For his older readers, this correspondent must humbly beg grace for his absinthe (sic), but journeys to the Cape of Good Hope seemed not to lend themselves to this caddish typogrammary.
For his new readers, hullo and welcome to the ranks of the recently weaned. For, shunned by his regular boys’ annuals and other outlets, your correspondent has been hired by a new publication for those who are just past toddling and looking to enter into swaggering.
Thus my electric epistle of this moment is couched in language akin to the short-pants and carrot-sticks today’s vigorous youth crave, and devoid of any deviations dealing with the allure of the antipodean sirens, so to speak.
From beyond the north wind, your sprightly Wodehousian sparrow has soared past the equator (that’s the globe’s belt, tadpoles) to the Land of the Long White Cloud. Here I’ve found two or three magical islands inhabited by the hospitable kiwi birds! These long-beaked and hairy feathered fellows have built quite the wondrous realm here beyond the south wind, full of comfortable cafes, majestic mountains, and sheep-laden meadows.
The kiwi is a curious bird and you intrepid goslings need not fear anything but asking of him any innocent question. For among the kiwis, if you are not careful, you will arouse their unmatched hospitality and find yourself offered a space in their nest, a dinner from their gullet, and a detailed map to all the best cafes, all the highest mountains, and the meadows with the finest ovids (most kiwis are expert shepherds, and the few that are not are merely rated as “extremely familiar with sheep”). They are the chummiest birds I have ever flown among.
Life among the kiwis is curious. In many ways it is not so dissimilar to the life you cherubic ducklings enjoy in your home pond. There are kiwis with various coloured plumage, of distinct tastes, and many-toned calls. Fond as you might be to find them in fine fettle, there are nonetheless those lamentable times when song turns to combative chirping and pompous posturing, or worse.
Most often their disagreement comes to nothing except exasperation. Some years ago, a group of these curious birds put forth five banners to compete with their long-time colours. Actually they brought forth four, and then a large segment of the rest of the birds squawked and stamped and made them accept a fifth. All the birds then raised their beaks for their favourite. Then all the birds raised their beaks on whether this champion should unseat their ensign of old. It didn’t. You dismayed eaglets should take the lesson to heart: put not so much effort into anything and never count on appetite for change.
What else can I relay to you curious lambs? Some kiwis mash up purple or emerald fruit and from it concoct the most magical elixirs to inspire happiness – elixirs whose delights you pups should in no case take a glorious sip for at least another ten years.
Other kiwi birds raid the barley field and mash the kernels into special kettles with which to brew an enchanting fizzy beverage to restore the soul and brace the nerves – save for you cubs who must resist the temptation to experience heaven for at least a decade.
Still others roast green cherries to brown and distill a jolly stirring black brew from it – that’s probably fine for you, provided you take it with a bit of sugar.
Perhaps because he is flightless, the kiwi dashes about his islands at breakneck speed. If a hapless hyperborean migrant be jollying along, eyes wide at the eloquence of the scenery, the kiwi will pull up closely upon his tailfeathers and peek a long beak about looking for an opening. Once one presents itself, quick as you like, the kiwi will run past without a care and, heedless of any of the numerous road signs admonishing him to slow down (more likely he’ll actually speed up).
The desire for speed seems to be universal among our feathered cousins. Their two chief distractions are games of endless action and rarely cease to allow player or viewer to catch their breath. Perhaps you impatient fawns have turned with disgust from North American football with its endless interminable stops and starts. Not so rugby (the gentleman’s way to commit grievous bodily harm), which is an almost universal obsession among the ganders. The geese take their turns with the scrumming too, but seem to prefer another strange variation on the familiar. No doubt you creative kitlings have oft looked at the game of basketball and wondered what it would be like with no backboard, dribbling, or menfolk. The answer is the unimaginatively named “netball” where the hens dash and leap about in strange skirted uniforms and admittedly held this rooster spellbound.
All in all, I should recommend to each and every one of you hatchlings to affix your goggles, drape a rakish silk scarf about your shoulders and take wing, only 13 hours or so from our Westest coast. Cry you “A cloud! A white cloud! A long white cloud!” when you see it in the distance and you will be in company with its first discoverers a thousand years ago. Alight on any island and lie about your age and lack of guardianship and you will be ushered into all the pleasures of this land of birds, pleasures I have been fortunate enough to soak in until my talons are wrinkled. Sit on a beach. Devour a feast. Skip up a peak. Tell them you are from beyond the north wind and try to not take too much advantage of their unparalleled hospitality.
Now, I have been informed in no uncertain terms that I must end this travelogue with a Tolkien poem:
Farewell we call to hearth and hall! Though wind may blow and rain may fall, We must away ere break of day Far over the wood and mountain tall. To Rivendell, where Elves yet dwell In glades beneath the misty fell, Through moor and waste we ride in haste, And whither then we cannot tell.
With foes ahead, behind us dread, Beneath the sky shall be our bed, Until at last our toil be passed, Our journey done, our errand sped.
We’re currently hanging out in Auckland for a week and a half. Our time has been spent well, highlights including:
My volunteering at Howick Historical Village, even getting into costume for a short time.
A sensational beer & history tour that we found out about through my second presentation to Interpretation New Zealand.
But other than that, nearing the end of this sojourn, I thought I would provide a few vignettes for which other posts have not sufficed:
The gruff man on the beach on Stanley Island who gifted us a lovely abalone for dinner said he had been to Canada recently – but not for fun – to fight fires in northern BC. I’ve told that part of the story before, I didn’t mention that when I thanked him for it, he shrugged uncomfortably.
“It’s only proper, isn’t it?”
In a grocery store shopping for apples and muesli we overhear a grandmother and a very young boy of perhaps 5 in the produce isle with a purple plant with a small extrusion upon it. “Look, Liam! This eggplant has a penis, just like you! Hah hah! I’ve never seen an eggplant with a penis before”
In a fairly awful brewery tour in Dunedin, the old gentleman who gives the tour tends to end every revelatory fact by leaning in his face to yours and exclaiming “DID Y’KNOW THAT?”. Tour guides who are both close talkers and loud talkers are a bad combination.
