Singing the All Blacks blues

Ever since we arrived in New Zealand the country has been in the grip of World Cup fever. The rugby union World Cup is in full swing in Japan and the New Zealand All Blacks, the current holders of the title and widely acknowledged to be the best team in the world, are expected to win.

By world standards New Zealand is a small nation with a tiny population. Rugby union is the one sport at which this country excels, and as such it is a source of national pride which helps bring people and communities together.

All Blacks flags, shirts and memorabilia are everywhere

Unsurprisingly therefore, wherever we’ve been we have seen All Blacks flags, shirts and memorabilia, and ordinary Kiwis have wanted to talk to us about the competition in Japan. On our flight from Palmerston North to Christchurch we were even treated to some rugby-themed chocolate cookies. Over here, rugby gets into everything.

Rugby-themed cookies, courtesy of New Zealand Air

New Zealand have been doing very well, as expected, so your average Kiwi is feeling quite chipper. However in the semi-final they are to play England, who’ve also had a good competition to date. Over here the semi-final starts at 9.00pm, and our host at Bushy Park homestead has arranged for the match to be shown on a large-screen television in the lounge.

About 15 people are crammed into the lounge. Someone asks brightly “So I guess everyone here’s supporting the All Blacks?”

“No,” I reply in my best English accent, “We’re backing the other lot.”

A murmur goes round the room. It isn’t hostile – New Zealanders are decent folk, and the only people they really dislike are Aussies – but it’s more like an expression of pity. They know the All Blacks are the best in the world, and are worried that we’ll be humiliated when they give England a damn good thrashing.

The match starts and the Kiwis are confounded. The English are playing out of their skins and the All Blacks aren’t being allowed to settle into their normal rhythm. After a few minutes the English have scored and a sigh of dismay echoes round the room. Mrs P and I say nothing, just keep our heads down and pretend we’re not there. But inside we’re deliriously happy.

The New Zealand contingent are confident their boys will turn it around, but England continue to outplay them. Half time arrives with the All Blacks still well behind and looking out of sorts.

Our host, in an attempt to distract his guests from the disaster unfolding in Japan brings a Puriri moth for us to admire. There’s been a hatching this evening, and there are hundreds of them flying around the homestead.

Puriri moths are huge and green and, in the case of the males, desperately tragic. They spend up to seven years as a caterpillar and no more than two days as an adult moth. Their role is simple: to mate with a female Puriri, after which their job is done and they swiftly fade away and die. Such is their limited life expectancy that the males are born without mouths, so a post-coital snack is clearly out of the question.

Puriri moth

I wonder, as we all gaze sympathetically at the wretched male Puriri, if this isn’t a metaphor for England’s game against the All Blacks, a brief and dazzling performance lasting just a few minutes followed pretty much immediately by an inevitable decline and fall.

But no, I’m being unnecessarily pessimistic. England start the second half as they ended the first, and although the All Blacks score they never seem likely to overhaul their opponents. Slowly, disconsolately, our fellow spectators quit the lounge before the game is over, quietly singing the All Blacks blues. By the time the referee blows the final whistle and England start their celebrations only Mrs P and I, and two grim-faced Kiwis, remain.

It has been an extraordinary experience, watching this match with a bunch of people to whom it plainly means so much. In the days that follow several New Zealanders speak to us about the game. They are magnanimous in defeat, and say their team was outclassed and England were worthy winners.

The New Zealanders are down but not out. Rugby union means far more to citizens of this country than it does to the English. There will be an inquest, a re-evaluation and some re-building. Probably a few heads will roll. But as Bill Shankly once said in relation to soccer, rugby union isn’t a matter of life or death in New Zealand: it’s far more important than that.

Don’t expect New Zealanders to be singing the All Blacks blues for long.

Bushy Park bird sanctuary

In typical fashion, when the Brits colonised New Zealand they decided that although the land had promise, it was way too foreign. The solution, they determined, was to import some favourite elements of the Mother Country to make New Zealand feel much more like home.

What better way for the colonisers to make New Zealand feel like the land of their birth than to transport some familiar birds half way across the world and then release them to compete with an unsuspecting and ill-prepared population of native birds? For this reason, house sparrows, song thrushes, skylarks, blackbirds, goldfinches, chaffinches and many more species from the UK are abundant here in New Zealand.

