My New Zealand

A View from the South Pacific

I’ve spent much of the last half century travelling the world and living in places as diverse as Scotland, South Korea and Fiji. I’ve visited fifty or sixty countries. As a result of that, I became—in my mind, if not in law—a citizen of the world. I don’t suffer an overdose of patriotism.

4,500,000 people live here. With 4,500,000 biased points of view. Here’s mine.

The Land

We’re the south west corner of the great Polynesian triangle. Because it’s constantly crunched and twisted by the forces of tectonic plates and geothermal activity, much of the land is spectacular. It has a moderated Mediterranean climate (thanks to Australia stealing the anti-cyclones and sending us a lot of rain) so it’s mostly lush.

Mankind has only been here a thousand years, but with the burning and felling of forest and the introduction of devastating exotic plant and animal species, to a large extent we’ve stuffed it up. Nevertheless, the mountains, the volcanoes, the rivers, the lakes, the fjords and the remnant rain forest—we call it the bush—remain spectacular.

Much of the farmland is lush and beautiful, although it’s thanks in large part to the use of non-renewable resources like superphosphate and urea. Some steep hill country which should never have been grazed is being ruined by erosion and crying out to be replanted in forest.

It’s not Middle Earth—that was more than a little digitally enhanced—but it’s pretty good.

Don’t Miss

In the South Island:

  • Milford Sound.
  • Whale watching at Kaikoura.
  • The Milford Track (for the reasonably fit).

The North Island:

  • Waitomo glow worm caves.
  • The Tongariro crossing.

Worth a look

  • The Bay of Islands and Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf, particularly for sailing and water sports.
  • Rotorua thermal area – geysers, hot mud pools, boiling springs and steam – careful where you step! But you must filter out the commercialism overlaid on Maori culture and be able to stand the smell of sulphur.
  • The Fjords
  • Taranaki (Mt Egmont), Ruapehu, Tongariro, and Ngaurahoe volcanoes in the North Island.
  • Queenstown, Wanaka, Te Anau and the surrounding area of the South Island. Especially if you’re into snow sports.
  • The Bay of Plenty. Kiwifruit and avocado country.
  • The Poor Knights Islands and Leigh Marine Reserve for diving.
  • Te Papa Museum in Wellington, a bit flashy for museum traditionalists, but very good for a tourist wanting to learn about the country. Plenty of interest for the kids.
  • Otorohanga Kiwi House. You won’t often see a kiwi in the wild, the introduced rats, cats, stoats, ferrets and weasels got too many of ’em. Those that haven’t been got only come out at night.
  • Little Barrier or Tiri Tiri Matengi in the Hauraki Gulf, or Kapiti near Wellington for a look at re-introduced native bird life on vermin freed islands.
  • Whanganui, to travel up the beautiful Whanganui River.

The Sea

Because the country is long and narrow, running north & south, and the winds prevail from the west, it’s wild much of the time. Challenging conditions which have begotten a large number of the world’s top yachtsmen, particularly America’s Cup crewmen. In less exposed areas—mostly on the eastern coasts, the Hauraki Gulf, the Bay of Islands and in the South Island fjords—it’s a water sports paradise, although for swimming it’s a little cool for my pampered tastes. Wet suit required by softies like myself.

The Climate

It’s probably unique. Compared to most parts of the world the main islands are mild and lacking extremes. Temperate maritime. Tending sub tropical in the far north of the main islands, to cool temperate in the far south.

For the adventurous sailor there’s tropical Raoul Island and the near-Antarctic Campbell and Auckland islands.

Climate is dictated by fronts and anticyclones originating 1200 miles to the west over and around

New Zealand's hemisphere. 95% of the Earth's population is on the other side of the planet.
New Zealand’s hemisphere. 95% of the Earth’s population is on the other side of the planet. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Australia. It’s moderated by the fact that if you take away Australia there’s nothing much for several thousand miles in any direction.

More info here: New Zealand climate

It’s interesting to look at a globe with New Zealand front and centre. All you see for the whole hemisphere is ocean with a few island specks and Australia and Indonesia drifting away to the North West. We are isolated and insulated by distance.

