Off The Beaten Track in Aotearoa

Travel adventures, they’re in our blood

Kiwis love to travel. It’s in our blood. When I set off on my travels I know where I’m going, how I’m going to get there, and pretty much what I’ll see and do. It wasn’t like that for my forebears or for any of the first people to arrive in New Zealand.

The Polynesian migration across the Pacific Ocean has to be one of the most astounding feats of human endeavour.

Polynesian Migration

Polynesian Migration in the Pacific

Imagine setting off into the vastness of the Pacific in a canoe, with only a rudimentary sail, and the stars and the ocean current for your guide. Me? I’d rather have stayed home. Mathew Wright, historian, says that carbon dating indicates Maori landed in New Zealand around 1280 AD. Which makes ours the most recently inhabited country in the world.

According to Maori history Kupe was the first to arrive. His wife is credited with naming our islands Aotearoa, after the long, white clouds she observed along the coast of the North island.

Another famous explorer, Paikea, travelled to the East Coast, not far from Gisborne, on the back of a whale. You might have seen the movie Whale Rider. It’s based on Witi Ihimaera’s novel of the same name.

Captain James Cook, the most well-known of the European explorers, arrived in 1769 on the Endeavour, five hundred years after the first Maori.

Cook spent his boyhood in Ayton, England, which Restless Jo visited on one of her Monday walks. When you check out her post you’ll see a statue and a memorial in honour of him. In fact, that post inspired this one. There’s Jo, on the other side of the world wandering around Cook’s boyhood town. And here am I, living in the country which he later circumnavigated.

By Jon Platek. Blank map by en:User:Reisio. [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

The routes of Captain James Cook’s voyages. The first voyage is shown in red, second voyage in green, and third voyage in blue. The route of Cook’s crew following his death is shown as a dashed blue line

Remember, when you look at the map, like Kupe and Paikea, much of the time Cook didn’t know what he would find. The reality of that hit home for me when I was reading his log entries from the couple of days before they sighted New Zealand. Cook noticed the colour of the sea had changed to a pale blue. Unsure  what that meant they took regular soundings – I guess they were worried about running aground.

A cabin boy, Nick Young, was the first to see hills from the masthead. Cook rewarded him (he was twelve) with a gallon of rum! and he named this promontory “Young Nick’s Head”.

Young Nick's Head

Young Nick’s Head is in the middle distance

Last weekend I visited the place where Cook and his crew first went ashore. Gisborne, where it seems it’s always summer, where every kid can surf, and every meal is a BBQ, is a place rich with history. And the Maori/European history is fraught. It was from the beginning. The first encounters between Maori and the crew didn’t go well. The ship’s log is, to my reading, a sad account of misunderstanding and cross-cultural miscommunication with a tragic outcome.

Captain James Cook 2

Cook’s memorial, Gisborne

The memorial to Cook at the end of Waikanae beach in Gisborne suggests the crew misinterpreted a traditional Maori challenge. They fired at the Maori, killing two. As a consequence the Endeavour sailed south without the fresh provisions they’d hoped for and Cook named the bay Poverty Bay.

A few days later the Endeavour sailed across Hawkes Bay. Cook’s log has a fascinating description of the place which is now my hometown: “a Bluff head lying in the South-West corner of the Bay South by West 2 or 3 Miles. On each side of this bluff head is a low narrow sand or stone beach; between these beaches and the Main land is a pretty large lake of Salt Water, as I suppose.

Bluff Hill

Bluff Hill – Landmark, photo101

The Bluff is still very recognisable. All that remains of the large salt lake is an estuary – the land was raised by several earthquakes in the late 1800s and then the quake of 1931.

Cook continued south, eventually circumnavigating New Zealand. He made an amazingly accurate map of the country. Not for nothing is he regarded as one of the most brilliant cartographers in history.

It’s been said that everyone living here is an immigrant or the descendant of an immigrant. And as the Governor General, Jerry Mateparae, said in his speech on Waitangi Day 2014 we all arrived seeking essentially the same thing:

“Whether you or your ancestors came to New Zealand by waka a thousand years ago, by a sailing ship 200 years ago, by steamer 100 years ago, or by aeroplane 10 years ago, they came seeking a land of opportunity where they and their families could live in peace.”

And despite the growing cultural diversity of our country, I think that’s what unites us.

And you? Do you have travel in your blood?

17 replies »

  1. I really enjoyed this post Jill. It’s an interesting interweaving of history; ancient, recent, and local. I’ve always been interested in human evolution, and the Polynesian Migration has lots of scientists scratching their heads. I love the graphic of the migration. As to travel in our blood, since we all have a common ancestor – Lucy from Ethiopia – I’d say the desire to travel runs in everyone’s veins. ~James

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    • Hi James, Yes that graphic illustrates what they think has happened very well. Interestingly, local Iwi have a sea going canoe which is built in the traditional manner. I hope to write a post about that over the summer. And so true about Lucy, although some of us have more of the travel gene than others, I think.

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  2. Great post Jill. I consider James Cook to be one of the most influential explorers, and he was way ahead of his time in caring for his crew and approaching the natives he came across. Wonder what NZ and Australia would be like if we had been colonised by any other nation. I definitely have gypsy blood in my veins but don’t know were it came from.

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  3. Jill I definitely have travel in my blood. Your post is full of interesting history, some of which i was not aware of. Looking at the map showing the routes of Cook’s voyages it seems like a remarkable accomplishment back in the day.

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    • No surprises there, Sue – about the travel in your blood. Cooks voyages were remarkable at the time. And as far as I can tell, I’m no historian so my reading is limited, he was very highly regarded by his crew. I did read somewhere that when he was killed during his third voyage in 1779, his crew were devastated.

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  4. It’s incredible to think that New Zealand is the last large land mass in the world to be reached by humans – but it’s true. Contrary winds in our direction meant the Polynesians got to Chile first! And it was, as you say, an absolutely heroic venture. More than once I’ve stood on the harbour-side in Ahuriri and looked across at the Te Matau a Maui waka, wondering how those journeys must have been 800 years ago.

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  5. Great post! I love history and I love maps and you managed to include both, Travel is not in my blood, but it seems it might be in my daughter’s. Maybe it skipped a generation, but I really enjoyed reading this post and I enjoy reading about other people’s travels.

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      • I’ve lived on both coasts here in the US and well inland. I “traveled” so much for business early in my career that the process of travel is no longer fun. I put travel in quotes because I wasn’t going to destinations people would normally travel to. I do enjoy the travel I’m doing for business today and I am working in visits to family when I can. And, I like bread and butter 🙂

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  6. Thanks for the link, Jill 🙂 This is a fabulous post! I love the bit about ‘young Nick’ and that photo 🙂 I don’t think I would have been half so restless in those days. I’d have been too busy washing clothes in the river and suchlike, wouldn’t I? And. as you say, launching off into the wide blue yonder was more than a bit scary! Fascinating and often sad history, isn’t it? Many thanks for sharing.

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    • Thanks so much, Jo. I’ve been thinking about this post, ever since I read about your walk to Cook’s monument. Before that I’d never really thought about where Cook came from. Then suddenly I realised what a huge undertaking it must have been to set off in that little boat, the Endeavour. And I realised that, in a way, because of his urge to explore the world we’re connected by history and geography. Amazing! It is, indeed, a fascinating history, and it’s sad. In fact, in the end it was tragic. But it’s also filled with the most amazing stories of triumph in the face of adversity. They’re the stories that inspire me.

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