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Rotorua started with good news and bad. Beginning with the bad, Lola (my trusty bike) started to complain. This happens so infrequently that I know to listen when it does. The chain slipped on the middle chain ring – first once, then again, and again. All the way from Tirau to Rotorua it occurred at irregular intervals and I feared for the worst. I worried that I knew what was wrong, but took it into KiwiBikes in Rotorua hoping for an unlikely positive assessment. Unfortunately, that was not forthcoming – my middle chain ring had some serious shark’s teeth. This means the metal teeth, which catch the links in the chain, had worn away so it became loose and liable to slip. Unfortunately changing this meant also getting a new chain, which stretches to fit the ring, and a rear cluster to boot. Damage estimate – NZ$220, about £100. A financial hit I really couldn’t afford to take, but I had no option, so on Saturday morning I checked my bike in.
But luckily there was good news to balance it out. On Friday Jane Hope from Destination Rotorua contacted me. We’d been in touch virtually about my journey, and she rang to say they had organized for me to meet with Shaloh Mitchell, managing director and resident of the Maori village of Ohinemutu. A book launch was taking place in the village honouring one Haane Manahi – a Maori soldier who had been nominated for the Victoria Cross only to be denied it for unknown, but highly questionable, reasoning. Jane also sorted out great accommodation for me, and I was all set for an experience quite unlike any other.
On Saturday morning Shaloh pulled in to pick me up at 10am sharp. Well dressed and cheery, he was an instantly likeable character. As it happened my timing was incredibly fortunate, and I would be allowed not only to witness the event but also to capture it on film. Ohinemutu sits on the shores of Lake Rotorua, and has formed around the georthermal activity that defines the area. Shaloh told me of how the residents harnessed the natural energy to power their homes. For me these hot springs bubbling and smoking way were a rare sign of just how thin the earth’s crust is here – for the locals it’s no different from any hills, foliage or any other part of nature. Having passed through Yellowstone, this peaceful accord between man and such an unpredictable environment was quite a revelation. There, everything was so well protected and fenced off, and there was no chance to interact with the phenomenon. In Ohinemutu it was as nature intended – apparently new pools appear all the time, and if one turns up in your garden, you use it or move.
The meeting house, a grand symmetrical structure, stood feet away from Shaloh’s personal residence. The forecourt is sacred ground and usually one must be welcomed onto it by the Marae, but here exceptions have been made to allow tourists to pass through the village. Inside however is strictly a no go area without invitation. The house is built to represent a human body – the head at the top, the arms and fingers stretching down at 45 degree angles, and the legs standing vertically at the sides. The stance is welcoming. A crowd had gathered while Shaloh explained this to me, and soon we were called in by a woman in black– the ceremony has begun. Her calls were answered by another lady leading the crowed, and via this back and forth the congregation proceeded inside.
Speeches were made, mainly in Maori, and I admit to being completely lost. From time to time I would catch a word, but it was usually something like ‘Rotorua’ or ‘Aoterea’ (New Zealand.) Songs were sung and various people stood up and sat down. Final words were said, and everyone proceeded outside. The rest of the day was much like this – I got lost in the formalities but Shaloh would fill me in, and visually and culturally the experience was every bit as rich.
All Maori events like this include a large meal, so everyone may leave with a full belly. These were my kind of people. I was introduced to many friendly and kind faces - some shook hands, some (women) kissed on the check, and others greeted me with a ‘hungi.’ This Maori welcome consists of a handshake, a touching of the shoulder or elbow of the other arm, and a pressing together of noses at the bridge. You close your eyes and inhale, sharing the same breath. Then you part. Coming from a standoffish British culture, where as little bodily contact as possible is preferable, I have to say it takes a little getting used to. But it’s a great way to connect, and is really representative of the sensitivity of the Maori people.
My tour concluded with a walk around the village before Shaloh dropped me back to my accommodation. Before we went our separate ways I learned he had been a professional skater, moving to the USA when he was 18. He excelled in a variety of disciplines and has skateboarded from New York to LA as well as the two islands of New Zealand. No boasting, just a humble telling of the story. Much the same approach as he took to guiding me round the village – I was given a honest, compelling description of everything we saw and I could sense the pride he had in his roots. But there is a great down-to-earth quality that I’ve noticed Kiwis have, and for me it makes the experience even easier to absorb.
I took a walk through the geothermal geysers and bubbling mud pools of Kaihui park while I reflected on the day. Talking to other tourists on the paths and taking in the sights, I pondered just much more there was to see in Rotorua. Everyone had a different tale to share, and all appealed. This is a special place and I realized there was no way I could do justice to it in just one day. I stayed for the whole weekend, but even then that was not enough.
There are some places in the world that are remarkable in a certain way – they excite, invite and intrigue. Rotorua is one of these, and I am indebted to the Tourism department of helping me see even just a small part of this extraordinary place. It is the essence of my journey that I must keep moving, and I certainly cannot complain. But Rotorua has made it’s way firmly onto my list of places to return to, so that I may yet get a greater sense of more of the magic here.