Nature’s bounty increases manifold at New Zealand’s Lake Rotoiti. As our contributor weaves her way through Hongi’s Track here, she embarks on a journey of re-connection with Mother Earth. By Neeta Lal
I’m all set to begin the food tour with my Maori guides, Charles Royal and his wife Tania, at the edge of New Zealand’s Lake Rotoiti. The five-kilometre-long trail loops through the lush Hinehopu Reserve in Rotorua (North Island), where we forage for native bush ingredients, and then, cook with them.
Royal begins by offering karakia, a prayer in Maori language to Mother Earth and Father Sky. His invocation reverberates through the densely canopied forest. He then turns to me, arms spread, and announces, “This is our garden. This is our kitchen.”
We are taking the Hongi’s Track, named after a fearsome Maori war leader Hongi Hika. Royal, a renowned chef specialising in Maori cuisine, explains that the tour is all about getting acquainted with the importance of sustainability, biodiversity, and the wellness quotient of native ingredients.
“In other words, I will be sharing my Maori heritage with you,” he says, adding that the traditional lifestyle here mixes a strong sense of purpose—or what they call ikigai in Japanese—with a tight community, the sun (and therefore exposure to Vitamin D), a healthy diet, and an active lifestyle.
Hailing from New Zealand’s Waihau Bay on the east coast, Royal grew up near water, where his ancestors foraged and hunted for sustenance. Far from the sinewy Maori stereotype, he is slim and outdoorsy with wild grey hair tucked behind his ears under a cap.
As we amble through the bush, the tour seems more like a ‘walking meditation’ to me, offering a chance to slow down and immerse into one of New Zealand’s most pristine natural settings. I switch off my phone and tune into the sounds of the forest—the chirruping of birds, the rustle of leaves, and the croaking of insects. I drink from the well of a primaeval landscape, breathing in air so fresh that I can almost taste it!
The track winds through a sliver of native forest, an oasis of ferns, vines, and indigenous trees like kahikatea, rimu, and tawa. Royal says, by living near nature, early Maoris found nutritious foods and a cornucopia of medicines, all within the wealth of flora around them. The couple is exploring these age-old traditions with their boutique food and tour business called Kinaki Wild Herbs, where the duo brilliantly weaves together their reverence for nature, health, and well-being.
Royal stops intermittently to point out edible plants and berries such as pikopiko, kawakawa (a peppery tree leaf), ear fungus, pirita (supplejack vine), and even moss. He then shows us all kinds of mushrooms—some tiny and delicate, clinging to gnarled tree trunks; others big and voluptuous, sprawling beautifully on the forest floor.
As we stroll further, Royal confides that his real name is Pipitukukino Roera, adding that his Maori ancestors go back 18 generations. As we walk past a towering kawakawa tree, he explains that its leaves can make both, a flavourful tea as well as essential oils. “The leaves, if boiled for three to four minutes and wrapped in a thin plastic film, make for a great poultice for wounds,” I’m informed.
To meet the surging demand of tea companies, the couple is also harvesting kawakawa leaves with the help of local families and friends. “By involving the whole community, it feels like you’re giving something back to it,” adds Tania. The remark gives me food for thought. It’s nice to empower an entire community while making thoughtful use of Earth’s resources.
Next, we encounter bush asparagus or pirita vine, which Royal dubs as ‘energy food’, and a ‘magic cure’ for diabetes. As a Type 1 diabetic himself, Royal says that when he is not able to eat for hours in the bush, this asparagus-like plant comes to his rescue.
As we reach a cluster of the highly-priced pikopiko plant, also called young fern tips, Tania reveals that New Zealand boasts of over 200 varieties of ferns. “However, only seven of them are edible. The sculptural green koru or curled fern tip—indigenous to New Zealand is used as a signature garnish in Maori cuisine,” she adds.
The couple constantly scans the bush around them, searching for food and medicines. When they find one, they show the plant to me or break it off with a flick of their wrist while also explaining its preparation and health properties. The ingredients are then put away in a carry bag.
When we approach the manuka shrub, I’m enlightened about the indigenous plant’s antioxidant properties, which make it one of the stars of traditional Maori cuisine. “Seeds and infusions from the leaves and the bark of manuka are used to reduce fever and treat stomach and urinary problems. It is also used as a sedative, mouthwash, and a cure for diarrhoea,” Tania says.
Once our bags are laden with nature’s bounty, we conclude our two-and-a-half-hour food tour and head back to the lake. The precious cargo of foraged foods is emptied at the lakeside where a table has been set up. It’s a peaceful spot, with modest beach houses lining the road across the crystal-clear lake.
The food is rinsed in the lake water, while Royal expertly fires up a gas ring. He begins by steaming the pikopiko and pirita vine and frying the mushrooms to serve them with smoked trout. The pan’s sizzle and the accompanying aroma makes me salivate. There’s chicken too, sautéed in peri-peri and served with homemade bread rubbed with some of the herbs we’ve collected. We bung supplejack tips and ear fungus into the pan, with some olive oil and seasoning to be eaten on the side.
The flavours are earthy and robust, and make my taste buds sing. We wind up with a kawakawa infused crème brûlée, and manuka honey-infused tea.
As we sit by the lake edged by dark dense hills, I reflect on the meal, which I played a part in crafting as well. The hands-on exploration of the local environment and knowledge about how to find, identify, gather, prepare, and eat the food growing wild in nature is deeply empowering and enriching. I learn that to forage is to go outside, open my eyes to my surroundings, and make a connection between the environment and the food on my plate. As Royal says, “This is our garden. This is our kitchen.”
Hinehopu’s/Hongi’s Track is 20 km north east of Rotorua off SH 30. It can be accessed by vehicle from either end, at Lake Rotoiti and Lake Rotoehu. Rotorua is just a 2.5-hour drive, or 45-minute flight, from Auckland, and a 5.5-hour drive, or one-hour flight, from Wellington.
A stay at the nearby Wai Ora Lakeside Spa Resort can cost somewhere between INR 4,556 to INR 9,112 per person.