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13th December 2001

In this edition

Upton-on-line notes french reaction to the slaying of Sir Peter Blake, gives a glimpse of how one young diasporan, Hamish Coop, thinks about New Zealand from afar and describes the sorry tale of an aborted submarine expedition of Lake Taupo by the Institute of Geological & Nuclear Science.

"Un dompteur d’océans .. un palmarès d’exception"[Figaro, 7th December, 2001]

[A tamer of oceans … an exceptional victor]

That Sir Peter Blake’s demise should have created a seismic shock in France comes as no surprise. The winner of the Jules Verne Trophy and the moral heir of Cousteau had penetrated to the very core of the French sailing establishment – in a country that is (rightly) proud of its nautical traditions. The tributes have been lengthy and unstinting.

It takes a lot for anything associated with New Zealand even to surface in the French press. But the bouleversement has seen almost unprecedented coverage. A page and a half in Le Monde and an astonishing double page spread in Le Figaro. By extraordinary coincidence, a Figaro reporter had, only a week before Blake’s death, spent 10 days on board Seamaster and already filed a feature article. Set against a page of tributes, it provided a poignant final glimpse of a hero who transcended national boundaries. Here is an excerpt from Yves Miserey’s record:

"A blond mustachioed giant with shaggy eyebrows, Peter is a curious mixture of kindness and reserve. Everyone who has met him has been struck by his simplicity. Even if he is better acquainted with the pressure of the big racing events, whatever he launches into receives his total commitment. Whether at night, or very early in the morning while everyone else on Seamaster sleeps, he can often be found in front of his computer filing his daily accounts that are published on the expedition’s web-site or replying to an e-mail from the end of the world. He has once again organised a new adventure superbly. Above all, he has understood the need to gather round himself a team of friends who get on with one another admirably."

Particularly affecting for many New Zealanders will be the verdict of Bruno Troublé, the chief organiser of the Louis Vuitton Cup in 1999, whose involvement in America’s Cup competition spans Blake’s entire career and more. Troublé is well known and respected in Auckland and expressed perfectly the sense of bewilderment and shock that seems the common reaction of so many who new Blake personally:

"I was devastated by the news. Notably for his wife Pippa, who is already fragile, and for his two children. As with Eric Tabarly, a tragic fate has brought the life of this adventurer full circle. I am very touched, but I see his disappearance as the conclusion of a great adventure. Peter Blake has streaked through life as rapidly as lightning…

"He was a singular man with an incredible charisma. His height, his stature, moustache and tousled hair impressed. And he cultivated this Viking look…

"Actually he was shy … he could be really difficult with people he didn’t know. As for me, for a long period I didn’t trust him but I was impressed by him. When I finally succeeded in breaking the ice I discovered that he considered me to be a pal. Peter Blake was not just a famous sailor but a superb leader of men … he was [also] as obstinate as a mule."

"Not just the sailing world but the world at large is the looser. Because, after the Americas Cup, Peter Blake had given himself a new challenge: making people aware, and in particular children whom he loved, of the degradation of the planet. He was passionately fond of adventure and the ocean. Not from the eco-political side, but from the sailor side furrowing through the oceans and observing their decay. He was happy to be living such an adventure…"

Only the tributes of the great and the good will ever reach the media. But you know someone is truly great when the tributes come from people who have no obvious reason to say anything – and offer them to you simply because you’re a fellow countryman of the deceased. Upton-on-line knew that this was no ordinary passing when the man who delivers the newspapers at his workplace handed over the fateful edition and felt moved to offer his condolences. No query of recognition was necessary. He knew that the passing of a national hero such as this would be a personal tragedy for every New Zealander. And so it is.

December’s diasporan

From time to time upton-on-line readers, who are spread fairly liberally around the world, are moved to give vent to their displaced senses of identity and say something about how they view the land they left and the people they’ve become. Upton-on-line has decided to publish (with permission) some of the more interesting viewpoints that come his way. This week’s offering is from Hamish Coop in London. He has this to say about the New Zealand landscape:

I identify very strongly with the New Zealand landscape, especially the South Island where I have spent most of my life. I think the word that sums it all up for me is - epic.

