New Zealand

Trip Downunder Sept 07 – Entry 1: The Licence Saga

Sean and Brianna
Here’s the first entry for my downunder trip for September 2007. I have flown from Manchester to London, then London to Sydney, where I met up with Sean Bridges, a friend of 20 yrs standing, known to the world as Bikeboy – one of the best street performers in the world. In a quirk of fate he was returning from a month’s tour of Canada, with a few days stopover in the UK to see his son, and landed 7mins after me in Sydney! (George Bush arrived on Airforce One a couple of hours later!) Sean has just bought a new house and is yet to move in so, after meeting up with his Australian girlfriend Brianna we went to the Bondi Beach steak restaurant (Sean’s favourite eatery) and then stayed at cheap hotel together. The following day (yesterday) was a tour of Sydney courtesy of Sean and finally checking in to Wake-Up, Sydney’s best backpacker hostel, full of young people and activity and fun, while Sean drove off to Adelaide for his next gig.

At Wake-Up I spent what time I was able to, online, liaising with my lodger at home trying to correct the one big mistake of my pre-planning : I have forgotten to bring my driving licence! The card is something I used to always keep in my wallet. However my house was burgled at the beginning of August (hence the decision to bring forward my house-moving plans) and amongst the items stolen was my wallet. So everything of value has ended up in a cashbox since – including my new replacement driving licence. I am reminded of a journey to Spain in 2004 with my former business partner, who on that occasion was the one to forget his driving licence. I only had mine, I confess, because I always used to keep it in my wallet! Now I am victim of the same mistake. So my lodger has smashed his way into the cashbox for me, and scanned the card and paper licence and uploaded them via ftp to a temporary folder from where I have downloaded them, all in the hope that I can convince AVIS to let me hire a car tomorrow morning. He has also taken them down into Manchester’s Trafford Business Park and put them in a FedEx envelope that will arrive at my hotel on Monday next week. So if AVIS are not happy, at least I will be able to hire the car on Monday, and will have to get the coach up to the Bay of Islands for the weekend. Oh what fun. It is all part of the strange ID game that today’s increasingly small world presents us with. Papers! Papers! One must have one’s papers!

There are in fact a good number of reasons why this sort of thing should become more and more biometric – it is after all ME who has a licence to drive, and I should not have my holiday ruined because I do not have a piece of paper with me to prove it! Biometric identity management can indeed become increasingly non-invasive, picking up on one’s movements without the need for lengthy queues at passport control. A simple sub-cutaneous RFID tag could carry particular details for credit and access and licensing without the need for cumbersome paperwork. On the other hand, what a nightmarish scenario of ubiquitous computing surveillance of our every move? Big Brother would indeed then be watching us – all the time. The trade-off between the convenience and invasion of the world-travelling public for the purpose of security continues to be a thorny issue. Yet somehow the idea that it is the paperwork that travels and gains access seems contrary to the real issue – the paperwork is there to identify the individual. Identity fraud is a massively growing problem the world over, and Identity Management a growing arena of academic interest in the Information Systems field – I have a Masters student writing his dissertation on the subject at the moment, in fact – an Armenian, no less.

The lesson for now, I guess, is that we are still very heavily dependent upon our paperwork, and the need to keep it with us!

Trip Downunder Sept 07 – Entry 2: New Zealand First Impressions

Arriving at Auckland international airport at 5pm on a weekday afternoon, the first thing that struck me, after the hustle and bustle of Sydney, was the shere tranquility. There was a rather small town air to the place – not dissimilar from Stornaway Airport, on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, from which I took the first flight on a Wednesday morning in June last year. Auckland airport is somehow more refined, evidence of a richer economy than that of Lewis, but just as quiet, and inexplicably Local.

There is a quality to the light here. The Maori courtesy bus driver was very down to earth, friendly, polite without being subservient or wishing me a “nice day,” somehow just genuinely helpful and pleasant without being in any sense my inferior – so refreshing an attitude, that I really took to him and was very amenable to anything he suggested. He thought I might be better sitting on the bench waiting for 10 minutes than getting into the van and indeed I sat there, soaking up the atmosphere, looking at the sky and at the trees, in the strange but homely atmosphere that I can only attribute to the light….. and perhaps the stillness…. and the odd calm in the air that is a quality not of silence but of gentle sounds that do not invade one’s consciousness.

I fell in love with the place immediately.

View from CityLife Hotel Auckland
Of course once we were underway, and heading into New Zealand’s one big city (if 1 million inhabitants constitutes a ‘big city’ in today’s world) the traffic began to accumulate – it was rush hour after all – but with a few deft turns and short cuts the driver made short work of getting me to my hotel, disturbing me from my revery with the request to drop me at the front door, rather than at the back. Apparently one is usually dropped around the back, where the vehicles can turn. The front was fine by me, and I felt immediately welcome by all the staff, and the room is lovely. I haven’t had such a good room since I was in Ireland – at the IFIP conference in Limerick – with a lounge as well as bedroom and en suite. This room incorporates a small kitchen, too, and when I return from the Bay of Islands for my three day stay here I shall definitely be cooking! I love good food, and I love to cook it as well as to dine out on it, and I like nothing better than to buy local produce and prepare it according to whatever idea I may have of how the locals do it.

Such a good room, for what – at the exchange rate I was fortunate enough to get, during the recent stock market wobble – was just £80 per night. The cost of living here is much lower than in the UK. Certainly the salaries are likely to be lower too, but as a tourist with a UK income, I shall be well off here.