In recent years weather seems to have been a little more unpredictable, probably thanks to climate change, but generally speaking the best months are September to April, with unsettled periods over the Christmas/New Year period when the happy campers get flooded out in the North.

The People

We were once a tough, independent, hard working, do anything lot. I remember it – up until about the 1960s people got off their backsides and got on with life. No TV, little money, plenty of sports, bush, sea, camping and tramping – a good climate and a recipe for the development of vigorous and resourceful young people.

I joined the New Zealand Navy in 1958 as an apprentice. Most of our 5 years training was in Scotland. In my class of apprentices at HMS Caledonia we Kiwis made up only 5% of the 1000 trainees – but we provided 30% of the leaders. That probably wouldn’t happen now to the same extent. We’ve become more homogenized. It’s a great loss.

MacImperialism, pop “culture”, LCD screens, declining standards of behaviour and civility (not to mention decimal currency – nobody can count anymore!) have all contributed to producing more bland and less versatile generations. Distinguishable from their fellow citizens of the world only by their accents and a regrettable tendency for scrawny Pakeha kids to bare their pimply chests in embarrassingly awful renditions of haka.

There’s some hope: there are still kids being brought up taking advantage of what the country has to offer – sport, recreation, outdoor life, good education. Sadly however that hope is diluted: many of the best of them join the brain drain to Australia or to the USA and Europe. Most of those don’t return. Tens of thousands of grandparents are left behind to grieve.

Te Tiriti o Waitangi

Multiculturalism and the Treaty of Waitangi

Once we lived in a fantasy world. The perception that Maori and Pakeha (generally accepted to mean Caucasian Kiwis) lived in harmony in the world’s most successful multi-cultural society. Then the Maori Battalion came back from fighting for freedom in World War II and realised that they should be getting a slice of this democracy they’d been sacrificing their brothers’ lives for. This realisation and the world-wide trend of farm mechanisation started a move by Maori from the country into the city.

The scene was set for the happy illusion of harmony to waft away with the westerlies.

In 1840, a hastily scrawled treaty was signed between the British Crown and a large percentage of the Maori Rangatira – by no means all of them. Unfortunately, the text in English and the text in Maori didn’t mean exactly the same thing. This little oversight set the scene for 170 years – and counting – of talking past each other.

This is a complex issue and I can only touch on it here. What the cloth-eared Pakeha bigots can’t or won’t understand is that by universal principles of fair play, and in the light of international legal precedent, it’s the language of the indigenous signatories that counts in any treaty.

Unforgivably, despite the Treaty being quoted in much of our legislation, being referred to with monotonous regularity as the foundation of the nation, and a lot of mealy-mouthed platitudes being spouted on Waitangi Day, the document has never been ratified in law.

Listening to talk-back radio on this issue is disturbing. Bigotry, and ignorance of Maori concerns, is rampant amongst ill informed Pakeha – radio hosts and callers; even amongst some Maori. Those Maori with moderate and sympathetic views are many, but they don’t make good tabloid news and they have better things to do than listen to talk-back radio.

There are grievances and racial tensions; nothing compared to those in many other countries but a worry nevertheless. There are genuine grievances and those not so genuine. Some Maori use the past as an excuse for not making use of the opportunities which are there for everyone. Ignorant Pakeha exacerbate the situation by neither knowing the real history of their country nor making any effort to understand the issues concerning Maori.

A lot is being done to put things right, but far too many Pakeha are blind to the facts and too lethargic to find out, and there are Maori who exaggerate the grievances and ignore the good work which is being done. The most vociferous Maori activists are often those with the least brown faces and with names like Jones and Smith. This, of course, is seized upon by the bigots as an excuse to minimize the issues. My feeling is that those Maori who accomplish the most are those who shout the least.

A sad symptom of Pakeha insensitivity is their endemic failure to pronounce the Maori Language correctly. On the one hand (particularly when they’re overseas or when sports are involved) they’re proud of aspects of Maori culture, on the other hand they’re ignorant and insensitive to the culture generally.

