Image: Zorbing
Kathy Matheson  /  AP
New Zealand is known for adventure tourism like Zorbing, in which visitors tumble down a mountainside in what amounts to a giant beach ball.
By Associated Press writer
updated 11/5/2009 11:14:13 AM ET 2009-11-05T16:14:13

As I tumbled down the mountainside in a gigantic beach ball filled with water, feeling somewhat like I was in a washing machine, it occurred to me that there had to be a better way to experience New Zealand.

Actually, that didn't occur to me until after the Zorb stopped rolling and my screams had subsided into laughter.

But I have since concluded that while Kiwis may be best known for adventure tourism — including skydiving, bungee jumping, gliding and Zorbing — perhaps the most enriching part of my trip was the cultural tourism that taught me about the Maori.

Don't be fooled: “Meeting” a Maori tribe at a heritage center can be just as intimidating as thrill-jumping off Auckland's Skytower. What's the proper reaction when a tattooed, spear-carrying warrior bounds out of a house, shouts something in Maori at you, makes menacing faces and throws a leaf at your feet? Think fast, because that spear is pretty sharp.

Centuries before white settlers came and called the country New Zealand, the Maori arrived in canoes at Aotearoa (Ay-oh-teh-RO'-ah, meaning “Land of the Long White Cloud”), most likely from Polynesia.

Flipping through TV channels today, you might come across the Maori-language news station, but you can hear the native greeting “Kia ora!” (kee-ah-OR-ah) pretty much anywhere you go.

And rugby fans may know of the haka, the Maori dance practiced by the All Blacks, the national rugby team, to rattle their opponents before each game. The players chant in unison while rolling their eyes, slapping their arms and thighs, and thrusting their tongues — it's quite a sight.

My fiance and I saw the haka performed on a stage at Te Puia, a Maori heritage center in Rotorua, after which tattooed warriors taught the dance to men in the audience. It was hardly frightening when the tourists tried to do it; then again, I wasn't exactly the picture of grace when female visitors were taught happy, hip-swaying dances by Maori women in grass skirts.

Cheap and offbeat AucklandTe Puia also offered us a hearty Maori feast made in a hangi (earth oven) and served family-style in a dining room with other visitors. Lamb and seafood are local staples, as is kumara, a kind of native sweet potato.

Afterward, we rode a tram to the Pohutu geyser, one of Rotorua's many natural wonders, which include geothermal pools and bubbling mud. (The town's not-so-natural wonders include the Zorb — more on that later — and remnants of the Hobbiton village created for the “Lord of the Rings” movies, a few miles away in Matamata.)

After an awesome dolphin-watching cruise in the Bay of Islands that left from Paihia, we visited the nearby Waitangi Treaty Grounds, a beautiful coastal property about 150 miles north of Auckland. New Zealanders consider this the birthplace of their country, as it was here that European settlers and Maori natives signed the Treaty of Waitangi on Feb. 6, 1840. The anniversary is observed each year as a national holiday and as a celebration of multiculturalism. The treaty was actually two documents — one in Maori, one in English — and controversy continues to this day over the translations.

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Waitangi includes a marae (Maori meeting house) laden with intricate wood carvings and the home of 19th-century British envoy James Busby, now a museum. By the shore, a huge ceremonial waka (war canoe) testifies to Maori craftsmanship and bravery. Would you cross the Pacific Ocean in one of those?

We also paid brief visits to the big cities, which, while filled with kind and gracious people and good restaurants, were not particularly picturesque. Auckland and Wellington are both set on gorgeous harbors, but the streets lack the aesthetic, historic charm of many European cities and even some in America.

The exception was Christchurch. Named for the college at Oxford, Christchurch has the architecture, parks, cathedral, central square and lovely river with gondolas that make its downtown seem like merry old England.

New Zealand's countryside, though, is universally stunning. We were there in late fall (May-June in the Southern Hemisphere), when the beauty of the snow-capped Southern Alps could be seen from several vistas, including in the reflection of Lake Matheson (no relation to me, that I know of). Two whales we saw during a cruise off Kaikoura were just as breathtaking as the snowy mountains looming over the beaches in the distance.

Yet for Kiwis, it isn't enough to just look at the spectacular scenery — you must experience it. So we Zorbed: We wriggled into a 10-foot-tall inflatable sphere and promptly got pushed down a mountain slope. We chose a wet ride in which you're cushioned by a small amount of water sloshing around inside the ball with you.

At our host's insistence, we also checked out a skydiving operation in Taupo. We got as far as watching the video on how exhilarating it can be before chickening out. It was a little too cold for jet boating and whitewater rafting, both of which may be more appealing in December-February, which is summertime there.

I also took a pass on glacier heli-hiking. After all, my adrenaline got pumped enough by the spear-carrying Maori who threw down the leaf. The proper reaction, by the way, is to pick it up. They'll invite you in. Stay a while — they make a mean feast.

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