Category: New Zealand

Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.
Rachel Carson


This was true in Rachel Carson’s United States after people annihilated bird populations with DDT and other pesticides meant to protect us from pests.  New Zealand’s birds have been silenced by another human behavior: bringing the world of pests with us when we travel.


Takahe on Kapiti Island. The North Island takahe went extinct.  The South Island takahe seen here was thought to be extinct until a small population was discovered.

New Zealand floated alone in the Pacific for 80+ million years, far away from Australia, Tonga, Fiji.  Like a person spending a lot of time alone, it developed some interesting features. In the beginning, there were only birds, and perhaps a bat species or two.  No mammals at all to scavenge nutritious eggs and snatch fledglings.  The birds didn’t need to go far, so flight fell by the wayside for some birds, and others are weak fliers.Giant moas grew to 8 feet tall at the shoulder; their only predator, the Haast’s eagle, weighed 30+ lbs.

And then it all changed 800 some years ago when the Maori arrived hungry, and accompanied by kiore, Polynesian rats. Then came stoats, cats, wasps, goats, deer, sheep, cows, dogs, red tailed oppossums, ship rats, Norway rats and so on.  Man is often called the worst pest because we hunt animals to extinction, burn down forests for pasture and farmland, and point skyward to justify our destruction.KiwiZoneSign

Today, we continue to bring pests, some too small to be seen.  On my recent trip to New Zealand, we were scrubbing and disinfecting shoes to prevent the spread of kauri dieback disease, a fungus. Then, we were picking through packs for plant material and small rodents before going to Kapiti Island sanctuaryKapiti-IslandWoodSign


Around the world, concern about vanishing nature has occurred in waves throughout history.  We’re at a sort of end time in some places like New Zealand, where it’s an all-out war on pests to keep what’s left alive.  Sanctuaries are established offshore or behind fences, and then pests are poisoned, shot, trapped, lured to their deaths with Judas animals. The Goat Musterer has removed 20,000+ feral goats for food use. There are still a lot to go.


It’s not a pretty approach, and intolerable to people with softer sensibilities living in sprawling countries like America.  We think there’s enough space, another way to do this. On the other side, some folks believe wiping out the indigenous flora, fauna (and sometimes people that were not considered to be such) is evidence of humans’ entitled dominion over the earth. On the other side, some believe we deserve Zika, Ebola, terrible influenzas.

I believe in balance.DangerTrapInside

In New Zealand, I found it strange to be in lush native bush with no birdsong. Protected sanctuaries immediately stand out for the melodic songs of tui and bellbirds. It’s taken years to bring them back, and constant vigilance to keep them that way, free of pests that overwhelm birds with no ability to adapt. People can live among the wild peacably:the Barrett family of Kapiti Island, holdouts who refused to sell their land for a sanctuary, are perfect examples of this.

When I came home to my postage stamp of a restoration project, rich with birdsong, bees, frogs, and butterflies, I realized we don’t have to take a bow and leave.  Sixteen years ago, I moved in to acres of invasive foreign grass on a horse property barren of life.  Sixteen years later, I come home to a wildlife sanctuary.  If we have courage, it can work.

The Home People


The scene couldn’t have been more grand. Two men dressed in black carrying long carved horns heralded us from the long ramp descending to Floor 3 of Te Papa Museum.  They motioned us to move forward and disappeared around the corner into the airy and elaborate Te Marae hall. We followed, well over a hundred of us, herded by our Maori hosts as we gaped. The meeting house (wharenui) rafters danced with radiantly colored exotic beings that had just banished their father to the sky to liberate us all from darkness.  Reveling in their success, they now reined in the sun to slow it down and give the people full days.


The women in our group took seats in the back row not, as we were told before the ceremony, because we were lesser people or unclean.  We represented the next generation, the future, and historically, if the greeting ceremony between the Home People and the Visitors didn’t go so well, we were closest to the door and could get out of Dodge fast.

The welcoming ceremony customs were all shaped by the potential for people to be warlike, which we might object to, though most certainly we are. Paora Tibble of Te Papa represents the Home People, and recites their whakapapa (roughly, genealogy, but more broadly, origin).  PaoraTibbleCeremony

Paora breathes imagination, and must live in more than three dimensions filled with stories (listen to “Kiore Whispers” as he transforms into a Polynesian rat sailing to the Land of the Long White Cloud).  Later, at a workshop, he will pass around a family mere pounamu, one that has been laid upon the dead.  “Don’t worry,” he tells us, “I’ve blessed it so you will be safe.” I’m deeply honored, but uncertain as your usual sinner whether the dead listened to the blessing.

Back at the ceremony, Paora closes his speech and Joe Hariwi, our representative, steps forward.  He tells the Home People we are from Aotearoa, Australia, and far abroad.  We are storytellers and we come to share stories and discuss the telling of each others stories.  We ask them to welcome us.JoesTeMoko

Joe is a compelling representative, with a full face te moko that he acquired in 2008 as a form of “cultural advocacy” despite concerns from coworkers.  He found an authentic te moko artist, who studied patterns from old photographs and paintings, the art having been lost when missionaries banned it as a heathen practice. “We all have moko,” he said.  “It’s your DNA, where you are from, your skills and talents.  Mine is in linear form, on my face.”

