Friday, November 20, 2009

North Island Road Trip

New Zealand (Aotearoa in Maori) is the other end of the earth from my home country. While I grew up about as physically far away as possible from this island nation in the South Pacific, it had a profound effect on my childhood and consequently my formation. Between the ages of 8 and 13 seeming half of my teachers where Kiwis, each set in his peculiar way. From the oddest but almost brilliant headmaster who had spent much of his life over there, via a distinctly strange drama guy, to the rugby and history master who had his “special eye” on a number of us. I try not to think about what the last part meant, but I can vouch that I did not come to any obvious, conscious harm.

The key point is that these guys helped install some bloody minded competitiveness into my soul along with particular interests in certain fields they taught - history and critical theology are never too far from my mind. Rugby was drilled into to me as part of life and although it fell away for some time from the forefront of my activities, these guys left an indelible oval ball shaped scar shape on my sub-conscious.

To cut it short, I have always wanted to take a look at what was behind these quirky bunch of men that briefly ruled in a hilly part of Surrey, England. This round the world trip was the perfect opportunity

Auckland and Out...
A little over half a month ago (I am as I type a few hundred miles to the north of Antarctica watching the sun fade over the vast expanse that this plane is eating up on my way to Chile...) Christina and I landed in Auckland with half a plan. We had met Uwe (a dude of a German) and Elaine (American) on a boat in Fiji and hitched a road trip plan on the beach. On landing we caught up with them in a shitty downtown hostel and after some brain-numbingly annoying negotiation ended up with a just about passable Toyota Spacio. A truly uniquely average car, which later received the deserved name of “Timmie” (we all like South Park).

Now, Auckland is not the most impressive place in the world. A nice enough city, but for me nothing to compare with say a Sydney or Melbourne which we had recently parked bums in. The CBD has a few interesting buildings and nice parks, but is a little too much a product of 60's development (anyone from a city bombed to bits in WWII will have an idea of what I mean). The highlights of a bit of walking, sorting and chilling were a nice night round the pubs and coffee on the bay – sun glittering to save off the post-Fiji lack of Vitamin D blues.

On our way out we made a top choice in a couple of pit-stops. The city is build on 50 odd volcanic cones (not all extinct either) and One Tree Hill with its famous Maori monument and tail of ripped down trees gives expansive views over the twin harbours and numerous hills of Auckland. What took me aback though was the Auckland Museum. Most wonderfully put together, the Maori exhibition was a real eye-opener. In my experience some countries big up the past and cultural achievement of certain groups in a country either out of guilt or nationalism. I did not know what to expect in New Zealand, where worlds collided when Europeans washed ashore and met the Maori. Unlike some other countries, the Maori where not initially brushed aside and run from above by colonisers. They were fierce warriors and were treated with some respect by the Brits with whom they signed the disputed treaty of Waitangi (CHECK) in 1840 under which much power was ceded to the Crown of England in return for protection. By saying “respect” I am not trying to say that the Brits acted particularly well towards the Maori, or indeed that they did not slowly but surely take away freedoms that should have been the Maori's consequent of the treaty. I am just saying the Brits (and other colonisers of that era) often treated those they colonised with far less respect. Examples to the contrary would be the North American Indians, Australians Aborigines, most of Africa and, well, loads of other places.

A fasincating 19th century Maori carving of Christ and the Virgin Mary - apparently the church rejected this wonderful piece of carving...
Back to the museum. The Maori exhibit was exceptional. Yes, they did lack many innovations of other parts of the world (including metal work etc), but my word what was on show was impressive. The intricacy and imagination in the carvings of weapons, store houses, instruments, spiritual artifacts and numerous other types of items was quite something. A culture with a strong sense of identity and fascinating practices. I can completely see why an Aussie told me recently that he was simply embarrassed when he saw how the New Zealanders nowadays treat the Maori heritage of their islands. The comparison to how the Aborigines fit in with and are treated by Australian society is shocking. I was keen to learn more.

