Out of the Ashes – Alesund’s Art Nouveau rebirth


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They say Ålesund is one of the most beautiful towns in Norway – and it is. But it’s so much more.

The sea-edges of the town are built on and in the water, Venice-style, and the buildings themselves are a concentrated gallery of Art Nouveau, or Jugendstil.

It was a devastating fire in 1904 that destroyed the town. In 16 hours 850 buildings burned down.  10,000 people were homeless in the depths of winter, but only one person was killed: she’d gone back into a building to save something. A town built on water – lost to fire.

In rushed assistance, architects, and craftsmen. Norway was in economic difficulties at the time. This was opportunity for employment, and the chance to be part of something significant:  to rebuild entirely in concrete and stone, and in the contemporary style of the time.

50 young Norwegian architects, many of whom had worked and studied in wider Europe, were commissioned and set to work.

The fire was 1904.  I saw one building with 1905 on its front, several with 1906, and by 1907 the job was done.

I spent a little time (could have been more, but the boat waits for no one!) in the Jugendstil Centre which is in the Swan Pharmacy built with characteristic turrets and flourishes in 1907.  What was wonderful was the way the displays honoured the people who were responsible for the rebuild, the architects, yes, but also the builders, plasterers, finishers…









And then a quick canter around town – seeing their work.  111 or so years on there are of course some modern buildings, but mainly sympathetic.  There’s scaffolding evidence of continuing maintenance, and some ‘hmmm’ moments wondering about sea-level rise…  but it’s gorgeous, and glowing with civic pride.


So of course my mind turned to Napier, arisen from earthquake and fire in its Art Deco incarnation some 25 years after Ålesund.  Again, speed, determination and a coherent design philosophy … executed in the middle of a depression.   And I wondered what, in say 50 years time, we will be able to look at as the defining features of the Christchurch rebuild.  Probably not speed.  But what will it say about the people and style of our time?

The memorial to those involved in the Great North Sea Escape Route from Alesund – plus obligatory seagull.

Another thing about Ålesund.  It was a really significant contributor to the Great North Sea Escape Route – later known as the Shetland Bus.  As soon as the Germans had invaded Norway in April 1940, flotillas of fishing boats started ferrying people to the UK, some to escape, many to join the forces.

Underground groups in Ålesund formed, hosted and shipped fugitives. From May to December 1940, 29 vessels left from Ålesund  –  nearly half of all those that left Norway – and during the entire war, 88 vessels and 800 people made the run from Ålesund, despite brutal attempts to stop them, and the dangers of the route.

The cost was 18 vessels and 158 people, lost, 130 captured, 51 executed.   A part of me wonders if the pride and resilience developed in the early 1900s was part of Ålesund’s determination to organise and act.

Then, it was back onto Hurtigruten’s Kong Harald to continue our cruise to the Nordkap.  But not before I had to accost a couple of bemused people in the street.  What were they doing with Kiwi-branded (plastic!) grocery bags?   The answer was in a not-so-Nouveau building up the road.

Shapes of the past, space for the future?

And another look at built beauty… and a wistful thought about a long cup of coffee and just letting the boat go on.


Today I watched a Bee die.


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Today I watched a bee die.   It was on the lawn by my feet, and at first I thought it had made a false landing, deceived by the elder flowers littering the ground. But it was climbing up a blade of grass, then falling back again. Turning round, turning again, climbing again, falling again, righting itself, settling its wings…  The wings looked OK, but the bee could not use them to lift itself out of the grass.   It was carrying no pollen, nothing to lift but itself.

Just this morning we’d been celebrating the hundreds of bees busy in the kiwifruit vine. It’s one of those grape-sized kiwifruit, which produces practically nothing in fruit, but has been spared the axe for its shade and perfume, and its blessing to, and of, bees.

The perfume is strongest in the morning, and as we had breakfast under it, the bee-sound was as loud and constant as a tap running.  Of course, we’re in a Swiss early summer, not a New Zealand winter. DSC03678





The bees here have already done their work in the cherry trees, the apples and pears and plums. The linden trees will be the next great gathering.

And meantime the paddocks and roadside flowers and grasses are not cut back until after they’ve flowered and provided their pollens.

