economy flights from London Heathrow start at £575 per person. The tour starts in Auckland and finishes in Wellington. To book please visit www.statravel.com, call 0800 988 0390 or visit one of the STA Travel stores.
Feature image: The TravelSmith