Auckland's culture club

By Jim Eagles

Ours seem to be the only white faces in this huge, bustling market but - apart from the woman at a weaving stall who says rather imperiously, "You aren't allowed to take photos here" - no one seems bothered by our presence.

We're surrounded by people from the four corners of the globe: old women with wrinkled walnut faces under woven bowler hats, stocky brown-skinned dudes swaggering in American university sweat shirts, dignified Muslim elders with turbans and long beards, dark-eyed chicks in tight jeans swinging to the sounds of their iPods, impassive Chinese traders keeping a wary eye on their trays of cheap watches, and mountainous women in billowing, brightly coloured dresses.

A lonely Christian evangelist competes with the melodic chanting of a hip-hop artist; spicy food aromas mingle with those from a coffee machine in the back of a van; fans woven from palm leaves and feathers are on display next to blow-up Spiderman dolls, and mysterious bulbous roots sit alongside piles of oranges and bananas.

It's always satisfying to discover a place like this, but I can't help wondering where all the other tourists are.

"Yeah," says Melissa Crockett, our guide to this intriguing new world. "Strange, eh? I'm always amazed at how many Aucklanders have never been here.

"I think it's because they have the idea that Otara is dangerous. But as you can see it's as safe as anywhere else in Auckland."

We're at the Saturday morning Otara Market, the largest Polynesian market on the planet, and one of the stops on a Potiki Adventures tour offering a contemporary urban Maori experience.

Crockett has been named Young Tourism Professional of the Year - the first woman and the first Maori to win the award - so I decided to take one of Potiki's tours to see what the tourism industry is so enthusiastic about.

The company was founded three years ago, with the aim of combining Crockett's business skills with the outdoor adventure knowledge of longtime friend Bianca Ranson, to offer "adventure Maori-style".

But they soon found that Crockett's recreational interest of shopping, especially for arty crafty stuff, is just as popular as the tramping, kayaking and abseiling that Ranson loves.

Their tours offer a mix of outdoor adventure and shopping in craft galleries - all put into a gentle Maori perspective - and balanced according to the interests of their clients.

"If we see they're obviously keen on the shopping side we might throw in a few more galleries," says Crockett. "But if they seem bored with jewellery and weaving we head for the Waitakeres a bit sooner."

Most tours start at the top of Maungakiekie, One Tree Hill, an ideal venue for hearing legends about how the land was formed and to catch a glimpse of the forts and villages which dotted Tamaki-makau-rau in earlier times (though being of Ngapuhi and Ngati Kahu descent they are "careful not to intrude on Ngati Whatua's stories").

On our trip there's a diversion to the Manukau Institute of Technology marae - where access is less restricted by protocol than at traditional marae - to let the Americans in our group see the magnificent wharenui with its unique mix of Maori and Pacific Island carving.

Then there's Otara Market, a bigger, more diverse version of the markets which have existed all round the Pacific for generations, and the perfect place to get a feel for Auckland's Pacific heritage.

Crockett points out the most interesting stalls, suggesting that this is "a fantastic place to buy souvenirs at half the price they cost in Queen St shops, often from the people who made them".

The Americans are charmed by the atmosphere, delighted by the exotic goods on offer and buy up large.

They particularly like the carved-shell necklaces which will make great presents for girls back home. And they chuckle at some of the T-shirt slogans. One gets a shirt proclaiming: "Ngati Pakeha - 50% pure NZ".

It will probably require less explaining than the one alongside which says: "Pakeha - 100% pure white meat".

Ranson's favourite is a T-shirt which asks: "Is your mother there? Gan I speak to him?" You have to read it carefully.

As one of the many Aucklanders who hadn't been to the market, it was an entertaining reminder of what a cosmopolitan city Auckland has become - and not at all scary.

Apart from stalls advertising New Zealand specialties like "puha and brisket" or "Maori hoodies - special - only $10" you could just as easily be somewhere like Apia or Avarua, or even maybe Bali.

Our group are enthusiastic shoppers so we head next to a couple of craft galleries which sell clothes, jewellery and ornaments combining traditional Maori designs with modern customer preferences.

The Royal Jewellery Studio, in Kingsland's old Royal Theatre, sells the work of more than 60 local jewellers, much of it featuring Polynesian designs and in some cases using traditional materials like pounamu or mother-of-pearl.

My wife is interested in the long, dangling earrings made by Maori activist Te Kaha, a mokoed member of the Aupouri iwi who works mainly in pounamu.

Over the road is Native Agent, a business started by descendants of one Charles Dearle who really was a Native Agent more than a century ago. The company sells products harking back to the colonial and tribal nature of that time, including magnificent carved wooden masks, woven kete, ceramic bowls, leather cuffs and woollen capes.

I'm fascinated by a range of shirts, quilts, cushions and wall-hangings by Rona Ngahuia Osborne, who uses epaulets, buttons, medals, patches and other insignia to achieve a marvellous colonial military look.

I'm not surprised to hear there's often a waiting list for the shirts. Maybe if I was 40 years younger.

Our American shoppers drool over the selection and after we've left, one of them rushes back to buy a magnificent woven shawl, saying, "I suddenly realised I just had to have it".

Through exhaustive - and selfless - research, Crockett has discovered several boutique shops like these in places like Ponsonby, Newton, Freeman's Bay and Kingsland which sell uniquely New Zealand art and craft products.

And if you want to see the artists making these items, and gain an insight into the traditional factors that influence their work, she can also organise visits to watch Te Kaha shaping pounamu, weaver Stacey Moana Smith producing beautiful poi, cloaks and gourds, or carver Blaine Te Rito working in wood and whalebone.

But fortunately for our credit cards it's time for lunch - at a delightful Kingsland cafe called the Fridge - then it's out west to the bush-fringed coastline of the Waitakere Ranges.

Wild unspoiled beaches like Whatipu or Karekare are Ranson's favourite territory. She introduces visitors to the majestic New Zealand bush, gives them a taste of medicinal plants, lets them feel the power of the thundering surf and soak up the tranquillity of the vast empty sandhills. Or, if they're energetic and adventurous, she gets them leaping off cliffs, tramping through lonely forests or kayaking down untamed rivers.

This is also the ideal place to meet Tane Mahuta and Tangaroa, gods of the forest and the sea, and to hear their stories.

In a peaceful forest glade beside a waterfall we close our eyes while Ranson chants a karakia about the Maori creation myth and Crockett follows with an English translation. Then we open our eyes and are surrounded by the beautiful land which resulted. It might sound a bit corny but it's quite moving.

It's a timely reminder that what makes New Zealand distinctive is not golden beaches or tropical forests but the Maori and Pacific Island culture woven around our islands.

If you want to see more of Auckland's Polynesian heritage - in a way that's fascinating even to a born and bred Jafa like myself - one of Potiki Adventures' tours is a great way to do it.

* Jim Eagles was the guest of Potiki Adventures.

* Potiki Adventures Urban Maori Experience tour costs $145 for adults and $75 for children.

To find out more about tours offered see the Potiki website or ring 0800 692 3836.

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