Apart from a few tongue catching dipthongs, it’s not as if pronunciation of te reo is difficult for English speakers.  I’ve noted of late that even amongst radio and television journalists pronunciation is generally bad and that those who do the best job are not New Zealand born. Good job Catriona Macloud.

Maori in the 21st Century

There aren’t many full-blooded Maori left, some would argue none and it’s not an issue in New Zealand as it is, for example, in Fiji. In some ways it’s a little sad, but that’s what’s been happening to the human race for hundreds of millenia. One race is absorbed, another arises. Perhaps the Boeing 747 and its successors will put an end to it all and we’ll have a boring planet full of coffee coloured clones.

Rampant intermarriage has been going on with little stigma for 200 years. If everyone doesn’t end up in Australia and leave this country to East Asian immigrants, in a generation or two we’ll be a new medium-brown race. South Polynesia Cape Coloureds. My own family is not untypical: 6 of my 8 grandchildren have Maori ancestry and two of my three great-grandsons. My descendants now share a mix of Scots, Irish, Maori, Dutch, Samoan, Native American, and Cape Coloured. My eldest grandson is tangata whenua and married to a lovely Persian Indian. I wouldn’t have thought that Canadian indigenous folk were common in New Zealand, but my son and one of my granddaughters both have spouses who share native American ancestry.

A Maori, by some definitions, is anyone who says they are. Many Kiwis who are maybe a sixteenth or less Maori genetically, nevertheless consider themselves to be Maori. Others have Maori ancestry but don’t consider themselves to be Maori.

One of my sons-in-law, and through him, 3 of my granddaughters, have family ties to the great war chief, Te Rauparaha, nevertheless my son-in-law has no patience with protest. This is the 21st century, get on with it, is his attitude. His great-grandfather, Tommy Rauparaha,  changed the family name to Fenton. Go figure.

The People and Tourists

I’m ambivalent about tourism. On the one hand, we need the money and the jobs, on the other hand (as I’ve discussed elsewhere) all it creates, is a lot of servile low-wage jobs. As climate change bites, liquid fuel prices creep inexorably upward, and air travel becomes problematic, we’re going to have to make alternative arrangements.

I’ve never found Kiwis an overly friendly bunch. Just shows what a miserable sod I am. 99% of tourists seem to find the people extremely friendly.

Tipping is not usually expected, although I suspect that that’s changing in tourist spots – I don’t know really, I never go near them. The restaurants and cafés range from dreadful to world-class and in the larger cities there’s a wide range of cuisines.

It’s horses for courses, but if I were to tour the country, I’d do it towing my trailer and camping gear. As a visiting tourist, unless I were a zillionaire, I’d do it in a reasonably big camper van. Although our main highways are good (considering the aforementioned small population density and tax base) they wouldn’t cope with too many Winnebagos. I doubt that we have more than a couple of hundred miles of motorway or freeway in the whole country.

Be prepared to drive on the left. People regularly get killed by drivers who momentarily forget that minor detail.

The Politics and the Economy

Like the USA, we’re living it up on borrowed money. The politicians and those who pay attention know it. The piper will be paid. Sadly, he may be paid by my grandchildren.

Sheba at Kauri point
Apropos of nothing much: Sheba at Kauri Point, Katikati, New Zealand. In a moment of temporary (I hope) insanity I moved away from here in 2003. Bad move.

Because we have a small population spread over relatively long distances, we are per capita one of the most oil hungry countries in the world. We’re vulnerable to oil price increases—which are coming, like it or not—and to commodity price volatility. We need to diversify our income base. Politicians and academics talk about it a lot, too few entrepreneurial business people actually do it.

When I was young we had the 2nd or 3rd highest standard of living in the world, as well as a great environment. Now we’re about 40th. Passed by Portugal. We spend 12% more than we earn. If we were a small business we’d be bankrupt.

We import vast quantities of goods, mostly unnecessary junk, and mostly from China. Then we borrow back the money we paid them for it to finance more spending. Something’s got to give. For years I’ve been asking, “What happens when the Chinese have all the money?” Now you know.

It’s a worry.

Read about it here: New Zealand’s economic woes.

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