Powerful royal welcome for Duke and Duchess of Sussex in Rotorua

There are some moments that can only ever happen in New Zealand, and Rotorua’s royal welcome, on the final day of the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, was one of those experiences.

Day Four:  Royal Visit to Te Papaiouru Marae, Rotorua
Wednesday 31 October

There are some moments that can only ever happen in New Zealand, and Rotorua’s royal welcome, on the final day of the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, was one of those experiences.

At Te Papaiouru marae, the people of Te Arawa tribe gathered on their ancestral meeting place to pull culture, beauty, and history together in an emotional and powerful demonstration of what makes New Zealand what it is.

It was a day filled with cultural symbolism and warm local hospitality – some of it powered by the natural forces that come from under this active geo-thermal landscape of steaming vents, bubbling mud pools and hot springs.

Rotorua (pop: 53,265) is renowned for its geothermal activity, Māori culture and manaakitanga (hospitality), and the royal couple experienced all of that with the formal welcome and luncheon hosted in their honour.

Te Papaiouru Marae sits in the centre of Ohinemutu, a tiny village (pop: 237) beside the lake with a handful of narrow streets, an impressive carved meeting house and tiny St Faiths Anglican Church with its stained-glass windows overlooking the lake.  

There are many connections between Rotorua and British royal visitors including the wooden sculpted bust of Queen Victoria sitting on the side of the marae - Prince Harry's great-great-great-great-grandmother - who watched over proceedings on the marae. 

There was deep symbolism as the host Te Arawa Māori tribe welcomed their royal guests, gifting the Duchess of Sussex with her personal hand-woven korowai (Māori cloak) to wear at Ōhinemutu before she stepped onto the marae. By doing so she was following in the footsteps of other earlier female royal visitors, including the Prince’s grandmother Queen Elizabeth II who first visited Rotorua in 1954.

Prince Harry opened his speech in their language te reo Māori, addressing his hosts and their ancestors before excusing himself for jumping into English to express his gratitude. "Thank you for this beautiful cloak that you have gifted to us. We appreciate the skill of the weavers and aroha [love] that has gone into this taonga [treasure]. This taonga will be cherished in our family."

Wearing her newly gifted korowai, a symbol of protection and status, the Duchess of Sussex was the centre of attention.

Korowai creator, Ngāti Whakaue elder and artist Norma Sturley says in Māori history, women tupuna (ancestors) have always had a prominent role. A Māori chieftainess had a korowai to demonstrate her rangātiratanga (chiefly authority) and women also fought in battles - not taking a backseat for their gender. 

“We see the Duchess as representing strong kaupapa (values) for women - she displays aroha (love), manaakitanga (nurturing & hospitality), mana (influence) and she is a great leader." 

The korowai also carries special significance for the baby that the Duchess is expecting. 

“The korowai is like a protector, to wrap a korowai around someone is to envelop them in strength, warmth and aroha (love),” Mrs Sturley explained. 

The korowai is made of typical materials - harakeke (flax) which has been combed soft and coloured, brown, blue and green pheasant feathers. The patterns are inspired by the Coat of Arms of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and symbolise the coming together of two people and cultures. 

For the Duchess, three white quills symbolise the powers of words and communication, and rays of gold represent the Californian sunshine. The blue speaks of the separation of Aotearoa (New Zealand) and England by the Pacific Ocean, as well as the Duchess’ links to the Pacific Ocean. The red symbolises royalty. 

“The tāniko weaving design also showcases manaakitanga as Ngāti Whakaue want to nurture the Royal couple as a thank you for visiting Papaiouru,” Mrs Sturley said. 

The welcome ceremony included a spectacular pōwhiri (traditional Māori ceremonial welcome), a wero ceremonial challenge - an ancient Māori warrior tradition to determine whether visitors came in peace or with hostile intent, a karanga - call of welcome, and haka pōwhiri - dance of welcome. 

After the formal welcome, the royals were invited to a luncheon cooked and served in the wharekai, before meeting young members of the Te Arawa tribe. But, first, there was a visit to the kitchen to see lunch being prepared and a cooking lesson for the Duchess on how to make a traditional ‘golden steamed pudding’.  

The steam pudding was the finale to the luncheon of a steam-box hangi which had been cooked in the boiling thermal waters. Seafood, rewana Māori bread, pork, chicken, bread stuffing were on the menu designed by young celebrity chefs – and former Masterchef winners – sisters Karena and Kasey Bird who were in the kitchen cooking with their family.