Staring over the bubbling geyser of Rotorua, it’s hard to believe that the hapū of Whakarewarea, The Living Māori Village have been thriving in this Jurassic world, and sharing their kāinga (village) with manuhiri (visitors) for more than 200 years.
You can feel the mauri (lifeforce) of Whakarewarewa from the second you pass through the archway of the bridge and into the village.
It’s awe-inspiring. The geothermal landscape has provided the two hapū of Tūhourangi Ngāti Wāhiao with the tools they need to care for each other, cook their kai, be connected to the land, bathe, heal – and by sharing their traditional practices they enhance the appreciation for Māori culture while earning their keep.
Located on the outskirts of Rotorua’s township on Tryon St, the village has served as a time capsule for a traditional way of living, with mokopuna of the tīpuna (ancestor) who settled the kāinga guiding tourists through their village for more than 200 years.
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Generations of guides have been pioneering leaders of tourism in Aotearoa since the early 1800s, hosting and welcoming guests into their homes, sharing insights into Māori culture.
Twenty-one families still live in the kāinga, descendents of Tūhourangi Ngāti Wāhiao, embracing the traditional practices their tīpuna laid down to ensure the health and wellbeing of the hapū.
Every morning and night whānau from the village and across the city bathe in the waters of the geyser that flow from Papatūānuku – our guide Pāora Tapseu tells us you can tell who the manuhiri are by whether they’re clothed or not.
The heat from the pools cook their food, with different pools used for meats versus vegetables to ensure the health of their whānau.
Tapseu leads us through the village, showing the sacred sites and telling stories about his nan – who lives in one of the homes scattered across the tour.
There were more whānau living in the village when she was growing up, Tapseu tells us, but as more geothermal areas spring up, they have to move off site for safety.
Tapseu grew up in the kāinga, swimming and bathing with his cousins and getting the hard word about alcohol in the village as he grew into a teenager.
No alcohol is allowed to pass into the village, Tapseu tells us. The rangatahi (young people) were respectful of that, but some of the manuhiri who would come into the village would disturb the residents, so the village was shut off to the public after 4pm.
His tīpuna are buried there in the urupā (cemetery) near the back of the village surrounded by pou protecting the area and providing a warning to those who venture their way.
His Tūhourangi tīpuna relocated there from the Pink and White Terraces after a volcanic eruption destroyed their rohe in 1886.
They had been one of the first tourism operators in New Zealand, taking visitors through the terraces, but once the eruption wiped away their villages, Ngāti Wāhiao embraced them, and in turn brought their legacy of guiding to Whakarewarewa.
In the early 1900s the Government recognised the toanga that Whakarewarewa was and the draw of the geothermal plateau to visitors of Aotearoa, leading to the first department of tourism to be established in the city, and by design making Whakarewarewa the first official Māori cultural tourism experience.
That was before there was a bridge into Whakarewarewa, Tapseu tells us, so whānau would piggyback manuhiri across the water into the village – for a fee of course, he says.
The bridge was opened in 1954 for Queen Elizabeth’s royal tour as it was not becoming of a queen to be carried across the water.
But the children still found a way to take advantage of the tourism opportunities the bridge presented by penny diving off the side as visitors threw money into the water below.
Tapseu continues to make light of the interesting ways Whakarewarewa promoted tourism over the past centuries as he leads us around the village, making his guest feel relaxed and part of his community for the hour.
The elders live longer at Whakarewarewa because of the villages healing waters, he tells us.
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There’s a long history of Māori and Pākehā using the water for medicinal purposes – mentally and physically.
Whether it’s warriors and soldiers returning from wars, whānau who are ill or maintaining their wellbeing, the waters are a rongoā (medicine) for the community.
It’s important to Tapseu and his whānau for descendents of those who settled at the kāinga to take tourists around the village, he tells us.
As a guest, you’re not just been taken around by an employee who’s interested in Māori culture, but you’re being guided through the histories and the lifestyle of a people by someone who continues to live it.
It’s mind-boggling that it’s possible for hapū to live this way, totally immersed in their tikanga and sharing their culture with anyone who wants to learn.
It’s a gift to be there with them, and if you’re ever nearby don’t miss out on the chance to feel the mauri yourself.
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