One thing that was really high on my list when visiting New Zealand was to experience and learn more about the Maori culture. There are several Maori experiences you can go to in New Zealand, however many of them seem very touristy. And I knew I didn’t want to go to an overly touristic place. I really wanted an authentic experience. I wanted to learn as much about the Maori culture as possible and see and experience their every day life and chat to the locals. And of course to see the famous ‘haka’ warrior dance. After lots of research I ended up finding such a place: read on to find out about Whakarewarewa – the best Maori experience in Rotorua!
Who are the Maori people?
The Māori people are the indigenous/native Polynesian people of New Zealand. They arrived to New Zealand in waka (very large canoes) from Eastern Polynesia in the 1300’s and have inhabited New Zealand ever since. Roughly 15% of New Zealand’s population is Maori.
The Maori culture is much more prevalent in New Zealand’s North Island as opposed to the South Island. Infact about 90% of Maoris live on the North Island. Rotorua is a city in the centre of the North Island known as the cultural capital of New Zealand. It is particularly famous for it’s Maori experiences as well as geysers and hot springs. Rotorua is considered the best and most convenient place in New Zealand to learn about and experience Maori culture.
How are Maoris different to the Aboriginals in Australia?
Whilst they are both indigenous nations, Maoris and Aboriginals are completely different to each other. They look different, behave different, but the biggest thing to me was how they are treated differently by their nations.
Indigenous people always seem to have it tough wherever they are in the world. But in many ways the Maori of New Zealand are treated a lot better than the Aboriginal people in Australia. Maoris are more integrated into society (and therefore more respected) than Aboriginals. Especially on the North Island, you’ll see lots of official signs in both English and Maori, and non-Maori kiwis regularly use basic Maori phrases in their everyday life (you’ll hear ‘kia ora’ so often!). The haka (Maori war dance) is performed before rugby matches whether the players are Maori or not, there is a Maori political party and you’ll find Maori TV channels. People do not bat an eyelid in New Zealand when they see a Maori.
Then look at the aboriginals in Australia. You barely see them (they make up less than 3% of the population), and when you do it can almost seem a little intimidating the first time as they have quite a unique look. The white Australians barely integrate with the Aboriginals and they don’t know Aboriginal phrases or words (Aboriginals have hundreds of different languages and dialects, which made it hard for them to integrate with each other in the past before the introduction of the English language, whereas Maori have one common language – making them more united). Maoris were also far more advanced than the Aboriginals when the Europeans arrived (Aborginals were still nomadic hunter-gatherers with no assigned land, whereas Maoris lived in settled villages with a Chief in charge). All these reasons combined, as well as other factors, contribute to how both groups are now treated differently by their countries.
Maori Cultural Experiences in Rotorua
Before my trip to the North Island I did extensive research about which Maori cultural experiences were available in Rotorua. Many of them such as Tamaki Maori Village and Mitai Maori Village seemed to be an evening experience with a giant buffet and an impressive Maori show. They sounded great, but pretty pricey at well over $100 per person, and I had heard they are very touristy.
Whakarewarewa Maori Experience
I then found Whakarewarewa. This is New Zealand’s only living Maori village! The people here live in a unique geothermal valley amongst thermal activity and geysers. I thought how interesting it would be to visit a Maori village located ontop of all this geothermal activity!
Trips to Whakarewarewa are during the day as opposed to the other Maori cultural events in Rotorua that are held in the evening, so this suited me better. Plus the entrance fee was also half the price of the evening Maori experiences – perfect! (scroll down for prices).
The entrance fee to Whakarewarewa includes a 1 hour guided tour by one of the local Maori people, as well as a 30 minute cultural show (you will see the ‘haka’ being performed after traditional folkloric dances). You are also welcome to explore around on your own afterwards – there is a really nice and easy walk you can do around the geysers and mud pools – it is really impressive to see and I definitely recommend you do it. You can also buy a traditional ‘hangi’ homemade Maori hot dinner here.
