A special moment with warriors

IT MIGHT be OK for a beefy Wallaby to stare down a bunch of powerfully built Kiwis as they launch into a ferocious, blood-curdling haka - but for those of us not built like Nathan Sharpe, it's intimidating.

The full connotation of the haka (which means "dance" and not "I'm about to tear your head off") is lost in the mists of time but it is believed it was used as a greeting between tribes, who would then either become friends or slaughter each other.

At the magnificent Te Puia Maori Arts & Crafts Institute in the geothermal Te Whakarewarewa Valley in Rotorua, guests gather at the marae (meeting place) among incredible ancestral wood carvings where a welcoming haka is performed by the men and a poi dance is performed by the women (like many cultures, a lot of Maori traditional roles are split along gender lines). All are dressed in traditional outfits and the men look like true warriors.

Before they begin, our host, Patrick, asks for a volunteer to step forward and accept the welcome on behalf of our group.

Everyone starts the moonwalk, shuffling backwards with small steps. Patrick says the acceptance has to be made by a man. Half the audience continue the shuffle and look around, trying to avoid eye contact. When one of our group dobs me in, Patrick smiles, assuring me it's all reasonably harmless. Reasonably? He takes me aside and explains what my duties will be during the haka. Stand out the front of the group. Check. Stand up straight and still. Check. Pick up the leaf frond, accepting the offer of friendship. Check. Nose-kiss the warriors. Che ... er, excuse me?

The nose kiss, or hongi, is a nod to the creation story, when the god Tane (meaning male) moulded a woman out of the earth, embraced her and breathed into her nostrils, bringing her to life. She was called Hineahuone (earth-formed maiden) and to this day is thought to be saying to Tane: "Yeah, but what have you done for me lately?"

An up-close haka is dramatic and exciting - a loud, muscular performance with plenty of protruding tongues, wide eyes and head shaking.

I stand out front trying to look cool and composed and, above all, respectful. I want to pay due deference to this serious Maori custom - also, any one of the warriors could break me like a twig. Then it's showtime.

I do my duty and take one for the team, nose-kissing each imposing man, giving a little snort and making eye contact. It's actually really cool.

Some warriors breathe more aggressively than others but none of them smile, possibly because of tradition but more likely because of the garlic rainbow trout I had for dinner the previous night.

Rotorua is a bit on the nose at the best of times, with its spectacular sulphur geysers and boiling mud pools filling the air with the smell of rotten eggs. But, Wallaby or not, the intimate nasal greeting of the hongi is definitely a box to tick.