In a reasonable historic mission site in Kerikeri, near the Bay of Islands, I am enjoying a fine gift shop while waiting for my tour when I overhear a North American woman harrumph at the saleswoman (to whom she keeps asking questions, then interrupting) “Where does the money go? Does it go to the Maori?” She asks with a sneer. “No,” the patient woman at the museum gift shop replies, “it goes to Heritage New Zealand, who manage this historic si-“ “It should go to the Maori, I think.” (I guarantee she is familiar not at all with what she is saying).
The patient woman changes the subject.
Of the many jobs I imagine myself taking here, the silliest (but nonetheless attractive) is among the straw-boater clad punters who will take you onto the peaceful and bucolic river that flows through the centre of Christchurch.
My most ridiculous photo is also the cover to my new album of Tolkien-inspired folk songs, called Songs from the Silverlode:
This dog, Shake, practically lives on the catamaran of his master, who takes him out every evening for a sail. The dog is very comfortable, likes to perch at the bow and keenly watch the water, waiting, we imagine, for a dolphin to pounce upon, or a seal to play with. He also knows that when he has to pee, he just goes to the netting and squats there.
Just in case you think New Zealand is a progressive paradise where everyone is awesome all of the time (if Christchurch didn’t dispel you of that idea), there is this story. We are staying in a Holiday Park near Matamata (a campground with shared kitchen and hot shower facilities) and every time I go into the kitchen one evening to wash dishes, an older man remarks on how strange it is to see so many men in the kitchen. He is soon joined by a younger man who doesn’t ignore him as I do, but agrees and deplores women’s liberation. “I saw it first hand, didn’t I?” sighs the younger man. “I witnessed it in the 70s. Awful.” They then spend the next hour in the kitchen loudly deploring the rights of women and immigrants.
I go for a walk with my hands clenched, reminding myself I am a guest in their country.
Let it never be said that I am against hokey photos among the amazing natural marbles that are the Moraki Boulders.
Have you ever noticed that everyone in the world, when asked where they’re from, names their country? Americans give their state and sometimes even just their city.
One man we met on our 3-day tramp around Tongariro had just spent over a year “off the grid” on a remote island off the north coast studying birds. He was out of practice having conversations, but generally came alive when discussing avians. He was Californian, but said he didn’t really identify as that anymore. “If anything, I guess I see myself as sort of a bird.”
The captain of one of our sailing trips was casually chatting with us and his Australian guests in an easy and frank fashion as we harnessed Lake Taupo’s wind. “My advice,” he offered guilelessly, “is just settle. It’s not going away.” He was talking honestly and benignly about Indigenous rights and reparations. New Zealand has just finished wrapping up its Waitangi Tribunal, which saw a massive transfer of wealth and reparations (sometimes not just in dollar amounts) to land claims by Maori who signed the treaty and have had two hundred years of empty promises. Its not perfect, but its a good start.
“You know what the iwi do when they get their fair shake? They invest in old folks homes to look after their elders.” The captain shrugged. The Aussies (and Canadians) nodded.
“It’s the best thing we ever did.”
The most attractive job I have imagined myself having while living here is as a tour guide at Hobbiton (unfortunately you don’t get to dress up). Having been on the tour now, I know I wouldn’t necessarily have to pretend to have liked The Hobbit movies!
Hikes are tramps, and trails are tracks.
There are equal number of women fans of the LoTR movies at my pilgrimage sites – and no one is being a “Gatekeeper” and trying to make them prove they belong.
One museum in Waimu is about the migration story of the Northland Scottish population, a few hundred, first from Scotland to Nova Scotia, then to Australia, and then to New Zealand. They are led from place to place by a stern and religious man that the museum deifies who we think sounds like a cult leader and a huge dick. It’s not a terrible museum, and the woman at the front was so genuine and wonderful you hate to do anything but love it, but like many small proud community museums, it is given to hagiography. Its worst moment is when it declares this “one of the world’s greatest migration stories.”
New Zealand slang includes the “___ as” construction. If something is great, you can say “Sweet as”, but it works for anything.
In Auckland, walking into a narrow washroom in a historic stable-turned-food hall, I make an off-hand remark about the lack of room.
“Bloody hell,” The other man laughed in agreement. “Narrow as. Crikey!”
Obligatory Tolkien Quote:
The Road goes ever on and on Down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, And I must follow, if I can, Pursuing it with eager feet, Until it joins some larger way, Where many paths and errands meet. And whither then? I cannot say.
From the Northland we drove south, camping along the way and seeking the rolling green hills and verdant farm country where I may have reached the apogee of my nerdery, the apotheosis of geekdom.
When he was 20, a young man was told the truth by Elrond, who was fostering him in Rivendell. He wasn’t just “Estel”, an orphan, he was the heir of the line of kings and the chieftains of the Northern rangers -his true name was Aragorn, son of Arathorn. He later took on a series of great journeys through Rohan, Gondor, and the East (“where the stars are strange”).
I suppose my Elrond was my close friend Lawrence, who took me aside at the age of 12 and invited me to play a game called Dungeons & Dragons. And now, many years later, I have undertaken my own great journeys. To Rohan…
…the Dimrill Dale…
…Ithilien and Far Harad…
…the Emyn Muir and Mordor, where shadows lie…
…and the forbidden pool of Henneth Annun.
When he was done his journeying, Aragorn returned to the North and helped take up the watch on the Shire, the land of the agrarian and diminutive Hobbits…
Of course, Aragorn had, by this time, met Elrond’s daughter Arwen and fallen in love.
So, presumably, had Sam at Number 3 Bagshot Row (above), with his best friend and employer, Frodo at Bag End (below).
That’s right, friends, my birthday present this year is a trip to Hobbiton.
The entire set was taken down after Lord of the Rings was shot, but when they came back to film The Hobbit (ick), the owner of the ranch (or “station”) partnered with Peter Jackson to rebuild Hobbiton as a permanent installation. He had already had hundreds of thousands of pilgrims come to see the empty spots where Hobbiton had been in the back 40 of his station. How many would come if it were still there?
Quite a lot, it turns out!
