The great New Zealand greeting

Our correspondent finds a warm welcome in unexpected places

By Heather Greenwood Davis
Whakatāne, New Zealand.
Whakatāne, New Zealand.
Photograph by Erika Larsen

The long Māori spear pointing at Christoph Niemann’s Adam’s apple rests about an inch from its target. The spear holder’s eyes are about the same distance from Niemann’s, searching them for any sign of fear. Neimann doesn’t blink. For a few seconds neither man moves. The only sounds I hear are their breathing and my pounding heart.

This welcome was more than I expected when Niemann, a Berlin-based artist and fellow National Geographic Travel explorer, and I approached the gate of the Mataatua Wharenui, a traditional Māori meeting house, in Whakatāne, on the North Island.

We wanted to see the wharenui’s intricate carvings, but visiting a Māori marae, or sacred meeting ground, isn’t as simple as knocking at the door. You must be inspected and invited to enter. The challenge Niemann went through is part of the passage. It’s the way things were done by the ancestors and it’s the way things are done now, we’re told. The reasoning is similar.

“Powerful words are exchanged across the [wharenui] floor,” explained Māori elder Te Taru White when we visited him a few days earlier in the town of Rotorua. “To take people through that occasion is a very rich part of manaakitanga. You’re taking them into the heart of the people.”

Manaakitanga is a Māori concept representing the feeling of being welcomed that is widespread across New Zealand. Its roots lie in the spiritual belief that the way you treat people is a direct reflection of your own mana, or integrity. In honouring guests, they say, they are honouring everything from the water to the forests to the land. In a culture that venerates nature, dishonour, therefore, isn’t an option.

Though it originates with the Māori, it is a sentiment that is pervasive. A visitor to New Zealand feels it at every encounter. Locals you meet will offer you everything from a cup of tea to a place to stay to the shirt off their back—and mean it.

"Make no mistake, the notions of manaakitanga are everywhere and anywhere,” White said of the interactions that visitors can expect in New Zealand. “I’m connecting you to the land. I’m connecting you to who I am, to my people, to my culture, to my place.”

Back at Mataatua Wharenui, the formal proceedings are almost over. After a song, a haka dance, and prayers, we are invited to engage in a hongi—the traditional nose-to-nose greeting—with our hosts. The moment is both personal and profound.

In North America we talk extensively of finding personal space; in New Zealand I’m being encouraged to press my forehead and nose to strangers and literally share a breath. School children have shyly offered their noses after welcoming us with songs and haka performances. White participated in a hongi with us in Rotorua.

And then there are the dolphins.

Dressed in a wetsuit and hood, flippers on my feet and snorkel in position, I push off from the speedboat into the cool, green water along Kaikōura’s coast. My entry creates bubbles and cloud, and while waiting for them to subside I can feel my breathing slow. I know I’m not alone in the water, but there is nothing I can see to prove it.

New Zealand Kaikōura is a coastal town on the South Island of New Zealand. It’s known for its abundant wildlife and its sperm whale population. Dolphin Encounter Trip with Encounter Kaikōura where Heather was swimming with the dolphins.
Photograph by Erika Larsen
New Zealand Kaikōura is a coastal town on the South Island of New Zealand. It’s known for its abundant wildlife and its sperm whale population. Dolphin Encounter Trip with Encounter Kaikōura where Heather was swimming with the dolphins.
Photograph by Erika Larsen

I feel the whoosh at my side long before I make out the shape. And then, before my mind can process what is happening, I’m surrounded by wild dusky dolphins.

Dolphin Encounter is a point of pride in Kaikōura. The company, founded in 1990, brings visitors close to the acrobatic animals while respecting the freedom of the dolphins to go about their lives naturally.

For the next hour, I’ll try to follow all of the advice the operators provided on land: “Swim in a circle and they’ll be curious.” “Hum in the water and they’ll come closer.”

I become a karaoke act: humming Katy Perry songs like my life depends on it, circling until I’m dizzy.

It works. And my new dolphin friends swim with me—spinning and jumping—for minutes at a time, before darting off and leaving no trail in the water behind them.

“Were they really here?” I find myself wondering. “Did I imagine that?”

The dolphins come and they go. They swim alongside me when they feel like it. They leave me when they don’t. Just as suddenly they’re back. And in the same way that I’ve experienced much of New Zealand, I give in to the moment and enjoy them without anticipation or expectation.

I keep my hands at my sides (touching isn’t permitted) and enjoy the magic of the moment that has me laughing like a toddler. One instant, though, reminds me exactly where I am.

A dolphin approaches from the opposite direction at eye level. Its face approaches mine, but I’m not Niemann.

Startled, I flinch, and it’s gone.

It’s only in recounting the tale back on the boat that it occurs to me: in true New Zealand style, even the wildlife offers you a welcome.


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