Getting scared out of your wits is not a usual holiday pastime, but then there’s little that is “usual” about the Maori travel experiences conjured up by Jean-Michel Jefferson. With a reputation for designing some of New Zealand’s most personally affecting journeys, it’s no surprise that Jean-Michel’s Maori partners are the most fearlessly creative in the land – with the power to inspire, delight and startle in equal measure.
Soon after he began designing and leading luxury journeys in the late 1990s, Jean-Michel befriended a remarkable Maori rangatira called Hone Mihaka. Hone is a widely respected chief in the northernmost region of Northland, where he helps Jean-Michel create compelling and breathtakingly authentic ‘Maori days’: from intrepid fishing expeditions and evocative battlefield tours, to highly personalised spiritual and healing retreats. A fearless fisherman and formidable golfer, Hone is also a formulator of Maori protocol and a firebrand activist, who counts a signatory of the Waitangi Treaty among his ancestors. What he can’t tell you about Maori history and politics is not worth knowing.
Wherever you travel in New Zealand, Jean-Michel has intimate connections to the rich, holistic culture of its original peoples. Along the east coast, Maori outdoorsman Tom Loughlin leads incredible wild food safaris on the remote mountainsides of his childhood. A seasoned hunter-gatherer, Tom spent 20 years working as a chef in Europe, and whether you want to catch freshwater eels without a hook (as he recently taught Bear Grylls) or sear venison steaks on hot rocks – he’ll show you how to survive off the land like no other.
Or there’s the celebrated master-carver, Delanie Brown, who has taken Jean-Michel’s guests on soul-stirring expeditions through the Maoris’ artistic centres – and even invited one to help him carve a monument that now stands on the shores of Lake Taupo. Like Hone, Delanie is a thoughtful, resourceful man who is committed to helping visitors understand the cultural intricacies and modern complexities of Maori life. And like Hone, he delights in organising emotional powhiri welcomes – and hair-raising warrior ‘ambushes’.
Dramatic historical reenactments are a particular speciality of Jean-Michel, who can arrange anything from a fearsome forest ‘ambush’ to a full-blooded ‘attack’ by 100-foot-long war canoes. Both Hone and Delanie have helped group leaders to arrange ‘spontaneous’ ambushes by club-wielding warriors, which – once the initial surprise has worn off – provide a perfect springboard for exploring broader Maori history, rituals, and race relations. Hone often involves his family in these exhilarating encounters, which usually wind up back at his house, enjoying a traditional hangi feast, or relaxing in nearby mineral hot pools.
And then there are Jean-Michel’s other contacts: a rare blend of the heroic and the sublime who provide an enlightened introduction to the very best of this beautiful country. From spearfishing with a national champion, to rally-driving with a local legend; from hiking with the first lady to summit Everest without oxygen, to nosing pinot noirs with an award-winning winemaker – these are, quite simply, the best experiences New Zealand has to offer.
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