There are a series of Hobbit hole exteriors, some 1:1 height where you feel like you are the size of a halfling, and others so tiny you feel you are Gandalf or another of the big folk come to visit.
Each hobbit hole is unique. There are holes for beekeepers who “sell” honey in their frontyard. Other hobbits are fishmongers, orchardiers (the Sackville-Bagginses), carpenters, cheesemakers, etc. Their windows and yards are impeccably curated, as if they could come home at any moment. Most often there market tables within reach and “honesty bags” where their neighbours can leave a little change if they’re not in (probably sleeping in a hammock out in the garden).
You can only visit on a guided tour (oh what a job!), and two or three guides take a group of twenty of us in by bus and then lead us about the bucolic little village and share behind-the-scenes stories and test us on some (pfft…basic) trivia. They also give us plenty of time to soak in the ambience. It is heartening to see how many visitors are on a similar pilgrimage, and the pure delight visiting the faces of people of different ages, backgrounds, and gender.
Not only that, though. My beloved has chosen a special experience for this magical culmination of my pilgrimage and 39th birthday present. After a sunset tour of the Hobbit holes, we arrive at the Green Dragon Inn in time for a Hobbit feast!
The menu included lamb shanks, venison stew, hot smoked salmon, potatoes, kumara, mushrooms (!), whole roast chicken, fresh-baked bread, and roast pumpkin. And that’s not including dessert.
And of course, the finest brew for the brave and true!
Obligatory Tolkien Quote:
“Oh you can search far and wide,
You can drink the whole town dry,
But you’ll never find a beer so brown,
Oh you’ll never find a beer so brown,
As the one we drink in our hometown,
As the one we drink in our hometown. You can drink your fancy ales,
You can drink them by the flagon,
But the only brew for the brave and true…
..Comes from the Green Dragon!!”
In the 1930s a Maori elder had a vision (a metaphorical one, not a mystic one). She arranged for craftsmen to build the largest waka (canoe) in the world in preparation for New Zealand’s centennial in 1940. It wasn’t necessarily about celebration. The making of Ngatokimatawhaoruahelped revitalize the traditional canoe carving practices in New Zealand and pass on those practices to a new generation.
The canoe is 6 tons dry, holds 80 paddlers, uses no rivets, screws, or glue, and is made from three gigantic kauri trees. It is launched at least once a year for Waitangi day and maintained by an expert shipbuilder who specializes in traditional Polynesian catamarans. Fifty years later, Maori tribes from around the country built a massive fleet of waka to converge on the Bay of Islands for the 1990 sesquicentennial. Teens we stay at a holiday park with are in town for a waka competition and spend their evening doing homework on its meaning and practices. Kiwi teams compete in canoe races around the Polynesian world. The elder’s vision worked.
Kia ora comrades,
It’s going to sound like a whirlwind, but we’ve actually managed to slow down the trip quite a bit these last two weeks or so. Chill schedule, 3-5 days in an area, lots of basking in what time we have left (which seems rapidly fading).
After Taupo, we drove an hour or so to Rotorua, the volcanic geyser and hot-pool strewn city from which most people launch their North island excursions. Rotorua (pronounced, as all Maori words, with rolling Rs) is occasionally known as “Rotovegas” for its holiday industry. We eschew most opportunities save for a bit of strolling around downtown and a treetop walk between its nearby redwoods.
We’re here for the first of two major Maori “museum” experiences (second of three if you count Te Papa museum in Wellington). These and the overlapping two boating experiences will form the keel of this epistolary vessel.
The “Whakarewarewa Living Maori Village” came up early in our trip planning as I was google-searching for “living history” and ”New Zealand.” Images of young Maori in traditional garb and demonstrating historical traditions dominated the website. Seemed entrancing – an Indigenous-only living history experience, unlike anything in Canada. This was, as I was to find out, somewhat misleading.
It shouldn’t have been. My experience with Indigenous interpretation experiences in Canada have led to the observation that “now” and “then” have a slightly different distinction with most of the First Nations I have worked with. Besides an acknowledgement of things “back in the day”, the traditions and practices that visitors often tend to converse with them upon are still alive and well – making bannock or dried meat, dancing and family connections, beading and berry-picking. The interpreters might be in a historical setting (e.g. Fort Edmonton Park or Heritage Park), but many of them are conveying first-hand knowledge of living traditions.
So when Whakarewarewa “living” village turned out to be a guided tour around a modern and thriving Maori community, it was surprising and obvious at the same time. Our guide “T” led us around various sites where he and his community bathe, swim, cook food in boiling hot springs or steam vents…
…practice funerals, etc just as they have done for a thousand years – it was fascinating, but also a little invasive in a way that a living history museum rarely feels (even though you are regularly walking into people’s “homes” and, if you are an unthinking reprobate, asking “what’s for dinner?”). What’s more, when I asked T to talk shop later and asked him about his guide training, he simply shrugged and said he hadn’t really had any. His family, recognizing his outgoing nature and passion for cultural tradition, had just encouraged him to go be one of the tour guides…of their own village.
Interestingly some interpretive panels in the entrance point out that the original 19th and early 20th century guides of this village, which has been providing tours for over a century, were all women and give personal histories of many of them.
After the tour, we were treated to a cultural show, six Maori performing dances and songs for a paying audiences, while one of them explained the significance of each. I have a lot to say about the experience, but it may have to wait for a conversation or longer exploration.
After Rotorua we sped north past Auckland to the famous Bay of Islands for 5 days by the sea. Swimming, boating, reading, writing, lounging, and – of course – museum-going.
Here was Waitangi, the site of the famous Treaty of Waitangi that originated modern New Zealand. In brief, the clever Chiefs of the northern Iwi (Tribes) of Maori issued an international declaration of independence in the early 1830s, ensuring that when European habitation increased, the foreign governments would have to deal with the Confederacy of Maori tribes as an equal. This worked out alright in that the Treaty of Waitangi guaranteed the chiefs and their people rights and began the formal relationship as an unequivocal treaty between equals (something Canada has spent a long time grappling with). Unfortunately the British side used an English language and Maori language version that actually differed in key respects. One of the first Chiefs to sign, Hone Heke, shortly afterwards cut down a British flagpole no fewer than 5 times in protest (they just couldn’t stop him, no matter how hard they tried).
