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A Tale of Two Islands

  • A Tale of Two Islands
A Tale of Two Islands

The North Island

My journey began in Auckland, driving to Taupo, the geographical ― and spiritual ― centre of the North Island. The verticality of Hong Kong makes me judge other cities rather unfairly. I would soon learn that New Zealand is measured in horizons. As we entered the countryside, I had to stop to take in the view. The rolling hills, hues of green to soothe the eyes, blended gently with the mists that settled in the small, distant vales. Flocks of sheep frolicked bucolically. The traveller would be forgiven to mistake this carefully cultivated land with a vision of Arcadia, Bach’s Schafe können sicher weiden, or, perhaps more appropriately, with the Shire.

As we drove south, nature became more pervasive. This is a nature that is carefully cultivated and kept with loving hands. It is reminiscent of a pre-industrial landscape before factories and soot-spitting chimneys and then warehouses and large scale motoring infrastructures. This world has become romanticised by Turner and Constable, which is not to say that New Zealand is a proxy 19th-century England. On the contrary, it is distinctly its own but it is also a place where the Western imagination can fully gather what we have gained and what we have lost.

We reach our lodge for the night: Poronui. We arrive in the twilight hours. The day of green turns into the darkening blue of coming night. Our modern attitude towards nature is very modern. We think of it as a benign force, an endless source of inspiration and beauty, beautiful in itself, intrinsically valuable. But night still troubles us. For much of history, nature has been hostile, the impenetrable realm of darkness.

I am staying in a lodge that doesn’t keep nature out, rather, it strives to put us in nature.


A Tale of Two Islands

“Kiwis have nurtured an emphasis on connectedness and sustainability, a sense of the natural world that is in stark contrast with the overdevelopment in some parts of the world.” James Shaw, the New Zealand minister for Climate Change, told me during a dinner in Aukland; the restaurant ironically overlooking a port full of imported cars much alike Andreas Guirsky 1990’s Salerno photograph. We say we value nature and travel thousands of miles to take a snapshot of it. New Zealanders simply enjoy it and design their country around the experience they want. Sipping my glass of (local) wine, I have to admit it is rustic and simple… but it is also the future.

Today, I venture into the world of the Maōri . Tom Laughlin, half-Maōri half-Irish, meets me in the lobby. He will be my guide for the following days. He manages a 5,000-acre block or Maōri land. With his deep knowledge of local plants and animals, he forages the land to create culinary experiences that are well beyond the most extreme form of farm-to-table you could think of. Tom honours his heritage and manages the land in a sustainable way, to provide food, and to thrive under his careful supervision.

Before we head to his land, we are visiting Delani Brown, master carver in the Maōri lands near Taupo. Wood carving, or Whakairo, is fundamental for Whakapapa, the Maōri study of genealogy, the understanding of ancestry and connectedness. Delani has the build of the Maōri warrior, he has arms that carve a two-tonne piece of wood into beautiful works of art.


A Tale of Two Islands

Delani has a solemn demeanour and I feel slightly intimidated. Suddenly, he softens up and welcomes me to his house and his workshop. His deep, syncopated voice is nothing like what I expected.

“How’s it going, Bro?” he says and I can’t help but laugh and smile. He is positively grinning and all the tension fades away.

I spend the day with Delani, talking about his work as a carver, his role in the Maōri community, and the struggle his people face in the modern world. The Maōri are striving to revive their way of thinking and their worldview, after the hardships of their late colonisation. To find their place in the modern world, they are resorting to their own Maōri identity, instead of mimicking the Western ethos.

What strikes me most about Delani is his emphasis on being, rather than seeming. Through his art and in his overwhelmingly sincere personality, he rejects masks and appearances. He is thirsty for truth, he is always looking to uncover the essence of things. As an anthropologist, this is a fascinating experience, light-years away from a contrived war-dance in a luxury lodge. I am in Maōri lands, with one of the keepers of their ancestry, a guardian of their treasure. The sense of the sacred is strong, even more so because, as Delani explains, Maōri thought is all about connectedness: with nature and with each other.

A Tale of Two Islands

Tom drives me to his lands at the Kaimanawa Ranges. We go for a hike, on the lookout for ingredients to cook. I laugh at myself, remembering the squabbles of big-city chefs to secure the freshest produce and get first pickings. This abundance has not happened by chance. There are decades of hard work behind this wonderful, natural “market”.

“This is Kai Waho,” Tom says. “You could say it’s outdoor cooking, but it really means to know the ways of the wild.

“Where to hunt, where to look for herbs, how to keep yourself well fed and the land healthy. That is Maōri thought.”

As the day wanes, Tom goes about the cooking. He is using hot rocks that have been heated on a blazing wood fire. As I sit near the rocks and we begin to eat, I am overtaken by the delicious, straightforward flavours. Good eating is an aesthetic experience. Kai Waho is particularly powerful because you can savour that you are being nourished by the land itself! It is a wonderful emotion of connectedness and value. Every single bite is more delicious than the last because it grows in meaning.