Guided tour of Whakarewarewa Maori Village
The tour takes one hour and starts just outside the main gates to Whakarewarewa. Your guide will tell you the correct way to say Whakarewarewa (‘wh’ in Maori makes a ‘ph’ or ‘f’ sound). It can sound a little rude however, so you can always call it ‘Whaka’ (with a ‘w’!) for short.
As you enter Whakarewarewa village, going through the arch and over the bridge, you’ll see several local children jumping from the bridge or swimming down in the river below. They’ll call up for you to throw a coin down into the river below and they’ll dive down and catch it and then keep it in their mouth. They are called the ‘penny catchers’ and this is a tradition they have been doing for many years. It is really fun and impressive to watch!
Maori Cooking Methods
The tour guide shows you the traditional cooking methods used by the Maoris. One method is ‘hangi’ – where vegetables and meat are placed in the ground in a large pit and then covered and cooked by the naturally occuring underground geothermal heat for a couple of hours. The picture on the left shows the pit open. It is always left open, and the lid is only put on when food is cooking. The picture on the right shows how it looks when food is being cooked. The brick on the top of the cover means do not open it as there is food cooking inside!
Another popular method used for cooking is ‘ingo’ – where food is lowered into the natural boiling hot geothermal water pools in bags or baskets for a few minutes to cook. We saw the lady lowering the corn in and then taking it out a few minutes later. A bucket and rope system is used to ensure she doesn’t come into contact with the boiling water. It was really interesting to see how resourceful people are. And with no gas or electricity bills required for cooking here, it seems like a great way to do the cooking!
Just seeing the houses so close to this geothermal activity is so surreal! Often scientists come in to measure the activity, to ensure the people are safe from any possible eruptions. The hot pools have significant names, as can be seen in the signs below.
The tour will take you round the main geysers here, including the impressive Pohutu Geyser which is the Southern Hemisphere’s largest active geyser! Pōhutu Geyser is actually considered the most reliable geyser in the world! It erupts once or twice every hour and can reach heights of up to 100 ft (30 metres).
Pohutu Geyser lies in between Whakarewarewa Maori Village and Te Puia Maori Centre. Therefore the only way you can get to see the famous Pohutu geyser is by visiting either Whakarewarewa or Te Puia. Both Whakarewarewa at Te Puia have lookouts onto Pohutu, although the Te Puia viewing point is slightly closer to the geyser than the Whakarewarewa viewing point.
Next to Pohutu is Te Tohu Geyser, also known as the ‘Prince of Wales Feathers’ geyser after the Royal visit back in 1901. Prior to Pohutu erupting, Te Tohu gives a warning and always sends some water into the air, thus it is also known as ‘the indicator’. I got impatient waiting for them to erupt, so the pictures below show the geysers in their normal state. An eruption would look so impressive here though!
Communal Areas for the local people
You’ll also see the intricately carved meeting house/communal house, or ‘wharenui’ as it is known by the Maori people (see below left and right pictures) and learn about the carvings and ceremonies and activities done here.
Not only do the local people use the hot pools for cooking, they also use some separate hot pools for bathing in the evening once the temperature has cooled down a little. The children in the middle picture below are by the pool, but they didn’t get it as it is too hot during the day. Plus, they go in naked so you definitely won’t be seeing anyone in the pool during your visit!
It doesn’t feel forced or false here – the people here have been inviting people into their village for well over 100 years so have grown up having interactions with tourists. The village is completely owned and run by the residents too so it is a lot more intimate and authentic.
Maori Cultural Show
At Whakarewarewa you’ll also get to see a cultural show and the world famous Haka war dance. The shows last half an hour and performances start at 11.15am and 2pm. During the summer months an extra show at 12.30 is also shown. The performers sing and dance to some traditional Maori songs that tell the story of their heritage, and in between they give explanations so you can follow along.
At the end you have the opportunity to have a photo taken with the performers which is really nice!
Exploring the Maori Village and suggested walks
After the tour and performance you are free to walk around the village and surrounding area at your leisure, seeing the bubbling mud pools, hot springs, colourful steam lakes, green lake and geysers.
