Stories from the land of the Long White Cloud

New Zealand is often overlooked as a holiday destination, but it has so much to offer. It is a country of stories, shaped by its culture and landscape.

I have spent just over a month in the land of the Kiwi, and I can honestly say that even if I have to live in a cardboard box for the rest of my life, this trip justifies it. There have been certain moments when I couldn’t even believe where I was; standing at the foot of volcanoes, touching Glaciers, and bearing witness to the rubble of earthquakes and avalanches. I’ve sailed through Fjords with dolphins dancing at the bow. I’ve stared out across turquoise water, my toes buried in golden sands, as the sun sets pink and orange over the ocean.

Shaped by some of nature’s strongest forces, ice and fire have carved out this country’s valleys and built its islands into one of the most spectacular and diverse natural landscapes in the world.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that it makes dramatic film scenery too; the Lord Of The Rings series is the most famous example. Hobbiton is now one of the country’s biggest tourist destinations (and yes, I went there too).

The film industry isn’t the only source of stories. Everywhere I went, I learnt more about New Zealand from local tales and legends than any guidebook could have told me.

The Abel Tasman and Conservation

Day 13 Routeburn Flats.jpg
Views from the Routeburn Track

The Abel Tasman in the South is an entire coastal national park, saved from becoming highway by one woman’s deviousness. She faked a letter to the Dutch royal family, inviting them to open a National Park that was going to be named after the famous Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, the first westerner to find New Zealand. When the delegation turned up, the government couldn’t exactly tell them that they were intending to build a road there instead. Thus, one of the most beautiful national parks in the world was formed. Thank you, Perrine Moncrieff, for your daring.

Conservation is huge here. Perhaps this is unsurprising, conserving the sheer number of native species that have become extinct or endangered since western influence became established. The most obvious example is the kiwi itself, which has been struggling with habitat loss and introduced predators for decades. On some hikes, there are traps visible everywhere. It’s often quite easy to tell which are full, because you can smell them.

An Appreciation for Culture and History

Day 7 Wild Camp View
A wild camp at Lake Pukake, Mt Cook in the distance

The Department of Conservation are fighting to preserve the indigenous wildlife, just as the government are pushing to acknowledge and embrace the history and culture of the island. The Maori people have lived in Aotearoa for centuries. Their culture, though perhaps not so evident at first, has its hallmarks everywhere. The customary greeting ‘Kia Ora’ is used all over the country, and the war dance the Haka is internationally recognised with New Zealand’s All Blacks Rugby team.

The silver fern is a symbol that has come to embody the spirit of New Zealand. The Maori name for it is ponga, and it was said that it was asked to come to the forest guide the Maori people. The underside of its leaves reflect moonlight, and it was used by Maori to navigate through the bush at night. It was also used as a building material, a medicine and sometimes the fibre was used to make poison arrow tips.

Maori Legends of Aotearoa

Day 6 Bird and Lake.jpg
The stunning scenery of the South Island

Aotearoa was explored by the Maori long before European settlers came, and their stories reflect their knowledge of the landscape. The Maori name for the North Island is Te Ika-a-Maui, which translates as ‘the fish of Maui’. The shape of the island resembles a giant fish, which a demi-god called Maui (some may recognise the name from Disney’s Moana) pulled from the ocean. He overturned his Canoe, or waka, in the process, and this became the South Island. The spine of mountains running along is it the underside of the waka. Sometimes called New Zealand’s third Island, Stewart Island is thought to be the anchor of Maui’s canoe; Te Punga a Maui.

Many Maori stories are closely tied to place. One of my favourite is of Cape Reinga, the northernmost point of the North Island. Reinga in Maori means ‘underworld’, but the Maori name for it is actually Te Rerenga Wairua which means ‘the leaping off place of spirits’. It is the place where spirits depart for the homeland after death, as the Maori know that they came to New Zealand from elsewhere (the Maori are thought to be related to Polynesians). In order to prevent the contamination of the spirits, visitors are not allowed to eat or drink on the way down, and there are wardens to enforce this.

It is also the meeting point of the Pacific and Tasman seas. It is actually possible to see where the two meet, in a line of waves and sometimes a colour difference. The Maori consider these two seas to be male and female, and the whirlpools that sometimes form where they meet are the creation of life.

Day 26 Meeting Seas
The meeting point

It is hard to fully experience New Zealand without coming across some of the stories that make it the country it is. When asked what my favourite part of the trip was, the place will undoubtedly come with a story. I loved driving down ninety mile beach in a coach, with the water splashing up the sides, but I can’t mention it without also commenting on the fact that it is not, in fact, ninety miles long. Cattle herders could walk thirty miles in a day, and seeing as it took them three days to get down the highway, they assumed it was ninety miles long but forgot to take into account that they moved slower on sand.

The whole country, for me, is defined by its stories. I hope you enjoyed some of the ones that I have shared with you.

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