Saturday, November 29, 2008

Jumping Off Things

What with all the folks jumping off mountains, bridges and buildings around New Zealand, we figured it was time to jump off something ourselves. When in Rome . . . But we're getting ahead of our story. We'll come back to it shortly.

It happened by accident. In fact this whole past week was one unplanned adventure after another! The plan was to drive our tandem bike, still unridden and in its two cases, down to Wellington and to leave it with friends there until mid-January, when we get back from Australia. OK, simple enough. It's a 2-day drive if you go straight there, how can we make this fun? OK, let's go a little out of the way and visit that couple from New Plymouth we met last week on the bus trip in the Northland? Hmmm, that will take us through Waitomo.

Some of you may have heard of Waitomo. It has one of the biggest tourist traps in NZ, big enough to have caught Louise when she was here 14 years ago. 99% of the visitors go straight to the Glow Worm Caves And Underground Boat Tour, and it is a very interesting tour, at a price that keeps a few New Zealanders on Easy Street. But there is a 6 mile hiking track that goes through the countryside and up to some rivers that disappear underground, and it's free. OK, let's check that out. Hmmm, where to stay? How about this place -- "Big Bird B&B"?

First lesson, you do not ever ask for ostrich eggs "over easy" or poached, the picture notwithstanding. Host Ross "cracked" the egg for us, using a cement-cutting drill bit, and it took him almost two minutes! Watching Sesame Street, you'd never guess what a tough customer Big Bird is!
Next Ross pierced the membrane inside and shook out the contents into a large bowl, for your options with ostrich are scrambled, scrambled, or scrambled. Second lesson, bring some friends -- one egg feeds about 16 hungry people. As part of our stay we got to meet the birds, but you don't want to get too close to these guys, they sometimes tangle with lions in their native Africa, and the lion doesn't necessarily win.

Over breakfast we got to talking with Ross and Ann, and they told us about the abseiling (rappelling) company their son co-owns and that Ross works occasionally at as a guide. They sold us on the idea of jumping off a 160' cliff in the night and gliding down through the glowworms as a pleasant way to spend an evening. It was a good decision -- this was one of the most fascinating adventures we've ever taken.

Ross wasn't working that evening but one of the other guides did a great job making sure we followed all the safety rules and understood what to do. There was only one moment where Louise said "You want me to do WHAT," when our guide told us to turn around and sit on that metal bar that has nothing underneath it but those 160 feet of air.
He reminded us that we were attached both to a side safety line and to him at this point. "So if we go, you go?" "Company policy" he replied.

It was actually quite safe, and most interesting to slowly descend 16 stories through this narrow cleft. Imagine two 16-story buildings about 7 or 8 feet apart and two or three blocks long and you have an idea what this chasm looked like. At the bottom it was sandy with a little water, where we got this photo of us and the Aussie couple that joined us.

The first descent was at sunset, so there was enough light to see the walls of the cleft and the landing zone below, if dimly. As we descended each couple was attached to one guide with about 10 feet of slack rope, so you didn't have to be perfectly next to each other, but were close enough for him to check a too-rapid descent. What goes down must come up, as they say (or at least that's the hope on Wall Street these days), and the route up was constructed by them buying out every metal ladder that was for sale for 100 kilometers around, we suspect, and very firmly attaching them to the rock wall. As we ascended each 20 to 40 foot section, we attached to a fairly heavy rope with a device that slid up with us, but would have stopped us firmly had we slipped. At each landing we used carabiners attached by short ropes to our climbing harness to attach to side ropes while we disengaged from climbing rope #1 and moved on to climbing rope #2. Attach to #2, then disengage the side ropes, then move on. For 16 stories.