Trip Downunder Sept 07 – Entry 3: Waitangi

Waitangi God carving
Success with the car, fortunately – courtesy of a nice young man at Auckland Central Police Station who stamped the print-outs of my scanned documents as corresponding with my passport, and allowing me to drive until next Saturday on this stamped photocopy. AVIS were satisfied, and I finally got away from Auckland in my automatic Mitsubishi Lancer at about 10am. I have to say it performs pretty well, and I am content with it.

The drive north from Auckland along State Highway 1 is blessed with stunning scenery, which ranges from the volcanic to the sub-tropical into the deciduous and quasi-savannah, descending finally to the delightfully tranquil Bay of Islands.

Here are the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, and the very experience of ancient, native New Zealand that I hoped for, and will treasure for a long time to come. Some 2-3 weeks before the main tourist season, I was fortunate enough to get all three Maori guides at once, practicing their ‘spiel’ together on the season’s first Guided Tour. There was a young man, brimful of enthusiasm and belief; an early 40s woman, wiry, earnest, at once worldly and mysterious; and an older man, in his late 50s or early 60s, wrinkled with wisdom, solid, knowing, both serene and simple. Their tour began with the young man walking backwards before me relating the creation myth of the Maori people, telling me the names of their gods and goddesses, and some of the foundational stories of their people. It was fascinating. They asked me questions and I had to confess my own genuine interest in the ancient peoples of the world and the oral tradition of native wisdom found the world over; my own interest in the Celtic oral tradition in Europe; my genuine interest in the Maori, more than in the settlers, on this, my first trip to New Zealand. Indeed, as I told them, since arriving in New Zealand yesterday evening, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds is my first stop, my first ‘tourist attraction’, the first place I wanted to see – three and a half hours non-stop drive north of Auckland.

Largest war canoe in the world
The young man took me down to the shore and introduced me to the largest war canoe in the world, the tribes whose stories are carved pictorially into the sides of it, the wood and twine technology of its making, its annual 6th February launching into the sea where it soaks up water, doubling its 6 ton weight, and the joints seal as the wood expands. They dance the Haka on either side, chanting to the Gods of the Sea and of the Winds – that the water will keep it afloat, and the winds guide it in the right direction. The tall prow and stern act as lines of sight to the stars, sun and moon for direction, and it takes minimum 80, optimum 125 men to carry and row it.

Then we began to walk back up the hill to the lawn where the treaty was signed, and the woman took over, telling me about the Busby’s – the christian priest who was the first British resident here, the story of his house, how the australians didn’t like him and sent only half the materials he ordered to build it, such that he had to redesign it and build it half the size, how he was a good man to whom the Maori owe much, because he defended their way of life from the fate that befell so many others. He went back to England and died of an eye infection, but his wife and children remained and his wife taught the Maori people the ways of the pen – before this their wisdom was always spoken and sung, passed from generation to generation, but Mrs Busby taught them to read and write and this was an immense help to them in dealing with the onset of the future. She is so completely accepting of the inevitability of British rule, even proud of the flags that we gave to this country, yet her affection for the Busby’s is down to their protection of her ancestral inheritance. All through this I nod, make noises of understanding. My initial rather dismissive question “who was this Busby”, meant to say, “I am interested in the maori not in the invaders” has been answered very earnestly – the Busby’s, although in some sense the representatives of the invasion, were also its temperers, the careful supporters of the Maori way of life in the face of conquest, and clearly are held in high esteem to this day.

Waitangi Meeting House
At last, the old man takes over, and leads me towards the meeting house. His weight and gravitas, tempered with joviality, at once respect me as the paying tourist, and suss me out as the intriguing stranger who seems to have more understanding than most. He leads me up to the meeting house and tells me about the sculptured wooden frame – their great ancestor Kupe who was the first to come from Hawaiki (Land of the Ancients – about 950AD) stands proud at the apex of the frame. He left a small group here, returned to Hawaiki, and later (about 1350AD) his grandson arrived with a great migration of people on a huge flotilla of wakas (war canoes). The grandfather at the top, the grandson at the bottom, with the central beam running up between them. Then it is the grandfather’s outstretched and protecting arms that run down the sloping roof on either side. He leads me up onto the porch, where we take off our shoes, in respect. This is a meeting house where the community gather to worship, to discuss, for meetings, for funerals, for the important things of community life. Each tribe has such a house, and this is the house of all the tribes, here at the Waitangi Treaty grounds. Inside there is a meeting going on, people sat on rows of chairs, in modern dress, some with laptops, a few standing at the front, one talking, all in their wonderfully lyrical native tongue. He takes me in – this is a special moment – normally if there is a meeting the tourists don’t enter – but brought in by him I follow, honoured and a little awed. He whispers to me, telling me about the carvings on the beams, how each tell stories about one of the tribes of people who are here, or about their gods. Here is the carving of the story the young man told me about the creation of the first woman, and how she had trouble with her pregnancy and gave birth through her ribs under her armpit. Suddenly all the people in the meeting house stand up, and begin a communal song. It is uplifting and mournful at the same time, and deeply deeply spiritual. Yes, ‘spiritual’ is a word all three of my guides have used in almost every other sentence, when describing the Maori, and they maintain this spirituality to this day. Indeed as the gathered people sang I could feel my own spirit answer with both respect and humility amidst what was both an alien and an all too recognisable otherworld. Here the tales and the images are so strange, and yet the truths so familiar to one who has studied the Celtic, Norse and Vedic traditions. Yes these are not Indo-Europeans, and the similarities in the stories of the Celts and Indians will not extend to the Maori, but the sentiment and the human truths seem all too recognisable. I tell the old man I can feel it. I find myself using the kind of gestures I use with those I know in England who share my interest in Celtic mythology and the oral tradition of the druids. He seems to understand. He leads me behind the people as they sing, to the far end of the hall, where he introduces me to the central column, the Guardians who protect this house. I am honoured, nod my head in humility; I touch my fist to my solar plexus and then open it palm outwards to the column. It is a gesture meaning my heart and honour and strength are offered in recognition of your rule in this space. The old man seems to recognise, somehow, what I mean. He leads me back, behind the singing crowd, out onto the porch, where we rejoin the young man and the woman. He tells them, immediately, “He feels it” and they both smile warmly at me. It’s as if suddenly I am accepted by them in a way they did not expect of a tourist. We wander slowly away from the Meeting House, back towards the Busby’s house, and there is such a strange but warm feeling of togetherness, although necessarily so brief, and in all truth across the gulf of cultures and backgrounds necessarily all too shallow, a connection nonetheless that has my soul standing to attention. They seem almost sad that it is all over, and we all shake hands and wish each other well.

