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23 Nov

How it felt to be MAD @ Whaka!


Together with three other people, myself and Diana from Nomads Auckland, went on a 5 day programme in Rotorua to combine volunteer work with some cultural activities. This was an unforgettable experience - and one that we highly recommended to everyone who's coming to New Zealand! We shared this experience with Isabelle from Germany - you can read her review of the Mad NZ Cultural & Volunteer Package at the end of this article..

Day 1 – Getting to Rotorua

Because it was the first time we both have been literally out of Auckland and the region, the road trip to Rotorua finally gave us the feeling we were in New Zealand. Even though we’ve heard about Craig’s driving skills we made it safe to our final destination and even had the chance to make a pit stop in Tirau. We were impressed by the i-Site building which is basically a huge dog and sheep made from corrugated iron! Sure, we took some photos there – we’re real tourists! The cup of coffee we got helped us refresh and for Diana it was a wake-up call as she already fell asleep the minute we got in the car.


After 3 hours drive in total, when we arrived in Rotorua, we were warmly welcomed by the typical smell of rotten eggs (even though everyone’s complaining about it – it’s not that bad!) and drove past all the adventure activities Rotorua’s famous for – Zorbing, Bungy Jumping and Roto Rail. After checking into our rooms at our Rotorua Hostel we decided to go for a walk.  

As we already mentioned this was our first time in Rotorua so we didn’t have a clue where the famous geothermal park is. Of course we trusted our experienced guide Craig who thinks he knows everything and got in the car and drove to Kuirau Park where you can observe the geothermal activity of this area together with the beautiful boiling mud pools. Advice: It may look very tempting to jump in one of the hot/mud pools, but DON’T do it – the temperature on the surface is 100C!

Day 2 = Day 1 of the Mad @ Whaka Programme

Getting up early was the worst nightmare we could have wished for – 7:50 for us compared to 7:00 for Craig and Isabelle! Yes, we like to sleep in which we till then didn’t know was a common characteristic of us! Continental breakfast was served every day from 7:30 a.m. – toasts and cereals which we definitely enjoyed and found as a good start of the day! As this was our first day at the Whakarewarewa Village we didn’t know what to expect but we had a good feeling about it. The organizer of the programme Renee gave us an induction what the activities would be in the following days. She very kindly provided us with gum boots and that was the time when we realized we’re getting dirty!!!  Before we started the conservation work we had the privilege to be guided through Whakarewarewa and had the chance to learn more about this Maori Village!


James was the maintenance manager who we were assigned to and he helped us get stuck into the bush. Yes, that’s right – we got stuck into a wild forest which we had to clear up to recover old walking tracks. Although Paula is not fond of getting all dirty and scratched, she really loved it and got right into pulling trees while James was on his way to get the chainsaw. We should admit that it was quite interesting observing other young male workers (who are on 6 month programme in the village) decided to join us. It’s not surprising though, because we – the 3 MAD girls, showed them how to get the work done without whinging even once!

Before we knew it, it was already 3 p.m. and time to go back to Crash Palace - our home for the week! All 4 of us enjoyed our first day at the Whaka Village and were excited about the rest of the week! Bring on MAD people!

After a refreshing shower which we all needed (unfortunately we don’t have an appropriate image showing how dirty we were and what kind of leaves and soil we had on our heads) we made our own healthy salad and played cards with an Aussie traveler whom we met earlier that evening in the hot tub: our meeting point of the hostel.

Day 3 = Day 2 of the volunteer adventure

The conservation plan of the day was continuing with clearing up the walking tracks which we enjoyed even more because we discovered the river lookout and found out some new mud pools in the middle of the bushes.

After a couple of hours of hard work, sweaty and dirty we were taught by Paul the famous Poi dance. We did a couple of repetitions and then were ready to perform in front of an audience! NOT!

Paula: I felt quite stupid because I can’t remember steps and I really can’t sing – especially not in Maori! But that didn’t stop me from trying and having fun!

Not really, we didn’t perform in front of an audience! But we attended a cultural show at Whakarewarewa where we experienced Poi dancers and singers showed us how it should be done! Consider the fact that they did it 10 times faster than us and not once made a mistake or couldn’t catch the poi.

As soon as the show was over it was time for us to leave and get ready for the Tamaki Maori Village.

Day 4 = Day 3 Last Day of Conservation Work

This was the day of the last conservation work we had to do and for one of the breaks we had the guys who are staying for 6 months invited us all in their maintenance shed. It was pretty cool and we had lots of fun, we got to know them better although it was the last day we worked together.

Because we felt so bad about pulling out all those trees, we did tree planting as part of the programme that made us feel better - giving something back to nature. We did not only plant trees but James had a surprise for us and we got to plant our own memorial sign acknowledging the volunteer work we’d done at the Whaka Village. It felt awesome to see that our work was recognized by the Whakarewarewa community. Because we were so fast we got to clear a little garden that’s in front of the communal bath, plant new flowers as well as remove the blackberry scratchy bushes that surrounded the bath. While we were admiring the job we did this lady who’s looking after the bath came to us and kindly thanked us. This was one of those moments when you know that what you’ve done is helpful and recognized.

It warmed our hearts.

