Monday, May 25, 2009

Volcanoes, Geothermal vents, and visits with Maori

(Geothermal activity in Rotorua)

(Hiking up to Mt. Ruapehu)
(The beach at Paekakariki)

Already day 9 of the trip and we begin to transition into the rhythms of being on the road and in our group. We are now heading out of Wellington harbor on the large ferry boat Kaitaki in a healthy southerly gale. The crossing to the south island had been cancelled yesterday and was delayed almost three hours this morning because of the rough conditions. I’ll see how long I can keep typing without getting seasick. This passage will bring our stay on the north island to a close.

We’ve had a jam-packed time the last week, staying first at Paekakariki on the West coast with some exploration of the coastal ecosystems and marine life. We took a trip back into Wellington for a visit with the Maori MP Rahui Katene and Pita Sharples, who, along with their staff, talked to us about Maori culture and issues and perspectives they bring to government. The central reality of Maori politics here is that of displacement and land seizure that leaves them with a strong sense of injustice and the need for a return to what they understood to be the terms of the treaty that originally established relations between Pakeha (the white immigrants) and Maori. The culture is very much alive, and their traditions and spirituality (what they call mana) is still strong. This was reinforced when we visited with some of the Maori in Rotorua a few days later. We had the chance to have a hongi or dinner at a meeting house (marae).

(Well we’re out in the big swells now, and I think I better wait a bit to type more.)

The swells aren’t too bad (although Katie and Stacia would beg to differ, as they’ve been quite sea sick), so I’ll continue.

The Maori community there has struggled financially, with lots of very ramshackle housing, and the two women who presented to our group, Wireti and Tess, have been putting together some eco-housing project that was really encouraging to hear about. We’re hoping to take some of their ideas back to the Minnesota. It was a great example of sustainable development used to remedy an environmental injustice.

In Wellington, we met as well with the Department of Conservation, who talked about their challenges in keeping the unique and endangered species of New Zealand, including most of the flightless birds. We also have a great briefing from New Zealand’s negotiator at the climate change talks, and officials from the Agriculture, Energy, and Economic Ministries who gave a thorough overview of their climate change policies. They were very open and accessible, and seemed to appreciate our interest.

After those visits, we headed north from Paekak, as the locals call it, toward the World Heritage site of Tongariro, with its dramatic volcanic cones. We are getting used to driving on the left-hand side of the road, even with a stick shift and towing a trailer, but it has been another element of the disorientation accompanying our visit. We stayed at a big lodge with a wood-burning stove and big kitchen, nestled into the other-worldly forest that grows in the valleys running down from the peaks.

In the morning we woke to a frosting of snow on the ground, and the skies clearing, and we hurried off to “tramp” up the mountain. We made our way up through wonderful southern beech forests full of ferns, huge lichens, waterfalls, mushrooms, and all sorts of strange plants that Bill and Brian helped us understand. I’ve been repeatedly struck by the feeling of being on a different world, where all the species are unfamiliar, and the landscape strange and wondrous. This was certainly the case in Rotorua, where we headed next, with its profusion of geothermal formations and sulfurous steam rising out of the ground all over the place. The whole place feels new in various ways—new geologically, evolutionarily, and in terms of human settlement.

In Rotorua we also visited a biological research station that is working on all sorts of innovative uses for New Zealand’s ample natural resources (like making plastics out of kiwi fruit waste), and then toured around a Maori village called Te Puia. They did some traditional dances and we got a tour around in which we learned about the carving, weaving, and other aspects of Maori culture. At night we were able to cook our dinner in a steam-cooker that used the local geothermal heat that gave everything a pleasant hint of sulphur.

So we have packed about as much as we could into the first week, and are looking forward to an equally educational and exciting time on the South Island.

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