Notes from Aotearoa

MAY 7 — Just last week, glamour model Jaylene Cook posed naked while only wearing a hat, gloves and boots after climbing the 2,308-metre Mount Taranaki in New Zealand’s north island.

She reportedly told Daily Mail Australia that she did it on impulse, to “feel the cold air and embrace it a bit.” Considering the photo was hardly candid and subsequently was liked by over 24,000 people on Instagram (where else?), one could not help but think the act was nothing but a publicity stunt.

But here is the problem. Some among the locals, especially the native Maori, regard Mount Taranaki as sacred. While the summit is open to the public, some Maori would not even dare climb the mountain.

According to Maori mythology, Taranaki was once in the middle of the island, before he was petrified in the West after being wounded, following a fight for the affection of another coveted mountain.

As far as January last year, a Department of Conservation senior ranger, Dave Rogers, has been quoted saying that the Maori regard the mountain as a living ancestor, and anthropomorphise mountains.

Therefore, standing on the head of a mountain is already disrespectful, what more doing so naked.

It should be noted that Cook herself is a Kiwi. Ostensibly, her act had been part of a trend of tourists baring their bodies for social media, often in places where locals feel they should be respectful.

And the latest of the trend catalogues by Instagram seems to be baring your butt cheeks for the camera. And is it a surprise that so many of them are pasty white?

Malaysians can, of course, emphatise. In May 2015, 10 white tourists had also stripped at the summit of Mount Kinabalu in Sabah; a mountain locals regard as sacred as they deem it to be the final resting place of their ancestors.

Waterfalls running down the rocky cliffs of Milford Sound in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park. — Picture by Zurairi AR
Waterfalls running down the rocky cliffs of Milford Sound in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park. — Picture by Zurairi AR

Coincidentally, I had just spent nearly a week in New Zealand, revisiting the Maori people and their culture after I was first introduced to them nearly 10 years ago.

The Maori could have been the “superior” race. They are physically built for their warrior culture, have a compelling performance culture, and engrossing mythologies.

They are believed to be part of a Polynesian tribe who went on a voyage to the South Pacific islands, with ancestry tracing back to the Taiwanese aborigines.

They settled in New Zealand which they called Aotearoa (“Land of the Long White Cloud”), around late 1200 of the Common Era. It was not until the 17th century that they had contact with European explorers, and subsequently European immigrants.

In 1840, the Europeans and the Maori signed the Treaty of Waitangi — giving British sovereignty over the land, but guaranteeing the Maori property rights and tribal autonomy. But by late 19th century, the Maori was in decline — a very small minority in their own land.

It was only in the 1960s that a revival of Maoridom started, similar to other social justice movements across the world in that era. Today, you get the feeling that the Maori status is protected by the government but there are still deep wounds in their history.

One Maori patriarch in Rotorua, a tourist district with significant Maori population, told us how just over 15 years ago ago, residents and resorts had used bores to redirect water from the geysers — that they regard as sacred — to supply hot water to their guests. It was not long before the geysers dried up, and would likely have died off had the Maori not protested.

According to him, the bores were then sealed with concrete, and only then did the other geysers come back alive. Among them, the biggest may be the Pohutu, the largest active geyser in the Southern Hemisphere which shoots up to 30 metres.

There is a sense of immense pride when I hear the Maori speak. They may be disadvantaged when it comes to socio-economic and many other aspects, but they are steadfast in the belief that the lands belong to them, and that they are the rightful guardians.

While they have been sidelined for decades, they are slowly taking over what they think is rightfully theirs, and to assert themselves in society.

It is easy to make the comparison with the Bumiputera, especially the native Malays. But if anything, with their small numbers and how their natural resources which they regard as sacred have been exploited, they perhaps have more in common with our Orang Asal.

And while the Maori have the warrior culture ingrained in them, many of the indigenous tribes — from the Orang Asal, to the Aboriginal Australians — are more pacifist in nature, and abhor conflict.

For the Malays to downplay the Orang Asal’s increased awareness of their rights would be arrogance.

It is undeniable that New Zealand is a gorgeous country with rolling hills, majestic mountains, serene waters — a little Middle Earth out of fantasy. Travelling through, I could not help but wish that it would stay that way for generations, but at the same time, the country also taught me how careless humans have been towards Earth.

Before human settlement, the country was free of mammals, except for bats, and those that swim ashore such as seals and whales. As such, the niche filled by mammals was filled by insects and birds, resulting in many flightless birds such as the kiwi and kakapo which still exists now.

But there was also the moa, a giant flightless bird that reached up to 3.6 metres tall now extinct, and the Haast’s eagle, its predator that was as huge and as extinct.

While the moa has disappeared due to overhunting by the Maori, the country’s other birds are still undergoing threat from predatory mammals that were introduced to the islands by European settlers; possums, rats, ferrets, cats, stoats and dogs.

It is only in recent years that Kiwis are removing these mammals and returning the ecosystem to what it was... or as close to the original state as it can be.

Just imagine, how much more of a heaven would Earth be with no humans around ruining it? And if we were to reach for the stars, would we be doomed to repeat the same mistake?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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