WAITANGI, NEW ZEALAND — We spent today at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, the site where Maori and the British came together on February 6, 1840 to sign the treaty (Tiriti o Waitangi in Maori) that founded the modern country of New Zealand. Today was also the day I came nose-to-nose with a Maori chief.

The treaty grounds were walking distance from our holiday park (New Zealandese for campground), but before we walked over, we commiserated with our campground neighbors about the previous night’s storm. Aside from being so windy that our tent was stretched into many different, bizarre shapes, it also rained — hard.

Our neighbors were without exception friendly, and interestingly, they were all mixed-national. To our left was a couple from France/NewZealand, to our right a couple from New Zealand/Canada, and across the road was Scotland/England (I’ll leave that one alone). They all had interesting stories to tell and insider tips on what to see, so we got a start to our day around noon.

Detail of the intricate carvings on the support beams of the Maori house in Waitangi.

The tour guide at the treaty grounds was very energetic, and started off by explaining how the Maori came to a written language, as it is originally a culture with oral traditions, and then gave the group hints on how to pronounce Maori words such as Ngatokimatawhaorua, the ceremonial war canoe exhibited on site.

He explained a lot of other things, and eventually brought us to the Maori house on site, where the cultural performance was to take place.

As the performance was about to start, a Maori woman in traditional garb, which would become my new best friend, came out and described what we were going to see and asked for a volunteer. Thinking that this might be something special, I raised my hand and thus became chief of the new tribe of tourists.

What I didn’t know, and what she proceeded to explain, is that as chief I had the task to answer the traditional Maori challenge, pick up the peace offering, give a speech to the Maori chief and participate in the traditional greeting, the hongi, which consists of pressing each others’ noses and foreheads together. Failure to properly act could have gotten my tribe and me killed! Thanks to my new best friend, my tribe survived the encounter.

Of course, the job came with a perk for me and my family, i.e. Beth: The center seats in the first row for the following cultural performance, which featured Maori music from different periods, demonstrations of warrior warm-up exercises and games that tested hand-eye coordination.

A Maori canoe making its way through the Bay of Islands. Notice the person standing up, setting the pace for the paddlers.

As I had hoped, it was a truly special experience, in particular the Maori warrior challenge, which included lots of scary faces, traditional weapons handling on his part — all directed at me. All I had to do was not flinch, or I might have come away with a nasty bruise (or worse). It made me want to know more about Maori history, culture and customs.

By the time we left the grounds, we had spent four hours without even noticing it. The new museum was very informative, as were the interpreters on the grounds.

The rest of the day we spent relaxing in the campground, looking at the stunning scenery at the Bay of Islands, grabbing dinner at a burger place in Paihia and stocking up on food for tomorrow’s breakfast and dinner. I think we’re going to do a hike to a waterfall tomorrow.