Now for the high point, so to speak, of the evening. It was now well past twilight, and we were experienced abseilers, so we reattached to the descending ropes, went down a few feet and showed our guides that we were firmly there, then the guides descended all the way to the bottom leaving the four of us dangling up at the top. When they gave the OK we disengaged our safety lines to the top and started descending. By holding our ropes they could tell if any of us was coming down too fast and could pull our rope taught, which would stop us (you'd have to ask a mountaineer to explain how, but we took our guides' word for it). No need, we all kept in perfect control, and could stop at any time easily.

As soon as we cleared the rim, we entered another world. The sides of the cliff were now indistinct, but covered with points of light that looked almost exactly like very bright stars, in all directions around us. It was light descending through a galaxy! Oh, look at that constellation over there! Oooooh, how about that one on the other side!!! Glow worms are funny little creatures the thickness of an average needle and not quite that long. One end lights up much like a firefly though smaller, but it stay lit all night, attracting even tinier bugs to come close and get caught on micro-thin fibers dangling in air that have been spun by the glow worm and covered by droplets of a mild acid that stuns the prey. Once the glow worm feels that familiar tug on his fishing line, he reels in a meal. Since the bugs the glow worms like to eat prefer moist environments, glow worms are plentiful in wet caves and in deep chasms like the one we were in. They live and die in one place, with a life cycle of about a year. While they seem as bright as the brightest stars, the light they give off was not enough to capture without a tripod and an exceptionally long time exposure, so we can't show you a photo, you'll just have to come to Waitomo and jump off that same cliff for yourselves!

We can however show you that walk, and it was one of the best so far! We started off with a climb up to a high point looking down at the historic Waitomo Hotel,
then across two different styles of stiles,

with some livestock nearby to show us why we needed to climb over all those stiles. At last we came to a more forested area and the trail began climbing up the sides of cliffs, in some cases hanging off the sides!

We knew there were rivers that went into and out of caves, and noticed a very small one on the way up.
Returning later, we heard voices and looked over in astonishment to see a group of those crazy Kiwis coming out of what appeared to be a water-filled hole in the hillside, dressed in wetsuits and bobbing on rubber tubes. Ah, Waitomo Glowworm Caves still packs them in, but more and more tourists are going for the stronger stuff, like tubing through the caves or abseiling into them or into chasms like us.

Further up we saw a similar-sized river -- perhaps the same one -- enter into a large cave.

The trail took us by another route into the cave, in fact into a cathedral-like chamber, where we saw the same river entering (this time from the inside out) and then exiting to the left into a much smaller, darker cave.

Back again over hill and dale to the end of yet another fantastic trek.

After a second breakfast of scrambled ostrich egg -- it tastes much like hen eggs, but a bit richer -- we drove on down to New Plymouth, on the Tasman (west) coast of the North Island. This area is dominated by Mt. Taranaki, and our first glimpse was from some 80 kilometers away where we had a picnic lunch at this picturesque road pullout.
A little further on we drove a kilometer off the highway and hiked a kilometer along another black sand beach
to a sea cave that was now a tunnel. Coming out the other side were the Three Sisters, or rather two of them, the third one apparently hiding shyly behind that headland.

Just like the Olympics in Washington, Mt. Taranki catches moisture coming off the sea and has the highest rainfall on the North Island, up to 4 meters a year (above 150 inches!) Even the lower areas are a bit wetter than Seattle, though the rain was far away the day we arrived and took this picture from the front yard of our new friends Robert and Denise.
But with all that rain, including some while we explored them, the area is famed for its gardens. Our friends kindly took us to two of them, and also to an avant-garde museum
that was turned over to this sculpture, we suppose you'd call it, of chains in various sizes that interconnected up and down staircases, over balconies, in fact throughout every corner of the museum. When the exhibit's over it will all be chipped up and sent back to the manufacturer to make into styrofoam coolers and the like.

