ROTORUA, New Zealand -- Kia ora.
In Maori -- an official New Zealand language since 1987 spoken by descendants of indigenous Polynesian people who arrived more than 1,200 years ago -- the informal translation is "Hi!"
But there are other interpretations, depending on the occasion and number of people present.
The greeting is used throughout the island country, where the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi ceded sovereignty to Queen Victoria of Great Britain while the Maori retained territorial rights. Kia ora also appears on signs and is the title of Air New Zealand's in-flight magazine.
After two days on the North Island, I recognized the warm welcome offered by Taparoto "Tapa-Nicholson at the Te Puia: New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, where 12 monumental carvings at the entrance represent celestial guardians in Te Arawa iwi (tribe) culture. The Visitor Experience general manager started as a teenaged apprentice wood-carver, left in 2003 to work with the Church of England and returned to help long-time staff and newer guides "relearn the narratives."
Visitors are greeted with ceremony at the Te Aronui a Rua meeting house at the Puia Maori Arts and Crafts Institute in Rotorura, N.Z. IAN ROBERTSON/Special to QMI Agency
Beyond sights and sounds, "it's all about ... telling the story of the people connected to the land," Nicholson said on a shaded cafe patio, before we went exploring.
Often speaking Maori, then translating, Nicholson said Te Puia's revenue is returned to the community and the country.
Entered off Hemo Rd., the 60-hectare site lets manuhuri -- or visitors -- experience the ancient culture first-hand. A visit starts with welcoming songs, greetings, stories and demonstrations of ancient haka -- a tongues-out, foot-stomping challenge -- in the Te Aronui a Rua meeting house. (It's near another one built in 1901 for two royal visitors, the future King George V and Queen Mary.)
There are weaving and carving demonstrations by students at the two schools, a gallery and shop stocked with the work of Maori artists, available for taonga (gifts) and the Pikirangi village, which shows how people lived before Europeans arrived.
Nicholson said carvers use only windfalls and dead swamp trees, producing symbolic shapes, including images of people, birds and animals. Figures on some that stand 3-metres-tall are somewhat reminiscent of Canadian west coast totems.
At the restaurant, we enjoyed a lunch of chicken, kumara (sweet potato), squash, corn-on-the-cob and local herbs. A "hangi" meal is also prepared using steamboxes placed over thermal steam vents and banquets are served during evening tours.
The biggest highlight in the Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley is the world-famous Pohutu Geyser, which erupts every 40 minutes. A bit early, we kept walking but had a magnificent view from about 50 metres away as Pohutu spat steaming water 30 metres into the air.
Along the trails, subterranean sources also provide heat that make moon-like mud pools bubble.
In recent years, maintenance crews cleared vegetation and buildings to expand views of the site's attractions, which were obscured since the 1980s, plus other sites after Mt. Tarawera erupted in 1886. Workers also unveiled several long-covered boiling pools and an inactive geyser.
"I prefer to sing the story of the pools and their origins," Nicholson said, demonstrating softly in a rhythm that added to "the narrative."
He said the god of the forest had three children with a woman, including one who grew into a fern tree, which the Maori believe the forests descended from.
"My aunties and my mother gave me the traditions, not for me, but for future generations," Nicholson said. "My journey starts with our ancestors," or tipuna, relating how deities provided warmth from below-ground for a frostbitten man who conquered the mountains.
The hot waters are considered a gift of the gods, which was left to future generations, he said.
Back at the main gate, my genial host repeated the familiar greeting as I prepared to leave.
It was fitting, since Kia ora can also mean "thanks" or "farewell."
-- Te Puia is on Hemo Rd., before the junction with Hwy. 5 (Old Taupo Rd.), drive south of Lake Rotorua on Hwy. 30 (Sala St.). For more, write New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, P.O. Box 334, Rotorua, N.Z., or email: email@example.com. I suggest pre-booking.
-- Air New Zealand flies direct, non-stop from Vancouver (five times per week during the winter), daily from San Francisco and twice daily from Los Angeles.
-- New Zealand Cycle Trail riders can now ride through Te Puia from downtown Rotorura.