Joe is open, honest, and funny, so of course he should be our representative.  Paora accepts us on behalf on the Home People, and then we have to sing.  We have little pieces of paper with the lyrics in Maori, and I find that if 170 people are singing, and some are good, and some know the language, you can fake it and sing along without feeling too tone deaf.

We participate in the hongi, the gracious nod toward another that involves touching nose and forehead and breathing in the essence of the other.  It is so civilized, so dignified, to go through these ceremonies in a year of barroom brawls and snark fests that pretend to be presidential campaigns. I tap only one person’s forehead getting the hang of it (it’s not rugby).

But I am mostly lost to the ceiling of the whenui (meeting hall), with the radiant colors and wild spirits.  I will visit in a quiet time later, and realize that we are all there, the people who gained light from the strength of Tane:  musicians and scientists, prisoners, famers, carpenters, and film makers all stand in the panels beneath the surging gods and dragons.  I want to live there, in a panel, step backward and disappear as a figure forever, the new Home People.


Way back when, at the very start of the new millenium, I traveled to New Zealand and Tonga. The purpose was simple- a friend asked me to go to Tonga to avoid the impending Y2K disaster and greet the new year, and I didn’t even know where it was, so I said yes.  To maximize the very long air travel, I took a month extra to travel in the “jump off” country- either Australia or New Zealand.  Since Australia is full of poisonous, venomous, man-eating things, I decided to travel New Zealand.  A now-former friend and I traveled the north and south islands in a campervan, hiking, kayaking, and camping.  One of the early forays being Tongariro Crossing, in Tongariro National Park.

I remember the volcanic plateau on the North Island as a magical place, a hike across the moonscape of an explosion crater up over a ridge to see the angry colors of an earth ripped apart.  It was a long hike, I recall, and rugged, but beautiful dropping over the ridge to Red Crater and the Emerald Lakes.

When my application for the International Conference for Interpretation was accepted, I had the perfect opportunity to go back to the Crossing, this time with a digital camera to capture the magic and colors.  I have pictures of that 2000 trip somewhere tucked away in an album, in a box, in the back of a closet.

And I need to find them now, because something has changed.  I have, surely, 16 years older, with an engineered hip and a decade and a half of wear on a body never built for what I’ve put it through.  But I expected that.  It’s the Crossing itself that’s changed, by people and for people.

The first warning came in the form of signs in National Park Village.  Shuttle rides advertised everywhere.  CrossingAdForgot your gear?  We rent jackets and boots and packs and trekking poles.  BootsForHire





The nice staff at the Park Hotel said, “Oh, you were here when it was a tramp.  Now it’s just a walk, really. But the weather can go quite bad.”

Once you get on the trail, signs let you know exactly how long you’ll take to get anywhere.


And a sign acts as a stern parent in case you’ve forgotten your galoshes- or in the case of the wispy lady who streamed by it, if you’re heading up on a socked in day in sparkly keds, skinny jeans, with your iPod and earbuds and k-pop still audible to the world.AreYouPrepared

The thousands of stairs painstakenly laid to make travel safer caused pain for any of us with old joints and fake parts.  Two tough ladies in their 70’s trooped up the trail, but cursed the stairs on their way out.

I was lucky to be there in the “slow” season.  There were a fair number of travelers, but only a small fraction of the 4500 my shuttle driver said streamed over the trail on Waitangi Day.  “Queues at the loos, lines at the steep bits,” he said.  “It’s the thing you do in New Zealand,” said the nice Irish lady at the hotel desk.  “You check in to National Park one day, do the hike the next, complain if the weather’s bad, then leave the following morning.” The Department of Conservation changed the name in 2007 to the Tongagiro Alpine Crossing to stress the potential danger, but perhaps to no avail.

Well, I’d taken five days to hike, and I could wait for a chance of decent weather.  I hiked it on Day 3. It was socked in at the South Crater, but suddenly a chill wind swept across the crater and the ridge came into view.  The clouds continued to depart in the stiff breeze, unveiling the rich volcanic colors under bluebird skies at the Red Crater.

The descent was indeed a walk- I did it in my runners to give my feet a break.  On the way, I stopped to take photos of the Te Maari crater, the latest eruption site from 2012.  A ranger passing by volunteered the story and pointed out where the lahar had destroyed vegetation in its path.  I commented that this volcano complex was far more angry and volatile than our Mt. St. Helens. “We like our volcanoes lively here,” he said. Traveling through the lahar zone at the bottom, I could see he was right.

I hope the crowds see this terrain for its mercurial power and grandeur, an abstract painting of the earth turning itself inside out.  I hope they look at the view behind the selfie and beyond the congratulatory t-shirt and the Lord of the Rings filming locations. This hike was was a measure of how much I’ve changed, and how much the way we play has changed.  I won’t go back- there are beautiful places more remote and peaceful to challenge my ageing bones, but the amazing volcanic landscape won me over again.