Well the bike's been delivered and we've moved on to new adventures back up the North Island, but this blog is already moving from short story to novella so we'll save those words and pictures for the next entry. Thanks for coming along on this part of the trip.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Exploring NZ History, With Beaches Thrown In

We've now returned from the Northland, having explored and enjoyed the beaches, the hiking and the history. The beaches of New York and New England where we spent our childhood are so boring compared to these, particularly the shells. We had a hard time not looking down all the time and getting as excited as little kids

at all the variety and color of them. Even the sand is interesting due to infusions of black basalt sand, creating interesting patterns. So this blog will have a slightly different approach and intersperse pictures from our beach walks
and also some of our hikes to high places and to waterfalls, while mainly talking about New Zealand history, which to a large extent began in the Northland.

The first white guy to reach New Zealand, in 1642, was Abel Tasman, who lends his name to the Tasman Sea between here and Australia (NZ newspapers often say "on the other side of the Tasman" as a long-winded way of saying Australia (and "Oz" as a short way))
and to Tasmania, that large island to the SE of Australia where Bugs Bunny's friend the Tasmanian Devil lives. He also grabbed the naming rights to New Zealand, and chose the name of a province in his Netherlands homeland.
He obviously didn't make the place inviting enough or easy enough to find, as the next visitor didn't make it until 127 years later, when Captain Cook dropped by in 1769.

For the next 70 years, a variety of non-Maori, or pakeha as they are called in NZ, came by, usually only for short visits to make a quick buck wiping out the seal and whale populations.
The main long-term visitors were missionaries, primarily Anglican but with a few Methodists thrown in, and they got to work creating English-Maori dictionaries and writing translations of the Bible and other religious works in Maori. The second-oldest surviving building in NZ is the mission house at Te Waimate shown here,

with its cozy study and an antique sampler on the wall -- the genuine one, with nice copies available for sale in the gift shop. The oldest surviving building in NZ is the Kemp House in the coastal town of Kerikeri, the frame building to the right in this picture.

It was built in 1821. It housed a missionary family and was reasonably comfortable inside, given where it was in this far-away land, as the photo of the bedroom shows.
By comparison, here is the outside and inside view of a reconstructed Maori home from that period.

Next door to the Kemp House was the Stone House, actually a store that was a Very Big Deal to the Maori, as it was a place they could get iron goods, such as these items shown for sale. It's the oldest stone structure in NZ, dating to 1832.

By 1839 there were perhaps 75,000 Maori in NZ plus about 2,000 pakeha staying more-or-less permanently, and maybe another 1,000 visiting at any time. The pakeha were almost all British. But the French had set up a Catholic mission in Russell, seen here from a nearby hill, including the obligatory printing press
being demonstrated in the next photo taken in Pompellier House, yet another 1830's building. It had a tannery out back which attracted rats, some of which were rediscovered in a fairly rigid posture
when the building was renovated a few years ago. Those darned papist Frenchmen were also starting to poke around elsewhere in NZ, something that always made 19th century Brits quite jumpy, and a fellow in London was about to establish a major new settlement in what ultimately became Wellington. The Colonial Office decided it was time to have some sort of British control over New Zealand.

Meanwhile the Maori were starting to think that might not be a bad idea. The end of the Napoleonic Wars 20 years earlier had put a ton of muskets on the world market, cheap. Add in some money made from trade with the Brits, and the Maori started buying firepower. The first one to hit on the idea in 1821, Hongi Heke,
pretty much slaughtered his enemies and evened up old scores, with a vengeance. It didn't take long for other tribes to start growing things asap to trade with unscrupulous merchants in order to buy their own muskets,
and the Musket Wars were in full swing. They were all Maori tribe vs. Maori tribe, and they were vicious, truly vicious -- a common estimate is that 20% of the Maori population was killed. The warfare had petered out by 1840 as all the tribes had pretty well armed themselves equally and developed good defensive tactics, but the fear of new violence was always there.