House Sparrow – now probably more common in New Zealand than the UK

And it wasn’t just the Brits. The Aussies weren’t much better, nipping across the Tasman Sea to release some of their own familiar species such as Black Swans, Australian Magpies and Silvereyes.

To make matters worse, mammalian predators were brought to New Zealand and released, sometimes deliberately and sometimes accidentally. Rats, stoats, and possums now ravage New Zealand’s native bird species, which previously faced no such threats and were therefore ill-equipped to deal with the sudden influx of ruthless killing machines.

The combination of predation from introduced mammals and competition from introduced birds has been disastrous for New Zealand’s native birds. Some species have gone extinct, and many others can only be found on predator-free offshore islands. Our planned visit earlier in this trip to one such island, Tiritiri Matangi, had to be cancelled due to the weather, and we have therefore struggled to see many of the native birds that were due to be one of the highlights of our visit to New Zealand.

Bushy Park Sanctuary offers us the chance to put this right. This is a small area (100 hectares / 247 acres) of lowland rainforest surrounded by a predator-proof fence. The park and the homestead (grand farmhouse) bearing its name were gifted to conservation organisation Forest and Bird in 1962. The project to make this a special place for native birds has been managed by the Bushy Park Trust since 1994 and was encircled by a 4.8km pest-proof fence in 2005.

We are staying for two nights in the Bushy Park homestead, which has been converted into what we might describe in the UK as a boutique hotel. Built in 1906 in the Edwardian style, it is a Category One Heritage Building registered with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.

Bushy Park homestead

To access the homestead and the adjacent sanctuary we have to drive through an airlock style double gate – one gate is always closed, which minimises the chance of predators entering the protected area. However, it’s obviously not fool-proof – or, to be more precise – possum-proof, as there are baited poison traps distributed throughout the homestead grounds and sanctuary.

Passing through the first of two gates designed to keep predators out of the Sanctuary

I must confess to having slightly mixed feelings about the poison. I know that the predators don’t belong here, and I also know that the native birds we’re hoping to see don’t stand a chance unless those predators are eliminated, but the poison inevitably causes suffering and a lingering death. As a matter of principle I don’t accept that any living creature should suffer at the hand of (wo)mankind, but without drastic intervention native birds will suffer and probably become extinct.

Fantail

Oh dear, what a conundrum. But what is absolutely clear is that the predator control and the reintroduction initiatives that have followed it have transformed the mix of birdlife to be found in this small area. As we walk though the forest and enjoy the sight of so many unfamiliar trees and other plants, our ears are assailed by the call of birds.

Hihi (male bird; the females are much less colourful)

But what we hear is not the type of birdsong that we’ve heard elsewhere in New Zealand, calls that are familiar from back home such as the blackbird and the chaffinch. No, these are the calls of native birds which are thriving in this tiny North Island sanctuary. And as we scan the trees and the bird feeders we spot the culprits, including Fantails, HiHi, Kereru, Saddlebacks and New Zealand Robin.

Kereru

There’s a lot to enjoy and a lot to think about at Bushy Park Sanctuary. It demonstrates that with enough resources, and if we are willing to accept that the suffering of the poisoned is a price worth paying, small areas of the country can be reclaimed for native birds. It also demonstrates that those birds are magnificent creatures that deserve to thrive and to be admired by us, the architects of their decline.

Saddleback

But the New Zealand government has committed itself to ridding the country of rats, stoats and possums. It says

Predator Free 2050 is an ambitious goal to rid New Zealand of the most damaging introduced predators that threaten our nation’s natural taonga, our economy and primary sector. Join us in eradicating New Zealand’s most damaging introduced predators: rats, stoats and possums. Going predator free will bring us a huge range of environmental, cultural, social and economic benefits.

Source: https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/pests-and-threats/predator-free-2050/ Retrieved 30 October 2019.

Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? But given the enormous effort that has gone into protecting just the 100 hectares of Bushy Park Sanctuary, is this realistic or merely fanciful? And considering the millions of living creatures that must be eliminated to make it happen, do the ends really justify the means?

New Zealand Robin

I don’t have the answers to these questions, and as a guest here it’s really not my business anyway. But it makes you think, doesn’t it?

