Getting into hot water, New Year and a Hangi feast

Hi again everyone. So after a pretty soggy Christmas day in Cologne, sorry Coromandel, hiding from the rain, we were itching to say auf wiedersehn to our German friends. It was time to explore the east side of the lovely Coromandel peninsula, so we started our trusty van and started on the winding, twisty drive up into the mountains and over to the other side. It’s pretty wild in this neck of the woods and so outside of the small towns you see hardly any signs of civilisation, just the lush forest which at this time of year looks incredible. The Pohutukawa trees everywhere were in full bloom with their red bottle brush like flowers, giving the place a very festive feel.

We paid a visit to Cathedral cove, not really too sure what to expect, but hoping it would live up to its name. After a thirty minute trek down a hillside and through lush fern forest we arrived. A huge archway through a rock earnt the place its name, it certainly was impressive. We spent a few hours chilling here on the beach in the muggy sunshine, hopeful that the rain wouldn’t be coming back too soon. A group of Asian ladies had been doing an extended photoshoot of one another the whole time we’d been there, taking it in turns to pose in the waves and trying not to get their hair wet. One larger wave hit them unaware, resulting in an escaped boob from one of the girls, she managed to get the attention of the whole beach much to her embarrassment. I thought you’d all like to know about that, I try to include all of the important details for our readers.

Fifteen minutes drive just along the coast was the famous Hot Water beach, which 2 hours either side of low tide has hot water coming up through the sand from a geothermal spring. We arrived when the tide was fully in, to see a pretty beach with some huge barrel waves. A handful of surfers were out enjoying it, the waves were too powerful for us two novices to have a go, so we sat on a rock and watched the dudes doing their thing. It was hard to imagine this place ever being busy.

We came back the next day two hours before low tide, hired a spade from a local shop and walked down to see what all of the fuss was about. Already about forty people were there in what we’d heard was the golden spot, just below a large rock protruding through the sand. They had dug themselves large pits which were full of steaming water. Seeing this, I excitedly spent ten minutes digging like a maniac, confused at finding nothing but cold water. Eventually the penny dropped and we realised that the spring only appears in a very small area and in order to get some hot water we’d have to divert it off from the guys higher up the beach who were at the source. After some highly technical digging and engineering genius we now had our own supply of hot water running down into our well and filling it up. The Limns were in business with their territory established. I triumphantly staked my spade in the sand like other great men born of sweat and brawn had done before me. As we settled down into our sandy hot tub, we realised how many people had arrived since, the beach was now covered in a terrace of hot pools, full with steaming pink bodies. We broke out two small bottles of Speight’s Gold Medal ale and felt very smug with ourselves, we were like pigs in hot muck and glad now of the cooling rain, we were beached as bru! As time passed, the walls of the pools above us slowly broke down to create one huge one. The water in this was now starting to get really hot, hot enough to cook potatoes, you couldn’t even step in it. More of that water started to make its way into our pool and I was now starting to boil my own spuds, it was time to cool off with a dip in the icy ocean. We now looked like dried fruit after our extended soaking and so decided to call it a day. At the cafe by the carpark we both had a kiwi burger which we agreed was the best burger we’d ever eaten. A big ol’ beef pattie, a fat slice of beetroot, caramelised onions, lettuce and wholegrain mustard. Ooooosh!

The next day we moved on, waving goodbye to the Coromandel peninsula and now following the coast of the Bay of Plenty. Old Cook had named it after he’d found everything he needed here to restock his ship. We stopped at Tauranga’s Mt. Maunganui, where it seemed NZ’s entire population had already arrived, filling every parking space, campsite and beach, all enjoying their summer holidays. We browsed through a few surf shops and I got myself an awesome $10 Ripcurl t-shirt with kiwis (the birds), ferns, Maori tiki men (the wooden carved faces with their tongues hanging out) and big waves on it. We found a wetsuit factory and narrowly avoided buying anything, before having an awesomely powerful coffee in a cafe called Fusion. How many cafes have you been in that have a ping pong table (forgetting those in Bangkok of course)?

After a fun few hours on the beach here, we realised we couldn’t stay any longer, all of the campsites were full so we headed east along the bay hoping to find somewhere a bit quieter. Luckily a little place called Ohope beach had some free space, so we booked in for a few nights over new year. It had worked out pretty well, the beach was beautiful, driftwood in quantities I haven’t seen before was strewn everywhere across the sand. I couldn’t help thinking how much money I could sell it for back home! There were some pretty good waves coming in too, but no one hiring out surfboards nearby, we decided we should buy some bodyboards instead so that we could get out there and have some fun. The nearest town that would sell that sort of stuff was Whakatane (pronounced, don’t laugh, “fa-ka-ta-nee”), just around the headland. We called in but found everywhere closed at 4pm, it was a bit eerie. There was no one on the streets except for a guy busking. Like some terrible X-Factor audition, he was destroying some classic reggae songs, and getting the words completely wrong. We couldn’t bare to get close enough to him to give him any money. Still, he looked like he was enjoying himself 🙂 We came back to Whakatane the next morning when it was a different place. Now that everywhere was open it looked like a pretty cool little seaside town. We stocked up on supplies for our 2 person new year party and managed to find a couple of $20 bodyboards. All we needed was some sunshine instead of torrential rain and we’d be ready to hit the beach.