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I’ve caught the local habit too  –  I mow around the daisies in our lawn



Lying in the deck chairs under the elder tree, we’ve become resigned to the sticky drippings from the aphids infecting its new growth.

Blasting them with the hose in lieu of reaching for the bug-spray is only a very temporary solution, but the spray would be a final solution for visiting bees – so we get sticky with virtue.

Hornets – now protected for their wasp-killing virtues – seem also to be beneficiaries. They look as if they’re feeding on the aphid-drippings.


I watched the bee die. It took a long time, but it seemed as if it should be observed.

Bees have been turning up a lot in my reading and thinking lately – yes, bees in my bonnet!  If reading about colony collapse, and climate change threats to bees hasn’t yet got your mind buzzing (forgive that!) try reading Maja Lunde’s novel “The History of Bees”, and what happens in a post-bee world.   So I’m quietly cheering about small steps, like friend John’s beehives in our allotment gardens in Kapiti, and larger, like the proposal for hives in Christchurch’s red-zoned land, and commercial, like large-scale Manuka plantations.

This morning under the bee-loud kiwi-fruit vine, it seemed as if all was right with the world.


And then I watched a bee die.



Galapagos – Puerto Ayora


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I can’t leave the Galapagos without sharing just a few small delights.

There was an early morning stroll down to the little boat harbour. The fishing boats had come in, and the locals, human and others had gathered to get their fish.

Between the main road in Puerto Ayora and the sea, some wonderfully creative person/persons have been mosaic-ing.





The owner of the Maprae Museum in Puerto Ayora used to, according to the woman minding it, pack his collection of pre-Columbian artefacts into and out of exhibitions.  He decided there had to be a better way.

Now, for the price of your admission you are handed a tablet and headphones.  Each plinth represents an artefact.  Hover your tablet over it, and Ta-dah a three dimensional image emerges.

You can turn it, look over and around… while getting a short (too short for my info-junky taste) description of its origins.   Fascinating.

Despite my exhaustion and the late-night heat, I went back to the hotel to get my camera to capture the concept.  But in retrospect I realise that my reactions were wonder at the technology, rather than the artefacts.  I still remember the first time I saw a truly ancient piece – a bowl in the museum at Belgrade dating back some 4000 years.  The feeling of awe, of deep connection to the people who had crafted and used it.   That was missing, with the act of looking at these equally beautiful and interesting things mediated through technology.


I’m still musing on that….  and a couple of other different museum experiences.

There was the Palaeontology Museum at Trelew in Patagonia.   Highly recommended, and yes, it had good information, classical style museum displays plus some nice newer styles, plenty of info, access to the workshops … and a real hands-on experience. Being not just allowed, but encouraged to touch was wonderful. 


















And there was the Museum of the Future in Rio de Janeiro.  Such a piece of architectural art, and such a concept.  A museum that shows how we are currently modifying our world, and what that means for the way we construct our future.  Interactivity exemplified.   Not just able to touch but to interrogate, to construct scenarios, to calculate your own environmental footprint.  “Next time” I would allow a whole day here.






So, three very different approaches to the museum world … and three very different experiences.

But one final too-real moment.   Back to Puerto Ayora, and the virtual museum.  Alone, in a Perspex case in a separate room, was a highlighted exhibit – the preserved head of a South American Indian.  I went to look – I had to see and feel what it meant.  But I took no photograph, and left quickly.  It is so important to us in New Zealand to be repatriating Maori heads, and returning them where possible to their iwi.  It seemed very alien, very ‘other’, to see one on open display and wonder what that meant about Ecuadorian attitudes. Different places, different people….

Out of there, into the full moon-lit warmth and humanity of the town.  Puerto Ayora has its own charms as well as allowing access to the wondrous Galapagos experience.

The true meaning of Pacific time. Look closely at the clock. Perhaps the moral is that here in the Galapagos Islands we can move freely backwards and forwards in time. That feels good.

Galapagos – Human and other Animal Conservation Heroes


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Tortoises in Residence at the Charles Darwin Research Centre, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz

My last post left me being pursued (slowly!)  by a giant tortoise as we went from the El Chato Ranch where the Santa Cruz subspecies roams free, to the Charles Darwin Research Centre where people work on the survival of the species.    They’re heroes … working with commitment and science to undo what other people have unwittingly done.

