In Search of Families In Search of Adventure
A Family on a Bike Tour: New Zealand, Samoa, USA and Canada 2004/2005

Canoes, culture and chips please

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From:       Kirstie
Subject:   Canoes, culture and chips please
  Date:         7th April 2005
     Kamo, North Island, New Zealand


"This is a traditional Maori war stroke. It enables the rower to paddle long distances." Niel gracefully and powerfully pushed the blade through the water then rested it on his knee, "the momentary rest relaxes your muscles, allowing you to keep going for longer. It's accompanied by a chant like this." He chanted a rhythm that matched the beat of the oar, and I clumsily followed, slapping my oar into the river, embarrassedly mumbling the chant and thankful for each rest beat. Around us the fish sploshed in and out of the water, skilfully dodging the fishing line while nosing around the river for food, creating circles of water and light within the steady flow of the tide. As the sun burnt down on our faces, my oars splashed back droplets of water which I wiped around my face, cooling my blistering lips. The water was clear on my tongue, but would soon turn salty as we approached the open sea; its' waves crashing loudly into the bay. Pull and rest; pull and rest; I was grateful I wasn't going to wage war on a Maori tribe, but simply off to the beach for a swim.

"Now try this one" said Niel, his dark wavy hair blowing behind us in the head wind. "This is a sprint stroke. You just put the tip of the blade in very lightly, but very fast. Pull it back just as far as your knee. This is traditionally used when there are many people rowing. You can get up some real power. This has a chant too. "Turuki turuki, paneke, paneke." As we chanted and rowed, the boat tipped about on the water, rocking in the swells. "You've got the hang of this canoe," said Niel. "You seem quite relaxed. Some people tense up which makes this particular boat hard to manage." I forced myself to unclench the countless muscles that had seized up since I climbed in, and anxiously rode a small wave.

Across the river, Aver, Niel's sixty year old mother was quite effortlessly powering a kayak, picking a safe route across the channel for us all to follow. Behind her in a large steady Canadian canoe, Stuart, Niel's wife Jette, and her children Henry and Lewis easily paddled through the current. Five year old Henry trailed a fishing line from the back of the canoe. There didn't seem to be much war chanting coming from their boat. Behind me in our canoe, Cameron had fallen asleep, and looking back I could just see the tip of his nose and his pink cheeks, as he gently snored from the depths of his life jacket. Matthew was happily waving his plastic oar about in the water and shouting "panica panica," every other second. Despite this, it was an oddly peaceful morning, and as we paddled Niel briefed me on the role Maori customs play in his family life. He started by briefing me about the moko, an intricate tattoo that traditionally decorated the bodies of the Maori higher classes. It was customary for women to wear facial tattoos on their chins, while high ranking men not only had tattoos over their entire faces, but also much of their bodies. "Have you ever thought about getting a moko?" I asked Niel. "I already have one," he replied.

Our concentration was diverted by the choppy water, as the boat tipped and rocked it's way onto the beach. Aver, Jette and Stuart began to unload picnic, water wings, boogie boards, snorkels and swimming costumes. I stepped out of our canoe, glad to be back on land and turned around to see that Niel had now revealed his moko. From just beneath his chest to just above his knees was an elaborate and intricate Maori design. He wore only a piece of black material, wrapped around his groin like some kind of tribal G-string to display the full glory of the moko on his chest, legs and buttocks. "Wow. I don't imagine you had that done at your high street tattoo joint," I said, taken aback by the extent of the painting, "and I reckon it must have taken forever too." He laughed, turning so we could see the full design. "Four days. But it's not just about a tattoo. It's a coming of age ritual; this was done soon after I became a father. It's an important ritual and comes with many skills, ceremonies and responsibilities. Different tribes and families have their own design, and within that there are many different choices. This part of the design represents the hammerhead shark which traditionally symbolises the protection of the high chief." He pointed to the pattern on the upper half of his body. "How do you qualify then? By being the Dad?" I asked. "Warrior training," he smiled. As we unpacked the picnic, Niel comfortably fielded my endless questions about the process of painting such a large part of his body; how the design changed as the skin aged, the rituals associated with the moko; and how to endure four days of being tattoed all over. Stuart ate a banana and winced.

We had been invited to spend the weekend with Niel's family at his mother's home in Waipu after Niel and Jette heard us on Radio New Zealand. This family had spent years creating their own outdoor adventures. Aver and her husband John have cycle toured much of the world, and took their children sailing around the globe from an early age. Niel and Jette and their two children leave their Auckland home wherever possible to spend time at the coast and get their fix of fresh air. As their two boys played and ran around with our boys they spoke fluent Maori, as well as English. "Henry goes to a Maori school," explained Aver, "he stands out a mile with his blond hair and fair skin, but he's settled in well. John and Jette are Dutch, I'm Maori, so Niel is half and half and the kids are a right mix. Niel and Jette are keen to encourage the children to understand their culture and history."

