Travel: White Island, New Zealand

The White Island volcano, near Whakatane. Picture: Contributed

The White Island volcano, near Whakatane. Picture: Contributed

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DWARVES, elves and orcs, wizards and warrens full of hobbits – New Zealand is Middle-earth these days, Peter Jackson’s films providing a marvellous showcase for the country’s awesome natural landscapes.

If, as rumoured, the premiere of the third, and last, Hobbit film is staged in London next year, Tolkien-mania isn’t going to let up any time soon, either.

But if you are planning a trip across the world, you really must take time to experience and learn about some real New Zealanders and their equally fantastic myths and legends.

The first Polynesian settlers, ancestors of today’s Maori, arrived in New Zealand, also known as Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud, by three waka, or canoes, from Hawaiki, the traditional homeland, in around AD 1300.

Today, not only is Maori culture and heritage thriving and strongly nurtured by young descendants, overseas visitors too want to learn more, heralding a boost in the number of tourist experiences available.

Operators such as NATIVconnectioNZ give visitors the chance to encounter authentic Maori culture through individually organised tours. So you can find yourself helping to prepare a hangi, the traditional feast cooked in underground ovens heated with hot rocks, in someone’s back garden; picking Man of the Match at a rugby game between two local teams; or even sitting very quietly in a woodland at night listening to the sound of kiwis waking up for their nocturnal foraging.

NATIVconnectioNZ – aka William Stewart, Briton Williams and Leslie Manuel, aka Mita – is based in Whakatane, on the glorious Bay of Plenty, Central North Island. You can fly from Auckland, gateway for most British holidaymakers, in less than an hour, or drive at a leisurely pace.

Whakatane, one of New Zealand’s sunniest locations, is renowned for its unspoilt beaches and marine activities, especially surfing at Ohope Beach. The Bay of Plenty is rich in Maori history, with Rotorua, a centre for established cultural experiences, an hour or so’s drive away.

My first excursion with William, Briton and Mita is a gentle introduction to local Maori sights: a meeting house, or marae, with beautiful wood carvings and a cave associated with Muriwai, one of the first Maori settlers to arrive here who was believed to have supernatural powers.

William also tells us the story of Wairaka, the girl who saved a canoe full of women and children from drowning by asking the gods to “Give me the strength of a man” so she could steer them out of trouble – it worked and there’s a lovely statue of her atop a rock facing out to sea.

Next day, I headed that way myself to visit White Island, 49km or an hour and a half’s boat ride away. Maori called it Whakaari, or “that which can be made visible”, referring to the way the island disappears and reappears from the clouds of steam. According to legend, Whakaari was sent from Hawaiki, traditional homeland of Maori, as a gift of fire to warm an ancient high priest named Ngatoroirangi.

It is New Zealand’s most active volcano, with great clouds of mists, vents registering 100-300 degrees C, yellow cauldrons of bubbling mud and a strong smell of sulphur.

The miners sent to extract precious minerals long abandoned the island thanks to its unpredictability. Amazing stories this time involve modern New Zealanders. We’re shown Donald’s Mound, named after Donald Pye who simply disappeared one day, leaving his boots on the edge of a crater.

Whakatane District Museum gives an insight into the lifestyles of early Maori settlers and later, their interactions, good and bad, with pakeha, or European settlers. It houses a collection of fascinating artefacts including mere, or clubs, and beautiful instruments.

Meanwhile, William and his team bring it all alive, not only by telling legendary Maori stories, but also by carrying out ceremonies handed down through generations – reciting traditional greetings and playing treasured musical instruments, for example – and painstakingly explaining what it all means.

There are many misconceptions about Maori culture. The haka cannot simply be described as a war dance, for instance, as there are many versions and occasions when it’s used apart from the All Blacks’ familiar “Ka mate, ka mate” version performed before a rugby union game. It actually celebrates the escape from death of Ngati Toa Rangatira chief Te Rauparaha, though it certainly looks threatening.

Hakas can psyche you up ready for battle, but also express celebration and even respect and grief – you cannot fail to be moved by YouTube footage of New Zealand soldiers honouring fallen comrades in Afghanistan, for example.

Maori stay close to family and their tribe, or ewi – among Maori the first question is not what you do but where are you from – and nothing helps a bit of bonding more than a rugby match.

Like many New Zealand communities, rugby is a passion in Whakatane, not just among the players but the wives and kids too.

A team from William’s local club, Paroa, is the only Whakatane-based club in the upper echelon of the Bay of Plenty Rugby Competition, and we watched them take on arch rival Opotiki, who were celebrating their 125th jubilee. The night before, I helped prepare a traditional feast of succulent meats and veggies which we delivered to the hungry Paroa players to tuck into after their training session.

Maybe we were too generous with the servings though as next day, Opotiki, who had the advantage as the game’s played on their home ground, were victorious, but it’s a thrilling match all the same, even if “we” came away without a win.

New Zealanders are almost as fond of kiwis – the strange little flightless birds that are one of the country’s iconic emblems – as they are of rugby.

William told us the story about the kiwi who lost his wings then we trekked deep into a quiet place where kiwis are protected, settled down in the shrubbery and waited for nightfall when these endearing little nocturnal birds wake up to forage for food.

It’s a local success story, as there has been a substantial increase in their number thanks to this protection and monitoring.

For tourists, it’s an unforgettable experience, all the more enjoyable thanks to the provision of infra-red night- vision technology.

We sat for some time, listening to the breeze rattle the dry branches and watching shadows lengthen. All of a sudden we heard a funny little sneeze… It’s a sign the kiwi is out of its burrow.

I hold my breath and peer through the night-vision lens, swinging it left and right, gazing into the gloom. I caught what I thought was a flurry of dark feathers… but by the time I’d swung back, whatever it was had gone.

But I’m counting that as a win, for sure.

THE FACTS

NATIVconnectioNZ offers visitors authentic Maori experiences, visit www.nativ.co.nz; Stay at Moanarua Beach Cottage (www.moanarua.co.nz), Ohope Beach, from £73 a night or Tuscany Villas Motor Inn (www.tuscanyvillas.co.uk), Whakatane, also from £73 per room a night. Qantas offers return flights from Glasgow or Edinburgh to Auckland from £1328. Visit qantas.com

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