It was now the morning of new years eve, I was on the last page of my 2012 diary which sent a shudder of horror through me, just 4 more months of travelling before I would have to return back to the real world. The sun was out though, which quickly put those thoughts aside. It was time to get the board shorts and rash vest back on, get the cheap bodyboards under our arms and jog like we were on Baywatch down to the beach. The boards worked a treat to our surprise, so we passed a few hours in the surf mucking about like 5 year olds. When we could take no more, we dried off and went for a long walk along the beach with an ice cream to cool us down. The weather was now perfect, summer had arrived.

As the sun started to set, we opened our box of warm Tui beer and made a start. I had a cheap bottle of NZ sparkling wine on ice, well it was under the van (the next best thing), ready for midnight. Emma, the special guest DJ for the night was working away on her phone, creating a playlist so we could have our own little party. The tunes would be thumping out through the tiny speaker on her iPhone. Yes, it was looking like it was going to be a pretty low-key new year’s eve for us. Things changed when our neighbours kindly invited us over to join them for the evening. We gratefully accepted and took our stash of booze with us over to their gazebo. They were playing Jenga with a twist, as you removed a block you had to do whatever challenge was written on that block, all drinking related. Within 5 minutes, we’d both had to neck a few of our warm Tuis and Emma couldn’t speak without the forfeit of having to drink another, it was going to be one of those nights. We had a great time with this lot who were made up of Kiwis, South Africans, a Samoan, an Australian and even a Brummie guy! We soon found ourselves drinking their potent fruit punch and downing shots of tequila and as it hit new year we headed down to the beach to watch some fireworks. After our bottle of champagne and a few glasses of port it was bedtime.

Wow, what a painful way to wake up on new years day! We were both hanging, our van must have stunk like a plague pit. After making our way outside, cowering from the light, it became apparent that Em was in far better shape than me. Staggering like a zombie back from the toilets, I nearly spewed over someone’s tent, managing only just to keep it down. Emma went off to skype our buddies back home but I was in no fit state to join her. I laid in the van shivering and throwing up in bin liners wondering why I’d had to drink quite so much last night, and why Tequila, why??????!!!! I know that stuff hates me, and why port?????!!!!! What was I thinking???!!!! After ten minutes of wondering if I was actually dying, things started to improve thankfully. In the style of the Tui beer adverts here in NZ, I was never going to drink again, ‘yeah right’.

It was time to get moving again, so we drove south to pay our second visit to Rotorua. Remember? The town that smells of egg? We found ourselves a campsite at the north end of lake Rotorua which fortunately for us turned out to be the less eggy end. Rotorua is the place most tourists go in order to see Maori cultural performances or to have a traditional Maori hangi meal, where the food is cooked on hot rocks in the ground. With our bodies still feeling slightly worse for wear after the excesses of new year, a huge feast sounded perfect and we were both really keen to get a bit more of a feel of pre-european NZ. So at 7pm we were picked up from our campsite and transported to Tamaki Maori village. Our bus driver, a very lovely lady called Aroha, got us all saying a few Maori words on the way there, like Kia Ora, a term that it turns out can be used as a greeting but also has thousands of other uses, like goodbye or even bugger off! A good one to know. Aroha told us how when we arrive the Maori men would challenge us to see if we were friend or foe, assuming they found us friendly we’d be allowed into their village. We had to select a chief to represent our bus, there were two other buses arriving that would each have a chief too. A young English guy enthusiastically volunteered for the role and so became our chief.

As we arrived at the village we all stood in a semi-circle leaving a large area of ground clear in front of the village’s wooden defensive gates. The hypnotic sound of a woman’s voice chanting could be heard coming from within the fortified village. We started to hear men chanting too and the Maori chief appeared at a tower looking out over us potential invaders. There was a tense atmosphere. The gates opened and a succession of the Maori men came out with differing weapons, demonstrating their skill which coupled with the menacing and aggressive facial expressions intimidated us all I think. The three chiefs had to stand before these guys without flinching or smiling, this was a serious matter. Aroha had told us that it would be considered very rude to smile or laugh during the displays, you certainly wouldn’t want to go annoying a huge Maori guy with a club in his hand! After ten minutes of aggressive display, one of the tribesmen offered a branch on the floor as a token of peace and waited to see our chief’s reactions. They had been instructed to accept the branch and in turn walk towards the village chief and perform the hongi, the sharing or breath, by pressing their noses together twice. Apparently three presses was a marriage proposal, no one had the guts to try that one out on the very imposing chief, a magnificent looking guy covered in tattoos with many on his face, long greying hair and big arms. Soon all three of our chiefs had performed the hongi, the Maori chief then addressed us all and told us that we could all now relax, the formalities were over, and welcomed us into his village. This had already blown us away, but there was plenty more coming.

