Descending out of the foggy heights of New Zealand highways, we reached the outskirts of Kawhia in the late afternoon. We were a Californian backpacker, a Maori woman and myself and we were here to spend the night at the Marae, the spiritual and communal home of the local Maori tribe.
Beautifully basic, our home for the night consisted of a few simple wooden buildings covered in fantastically intricate carvings, all clustered together on the edge of Te Wharu Bay. Like a drop in the ocean they floated in the middle of New Zealand nowhere, the only break in the green and blue which stretched endlessly all around. Out back the garden grass ran unfenced to the sea, blending seamlessly into the world.
We arrived to the sight of a pig carcass being cleaved into manageable chunks for the hangi, a traditional cooking method involving burning a fire in a pit and then burying the hot coals and a pile of meat and vegetables overnight. We would learn some fifteen hours later that this method produces meat which falls off the bone as readily as that from any barbecue pit.
While we were happily fascinated watching the men working away at the pig and fire, we were soon told that this would not do as a greeting, and that we must be officially welcomed to the site along with the hundred or so other visitors who had trickled into the marae from various other regional tribes.
We were sat on benches facing the elders of the resident tribe for the ceremony. The leader of the marae spoke first, then one of the visitors, then another of the local elders, then another visitor and so on until everything that needed to be said had been. As the proceedings were conducted in Maori, my Californian companion and I had very little idea what was being discussed, but a warm welcome drives its way through any language barrier. Once we were suitably welcomed, we shared a hongi – a nose to nose greeting - with the locals and went to eat.
After the official welcome, the marae instantly became a home shared by a dozen families, the meal served in one room on a few long tables. As the visitors who had travelled furthest, we were invited to eat with the leaders of the local tribe, and as we ate one chieftain explained the curious theory that the Maori are in fact one of the lost tribes of Israel; if correct, they would surely have to be the most lost of them all.
The marae then relaxed into the evening. Washing up duties were delegated from parents to sullen teenagers, friends and distant relatives caught up with one another and outside a haka was rehearsed for performance at the food festival the next day at which my party would be working.
When the light started to fail and eyes droop, we slowly filtered into the main meeting house, for at a marae even sleeping is communal. Our beds for the evening were mattresses lain out in long rows against the walls of the hall, about two hundred in total but, luckily, only about half were taken. Remarkably, not one of the hundred was a significant snorer and, like so many of those dreaded nights spent in 40 bed dorms, sleep came surprisingly easily.
We were up and off all too early in the morning. For the first time since I’d been in New Zealand, a country in which the culture can often feel all too familiar, I had found myself in the middle of something entirely not. To see traditional Maori culture thriving even after the destruction ravaged upon it by our British and European forefathers was a fulfilling and inspiring experience. As we climbed back into the New Zealand heights and I looked back and saw the sun just starting to spill over the mountains and flow down onto the marae, I only hoped that the next night so far out of my ordinary was not too far down the line.