I walk away, utterly enchanted. Here, in New Zealand, is a culture still alive and well, literate, English speaking, with unbroken connections and continuity from the ancient past. I could learn so much from these people, if only I could find what I could usefully give in return. I promptly went into the shop and spent $400 on wood carvings and jade jewellery, like any good tourist should !!

I then went and checked in at the Copthorne Bay of Islands Hotel and was given Room 230 🙂

Trip Downunder Sept 07 – Entry 4: The Far North

Me Sand-boarding
So today I have had a long coach tour trip around the Far North – the spit of land that juts north-west into the Tasman Sea from the top of North Island. It has been a long day, but there have been some notable highlights. The view from my room at the Copthorne in the early morning was a good start, although the jetlag is still robbing me of anything more than a precious three to four hours of good sleep.

View from my room at Copthorne Hotel

The tour guide, a Maori from the Far North himself, and our coach driver, is a fabulous character, and once he has collected the nine of us he has on his tour today, he sings to us all a traditional greeting song, across the tannoy, on his headset mic, as he drives the great coach up the narrow roads. It is a fine start to the day, and we all applaud. He tells us many tales, during the day, and I hear again the story of Kupe and his grandson, of the seven tribes who arrived in seven great Wakas (war canoe) – and how the name of each Waka became the name of the tribe. There was even the story of how Captain Cook saw the Maori boiling up the leaves of a particular tree for medicinal purposes, but thought it would make a great beverage; so he called it the tea-tree.

Tea Tree

Puketi Kauri forest
Perhaps the main theme of the day, though, is the Kauri tree. The Kauri self-prunes as it grows, and grows firm and tall, making it prized the world over for ships masts, plantation house beams, and the like. Stands of Kaori used to cover the whole of the Far North, and on down 200km south of Auckland, until the European settlers arrived, and within a 100 years chopped the lot down and exported it all over the world. Only three pockets of it remain, one of which, Puketi, we visited today, and walked through, on boardwalks not dissimilar to the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall, excepting of course that here the trees average between 500 and 1000 years old.

One of the day’s stops was the Ancient Kaori Kingdom shop. Much of the land up here is swamp – including acres of protected mangrove – and a thriving business has grown up finding, digging up and recycling what is called Swamp Kaori. Most of it is some 45,000 years old, not very far beneath the surface, perfectly preserved, and excellent for everything from furniture to kitchen utensils etc etc. Of course I have bought a swamp kaori bowl, which will grace my table and serve well for fruit.

90 mile beach
Then of course there was 90 mile beach – actually 64 miles long, but it took three days for the traders to trudge it, and they were used to covering 30 miles a day. We drove up this, in the coach, at 100kmph, which was exhilarating and occasionally unnerving, toward the very top of the Far North. About two thirds of the way up, just out into the sea, is an island with a hole in it – like a needle’s eye, and it is here that Maui, one of the greatest of the Maori mythological heroes, fished out the North Island from the sea, from his great Waka, the South Island.

Maui island

We stopped briefly, just past here, at a bluff where some long forgotten volcano had belched rock into the sea, and then turned inland up one of the many fresh water riverbeds into the dunes. Awaiting us here was quite an experience! Sand boarding dunes The dunes are huge, glassy, barren, and excellent for surfing down. It is actually called Sand Boarding, and two of us, with the driver, had a go. It was really quite exhilarating and woke me from the stupour the long morning drive had been lulling me into.

This was good, because not far from the sand dunes, we made finally for the uttermost tip of the land. Here, the second song of the day introduced us to the place where the ancestors are near. Here, at Cape Reinga, the souls of the Maori dead depart Aeoteoroa for the North West, and head off up to Hawaiiki, the land of the ancestors. It is a very spiritual and sacred spot, where the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea meet in confusion and conflict, splashing every which way at the apex of the Far North. I was very taken with this spot, and stood at the apex of the conical hill overlooking the clashing waves, and faced East, South, West and North, across the Pacific, down the length of New Zealand, out over the Australia, Indonesia and the great expanse of the African and Eurasian continents, and up their eastern coast to China and Japan. It is a breathtaking place from which to look around the world.

Cape Reigna

Trip Downunder Sept 07 – Entry 5: Kaori Holocaust

Tane Mahuta
Today’s special was supposed to be a catamaran cruise around the Bay of Islands out to the Hole in the Rock, with the possibility of whales and dolphins to see along the way. However the weather has turned for the worse, and the cruise was cancelled. I got a refund, which was good, because it was them, not me, that cancelled. More fool the people who dropped out because of a spot of rain! Anyway I have to confess I was as much relieved as disappointed – the swell looked quite sickening, and I am not certain whether my untrained sealegs could have coped with it; I was up for it though – any chance to see dolphins and whales is not to be missed: but the chance was gone. Never mind.

Waima Valley

Instead, I took a long, slow drive down the east coast of the Far North back to Auckland. This was, of course, again, a Kauri day, down through the breathtaking Waima Valley, and on into the Waipoua Forest, to visit Tane Mahuta, a 2000 – yes two thousand (!!!!) – year old Kauri tree.

