We have a comprehensive itinerary mapped out for our entire weekend, and our first stop is
, the Museum of New Zealand.
"We cannot leave until everything is eaten," he intones, his eyes twinkling.
It would be sacrilege to visit New Zealand without sampling one of their most famous exports, mussels. We dig into a bowl of mussels that are so big, they've been cut in half, and still they look large and chunky in their tangy vinaigrette dressing.
Manuka honey is the final condiment, revered worldwide for its natural antibacterial properties. We appreciate its rich flavour on its own, but I take great delight in drizzling it over fat wedges of roasted kumara sweet potato chips.
Kumara sweet potato chips
Herbal medicines have long featured as part of Maori custom and way of life. Kawakawa leaves are chewed to relieve toothaches, or made into a tea to relieve constipation, asthma or blood pressure problems.
The leaves and bark can also be applied externally to wounds, burns or ulcers. Rangimoana explains that it is only when the leaves have holes eaten in them by insects, that they are ready to use.
The kawakawa tea is surprisingly light and soothing, a bit like a chamomile tea flavoured with ginger, although we are warned that whilst one cup is good and two cups is delicious, three cups will definitely send you running for the bathroom, as its laxative effects make itself known!
Rangimoana leads us outside to Bush City, a living outdoor display of native New Zealand forest and vegetation. It's a fascinating look at the plants and leaves used, despite the howling winds and freezing temperature. We also learn about interesting Maori traditions and beliefs, including the rule that fishing is only done between December and May, allowing fish stocks to regenerate sufficiently. Many Maori still stick to this, he says, and they only fish for their family, not for the country. Fishing should only be for what you yourself can eat.
Rangimoana showing us kawakawa leaves
Giant greenstone also known as New Zealand jade or nephrite
- Maori call this pounamu
We move back into the museum for a brief look at the exhibits. The full name of the museum is Te Papa Tongarewa which means "container of treasures".
Here is a boulder of New Zealand jade, rubbed over the years to reveal its dark green hue. There is a six-metre long glass tank is a colossal squid that weighs 495 kilograms. Overhead is a spectacular 20.6m long skeleton of a pygmy blue whale.
Rangimoana has so much knowledge to share but it's his story about the kiwi that strikes me as most poignant.
The story of the kiwi
The kiwi, short, stumpy and flightless is the national symbol of New Zealand, but Maori storytelling says the kiwi was not always so. It was once a beautiful bird with long legs, spectacular plumage and could glide through the air with ease. One day the world was slowly becoming poisoned by a thick dark mud - the end was nigh unless someone would agree to come down to the swamp and eat the poison, otherwise all animals would die.
Tanemahuta, the god of the forest, asked the birds to help him. He asked the tui to help, but the tui said he was too scared. He asked the pukeko to eat the poison, but the bird refused, saying he didn't want to get his feet wet. He asked the pipiwharauora, but he said he was too busy building his nest to help.
Only the kiwi stepped forward to volunteer, and although he knew he would lose his plumage, long legs, and ability to fly, the kiwi agreed. You will lose your birdcall, and will only sqwawk, the kiwi was warned. You will forage in the dark, have squat legs, no feathers, and grow whiskers and a long beak to find the poison. The kiwi agreed.
Tanemahuta was so grateful to the kiwi. All animals would now be saved. However he decided to teach the other birds a lesson. To the tui, he said, you said you were too scared I will mark you with two white feathers on your throat as a sign of a coward. The tui is a honeyeater that has dark feathers except for a small white marking on the throat.
To the pukeko, Tanemahuta said you were too worried about getting your feet wet. From now on you live in the swamp. The pukeko is the purple swamp hen.
To the pipiwharauroa, Tanemahuta said you were too busy building your nest to help. From now on you will no longer build nests, but be forced to lay your eggs in the nests of others. The pipiwharauroa is the shining cuckoo.
And to the kiwi, Tanemahuta said we will always be grateful for your sacrifice. You will be known throughout the lands and the most treasured bird of all.
The Marae is the Maori communal meeting place and the one at Te Papa is often used to host official welcomes for visiting ambassadors and international officials.
There are layers of symbolism and meaning behind every design aspect here. It's not until Rangimoana points them out, that we see how each culture around the world has been incorporated into its design, acknowledging and welcoming all peoples as one.
We're instructed to take a seat and Rangimoana quickly asks about our cultural background. Suddenly we're treated to a mihimihi, a ceremonial welcome that is performed first in Maori and then translated in English.
It's hard to describe the intensity of emotion that transpires during the ten minute ceremony. The Maori language is extraordinarily beautiful, a deep and booming swell of calls that seems to call on your most inner soul, spine-tingling in its rawness and musicality. Each of us are thanked for the gifts our own cultures have brought to the Maori people and the people of New Zealand.
One by one, Rangimoana stands before us, looking us in the eye and welcoming us with all the power and magnitude of someone channeling the life force of the entire country. We are welcomed, not to his house, but to our home.
I'm the last one to be welcomed and he acknowledges both my Chinese ancestry as well as my status as the only female in the room. He thanks me as a representative of all women, as nurturer, as comforter, as giver of life.
"Men are the gainers of knowledge, but only women have the power of wisdom," he intones.
"We greet you, we greet you".