Just before we set off to explore Taranaki, we passed a large grey bus in a Wellington car park. Boldly written at the top of its windscreen was the following boast “God created Taranaki so the Hardcore people would have somewhere to live”
We’d barely crossed the border into the Taranaki region when the rain began to fall. We drove on. The rain became a thick grey curtain, impenetrable even with the headlights on high beam. We pulled over and waited. The rain was relentless. It was hardcore. I peered into the obscurity. What kind of country lay beyond the blanket of hard, driving rain? How hard exactly were the hardcore people who lived here? I was soon to find out.
Within a few minutes, dim figures broke from the watery wall ahead and ran swiftly towards us. As they came closer they took shape as children, bare-headed, bare-footed, in t- shirts and shorts, bags bouncing on their backs. School was out and its hardcore pupils were on their way home.
When the road had cleared of kids and the rain had eased to a thin veil, we drove on. Thick bands of water were spilling down the steep banks on either side of the road; it was fast becoming a river. We eased cautiously on ahead of it, past farms of an unbelievable green, through dying towns where the ruins of once prosperous flourishing dairy factories and freezing works huddled on the outskirts and abandoned shops lined the empty streets, on to New Plymouth. In more clement weather we might have lingered and explored, stopped to photograph the Aotea canoe at Patea, to have a beer in the grand old hotel at Waverley, to admire Taranaki Maunga from afar or to follow one a signpost up an enticing side road but we were driven on by the relentless rain and the threat of an even worse storm waiting just offshore. We were definitely in Taranaki, the hardcore country.
When it comes to Rotorua culinary experiences (or Aotearoa New Zealand culinary experiences, in fact) the Hangi is de rigeur. Steamed underground on a bed of hot stones, hangi cuisine is melt in the mouth tender, with a taste all of its own.
Faced with a dozen different hangi options, including concert and cultural experience, I found it difficult to make a choice, so I called an expert on all things Maori, hangi cuisine included, Ceillhe Sperath of Time Unlimited Tours.
“Mitai!” she replied without hesitation “Best Hangi, best concert, best evening all round”.
She wasn’t wrong.
Our Mitai experience begins when their signature van picks us up at our hotel, sometime between 5.45 and 6.10, and whisks us away to a spot in the lee of Mount Ngongotaha, on the northern side of the city. It’s clear, from the car-park full of vans and coaches, that this is a big and popular event.
Music, a mix of old Maori and pakeha favourites, floats from the doorway of an enormous marquee. After check-in at reception and a stop at the bar, we make our way through a sea of tables to our place, at the front, near the singer. I’m transported back to the 60son the nostalgic strains of Pearly Shells and E Pari Ra. My reverie is interrupted, though, by our M.C, who begins greetings and introductions, all in their own languages, to the 13 nations represented in the crowd.
Introductions over, we’re off to witness the lifting of the Hangi. The lifting of any Hangi is always attended by a certain a degree of anticipation, excitement and ceremony. Mitai adds suspense, drama and mystery to the event. When we arrive at the Hangi pit it has, in fact, already been lifted. Neat rows of heihei (chicken) reme (lamb) riwai (potatoes) paukena (pumpkin) and kumara (sweet potatoes) sit, steaming fragrantly in a wire basket on a raised bench, rather like an altar. We all stare and drool in reverent silence. But not for long! The Mitai experience is an active and involving one.
Soon we’re on the move again, down a bush path lit by flaming torches, to the river. We line up on the bank. There’s distant call, a karanga, a long booming blast on a conch shell, the sound of chanting and the rhythmic splash of paddles. It grows louder and louder and a waka full of tattooed warriors, in full traditional dress glides into view and paddles on by. We shuffle back up the bush path and follow the sound of the karanga into another marquee.
Before us, in the dim light, is an ancient village where dark shapes huddle around fires in front of rough nikau whares, or huts. We are back in the time before the Pakeha, mai rano, long ago. When we’ve taken our seats, the villagers rise and the Powhiri, or welcome ceremony begins. There are whaikorero (traditional speeches of welcome) and waiata (songs) to support them. Demonstrations of taiaha (weaponry) poi, waiata-a-ringa (action songs) and explanations of ta moko (tattoos) and traditional dress as well as legends and stories follow. Who knows how long we sit spellbound steeped in the lore and the life of the Maori.
But we quickly return to real time at the news that our hangi is served in the first marquee. We find it flanked by all sorts of salads and side dishes including kai moana (seafood) on a table almost audibly groaning under the strain. The singer is back at his station to sweeten our dining experience. But really, it needs no sweetening – the Mitai kai (food) is delicious and the Hangi is simply sensational. Short work is soon made of it all. Another table is unveiled, laden with all manner of desserts, as well those Kiwi “originals” the Pavlova and the trifle.
One might imagine that the evening would end there, that we would all roll off our chairs and out to our coaches or vans, to return “tired but happy and full” to our hotels. Perhaps elsewhere it might, but not at Mitai. The Mitai evening gives new meaning to the term interactive experience.
After dinner we are issued with torches and we join our guide Te Po for a bush tour. It begins with a talk on trees. We learn the difference between nikau, wheke, ponga and the Kiwi emblem the silver fern. We see model whare thatched with nikau. We see how silver fern can be used to light the way in the dark. We plunge deeper into the bush and assemble beside a small round pool. We turn our torches off and the night is lit with thousands of tiny spots of light – glow-worms! The magic of the glow-worms is only surpassed by the magic of the pool or puna. It is Mitai’s sacred spring. Warriors bathed here to heal their wounds after battle. The tohunga, or tribal medicine men from the district used its waters for rituals and to cure the sick. Its water is of such purity and clarity, that although it is two meters deep, it seems only centimetres. The bubbles from the spring underneath rise like a stream of little glass balls and the colour and texture every grain of sand at the bottom is clearly and sharply defined.
After the bush walk, we did go back to our coaches and vans and we did return, tired but happy to our hotels.
Now, I can say, without hesitation, that Mitai has the best hangi, the best concert, the best cultural experience, the best insight into Maori traditions and the best evening all round in Rotorua.