Waipoua Forest

Me with Tane Mahuta
This was truly impressive, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity, with a couple from Melbourne who happened to stop at the same time, to get a photo of me in front of it. The ‘Father of the Forest’, this tree was truly awesome in size, majesty, and shere gravitas. A sapling a thousand years before even Kupe arrived, it is now the only really big Kauri tree left, all the rest having been cut down for timber.

Tane Mahuta

Tane Mahuta information

At the Kaori Museum, further down the road, this history was brought all too vividly to life. Quite a large museum for a rural area, this place housed a great deal of historical material. It was, no less, unfortunately, an experience which brought to mind my visit to Auschwitz last September. Here, on display, in graphic detail, was all the machinery, paraphenalia, minute detail, memorabilia, and history of a large scale industrial mass destruction project that took the lives of several million ancient trees – some twice the girth of the 2000yr old Tane Mahuta (!!) – over the space of approximately 100 years. I felt quite sickened by it all, in the end, and in the shop, looking at all the kauri carvings, felt like I was being offered some gruesome equivalent of the notorious skin lampshades…. However, I shrugged off this rather morbid, (and somewhat stretched) analogy, in the end, and bought a carved replica of a Waka paddle. It will look nice hanging by the door.

Trip Downunder Sept 07 – Entry 6: The Real, the Virtual, and the Surreal

Me at Bag End
So I spent the beginning of the week in Auckland, mostly in my hotel room, cooking for myself, and preparing a Keynote presentation on my Mac to deliver to an audience of academics and web professionals at Auckland University for [CODE], the Centre of Digital Enterprise, who organised the Seminar, on Tuesday evening. My presentation, based on a chapter I have written in a forthcoming book to be published this Autumn, is entitled “Virtuality: Time, Space, Consciousness and a Second Life”. Essentially it’s about reality and virtuality not necessarily being that different, or as opposed as one might at first think, particularly from an experiential
point of view.

The seminar went very well, and I was well received, and have made some interesting contacts at Auckland.

Then today I drove south to Rotaroa, arriving in the evening after a long day’s driving and two rather interesting stopovers. The first was the Waitamo Caves – the Ruaraki cave to be precise – where I discovered that the glow worms are not actually worms but maggots, and what glows is not actually them but their faesces. So “glowing maggot shit” doesn’t sound as good as “glow worm” in the tourist books. The stalagtites and mites however were fairly impressive, though not as impressive as ones I have seen on the south coast of Spain.

Then I went to Hobbiton. Yes, really. To the set used by Jackson to film the sequences in the Lord of the Rings movie that take place in Hobbiton. Really quite an experience. I was struck by the fact that Hobbiton, as a virtual place that has never existed, exists with such power in the imaginary through Jackson’s films, yet the ‘real’ place is just a tired sham, a mock-up facade of seeming with no substance but what our memory of the movie can give it. The virtual, in short, more real than the real, in this case. How apt.

Hobbiton

Hobbiton

Hobbiton

Trip Downunder Sept 07 – Entry 7: Chief Tourist

Warrior welcome
So this morning I had the Great Sights bus tour that took in Te Puia, the Agrodome, and Rainbow Springs. Really from the sublime to the ridiculous. Te Puia we only had an hour at, but was quite fascinating, and I determined after only 15minutes there that I would be coming back to spend the afternoon there. Te Puia is kind of “the Maori Experience” – on the one hand slightly commercialising the culture, but on the other run by and for Maori, and really supporting the perpetuation and survival of the culture. As well as the interpretation areas, for tourists, (including a Meeting House, like the one at Waitangi, but somehow more for the tourists than for the people?) it is also a living museum, incorporating an active teaching carving workshop with many (male) students who learn the dances as well as the carving arts, and a weaving workshop where the (female) students learn the weaving arts with the twine derived from the native flax. The carving is much finer today than of old, with modern tools, but the designs are traditional. I noted with interest that I recognized the flax plant as one my parents had in their back garden, a great big thing it was, beside the tiny apple orchard at the top of the garden, with sharp blade-like leaves that shot out of the ground. Here it was, at Te Puia, being scraped down with an abalone shell, the fibres parted and woven into thread, from which all the clothes of the Maori were made.

Maori Carving Workshop

Also here, of course, were the two geysers of Rotarua, Pohutu and the Prince of Wales’ Feathes geysers, which, perhaps in concert with the earthquake in the Philipines this morning, were both in an unusually active state, and treated us to a fine display the whole time we were there.

Geysers

Then, all too soon, on to the Agrodome, where we were treated to an hour and half of sheep. I was bored to tears, and actually a little annoyed to be wasting time here when I could be back at Te Puia. The man on stage showing us a range of different breeds of sheep was a boorish, ugly, rather gross man who seemed to sum up for me all the worst aspects of the settler culture that arrived here 150 years ago, and in the space of a century cut down most of the trees, and almost decimated Maori culture. Fortunately for us all, the Maori have fought their way back from near extinction and are now a vibrant force in New Zealand politics. The sheer depth, power, and substance of their fierce warriors puts to shame the brash, shallow arrogance and aggressiveness of the ‘simple farming folk’ who know nothing but how to dominate and destroy. As this man sheered a sheep on stage for us, it was like watching the rape of Aoteoroa played out in allegory.

Next stop, none too soon, was Rainbow Springs – essentially a rainbow trout farm using natural springs, dressed up as a conservation site, with a shed housing a Kiwi bird and some display cases with a gecko or
two.

