Ten days in Aotearoa


Aotearoa – Te Urewera, looking towards East Cape. Image by Brucieb, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2260517

As the doors swished open at Brisbane International Airport and I walked out into 35 degrees and a dusty, smoky atmosphere, I very briefly wished I hadn’t left Aotearoa behind. How I love the mellifluous way that Maori word trips off the tongue – Ao-tea-ro-a.

The Maori language uses vowels more than we do in English and it also uses them in combinations. The language has fewer consonants, preferring the use of Wh to replace the letter F, for example. The Maori alphabet has 15 letters including two digraphs (Ng and Wh) and five vowels, each of which has a short and form.

The comparisons are obvious between the musical and expressive Aotearoa (six vowels and two consonants), and the colonial New Zealand – two words with six consonants and four vowels.

It may have been divine intervention that had me turn on the car radio as I left Auckland airport, just as Split Enz launched into the second verse of “Six Months in a Leaky Boat”.

Tim Finn used the word eloquently in the 1982 hit, the lyrics invoking the isolation of New Zealand, quoting Geoffrey Blainey’s ‘tyranny of distance’. The song is also thought to refer to Finn’s nervous breakdown.

Aotearoa, rugged individual
like a pearl, at the bottom of the world

This was just one of the myriads of insights and observations made on a ten-day trip to visit family. I could mention the road sign which alerted me to a “txt layby ahead” but that would be a digression.

On the drive south from Auckland, I amused myself by surfing through many radio stations. I liked the Maori station with its cool music, but when the news came on (in Maori) I flicked over to what appeared to be the country’s number one rugby talk-back show. The discussions focused on the shame of the All Blacks’ recent defeat to Ireland. The doom-sayers saw this as the end of Aotearoa’s chances in the 2019 world rugby cup. It was obvious, a caller said, the Captain has to go.

After 15 minutes of this, I tuned out and went to Magic, which exclusively plays pop songs from the 1960s. I liked this, knew 98% of the material and could match harmonies to most of them.

Traffic officer: “Sir, did you have an emergent reason to be doing 122 kmh in your little blue Toyota Yaris?”

BW: “I was tapping my foot in time to the music, Sir (hums under his breath, ‘Imagine me and you, I do, I think about it day and night…”)

I checked into a Cambridge motel and after seven hours sleep headed to Rotorua, (three consonants and four vowels), Aotearoa’s famously smelly geothermal wonderland. I ate breakfast at a popular café and asked the Maori waiter for directions to Murapara, pronouncing it like an Aussie, ‘Mewra-parah”. He looked at my map from the information centre.

That’s not much of a map,” he said, producing a more detailed one from his apron pocket (this is, after all, a tourist town) and gave me good directions to Moo ra pa ra, not rolling the r’s. I explained I was going to drive through the largely unsealed road to Lake Waikaremoana, through the Te Urewera native rainforest.

I first became interested in bushwalking, bird-watching and conservation by hiking the then-sparse trails scattered across the rugged, unspoilt Urewera national park − 2,127 square kilometres of native forest in the northern part of Hawkes Bay. The area was established as a National Park in 1954, replaced in 2014 by a legal entity,Te Urewera. Wikipedia (which responded to my search with a plea for financial support), says that due to its geographical isolation, Te Urewera was one of the last regions to be colonised in the 19th century.

The traditional tribe, Tūhoe, signed a $170m settlement of the tribe’s claims at the Waitangi Tribunal. The area is now administered by a board comprising Tūhoe and Crown representatives. It is still open to the public and the Department of Conservation continues to work in Te Urewera and maintain the tracks and facilities.

State Highway 38 is the only road through to Te Urewera. Narrow and winding, it includes 76 kms of unsealed gravel road, many one-way bridges and hairpin bends. The road is frequently cut by landslides (slips). There is an alternative exit via a 58km road from Waikaremoana to Wairoa, a small coastal town. But this too includes unsealed sections and is frequently disrupted when fierce weather dislodges hillsides.


Lake Waikaremoana via SH38

My road report (comparing last week’s experience with those of 50 years ago), is that little has changed. There are more European adventurers on the road in campervans and locals with four-wheel drives who know the road so well they travel at speeds not recommended by Aotearoa’s road guides. If you are contemplating a journey through this unspoilt wilderness, expect to travel at speeds of 30-50kmh.

The main attraction is Waikaremoana, the largest lake in Hawke’s Bay, 248m deep and covering about 5,100 hectares. The lake sits 585m above sea level in a region known for high rainfall, mist and winter snow.

Many trampers and bird watchers take the one-hour hike to a smaller lake, Waikareiti, 310m above Waikaremoana

I arrived at the track to Lake Waikareiti at 2.45pm, not an ideal time to start off on a steep hike with an estimated two-hour return. I noticed other cars and vans in the car park and deduced there were other people up there, so headed off. The walk is gradual but rises 310m. The pristine smaller lake is almost 900m above sea level.

The untouched bush there teems with vocal birdlife, though sightings are often elusive around the contours of the track.

After a night at Waikaremoana (wearing three layers), I spent the next six days staying with family and visiting old friends.

Jacinda, Scott and Shaun

My brief holiday ended the way it began, listening to Larry Williams on Rotorua talkback radio candidly analysing Warriors’ halfback Shaun Johnson’s decision to leave the club, which had made it clear they would not renew his contract beyond 2019.

Williams asked his audience to call in with their thoughts – had the club done the wrong thing by Johnson, or was he “pecking a sed” (throwing a tantrum), about the club’s reluctance to pay him a reported $1m a season.

Despite these examples of sports-mad parochialism, news filtered through from Australia, including extreme weather events, bushfires and dust storms. Liberal MP Julia Bank’s decision to quit the party and sit on the cross benches made it into Aotearoa news, which also reported on Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s walk-out during new MP Kerryn Phelps’ maiden speech.

While New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern impressed the APEC conference in Papua New Guinea as a confident international leader upholding her country’s values system, Scott Morrison, according to political commentator Michelle Grattan, is suffering an ‘authority deficit’.

Grattan’s column noted that Morrison had been snubbed by US president Donald Trump, who will not be formally meeting with him at this week’s G20 conference in Argentina. This, coupled with the embarrassment when Julia Banks quit the party without telling Morrison beforehand, compounded the impression at home and abroad that Australia’s PM is struggling to assert the sort of authority Jacinda Ardern exudes by a simple gesture.

Aotearoa may be a relatively small ship afloat on the Pacific blue, but under Ardern’s leadership it is no leaky boat.

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Cherie Conrad
Cherie Conrad
November 30, 2018 2:50 pm

What a great read!! Haven’t been on the Waikaremoana road for about 50 years either… not sure I want to either if it’s still the same hahaha. We listen to Magic when we’re travelling and can get reception lol, must be the right age group I reckon. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this, thanks Bob xx

John Wightman (Dr)
John Wightman (Dr)
December 4, 2018 1:27 pm

Thanks Bob – enjoyed that, now that I have time to read it. Re the news in NZ – I am addicted to ‘news’ – and last time I was there, looked forward to learning about what was going on around the place. I found good old National Radio – and there was no news beyond three minutes. That’s why they talk about Rugby all the time. But I cannot listen to Maori music without tears running down my face. It just touches an emotional spot.