We know it well in New Zealand  –  the animals and plants introduced either accidentally or with good intentions which went deliriously wild.  Then there were the transfers of giant tortoises from one Galapagos island to another, mixing up genes that had developed in isolation to create a clear demonstration of evolution.  And in our own time, the risks of misjudging how many tourists and tourist-support services a place can accommodate without unintended consequences. 

Apart from shipwrecked sailors, and the boat-builders who stayed to fix them up, people have only lived here for a hundred years.  When one of our guides came to the Santa Cruz Island 49 years ago, the population was 100.   Now it’s 25,000.  Hmmm.

Coming to understand the Galapagos conservation challenge was one of the big surprises of this trip.  You look at the nature documentaries, and see what looks ‘original’, ‘unspoilt’. And some of the 21 Galapagos islands still are.  But – as we also know in New Zealand – there’s a lot else going on.

So to the Charles Darwin Research Centre.   It started its breeding programme in 1965, when it was clear that the Pinzon Island subspecies of giant tortoise was in trouble.  Rats breed much faster than tortoises – there was no contest for the tortoise hatchlings and eggs.  Fortunately, the old tortoises plodded on, and once in their refuge, kept breeding.   Pinzon is now rat-free, the Pinzon tortoises are back, and there are babies running wild (well, ambling wild). 

It’s been harder to save other subspecies.  Lonesome George (the last from Pinta Is) became the pin-up boy for the Charles Darwin Centre – sadly there was no-one of his kind left to mate with, and attempts with females from other subspecies failed to produce viable eggs … a sad indication of species separation, and maybe lack of practice. 

Lonesome George still fulfilling a role.

Still-Lonesome-but-now-Stuffed George is still a draw-card though.  Since I visited Tito’s Mausoleum in the former Yugoslavia I’ve been a bit squeamish about such places – not because of the deceased, but because it seems a bit psychically unhealthy for the living.  However, George had to be visited.  A clutch of equatorially steaming tourists are sealed into a small chamber to cool down, then released into George’s presence.  Photos are taken, and we’re let out through another airlock. Happily, no overt outpourings of emotion!   

Super Diego taking a well-earned rest.

We met a more successful stud, who has sired 800 young and is still at it – Super Diego.  The island of Espaňola had ended up with a non-breeding population – there were apparently a dozen females and two males spread over the island, and they weren’t ‘bumping into each other’ (so to speak).  Even when they were captured and relocated into close proximity in the Recovery Centre, they weren’t making much of a job of making out.  There’s a suggestion that a lack of numbers means a lack of role models for how to have tortoise sex, which is a cumbersome business.  Enter our hero.   Genetic testing around the zoos discovered one of the Espaňola race at San Diego Zoo.  He was repatriated, and has been doing sterling paternity service ever since.  Espaňola is again well-tortoised.

Such excitement! We thought we were seeing a seminal moment, until the guide pointed out it was a pen of males. Still it’s good to see they’re getting practice.

A 2017 clutch of Santa Cruz hatchlings

Keeping the subspecies separation matters.  Each enclosure of hatchlings is labelled with their name and year, and covered against rats and hawks until they’re big enough to stand up for themselves. 

As they grow, the differences become obvious. 

Those from arid islands have

Evolved differences.

developed a saddleback shell shape, raised at the front so they can crane their necks up to reach the cactus and branches they eat. Their necks and front legs are longer – aspiring to be the giraffes of the tortoise world.  Those from islands with good grazing vegetation are bigger, with shorter legs and necks, and domed shells.  Interestingly, Charles Darwin almost missed out on noticing this, but that’s another story.



The Charles Darwin Research Centre is also about more than tortoises … amongst other things they’re making sure the different plants are also maintained, and there’s a little demonstration garden designed to encourage the locals to plant native rather than introduced species.   

Land Iguanas






If you’re visiting, two pieces of advice: have space to buy one of their excellent books, and take your passport with you.  They’ll stamp it with a picture of Lonesome George.   He‘s still fulfilling a role.

A clever photomontage of the young Charles at his eponymous centre

Ambling with Tortoises


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There’s nothing like a dispassionate gaze from an animal that’s old enough to have seen it all, to set you thinking.