The tour guide was, like “T” in Whakarewarewa, not particularly professional when on his tour script (he kept reciting to us like we were in Grade 6 with a pause and drawn out affectation for big words we might not know: “Australia, which at this time was….a peeenal colony!” even though the average age of the participants, including us, was about 70). But whenever we were able to get him off script with questions, he would become engaging and passionate and thoughtful, about past, present, and future.
There was a state of the art museum about the treaty which further raised our opinion about NZ museums, and a slightly more vibrant cultural show (featuring a little good-natured goofing around by the younger performers)…
…but the highlight for me was the 1940 waka.
Given that I have spent the last ten years or so overseeing FEP’s York Boat project to produce a fourth boat and pass on boatbuilder Joseph’s amazing skills to others, this was especially resonant.
As was an experience a few days later, when we boarded the R Tucker Thompson, a reproduced copy of a 19th century schooner!
In the mid 1980s R Tucker Thompson had a vision (Again, metaphorically). He laid the keel of his schooner down but died before getting much further. His son and two other boatbuilders took up the dream and completed it in time to sail it around the world and use it in various historical re-enactments or celebrations. Their dream came true too: the ship now serves as a week-long school program for students during the winter, at least partially paid for by the tourist daytrips such as ours. The students compete for a spot, learn traditional sailing skills (they learn the first four days, then sail the ship themselves on the fifth) and more intangible lessons about living and working together with a disparate group of people in close quarters.
The tourist day-sail during the summer (actually it’s fall here) was stellar. Not only did we get to literally sail about the gorgeous bay of islands, but the passengers got to help hoist the sails…
…got shown how to climb the rigging (with climbing gear)…
…or the bowsprit…
…but we also got take to a secluded island cove with a deserted beach, where some of us (me!) swung off the yard-arm and then swam ashore, while others (B) took a small boat in to swim and relax…
…then we got fed a lovely meal for the return sail.
The voyage was made better by the fact that one of the passengers that day was Russell Harris, one of the team of three who built the R. Tucker Thompson in the 1980s, then sailed her around the world for various re-enactments. He even gently corrected some of the crew (it’s not a “replica” because it’s not exact, it’s a “rough copy”). He’s retired, but his original vision is obviously a source of pride. In fact, some of the crew were graduates of the high school program whose lives were changed by the magic of tallships and sail. This is their job now, this is their life.
York boats, New Zealand schooners, Hong Kong junks, The Bartolomeu Dias in Mossel Bay, South Africa, The Golden Hind and Cutty Sark (in London), the Nonsuch (in Winnipeg)… I’m collecting quite a few majestic and magical ships. Maybe it’s time for a book…
Obligatory Tolkien poem:
“Eärendil was a mariner
that tarried in Arvernien;
he built a boat of timber felled
in Nimbrethil to journey in;
her sails he wove of silver fair,
of silver were her lanterns made,
her prow was fashioned like a swan,
and light upon her banners laid.
In panoply of ancient kings, in chainéd rings he armoured him; his shining shield was scored with runes to ward all wounds and harm from him; his bow was made of dragon-horn, his arrows shorn of ebony; of silver was his habergeon, his scabbard of chalcedony; his sword of steel was valiant, of adamant his helmet tall, an eagle-plume upon his crest, upon his breast an emerald.
Beneath the Moon and under star he wandered far from northern strands, bewildered on enchanted ways beyond the days of mortal lands. From gnashing of the Narrow Ice where shadow lies on frozen hills, from nether heats and burning waste he turned in haste, and roving still on starless waters far astray at last he came to Night of Naught, and passed, and never sight he saw of shining shore nor light he sought. The winds of wrath came driving him, and blindly in the foam he fled from west to east and errandless, unheralded he homeward sped.
There flying Elwing came to him, and flame was in the darkness lit; more bright than light of diamond the fire upon her carcanet. The Silmaril she bound on him and crowned him with the living light and dauntless then with burning brow he turned his prow; and in the night from Otherworld beyond the Sea there strong and free a storm arose, a wind of power in Tarmenel; by paths that seldom mortal goes his boat it bore with biting breath as might of death across the grey and long forsaken seas distressed; from east to west he passed away.
Through Evernight he back was borne on black and roaring waves that ran o’er leagues unlit and foundered shores that drowned before the Days began, until he heard on strands of pearl where ends the world the music long, where ever-foaming billows roll the yellow gold and jewels wan. He saw the Mountain silent rise where twilight lies upon the knees of Valinor, and Eldamar beheld afar beyond the seas. A wanderer escaped from night to haven white he came at last, to Elvenhome the green and fair where keen the air, where pale as glass beneath the Hill of Ilmarin a-glimmer in a valley sheer the lamplit towers of Tirion are mirrored on the Shadowmere.
He tarried there from errantry, and melodies they taught to him, and sages old him marvels told, and harps of gold they brought to him. They clothed him then in elven-white, and seven lights before him sent, as through the Calacirian to hidden land forlorn he went. He came unto the timeless halls where shining fall the countless years, and endless reigns the Elder King in Ilmarin on Mountain sheer; and words unheard were spoken then of folk and Men and Elven-kin, beyond the world were visions showed forbid to those that dwell therein.
A ship then new they built for him of mithril and of elven-glass with shining prow; no shaven oar nor sail she bore on silver mast: the Silmaril as lantern light and banner bright with living flame to gleam thereon by Elbereth herself was set, who thither came and wings immortal made for him, and laid on him undying doom, to sail the shoreless skies and come behind the Sun and light of Moon.
From Evereven’s lofty hills where softly silver fountains fall his wings him bore, a wandering light, beyond the mighty Mountain Wall. From a World’s End there he turned away, and yearned again to find afar his home through shadows journeying, and burning as an island star on high above the mists he came, a distant flame before the Sun, a wonder ere the waking dawn where grey the Norland waters run.
