Huka, Hakas and Hangis

My dad likes to say that there is the trip you plan and the trip you take. Well, the trip Caitlin and I planned involved a four-day introduction to New Zealand via Auckland before immediately working for a WorkAway host in exchange for free lodging. We had two great hosts lined up for the end of September through mid-October, both of which fell through for different reasons. As a result, we had to scramble to figure out where to go for two weeks before our next host in Wellington. The night before we had to leave our hostel, Caitlin and I booked a bus ticket up to Paihia in the Northland, an area we had not planned on visiting. But that was the trip we were taking, so we decided to dive right into it.

Paihia is a cute little coastal town, complete with tourist shops, fish and chips stands, and a port with ferries to the nearby islands. We were only there a couple days, so we decided to take a ferry over to Russell Island the same afternoon that we arrived. Our British friend, Robbie, was also in Paihia with his tour group so he joined us for the day.  Once on the island, the three of us had a pint at a pub with New Zealand’s oldest liquor license and then hiked to a lookout over the Bay of Islands. Caitlin and I also did an extended hike the next day to Huka Falls. The trail took us through forests, over mangroves and along rocky cliffs before we reached the thundering semi-circle of water. However, we made the mistake of walking back to the hostel along the highway, and spent most of the return trip jumping out of the way of speeding cars.

Paihia is right next to Waitangi, the historical landmark of the Treaty of Waitangi. The treaty, first signed in 1840, established an agreement between the British Crown and indigenous Maori (pronounced MOW-ri) chiefs that gave the Maori rights to their land and rights as British citizens in exchange for British sovereignty over New Zealand. However, the English and Maori versions of the treaty differed greatly and caused misunderstandings in regards to who had the right to ‘govern’ what. Sadly, the day Caitlin and I had planned to visit a museum about this treaty, it decided to downpour. We were about a half-hour walk away and both inflicted with intense colds, so we felt it was best to stay dry.

After our brief excursion to Paihia, Caitlin and I took the bus back down to Auckland for a night, and then got on another bus the next morning to head down to Rotorua. Rotorua is home to impressive geothermal activity, and the thick stench of sulfur greets you long before you see mist rising from pools of water. The scent of rotten eggs was so overwhelming on the day that we walked out to Lake Rotorua, ultimately making us turn back. There are just some scents that your nose can never get used to. That being said, Rotorua was still well worth the trip.

One of the most interesting things we have done in New Zealand so far was attend a traditional Maori feast, called a hangi. A mini van picked us up from our hostel at 6pm and a woman in a fur cape with a painted chin shuttled us over to the Mitai Village. However, before we could eat, we got to learn all about Maori culture. The first stop was at a long wooden boat with carved faces at either end called a ‘waka,’ or a warship. These massive canoes were carved out of the famous Kaori tree and could sometimes hold up to 80 warriors.

img_2249We were then ushered over to a large square pit with a pile of smoking fabrics sitting on top of it. This is how they smoke the meat of a hangi. First they put stones in the pit, then stack wood on top of it so that as it burns, the wood falls into the pit. The food is placed above the pit and then the fabric holds the heat and smoke over the food, creating a distinct woody, smokey taste like a cedar fire.

Next, we made our way down to the river in the warm dusk. We crowded around the banks in the light from fake torches and waited in anticipation as distant chants became louder. Soon we could see coming towards us one of those great wakas filled with ten young males. They shouted intricate chants in Maori and swung their paddles in synchronized precision. Every now and then they stopped shouting and instead made grimaces and snorting noises. It was intimidating even from yards away.

img_2265Finally, we filed into a performance tent that demonstrated an exact replica of a Maori village. The show began with one man performing a dance with a spear that involved a lot of stomping and tongue waving. Then the chief came in, followed by a procession of young people dressed in traditional garb. The performance was a compilation of love songs, war dances and games. They told us the intricate face tattoos represent four birds: the owl, the bat, the eagle and the kiwi. In the past, they would mark the faces by repeatedly cutting the design into the skin, which was extremely painful, bloody, and occasionally deadly. But now the designs are usually created with paint.

The performance ended with the haka, a warrior dance. The men stood in front, yelling at the top of their lungs, slapping their chests and thighs, and baring their teeth. The women were just behind, quivering their hands (which represents life vibrating through you) and widening their eyes. Despite all the manliness, I found the whites of the women’s eyes the most striking. The whole event gave me chills because of the clear pride these young people felt for their heritage.

We then returned to the dining area for the final event: the feast. The main dishes were smokey potatoes and chicken, but there was also bread and stuffing and seafood chowder and vegetable lasagne. It was delicious and we stuffed our faces for the sake of ‘getting our money’s worth.’ As we made our way out of the dining hall four hours later, the dirt walls of the path were lit with tiny little blue lights from glowworms. They leant a magical, dreamlike quality to the end of a wonderful New Zealand night.



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