As you say, there is that feeling of untouched purity which is hard to find these days. But despite that, it’s so accessible. The Amazonian rain forest is pure and untouched. But you can't jump in the car and drive for an hour and get amongst it. Not at least from a major city with as many web servers and cappuccino vendors per capita as almost any country you care to mention. Scotland has some great landscapes, but apart from being damn cold even in July, it's a long way away, even if you survive the rail trip!

Many many New Zealanders have experienced the landscape at first hand. Many people have farming relatives. They've walked behind a mob of ewes after a day’s shearing. Or they've simply been out to collect firewood. Many have camped out on family holidays. Walking around Paris or London, how many of these people have pitched a tent in native bush? The English equivalent is so sanitised as to send a shiver down the spine!

And then there's that feeling you get driving over the Haast or through the McKenzie or over the Desert Road. The feeling that we are still there by invitation. It is fair to say that we haven’t gate crashed the NZ landscape due to a lack of economic, demographic or engineering force. Switzerland has done a good job of turning their Alps into a scaled up toy train set. The Swiss landscape is grand, but is it epic?

New Zealand is an island grouping and it feels like it. It lies in the roaring forties. It is the dynamic quality of the fast moving weather that adds some additional drama you don’t find in Europe or any of the great continents. As I mentioned, I think Terra del Fuego is perhaps the only place that comes close. But cappuccinos and web servers are rather thin on the ground down there!

Yes I'm sure its anecdotally possible to find a 5 year old in South Auckland who hasn't seen the sea and that's very depressing. However, many New Zealanders and many visitors are changed a little forever by their experiences of the New Zealand landscape.

We need a way, some 'common ground' to bind us together and I think the landscape is a good place to start. The feelings I feel cannot be learned. It takes time and almost a degree of ancestral experience to develop. But most New Zealanders I know feel it and can talk about it.

And here’s how he likes to imagine his diasporic existence:

We all live over here in a kind of slightly smug semi-detached consciousness that isn't quite engaged. We roll in, fresh off the boat, full of naive gregarious confidence and all set to call a spade a spade and usually don't hesitate. It has taken me two years to begin to understand what European sophistication might be all about. The luxury of this semi-detached existence is due to that small but wonderful knowledge that is always in the back of our minds - we can go home and no-one will mind. In fact Mum and Dad will be thrilled! We can go home as heroes - surviving ANZACs.

I like to think of the Kiwi Emergency Ejection Button. It’s right there in front of you on the instrument panel. It’s round, red and has a large, hinged clear plastic safety cover just to make sure your don’t accidentally nudge it with your elbow while reaching for the Thermos. Every now and then you encounter some turbulence and carefully lift up the cover - fingers dancing maniacally over the button the other hand on the throttles. But the situation soon calms down and you can lower the safety and heave a sigh of relief. Maybe you never have to push it; you land safely all according to the flight plan.

But maybe one day you do and luckily you survive the impact of the explosive ejection bolts. You drowsily come to, drifting down dreaming of the magnificent Southern Alps expecting to land in leafy Hagley Park, grass freshly mown. But before you lies a vast suburb - something like a run down Phoenix Arizona and it looks - not very nice. Bugger.

Hamish grew up on a sheep farm in the Weka Pass, North Canterbury in the teeth of the howling Nor'wester. He can recall droughts, SMPs, Derek Quigley and the fantastic drama of the limestone outcrops that are a signature of the area. He went to primary school at Waikari and then boarding school (mysteriously anonymous!) in Christchurch before taking his PhD in engineering at Canterbury University. After working for Deloittes in Wellington as a consultant, he has been working in the IT field in London for 2 and half years.

Upton-on-line can’t help remarking on how SMPs, at least in rural New Zealand, are a sort of carbon dating measure for the mind. Hamish’s ruminations on the significance of landscape in national identity are very close to those made by upton-on-line in his last speech to Parliament:

Neither Maori nor European settlers knew how to live with the strange land they had encountered. The technologies of exploitation they deployed were very different; the scale of their ecological footprints very different. But in the innocence – and the ignorance - of their respective encounters, some 500-600 years apart, they came face to face with something unique that continues to trouble us all to this day.