Despite travelling through a high proportion of the New Zealand countryside, and hoping to explore Maori culture first hand, the closest we had come to a Maori before now was at the cultural centre in Rotorua, during a ceremony performed for tourists. In both North and South Island we had been surprised by the level of hostility and racial comment about Maori people. But the conflict between the Pakeha (the Maori term for Europeans) and the Maori communities goes back through history. In 1840 the Maori chiefs were persuaded to relinquish their sovereignty to the British Crown, and financial reparations are still being made today to many Maori tribes whose lands were deemed to have been unjustly confiscated. But long before this they made uncomfortable neighbours. The Europeans snatched NZ from the Polynesian people who had populated the land after arriving in canoes in the 1300's. A Dutchman stayed long enough to have a cup of tea and re-name it after a Netherlands province, before sailing off again and leaving it to Captain James Cook to 'discover.' The Europeans then began to trickle in to this new land, now re-named and claimed, bringing with them sheep, bibles and eventually McDonalds.

"Lock up your bikes in North Island. Or better still, don't bother going to North Island at all. There's Maori's there," said one mean spirited woman outside a cinema in South Island. The memory of this came flooding back as Aver opened up her house, her fridge and her family to our English family of complete strangers. "Treat the house as your own. Lie in if you like and I'll get up with the children. I've made apple cake and carrot cake for you. Now do you all like lasagne? We'll take you to the beach tomorrow and try out some of the canoes. Let's take a big picnic."

After our huge picnic lunch, Matthew fell in love with a new water sport; boogie boarding. Continually trashed by the huge waves, and swallowing large quantities of sea water, he began to grow in confidence as he paddled out on the surf then let it wash him in at high speeds. Together with Henry he spent hours crashing in, until his fingers were prunes and he shivered in his thin swimming costume.

Matthew gets to grips with another adventure sport

"Lets get the snorkels and go diving in the river for pipi," said Niel, grabbing the two boys hands. Together they ducked and dived under the shallow water, gathering the dinner for that night's barbecue. When they bobbed up together, Niel talked to Henry in Maori. Stuart ate his sandwich thoughtfully while Aver led a separate party back down on the sand to make shell covered volcanoes. "Kirst…what part of the English culture are we going to be able to pass on to our kids." Stuart asked in a rush when they had left, putting his sandwich down on a rock. "Er….football hooliganism?" I suggested. "No I'm serious." He said, picking the sandwich up again and trying to remove the grains of sand from the bread. "Niel is teaching his boys ancient Maori skills of fishing, canoeing, combat, living off the land, plus the language, and all the culture. He's passing on this amazing heritage. What can I teach mine? I can't think of a single thing." I thought for a while, watching the bag of pipi's grow, and my son's head bobbing up and down in the water. "What about Morris dancing, that's very English isn't it?" I finally suggested. "Morris dancing? You want our kids to learn how to Morris dance?" Stuart said irritably, walking down to the water's edge and kicking at a sandy reproduction of Mount Ruapehu.

When Aver returned with the boys, we made our way back up the river, battling the tide once more. This time we travelled as two families, the Kiwi's in one boat and the English in the other. Stuart seemed to be engaged in a war on Morris dancing, chanting away as he rowed. "Is that the best we can do? Really? Bloody poncing around with bells and sticks and tartan socks?" Back at Aver's house, Niel prepared the seafood for the evening barbecue, while the kids showed us the wooden taiaha (a long club) their dad had carved and practiced some Maori spear moves with sticks from the beach. As we ate sausages and shellfish and watched the moon over the water I thought about what Stuart had said. This family were so proud of their history and culture, and determined not to let the old traditions die. What could I pass down to my kids? What are the essentials of English tradition and culture. An appreciation of architecture and history? A talent for entertaining the world through humour? Certainly not the food, not in our house anyway.

Family in a canoe or whanau in a waka?

Two days later, we were on the bikes again, and stopped at a fish and chip shop for dinner. I went in to order, asking the woman to cook us the local fish. "We've a lovely snapper, just caught this morning," she replied and I ordered two, freshly battered, along with a family sized portion of chips. Outside, Stuart was supervising the kids as they climbed over the picnic table, and kicked over the water bottles. "If you don't sit down and shut up then Mummy is going to teach you Morris dancing," Stuart yelled at them. They looked up expectantly, then forgot the threat in the scramble for chips. "Hey I know," said Stuart as he burnt his mouth on a hot chip. "if there's one thing the English do know all about it's fish and chips. Here guys. Sit quietly down now. I'm going to tell you something very important about your English culture. Here in front of you is something we Poms are world famous for, and know all about. This is cod and chips and there's nothing like it in the world. And the best place to catch it? At the good old fashioned fish and chip shop. Listen and learn."



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