In the bus ride out to look at Galapagos giant tortoises, we’d started to get our eyes tuned to distinguish tortoises from lava rocks in the paddocks. We’d also had the guide’s (friendly) lecture about National Park rules.

The Galapagos National Park was declared in 1959 to be all the land not in private ownership.  But Santa Cruz, the island where we were based, had had small settlements and farms for many years.   El Chato Ranch, where we were heading for tortoise-watching and lunch, was private land, and anyway, tortoises wandering from feeding place to feeding place don’t recognise National Park boundaries.  Solution: a tortoise carries National Park status with it. 

Galapagos canary

By the way, another of our guides, Luiz, told us of escorting a group of Japanese tourists who’d wanted to see all sixty-eight park sites over all the islands. It took 23 days.    

We’d been warned that because there had been quite a bit of rain down on the dry coastal lowlands, the tortoises might have enough grazing down there not to bother to come up to the higher wetter lands.  But there they were.  Carrying their contribution to the discovery of evolution, along with the National Park Rules, and the future economic development off the Galapagos, on their backs. That’s no light matter – just as well those are very strong shells.   Indeed perhaps strong enough to hold up the world.

“A wallow a day keeps the biters at bay.” Tortoises also have an arangement with finches to pick off parasites.

So – what have they seen? These tortoises’ great great grandparents could have seen the Galapagos Islands discovered in 1635.  They are certainly the descendants of tortoises which survived the depredations of pirates, sailors, whalers and sealers who collected them for food during the 1700s and 1800s.  Their fatal attraction?  As well as tasting good, you could stack them upside down in the hold of a ship, and they’d live to provide fresh meat for up to a year. Such a sensible solution for the people of the time.  The idea that animals suffer is, I remind myself, quite modern.

Their grandparents, or maybe even parents, may have been observed by Darwin in 1853.  Darwin’s realisation that tortoises from different islands had developed physical differences was part of the jigsaw he put together to confirm what he and others before him had been contemplating – evolution.  And now – they’re the observers – and the observed – in the convergence of the conservation and tourism undertakings.

Introduced Guava. Galapagos had no native edible fruit trees – so of course the settlers brought some in.

They’re participants in the problems too.  On Santa Cruz the tortoises have grown addicted to the exotic guava – so much sweeter than its endemic cousin.  They’re major carriers of the seeds, spreading the invasive trees.

The conservationists worry that if they remove the exotic guavas, that will allow more spread of other invasive nasties – like blackberry – which may be worse.  I think they’d also have cause to worry about very grumpy tortoises!


The other attraction at El Chato Ranch (apart from a good lunch) was the chance to see the geology from underneath! The Lava caves have been created by at least three lava flows over time re-melting and re-forming. Great to time-travel through.

Down to the coast again to Puerto Ayora and the Charles Darwin Research Centre where they breed and raise tortoises and other things, and much more thinking…

But perhaps that’s another post.  Promise.  

The bus and the tortoise…. one haring along behind us at 0.3km/hr

Galapagos. What more need I say.


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Blue-footed Booby on North Seymour – looking towards Santa Cruz

The scar will (sadly) fade.  But the memories and impressions of the Galapagos Islands are much more than skin deep.

First – the scar.  We were out on a day boat-trip to North Seymour Island – of which more shortly.  Said our guide – “Plans have changed – we’re going over there” – pointing to Mosquera, a low island with a white sand beach. 

As we got closer we saw why. A crowd of sea-lion pups was playing in the shallow bay. The mamas were out fishing. The pups were amusing themselves, and looking for new sport.


On with the togs, and into the Zodiac.  As soon as we came near, a couple of pups were grabbing and pulling on the trailing end of a rope, for all the world like young dogs. 


Thanks to my fellow-travellor who took her camera to the beach.

Onto the beach – and into the water.  Impossible to count how many pups were there under the sole charge of the bull.  But with a bunch of new human playmates ready to join the fun, it was game on.  They barrel-rolled and flipped and porpoised, pausing occasionally to look quizzically at us as if to say “Come on, try this move”. 

I tried. I tried. I channelled my inner synchronised swimmer. I spun and rolled in an ungainly approximation of the routine.  And every way my head ended up, there was a whiskery nose close to mine, or a big brown eye assessing my readiness for the next move. 

