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 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 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 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 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!