And over Middle-earth he passed and heard at last the weeping sore of women and of elven-maids in Elder Days, in years of yore. But on him mighty doom was laid, till Moon should fade, an orbéd star to pass, and tarry never more on Hither Shores where Mortals are; for ever still a herald on an errand that should never rest to bear his shining lamp afar, the Flammifer of Westernesse.”
We are in Taupo (on the shores of Lake Taupo) and relaxing a bit, having just completed an epic three day hike around Mount Ngauruhoe, the volcano that “acted” as Mount Doom in the LOTR movies. This is near where most of the Mordor scenes were shot (the prologue battle, Sam and Frodo’s final leg of the journey) and Emyn Muil (a “labyrinth of razor sharp rocks” where Sam and Frodo capture Gollum). The combination of hiking a beautiful landscape and the nerdery is overwhelming. I may never recover…
But you deserve a respite from my waxing professional about museums, so here’s a picture-heavy post!
We set out from nearby mountain biking and carrot town (seriously) of Ohakune ready for an early start. Only an hour in did we realize that our usually trust map app was leading us the wrong way. A good reminder to trust your gut ahead of technology. Backtracking was frustrating, but we still had enough time to make an 11am start to the Tongariro Northern Circuit. (A 42 km loop)
The first day was through rugged fields of tussock grass and purple heather.
That night we stayed at our first hut (run by the park and featuring simple racks of beds and stoves for up to 28 people, much like a stripped down hostel), and had not one but two serendipitous meetings. One was a german couple we had met way back in Ohakune a month ago and had never expected to meet again. The second was that the resident ranger was from Edmonton (before she moved to Canmore, worked for Parks Canada, and had taken a temporary job in NZ) and good friends with many of our friends and co-workers!
On our right, stood Mt. Ngauruhoe, a mighty volcano – better known as Orodruin or Mount Doom, where Sauron forged the One Ring and, eventually, it was destroyed (spoilers).
We set out early, by around 7:30am, for the toughest leg of the hike.
This part of the trek can be done as a one-day hike from one parking lot to another, and is the most popular day-trek in New Zealand (our friends Alex and Erin recommended it highly). We were joined by hundreds of such day-trippers, smiling and fresh-faced, but equally daunted by the growing climb.
Leaving the daytrippers behind for their path to a car park, we began to descend into the pumice laden valley to the north.
I think we ate quite well. I bought an old pot from a military supply store and we ate porridge for breakfast, buns & apples & trailmix for lunch, and a varied dinner. The first night we reheated some burrito filling we had made and paired it with tortillas. The second we made pasta! The pot also proved useful for boiling the streamwater for coffee and tea so we could preserve the water we were carrying.
Though I delayed our return for twenty minutes to take a quick “shower.”
Obligatory Tolkien Quote:
The Sword of Elendil was forged anew by Elvish smiths, and on its blade was traced a device of seven stars set between the crescent Moon and rayed Sun, and about them was written many runes; for Aragorn son of Arathorn was going to war upon the marches of Mordor. Very bright was that sword when it was made whole again; the light of the sun shone redly in it, and the light of the moon shone cold, its edge was hard and keen. And Aragorn gave it a new name and called it Andúril, Flame of the West.
From Greymouth to Nelson to Marlborough and its copious wineries, to Wellington and its coffee and so up to Tongariro Nat’l Park.
As some of you know, B and I originally hoped to come to NZ for a year and work in museums or pursue higher education. We discovered that visas were a bit more expensive and decided to turn it into something approximating our usual trips, but for as long a time as we could possibly manage.
Nonetheless, our object was partly for adventure, and partly for purposes of reconnaissance for future opportunities…and for learning. As a start, I contacted four living history museums in New Zealand and asked if I could volunteer with them for a week or so. Three of them took me up on it, and in the end I was able to commit to two. To follow up, I contacted Interpretation Network of New Zealand and we discussed other ways to connect with the museum community – settling on three (now two) presentations for their members involving case studies of the interpretation projects I’ve been a part of.
My first opportunity came on the west coast of the South Island near a town called Greymouth. The heritage park of Shantytown is a little like a Fort Edmonton Park in miniature – perhaps only an eighth of the size. Nonetheless it had a steam train (Actually two!), a 4d movie, and several historic streetscapes evoking the goldrush past of the region. I had a marvelous time working with the curators and managers, spending most of my day with them wandering through the park and talking about what to stop, what to start, and what to continue. I fear they may have thought that I would come bringing golden tales of a wondrous world where museums are valued and funded, but perhaps knowing they were not alone in their various woes was some comfort.
My second opportunity in this sphere was at Wellington, where I met my longtime correspondant Emma and set up camp at the Wellington Museum. We were eventually joined by 16 INNZ members, most of whom were natural history interpreters or coordinators. Illustrated by some choice images, I discussed the mammoth York Boat project we just completed, the Great War Commemoration project of several years ago, the ongoing Queer History project, YEGTales.ca , and Interprecomics.wordpress.com – a mix of scale and impact, and projects I’d done at Fort Edmonton Park and separately.
The talk went well, but more happily, so did the drinks afterwards as we kvetched and wept and laughed and shared successes and failures at a seaside tavern in what has become my new favourite New Zealand city.
Museums are a big part of my life and a big part of my tourism experience, but rather than paining your eyes with long written descriptions of various historic sites and facilities, I’d rather share some of the highlights of New Zealand museums so far. Not all museums are perfect, but there are always things to commend and I would always rather that than criticize. I apologize if this is too much inside baseball!
While sometimes a bit cheesy, good photo opps ensure that families capture memories of their time at the site and then rehearse that experience with themselves or on their own later.
Art should not be confined to galleries, and likewise the collective memory should not be confined to museums and archives. That being said, there should be a mechanism for when a community decides that such commemoration (which is rarely anything but celebratory) is no longer appropriate. Heritage is not entirely synonymous with history and erasing a name from our landscape does not erase it from the history books.
Museum visitors must be given the opportunity to be active participants and not just passive recipients. This is especially important in museums that lack or have few docents or interpreters.
Museums and the museum community, not to mention museum education, can be insular and self-perpetuating. Collaboration with artists and other sectors can help bring incredible change and dynamic experiences to the visitors, not the least with amazing design. Admittedly, New Zealand has an ace in it’s pocket with the film industry.