The Tawhiti Museum

As we leave Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge we stop off at the waterfall after which it is named. The Dawson Falls are 18m high, and pretty damned impressive. Although in the UK we’d go wild over a waterfall like this, here it seems like business as usual, just another day another waterfall. But Mrs P and I aren’t complacent, we love waterfalls and stand transfixed in front of this one for several minutes, in awe of its power and its fury.

And so from the sublime to the ridiculous. The nearby Hawera water tower was built in 1914 as part of a strategy to control the wildfires that were ravaging the area at that time.  Water towers are functional pieces of architecture that are mostly not worth a second glance, but this one is strangely appealing in a brutalist kind of way.  Good job too, because at 55m high, it’s the one building in Hawera that you simply can’t avoid.

But today’s main focus is a visit to the Tawhiti Museum which is, as the saying goes, world famous in New Zealand. That being the case it’s unsurprising that none of our research in the UK had revealed its existence, and had it not been for a suggestion from a helpful staff member at the Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge we would never have found it.

The Tawhiti Museum is the creation of one man, Nigel Ogle. He’s an art teacher by training, but gave it up in favour of creating this unique museum which combines some traditional displays of “old stuff” with the innovative use of life-size scenes portraying rural and domestic life, and a number of intricate small-scale dioramas. All of the models, both big and small, are created by Ogle using the tools of his trade as an artist. This man is seriously talented, and a bit of a visionary.

This museum is a serious attempt at representing aspects of local history, for example the dioramas illustrating the movement of people and the fighting between the Maori and the pakeha (foreigners, Europeans) in the nineteenth century.

There are also life-size representations of scenes from everyday life in another era, such as the grocery store dating from some time in the mid-twentieth century.

But there’s also lots of fun to be had here. Ogle obviously has a thing about Wind in the Willows, and has themed his museum café accordingly.

A human-scale model of Mr Badger lounges in one corner, reading a tattered copy of Wind in the Willows, while various cabinets along one wall contain dioramas illustrating events from the book. It’s magical, in a weird kind of way.

And talking about weird, can you see that man sitting at the corner table, who’s just looked up from the magazine’s he’s reading to glance out of the window? He’s another of Ogle’s creations, totally convincing and indeed even just a little bit spooky.

I can safely say I’ve never before been to a museum like this. It’s a place where one can learn stuff, and also have fun at the same time. Isn’t that what all museums should be like?

It’s a washout

Shortly after checking out of our accommodation we stop for petrol. “Where are you folks off to today?” asks the friendly Maori lady at the filling station.

“We’re going to drive the Forgotten Highway down to Stratford. We might even get our passports stamped in the Republic of Whangamomona, where goats get to be president” says Mrs P proudly.

“Forget it,” she comes back, shaking her head sadly, “the road’s been washed out.”

So, not for the first time on this trip we must revert to Plan B. On this occasion Plan B is a detour via the coast road, which adds around 100km and more than an hour to our journey. Not ideal, but we have no choice, so we grit our teeth and set out on a different long and winding road.

As it happens the Plan B route isn’t at all bad, particularly once we hit the coast and start travelling south along the Tasman Sea. The black sand littered with driftwood is more appealing than it sounds, and we have a birdie treat when a Royal Spoonbill puts in an appearance.

At last we arrive at our accommodation for the next two nights. Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge sits on the slopes of Mount Taranaki, 905 metres above sea level. Mount Taranaki is a must-see volcano which, at 2,514 metres, dominates the surrounding landscape.

However, must-see isn’t the same as can-see, and we are denied a proper sighting by the low cloud that clings to the summit. But never mind, the Lodge has a piece of modern stained glass that bears an image of the volcano, as well and a waterfall and a native bird, so at least we know what we’re missing.

New Zealand is a young country and historic buildings are a bit thin on the ground, so it’s a rare pleasure to stay somewhere originally built in the nineteenth century – 1896 to be precise – in the style of a traditional European mountain lodge.

It’s a quirky place, but cosy and full of character, with staff to match. And, for reasons that are none too clear, we get to stay in the Honeymoon Suite. Now Mrs P and I have been married for 35 years, but in a place like this who can possibly believe that romance is dead?

Tongariro National Park

After a night of torrential rain we awake to flurries of sleet and a bitter wind. It’s tempting to stay in our luxurious accommodation all day to keep warm and cosy, but unfortunately the power company’s disconnecting the supply at 9am for “essential maintenance,” so we may just as well go out and brave the elements. Our host is encouraging, saying that weather hereabouts is very localised, and so up the road there may be a heatwave. We have our doubts, but what the hell there’s nothing to lose.