Trouble was … like puppies, they wanted to keep playing long after my energy had worn out. A quiet snorkel off to see if I could watch any fish (not many hanging around there for obvious reasons) was interrupted first by a whiskering on my feet, then a little nip on my toes.  Play more!  Ignoring that request won the nip on my arm. Then the guardian bull sea-lion lumbered into the water – my excuse for a strategic timeout.  But what a souvenir! And never fear – I’d had my tetanus booster and a splash of peroxide back on the boat was all that was needed.  Another of our party got well-toothed too.  He claimed his bite was from the tiger shark we’d seen earlier. Yeh, right.            

Back to North Seymour Island. We’d cruised one coast earlier in the day, awestruck by the geology.  The whole Galapagos group is largely volcanic, in many different forms. North Seymour though is a seismically uplifted flat arid island, with its history of submarine lava layers visible in the sea-cliffs.

Designer Nature !







But it’s all about the birds.  The Magnificent Frigate birds would earn their name for their elegant flight, even if the males didn’t have such a splendid inflatable red pouch (gular). 

Such excitement to  see the first one, cameras clicking flat tack, trying to get a line through the branches of the almost leafless Palo Santo trees. Then as we walked mad-dogs-and-Englishmen style in the noon-day Equatorial sun, they were everywhere, nesting on thrown-together twigs, and displaying those astonishing gulars.  

“Welcome home Sweetheart”.

We had been well-schooled by guide Luiz about sticking to the paths and not getting closer than 2 metres – and the birds were simply right there!   It is (of course) the males doing the displaying – from what we saw, to welcome the female back to the nest and to protect their territory, but mostly, to attract a female.

Female with a chick she’ll raise for 9-12 months.

There’s an awful lot of competition, since the frigate’s habit of the female raising the chick for many months takes her out of the breeding cycle every alternate year.  Half the females not available … no wonder the chaps need some pretty spectacular “look at ME” gear.

“Mine is bigger than yours.”

Then there are the Blue-footed Boobies.  Ground-nesters, their scrape of a nest is surrounded by a star-blaze of squirted guano.  They only raise a single chick each year, from three eggs, on a ‘survival of the fittest’ principle. The male booby hangs around just for a while, so the female alone can  gather enough fish for only one chick.   

That might be partly the frigates’ fault.  The Magnificent Frigates like co-habiting with the Boobies.  The frigates’ glossy plumage is not water-proof – a bit of a design fault for a sea-bird, so they’ve evolved a behaviour to compensate. The frigates wait till the boobies have dived into the ocean and caught a fish. They then monster them in flight until the boobies throw up their meal, and use their wide-span swoop-power to catch the fish before it re-enters the ocean, without getting their feet, or feathers, wet.  

Evolve your own squid-lure

Another clever fisher is the white gull. 

Its red eye rim and feet are luminescent at night.  Squid are attracted to light.  Therefore…

“Well I never, here comes dinner!”   



North Seymour now has a land iguana population too, from a group relocated from neighbouring Balta Island in the 1930s, when it was clear they were threatened there. They actually went extinct on Balta in the 1950s.  The introduced North Seymour population then provided the stock to repopulate Balta in the 1990’s. They’re doing OK back home.  Round of applause for the Darwin Research Station.  More on them when I write about the giant tortoises. Sometime tortoise-soon.  Anyway, Luiz got a North Seymour resident iguana to demonstrate how to eat a cactus fruit.  First you roll it round in the scoria to remove the prickles. Voila – safe to scoff.

First you roll it underfoot….

… safe to savour.







It’s been a long post.  Thanks for coming and staying with me.

Young Magnificent Frigate. The rainy Season (such as it is) has greened up the Palo Santo trees.


Moai – and more


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Ahu Tongariki – twice offended, once by human toppling, then moved inland by the tsunami from the 1985 Chilean earthquake.

Here’s to the salutary experience of being made to feel small.

Faced with the monumental Moai of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), that sensation of your own puniness is quite palpable.  But it’s not just your comparative size and your awareness of the huge human effort that went into carving and erecting them.  It’s also about knowing how puny humans cumulatively created, on that island, a wholesale collapse –   first of the resources, then of the structure of its society, and then of the population.  And – aaargh – how we risk doing it again, on a global scale!