The number one reason I wanted to visit New Zealand (just barely ahead of Lord of the Rings and an incredible landscape) was their approach to Indigenous content and collaboration in the museums sector. As you may or may not know, the Maori people of Aotearoa/New Zealand are a strong cultural force and a national partner in New Zealand. That is not to say that there is not colonial or racist attitudes, or that there is not a long way to go, but Te Reo Maori words pepper Kiwi English just as they dot the landscape. The Treaty of Waitangi between the Crown and the Maori is recognized as the country’s constitution. Maori may choose to vote in Indigenous-only ridings to elect their own representatives to Parliament (or they may choose to vote in the non-Indigenous ridings). Admittedly this approach is made easier than Canada’s by the more unified linguistic and cultural nature of the land’s Indigenous people (consider Canada’s three Indigenous peoples, let alone the amazing diversity within each group), but there is nonetheless much to be learned here. I can’t photograph all of it out of respect for cultural practices, but I think you’ll get the idea.
In fact one of our final experiences in the cultural and political Capital of Wellington (also disputedly the coffee and craft beer capital) is to meet with a Professor at the University who studies this subject. The meeting is happily and generously arranged by one of the interpretation professionals I met through INNZ who did her Master’s degree with Conal MacArthy. We have a rapid and amazing chat over tea before he personally walks us to the University bookstore to point out a few recommended books and then takes his leave.
I could tell you about the wonderful swims we took in the bay, the hikes outside our hostel door, the catamaran sail at sunset, the walk in the Botanic gardens, or the many amazing meals we’ve had. But Wellington is a city I know I will be back to – so there will be time.
But I will show you the Lord of the Rings stuff I did!
Obligatory Tolkien Quote:
“So, though there was still some store of weapons in the Shire, these were used mostly as trophies, hanging above hearths or on walls, or gathered into the museum as Michel Delving. The Mathom-house it was called; for anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom.”
Not much to say this week, save that I am in Wellington and was here when the news of the Christchurch mosque shooting arrived. The response over night was heartening and speaks for itself (see below).
That was not the New Zealand I have seen and am beginning to love. That being said, we cannot ignore the white supremacist and Islamophobic garbage that lives as an undercurrent in many of our homes, including Canada. We must confront it, sometimes with love and understanding, and do our best to excoriate it, sometimes with unyielding fortitude.
The responses below, which sprung up overnight, are New Zealand as it aspires to be and often achieves. This is how I hope Edmonton and Canada will respond when (not if) more of this violence arrives.
I don’t imagine myself any great expert, or that I have anything profound to say. But I am going to specifically call out Quebec’s Values test and veil-banning, which are poorly hidden Islamophobic and racist legislation that are all too easy to imagine elsewhere in Canada.
(This is a blackboard wall at the University with a central space reserved for “our Muslim Brothers and Sisters” to share their thoughts. There was also a minute of silence when we were on campus on Monday.)
Obligatory Tolkien Quote:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
One of the two Chilean hitchhikers in the back seat was opining on the awfulness of one of my favourite trees as we twisted through another lovely mountain range between Nelson and Marlborough.
Why didn’t I stop the car and demand she go hug a poplar and darken my presence no more?
They were actually quite nice, these Chileans, and they had a point. As you may know if you have been reading B’s posts, New Zealand (like Australia, and many “New World” landscapes) has a problem with invasive species. For animals here, the problems are rats, stoats, and possums (damned possums!). For plants, they are the Scottish gorse and the lovely, fragrant pine. Rats came accidentally, as they so often do. Possums were brought for their fur. Gorse was for hedges and pine for lumber. But in a unique ecosystem with almost no mammals (a small species of bat or two excepted), the predictable happened and nature was thrown into chaos and rapine.
The symmetrical and stately pine has taken over many native forests, sucking up the valuable moisture and acidifying the ground with their needles. To our Chilean friends, who were WOOFing about, the tree was an invasive pest. They were actually quite astonished when we spun tales of a majestic and (ahem) hyperborean land where pine was native and fit quite well, thank you very much.
As you hike throughout the South Island, you see dozens if not hundreds of small white traps for rats and stoats just off the trail. The nation is trying to control the damage they do to the ecosystem, especially NZ’s amazing variety of birds (they do call this the Island of Birds – one of several such named islands I have found around the world). But when I expressed hope to our Stewart Island paua-benefactor that the invasion seemed to be under control, he shook his head sadly. “Nah, maybe just on that peninsula, but we’ll never be rid of them.”
So it is somewhat fitting that alongside dragons and trolls, I skewered a rat or two with the keen shafts from my longbow (!) last week.
I think I last left you in Queenstown, that remarkable mountain landscape of lakes and tarns about which we scrambled with vulpine nimbleness and categorical glee. From there we set our heading north and west and drove up the entirely new rainforest landscape of the West Coast. We alighted in Greymouth, where I spent several days volunteering for a living history museum (more on that in a later post) while Barbara ran and rested and wrote.
From that pleasant, if sandfly-heavy, harbour, we drove north to Nelson, a quaint and hip little city sitting on its lupine haunches overseeing the South Island’s north shore. Its vassalage includes the Abel Tasman Nat’l park, one of the most lovely and highly recommended bits of beauty on an already beautiful island. Unfortunately for me, the rainforest and a sick roommate had taken their toll and I spend most of our Nelson time curled up on the couch with a mountain of Kleenex and litres of orange juice, coughing, sneezing, and gratefully distracted by free and open wifi.
So when my fever finally subsided, but our window for an Abel Tasman hike or kayak was gone, I was bursting with suppressed energy. A visit to a craft beer festival (Marchfest) held at yet another outdoor heritage park was a pleasant first step, but it was the next morning when we really got back on track.
We met Markus early in the morning at an Adventure Park outside of town. He was our age, almost imperceptibly German with what sounded like a Liverpudlian accent to his English. He drove us out to a shooting range beneath the shade of a large and exotic tree and coached us expertly until most of our arrows were hitting the target. Then it was time to kick it into high gear.