Our plan for the morning is to drive to the top of a nearby mountain road to admire the view, but soon after setting off we learn that the road in question is closed by 20cm of snow, and is unlikely to reopen any time soon. Disappointed we head for the nearest café and console ourselves with a large mocha and a monstrous slab of cake.

Suitably refreshed we head back to Whakapapa, retracing yesterday’s journey. It turns out our hosts were right, the weather is better here although “heatwave” would be stretching a point. Nevertheless the view of the volcanoes is much better than 24 hours ago.

Tongariro National Park boasts several impressive volcanoes, including Mount Ngauruhoe at almost 2,300 metres. Mount Ngauruhoe has the honour of being New Zealand’s newest and historically most active volcano. There have been more than 70 “eruptive episodes” since 1839. However all has been quiet since 1975, so we are relaxed about the risk.

Unsurprisingly, given the weather at present, Ngauruhoe’s summit and high slopes are cloaked in cloud, but like a flirtatious stripper she teases and tantalises us with the occasional glimpse of what lies beneath.

As the minutes pass she becomes more and more daring, giving us longer and more revealing peeps at her wares, until finally she throws caution to the wind. The cloud that has hidden her charms for so long dissipates and Ngauruhoe stands before us, naked, glorious and unashamed. A classically shaped cone, the summit and upper slopes a dazzling white carpet of snow, she is magnificent. We’ve waited 24 hours to enjoy this sight, and it was worth waiting for.

Having had our fill of Mount Ngauruhoe, the last stop on our itinerary is the Tawhai Falls. The waterfall is 13 metres high, and like so many others we’ve seen on this trip it is magnificent.

But Tawhai Falls have another claim to fame, as a filming location for Gollum’s pool where Faramir and his archers are watching Gollum fish. There’s no sign of Gollum today, but who cares? Even without the Lord of the Rings connection this place is well worth a visit, and the frustrations caused by the weather yesterday and this morning are all but forgotten.

Things fall apart

Things are falling apart.  Today we were due to take a boat trip on Lake Taupo, to see some Maori rock carvings that are inaccessible by land.  However, it was blowing a gale and the skipper decided it would be too risky – or perhaps more accurately, way too unpleasant – to sail, so he cancelled the excursion.   That’s three boat trips out of four that we’ve lost to the weather since arriving in New Zealand. I’m starting to think the gods have taken a dislike to us.

Speaking of things falling apart, my shoes have disintegrated.   I bought them just a few months before leaving the UK, but within a day or two of arriving here they were virtually unwearable.  Luckily Taupo has some decent retail outlets, so instead of visiting the Maori carvings we toured the town’s shoe shops. Thankfully I managed to get a new and comfortable pair of walking shoes without much difficulty, but that’s $137 I’ll never see again.

Newly shod, it was time for me to take the wheel again and set off towards Tongariro National Park.  On the way we stopped off briefly at South Taupo Wetland in the hope of seeing some interesting local birds while we ate our lunch.  Unfortunately the birds mostly kept their distance, but we did at least enjoy the view across Lake Taupo towards a distant volcano.

As we drove on the weather started to close in ominously.  We parked up briefly at the Makatote Viaduct which, when it was built between 1906 and 1909 for New Zealand Railways, was the tallest bridge in New Zealand. 

Our brief photo stop over, we continued on towards Tongariro National Park, which is famous for its spectacular volcanoes.  We dropped in at the visitor centre at Whakapapa (confusingly, and somewhat worryingly pronounced Fukapupa) before carrying on up the steep, winding mountain road, through dark and gloomy forest, until it opened up at a car park. 

As we looked around us the top of the volcanoes were shrouded in low cloud, while the slopes were snow-covered. A bitter wind blew and sleety rain was falling, so we decided it was time to beat a hasty retreat to a lower and more agreeable altitude.

With the weather becoming ever more threatening we concluded there was no further prospect of spotting volcanoes, so we headed off to the little town of Ohakune for dinner.  This area is the self-proclaimed carrot capital of New Zealand, and the town boasts a children’s playground – called Carrot World, or something similar, I suspect – celebrating the orange root and its various veggie cousins. 

