He Tangata: William Stewart of NATIVConnectioNZ Ltd - Real Maori Experiences

William Stewart of NATIVConnectioNZ Ltd - Real Maori Experiences talks to Elisabeth Easther .

William Stewart believes in helping visitors live the Maori experience. Photo / Natalie Slade
William Stewart believes in helping visitors live the Maori experience. Photo / Natalie Slade

I grew up in Whakatane with my grandparents and it was the best childhood you could imagine. The area we grew up in, Wairaka, had a real strong cultural footprint. Our people have been here for 1000 years. Living with my grandparents, I spent a lot of time at the marae, and our house was right by the sea and the river and because we were a small semi-rural location, all our fun was derived from family and friends and the natural environment. I can't remember any family holidays, my grandparents were at the stage of life where they'd reached the chill factor and, when we did go away, it was to visit friends and family or to go to a tangi. I used to get sent to Auckland a lot and, because we came from Whakatane we had KFC but no McDonald's, when we went to Auckland all we were thinking about was McDonald's. And Rainbows End.

When I finished my degree in marketing and international management I went to the Jobs for Grads website and it spat out two jobs, one for the police force and the other for the Maori graduate programme at Tourism New Zealand. I was lucky enough to win a place with TNZ and I did that for a year when they offered me a full-time job in the media team.

My travel escapades really began when I was co-ordinating media visits for Europeans and I got to do lots of familiarisation tours. I've been from the top of the North Island to Stewart Island, coast to coast. I've been to the South Island, to Dunedin, the west coast to Franz Joseph. You fly into a region, then the Regional Tourism Authority will just thrash you for three days. They try to get you out into the nooks and crannies, you really do get a taste for that region. Stewart Island made a huge impact on me, it's so remote, untarnished and unpolluted. It's how New Zealand might have looked 1800 years ago.

And Queenstown was always a boomer, I hosted some big names there. Jack Osborne, Carl Cox the DJ, Jesse Metcalfe from Desperate Housewives. Tourism New Zealand would fund "opinion leaders" to come and do cool stuff then write about it to their zillion fans.

After my third year working, I must have been 25 or 26, me and six of my mates got a campervan to chase the 2007 Rugby World Cup in Britain. So we flew in, watched a game in Scotland, then drove down to Dover, through France to Germany to do Oktoberfest, then back through Amsterdam and back to the rugby where we ended up in Wales when the All Blacks played France. That was a pretty sad ending to that trip. It was heavy, that's the only way I can describe it. The French and the Aussies they were all jubilant, but us, we just went silent, no one talked. It was like hearing that someone had died, everyone was dealing with it themselves.

After we lost, we spent a week in Thailand. That was a bit of a bucket-list trip and we had to do all the iconic things. But what really hit me - the front street would be booming, people looked happy but walk a couple of blocks back and very quickly it starts looking very impoverished, people are playing soccer with rolled-up rags and leaves, you realised there was poverty. And here we are on holiday with all these gears and go pros, walking into these neighbourhoods and they had bugger all. It made me realise how grateful we should be.

In 2009, my fiance fell pregnant with our first daughter, but we didn't want to raise her in Auckland so we moved back to Whakatane. Our business is about providing opportunities for visitors to immerse themselves in the Maori world, to make connections with our land and our people. Our bread and butter is the hangi experience where we welcome visitors to our tribal area. We bring you in, put the hangi down and cook a real meal in the Earth.

Lots of our competitors use stainless steel vats, but we say if hangi isn't cooked in the heart of Papatuanuku, you can't call it a hangi.

We host our hangi at the family home. We're not big on performance but we'll teach you about the song, why we sing it, then teach you the song, so you can sing it. We don't want people to just watch or hear the culture, we want them to live it.

More information: see nativ.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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