Markus had developed a love for field archery years ago, and built his current business almost by accident. He was working I.T. in Nelson with his wife, starting a family after stalling their planned round-the-world trip at their first stop in New Zealand (just because they liked it so much). He would go out to the woods north of town to shoot. Then a friend came along. Then a few more friends. Then a friend of his asked if a visiting corporate retreat could come. All of a sudden, Markus realized that he had inadvertently built the business he dreamed of starting years ago. He formalized a few things, ordered a few more foam targets from Europe, and then just recently – with a baby at home and interest mounting – quit his IT job to focus on field archery experiences full-time.
Field, or 3D archery, is our new favourite thing. Markus drove us to the start of a hiking trail, equipped us with a quiver of arrows and bows, and then led us into the dark and cool virgin forest. After about twenty minutes, we came to our first target – a foam dragon about 35 ft from the trail. We took turns shooting three arrows each until we hit, a pattern that continued for foam boar, rats, deer, more dragons, trolls, and even (unpatriotically) a beaver. Barbara was generally a better shot than me, but we were close enough to enjoy a mild and even competition.
All the while Markus was a perfect coach and companion, giving us tips on our form, interesting natural history interpretation, and casual chit-chat for the next three hours of fun. The forest abounded with fantails who would chirp at us encouragingly (I assume) while fluttering about, wasps (my hated enemy) distracted by a blackened beech, and a burbling stream so pure you could drink straight from it (which I did). A hike, a sport, a conversation or two with a fine new companion, and the fantastical fun of shooting dragons in New Zealand? Better than lying supine and snotty by far.
Later that day, I even got to swim in a gorgeous rocky river to boot.
(I neglected to take a picture, so this is stolen from another blog, Mooses from the North.)
And of course, I did manage to make it to an obligatory Tolkien stop. In Nelson, Barbara and visited Jens Henson Jewellery, the shop of the man who made over 40 copies of the One Ring for them to use in the movies!
Obligatory Tolkien Poem/Quote:
“Arrow!” said the bowman “Black arrow! I have saved you to the last. You have never failed me and I have always recovered you. I had you from my father and he from of old. If ever you came from the forges of the true king under the Mountain, go now and speed well!”- The Hobbit
For me to properly convey the last few days in New Zealand, I have to indulge in a metaphor somewhat alien to me and more appropriate for my globe-trotting brother for whom boxing is as beloved as breathing.
In this metaphor, I am a dogged and naïve young pugilist, who has just stepped into the ring with a swift and talented fighter. Learned but not practised, I have decided to adopt this “rope-a-dope” strategy I have read about. With every punch I absorb, I smile foolishly, knowing he hasn’t got another like that in him.
But he does. They just keep coming.
In this metaphor, New Zealand is my opponent and it is breathtaking natural beauty that it keeps smacking me with.
We drive up from Bluff and Stewart Island to the gateway to Fiordland, Manapouri and Te Anau. These towns alone are gorgeous and sit amidst stunning lakes.
We have long since been stymied in our attempt to do any of the Great Walks in these parts (multi-day treks, 9 or so of which have been deified) as the overnight huts are all booked. But an outfitter called Rosco’s Milford Kayaks are willing to pick us up in Te Anau at 5am (!) for an adventure. The tent is in heavy use these days, and it’s not the most comfortable sleep in the world, but nothing you want to be ripped away from in the pre-dawn hours, blearily agreeing to be driven northward by a madman in a van. Unless he is taking you to the famed Milford Sound for a day of kayaking.
Exhilarated and happy, we spend another night in our tent (tired enough to drift off right away) before decamping once again for Queenstown. The road up is gorgeous, and our first look at Lake Wakatipu is already taking what little breath we have away.
The lake and area, dominated by Queenstown, is famous for its landscape and adventure tourism. The lake itself is attached to a Maori legend featuring a hero who kills a sleeping giant by lighting his bracken bed afire. The giant’s fat is so hot it creates a crevasse in the shape of his sleeping form, and water rushes into create the lake. But his beating heart survives, causing the lake to rise and fall steadily.
We spend one more frigid mountain night in the tent before a room is available in a nearby hostel. Then we start exploring. First Arrowtown, a lovely little old goldrush village that is worth seeing itself.
Not to mention it’s only a brief hike to the site where they filmed part of the scene at the Fords of Bruinen, where Arwen (Glorfindel in the book) faces down the Nazgul.
A few hours of daylight left mean we can urge and encourage (and plead with, if we’re being honest) our gutless and superannuated little Nissan over the Crown Range (costing us a quarter-tank of gas in about half-an-hour) to descend on the incomparable beauty of Lake Wanaka.
Not to mention its semi-famous and ridiculously picturesque lone tree.
And another semi-famous site we hadn’t expected – the “bra fence”, a memorial to breast-cancer victims, survivors, and their relatives.
Wow. New Zealand can’t beat this, can it?
But, since it is my unbirthday, we tackle two more amazing hikes that are also Lord of the Rings related. First, we drive up the Remarkables range, then hike up to Lake Alto. This is the Dimrill Dale of the movies – my favourite little scene. Aragorn leads the Fellowship down towards Lothlorien (“By nightfall these hills will be swarming with orcs!”) and in the process runs across a mountain stream. It is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot but it has been my favourite since my first viewing. It is so real and so familiar and yet so beautiful – it perfectly encompasses one of the appeals of the movie the combination of Tolkien’s high fantasy with a 21st century realism in costume and setting. I never ever thought I’d get to find that place. But I did!
You can’t really top that, but you can take a few finishing blows.
A Creekside spot were Frodo and Sam see the Oliphaunts.
A lagoon walk near Glenorchy.
And the worthily famous Ferberger for dinner.
Punch drunk. And there’s still so many rounds to go and I don’t think there’s much breath left to take from me, or vocabulary to describe it. To me, New Zealand is without a doubt the most beautiful country I have ever seen.
