The Path of Polynesia

Image of Maori Carving in Rotorua

I thought I knew New Zealand.

Having taken an early interest in the country’s pop music — specifically Crowded House — and knowing how to pronounce words like “Te Awamutu” and “Kare Kare,” I felt like a Kiwi myself. But our first hangi changed all that.

We had picked up our magical Spaceship campervan from the Spaceport (where else?) in Auckland that afternoon. By evening our Spaceship was hugging the slippery and curvacious roads of the North Island while I tightly closed my eyes and sunk my fingernails into the dashboard. The road to Russell, in the Bay of Islands was an endless maze of one-lane winding roads, which we found out later you could bypass with a quick ferry ride (thanks for nothing, GPS!)

Just outside of Russell we found a cute holiday park from the 1950s — a decade that is still alive and well in New Zealand. The proprietor confided to us in a hushed tone that she is originally Australian, but has lived in Russell for 20 years. She gave us a detailed map and advised us to be sure to attend the hangi tonight in town.

For a minute I thought it was the 1850s — but a hangi turns out not to involve a noose, sheriff and sheep rustler, but a bunch of food buried in the ground for a few days. A short walk to town and we saw the large white tent. The tent housed the ticket seller, a band, and five or six wine booths. Outside, hungry people surrounded the hangi pit and the local Maori chief blessed the food in two languages. All elbows, I made my way in for a paper plate heaping with smoked mussels, chicken, stuffing, yams and other treats. Fantastic!

That evening, I Skype my mom and describe the hangi. “Oh, that’s a luau.” My mom lived in Hawaii for several years as a child. The next day at the Russell museum, the connection was confirmed. Photos showed the Maori people wearing grass skirts. They are Polynesian! We had just come from Fiji and I suddenly saw the commonalities. I had always thought that, like Australia, the Maori had been in New Zealand 30,000 years. Turns out it’s just 700 years. Europeans have been in the New World almost as long.

The Maori call their homeland of legend, Hawaiki. Hawaii, anyone?Recent evidence, however, suggests Hawaiki was actually Taiwan.

In Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin gives a savage indictment of the Maori (they would start a war because they had extra shot; missionaries would give them soap and beg them to use it) and of New Zealand. Saying of the land that there is nothing of interest for a naturalist. Probably because most of the unique bird species on the island are extinct and the country has only two land mammals — both bat species. (A friend we made on our Laos tour, Renee from New Zealand, told me she’d never seen a squirrel.)

The Polynesian connection also interested me because we had recently visited the Galapagos. Another of Darwin’s stop offs, its most conspicuous feature is the absence of Polynesians. Somehow, colonizing every island around the Galapagos, and missing no other Pacific Island chain, they missed or ignored the Galapagos. Very strange.

As it would be nice to see a bear or deer posing amidst the Kaori trees, this thought would give a shudder to any current resident. At the airport I was thouroughly examined for invasive species. Thankfully, none were found.

Further evidence of Polynesia was found in Rotorua, the stinkiest town in the world. There we visited the Maori theme park of Te Puia and saw some early dwellings and even a live kiwibird! The park had bubbling mud pools and a sulfurous geyser to rival Old Faithful. Every employee was Mauri. Much better work than casinos it looked like.

Back at the holiday park, our host said New Zealand is an example of race relations for the rest of the world and I would agree. It was obvious the two cultures live together and include each other in most aspects of their lives: sports, work, celebration.

I’m now planning a trip I call “The Path of Polynesia.” It starts in Taiwan and hits every island. All in a handmade canoe. Stay tuned.

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