This country is rich in taonga. Here's where to experience some of our best, writes Stacey Morrison.
"When in Rome, do as the Romans do" is a relevant whakataukī or proverb for travellers, and in Māori language week, seeking out Māori cultural and language spots is an exciting way to be in Rōma/Rome if you're keen to a learn a little more Māori language, by osmosis. In fact, the saying could be changed to "When in Rotorua ... ". The city has been a heartland for Māori tourism since the 1860s so it's a natural inclusion on this list, but did you know it's also New Zealand's first bilingual city? Last year the Rotorua Lakes Council stamped an official mark on the use and encouragement of Māori and English in all public places, to enhance understanding of Te reo Māori and Māori culture. There's a bilingual playground and signs in businesses and cafes, providing a good number of people and places to give your budding Māori language skills a go. Special mentions to Otaki and Wairoa working towards becoming fully fledged bilingual towns.
This area may not have created an official bilingual status, but as with many things in Te Urewera, it doesn't need to tell others about it, it just is. The isolation of Te Urewera has ensured it's a real-life Wakanda as depicted in the Black Panther movie — a bastion of indigenous life. The people of Tūhoe have a different Māori language story from other iwi, largely retaining their native tongue through this isolation, and it's not surprising many renowned experts of Te reo emerged from this area. Venturing into Te Urewera is full of natural wonders in flora, fauna and whānau.
CAPE RĒINGA (SPIRITS BAY, TE RERENGA WAIRUA)
In Māori belief this is the place where spirits launch from Aotearoa after their death to head to the ancient resting place of Hawaiki. The lone pōhutukawa is a beacon for spirits as the lighthouse is for ships. No matter your spiritual beliefs, witnessing the meeting of the seas provides tingles up the spine.
WAITANGI (ideally on Waitangi Day)
If you've only seen news reports of what happens at Waitangi on February 6, you're missing a huge part of the picture. Waitangi Day commemorations offer a sense of nationhood that's hard to match. The feeling of unity and celebration is much stronger than newsworthy spats, and even the beauty of the Treaty grounds must be seen to be truly appreciated. Te Kōngahu Museum of Waitangi offers an interactive experience that surpassed my expectations and even kept the kids engaged.
WAIPOUA FOREST (TĀNE MAHUTA)
On the other side of Northland, Tāne Mahuta is the largest known kauri tree, having stood for between 1250-2500 years. Named after the Māori god of forests and birds, you may wonder what the big deal is about a big tree. But as you are dwarfed by his presence, the mauri or life-force of this giant is something to behold. Visitors are awed into silence.
MINE BAY MĀORI ROCK CARVINGS ON LAKE TAUPŌ
The carved image of Ngātoroirangi, the powerful tohunga (high priest) on this rock face was created by master carver Mātahi Whakataka-Brightwell and his small group of carvers in the 1970s. Although not ancient, the mana of the navigator depicted, and the fact that it's only accessible by water, adds to the mystique.
Kaikoura literally means "eat crayfish" (kai: eat; koura: crayfish) and if that's not a good enough reason to visit, whale watching is another drawcard. A reverence for whales appears in Māori narratives that speak of them guiding waka, and whale riding has long been in our oral traditions. Today we watch from a boat, where you'll also get a good view back to Takahanga Marae, which housed many people after the Kaikoura earthquake, thanks to its expert positioning on an earthquake-resilient site.
TE PAPA IN WELLINGTON
As well as the art and exhibitions Te Papa is known for, it also runs an iwi-in-residence programme, which began in 1998. There have been seven iwi exhibitions since then, the current one being Ko Rongowhakaata: The Story of Light and Shadow. The act of bringing together taonga (treasures) and people of multiple marae is significant and emotional for each iwi, who are welcomed to Te Papa in a moving ceremony.
The fascinating Moeraki boulders are huge, spherical concretions dotted along Koekohe beach near Moeraki. In Ngāi Tahu legend these boulders are the remains of eel baskets, kumara and calabashes washed ashore from the ancient waka that brought the iwi to Aotearoa.
The papakāinga (community village) of Parihaka Marae hosts the Puanga festival in celebration of the Māori new year in June, sharing food, music, crop harvesting, even welcoming visitors to stay at their marae on a first-in-first-served basis. While other iwi may celebrate Matariki as the new year, Puanga is the bright star that Taranaki people see and herald as a new beginning.
Stacey Morrison co-hosts The Hits afternoon show Stace and Flynny, weekdays 3pm-7pm. Her book, with husband Scotty, Maori at Home: An Everyday Guide to Learning the Maori Language, is available now. (Penguin, RRP $35)