“In order to avoid vengeance from Hoturapa’s family, Kupe and his own family left Hawaiiki in Kura’s canoe Matahorua. After some time of navigating, Kupe’s wife Hine Te Aparangi sighted the islands of New Zealand, which appeared as land lying beneath a cloud. Because of this, they named the islands Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud.” (history-nz.org)
Aotearoa is a land of earthquakes, glaciers, bubbling mud pools and active volcanoes. The Maori, arriving from the Pacific Islands in the 14th century, must have been awestruck by the landscapes they saw. In order to make sense of its spectacular geographical features, they made up myths and legends. In their animistic beliefs of the universe there was no distinction between animate and inanimate objects or humans and other living creatures. All were involved in the organic processes of the cosmos. During my recent travels in New Zealand, I experienced the power of these natural forces – their destruction and their beauty – and learnt first hand the wisdom of the Maori’s beliefs in the interconnectedness of all phenomena.
I arrived in Christchurch slightly worried about being culture shocked after travelling in SE Asia for so long. I had come in late at night and awoke the next morning to discover that the back-packers hostel expected me to provide my own breakfast. No street stalls here. Like an alien from a distant galaxy I set off in search of food. I hadn’t gone far when I noticed several vacant building lots, piles of rubble and houses with large red crosses taped on their windows. It was only when my path along the Avon River was barred by fences that it dawned on me. I was witnessing the destruction of the earthquake which had struck Christchurch almost exactly two years previously. I remembered the TV news reports of February 22nd 2011 but had quickly forgotten about them. New Zealand had seemed so far away then. Now I was shocked at the extent of the devastation and its effects on people’s lives. Measuring 6.3 magnitude the earthquake left 70,000 people homeless and claimed the lives of 185 people.
The Maori believe that the animus Ruaumoko is responsible for earthquakes as he stomps around angrily in the underworld beneath his mother. He is angry at being buried in the darkness and from time to time he attacks his brothers on the surface.
Still on South Island, I managed to get up close and personal to a couple of New Zealand’s 3,000 or so glaciers. I am not a skier and so venturing onto the ice of the Franz Josef glacier was a real thrill. Crawling through dazzling blue ice tunnels, wandering amidst the seracs and peering down never ending crevasses gave a false sense of stability. In fact the ice descends at a rate of 7 metres a day which is extremely fast by glacial standards. The power of moving ice is evident all around in the shape of the valley and the “roche moutonnee” or “rock-sheep” – the rocks on either side which have been rounded by the glacier passing over them. This 12 km long glacier is unique in that its tongue extends down through temperate rainforest to less than 300 metres above sea level. Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere meaning “The Tears of Hine Hukatere” is the Maori name for Franz Josef. Her tears flowed down the mountain and froze to form the glacier when her lover, Wawe, was swept away by an avalanche.
A week before arriving at Mount Cook/Aoraki there had been a major calving event on the Tasman Glacier. The latter is New Zealand’s largest and longest glacier which stretched 115 kms 22,000 to 16,000 years ago. Today it is 600 metres thick and 29 kms long. Eager to see the after effects of the calving we went to the terminal moraine area. When the 650 metre front face broke off the glacier it was the largest iceberg ever seen on the lake. It had broken into several icebergs 40-50 metres high above the water, which is what we could see. Below the water line was a further 200-250 metres of ice.
The Te Arawa people are the guardians or “kaitiaki” of the geothermal fields on North Island. Legend tells of Te Pupu and Te Hoata, goddesses of fire, who travelled whale-like under the sea from Hawaiiki to help their brother Ngatoro-i-Rangi. Where they surfaced to spout they left part of their fire in geysers, hot springs and mud pools which remain in these areas today. Every geothermal area has traditional cultural and historic importance for the Maori and is used for bathing, cooking, medicines, dyes and ritual. I walked around Wai-O-Tapu (Sacred Waters) an 18 sq.km area covered with collapsed craters, boiling pools of mud, geysers, hot springs and steaming fumaroles. The dazzling array of colours was due to a variety of mineral elements absorbed out of the rocks by magma-heated water – green, orange and purple caused by ferrous salts, antimony and manganese oxide respectively. All this thermal activity was associated with volcanic eruptions dating back 160,000 years. I read about the science in the “Thermal Wonderland” brochure but understood why for the Maori it had such spiritual significance.
New Zealand’s volcanoes are mostly clustered in the North Island – with the active ones in a line from the Bay of Plenty to just south of Lake Taupo. The Maori voyagers saw the volcanoes as being connected. They are in fact along the boundary where the Pacific plate meets and is sliding under the Indo-Australian plate. The legend explaining the volcanoes is again part of the legend of the fire goddesses. Their brother Ngatoro-i-Rangi, a medicine man, decided to climb Mount Tongariro with his slave Auruhoe to survey his newly won lands. He commanded his followers not to eat while he was away in order to give him strength on the cold mountain. They did not follow his orders however and broke their fast. Ngatoro and Auruhoe felt the freezing cold and he prayed to his sisters in Hawaiiki. As we know, they sent fire to help him which eventually burst through the summits of the mountains creating the volcanoes of Tongariro, Ngaruhoe and Ruapehu. The heat came too late to save Auruhoe and Ngatoro gave her body to the fire in the crater. Thus Ngauruhoe got its name – also known as Mount Doom to all Lord of the Rings fans.
These volcanoes are far from dormant and we were unable to complete the full Tongariro Crossing or climb up to the summit ridge overlooking the crater lake of Mount Ruapehu. In August and November of 2012 there were eruptions in the Te Maari crater on Tongariro. It had been dormant for 100 years. When I was there, gas plumes were visible from a new hole in the mountain. Ruapehu’s 1953 eruption caused 340,000 cubic metres of water to pour down the valley. This lahar smashed the main railway bridge at Tangiwai on Xmas Eve causing the death of 151 people. The National Park has come up with several ideas as to how to prevent the same thing happening but these have all been vetoed by the Maori people who own the land and do not wish to interfere with the animus/life force of the volcanoes. For now the crater lake is carefully monitored and due to recent activity, we were kept away from it. Signs warning people of the dangers of an eruption are placed in strategic places in the Whakapapa ski field which is directly underneath Ruapehu. In 1995 when there was a full scale eruption, there were hundreds of skiers on the mountain.
Given the powerful forces which are part of everyday life on both North and South Island it is perhaps not surprising that New Zealanders enjoy living life to the full and why Maori legends reflect their deep belief in the life-force of all things.
If you want to see my NZ photos, go to this site: https://picasaweb.google.com/112780009095358904804/2013NewZealand