David Whitley searches for respite in a world of fancy dress, bad music played loud and people who like to ‘party’


There is a girl I used to work with who now appears to live in Laos. I know this, because pictures of her regularly appear on Facebook, and she seems to be continually be surrounded by young people having fun in a bar. You may be tempted to think that this seems like the ultimate life; ensconced in Vang Vieng, where life is a constant party and everyone’s up for a good time after going rafting. To me, it sounds like hell.


There are certain places along the well worn backpacker trails that become hubs of continual enforced fun. Amsterdam is one, the Khao San Road in Bangkok is another and – even though I’ve never been there – Vang Vieng appears to be one too. Enforced fun is a catch-all term I like to use for things such as 100-person organised bar crawls, table dancing contests, shot drinking competitions and playing Twister on a stage for prizes. It is for cretins who like shouting “woooo” a lot and being surrounded by a combined IQ of well under 50. Get caught up in it, and you either have to pretend to enjoy the ‘party vibe’ or have the misery compounded by hundreds of people you secretly despise telling you to cheer up and drink more tequila.


Queenstown can err dangerously close to this. It is full of young backpackers who have been travelling around New Zealand on buses together, and have designated Queenstown as the place where they’re going to party every night. (Incidentally, if anyone ever uses the phrase ‘let’s party’ in your presence, run a mile). My first night was spent in a hostel where the bar was pumping out The Black Eyed Peas at ear-splitting volume, interrupted every thirty seconds by an MC saying: “YEAH! We’re gonna have a great night tonight.” It was, all told, horrible.


The next day, I walked downstairs to discover that the evening’s entertainment was to be a toga party with cheap shots. Time to check out and move elsewhere. Part of Queenstown’s problem is that it is New Zealand’s adrenalin sports capital. You can bungy, you can skydive, you can raft, and you can do all manner of other weird things that require far more detailed description. I actually enjoy this sort of thing – skydiving and white-water rafting are particularly great. But I don’t like the attitude that surrounds it or – whisper it – the type of character it attracts. Extreme sports bring out the enforced fun lovers in their droves, and before you know it, you’re trapped on a bus with dreadlocked white blokes, pumping fists and watching endless videos of dull people snowboarding.


But despite this, I thoroughly recommend Queenstown as a place to go. It is beautiful, and surrounded by some of New Zealand’s most incredible scenery. Skippers Canyon, in particular, is sensational if you get the chance to go there. The secret is to make it what you want it to be. Do a bit of prior research, and avoid anything that bills itself as a party hostel, backpacker bar or the like. You’ll still meet other travellers by going to a good pub instead of a booming hellhole that’s full of drunks in Viking helmets singing along to something drenched in Auto-Tune. They’re just more likely to be the types that are interesting to talk to. The enforced fun capitals around the world don’t have to be that way; it’s just a case of being aware of what you’re going into and exploring the quieter heart that surrounds the shrieking.


*Incidentally, before I’m accused of getting old, it should be pointed out that I felt exactly the same way about enforced fun when I was 20.


Real Maori


David Whitley gets a glimpse of authentic Maori culture on New Zealand’s East Cape.

Authenticity can be something of a double-edged sword. And this is particularly the case when it comes to understanding Maori culture in New Zealand.  To many visitors, this is a case of going to Rotorua, going through greeting rituals and having a meal as Maori in traditional costumes dance.


And if you like that sort of thing, then go for it. But such cultural villages generally make me want to cry. It’s a different story on the North Island’s East Cape. This is arguably the most Maori part of New Zealand. Over 50% of the population in this part of the world identify themselves as Maori, and the old ways are still strong. Outside the main city of Gisborne, settlements are small and  rural. There’s an end of the world feeling to East Cape, but if you take the time to detour out there you’re more likely to get an �?authentic’ Maori experience than you will do anywhere else in New Zealand. 


The flip side is that this authenticity comes with baggage. Sitting in a café in Tolaga Bay, Anne McGuire tells me about the village. “Anyone who wasn’t here before 1940 is regarded as being not part of the community,” she says. “It’s quite closed, and if you’re not from here, people will make sure you know that.”This isn’t what you expect from a tour guide, but it does shine a light on why the East Cape hasn’t yet made it as a massive cultural tourism destination. The term Maori is a relatively recent one. Many native New Zealanders do identify themselves as such, but ties are a lot stronger to their tribes and sub-tribes. Someone in Tolaga Bay is more likely to feel a part of Te Aitanga-A-Hauiti than a wider Maori nation. 


It would be a mistake to think that most conflict in New Zealand’s post-European settlement history has been between the Maori and the white interlopers. It hasn’t – most of the worst violence has been between competing Maori tribes. Past wars have, in many cases, led to lingering feuds, bad blood and mistrust. And that wariness of the people in the village down the road can translate as an unwelcoming attitude to all outsiders. In short, don’t expect to come to the East Cape and expect to be welcomed into the family by hundreds of smiling theme park Maori. But it is possible to get a small window into Maori life. Anne takes me to her marae. It’s difficult to adequately describe what a marae is, but the closest approximation is a tribal headquarters. It is where important meetings are held, and members are always welcome to stay there.


We go into the main meeting hall. A stack of mattresses and pillows are crammed into the corner near the back window – visitors pay what they can afford when they book the hall for funerals, weddings and the like. The architecture is distinctive. The building represents an ancestor. The triangular roof decorations represent the arms, the door is the mouth, windows are the eyes and a central pillar is the heart. Removing shoes before entering is regarded as a sign of respect to that ancestor. Upkeep of all the buildings and the grounds of the marae is conducted voluntarily by whichever tribe members can spare the time, and most important discussions are conducted there. 


Anne tells me that, in the past, everyone would talk in turn until everyone was happy with a decision. You could not talk without holding the talking stick, and the idea was to achieve consensus however long it took.It rarely works like this in the modern world – votes often take place instead. People can’t spend weeks debating something any more – they have other things to do. This is one of the subtle changes that traditional culture has undergone over the years, and the clash between the old ways and the new can be painfully clear to see at times. There are approximately 20,000 members of Te Aitanga-A-Hauiti, but only 700 or so still live in the local area. Members working in Auckland or abroad have very different needs to those in Tolaga Bay. Catering for everyone’s is difficult, and ties are much stronger for some members than others.


My visit was a little look through a window onto Maori culture. It’s complex, forever changing and not easy to suddenly throw yourself into. There’s a lot more to it than hakas and costumes. But those looking for authenticity may not find the simple life they seek.



Disclosure: David was a guest of Tipuna Tours (Tipunatours.com) and Tourism Eastland (GisborneNZ.com). 



By David Whitley