Maori culture tours in Wellington: Plans to make New Zealand capital a Maori language city by 2040

There's an ill wind and it's blowing us clear across Wellington's Whairepo Lagoon. "Tokihi!" roars our crew master, his voice echoing across the water like an ancient war cry. "Haa!" we scream in response, thrusting our white-tipped paddles into the water as one.

"Haa!" We tilt forward, shoulders on fire as we propel the wooden canoe through driving rain.

The lagoon is a tempest; heaving and rolling like a living thing, yet our Maori waka (canoe) holds steady, our chants keeping us in time, like seafarers of old.

We'd started outside the Te Wharewaka o Poneke (waka house) a vast building in the shape of a traditional cloak. "Our vision is to return a strong Maori presence to the waterfront," says Taupuruariki Brightwell, one of our guides for the two-hour waka tour.

Maori culture is experiencing a revival, but nowhere is it more obvious than in the nation's capital. The new Te Tauihu te reo Maori policy - named after the ornately carved figurehead of a waka - aims to make Wellington a Maori language city by 2040, the 200th anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi.

"Tokihi!" comes the command, as we turn into the wind for the gruelling paddle back to the waka house, as a small group of bystanders cheers us on.

And that's the strength of a tour like this; it elevates Maori art and culture, putting it centre stage, while helping to rekindle Indigenous pride across the entire city.

The following day I head to Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand's bold and innovative national museum, where I learn more about Polynesian navigation than a girl needs to know.

"Testicular navigation," says my guide Pene Kiwi Kiwi, as we pause in front of a voyaging waka. "The early navigators used their testicles to feel the direction of the swell when it was too dark to see the stars."

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I don't doubt she's telling the truth; there's even a signboard to prove it. Whether the technique relied on sensing vibration through the waka's wooden seats, or if the navigators adopted a commando-style "stand and swing" position, is still open to debate.

Dinner that night at restaurant Hiakai, a fine-dining experience dedicated to the exploration of Maori cooking, is a sure sign that Wellington is leading the Indigenous food movement. Set inside a restored brick kiln on the city-fringe, chef Monique Fiso serves up six, eight and 10-course set-menus, including boundary-pushing dishes such as green-lipped mussel-flavoured ice cream on a base of heirloom potatoes, and ika (fish) paired with parsnip, kowhitiwhiti (a native watercress with a mustard flavour), kawakawa (a native healing herb said to aid digestion) and bone broth.

Over three hours, my eight-course degustation transports me from the heights of New Zealand's pine forests to the depths of its oceans, from the simple pleasures of beach barbecues to flavours I never knew existed. It's a dream, a challenge, a celebration of art, nature and culture. No wonder Hiakai made Lonely Planet's "Best in Travel 2021" list.

One afternoon I visit the Dowse Art Museum where I meet Neke Moa, a contemporary jeweller well known for pounamu (nephrite jade) carvings. "Working with pounamu allows me to channel the knowledge and spirit of my ancestors," she says. "It provides a direct connection with the people of this land and the land itself."

Opened in 1971 the museum is currently celebrating "50 years of uplifting ideas", with a special program of exhibitions, talks and events to be rolled out across 2021. Topics include everything from "Not today…Can you decolonise an art gallery?" to the "Connotation of craft for contemporary Maori artists".

On my final morning I stroll along the waterfront, now called Ara Moana – "Ocean Pathway". Overhead the sky is a streaked paua shell, while in the distance a waka pushes through the water, its curved Te Tauihu a symbol of determination and courage. Shielding my eyes against the sun I see a bright, golden city, poised, not just for a new day, but a new era.

THE DETAILS

MORE

traveller.com.au/new-zealand

WellingtonNZ.com

DINE

Hiakai is open for dinner Thursday to Saturday. See hiakai.co.nz

FLY

Qantas operates flights between Sydney, Melbourne and Wellington. See qantas.com

Kerry van der Jagt was a guest of WellingtonNZ. See wellingtonnz.com

Travel to New Zealand from Australian states aside from Western Australia is permitted. A high degree of caution is recommended due to the COVID pandemic. See smartraveller.gov.au

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