Dotted around the playground are large fibre glass characterisations of several vegetables, including a disturbingly phallic parsnip.  In retrospect this is all a bit odd, given how much kids the world over hate vegetables. Or maybe New Zealand kids do eat all their veggies, which could explain why they grow up to be such fearsome rugby players?  

But the most dramatic feature of the playground is a huge (and I mean monstrously huge) carrot on the roadside, announcing to every passing motorist that this town has truly taken the orange root to its heart.  Mrs P’s camera has barely been used all day, so she gets it out and snaps away merrily.

But, on reflection, if the best thing we can say about today is that we saw a big bridge and big carrot, then I must regretfully conclude that it has not gone well for us.  Things are indeed falling apart, and we can only hope for better fortune tomorrow.

Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland

Another day, another geothermal area. We’ve left the coast and headed inland, back south towards Rotorua. We pass close to Waimangu where, a couple of days ago, we visited New Zealand’s newest geothermal area, a mere toddler at just over 130 years old.

Today, however, we’re at Wai-O-Tapu, which is at the other end of the age spectrum having been around for some 160,000 years. The management has lapsed into hyperbole, describing this place as a “thermal wonderland,” but I guess I can see where they’re coming from.

Wai-O-Tapu has the largest area of surface thermal activity in this part of New Zealand. It’s a a fascinating mixture of collapsed craters, cold and boiling pools of mud, water of various colours, and steaming fumaroles.

In many ways Wai-O-Tapu reminds us of parts of Yellowstone National Park in the USA, where the geothermal features are simply awesome.

Yellowstone is just about our favourite place in the world, so reminding us of it is a mark of just how good we think it is.

Of course Yellowstone is famous for its wildlife, and we’re pleased to spot some here at Wai-O-Tapu too. There are no bison or wolves, of course, but here in New Zealand small is beautiful so we are fascinated to watch a pair of Pied Stilts hanging out in one of the pools.

*

We are making our way inland to spend the night on the shores of Lake Taupo, and on the way we call in at the Huka Falls. As we already know from bitter experience, New Zealand has a lot of rain. As the mountains are high and all that water has to make its way to the sea somehow, lots of waterfalls are inevitable; Huka is just one of many we plan to visit during the course of our stay here.

But before we catch a glimpse of the falls we are distracted by a gang of tui causing mayhem in the car park. They are all going crazy in a tree with bright yellow blossom, presumably robbing the flowers of nectar while chattering noisily with their fellows. Tui are real characters, and are fast becoming our favourite bird of the holiday.

At last we tear ourselves away from the tui and have a look at the Falls. We’re expecting something spectacular, given the hard sell of the local tourist industry:

You’ll hear the Huka Falls well before you see them – it’s the sound of nearly a quarter of a million litres of water per second erupting from a natural gorge and thundering 11m into the Waikato River below. This incredible spectacle is the most-visited natural attraction in New Zealand – it’s hard to tear your gaze away from the endless, mesmerising torrent.

Source: Love Taupo website, retrieved 23 October 2019.

As always I treat the outpourings of marketing men with a healthy degree of scepticism, but on this occasion they’ve got it just right. Huka Falls are truly spectacular, and definitely worth a visit. But don’t, whatever you do, get too close while you’re taking a selfie and fall in: if you do your life expectancy will be just a matter of seconds.

A visit to New Zealand’s most active volcano

White Island (Whakaari) lies 49km off the small North Island town Whakatane. It is New Zealand’s most active volcano, and is regarded as one of the world’s most accessible live volcanoes. Inevitably, therefore, we are keen to pay it a visit.

The trouble is, we’ve not had much luck with boat trips since arriving in New Zealand, and we’re worried that this might be the third in a row to be cancelled due to the weather. But for once the gods smile upon us. Although the sea’s choppy, the wind has dropped a bit and the captain decides it’s safe to leave the protection of the harbour.

As soon as we’re in open water the boat begins to bounce and roll on the waves. Mrs P and I have taken the precaution of having only a modest, light breakfast and so are untroubled by the motion of the ocean. Many of our fellow travellers have been less circumspect, and their breakfasts come back up to haunt them.

Pretty soon we’re passing the steep, heavily wooded volcanic island of Whale Island (Moutohora), which, being free of rats and other introduced mammalian predators, is now a haven for native birds. It’s an impressive sight, clad in thick vegetation and rising steeply from sea, but there’s no time to stop and admire it. The boat speeds on, its spray creating a rainbow that appears to sit over the top of Whale Island, while we concentrate on staring out to sea and ignore the moans and groans of our bilious buddies in the passenger lounge.

