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Full Circle

Day 141: Sydney to Auckland

Michael Palin - Full CircleFrom the windows of a modern jet the first sight of the rolling, misty green hills and the long precipitous North Island coastline looks dramatic and also familiar, like Ireland or Cornwall. To Tasman they were daunting proof that he was at the western edge of a huge southern land mass stretching right across to America. Had he been able to understand the language of the Maoris, with whom he had one bruising encounter before packing up and going home, they would have put him right, for they had sailed from Polynesia to northern New Zealand eight hundred years earlier. They called the place Aotearoa - 'Land of the Long White Cloud'. And they knew it was an island.

As we make our way through customs and immigration at this, our eleventh frontier on the Rim, there is a palpably British look and feel to the place. Though both Australian and New Zealand flags incorporate the Union Jack, you feel it means a lot more to the New Zealanders. Much of this is down to perhaps the greatest Pacific explorer of them all, Captain James Cook. When he wasn't naming fiords in Alaska or islands in Polynesia, Cook and the crew of the Endeavour sailed the entire coast of New Zealand, mapping it for the first time. He had a Tahitian tribal chief on board who understood the Maori language and, though this enabled Cook to strike up friendly relations with the inhabitants of Aotearoa, it didn't stop him annexing the country. In 1769, while keeping the existing Dutch name of New Zealand, Aotearoa became the property of King George III of England.

Once the Maoris had the benefits of western technology they were able to kill each other in larger numbers than before and be killed by a variety of interesting new diseases. As the early European settlers flourished on the rich, well-watered grasslands, Maori numbers fell, by the end of the nineteenth century from over 100,000 to less than 40,000. Since then they have grown to half a million, and the Europeans to around three million. The only inhabitants whose numbers have fallen in the last few years are sheep, down to a mere fifty-three million.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 141
  • Country/sea: New Zealand
  • Place: Auckland
  • Book page no: 197

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