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Rotorua Revisited

WORDS BY CHRIS GASKELL

I spent some time in Rotorua over the holidays and I heard some stories…stories of this country’s past and also of its future. The stories were told by Ngahihi o te ra Bidois, the chair of a local Maori Trust, and by the people who work for the tourism businesses the Tauhara North No 2 Trust owns. 

If that all sounds a bit serious, far from it. 

The Trust has recently entered the tourism business and what they offer is ‘New Zealand’s most-awarded cultural experience’ at Tamaki Maori Village and further south on the Waikato River a thrill-packed ride on Rapids Jet – the country’s only white water jet boat experience. They are two entirely different experiences, but what they share is a commitment to providing the authenticity that has proved so integral to the success of the tourism industry in this country. 

That commitment starts with the Trust – which has previously focussed its business interests on power generation from its geothermal resource and farming – but has more recently targeted tourism as an area of potential. “We see it as a social, as well as a financial investment,” explains Ngahi. “Businesses like these enable us to create jobs for our young people, to help them develop a career and to help us develop our leaders of the future.”

In doing that, Ngahi explains, it is essential that they are providing visitors with an authentic experience of Maori culture. Certainly that’s what they deliver through Tamaki Tours, which was established more than 30 years ago by ebullient brothers Mike and Doug Tamaki. At the time the pair needed cash to buy a bus to transport their clients and when the banks turned them down, Mike famously managed to talk his younger brother into selling his treasured Harley-Davidson motorbike to fund the venture. 

From those humble beginnings, Tamaki Tours has become a leader in providing visitors with an authentic experience of Maori culture. They do that, as the brochure says, by enabling visitors to ‘experience the warmth of our people during an evening of ceremonial rituals, powerful cultural performance, storytelling and hangi feasting’. Having experienced it, I can tell you that’s exactly what they do; but I’m going to start this part of the article on one of New Zealand’s leading tourist destinations by talking about the bus driver – that’s how deep the ‘authenticity’ runs at Tamaki Tours.

The three and a half hour experience starts with participants meeting up at Tamaki Tours’ depot on the edge of Rotorua’s Government Gardens. There we’re introduced to the story of Maori migration from Hawaiiki via an evocative video before being bussed 20 minutes south to the Tamaki Village site. From the moment he welcomed us onto his vehicle, veteran bus driver Henare Wiremu took command with his humorous commentary. But it was on the way home, with a bus full of visitors from 10 countries who had all been wowed by the Tamaki Tours’ experience that Henare really took over.

Coaxing reluctant strangers to join in the fun can’t be easy, but Henare’s constant stream of wisecracks soon had people laughing and even joining in when he organised an impromptu round of ‘bus karaoke’ with each nation represented being invited to sing a song from their home country. Somehow everyone fronted up – even the two brave ladies from Mauritius. 

With absolutely no singing ability (to put it mildly) I managed to keep a low profile while Ngahi and his family brought it home for Aotearoa. Henare finished off this very home-grown entertainment with his own unforgettable version of ‘She’ll be coming round the mountain’ – reinforcing the good vibes that the many international visitors were taking home with them. 

As a Kiwi, it was a real thrill to see the impact the experience had had on the visitors – they loved it from the moment we were called onto Tamaki Village and then faced a traditional challenge from the warriors. From there we were led into the village, which is beautifully set in a magnificent 200-year-old tawa forest, where we learned about – and in some cases were invited to participate in – the haka, whakairo (carving) and ta moko, the art of the poi, stick games, the hangi and raranga (weaving). Next we saw the hangi being opened, before heading into the wharenui for waiata and demonstrations of poi from the young entertainers. The evening finished with the hangi buffet dinner and the poroporoaki – closing speeches and songs of farewell – which were completed with sincerity. 

If the American family who sat at our table during dinner were anything to go by, their first experience of Maori culture had had a profound impact on them: “We had heard about the Maori people before we came here, but this was so much more than we expected.” And then, on the bus ride home, Henare sealed the deal! Heading south down SH5, to only about 10kms north of Taupo, the Rapids Jet is a different type of fun – but the welcome and the care taken to tell the stories of that picturesque stretch of river below the Aratiatia power station fit well with the Trust’s commitment to authenticity. 

And then there’s the white water jet boat ride itself! As you can see from the photos, it’s a thrill a minute as Sam, our driver, pilots the powerful Kiwi-built jetboat at up to 90kms an hour. Exciting highlights included plunging through the swirling white water of the rapids and the high-speed 280-degree turns that Sam executed on the smoother sections of the river. But there are reflective moments too, where the jetboat is brought to a stop so Sam can show us the little tributaries where trout gather to feed or point out tree trunks exposed within the riverbank by the water’s flow but preserved since the time of Taupo’s eruption in our distant past. 

If you’re staying at the NZMCA’s Ngongotaha or Taupo Parks and enjoy learning more about our history and culture in an authentic and entertaining way – or simply love a good time – I’d heartily recommend these two experiences. For more information, check out www.tamakimaorivillage.co.nz and www.rapidsjet.com


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