7 ways to unravel New Zealand’s Māori heritage

Māori history in New Zealand dates back more than 700 years, when the first settlers journeyed across the Pacific to make a new life here. Today, their descendants make up around 17% of the population. Experiencing Māori culture first-hand will deliver incredible travel memories and give you a true insight into this fascinating country.

1. Head out on a Waka trip in Abel Tasman National Park

An oft-quoted Māori proverb goes like this: "Manaaki moana, manaaki tangata, haere whakamua." Roughly translated, it means “Care for the sea, care for the people, move forward as one.” It’s also the mantra of Waka Abel Tasman, a company that offers tours of this extraordinarily scenic part of the New Zealand coastline in a waka, a traditional Māori canoe. Its most popular journey is a two hour out and back paddle to Tokangawhā/Split Apple Rock. This 120 million year old lump of faulted granite sits surrounded by shallow water just offshore and resembles a beached Pac-Man. Geologists explain it as a casualty of ice-wedging, but according to Māori legend, two feuding gods tore it apart – Tokangawhā means “burst open rock”. Waka Abel Tasman also offers the option of customisable trips for groups; sunrise is especially popular. Regardless, this is a family-friendly activity that even young children can tackle.

2. Visit a traditional Māori village

If you’re keen to get an overview of Māori customs, ceremonies and crafts, then consider visiting a Māori village. Near Rotorua, get acquainted with the Tūhourangi Ngāti Wāhiao people at Whakarewarewa – The Living Māori Village. They welcome visitors to their marae, a Māori meeting house which is also used for weddings and funerals. Experience the haka, a ceremonial war dance that involves foot stomping, body slaps and famously, poking out long tongues. Showcasing their traditions is second nature as they sing, dance with short sticks and spin poi balls. Nearby, learn about traditional methods of weaving and carving at the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute at Te Puia. Other Māori cultural experiences in the Rotorua area include Te Pā Tū and Mitai Māori Village. On South Island, stay overnight at the Ōnuku Marae; your hosts will demonstrate aspects of their Māori heritage such as history, art and food.

3. Discover the importance of Ta Moko in Rotorua

To Māori people, the inking process is a way of expressing their identity and embracing their cultural heritage. The manawa (heart lines) and korus (unfurling ferns) used in Ta Moko depict aspects of their personal ancestry and family history. In the past, designs painfully and laboriously etched into the skin would have indicated a person’s social rank, knowledge, skill set and marital status. Men bore full face tattoos, while women would have had moko kauae (chin tattoos). Once outlawed, Ta Moko has experienced a recent resurgence in popularity and a renewed acceptance by society. Visitors keen to get an inking should opt for Kirituhi, suitable for those of non-Māori heritage. It encompasses elements of family (whanau), genealogy (whakapapa), community (iwi), and significant milestones in a person’s life. Call in to the Toiariki studio in Rotorua, where indigenous skin artist Richard Francis can discuss your ideas and come up with a personalised design.

4. Meet master pounamu carvers in Hokitika

Pounamu is the collective noun that Māori use for the types of greenstone used for carving. Nephrite jade is only found in New Zealand. Collecting the stone found at the mouth of the Arahura River is off limits as it’s a sacred site for the Māori. Learn more about the stone’s cultural significance on a guided tour led by Kati Waewae tribe guardians of the Arahura River. The stone is also abundant beside the Hokitika River, making this little town on South Island’s West Coast one of the best places in the country for fossicking. To see master carvers at work call in at Westland Greenstone, where daily demonstrations take place in its workshop. Shop for authentic pounamu jewellery at Waewae Pounamu, a small, hapū-owned business where the stones’ provenance is recorded via traceability codes. Alternatively, create your own unique piece under the tutelage of Brett Phillips at Jade Art Carvings.

5. Stay in a marae on the Whanganui Journey

The Whanganui Journey is a five-day canoe trip through native forests along the Whanganui River. It’s the only one of New Zealand’s spectacular Great Walks to require a paddle rather than a pair of hiking boots. A highlight of the journey is the opportunity to stay in a fully-functioning marae which doubles up as an official Great Walk hut from October to April. Tieke Kainga Hut is overseen by Te Whānau o Tīeke in conjunction with the Department of Conservation. Carvings on posts called pou are of the Māori who lived here in the past. If current whānau (members of the extended Māori family) are present, they may stage a traditional pōwhiri welcome. It features formal speeches, blessings and rounds off with the hongi, where noses and foreheads are pushed together in greeting. Consider it appropriate to offer koha, where visitors gift money for the upkeep of the wharenui (communal house).

6. Unravel the myths and legends behind the Tāne Mahuta kauri tree

One of the largest stands of kauri trees is located in Waipoua Forest on the north western coast of North Island. There, you’ll encounter Tāne Mahuta, which is New Zealand’s largest living kauri tree with a girth of 18.8 metres. As well as its impressive size, it is pivotal to the Māori belief system. The tree shares its name with the Lord of the Forest, who was the mythological son of Ranginui, the sky father, and Papa-tū-ā-nuku, the earth mother. Tāne Mahuta is the god of forests and birds, but also created the first man from the soil – without him, we wouldn’t exist. Tired of living in darkness, Tāne’s siblings tried and failed to prise their parents apart from their close embrace. Tāne was the one that succeeded and in doing so, created Te Ao Mārama – the world of light. Today, trees hold the heavens aloft, keeping darkness at bay.

7. Soak up Māori magic at Ngawha Springs

Geothermal water feeds the Ngawha Springs at Te Tai Tokerau, Northland. According to Māori lore, the hot water springs that exist here are the result of Rūaumoko, the unborn child of earth mother Papa-tū-ā-nuku, fidgeting in her womb. Māori tradition once dictated that new mothers took a restorative soak here after giving birth; battle-fatigued warriors might also have bathed here. You don’t have to be either to enjoy the health-enhancing properties of the mineral-rich water, which some believe improves skin conditions and helps with respiratory ailments. To this day, Māori people come here to nurture their wairua (spirit) and to alleviate pain. In all, the complex boasts two dozen pools – some private, others public – with varying temperatures and mineral content. Whether you’ve come for a specific purpose or simply plan a dip to relax and unwind, inject a little Māori magic into your trip with a visit to Ngawha Springs. 

Māori culture is closer than you think

Experiencing Māori heritage is straightforward thanks to flights from London and Manchester with Air New Zealand. Economy fares to Auckland start at £1,270 return per person. Popular routes include travelling via Singapore eastbound and Los Angeles westbound. It’s just as simple to add on a domestic flight: Air New Zealand serves destinations such as Rotorua, New Plymouth, Palmerston North, Nelson, Hokitika and Queenstown, and Air New Zealand's domestic connectivity and seamless transits make it easy to get around the country. Immersing yourself in Māori culture, no matter where you choose to explore, is only ever a flight or two away.

For more information, visit the official Air New Zealand website.