One of the cruelties of New Zealand tourism is that international visitors arrive expecting to find a vast, unpeopled land – the sharp peaks, rolling grasslands and roaring rivers of Middle-earth.
But when visitors land at Auckland airport they do so on a concrete strip at the edge of a muddy tidal harbour. The airport terminal itself is under perpetual reconstruction, the roads leading to and from it are clogged at most times of the day, and as soon as you escape the city using the main highway the view is more or less the same for the next two hours: dairy farm after dairy farm, unnaturally lush and green as farm owners fertilise and irrigate the land to all hell.
After about two-and-a-half hours of driving, the next human-made landscape unfolds in the distance. The central North Island pine kingdoms. Pinus radiata, or the Monterey pine in its native North America, is an evergreen conifer with emerald needles that are prickly to the touch. The pine is an unlikely commercial species, under threat in its natural range. But in New Zealand the species thrives. It grows quicker here than anywhere else in the world, relishing our different soils. Wildings often grow in coastal sands, heavy clays, gravels and – in the central North Island at least – volcanic ash deposits.
As someone who grew up in Kawerau at the kingdom’s north-eastern edge, the smell of the radiata’s mineral-like pollen is the smell of home. In spring yellow clouds blow across the town, coating bonnets and window ledges in tangy powder. But as a hay fever sufferer, I hate it. I resent the forest. As a Māori, doubly so. The area’s first plantations were grown at the turn of the century using prison labour and, after that great success, the next waves were planted in the postwar period using the unemployed. That first detail is unsettling enough, but nothing on actually standing in a pine plantation. They’re unnaturally silent. There are few insects. There are practically no birds.
Radiata pines destroy biodiversity.
And yet, hidden within these graveyards to native forests past are some of New Zealand’s most magnificent wild places. About 40 minutes’ drive out of Kawerau, on an unsealed forestry road under Pūtauaki’s volcanic peak, is the Tarawera Falls. The falls find their source at Lake Tarawera, at the foot of Mount Tarawera. The rhyolitic dome, painted in white, brown, and maroon, the deposits of a violent eruption in 1886, stands guard alongside Pūtauaki. In the ancient stories the two mountains were lovers. For a million years they were together. But after a million and one years Pūtauaki was unfaithful, stealing furtive glances to the coast where white hot Whakaari blew her steam clouds.
The old chief plotted his escape. One night, when the laws of physics permitted mountains to move, Pūtauaki made tracks, abandoning his eternal partner for the possibility of the steaming coast. But halfway through his journey the chief felt a force at his back. Their son, Whatiura, was following his father. He insisted his son return. Whatiura refused. As the two went back and forth daybreak was approaching, threatening to freeze the two giants in place. Pūtauaki, faced with an impossible choice between continuing on to his new lover, Whakaari, or remaining with his quarrelsome son, chose the latter. And so, by the laws of ancient physics, the two were frozen in place.
On discovering this treachery at dawn, Tarawera blew her top, flooding the lake – what was Pūtauaki’s old resting place – and the river – Pūtauaki and Whatiura’s escape tracks – with the tears of a million years lost. In their beauty and power the Tarawera Falls are a testament to a partner’s grief.
This story is told briefly to tourists who come more for the fall’s hydrological features than the narrative of its genesis. At several points on its course from the lake to the falls the river disappears underground, boring a deep hole in the volcanic rock and then gushing through the earth underneath your feet. In person, the process feels unmistakably violent. Nothing cuts through land like running water and ice. The sound of the water disappearing underground draws your ear to the well, a deep, constant drum that threatens to swallow you whole.
After appearing above ground and disappearing again, the river blasts through a cliff face to form the Tarawera Falls itself. A traditional waterfall runs above a cliff and gravity drags it down. This waterfall runs underground and smashes through the middle of the cliff, carving enormous holes in its side to greet gravity. It’s one of New Zealand’s great sights and wild places.
Some New Zealanders think of their country as one without a deep past. In Europe and Asia, millennia old villages survive, and ancient castles and keeps and halls and universities still stand. But New Zealand lacks any of that. Its great pā (large settlements) are abandoned, mere terraces and depressions on seemingly random hilltops. But New Zealand does enjoy a deep past. You only need to know where, and how, to look.
Before colonisation Māori would march in single file to break in a new track. On steep terrain they would drive wooden pegs into the earth, leaving a guide and a grip for subsequent marchers and wanderers. On modest cliff faces, they would lower wooden ladders. And when they came across a river they would anchor their reed boats for future crossings.
The Tarawera Falls forms one part of an ancient track, connecting the people of the lake to their blood relatives on the coast. Pūtauaki never quite made it to the Bay of Plenty coast. But the humans who trace their whakapapa (lineage) to him did, helping reconcile the rupture in time between Tarawera, Pūtauaki, and Whakaari, the ancient volcanoes whose longing, grief, and tempers still flare today.
Morgan Godfery (Te Pahipoto, Sāmoa) is a senior lecturer at the University of Otago and a columnist at Metro
What’s your favourite wild place? If you would like to contribute to the series tell us about it in 200 words and send it to email@example.com