“Aim for the highest cloud so that if you miss it, you will hit a lofty mountain.”
“Kia Ora.” The Māori greeting echoes throughout this part of New Zealand’s North Island, an informal hello that welcomes visitors to the area. Māori language and history play a significant role in the culture of New Zealand – from bilingual signage to the great Te Papa Museum in Wellington – but it is especially prominent in the area surrounding Rotorua. Our day here was a rich immersion into the background and customs of these indigenous Polynesians who settled in New Zealand in the 13th century.
The Seabourn Encore arrived in the port of Tauranga, an hour north of Rotorua. It was one of the most beautiful sail-ins of the trip, complete with a dazzling sunrise over a group of tiny islands in the Bay of Plenty. Herb and I had signed on for an all-day tour that included Rotorua’s geothermal area, a Māori cultural experience and an intriguing-sounding activity called RailCruising.
The concept of RailCruising is an odd mix of low tech and high tech. Self-driving hybrid cars travel along railroad tracks between two railway stations at about 12 miles per hour. The vehicles look a little like Smart Cars and hold four passengers, two in front and two in an elevated rear seat. The ride starts at Mamaku Railway Station and ends at Tarukenga Station, where passengers must get out of their car while a guide helps turn it around on a movable platform for the return trip.
The idea was the brainchild of Neil and Jane Oppatt, who began developing the Rotorua Railpark in 2009, repurposing the former working railway. They launched the first RailCruiser in 2011 and continue to work on-site with a small team to keep the excursions running smoothly.
The RailCruising office is housed in a log cabin near the railroad tracks. Friendly staffers welcomed us, divided us into groups of four and provided a brief overview of how the cars operate. Each group selected a driver – Herb was our volunteer – whose job was to apply the brake in an emergency and activate the horn if necessary. I couldn’t help but smile as I climbed aboard the quirky-looking vehicle. At first glance it seemed like an old-fashioned amusement park ride, but once inside, it felt like a car of the future.
We rode through the forest, passing picturesque scenes of farmlands, a lake and rolling hills. An audio tour played intermittently, offering information about the area and telling us when we would be slowing down or stopping. I spent most of the brief journey leaning out the window taking pictures, enjoying the gentle clickety-clack sounds of the car on the tracks and taking in the sheer fun of the ride. When we reached Tarukenga Station, a guide greeted us and turned the car around for the return trip.
Māori Tales in the Forest
About halfway back to the station, our car suddenly stopped. Guides from the RailCruising company asked us to disembark and enter a small opening in the forest where a Māori woman named Miriana stood, strands of flax and a knife in her hands. She welcomed us and pointed the way to a clearing where her nephew would be talking to us about Māori history and culture.
The forest was dense – “the bush,” as our Māori hosts called it – with a leaf-covered dirt path. We reached a clearing at the top of a wooden staircase, where twelve plastic white chairs were placed in a semi-circle. At the front was a young man, barefoot, dressed in traditional Māori clothing and holding a long spear-like weapon.
For the next twenty minutes or so, Miriana’s nephew wove enthralling tales of his life as a Māori. He had been “unofficially adopted,” he said, chosen as the oldest son in his family to live with his grandparents and a group of community elders in an isolated mountain area. He lived and went to school in the forest, where he learned Māori culture, geneology, marshall arts – “the foundation in life, your moral compass of what’s right and wrong” – and beliefs. At age twelve, he returned to his town and went to public school for the first time.
After the talk, we walked to another clearing, where Miriana was demonstrating weaving and traditional Māori crafts. She spoke about women’s roles and their responsibility for taking care of the tribe’s meeting house. Miriana said she leads a more modern life than her nephew, teaching art and photography at a local school and involving herself in Māori political issues. And as if she instinctively knew we were still trying to wrap our heads around the boyhood world her nephew had described, she told us:
“We still are Māori. We speak the language, but we are different from my nephew.”
We headed back to Mamaku Station in our RailCruiser for a picnic lunch outside the log cabin. With thoughts still spinning from Miriana’s and her nephew’s talks, we traveled to another Māori experience at Te Puia in the Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley. A guide walked us through the ground’s Māori village and the New Zealand Māori Arts & Crafts Institute, where students hone traditional woodcarving and weaving skills. It’s an interesting place on its own, but after our immersive experience in the “bush school,” it was a little anticlimactic.
Te Puia’s geothermal activity is immediately evident as you walk throughout the grounds. Mud pools, hot springs and geysers bubble along boardwalks and beyond fences. White filmy smoke spews from the ground, blending in with distant clouds. The main attraction is Pōhutu Geyser, considered the biggest geyser in the Southern Hemisphere and most reliable in the world. Māori for constantly splashing, Pōhutu erupts one to two times every hour, often reaching heights of nearly 100 feet.
Tauranga was the final stop of our voyage before disembarking in Auckland. With a full day in Rotorua, we were out of time to explore the port city. It’s always difficult to pare down a travel itinerary, knowing that choices come with consequences. One idea is added to the list, and another has to come off.
As I was planning our time in New Zealand, I had hoped I would come away with even a small understanding of Māori culture. I wasn’t sure what form that would take, and I had no idea what to expect when we walked into the Rotorua forest that morning. I couldn’t have imagined a more fascinating introduction to the Māori world… one of those unforgettable travel memories we carry with us long after the trip has ended.