Lunch with a view

Last stop, the SkyLine – a sort of ski-lift thing with gondolas instead of chairs that goes up to a restaurant. A nice buffet, overlooking Rotarua – with quite stunning views – and then back down. Impatient to return to Te Puia, I walked back into town, and enjoyed a stroll from Kaurui Park, with its mud pools and steaming vents. And so back to Te Puia, where I went straight to the great monument where the supreme beings are represented in a great circle, for all the world like a Maori Woodhenge.

Maori Woodhenge

And indeed there are twelve such beings, and yes they map onto a Maori zodiac, tracing out the heavens and the turning of agricultural cycle and the mysteries of the people as they mark the passing of the phases of the year. Here indeed, without question, is the Myth of the Eternal Return, as Mercia Eliade described it, in its south pacific form.

Fascinated by this circle, and snapping away, I didn’t notice one of the attendants come out of the ticket office, and was a bit startled when she stopped me and said I wasn’t allowed to take pictures – then she noticed the sticker on my jacket, still there since the morning, and realised that I was actually a paying customer, and was effuse in her apologies, gave me a hug, and a ticket for a performance that was to take place in about half an hour. Happy with this, I wandered around a little, taking in the recreated Maori village – a very communal way of life they led – and gathered with all the other tourists for the ‘cultural performance’ at the Meeting House. The hostess came out of the Meeting House at last and approached us all at the gate, in full costume, and explained what was about to happen. The performers were going to dance the formal welcome of one tribe to a visiting tribe, and therefore amongst the tourists one of us (a gentleman) had to be chief. Yes you guessed it, I volunteered (keenly) and was chosen immediately. So, at the front of the crowd at all times, with the hostess by my side (and slightly behind) I led the group from the gate slightly into the grounds between the gate and the Meeting House. A fierce young warrior, wiry and lean and dressed only in a short skirt, carrying a large spear, came out of the house and down the path towards me, performing the full dance of challenge, eyes wide and tongue extended in defiance, brandishing his spear in ritual poses as part of the dance. Then at my feet, he placed a fern leaf, and, as instructed, without taking my eyes off the warrior, whose eyes I had fixed with mine from the moment the dance began, and bent down, catching the leaf in my peripheral vision, and picked it up, carefully, to hold by my side for the rest of the performance. Then, the four other warriors and three other maidens joined in the song and dance outside the front of the Meeting House, completing the welcome, as the first warrior beckoned me forward and into the House with his spear and his dance.

The Meeting House

So (with our hostess at my side prompting me all the time) I led the crowd up the steps, where we all took off our shoes and hats, and on into the Meeting House, where I was given the seat of honour, in the front row before the stage. They then all gathered on the stage, in their fine costumes, and performed a number of traditional dances. The brief highlight, before we could continue, was that of course I had to join them on the stage, briefly, to shake hands with each of the warriors, and touch noses twice, gently, with each, in the traditional greeting. It was really quite wonderful. I beamed with absolute pleasure throughout the entire experience, and only towards the end of it remembered to get my camera out and take any pictures. It was an absolutely wonderful pleasure to be so welcomed to New Zealand, properly, in the traditional Maori manner – an experience I shall truly never forget.

The stick game dance

Maori warrior doing the Haka

Now all I have to do is to work out how on earth I am going to get this leaf back to the UK! Australian biosecurity certainly won’t let me take it through.

This problem, however, was solved in an interesting way by the evening’s entertainment – the Tamaki Village concert and meal. This was not better, nor worse than I had experienced at Te Puia in the afternoon, just different, in some ways, and yet the same thing, in others. I felt perhaps, at times, that the edge of commercialisation of the culture was stronger in the evening than in the afternoon – there didn’t seem to be much about the Tamaki village that was putting something back into the culture, like the teaching institutes at Te Puia, it was a business, and it was proud of it. But at times the performance was somehow better, more authentic for being in the forest, albeit that the village seemed as fabricated and unlived in as the one at Te Puia. The food was so-so. I was again Chief – this time of the coach, and one of three, and it was another of the three of us who got to pick up the leaf offering. However, at the end of the evening, we were each presented with a little wood-carving round our necks, representing the Maori god of wisdom, and this, albeit not the leaf from Te Puia, will do well as a souvenir as my day as Chief Tourist, consuming Maori culture as it has been presented to me in exchange for my tourist dollars.

Trip Downunder Sept 07 – Entry 8: Into the National Park

Huka Falls
Well today has been pleasantly slow and quite lacking in excitement – a welcome respite after yesterday’s highlights. I stopped off to take a walk down to the better lookout of Huka Falls, and another round the Taupo Museum, had a rather nice Clam Chowder in an eatery in Taupo, then took the long way round (and more scenic route) down the west coast of Lake Taupo to the National Park, and on up to Mount Ruapehu and the
Grand Chateau hotel – which is splendid.

Here it is time for a relaxed dinner in their splendid Edwardian style restaurant, while the rain pours down outside.

On the way down from Rotarua to Taupo, I passed this amazing installation making excellent use of the local volcanic conditions to power today’s society:

Geothermal Power Station

At the Taupo Museum I was treated to an award winning garden, and the portraits of two 19th century Maori chiefs:

Award Wining Taupo Garden - Chelsea Flower Show no less

Rutene Te Uamairangi Rahui - 19th cent Maori chief in Taupo museum

another 19th cent Maori chief in Taupo museum

On the way down from Taupo to the National Park – taking the scenic route down the west of the lake – I was blessed with some incredible vistas, worth stopping for a few minutes to breathe in the view, and take a snap:

View of Lake Taupo

Trip Downunder Sept 07 – Entry 9: Three Worlds

Mount Ruapehu Today, in the Tongariro National Park, I have been to three places: a Maori land of mountain gods Ruapehu, Tongariro, and Ngauruhoe; the area used for the filming of Mordor in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, and some amazing volcanic landscape. All three map onto one another in a jumble of reality and virtuality that was at times slightly confusing. The Mountain Peaks were gifted to the New Zealand people by the chief of the tribe whose land the park now covers, in a bid to save them from the ravages of the encroaching farmers who now had the right to buy land from individual Maori – something which set against the old communal way of life was a legal
nonsense guaranteed to serve the interests of the settlers and not of the Maori. In 1887 it became one of the very first National Parks in the world, and grew in size over the coming century as the government bought out the holdings around the peaks.