So on Feb. 5, 1840 a large number of Maori in the northern part of the North Island assembled in Waitangi in front of the home of a British official who had been asked to gin up a treaty. That's his house in the background, and the lawn where the Maori gathered. He and another fellow wrote something up with only very general direction from London, and local missionaries translated it into Maori. There were discussions all day between the officials and the Maori, with the missionaries acting as intermediaries to explain what this thing meant, then the tribes retired to another area to discuss it many more hours into the night. The next day most of them signed, and copies were subsequently taken around NZ and signed by many more of the tribes.
The Treaty of Waitangi, as it is called, is considered the birthing moment of NZ, and these grounds a major historical site. Next to the treaty house is this large marae, or traditional meeting place, usually for use by a specific tribe or subtribe, but in Waitangi dedicated to all Maori. That's Kupe on the top of the rafters, the legendary leader of the first Polynesian colonists who became the Maori,
and inside are gorgeous carvings from all the Maori tribes, one of them shown a few paragraphs up and another here. Also nearby is this war canoe built for the 1940 centennial celebration of the treaty and named Ngatokimatawhaorua, made from three enormous kauri trees (remember them from our last blog?).

Treaties, just like kids, grow up in unexpected ways, and change their appearance to others over time. This one was particularly challenging, as there were minor differences in the different copies signed, and even larger differences between the English and Maori versions. Maori did not exactly have a word for "sovereignty," for example, and the Maori word used by the missionaries has ambiguity galore.
Add in Anglo-Saxon attitudes toward other races as the 19th century continued and moved into the 20th, and pakeha New Zealand came to view the treaty as a quaint historical document, but not as a binding contract,never mind that it promised to respect "the full, exclusive, and undisturbed possession of [Maori] Lands and Estates, Forests, Fisheries, and other properties."

Then came the '60s and the civil rights movement in the US, anti-apartheid in South Africa, and independence movements all over the globe.
Pakeha New Zealand began to see some justice in the Maori view that the treaty was a binding contract, and one that New Zealand was in serious breach of as a nation. By 1975 the Waitangi Tribunal had been established to investigate Maori complaints, and in subsequent years it has been given increasing authority. It is now a Very Big Deal to all New Zealanders.

Much of this mirrors what America has also had to deal with, but New Zealand is not America, and its legal system and its voters have rejected the American view of the role of the judiciary as the ultimate arbiters of the constitution. There have been legal cases galore in the sorting out of the legacy of Waitangi,
but most of the change that has come, and it is profound, has been through administrative investigations by the Waitani Tribunal, which makes recommendations for settlement. Then the government and the Maori tribes and/or subtribes involved negotiate with that as a starting point, and reach a final binding agreement.
Several of these settlements have involved the transfer of money and/or assets of over $100 million each, and almost all have involved the issuance of an apology from the government. More significantly, Maori language is present much more in public places than it was 14 years ago when Louise was here before, and pakeha NZ seems much more aware of at least some aspects of the Maori view of life.

It hasn't all been smooth sailing, and New Zealand will be rectifying the injustices of a century of disregard for Waitangi for quite some time, but it has been (to these foreign observers anyway) a seemingly successful approach.
There will be unhappy folks for sure, as there are with almost any settlement (something Jeff remembers all too painfully from his decades as a litigator), but not as unhappy as they'd be without the settlements!

We hope the less-legally-inclined have at least been entertained by the photos in today's blog, including
this imaginary necklace of shells placed against a sweater -- aren't they gorgeous! (Click on the photo to enlarge it and see just how stunning they are, then hit the back key on your browser to return here) We're about to hit the road again, and have indeed decided it's not sufficiently safe to bike the North Island, at least some of the parts we're most interested in seeing.
We're bringing the bike to the other end of North Island by car first, where Wellington friends from our trip on the Volendam will store it in their garage. We'll then spend 3 weeks touring the North Island by car and on foot. A week before
Christmas we turn in the rental car and take off for 3 1/2 weeks in Australia, then finally start biking the South Island of New Zealand in mid-January. We hope to put up our next post in about 2 weeks. Talk to you then!