With the tense atmosphere immediately lightened by our kind welcome, we were all invited into the village. We walked through the wooden fence and into a forest, it was now quite dark and we could see small huts in the woods. We then walked around the huts in turn and were told about various different traditions at each, with lots of audience participation and lots of laughs. I was pulled out to demonstrate a foot agility exercise, kind of like hopscotch where I had to run keeping my feet between wooden markers on the ground, running to an increasingly fast beat. After plenty of stumbling I don’t think I’ll be becoming a warrior anytime soon! We then learnt the Haka, what you see the All Blacks doing before each rugby match, only we weren’t quite so imposing. The girls were then taught a traditional dance with poi balls, articulating their wrists, apparently another means of improving weapon technique in combat. We learnt about carving and how those skills were translated into the art of tattooing, everyone here had tattoos on their faces and bodies, the ladies all with tattoos covering their chins. In the Maori technique, the flesh is cut away and ink applied so as to form a scar, a bit more heavy going than what we get back home! Emma then took part in an agility game with four others, they stood in a circle, each holding a wooden pole on its end before them. One of the Maori ladies called left or right, in Maori, and the group had to let go of their pole, run in the correct direction and put their hand on the top of their neighbour’s pole before it fell. Sounds easy, except the words were pretty hard to remember and sounded quite similar, Em fared as well as I had done with the footwork test!

We were then all invited to see the hangi feast being taken from the earth oven. The air was full of the lovely smells of various meats, seafood and vegetables as it was all lifted out. Emma and I were salivating! Before dinner though we still had the cultural show to see and so were invited into the marae or meeting house where the performance was held, we’d have to hold out a bit longer for our food. They put on an incredible show, with traditional songs and dances including an awesome rendition of the haka. The chief then talked us through the different weapons traditionally used by the Maori, whilst one of the other guys demonstrated that weapon. Fighting between tribes was brutal and so their fortified villages were crucial in protecting their families. He didn’t try to hide their cannibalistic past, and spoke openly of how dead opponents would be eaten in order to gain their strength. The Maori stuck out tongue gesture literally meant I’m going to kill and eat you! There’s many mentions of this in Cook’s journals, on one occasion he writes about a guy seen gnawing on a severed forearm! Despite being formidable warriors they were an equally artistic culture with music and carving in their traditions. Then followed some modern songs which they sang with beautiful harmonies, there’s some talented people here indeed. The chief then thanked us all for coming, telling us that our interest was crucial in preserving their culture. Obviously Maori people don’t live in this way anymore, they get in their cars and drive home after the show, but as long as people want to know how they lived before the Europeans arrived, they would keep performing, keeping their traditions alive.

We were then invited into a huge dining room and called up a table at a time to fill our plate from the magnificent feast that had been set out. Roast chicken, lamb, pork, whiting, mussels, potatoes, kumara (sweet potatoes), stuffing, gravy, bread, anything you could imagine wanting on your dream roast dinner basically! We filled our plates with more food than we’ve ever eaten whilst travelling it would be safe to say. Oh man was it good, I’m salivating writing about it! Everything was cooked perfectly and had an unmistakable slightly earthy, smokiness to it that we both loved. We ran back up for seconds before it was cleared away for dessert, yes, the meal wasn’t finished yet! A Pavlova (a kiwi or Aussie invention depending on who you ask), steamed sponge and custard were all then put up for us, wow! Obviously these weren’t all traditional Maori foods, the style of cooking was the key here and it demonstrated what you can cook in a small hole in the earth. The chief gave us some tips on how to dig our own hangi, the main one being not to dig too close to the house! There was a big singalong after dinner with one of the guys picking up an acoustic guitar and we were all invited to join in. We were all thanked again for coming which felt truly sincere. We boarded our bus back to the campsite swollen with food and smiling from a night of great entertainment and hospitality. We highly recommend the Tamaki village 🙂

We laid in bed that night with our stomachs wondering what had happened, the only other time they get that much food is at Christmas! We certainly had some digesting to do if we were going to be able to get up in the morning and go white water rafting down a 7 metre waterfall!

I’ll leave that story for Emmy. Goodbye for now and as always thanks for following our journey.



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