The next day I am hiking with Tom. This time we are not looking for ingredients, but simply enjoying nature. We are going uphill and I pull myself up from trees in some difficult sections. Hermann Hesse’s words come to my mind:

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

For the western mind, this is poetry, a nice quote on the virtues of contemplation. I guess that for the Maōri it would be only natural. After all, in Whakapapa, trees are also our ancestors. I remember my conversation with Delani and realise that Whitman also said something similar in Specimen Days:

How strong, vital, enduring! how dumbly eloquent! What suggestions of imperturbability and being, as against the human trait of mere seeming. Then the qualities, almost emotional, palpably artistic, heroic, of a tree; so innocent and harmless, yet so savage. It is, yet says nothing.

A Tale of Two Islands

Surrounded by trees, I try to listen to their ancient wisdom, to become silent in my thoughts. I think that, like Legolas in Fangorn, I can hear their hearts, that I can commune with nature. My mystical imagination is unbearably turned on. I follow Tom only vaguely, lagging behind, seduced by the trees. Perhaps, one of them will spring to life and, like old Treebeard, laugh at my hasty pace, my sapling limbs and my young, childish foolhardiness.

Tom walks higher and higher. Suddenly, he makes a low guttural sound and repeats it several times.

“Oooooohhhh Ehhhh,” he grumbles.

“Ooooooohhhh Ehhhhh.”

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Is this a sound that emerges from his deep connection with the land? Is this the pinnacle of this natural experience? Perhaps it is the Om, the sacred manifestation of the Atman? Encouraged by this seemingly ancient ritual, I close my eyes and try to spiritually connect with the landscape around me.

“Tom,” I finally say. “Is that sound a way of connecting with nature, like a mantra?”

“Nah!” he laughs. “I saw some deer prints and was making doe sounds to see if could draw a stag our way.”

I feel like a fool; but knowing you are a fool is one of the great teachings of travelling.

A Tale of Two Islands

The South Island

We flew to Queenstown and spent the day enjoying the café scene and making the most out of our Victorian villa. The town has a subdued, easy going vibe to it. It is not precisely what you think when you hear “Adventure Capital of the World”. Perhaps I imagined that people would be landing with parachutes in the middle of the street, instead of this fashionable, faraway hub of civilisation.

The pleasures of Queenstown notwithstanding, I am eager to travel deep into nature. We head west to Fiordland and Lake Te Anau. We settle in. Our lodge is right on the shores of the lake and next to Fiordland National Park. We relax in the evening, next to the fire, sipping wine and enjoying the food.

Next morning, my guide, Steve, meets me at the lodge. We discuss what type of hiking I’d like to do and he assesses my skill. We settle for Kepler track, for its variety and the fact that it poses a real challenge. It is a 60 km trail that covers forests, mountain ridges and gorges. As an endurance athlete, I can’t hide my enthusiasm. For a moment I believe that we are are going to cover the whole length of the trail in the course of a day.

“Maybe if we run it,” Steve chuckles. “It takes 3 to 4 days to complete.”

A Tale of Two Islands

A helicopter picks us up and takes us to a remote section of the park. Just to pick things into perspective, both Yellowstone and Yosemite would comfortably fit inside Fiordland. We are deep in nature.

We are walking in beech forests. These are Hesse’s and Whitman’s trees. They stand still, they don’t say a work and yet they have a natural way of being that remains a mystery to me. A gentle, green light comes down through the boughs and I get the feeling that at any moment I’ll catch, in the corner of my eye, Sam and Frodo scurrying towards Mordor, or that the Fellowship will come and join me for a stretch of the track.

It is inevitable to think of fantasy and of magic when confronted with nature so pristine and pure. Whitman comes to my aid once again:

Science (or rather half-way science) scoffs at reminiscence of dryad and hamadryad, and of trees speaking. But, if they don’t, they do as well as most speaking, writing, poetry, sermons — or rather they do a great deal better. I should say indeed that those old dryad-reminiscences are quite as true as any, and profounder than most reminiscences we get.

As we progress I find that the dryad-reminiscences, that elvish quality that places untouched retain, is well and alive along this trail. It seems to me that Tolkien was writing of this very place when describing Lothlorien, and so was Whitman, and so was Hesse, and so is Delani when he puts muscle to wood. This is the experience that makes us write songs to Nature, to think of her not as dark and hostile but as nurturing and kind.

A Tale of Two Islands

Caught in my own thoughts, I don’t realise that the landscape has changed. We reach a clearing and I shake away my high thoughts and ask Steve:

“So, what’s next?”

“What’s next!” he says playfully. He points to a region in the sky and I perceive the sound of a helicopter. In no time we are flying through the Southern Alps. Tall mountains block my view but when the helicopter clears the rock walls, endless forests open up before my eyes. I get a glimpse of the vastness of Nature and decide that after all, I don’t really understand her. She is too vast, too great and too mysterious. I simply sit back and experience.

We land on a glacier high up, sip some champagne with oysters as the day begins to wane. When I was designing the trip I didn’t think much of this glacier toast: I thought it was a gimmick. But standing there, getting cold with a drink in my hand I decided it was just an innocent game. “It’s just a game!” I said to myself. Oh Children of Nature, how seriously we take ourselves! And our mother looks tenderly down on us and says “keep on playing, child, there’s no harm in it.”


A Tale of Two Islands