Up on Rano Raraku, the volcanic quarry site.


But first – the amazement!  Seeing the Moai “in person” is so much more than in any number of photos. They’re awe-inspiring in their bulk, heft and solemn presence.

The power they represented during the “building centuries”, and for which they were toppled in the “destruction decades” of the Civil

A work in progress. still attached to the “mother”.

War in the 1600s,  is raised again in that small percentage that have been stood up.   It’s their original standing up on the Ahu – the stone marae – and perhaps the insertion of their eyes at that point – which marked them taking mana.

As local knowledge has it, those in the process of manufacture or transport were just artefacts, until they were stood upright in place.  Hence, during the period of destruction, when rival clans toppled each other’s Moai to demolish their power, the completed carvings

Abandoned in transit … now up to their necks as the soil accretes. Deforestation hastened erosion across the island.

abandoned ‘in transit’ were left standing.

A faded photo of a demonstration of how it used to be done. Disproves the “alien engineers” theory!

Then of course there’s the amazement of the human ingenuity and effort involved in the process.  Once the Moai was severed from the mother rock, it was stood upright for final work on its back, then (they think) “walked” using wooden handles, in the same way that we “walk” a fridge or a wardrobe, down the hillside.  It was laid down again to move across to the coast, and finally stood up in place on the Ahu.

A large Japanese crane failed in one attempt to raise one of the Moai.

Our guide talked of the large Moai (they got bigger and bigger over the 300 years of the construction period) taking 60 – 90 people 6 – 9 months to carve.  Transporting them on palm-tree rollers or ladder-like tracks out to the Ahu on the coast would have taken 50 to 500 people.

And thus the track leads to disaster.  Standing there looking at them, and knowing what we do now about what happened next, I was looking for a word that’s some combination of “foreboding in hindsight”.   I’m sure there’ll be one in German!

Suffice to say, the population growth enabled by extensive plantations and deep-ocean fishing, and the deforestation following the use of all the trees for canoe-building, Moai- transport, and ordinary life, collided

Ahu Tahai, by the beach at Hangaroa. During the ‘toppling’ of the Moai, stones where placed to break the Moai as they fell. Restoration is mainly confined to “standing up”, not repairing.

to produce a crisis.

The clans which had collaborated up till then over access to resources fought over the exact same thing. As they toppled each other’s Moai, they started the decimation (perhaps in this case an accurate use of that word) of their population.

Weakened by civil war, they were no match for European diseases from the 1770s onwards, and Peruvian slave raids in the 1860s.  Best reading on this… Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive.” Actually this 2005 book is even more now than then required reading!

One US dollar for a photo please.” Young tourism entrepreneur.

The harbour is designed for fishing boats, not cruise ships

So – in the here and now….  We have one of the most remote islands in the world, with its only major resource being its people and its extraordinary attractions – not just the Moai, but the Ahu, petroglyphs, stone chicken houses, rock gardens, rongorongo language boards, bird-man culture… so much history.

This year, it has been granted local resource-power over its income from visitor fees: up till now they’d gone back to Chile’s National Park account.  So of course local decision-making is focusing on education in tourism business development.

But then, there’s the question about the infrastructure.  The roads require driver skills in pothole-slalom.  There are two alternative landing sites for the tender boats from cruise ships, depending on the direction of the seas –  but still there were people on our boat who’d made 4 or 5 unsuccessful attempts to get on land. We were so lucky!  The little harbour has room for only one tender at a time, and the narrow channel is lined with sharks-tooth rocks.   Earlier, Nasa extended the runway at the airport, as an abort site (since not required) for the space shuttle programme. Big jets can fly in.

You ask – what are the limits to growth?

The question becomes about lessons learned from history.

Can the Moai which are artefacts of both great accomplishment and collapse now provide a means for a sustainable future?   And what of their lessons for the rest of us?

I saw more horses in loose herds than cattle.


Ko te Rito. The only Moai to have been “refurbished”, with his eyes replaced. The others are left to illustrate the historical truths.

One of a kind – the only kneeling Moai. One wonders about the ancestor he may represent , but he never made it away from the quarry.

The long hot wait for the returning tender. All Moai except for a small group have their backs to the sea, in order to send their mana inland. The group facing out to sea are thought to possibly represent the initial navigators.