I learnt this from a rather shabby audio-visual in the local visitors centre, where the whole thing was split into two, and the left-hand projection was some six inches lower than the right-hand projection, making everything rather weirdly disjointed; worse, some kind of degradation of the film meant that everything blurred jaggedly in the strangest fashion – I have never seen the like – and some of the audio seemed to be lost, such that important speeches were lost entirely against the backdrop of inane music and disjointed photographs, speech-silences that ended in new voices rounding off conclusively with summarising “and so”‘s. In short, it was dreadful, and detracted rather from the message it was trying to convey.

Mount Ruapehu

The other virtual world mapped onto this landscape, however – that of Mordor – whilst an incomparably better audio-visual experience, nonetheless fared little better for me, today, when weighed up against what I would consider to be the real star of the day – the landscape itself. This, of course, I viewed through an entirely more modern eye than that of the old Maori legend, or of the smorgasboard of European folklore that is shoehorned into Tolkein’s epic. This eye was a nineteenth century eye, the eye of the picaresque, the Victorian eye that delights in the wild and in natural landscape, and then returns to the 1929 champagne chateau for gourmet food and fine wine.

Sauron Loses his hand

My guide was a nice enough chap, and showed me all sorts of interesting places. He had been the environment Officer here in the Park for Jackson’s production, ensuring that the mosses and lichens were protected with carpet, and that walkways were built to minimise trampling, and that all the areas heavily churned by the trucks and other vehicles were lovingly returned to the wild with the minimum of disruption. Now he drives people around giving tours, telling stories, and takes people for walks and ski-ing trips. Seemed like a pretty nice life: good on yer Scotty.

Gollum Leaps Down on Frodo and Sam


We collected some of the plastic rubbish left behind by the snowboarders and toboganists, as we wandered through the rocks and crags of Mordor, stopping to wonder at the spot where Sauron’s hand was cut off by Isildur’s father, at the spot in the Emin Muil where Gollum leaped down from the cliff to attack the sleeping Frodo and Sam, at the spot where Frodo and Sam rested on a spur of rock as the lava of Mount Doom flowed around them at the very end. Here where the great Ruapehu spake his Mannah to calm the young North Island freshly brought to the surface of the southern sea by Maui’s hook, the Great Battle at the end of the Second Age was fought, and the tourists ski down slopes of freshly machine-made snow, strewn across the volcanic landscape of the Tongariro National Park.

Rock where Frodo and Sam lie with lava flowing round them

Indeed, the landscape certainly won out for me today, particularly when, in true Kiwi style, I went ‘tramping’ as they call it here, (that’s hiking for the Brits) from the Hotel out to the Taranaki Falls – a lovely 2hour walk through countryside at times not dissimilar from the Yorkshire Dales, at times closer to North Wales, and other times somehow quite lunar, and at all times populated with the most fascinating flora and the calls of strange and wonderful birds. An absolute delight, from start to finish, and – as always for me when walking – a marvellous opportunity for reflection and meditative thought.

Trip Downunder Sept 07 – Entry 10: Te Papa Museum

New Zealand Forest after European settlement
The road from Tongariro to Whanganui, and on down from there to Wellington, takes the whole morning to drive, but past some very stunning scenery – including a wonderful waterfalls.

At Wellington itself – the capital, although a smaller city than Auckland, but similarly a harbour town – I went straight to the Te Papa (‘the People’) National Museum, which proved to be well worth it.

Here were a number of excellent exhibitions about the flora and fauna, the history of New Zealand, and the tectonic geology of the country – including audio-visual record of the 1995-96 eruptions at Ruapehu, over
the chateau where I stayed.

Grand Chateau under volcanic eruption in 1995

But all these were crowned, for me, by the permanent exhibition “Blood, Earth , Fire” which documents how the arrival of humanity has devastated The Land That Was – only 1000yrs ago an untouched island paradise.

New Zealand Forest before and after European settlement

It is quite stunning how, in the 700odd years that the Maori were here, humanity had already begun, inexorably to take its toll, for all that their ways trod more lightly upon the earth than ours. But the shere
orgy of destruction that the creation of the virtual England of grass, sheep and cows unleashed upon this land in the space of 80years from 1840 to 1920 is truly awesome to behold. The exhibition does not pull any punches, making it clear what impact the Maori had, but not pretending that the Europeans were anything but a million times worse. One of the most poignant parts of the exhibition was a memorial to the dozens of species known to have been lost in this process.

Testament, also, is given to those who, as early as the mid-1930s, began to question this savage repurposing of what was once ancient native New Zealand forest – with trees thousands of years old – into the short-term gain of introduced European grassland for introduced grazing animals bred mostly for export. Today’s New Zealand, it is clear, vehemently defends what is left of its natural heritage; the tide of destruction has been halted.