Ren is a laid-back, engaging, gregarious man of Maori descent in his 50s with handsome steel grey hair and a tan and an easy manner that speaks of his past as an adventure tourism expert. He worked in Queenstown (the local Banff), other locations around the South Island, Australia, and even in Colorado. Last year when he had a stroke and, though we can see no sign of it, he admits painfully that he now runs only at about 80% and his thoughts don’t always make it to his tongue the right way.
Ren is also our host at a wonderful airBNB we stay at in Oumaru, a smaller city/town north of Dunedin that we backtrack to based on what we learn of its character – Oumaru has a marvelous Victorian harbour core and has parlayed that into a Steampunk aesthetic that draws tourists to its antique shops, adventure-themed bookestores, steampunk museums, artisan spaces, and Penny Farthing rental outlets. We spend a happy day shopping and wandering these spaces, although we find them a little quiet and lacklustre for the height of summer. A Brewery dinner recommended by Ren improves the day with a taster flight and a fine pizza. Then we talk long into the night with our host, and again the next morning. He is full of recommendations for our travels, being so experienced, but is also happy to answer our questions about Jacinda Arrend, their young Prime Minister, and the vagaries of the southern Maori wharae, assimilation, and even the spread of the Polynesian people (there are natives in Taiwan, he surprises us, that speak perfect Maori).
Mike is a museum director, an author, a history enthusiast, and an affable conversationalist. He is in his late 60s or 70s, white haired, and we encounter him manning the information desk at his museum. After a brief conversation about where we can find deet-based bug spray, and a slighty less brief conversation about museums and history, I find myself led to the museum library and ushered into a chair, offered refreshment, and asked if my partner minds if we chat a while. He has read some of Peter C. Newman’s books on the fur trade and is interested to hear more. He is even familiar with Pierre Berton and the stories of the gold rush. His own family history connects to Nova Scotia (a connection to us in which he revels), where a young ship’s carpenter left the tiny hamlet there to come build ships in New Zealand. At the end of about a thirty minute chat he admits that he ought to let me go, but rushes into the back room to find a copy of his book – pausing briefly to ask another staffperson whether it’s okay if he gives this one from the giftshop away for now and then replaces it from his home. I’m now the proud owner of an author-signed book about this 19th century ship’s carpenter and the history of this region of the country!
The Catlins region, where we have found Mike’s museum, is yet another of New Zealand’s stunning landscapes. The southeast coast of the South Island, it is warmed by a tropical current from Tasmania, even if it contains the southernmost point of the South Island and seems only a few hours’ row from Antarctica. The water is warm, but the rainforest coast is a bit chilly and damp and we nestle snuggly inside our tent under wool blankets while it rains softly outside. Our main complaint is that the clouds obscure the view of the southern night sky we were earlier treated to. A spectacular hike to a waterfall, an excursion into a beach-front cathedral cavern, a swim in Porpoise Bay, and a visit to a lighthouse beacon do more than enough to fill this leg of the journey.
Anthony is a lanky and rugged kiwi with salt and pepper hair, stubble, and an accent so thick I find I have a little bit of trouble with it. He is a former sheep-shearer (from what we can tell, just about every man on the south island has something to do with sheep. Most raise, shear, or trade sheep in their spare time, we suppose), a farmer, a firefighter, and an air traffic coordinator. He spent August in B.C. fighting fires in the interior, and, his daughter tells us matter-of-factly, missed his son’s Ryan’s birthday on Feb 9th fighting fires up near Nelson. Ryan is about 9 and Isabella about 7. Isabella has guinea pigs and one of the chickens on the farm she considers hers is named Ruby. Ryan thinks his wetsuit is too small, an opinion his father scoffs at, and tells us authoritatively of the family’s ram who is very tough – almost as tough as his father, and he used to be a sheep-shearer.
We meet this family while exploring Stewart Island, the biggest of New Zealand’s tertiary islands. This amazing landscape is a birder’s paradise and a regular stopping place for penguins, seals, whales, dolphins, and other local creatures. We have only a day on the island, and on a hike to a lighthouse we follow a small path down to a tiny sandy coved, the perfect little personal getaway. Here there is a stone house built by a muscular shipbuilder of yore, the remnants of his boatbuilding works, and a sandy beach flanked by surf-washed rock. In and amongst this rock, Anthony has taken his kids to search for paua (abalone, he explains, when my quizzical expression reveals that his accent and my ignorance have conspired). Ryan is in the aforementioned wetsuit snorkeling about, while Isabelle in her rainboots clambers about on the rocks. They come up with several fine examples, but Anthony has to throw some of his son’s back in the sea as they are too small to be legally harvested. After striking up a conversation, which leads to introductions, and a nice chat on the seashore, Anthony gives us one of the abalone. Some complementary shucking and instructions on how to cook it (little bit of butter, maybe garlic, and only a few moments on each side) lad to a delightful repast that evening, and an even better story, plus the paua shell as a souvenir.
These are just a few examples of the amazing people I’ve met in just the past four days! And while wonderful, they are not remarkable. I could share more of these stories. Mark the former teacher and publisher with holes in his thick wool sweater who was walking a dog in front of our place. The ladies in most café line-ups who always ask us how our vacation is going as soon as they hear our accents. Kiwis, or perhaps south islanders, just tend to make eye contact and greet you even if just passing on the street. Anything more than that, and you find yourself in a happy conversation with a warm and genuine person who doesn’t even want to sell you anything.
There does seem to be an south-north split, with many of the southerners admitting that we might not find it quite as warm and accommodating on the North island. “You might have to lock your doors up there.” (Most cars we see are left open, most house doors are the same, apparently). There’s also a beer advertisement that celebrates “the southern man” using the image of a sheep-shearer in a duster and oilskin brimmed cap, looking cowboy as hell. One poster tells us that a “southern man” always drinks one-handed, so he can use the other to jam his finger into his mate’s chest as punctuation for his strongly held views on rugby. We’ll have to wait to pass judgement on “northerners” that until we hit the North Island.
Obligatory Tolkien Quote:
“I come from under the hill, and under the hills and over the hills my paths led. And through the air, I am he that walks unseen.
I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I was chosen for the lucky number.
I am he that buries his friends alive and drowns them and draws them alive again from the water. I came from the end of a bag, but no bag went over me.
I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider.”