Could it be that our shared national identity might, for the first time in history, be rooted in a crusade to save from annihilation, not a people or a culture, but a fragment of the biosphere. The land we live in gnaws away at us, as we gnaw away at it. I know of no New Zealanders who are indifferent about the landscapes, the seascapes and skyscapes that dominate our lives.

The way we wrestle with the forces we have unleashed could determine our national identity. If we let the slide continue we remain just another colony of itinerant human grazers whose appetites and motivations have – since the last Ice Age – caused such profound changes to the planet. But if we turn the tide, we could forge an identity built on a coming to terms with our land that would be an act of human imagination without precedent.

Are we big enough to do that – to come to grips with our land as common adventurers not squabbling settlers? It would be nice to think so. But the next story isn’t exactly a source of hope…

Blowing it at Taupo

News that a German mini-submersible reached New Zealand only to be promptly turned round on the wharves without ever being unpacked is a major blow to the Institute of Geological & Nuclear Science (GNS), New Zealand science and its wider reputation, Tuwharetoa and the much vaunted knowledge economy.

A couple of years ago, the same sub managed a path-breaking reconnaissance of the floor of Lake Taupo, New Zealand’s largest active volcano. There were all sorts of problems with weather which meant that it didn’t yield quite so much information as hoped, but it whetted appetites for more. After all, this is the orifice which has erupted a larger volume of material than any other volcano on the face of the planet in the last few millennia. And it sits smack in the middle of one of the most violently productive volcanic zones in the world in the last 1.6 million years.

It’s Taupo that made the modern day North Island look like it is – the huge pumice plateaus of the central North Island; the rafts of material that sweep over the axial ranges to the east (with the incredible podocarp forests that reach such dizzy heights at Whirinaki where the deep pumice soils meet the greywacke of the Urewera ranges); the flood plain of the central and lower Waikato and the Hauraki Plains.

It’s Taupo that gets New Zealand its first mention in literature with Chinese and Greek references to meteorological conditions around the time of the AD186 eruption – a 100 cubic kilometre belch that had planetary impact but was relatively modest in comparison to the Oruanui eruption of about 23,000 years ago which, at nearer to 1000 cubic kilometres, managed to deposit deep air fall material on the Chatham Islands.

Getting an accurate fix on the topography of the lake bed, the hot springs there and the material being deposited gave scientists their best yet information on aspects of the eruptive sequence – and perhaps what the future might hold. But all of this was apparently not interesting enough to persuade Tuwharetoa to find out even more. The tribal authority, restored to ownership of the lake bed not so very long ago, pulled the plug after seemingly interminable negotiations. A huge amount of planning – and, one assumes, no small sum of money - has been burnt on some unknown altar in the pursuit of some unimaginable principle.

Locating the victors

You’d need a very sensitive, politically correct Geiger counter to spot the winners in this one. Upton-on-line has no inside knowledge of what went on or what sort of point Tuwharetoa was trying to make. But from the outside, its refusal looks like a breathtaking disregard for the acquisition of knowledge – knowledge that was going to be handed to it (and the world at large) for nix at public expense. This is all the more remarkable because Tuwharetoa has, from the very earliest days, been regarded as one of the most public-spirited and far-sighted iwi.

Taking the opportunities that come your way

All of this was swirling around upton-on-line’s head when he happened to be waiting for his children’s hair to be cut at an establishment not far from the Eiffel Tower in the seventh arrondissement. Just two doors along was a shop called A l’esprit du Sud-Ouest – a boutique dedicated to the gastronomic and sporting passions of France’s south western corner, the bit squashed up against the Atlantic end of the Pyrénées centered on Tarbes. In this remote fastness, real men play rugby (what they eat, upton-on-line has yet to experience – that’s one of 2002’s exploratory missions).

But in a very open-minded sort of way, the south-west’s little outpost in heaven had sportingly decided to market the wares of other rugby mad cultures. And there, in a prominent place in the front window, was an All Black jersey and a jersey with the haka on it complete with diagram of the actions, syllable by syllable.