Herbert Guthrie-Smith quote on the destruction

Also documented here is the sad tale of how the European settlers signed the wonderful treaty of Waitangi and then proceeded to welch on every aspect of the deal, disenfranchising, disinheriting, and simply hoodwinking the Maori out of the lands. The full, formal apology for such treatment from none other than Queen Elizabeth II, quoted in full in the exhibition, is testament at least to the beginnings of reparation – the ‘Claims’ now being heard by Moari people for rights to their own land. Interesting too to note the large numbers of Scots – some refugees from the Highland clearances – Dalmatians, and Chinese, who helped to swell the numbers of English settlers. There were some 100,000 Maori on New Zealand before the Europeans arrived. Now some 4.1million people live here altogether – very very few of them pure-blood native Maori. The fourth floor of the Museum includes an enormous Meeting House for all the tribes and peoples and New Zealand – it gives a really good feeling that, for all the darker side of the colonial history, honesty and a willingness to make good past mistakes characterise the present.

Te Papa Meeting House

Trip Downunder Sept 07 – Entry 11: South Island

View from Queenstown Airport
So today I arrived in the Scotland of the southern ocean. And it really is that. The scenery, as you fly in over the snowcapped mountains down into Queenstown, is what can only be described as gobsmackingly spectacular. I was blessed today with brilliant sunshine and deep blue skies – a blue only rivalled by the blue of the rivers and lakes that sit in the dips between the mountains. It really is stunning.

Having flown from Wellington to Christchurch, and then from Christchurch to Queenstown, in the final leg of a rather non-sensical itinerary, I then drove to Dunedin, via Alexandra and Milton. The scenery, however, made it well worth it – including such sights as Roaring Meg:

Roaring Meg

and a host of amazing vistas, courtesy of the mountain ranges of the south.

Queenstown Dunedin road

Trip Downunder Sept 07 – Entry 12: Coach-Cruise-Fly

Tandem Paragliding
OK so the second gig of the holiday, presenting to colleagues at Otago University in Dunedin, has gone well, and I am back in Queenstown, for the day trip to Milford Sound, and fun on my return! The day began early with a several hour long coach drive through three deep u-shaped glacial valleys across to the west coast of south island and Milford Sound. Here we joined a small ferry for a cruise down the fiord and out into the Tasman Sea briefly, then back up the fiord, to the small airport where I took the twin-prop Britten Norman Island Hopper back to Queenstown, sitting next to the pilot! To round off the day, I took the gondola up the mountain overlooking Queenstown, and completely on the spur of the moment went (tandem) paragliding, off the top of the mountain and back down into town. See here for slideshows of some of the most amazing scenery I have ever seen in my life!

Trip Downunder Sept 07 – Entry 13: Last Day NZ

Christchurch
The last day’s drive was long and exhausting, from Queenstown all the way north east to Christchurch. Lake Pukaki on the way in the bright sunlight was in one of its very bright blue moods, according to the lady at the tourist stop, who sold me a breakfast bar with a smile. Lunch in Fairlie’s award winning bistro was really delicious, reading through the local paper with an excellent coffee and a warm chicken salad worthy of a town a good deal larger than little Fairlie. And finally Christchurch – initially a very unappealing and seemingly endless strip of low-rise warehouse-style industrial and commercial buildings beside the road, and then suddenly, at the centre, a veritable Upper Stratford-in-the-Wold (if such a place can exist) more typically English than you’re likely to find anywhere outside the nether regions of Shropshire or Herefordshire, utterly quaint, whilst at the same time circled with enormous modern high-rise towers, in the lake of industrial units. A very strange city indeed – all at once picture-postcard English village, international windy city, and highway strip town. The Heritage in Cathedral Square – like all the Heritage Hotels I have stayed in in New Zealand, was lovely, and the restaurant here, in the old Government building next to the hotel tower, particularly good. Last but not least, the Antarctic Centre at Christchurch Airport is an experience not to be missed! – though I should have left longer than an hour to get round it all. And so goodbye to New Zealand, and hopefully see you again!

Some views of the picturesque centre of Christchurch – with the memorial to the suffragettes who succeeded in making New Zealand the first country in the world to extend suffrage to women:

Trip Downunder Sept 07 – Entry 14: Sydney

Me at the Opera House Back to Sydney! Delightful dinner with fellow Kaotician (and its original founder) Phil Morle and his wife at their lovely home overlooking the bush in Hornsby, followed by a day out in the City seeing the sights, drinking tea outside the Opera House – and several beers in Sydney’s gay village, Surrey Hills. A lovely day indeed. And then back to Sean’s for the weekend – to make him a new website!

Trip Downunder Sept 07 – Entry 15: Uluru

Uluru
So, at last, I have been to Uluru. To the Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park, to be precise. It was a 24 hour stopover – the flights from and back to Sydney essentially free, included in the globe-trotter ticket I bought for this trip downunder. I arrived at about 1pm at the Voyages Resort, where there are hotels for all budgets, (and the cheapest is dear for a backpacker) all run by the one company that got the government concession here. The first thing you notice as you get off the plane is the heat. It is 36deg here. The Park is some 40km from
Uluru, outside the National Park, adjacent to the new airport. My room is basic, but I shall only be putting my head down in it so I am content.

Kata-Tjuta

Kata-Tjuta gorge
At 4pm, I depart on my first tour – the Kata-Tjuta Dunes Sunset tour. Cherry, guide to the 20 tourists and driver of our mini-van on this Discovery Ecotours trip, is fresh, cheerful, and informative. We visit the large rock formations collectively known by the European name of The Olgas, their aboriginal name, Kata-Tjuta. The local peoples – a cluster of three dialect groupings, are known as the Anangu (pr. ‘ananoo’) but the stories of these lands include peoples from all over Australia. The Anangu have been living here for 22000 years, the deep red centre of this island continent – one of the last areas to be populated. We Europeans first sighted it in the 1870s. Tourism began in the 1950s, which was when the National Park was created – a slice taken out of the Aboriginal Reservation that covers the wider area. In 1985 the Land Rights Act returned ownership of the National Park to the Anangu, on condition that they lease it back to the Australian government for 99years. It was at this point that the resort and airport were relocated out of the Park, and the indigineous people began to have at least something of a say in the running of the land they had occupied for so long. None of them live a nomadic life anymore. They wear western clothes, live in houses, and are prey to the demon drink.
But their culture lives on through their ceremonies, rituals, social structure, language, mores. They have managed to restrict access to much of the park – with the voice of the conservationists on their side keen to preserve this unique environment. Everyone has to pay $25 at the entrance to the park, for a three day ticket. 25% of this goes to the local people. About $6. I spent about $400 here in 24 hours, on hotel room, food, wine, t-shirt, hat…. ..and $6 of it went to the indigenous people.

