How the forces of nature shape New Zealand.
The story of New Zealand's dramatic landscape and the part that earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and the weather play in its shaping.
More than 1800 years ago, Zhang Heng, a Chinese astronomer and mathematician during the Eastern Han dynasty, developed this device for recording the ground waves produced by earthquakes. It is the earliest known instrument of its kind.
The tuatara is unique to New Zealand. It’s the only survivor of a group of reptiles that died out along with the dinosaurs, some sixty-five million years ago. By then the tuatara was isolated on these islands, slowly rafting away from all the evolutionary upheavals in other lands that spelt the end for its relatives. It thrived here, living in a predator-free paradise, and adapting to life in a cool climate.
The huia was prized by people – too much for its own good. For Maori, huia feathers were the mark of high status. You could wear huia feathers in your hair, or whole skins in your ear, only if you were of chiefly rank. The huia’s name became associated with treasured things: containers for precious items were called waka huia.
This head of an upland moa was found in a cave near Cromwell in Central Otago in the late nineteenth century. It is probably more than six hundred years old. Finds of moa remnants like this are very rare. The head became mummified because the atmosphere in the cave was both dry and cold – good conditions for preserving soft tissue from rotting.
Imagine being hit by a twelve-kilogram rock dropped from the top of Te Papa. That’s the kind of impact Harpagornis, New Zealand’s extinct giant eagle, hurtling down from a tree-top at up to eighty kilometres an hour, would have had on its prey. Its legs were massively muscled to cushion its body from the sudden force of the strike. Its talons, as big as tiger’s claws, could penetrate a moa’s pelvis bone.
At midnight on 14 December 1991, Aoraki Mount Cook was 3764 metres high. A few minutes later, a massive rock avalanche, at maximum rumble creating a magnitude 3.9 earthquake, had lowered New Zealand’s highest point by ten metres.
Professor Harold Wellman, one of New Zealand’s most distinguished geologists, used this surveyor’s theodolite for most of his professional life. Early on in his career as a surveyor, he won the theodolite in a game of ping-pong in Vulcan Lane, Auckland. One of his first big jobs using it was to remeasure all the surveyors’ ‘benchmarks’ on the land in Hawke’s Bay after the massive earthquake in 1931.
Life is a grind in New Zealand, and we have earthquakes, volcanoes, and thermal activity to prove it. These are some of the natural hazards of living in a land that straddles the boundary between two of the Earth’s great slabs of crust – the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates.
The Bay of Plenty was well named by James Cook for its food and timber resources – and it is still a place of bountiful produce. The Edgecumbe district is a typically lush part of the Bay: rich dairy and horticultural lands, set on a wide, well-watered plain, surrounded by large exotic forests. The people who live there are dotted about on farms and in small towns and settlements. There is also a range of large and small industries and businesses processing local produce.
Imagine climbing up forest trees to set bird traps or to forage for fruits, and disturbing a wetapunga in its hiding-place. That sort of experience would no doubt give rise to the wetapunga’s Maori attribution as ‘god of ugly things’!
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