Who knows what some entrepreneur had to go through – or how - to square away this piece of cultural salesmanship? But the thing that struck upton-on-line this: how incredibly fortunate Maori are to have teamed up with a culture and a game that has international resonance. How many ‘indigenous’ peoples in this world have been successful enough to have one of their cultural set pieces made an unforgettable part of a world sport as played by one of its supremely successful teams? From time to time voices have been raised against it but so far generous and good-humoured common sense has triumphed over narrow, back-biting isolationism.

It looks as though a similarly large and liberal view has perished somewhere in the depths of Lake Taupo. And it’s an opportunity lost. Knowing more about your assets is the best way of looking after them, cherishing them and – in due course – profiting from them. Sure, you don’t give them away. But, equally, it’s not every day that taxpayers want to spend money on the innocuous business of learning more about them – and putting you on the international research map.

Some moralising before Christmas torpor sets in

Upton-on-line hopes a whole lot of people do some soul-searching over Christmas before this all degenerates into another round of shoulder-shrugging. If New Zealand has become such a complicated and culturally fragile place that we can’t put a tiny submersible into a lake without a dust-up, no-one’s going to bother with us for very long. There are plenty more lakes, plenty more volcanic calderas and plenty more people who’d just love the chance to have researchers help them understand more about their treasures.

(That’s not just a throw away line: a large glossy book on Volcanoes and People has just been launched here in Paris together with a huge outdoor photographic display in the Luxembourg Gardens. There’ s not a single mention of New Zealand – just a couple of red triangles that obliterate most of the North Island on one corner of a map of the world…)

Clearly, Tuwharetoa needs to decide whether it is still part of the wider world as it was more than a century ago when it made the magnificent gift of Tongariro National Park to the nation. That has become a gift to the world at large as visitors from around the world come to marvel at the site of these stupendous convulsions. It would be sad indeed if the descendants of that visionary leadership were, as a new millennium dawns, turning their backs on the outward looking approach that made them early trailblazers.

Maori leaders in New Zealand (i.e. politicians on both sides of the House) need to decide whether this is a good outcome or not, and if it isn’t, say why. And if the fault lies with GNS the public is entitled to know what went wrong. Leaving the matter shrouded in mystery won’t help anyone.

And just before anyone starts to deliver a lecture

about how it’s dangerous to comment when you’re not in full possession of the facts (and upton-on-line freely acknowledges that he isn’t), wounded parties should remember that this is how it looks from the outside. It’s the perceptions that the outside world has, fully informed or not, that can make or break little countries that people don’t have to visit. Or lend their gear to, for research projects.

A long way to drop

Finally, at the risk of imperiling the tone and reputation upton-on-line has painstakingly forged, some vital information for travellers to Australia. Her Majesty’s Australian Government, amidst all the pressures raised by being a regional power, a repeller of boat people and a crucible of sporting greatness, has found time to dwell on some of the wee small things of life. In short it has developed Toiletmap – an electronic, web-site-based guide to the Commonwealth of Oz’s ‘toilets’.

Upton-on-line observes wistfully that sticking with the U-form – lavatory or the relaxed weekend variant, loo – would have been so much classier: Lavmap or Loomap. But never mind – it’s the thought that counts. Grateful travellers can now ‘zoom-in’ on any one of 13,000 places of repose from smart metropolitan addresses to humble out-back shelters.

For earnest pre-trip planning (and those of us with children know just how important this can be), the site to visit is: www.toiletmap.gov.au The technology is in it’s early stages – there is no real-time monitoring of occupancy or servicing at this stage. But upton-on-line can see real potential for integrating this with GPS on board navigational systems because most emergencies require quicker corrective action that logging-on time allows for.

In the meantime, upton-on-line can only congratulate the Australians on a blow for common sense and hygiene. He cautions, however, on its exportability. Given the penchant of at least some French citizens to make every métro exit a winning post, he questions what a Parisian database would look like.

And that’s it for 2001

Upton-on-line wishes all subscribers – diasporan or otherwise – a joyous Christmas and an engaging and demanding 2002. (You wouldn’t want it otherwise, would you?)

Last Update: November 3, 2002

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