At last, after around 90 minutes, we make our final approach to White Island, from the centre of which rises a mighty cloud of steam.  It’s impossible for our little boat to land there, so we all clamber into inflatable landing craft to be transferred ashore. But not before we’re issued with our safety gear.

First there’s the life jacket, in case we fall overboard during the transfer.  Then there’s the canary yellow hard hat, in case the volcano has a hissy fit and starts showering us with rocks.  And finally we are handed a gas mask, in case the bugger tries to poison us instead. Bloody hell, this is supposed to be a holiday, not a training exercise for the Marines or the SAS.  Thank god we updated our wills before we left the UK.

As it happens the transfer on to dry land goes well, and nobody dies.  Once there we clamber over boulders and gather into groups to be ushered around the island by our guides.  There are stern warnings not to stray off the path: the crust in places is wafer thin, and beneath it lies pits of baking rocks that will fry you alive in seconds.  Nobody needs to be told twice.

The landscape is stark and barren, mostly shades of grey and white, but interspersed with splashes of vivid colour courtesy of the sulphur and other minerals that the volcano has spewed out over the years.  Inevitably a sulphurous stink hangs over the island, although to be fair we’ve experienced worse. We don our gas masks for a once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity, but they aren’t really needed for most of our 90 minutes on the island.

Some of the dangers here, such as the steaming craters, are obvious to the naked eye but others aren’t immediately apparent.  The acidic nature of the rocks on which we walk doesn’t enter our thoughts until our guide, who does this trip most days, tells us he gets through a pair of shoes a month thanks to the acid that eats away at them every time he sets foot here.

As we cast our eyes over the grim wasteland that is White Island it’s difficult to believe people have ever lived here.  But they have, albeit in pursuit of the dollar. There have been several attempts to establish a sulphur mining industry, all of which failed due to the remoteness of the island and the inherent challenges of mining in such a hostile environment. 

Although mining continued sporadically until the 1930s the most notable event in the history of the industry was on 10 September 1914, when 11 men were killed by a massive landslide and the accompanying torrent of mud and rock (known as a lahar), caused when part of the volcano’s main crater wall collapsed. 

The outside world knew nothing of the disaster until the skipper of a supply boat sailed to the island on 15 September and witnessed the devastation.  He returned a few days later with a rescue party but found no survivors other than the camp cat, Peter. The Bay of Plenty Times reported on the scene that the skipper encountered:

He was confronted by “a scene of desolation”, according to the Bay of Plenty Times.  “The effect of the eruption seems to have been to throw the whole hillside overlooking the large lake and camp into the lake and over the whole surrounding area, completely burying the works, dwellings, boats, small wharf and all the inhabitants.  The camp was obliterated, the buildings being buried in about 20 feet of sulphurous mud.”

Source:  Article in New Zealand Herald, 12 September 2017, retrieved 21 October 2019

Interestingly Peter, the only survivor of the disaster, became a bit of a celebrity in his own right.  Having cheated death and used up eight of his nine lives, the cat decided to devote the rest of his life to debauchery.  After being repatriated to the mainland he played the mating game as often as possible and with great skill. He is reputed to have sired countless litters of kittens in his adopted town, and such was his reputation for sexual prowess that he became known locally as Peter the Great.

We may even have met one of Peter’s descendants.  We are staying for a couple of nights in a villa just across the road from the boat dock where the White Island cruise starts and ends, and on our return there we spot a black cat sauntering through the garden.  He has a spring in his step and a twinkle in his eye, as if he knows that greatness is embedded within his DNA. We bow respectfully as he passes but he merely glances at us disdainfully, as royalty does when in the presence of commoners.  He is clearly a cat on a mission, almost certainly a mission of the carnal persuasion.

Peter the Great would be proud of him.

Waimangu Volcanic Valley

We leave Kohutapu Lodge and head west towards Waimangu Volcanic Valley, via a circuitous route that takes us through the huge Kaingaroa Forest.  For Ena this is a magical place and she harbours a romantic notion that one day she will give up the tourist business and become a bushman (forester). But we see it differently. 

