Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Profits Of Doom

Whilst I was tramping in Fiordland I quickly realised that the month I had given myself for New Zealand was nowhere near enough. Certainly not enough to do half as many of the hikes as I would have liked. But, not being the master of my destiny on this occasion, there was little I could do but return quickly to Christchurch, retrieve my belongings, say my last goodbyes to Liam and Eila, and make my way to the North Island.* Although I was reluctant to leave the south so soon I was, at least, glad to experience the genuinely aestival weather of the north that allowed me to finally stow away my jumper.

Two ways of getting to Wellington: the Interislander ferry from the South Island (on the left), or on a huge cruise ship from Australia (on the right).

The gateway to the North Island (at least if you're coming from the south), and capital of New Zealand, is Wellington, a fact that is not often realised since it is eclipsed in many peoples' consciousness by Auckland and Christchurch. And to honest there is good reason for that. Wellington is suburban, pleasant, unassuming and totally unremarkable. If you were to meet it at a party it'd be a respectable, forty-something man, wearing a sweater-vest, married, two kids, untaxing conversation about the weather, and totally forgotten the day after. The only reason to tarry is Te Papa, the national museum, which not only has free entry and free wi-fi (other museums take note!), but is a goldmine of information not just about Maori culture, but that of all of Polynesia, serving as the region's collective memory. This is because, during the process of decolonisation in the first half of the 20th century, New Zealand gained, along with a greater independence (New Zealand is a bit of an anomaly in that it has no formal date of independence, instead it disassociated itself from the UK in small increments over a period of 100 years or so), governorship over many of the British-owned islands of the South Pacific: Niue, Tokelau, the Cook Islands and Samoa (I had no idea there were so many little island states down there - growing up that entire region, when looking at my world atlas, was little more than a blank space, but on closer inspection it is teeming with island micronations). I expect it was trying to be like Britain in more ways than one, with its own little empire in the south. And although the islands have gained their independence since then, New Zealand is still the de facto hub of the region. It's where Islanders first turn to for further education, major medical treatment, judicial redress (the high court of New Zealand acts as the high court for much of the Pacific Islands) and overseas work opportunities. In fact New Zealand is home to more Cook Islanders than are found in the islands themselves, two thirds the Fijian population of Fiji and half the Tongan population of Tonga. The relationship is also reciprocal, as New Zealand views the Pacific islands as a cheap source of manual labour and beefy rugby players (the mighty All Blacks, New Zealand's national rugby team and the undisputed kings of the oval ball for the past century, have a sizeable cohort of players who are of Islander descent).

But you can only spend so much time in a museum, even one with free wi-fi, and so I continued northwards for a bit of volcano spotting. That New Zealand lies on a major tectonic fault is well-known and manifests itself not only in earthquakes, like the one experienced by Christchurch two years ago, but also in a profusion of volcanoes and associated sulphur springs. The most famous are Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro that lie at the heart of Tongariro national park in the centre of the North Island. Tongariro, despite being the shortest of the trio, gave its name to the park, perhaps because of the three, its name is the easiest to remember and pronounce. Ruapehu is the tallest at almost 2800m and is home to a couple of ski fields, but it is the youngest, Ngauruhoe, rising in the middle, a steep, perfect cone, which is perhaps better known as Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings movies. It's a tricky climb to the top that dissuades most day-trippers, but a few hardy individuals made it up. One dedicated soul had even fashioned himself a ring out of a discarded end of piping and threw it into the crater upon reaching the summit. (This is but one of the many locations in New Zealand that are now intimately linked with the Lord of the Rings films, and many people come specifically to visit them. However this is probably the most accessible that can be done without needing to go on some overpriced tour.) The whole area though is a harsh, wondrous, unwelcoming, moonscape made of solidified lava flow upon lava flow, the hardened rocks forming grotesque shapes with no life save for a handful of hardy, alpine plants. Stark contrast indeed to the emerald forests of the south, yet no less beautiful for it.

Mount Doom, and not an orc or Nazgul in sight (although there was an army of tourists).

Further to the northeast you get to Hawke's Bay, generally regarded as having the most pleasant weather in the country. The Mediterranean climate makes this prime wine-growing land, as well as home to the country's olive and tobacco plantations. All well and good, but not being much of an agriculturalist I was more interested by the regional capital, Napier. It would be a very ordinary town, much like any other, if it hadn't been victim to a tragic earthquake in 1931 that destroyed much of the town centre, much as with Christchurch two years ago. Back then it was swiftly rebuilt according to the prevailing architectural norms of the day, which  has left us with the most extensive art deco urban centre in the world and New Zealand's only town worth seeing for urban aesthetic reasons alone. About three quarters of the buildings in the central core display the simple lines and motifs borrowed from ancient civilisations that characterise the style of the 20's and 30's. Of course the city is fully cashing in on its deco heritage with vintage car rallies, art deco boutiques and Charleston-themed clubs. It seems that it's possible to make a profit from any tragedy if you get the right angle. I'm curious to see whether Christchurch will emerge similarly from its own brush with the gods of plate tectonics.

An example of some of Napier's beautiful art deco heritage.

*On my way north I stopped off at a small village on the main highway to meet up with Iulius, who I had met in Australia. He had also made his way down to New Zrealand and was working on a small estate - one of those instances where paths ephemerally cross whilst travelling. It transpired that he hadn't had such great luck in Australia as he had carried over a malarial infection from Papua (when we picked him up he had complained of not feeling so well) and spent a good deal of time convalescing.

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