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Maori Culture and Natural Warmth in Whakarewarewa Village, New Zealand

  • Raumati Wikaire
  • 4 August 2011

Whakarewarewa Village is a living Maori village located in the thermal region of Rotorua on the North Island of New Zealand. Its doors have been open to tourists since more than a century ago when the 1886 volcanic eruption of Mt Tarawera destroyed the historic pink and white terraces at Lake Tarawera, said by some to have been the eighth natural wonder of the world.

The terraces had been New Zealand’s first tourist attraction, so the local Maori guides who had accompanied tourists to them needed to find something else. They decided instead to host visitors in their relocated (by the eruption) home village of Whakarewarewa. This practice is still in vigour today in Whakarewarewa and overseen by local guides who are the direct descendants of the original 19th-century guides.

New Zealand Whakarewarewa Village cooking corn

The thermal pools at Whakarewarewa Village on the North Island of New Zealand are so hot that villagers can use them to cook a cob of corn in a matter of minutes. Photo courtesy of Raumati Wikaire

Warmth from the Earth

Whakarewarewa Village is inhabited by 25 families who go about their daily lives but allow visitors to move amongst them from 8am and 5pm, meet them and learn more about their customs and culture. Many visitors are particularly interested in seeing how the villagers have adapted to the environment, living in houses amidst thermal mud pools and geysers. For example, wooden boxes are built over steam vents where villages hang pots with vegetables or meat and cook meals with incredible efficiency. A frozen chicken can be roasted in one hour or a cob of corn in a couple of minutes, simply by harnessing the hot steam from the earth.

At dusk, once the village gates are closed to tourists, hot water from a thermal pool is diverted into large concrete baths. These communal tubs unite the village and families, who relax in the naturally warm water whilst catching up on the gossip of the day.

New Zealand Whakarewarewa Village houses

In Whakarewarewa Village, on the North Island of New Zealand, proceeds from tourism feed a public trust that benefits cultural heritage projects such as maintaining the village's buildings. Photo courtesy of flickr/Carmyarmyofme

Mirror of the 19th Century

More of what makes Whakarewarewa Village so special is that whilst the villagers have adopted modern habits and technology such as TVs, clothing, kitchen appliances, internal plumbing and heating, they still go about their daily lives doing the same things they have for over a century in a shared family atmosphere. As well as the communal bathing and cooking using thermal activity, which is unique to this region, other traditions include intricate wood carvings and artwork created by weaving and dying flax to decorate the village and local homes.

Visitors can also experience traditional singing and dancing during daily scheduled performances. Rather than something unauthentic put on just for tourists, though, these performances are part of the way local families pass on the stories and legends of yore. They even organise a regular wananga (gathering) to ensure that the original songs are passed down to younger generations.

New Zealand Whakarewarewa Village cultural performance

Each day, the Whakarewarewa villagers put on a cultural performance of costumes and dance. Far more than a tacky tourist display, the performances keep Maori culture alive and intact across the generations. Photo courtesy of flickr/Seth Mazow

Villagers still rely on the medicinal properties of plants, enjoy eating the traditional hangi meal (similar to a roast dinner, but cooked by steam) and speak the Maori language. Even funeral rituals remain the same, where a body lies in a marae (central meeting house) for a minimum of three days during which all friends, family and relatives pay their respects before the burial. Although the marae is closed to the public during a tangi (funeral), the village is still open and tourists can observe the protocol.

Descendants of the Original 25

Any villagers that host the guided tours, cook and serve food in the café, dance in the performances or anything else related to the tourist experience are members of the village’s original 25 families. If an individual exhibits a skill in any particular area, he or she is then trained in that skill and financial help is provided to advance education in the chosen discipline.

New Zealand Whakarewarewa Village Pohutu Geyser

Living next door to a thermal pool, the people of Whakarewarewa Village on the North Island of New Zealand never have a problem keeping themselves warm. Photo courtesy of Raumati Wikaire

Fascinatingly, each family tends to have a role or responsibility that is passed down through the generations. For example, one family may be better cooks and always do the catering, while another may be stronger in dancing and singing, so descendants tend to be the performers in the cultural demonstrations. This isn’t something the locals question; it is just the way it is now and has always been.

The younger generations show great respect toward the elders and everyone accepts the customs of Maori culture. In keeping with this, proceeds from the village tours go into a general trust that contributes to the preservation and care of the village. With the money earned, the villagers have established an herb garden, that, because of the thermal activity, has been created above ground. They are also now building houses and repairing homes to help maintain the quality of life in Whakarewarewa Village.

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architecture & landmarks, Australia & New Zealand, ecotours, festivals & events, fine arts, indigenous culture, local knowledge, New Zealand, Oceania, personal experience,

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