Live With A Tribe (Bucket List #47)

Tamaki Mauri Village, New Zealand • January 2017 • Length of Read:  7 Minutes

The following is an extract from my book Kiwi, Kiwi: A Flashpacking Journey around New Zealand. If you wish to read about more of the crazy adventures I had in a month-long tour around the country on a hop-on hop-off bus, the amazing relationships made, and to help out a self-published author in the process, then please visit my online bookshop.


Situated on the southern shores of the Bay of Plenty, Roto-Vegas, as it is commonly referred to, is also nicknamed Sulphur City due to the geothermal activity occurring under its pavements and the emanating smell from nearby geysers.

You can be guaranteed to get a chuckle out of the literal English translations of Maori place names in New Zealand, and Rotorua is no different. It means ‘the second great lake of Kahumatamomoe’.

That’s by no means the funniest, or most long-winded, however. Acknowledged in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest place name in common usage, if you were to send a postcard to someone in Taumata Whaka Tangi Hanga Koauau o Tamatea Turi Pukakapi Ki Maunga Horo Nuku Poka I Whenua Kitana Tahu, there wouldn’t be much room left on it to write your message.

Then there is Tarawera, which translates to ‘burning vagina’, and Tutaekuri which translates to ‘dog shit’.

My personal favourite has to go to Hawke’s Bay, though, which translates as ‘the place where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, who slid, climbed and swallowed mountains, known as land-eater, played his flute to his loved one’.

You can’t say that the Maori aren’t a creative lot, and we were lucky enough to be getting the opportunity to stay over with some lovely tribespeople at a local Maori village that evening.

Our bus driver Brian would be taking on the role of a visiting tribe. After an informal meeting upon arrival, we would be welcomed in to learn some games and songs, before participating in a more formal pre-dinner meeting that evening. An all-you-can-eat hāngī feast would then be served, being the traditional Pacific Islander method of slow-cooking food in a pit under the ground. The evening would then be ours to enjoy drinks in the three massive hot tub Jacuzzi baths that the tribe had installed in their leafy garden; provided we were able to show respect, and prove ourselves, that is.

As a tribe, we were required to appoint a Chief to lead these greetings and introductions, and that role fell upon a long-bearded English lad who I’d not yet spoken to called Zimmy.

In a strange and unnecessary attempt to revolt this leadership, some guy called Dean, who was a spitting image of the R&B singer Jay Sean, began doing acrobatic backflips down the aisle of the bus. What he was wanting to prove, I have no idea, but there’s always one moron who tries to start a dick measuring contest when females are present. Surprise, surprise, however, nobody was impressed and he slinked to the back as Chief Zimmy led us in the ad-lib chant that was to be our anthem for the day.

Kiwi, Kiwi.

Kiwi, Kiwi.

Kiwi, Kiwi, Kiwi, Kiwi, Kiwi, Kiwi.

We came on a bus, not making a fuss.

Kiwi, Kiwi, Kiwi, Kiwi, Kiwi, Kiwi.

Our drivers are Brian and Matt, girls think they’re hot.

Kiwi, Kiwi, Kiwi, Kiwi, Kiwi, Kiwi.

We’ll jump in the tub, then make some love.

Kiwi, Kiwi, Kiwi, Kiwi, Kiwi, Kiwi.

Not the greatest of rhymes, I’ll admit. Perhaps you’d even describe it as pathetic. But in the limited time frame we’d been given it was all we could collectively come up with, so it would have to do. We recited it over and over again, the tune getting more and more annoying each rendition, and by the time we arrived at the Tamaki Maori Village it was etched in our brains.  

We were greeted off the bus by an absolute slab of human flesh called Tank. Despite claiming to be only twenty-one-years-old, I would have placed him nearer forty, and he looked to have been raised on a carnivorous diet of red meat from the moment his first teeth came in. Forget the ‘Challenge 25’ alcohol promotion in bars, he had probably been able to purchase booze since primary school.

Tank was the first person of Maori descent I’d ever met, and as he addressed us in his native tongue we all listened intently, unable to understand a single thing.

I assumed that it was a greeting of sorts, but for all we knew he could have been swearing at us and calling us names. Being on his sacred ground, I tried to keep a straight face, but ended up with a stupid grin on my face like the one you’d see on a dog with its head stuck out the window of a moving car. It was very difficult to take his Maori dialogue seriously whilst he was wearing a New Era snapback cap, designer Gucci sunglasses, and speaking in a rough East London accent. He was far from the tongue gouging, face-tattooed warrior I was expecting.