Kata-Tjuta sign
Kata-Tjuta is the ancient sacred site of the Men’s Mysteries for the aboriginal people, where their young men are initiated to this day, and it is to a carefully fenced-off area with clear walkways and viewing platforms that we are taken, into a gorge that is no longer used by the indigenous people, and their gorges are off limits. Here the trees from which the men make their spears and spear throwers grow, drinking up the rich water source at the foot of the rocks. Only yards away from the rock formations, the desert takes over again, with coarse grass the only greenery that breaks the surface. Somehow, on this tour, with the multi-national cohort and our Australian tour-guide, on the carefully managed paths, it is landscape that we have come to see, and the mystery of this place is carefully hidden from us. Cherry cannot know anything about the mysteries, for she is female, and there are female tourists with us. She explains that amongst local people, only men are allowed to come to Kata-Tjuta. It feels somehow as though sacrilege has been committed. Walking back out of the gorge, back onto the bus, we are taken to a viewing platform on the top of a sand dune, from which to watch the rocks gradually change colour as the sun sets behind us. Cherry gets out bread, oil and balsamic, and a seed mix which includes a local tree bark, and pours sparkling wine into champagne flutes for everyone, except the children who get orange juice. I, of course, tickled by the sheer decadence of this experience, have to mix the too, and soon several of us are quaffing bucks fizz, in the desert, watching the sunset over Kata-Tjuta. It is somehow fittingly colonial, distant and distinct from the true and ancient meaning of the place.

Bucks Fizz at Kata-Tjuta

Quite merry by the time we get back to the resort, after buying a better (kangaroo leather) sunhat and a flynet to keep off the extremely irritating desert flies, I bought a plate of raw kangaroo meet and barramundi fish and barbecued it myself on the backpacker-communal barbecues, washing it down with strong aussie wine. Then an early night, and up at 4.30am for the Uluru sunrise tour.

Sunrise over Uluru

Uluru Mala Face
There’s only five of us this morning, and our tour-guide, Jessie, is more experienced and more knowledgeable than Cherry was. Jessie takes us to the viewing area for sunrise, and we watch the colours change, drinking coffee and eating a light breakfast of cereal bars and muffins. Then he drives us around the base of the Uluru, telling us some of the tales of the aboriginal culture that tie aspects of this great rock into the history and mythology of both the local and many more distant peoples. It is quite fascinating. But the tension between landlord and leaseholder is so evident. All the literature from the Voyages Resort, and all the various tour-guide companies that operate here, include the statement from the Anangu that they would rather people did not climb the rock. Yet of course the climb is available and allowed and tour-guides take you up, and we watch the long line of tourists climbing the precarious path – with a steel rope to guide you – up onto the top of the rock. As Jessie explains to us, in the ancient tale of the Mala ancestors, it was a great wise elder who climbed the rock here, to plant the totem-pole announcing the beginning of the men’s mysteries ceremonies. The totem pole is echoed in one of the rock formations. The tourists tread this processional way, as if clambering up onto the High Altar in the Vatican, oblivious to all insult. I saw the request from the Anangu, and did not climb. I did not buy the postcard that said “I respected the wishes of the Anangu and did not climb,” but was amused to see it in the rack.
Uluru snake lair
As we drive around the base Jessie tells us a fabulous story about a snake ancestor and her eggs, and the shapes on the sides of the rock that pick out moments of the tale. It is quite fascinating to the see the mythology mapped onto the geology in this way. We leave the bus at a car park and Jessie takes us to see one of the rock-paintings – barely more than a classroom blackboard, really, with a jumble of signs and symbols used to aid in passing on the oral tradition.

Uluru rock paintings

We go right up close to the rock and see into one of the pools of water that collect at its base – surrounded by lush vegetation, small lizards, and more tourists. Then its off to the Cultural Centre – the exhibition space of the National Park, where everything has been prepared by/on behalf of the the Anangnu, and there are shops selling local crafts and artworks. I buy a hand-crafted snake, to remember the story. There are aboriginal women, sitting cross legged on the floor in one of the shops, painting. They chat amongst themselves, in a world completely their own, oblivious to the tourists standing watching them, somehow in another time and place from us altogether. Even now, in their presence, in this shop, I feel that their mystery is hidden from us. It is carefully managed, and very effective. The storyboards in the exhibition tell a little, and then fall silent. Here and there it is mentioned that the true ending of a story is reserved for initiates only. Perhaps, in the end, it is a mark of the victory of the aboriginal people here, that outsiders do not know, cannot understand their ways, their mysteries. They have kept the strength of their magic by keeping silent. It is good.

Having completed the circumference we pull in for a last stop at a viewing platform for a good view of the rock, and Jessie and I take each others’ pictures.

Jessie - Uluru guide

Uluru

Then it’s back to the resort, for an hour wandering around the visitors centre, where I learn more about the geology and the natural history of the place, and at last back to the airport and back to Sydney.

I am glad to have been there at last, to have at least touched the surface of the mysteries of an ancient people, to have gained, at least, a knowledge of the power of its silence.

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