Sunday, September 26, 2010

New Zealand Part 1b: Coromandel Penninsula

Our first full free day in New Zealand--after a couple days helping our wwoof host start an enormous vegetable patch--we turned our rental car up the winding, fern-lined mountain roads to the Coromandel peninsula. As with most New Zealand roads it seems, the way was lush, beautiful, and skirted tranquil, idyllic bays. Even in winter.

We made it to Hahei (meaning the breath of Hei) and phoned a sea kayaking place and scheduled an afternoon tour, then headed out for some hiking to Cathedral Cove, a pink sand beach dominated by a large white arch diving into the deep green sea. It was lovely, but we didn't dally too long as we had to rush on back to make the same basic trip by kayak.

Which was awesome. It was only us on the tour. Our guide was great. He told us about Hei, who founded Hahei, and who became chieftain of the land because of his nose. See, there was an island in the bay which looked--if you were told to see it--like a nose. Seen from below. Kind of. A battered nose for sure, but forcing people to realize the island really looked like his nose could have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But for the Maori, if a geographical feature looked like someone's body part, then they could claim the gods had made it for them. In fact, everything you can see from the top of that anthropomorphic bit of land is yours too. Kind of a nice alternative to the homestead act.

We paddled between island, over shoals, through arches and finally back to Cathedral Cove where we went exploring some caves for a bit while our guide made us some nice hot chocolate.

Trying to lay claim to some land.

And then we headed back through a bay full of sting rays in time to get back in the car and leg it to Hot Water Beach. Now this place was awesome. So awesome. At low tide, you can rent a trowel and head out to this strip of beach between some cliffs and the ocean and dig out a natural hot spring. Even walking along the beach if you force your feet down much, you can reach the sometimes scalding water.

We hiked out in the darkening shade even as the sky stayed light blue until we got there. Not that it quite got dark before the colors intensified into a deep blue green. We chatted with a couple from Manchester who let us borrow their trowel while digging out our pool while waves crashed behind us and the lights all went out. Lying on our backs, a cloud of stars and the night wind came out: chilling and gorgeous.

So. Great.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

New Zealand Part 2: Becoming Maori

Before our adventures in the glow worm caverns, Heather and I took a tour of New Zealand's geothermal hot spot, Rotorua. Imagine, though, Yellowstone as occupying 5 or 6 parks all with separate entrance fees except for the smoking ground around the lake and in a couple parks, and a city close enough that you keep the taste of sulfur the whole time you're there. There we enjoyed not only some of the geothermal oddities, but some Maori culture as well.

Steamy geothermal pools

The Maori have found an interesting compromise between tradition and cashing in on modern tourism. Traditionally--because members of other tribes were usually hostile and after either your food, your women, or your naughty dog--no one could enter the marae, or village green, except members of the tribe. Rather than letting that tradition fall by the wayside, they just induct visitors into the tribe, so that they can tour the Marae and village meeting house.

Making it look easy

Still struggling and this was my best shot

We were able to tag along with one of the many school groups coming through Ohinemutu that day.

What I'm used to at churches

What I'm less used to in a church

And it was a lucky thing too because the village itself was really neat. Nearly deserted when we first got there, we were able to wander the Marae, graveyard, Christian church, and various smoking marshes. Walking into the Christian church, I was amazed that even it was covered with intricately carved grotesqueries. It surprised me because I'd assumed all the vicious-looking faces adorning every Maori building were demons or some such thing--although, if I'm being fair, Europe's cathedrals abound in grotesque demons and silly faces (gargoyles being one example which are little demons as far as I know) then the Maori style seems far more appropriate for decorating churches because the grotesque faces aren't demons, they're ancestors. And the faces are threatening because their leaders were men, and sometimes women, of war who tattooed their faces like that to intimidate enemies and keep their people safe. Anyway, it was interesting to learn how natural these really fierce faces ended up being.

Part of becoming Maori

We learned that when a school group came and we got to tag along with them inside the meeting house and see the large portraits of their chiefs going back hundreds of years. We also heard a delightful story of how they came to be in the area that started with one chief's dog digging up some Kumara (New Zealand yams) in another chief's veggie patch, that chief getting angry and then eating the dog and a Hatfield vs the McCoys-type feud ensued which resulted in the dead dog's chief bringing his tribe to the island in lake Rotorua. They stayed there until they realized they could cook and heat their homes without fire if they moved to the shores of the lake and took advantage of the geothermal activity. And they're still there today.

This guy was great. He did a thing at the beginning of the show where he showed how visitors from other tribes would come and pick up either a Wahaika (a wooden axe kind of thing) or a leaf to let the village know they were after peace or war.

That evening we went to a cultural center and had a hangi dinner--our shuttle driver to the car rental had suggested that if we try any food it be hangi--and show with some haka and poi poi and some fun singing and guitar. They also answered our questions like, is it true that Maori warriors would stop a battle if they were winning too easily, kill some of their own warriors to even the odds and then get back to the bloody business? Answer: "Pfff! That's crazy. No way. This village up the mountain from us, they came and just wiped us out. They have NO problem with that. None."

PS, the hangi was so so. I've heard they're incredible, and since they bury the food for hours and hours with blazing hot stones or lumps of iron to cook them, they're pretty dramatic, but I can't say the food's a reason to visit New Zealand. But there are plenty of others.

Haka style jump!