When Tank finished his spiel with a heartfelt bow off the head, the stage was set for Chief Zimmy to respond with his own greeting on behalf of our mismatched tribe. Despite having only become acquainted with him on that afternoon’s bus ride, I was already forming the impression that he was a bit of a prick.

Stepping forward, he went to speak, but instead completely froze up. My strange humour lives for these types of situations, and as an awkward tension swept across the tribe I basked in the silence; re-evaluating whether Tank’s potentially mocking monologue had actually been a divination.

“Hi,” our bearded leader eventually stuttered. “We are a visiting tribe that have grouped together from a lot of different places. There are members from England; Scotland; France; America; Australia; eh… Germany; possibly Denmark, although I can’t quite remember. Oh, and there’s definitely one person from Wales.”

Chief Zimmy continued on in this fashion until he seemed to genuinely run out of countries that he could name. I was honestly waiting for him to say that we had a tribesperson hailing from Burkina Faso who was really hating on the West African Franc to New Zealand Dollar exchange rate.

“And what’s your name?” interrupted Tank, stepping in to save the situation more than anything else. Our leader had completely shit his pants, and had we been an actual visiting tribe from back in the day then his performance may have led to us all being slaughtered; or worse, roasted in a large pot and put on the menu for that night. (Caveat: I know that the Maori may be rather sensitive to poorly attempted cannibalism jokes, so I’d like to point out that only a few minority tribes ever undertook this practice, and that it died out completely hundreds of years ago).

“I’m Chief Zimmy,” he responded. “I come from the UK.”

“Pleased to meet you Chief Zimmy. Am I right in saying that you’ve prepared a song for us?”

“Yes we did,” he said, turning around to face us. He was sheet-white and looked like he’d just seen a ghost.

Of the one-hundred-and-ten people that filled the seats of Brian and Matt’s coaches, about half had signed up to stay overnight at the Tamaki Maori Village, with the rest opting for a quiet evening in Rotorua.

Tamaki Maori Village, located in an ancient forest fifteen minutes outside of Rotorua, was established in the early ’90’s by two keen brothers who wanted to share the history and culture of the indigenous Maori with the world. Unable to get a bank loan, they sold their prized Harley Davidson motorcycles in order to fund the dream, and created, from scratch, the authentic experience we’d walked into.

An afternoon tea was waiting for us at the conclusion of our chant (OK, perhaps not too authentic of an experience), so we were literally singing for our supper. With an almighty intake of breath, and Chief Zimmy conducting, we belted out an undignified, nails-on-a-chalkboard, off-pitch rendition of the aptly named Kiwi, Kiwi Song.

How Tank managed to endure it without covering his ears remains, to this day, a mystery of the modern world, and when we hurriedly reached the last note he even gave us a sarcastic round of applause. With the humiliation over, Tank then led us past the two giant dorms we’d be staying in that evening and into the dining area where tables had been set up with cakes, pastries, tea and coffee. How tribal.

Each of the dorms had twenty-six beds, and as Smudge spread a thick dollop of jam onto a scone I decided to wind him up.

“I caught a glimpse of the room allocation sheet whilst getting some milk for my coffee,” I started, completely making up the fact that we had been pre-allocated beds.

“Really?” he said, as gullible as ever.

“Yeah man. And you’ll never believe this, but you are in the first dorm with twenty-one girls and just three other random guys. The rest of the troops are all in the second dorm and it appears to be an absolute sausage party.”

“Yes,” he naively exclaimed, having fallen for my little jibe hook, line and sinker. “Tonight is going to be my night. I can just sense it.”

The conflicting look on his face when we dragged our bags from the hold of the bus and were told by Tank to just take a random bed was a sight to behold. In fact, it was almost identical to the one he’d given Ryan after his ‘no entry’ sign blunder at Hobbiton.

I laid down on one of the beds nearest the door and gazed up at the triangular ceiling. Murals had been painted all over the walls and roof, with the solid wooden beams that kept the long rectangular structure upright full of intricate carvings. Everything was either white, red or black.