The path to the geysers and mud pools is easily marked (you’ll be given a map too to follow) and well laid out. It is an easy walk taking about 30 minutes and it is so impressive – I really recommend you to see it. Especially because there is still a lot here in the village that isn’t covered by the walking tour. The map below shows the layout of Whakarewarewa – it looks really big but everything is actually very close!
You can also visit the village church or the local shops and purchase some souvenirs (or an ice-cream!) if you wish. You’ll even see the tattoo parlour, very often with someone having their tattoo done (tattooing, or ‘moko’ [body art] are sacred in Maori culture).
As you walk around the village you’ll get a glimpse into the daily life of the Maori people living here in the village. You’ll see several local houses, however please respect these are people’s homes and don’t trespass.
We decided to have the hangi lunch option too, which was really delicious. It was really nice that we had seen how the food is prepared on the tour before we ate it. The food came quickly and was healthy and nutritious – similar to an English roast dinner and we had a yummy dessert afterwards too (Auntie’s secret steam pudding!). It was also fairly good value for money, seeing as eating out in New Zealand can be quite pricey! Tap water and tea/coffee are complimentary but any other drinks are additional.
How to book tickets for Whakarewarewa Maori Experience
I recommend to book tickets online before you go to ensure you get the time and date that you want as they often get booked up quickly. PLUS you get 10% off when you book online! You’ll be able to select if you want to do the tour first or see the cultural show first, and you can also add on options such as a hangi lunch or hangi pie. Click here to visit the Whakarewarewa website!
How much does it cost to visit Whakarewarewa Maori Village?
The standard entrance cultural experience that includes the 1 hour tour and the 30 minute cultural performance is $45 for adults and $20 for children aged 5-15 if bought at the door. Children under 4 are free. If you buy your tickets online beforehand however, adult entrance is $40.50 and child entrance is $18.
If you would like to add a traditional hangi lunch onto your experience (which we did and I highly recommend!), it costs $70 for adults on the door ($63 if booked online) and $40 for children ($36 if purchased online beforehand). Note lunch is served between 12-2 so make sure it won’t interfere with your tour time (tours start on the hour) or the cultural performance.
Opening times and getting to Whakarewarewa
Whakarewarewa is open from 08.30-5pm every day except Christmas Day. Christmas Day is the one day of the year when all the residents and local people get together and catch up over a big Christmas dinner.
I would say allow yourself at least 2 hours here (1 hour tour, 30 minutes performance, 30 minutes + to walk around the village and geysers yourself) to really enjoy the atmosphere.
Whakarewarewa is located only a couple of kilometres south of Rotorua city centre. The easiest way to get to Whakarewarewa is by car and there is plenty of free parking on site. Click here for the Google maps location.
Final thoughts on Whakarewarewa
I was really impressed with Whakarewarewa and so glad I had made the choice to come here instead of all the other Maori experiences Rotorua offers. All the local people were very friendly and hospitable and the guide was more than happy to answer any questions that I had. I learnt a lot about the culture and had a really enjoyable day and would recommend this experience to anyone!
*Please note this post is not sponsored and all opinions are my own*.
What else is there to do in Rotorua?
Rotorua was one of my favourite parts of New Zealand as there was so much to do and many places were very close to each other. Places to visit include: Lake Tarawera, the Blue and Green lakes, the Redwoods, Wai-O Tapu, Kerosene Creek or you could visit a Polynesian Spa. For more information check out my post ‘How to spend 2 days in New Zealand’s North Island’.
Accommodation in Rotorua
There are lots of options for accommodation in Rotorua, from backpackers hostels to pricey hotels. Click here to see the range of options available on Booking.com.
We didn’t want to stay right in the centre of Rotorua as we had heard the smell of sulphur from the geysers can be quite bad, however it didn’t smell too bad when we were there. We stayed at 124 on Brunswick, a lovely homestay located just a few kilometres away from the centre of Rotorua in the most peaceful surroundings. The house was really spacious and decorated to such a high standard, and the hosts were super helpful in helping us plan our Rotorua itinerary.
Heading to New Zealand’s South Island? Click here to find out where to find the lupins by Lake Tekapo!
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