This same day we had a Hangi pie for lunch! It was more than delicious and despite it being really hot as it was made on steam, we ate our pies in less than 5 minutes! Trying Hangi meals is a must do when visiting Whakarewarewa!

Day 5 = Day 4 Last day of the MAD programme

And as times go quickly the last day of our MAD programme came. The difference was that all the hard work was done and what we needed to do is get ready for the Global Fest on Saturday in Rotorua. This Global Fest (various cultures have stands and the audience can participate in the cultural challenges) was well timed with our programme so we were lucky that we had the chance to be part of the preparations!

This whole programme is a learning opportunity and every day we were taught something new. While preparing the Maori gazebo we experienced ourselves stilt walking which is just a game played the Maori children. We have to admit for Paula was extremely easy to get used to walking on wooden sticks and Craig picked it up for  around 15 min, but Diana had some hard times balancing in the air (it was a hilarious moment that got captured with some good shots and a video!).

As this was our last day, according to the Maori traditions a farewell is held which in their language sounds like this: Poro-poro-a-ki. Before the farewell party we had our final cultural activity which involved us in cleaning Paua shells and if you haven’t done it before, you can be disgusted just by looking at the Paua guts after you’ve pulled them apart. Ah, we forgot to mention we had to squeeze the Paua teeth out – they’re 2 tiny creepy looking teeth! We all hoped that Paula wouldn’t throw up as her face during the Paua cleaning was pale and her face was showing disgust and dislike.

I’m very proud of her because she managed to squeeze those teeth out and pull apart the Paua’s guts. Brave Paula!!!

An important part of the Poroporoaki is the Hangi meal which we prepared ourselves. The village cook Liz already had prepared the food for the rest of the guests but we had to clean and chop our own vegetables and place the food in the cooking containers. When everything was ready we put them all in the steam hole in the ground where they got cooked for 2 hours. While waiting for the dinner to get ready we enjoyed a couple of beers with the people we got to know during the programme.

‘We had a good laugh. Those boys are fun.’

We loved eating the Hangi meals to which preparations we all contributed after the oldest of the guides blessed the food. Part of the farewell party was a small presentation on what we had done in the village which was prepared and presented by Renee. Everyone thanked us again and showed their appreciation. The organizers of the MAD adventure gave us a CD with all the photos which James took during the days and another CD with Maori songs of the village. The proof of participation that we received was a certificate in volunteering at Whakarewarewa – Making A Difference!

It was a moment of crying and laughter – a happy one!

Unfortunately, we all knew that this was the last time we’d see most of the inhabitants from the village we worked with but we were happy that we had more than an amazing time, learned heaps about the Maori culture and traditions and had the chance to meet those good Maori people.

Day 6

Even though it’s not part of the programme on Saturday we went white water rafting with Kaitiaki Adventures and for some it was their first time. We did have a blast!

On the way back, everyone was happy and glad that we made a difference in one of the Maori communities and were appreciated for our help at the Whaka Village. When we approached Auckland, we had a new challenge – Who’d spot the Sky Tower first?

P.S. For your information, Paula won! (unfortunately Craig forgot to think of a prize!!!)

Reviews from the participants of the first Mad @ Whaka

"I don't know where to start, but I loved the programme! I always thought that people were overreacting when they said volunteer work gives you a good feeling, and even though this was just a week, it really does! I felt great and I loved everything about it, the people, the village, the food, the atmosphere (not really cleaning the Paua shells, but still I learned something!) I would do it again if I could!" - Paula

“Every single part of the programme - the whole atmosphere, the learning opportunities, the stunning Maori culture, the people involved in the programme, the amazing geothermal environment – it was just perfectly combined in a package I loved! Feeling the appreciation for the work we did and the farewell’s presentation got my heart.” - Diana

"When I was waiting in my travel agency STA travel, I saw this brochure about volunteer projects, I looked through, planning for my trip going to NZ. One Week in a Maori village, getting the touch and contact and work like planting trees sounded really good to me, therefore I booked it.

The Week was up to come and I was really excited what really would expect me. We were 4 Muskateers to be the first to start on this project. Diana from Bulgaria, Paula from Holland, Craig from Canada-NZ and me, Isabelle from Germany. To tell you short: it had been a really impressive week which beat my imagination. It has been a warm welcome at Whakawerawera. We got an introduction, a guided tour and then the work began. I remember standing in front of this jungle with a really German mind: "where are the gloves? where are the tools?" but we started the Kiwi way: just using our bare hands. A few hours later we got already the way to the river.

The next days had been a nice mixture between cultural programmes and working units. We really got deep in touch with the real Maori life. All people we met were very interested and friendly. So we got a big thank you from an old lady in the village after gardening beside her house on the bathing place. The cultural programme did not only entertain us, it also made us to dance the Poi and the Haka, learning to cook the Hangi meal and learn a lot of the Maori life how it has been, and how it is today. It was a lot of fun and a great experience to really feel that we did it: "Make A Difference" - I'm sure we all will be back one day and have a walk on our recovered walking tracks and having a look on our planted trees." - Isabelle

Useful links:

About the Author: Paula is a Dutch University Student currently undertaking an internship at Nomads Auckland. Diana is a Bulgarian studying in Holland but also undertaking an Internship at Nomads Auckland.

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