"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
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
Matthew gets to grips with another
"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
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
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."