“The black on the walls signifies darkness,” said Tank, closing the door behind him and instructing us to make ourselves comfortable. “Before we are born, there is nothing. Black. Then, when we are released from our mother’s womb, we see light. White. As the birthing process commences, it is customary for the father to start getting tattoos on the top of his legs so as to share in the pain that his loved one is going through. And he will continue to be tattooed throughout the labour until the baby has been delivered. The crimson red on the walls signifies the blood released by both the male and the female throughout the birth.

“Traditional Maori tattoos were done using a chisel,” he continued. “A gash would be created on the surface of the skin, ink poured into the open flesh, and the wound would then be closed, reopened, and closed again until it healed with the ink forever visible. It was as excruciatingly painful as it sounds. Face tattoos above the eyes were given for spiritual feats, whereas face tattoos below the eyes signified physical achievements. Has anyone got any questions so far?”

“Why does nobody from this village have any face tattoos?” asked a guy from the back of the room. During our afternoon tea, I’d also noticed that none of the Tamaki tribe members kicking about had any visible tattoos other than on their arms and legs.

“Unfortunately, despite their cultural importance, face tattoos are still frowned upon in modern day society,” admitted Tank, who had two full sleeves of artwork done himself. “We wouldn’t be able to get employment.”

Despite this humble answer, I couldn’t help but get the impression that he was relieved more than anything else. Like he’d dodged a bullet; or an ink gun, at that.

“And your tattoos, what do they signify?”

 “Those on my left arm are family tattoos,” he explained. “They signify my parents and the upbringing I’ve had. On my right arm is a hammerhead shark surrounded by whirlpools. This is a depiction of the legend of how our particular Maori tribe made it across the Pacific and came to settle here on New Zealand’s North Island. Many boats attempted the perilous journey over the years, and many failed. During our tribe’s own quest, their fragile boats became sucked into massive whirlpools that lay far out in the vast ocean. But just when absolute disaster was about to strike, a shoal of hammerhead sharks passed by and reversed the current of the water, saving our vessels from certain death and allowing them safe passage.”

I turned to Gadams, one of the most rational, science-loving atheists I know, and gave him a look of pity. He glared back in a zombie-like state.

Tank then answered a few more questions before asking us to follow him outside and join in with some traditional Maori pastimes. These included learning their alphabet through song, playing games with sticks and rocks tied to pieces of string, and, of course, participating in a haka.

The Ka Mate, Ka Mate warrior dance, as made globally famous by the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team, was originally composed in the early nineteenth century by the famous Maori warrior chief Te Rauparaha of the Ngāti Toa Rangatira tribe. The story goes that Te Rauparaha was fleeing an enemy tribe seeking retribution for a past wrong he had committed against them. As he was chased across the central plateau of the North Island, a fellow chief, Te Wharerangi, helped him hide in a pit and instructed his wife to sit on the pit entrance. After the enemy had moved on, Te Rauparaha emerged from the pit, and in jubilant celebration of his lucky escape performed Ka Mate, Ka Mate as a way of saying thanks.

With dinner upon us, we reconvened in the main clearing for a more formal meeting. A large number of additional people were visiting the village solely for the hāngī meal, and an educational display was to be put on by the Tamaki to show us all what it would have been like for outsiders to come face to face with their Maori tribe for the first time.

As we took our seats for the spectacle, Tank warned us that under no circumstances were we to laugh or smile. This was a very serious affair, and it would be deemed extremely rude for anyone seen to be making fun of, or taking the piss out of, the warriors.

The showcase began with the splashing of oars and sound of jeering coming from afar. Soon, a wooden canoe rounded the corner of the stream that ran down the side of the amphitheatre. Four men were on board, each with marker pen face tattoos, flowers in their long hair, and garments covering nothing but their genitalia. Their podgy bellies detracted slightly from the otherwise menacing personas (a result of nightly all-you-can-eat buffet meals, I imagine), but they somewhat athletically leapt out of the canoe onto dry land.

The oars doubled up as spears, and each took it in turn to perform a solo warrior dance. Chief Zimmy had been positioned at the front of our own tribe by Tank, and they tried to intimidate him by invading his personal space, at some points rubbing nose to nose in a slightly homosexual Eskimo kiss type gesture. Chief Zimmy looked unfazed by this, however, and redeemed himself by remaining stolid throughout the entire performance. When the routine came to a conclusion, I breathed a sigh of relief and loosened the muscles in my own face...