Aotearoa; Journeys into the Long White Cloud; Part 1; There and Back again…*

*a Hobbit’s Tale, by Bilbo Baggins

Aotearoa/New Zealand. Describing the geographies of this small yet proud archipelago on the edge of the world requires the contemplation and sometimes imagination of a primeval world. The  cumulative effect of the solitary evolution of this terra firma over millions of years has produced quite individual and at the same time epic results. A strange land of trees that go by the name of kauri, rata, rimu; birds such as the takahe, weka and pukeko; and mystical mountain ranges of the Tararua, Kaikoura and Kahurangi.

Being a fragment of the supercontinent Gondwana cast adrift in the near ubiquitous blue of the South Pacific, New Zealand is the product of a constantly evolving landscape residing on tectonic, climatic and cultural crossroads. Superimposed on this land of geological and ecological fascination is a unique multi-cultural identity named after an endemic flightless bird. A small yet proud population of just under five million people present a bold global outlook built around a strong appetite for sport, adventure and the outdoor lifestyle.

But behind this adventurous, outgoing spirit of a nation lie critical challenges for the 21st century. The scale of landscape and ecological change within the short human tenure of these islands is self-evident to the itinerant traveller. The responses require a complex combination of cutting edge science and spatially specific, nuanced debates that challenge the ethics of conservation and human involvement in natural systems. But if anyone is up for the challenge, then surely the Whenua Aotearoa, people of modern day New Zealand are up for it?

Strong personal connections with far-flung corners of the world do not always seem the most logical of phenomena. When pondering over my interest for long-haul inter-continental journeying, the only rational explanation that seems to enter the mind is a phrase famously coined by Mallory when contemplating his appetite for attempting to summit Everest; ‘because it’s there’. Alas, my connection with New Zealand goes back just over a decade to when I embarked on my first journey to the upside-down world at Heathrow in late-June 2007. I was destined for a study abroad placement at the Victoria University of Wellington. Drawn by the unique appeal of exploring the real-world Middle Earth, I sat back and absorbed with great anticipation, the vast 18,000 km journey across Europe, Asia, the Malay Archipelago, Australia, finally touching down on the Tarmac of Auckland over 24 hours later.

Being located almost located almost at the antipodal point to the U.K. on the Earth’s surface, travel to New Zealand is, and always has been committing. Today’s modern 787 Dreamliner and A380 Super-Jumbo airliners make the journey something of relative ease by comparison to the commitment and ambition required of the pioneering explorers, firstly of Polynesia and latterly the merchant seafarers of the Netherlands and England.

The limited temporal extent of human involvement in New Zealand is something that I always find staggering. It is estimated that Polynesian settlers first arrived from the tropical Pacific in the thirteenth century. These people were East Polynesians, and the ancestors of the Māori people (Wilson, 2005(1)). Four centuries later on 14th August 1642, the Dutch East India Company despatched seafarer Abel Tasman from Batavia, East Indies (today’s Jakarta, Philippines) in search of their suspected Terra Australis Incognita (the great unknown and unexplored southern land that was believed to exist in the South Pacific). On 13th December of the same year, approaching from the West across what would later become the Tasman Sea, ‘a large land uplifted high’ was spotted. Tasman anchored in Golden Bay at the northern tip of South Island on the 18th and 19th December but did not go ashore following a clash with a native tribe. Tasman then returned to Batavia via Tonga, Fiji and New Guinea, naming the new discovery Staten Land, suspecting a connection to an area of land going by the same name near Cape Horn. Soon after, this Western Staten Land was identified as an island and named Nieuw Zeeland after the Dutch maritime province, adding to New Holland (Australia). The Dutch East India company determined Niew Zeeland as a land of limited material profit and thus against the will of Tasman, further exploration was put on hold (Wilson, 2005(2, 3)).

Captain Cook’s landing at Poverty Bay in October 1769 marked the start of the British connection with Nieuw Zeeland, and by doing set in motion a process that would, over the course of the next two centuries, transform the landscape like never before. Cook’s voyage on the Endeavour had previously visited Tahiti to track the transit of Venus. Following this, heading onward and westward the intention was to find the eastern limit of New Zealand and extensively chart the extent of this little-known land. During this circumnavigation, Cook discovered the narrow and important tract of sea separating the North and South Islands (later Cook Strait) before heading down the east coast of South Island. On board was naturalist Joseph Banks who gathered a wealth of information on the unique flora and fauna of the country. Cook made a total of three expeditions to New Zealand and the South Pacific region, with Banks finally concluding on the nonexistence of Terra Australis incognita in the Pacific Ocean at least after probing out on transects in many directions from the known lands (Wilson, 2005(4, 5, 6)).

But what did the pioneering explorers make of this new, most significant and sizeable landmass in the otherwise limitless blue that dominated their journeys?

Tasman simply remarked that it was ‘a very fine land’ and saw in it great potential’ (Wilson, 2005(2)). Banks on the other hand was not so convinced from the outset, postulating over the scene at Poverty Bay before going ashore as ‘not altogether fruitful’ (Captain Cook Society, n.d.).

Charles Darwin, visiting the Bay of Islands in December 1835 on the Voyage of the Beagle noted, ’I believe we were all glad to leave New Zealand. It is not  pleasant place’ (Darwin, 1839, p.408).

The legacy of the merchant travellers is nowadays reflected in place names and geographical features around the country; Cook Strait, Banks Peninsula and the Abel Tasman National Park.

Today the New Zealand tourist board goes for the ‘100% pure’, a brand built around multi-faceted definitions; pure nature, pure adventure, pure discovery. A country proud to present a clean, green image to the outside world. The critical question of course is the extent to which this holds true in such a highly developed land that has undergone transformational change under human watch. Indeed, to begin answering this question first hand as a Euorpean today requires an immediate commitment to a significant contradiction of this image, the journey there and back again being undertaken not on foot as in the case of old Bilbo, nor ocean going sailing vessel as with Kupe, Tasman and Cook but most likely by modern aircraft burning fossil energy and transferring this to the atmosphere as climate-changing greenhouse gases. What a world of complex challenges we have created for ourselves.

Aotearoa; Journeys into the Long White Cloud continues with Part 2; Dynamic Earth; a land forged from fire and ice


Captain Cook Society, n.d., ‘The Circumnavigation of New Zealand – Along the East Coast’, Captain Cook Society, accessed 20 January 2018, <>.

Darwin, C. 1859, The Voyage of the Beagle, Reprint, Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1996.

Wilson, J. 2005(1), ‘European discovery of New Zealand – Before Tasman’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, accessed 25 January 2018, <>.

Wilson, J. 2005(2), ‘European discovery of New Zealand – Abel Tasman’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, accessed 25 January 2018, <>.

Wilson, J. 2005(3), ‘European discovery of New Zealand – Tasman’s achievement’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, accessed 25 January 2018, <>

Wilson, J. 2005(4), ‘European discovery of New Zealand – James Cook’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, accessed 25 January 2018, <>.

Wilson, J. 2005(5), ‘European discovery of New Zealand – Cook’s three voyages’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, accessed 25 January 2018, <>.

Wilson, J. 2005(6), ‘European discovery of New Zealand – Cook’s achievement’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, accessed 25 January 2018, <>

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