Vast swathes of non-native monoculture tree plantations, interrupted only by patches of brutal clear-cut harvesting, does nothing for the visual appeal of this area.  Nor does it bring much employment for the local Maori now that forestry is so mechanised. Worse still, the Maoris having in the distant past sold the land for a pittance, we are told that most of the profits of the enterprise end up in the coffers of a certain US Ivy League University.  Cleary New Zealand, despite being – geographically speaking – in the middle of nowhere, is plainly not immune from some of the negative impacts of globalisation.

Kaingaroa Forest is without doubt the most depressing thing we’ve seen in New Zealand so far, and we’re delighted to leave it behind us and instead explore the geothermal delights of Waimangu Volcanic Valley.

New Zealand lies on – and indeed is a child of – the Pacific Ring of Fire, where the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates collide. In North Island this has given rise to a landscape in which extinct volcanic cones and other, still active, geothermal features are widespread. In Waimangu Valley, geothermal activity remains a fact of day-to-day life. But it wasn’t always this way.

As we stand at the valley overlook and admire the lush vegetation interspersed with plumes of steam, it’s difficult to believe that prior to 10 June 1886 this area was rolling scrub country with no visible indication of any geothermal activity. Equally difficult to believe is the fact that in the months and years that followed, the Waimangu Valley was a wasteland, the result of a violent eruption on that date which created a line of craters and destroyed all plant, animal and bird life.

We spend several hours working our way along a well-marked trail, admiring a range of spectacular geothermal features that have all developed and matured since that cataclysmic event in June 1886.

During that period native forest has established itself in the wasteland and is flourishing.  To see geothermal features against a backdrop of splendid tree ferns is both a shock and a delight.  

Another delight is that the lower end of the Waimangu Valley is a hotspot for birds, where native species like the Pukeko and the New Zealand Kingfisher, and modern arrivals from overseas such as the [Australian] Black Swan are thriving. Mrs P doesn’t have her long lens with her (the lens is too heavy and the path is too steep), but some of the birds come close enough to be photographed with her “landscapes lens.”

We are well acquainted with geothermal landscapes from the USA, Iceland, Costa Rica and Japan, but Waimangu Volcanic Valley has exceeded all our expectations. It’s definitely the highlight of our first few days in New Zealand.

The Maori way

In their desperate pursuit of the tourist dollar most nations present a sanitised view of their history. The marketing men know that when on vacation most tourists want a bit of gentle fun and some light entertainment; very few want to be exposed to the inconvenient truths of the country they’ve paid to visit.

However Mrs P and I are made of sterner stuff. From the outset we’ve been determined that when we leave New Zealand we’ll know more about the Maori people than their traditional dances.

Kohutapu Lodge gives us better opportunities to explore Maori culture and the challenges facing the Maori people than the traditional New Zealand vacation would allow. Run by Maoris who are plainly determined that we should understand the reality of life for their fellow tribe members, Kohutapu Lodge offers a warts-and-all insight into life in the nearby Maori township of Murupara.

We learn about the desperate socio-economic plight of Muruparu residents, and the gang culture that thrives in this isolated rural community where opportunities for gainful employment are few. The people who run the Lodge are determined that their guests should be more than just passive witnesses to the realities of life in Muruparu, so they arrange for us to visit the local school.

The kids greet our group in the traditional way, and we then split up to play with them, to talk to them and maybe to inspire them to believe that their lives are not hopeless, that their fates are not already sealed by the accident of their births.

Mrs P and I also spend a morning with Ena, a resident of Muruparu who is a passionate advocate for her community. She tells it like it is, but is realistic rather than downhearted.

Ena takes us to a sacred Maori site, which can only be visited with the permission of the local tribe, to see the oldest Maori rock carvings anywhere in New Zealand. The carvings tell the story of the great Polynesian migration to the islands of New Zealand many hundreds of years ago, and Ena’s pride in their achievement is obvious.

Kohutapu Lodge also provides an opportunity to try out some traditional Maori crafts like basket weaving, and to experience a hangi, a feast cooked using heated rocks buried in a pit oven. Any food left over is distributed to the destitute of Murapuru the following day.

This is not a normal holiday experience; indeed I guess some people would say that it’s no holiday at all. But for us it’s just right. After all, what’s the point of a holiday if at the end of it you are as ignorant as you were at the beginning? Certainly, for Mrs P and I, it’s been a eye opener which will help to shape our sensitivities during the rest of this visit to New Zealand.