We left Christchurch on Monday night and flew to Auckland. We landed pretty late and went straight to bed, and the next morning we headed immediately South for a bit of work for me during the day. While I was working, Kyle visited the i-Site (told you we were impressed) and booked a room for us in Rotorua. The town is famous for its hot springs, which means it's infamous for the sulfur stink. But really we didn't notice it. We'd get whiffs of it while we were there, but it definitely didn't permeate everything like we'd been warned.

Hot tubs and thermal spas are a big draw to Rotorua, but as we felt Hamish was already at prime temperature, we chose to experience a bit of indigenous New Zealand culture.

When the Europeans first arrived in New Zealand, the two islands were inhabited by the Maori people, a distinct Polynesian tribal warrior culture skilled in both hunting and agriculture that trace their New Zealand heritage back to about 1300 BC when they arrived on canoes, probably from islands to the east.

[We are mispronouncing this FOR SURE, but the way we learned that seemed most similar to what the New Zealanders were saying is like Maui in Hawaii with a D in the middle: Mau-di. Again, this is not right, but it's a heck of a lot closer than what we were saying to start with: May-or-ee.]

When the Europeans began arriving in the 17th century the Maori were well established in New Zealand, and the British signed a treaty in 1840 with the Maori so that the indigenous culture and the British colony could coexist peacefully. There were definitely some problems, but the 1840 treaty still plays a real role in the way the country is governed. Now Maori people make up about 15% of the population, more on the North Island than the South. Their language and culture is experiencing a resurgence, and is used in schools and by the government to some extent.

On the South Island we'd seen some Maori carvings at the Canterbury Museum and had heard the Maori legends behind the formation of Milford Sound, the glaciers, and other natural landmarks, but in Rotorua we got to enjoy a Maori cultural display and meal while touring the hot springs and geysers at Te Puia, the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute and natural thermal valley.

Interestingly, the Maori have a long history of guiding tours in this area. It was a tourist hot spot in the 1800s as Europeans started visiting New Zealand and came to see the world famous Pink and White Terraces and most (if not all) of the guides were Maori women. The Terraces were thought destroyed in an 1886 volcanic eruption, though the lower tiers of the terraces were just rediscovered in 2011 at the bottom of the lake (too deep to dive, sadly).

Our evening began as one man of our member was chosen to act as our chief and initiate contact with the Maori chief and assure him that we were a peaceful (if camera wielding) group. The Maori chief came out of the wharenui, or elaborately carved meeting house, and demonstrated his skill with his weapons. Our "chief" humbly accepted the peace offering of a branch, and we were invited into the meeting house.

We were treated to several songs, dances, and displays. The women demonstrated the poi dance involving a ball on a string; we saw weapon displays; and we heard Maori folk stories set to music.

The warriors demonstrated the haka, a pre-war pep rally of sorts to pump up the tribe with the extra benefit of scaring the daylights out of any opponents who happened to see or hear it. (The New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks, now does a haka before every match accomplishing the same general results.)

Any willing [male] volunteers were invited to learn the haka. Besides our hapless chief, who didn't have a choice, guess who was the first volunteer.

It involves yelling, posturing, and lots of sticking the tongue out with crazy eyes.

The performers were all of a single family, and they were very talented. The music was quite lovely, actually. Te Puia also houses two workshops/schools for Maori traditional crafts: carving and weaving. Most of the weaving is done from flax and can be simple or incredibly sophisticated. The carving really shines in the ceremonial houses and the Maori canoes; war canoes in particular were elaborate.

After the performance was over, we had a hangi dinner. A hangi is a way of cooking food with hot stones buried in a pit oven for many hours. Our dinner was cooked the traditional way, but used aluminum containers and muslin bags for the food instead of the more traditional baskets with leaves for covering. We had chicken, pork, lamb, mussels, potatoes, and kumara or sweet potatoes. We also had an array of salads and seafood to supplement the earth-cooked spread.

Dinner in general was very good, but we were actually expecting a bit more smokiness from the hangi. The meat was tender and moist, but we (Kyle especially) expected there to be more infused flavor from the cooking method. The kumara was the best part.

Aside: one of the beers that Kyle picked up at the Invercargill Brewery was a hangi beer. And it had smokiness to spare! It was like drinking what we thought a hangi would taste like.

Before our evening began we'd seen the bubbling mud pits (Ngamokaiakoko, meaning pets or playthings of Koko), the sputtering Pohutu Geyser, and the kiwi, a small, flightless, nocturnal bird only found in New Zealand (nocturnal = no light and no photos in the kiwi house, but here's what they look like). But after dinner we returned to watch the geyser really shooting (90 feet) as the sun set and we sipped hot chocolate.