Waitomo Caves

“Waitomo” literally means “water caves” in Maori. This was one of our must stops on our long southbound journey. A few hours south from Auckland via many a sheep (a constant theme) and, surprisingly, even more cows (Chris counted!) we came to a strange Shire like countryside of fiercely undulating green hills. In fact this does not only look like the Shire of Lord of the Rings renown but IS in fact the silver screen Shire – it was filmed here!
Strapping on some slightly homoerotic thick wetsuits and brightly coloured wellies we were ready to go. Saying goodbye to the sheep and the light, we headed underground bound not to come back up for half a day. This place is shaped the way it is because of a constant process of the ground collapsing and slumping down as rain and underground rivers erode away under your feet. This forms literally hundreds of miles of winding caves. One of these was to be our brief home.
The clambering and clawing around were fun (at one point through a claustrophobic lengthy squeeze gap which had no right to fit my arse through), but the best bit were the glowworms or, as our guide described them, cannibalistic shagging maggots with shiny shit. Thousands upon thousands of them line the ceilings of the cave glowing their fluorescent green glow. This light (that comes from their shiny shit) attracts flying insects including their kin (hence cannibalistic) so that these fly lavae (maggots) can turn into flies for the day, shag, reproduce and get caught and eaten by other glowworms. A bit of a shit life really, but that's just the way it is.

Jumping off a ledge into a big rubber tube and floating down a subterranean stream staring at more of these fascinating little creatures than I could possibly count was, well, very cool indeed!

Rotorua

Across some beautiful country we drove to tourist ville itself, Rotorua. A tacky as hell Maori cultural evening (picture the local guys making jokes that would make a 1970's Saturday evening comedian cringe and a whole lot of Australian pensioners laughing), did not leave much of an impression on me but did provide some nice pictures which as it was designed to do (not shown here out of principle). Not really my cup of tea. I was happy to move on.

The long road to the capital...

Down we drove past some seriously bubbly mud pools, a crystal clear frothing-blue waterfall and coffee at an unfortunately overcast Taupo. Such a pity as I knew there were some mammoth hills the other side of the lake, but they just would not show themselves. Fortunately the clouds as we undertook the drive over to the West coast. For the first time we were clearly in the arse end of nowhere that makes up most of this country – there are nearly twice as many people in Hong Kong as in the whole of this expanisve country. Now, the arse end of nowhere does not have to look like shit (mind the awful and crude pun) and in this case it certainly did not. Initially through steep forest clad valleys, which opened up into a vaster crater valley and then, over the lip, the lands falling away to the ocean. For the first hour or so we barely saw a house. How nice!
Via a gallivant on a wind-swept hill, this windy road took us to Napier. A town famed for its finely preserved Art Deco architecture, I quickly became a fan. The modern city owes much to a viscous earthquake in the early thirties that turned the place into rubble and thrust a vast chunk of land straight out of the sea. They rebuilt in the style of the day to a fine finish and have preserved it ever since. While I have no particular fascination with Art Deco, it did provide a very pleasant walking tour in the sunshine after a sun gazing lunch on the black volcanic beach.
A bit of inverted German driving (yes Uwe, driving on the right is not always “right”), added a touch of humour and excitement to our departure. Back inland through sloping greenery and past thousands of our four legged fluffy friends (NZ has over ten times more sheep the people) and the very occasional small back-water town, we cut across the spine of the North Island and belted through the pelting rain to the capital.

Wellington

Possibly the best burger of my life (they don't do meat half well over here) and a few beers are all to be said of the subsequent night out. A morning walk showed us a few interesting buildings including the wooden old Parliament building that makes such a good imitation of stone that we had to go up and give it a knock. The national archives were not exhibiting the first law giving women the vote (NZ was ahead of its time in the 1890's), which was a pity, but our quick run around Te Papa Museum was a real treasure – a reason to visit windy Wellington if no other. Brief and blustery, I found Welly an unremarkable but pleasant enough city.
Chris and I were champing at the bit to tour the South Island. However nice, the above was only a side feature. Our limited time was to be spent on the land mass that so many people have described to me as the most consistently and grin-jerkingly scenic place on earth.

As the robust ferry chugged away southbound we were very excited...
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