Singing the All Blacks blues

25 October 2019

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.

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.

Sandflies: A notorious New Zealand nightmare

When you decide to venture out on a road trip it’s important to pick the right travelling companion, and they don’t come any better than Mrs P. She’s a meticulous planner and an excellent navigator, the latter being essential given that I have no sense of direction and have barely mastered the difference between left and right.

Mrs P is also a wizard in the suitcase packing and car loading departments. Her skill in this regard often appears to defy the laws of physics, and leaves me scratching my head in puzzled admiration.

PHOTO CREDIT: By rawpixel.com via Pexels

But her most important qualification for the role of being my travelling companion – other than, of course, the fact that I’m married to her – is that she’s a magnet for biting bugs.

For reasons that neither of us can explain, insects all over the world make a bee-line (ha ha!) for Mrs P, while leaving me alone. She’s been eaten alive in various parts of the world – Alaska, Canada and Tokyo to name just three – while I’ve escaped virtually unscathed.

To use the modern idiom, Mrs P’s always ready to take one – or, on a bad day, one hundred – for the team.

However this is no laughing matter. At its worst, a swarm of biting insects can leave her sick, sore, dispirited and covered with angry red rashes and welts. Mrs P was, therefore, alarmed to read about the notorious New Zealand sandfly.

DSCN7760.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: “DSCN7760.jpg” by NelC is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Captain James Cook, the first European to set foot in New Zealand, had the measure of the sandfly. Here’s what he wrote in his journal in May 1773:

The most mischievous animal here is the small black sandfly which are exceeding numerous … wherever they light they cause a swelling and such intolerable itching that it is not possible to refrain from scratching and at last ends in ulcers like the small Pox.

Quoted in Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, retrieved 23/09/19
Embed from Getty Images

So what do we know about New Zealand’s notorious nightmare, the cause of so much abject misery?

  • New Zealand’s sandflies are known as namu by the Maori. Similar species in other parts of the world are called blackflies.
  • Sandflies are tiny – just two to three millimetres in length – and they all look the same to the naked eye. But as we know size isn’t everything, all that really counts is what you do with what you’ve got.
  • The males are vegetarians, so it’s only the females that bite. I’m absolutely not going to comment on this.
  • There are 13 species of sandfly in New Zealand. Fortunately for locals and tourists alike, only two of these [or possibly three, depending on which source you look at] actually bite. However I find little comfort in the fact that a bad situation could be even worse if the other 10 or 11 species were also biters.
  • The worst biters are found on South Island, which is bad news for us as we’re due to spend most of our time there. And on South Island they’re a particular problem on the west coast … guess which part of the island features most heavily in our itinerary? Yep, you got it in one!
  • They don’t bite at night; peak biting times are in the morning and as dusk approaches. In other words they are active when we, as tourists, are most likely to be out and about. Great!
  • Sandflies breed in fast-flowing streams and rivers, and adults can be found wherever there is water, also including beaches and the edges of lakes and swamps. And yes, you’ve guessed it, as keen bird watchers we’re certain to spend lots of time next to streams, rivers, lakes and swamps.

I bet you’re reading this and thinking I’m exaggerating, that sandflies aren’t really that bad, just badly misunderstood. Well don’t take my word for it, here’s what the New Zealand-based news website Stuff has to say on the subject:

On occasion, the bites cause nasty swelling, itching, hives, and a general desire to scream.

At their worst, in the most intense sandfly-ridden spots of the West Coast, entomologists have recorded a bite rate of up to 1000-an-hour. In a couple of minutes, that could be hundreds of little bites, on your arms, neck, face, feet.

Source: Stuff website, retrieved 25/09/19.

Stuff also reveals one particularly fascinating fact, that although sandflies enjoy snacking on human blood they’d much rather dine out on penguins. Strange, but apparently true.

Yellow-eyed Penguins

PHOTO CREDIT: “Yellow-eyed Penguins” by Chris Gin is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Also possibly true – but then again, possibly not – are the rumours that sandflies can be deterred by garlic, or a mixture of baby oil and Dettol. So, as Stuff points out:

Theoretically then, one way to deter sandflies is to walk around carrying a penguin as bait, while eating garlic, covered in Dettol and baby oil. That might raise eyebrows as penguins are protected, so best not.

Source: Stuff website, retrieved 25/09/19.

If penguins are off-limits what is Mrs P to do to protect herself from New Zealand’s notorious nightmare? Well, it’s said that early European settlers would cover their bodies in rancid pork fat to deter sandflies, so I’ve suggested that my good lady purchases and packs a kilo or two of the disgusting grease before we leave the UK.

So it sounds like Mrs P has the sandfly problem licked, though I shall definitely avoid standing next to her in confined spaces for the duration of trip.

And lets hope the wretched sandflies don’t decide to take it out on me instead.