Return to Tonga


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There are places that form a pivot point in your life.  Where surprising things happen; where challenges test you and change you; and where you leave your mark on that place as surely as it leaves its mark on you. Nearly 50 years ago Tonga was one of those places for Mani.

So when we were looking at the itinerary of this cruise across the Pacific and around Sth America and back, and saw that Nuku’alofa was first stop, it seemed like fate was nudging him back there.

Forty-eight years after Mani built the hospital for the King –  would anything remain apart from memories?

So we sail in.  There is the Palace – with the large green lawn in front where the King hosted Queen Elizabeth, Prince Phillip and Princess Anne to the feast to celebrate Tonga’s graduation from being a British protectorate.

Queen Salote had negotiated Tonga’s change of status before she died in 1965.   Britain gave King Tāufaʻāhau Tupou IV, who succeeded his mother, 10 million pounds sterling, half of which he used to have the hospital built in Nuku’alofa.  Fisher and Paykel got the contract – and Mani got the job.  He, his wife Margaret and young Heidi and Esther had already been there for more than 6 months by the time of the ceremonials. The hospital was 90 percent completed by the time he was sitting on the lawn just over from the Queen – and while Mani was being fed by a young Tongan woman, the Queen had to eat with her own fingers. The penalty of being too tapu, I guess.

By then, the King had become very fond of Mani’s spaghetti bolognaise, which he would eat with a fork while the two of them enjoyed watching the nobles struggle to eat spaghetti the customary fingers way.

So now, we get off the Sea Princess onto a new wharf.  The old one is still there, collapsing into the water.

That’s where the huge steam boiler for the hospital was landed – 48 years before, and three kilometres from the hospital site around the lagoon at Haveluloto. There was no means to transport it.

Mani, Margaret, Esther and Heidi in front of Ha’amonga ‘a Maui

So – ancient engineering techniques came back. Just as for the Ha’amonga ‘a Maui (the burden of Maui)  coconut palms became rollers, and the pushing and pulling began.  Then there were replacement palm trees all along that road.  Now there’s not a one.

There are at least two versions of how the 40 tonne stones of Ha’amonga ‘a Maui  got there. According to legend, the demigod Maui went to ‘Uvea (present day Wallis Island), nearly 1,000 km away, and brought the stones back to Tonga in his canoe.  Mani didn’t have that option with the boiler.

The more likely story is that in the early 1400s, Tu’itatui, the 11th king of the long-lasting Tu’i Tonga dynasty built this giant archway to encourage his two sons to cooperate. The standing stones represent one son each: Lafa is east and Talaihaapepe is west; the horizontal beam on top binds them together. Strength in unity.

The original boiler, sidelined, but still there.

We look for an older local who might know of people Mani remembered. Yes, but they’re dead now.   He chooses a young taxi driver for us, and off we set along that once-familiar road.  Not much is recognisable now.

Then we’re at the hospital. We already knew there was a new one built, with Japanese money this time. Our driver Tala navigates around the back and finds the Engineer’s office.

Chief Engineer Fetele had worked at the hospital from the start of his career, so he’d known the old systems which had been replaced over time – and he immediately says that he and his team had been wondering how some of the original work had been done.

How HAD Mani done the in situ welding under the pipes along the underground ditches when the heat from the welding torches would shatter a mirror you put down to see what you were doing underneath?  “Aha” responds our inventive one “you make a puddle of water underneath to give you a shatter-proof reflection!”


A blind-welded pipe sees daylight again

More original relics



And so the conversation goes for quite some time until Fetele has to go to a meeting, declaring that he feels re-energised and inspired by what he’d learned.

Back into the taxi, and around the road to where the young Zust family had lived.  The huge mango tree is still there, even larger, but the house gates are shut and no-one is around, so no joy there.

Perhaps over the road where the family lived from whom Mani would borrow the horse and two-wheel cart for family outings? Those Sunday drives had been the cause of some notoriety. Tongans are strict about Sundays.   But the Zust family was special, working for the King, so they were waved by.   There used to be two girls living there who would play with Esther and Heidi and go out on the picnics. Could one of them perhaps have taken over the house?

There are three generations in residence there, and much excited and fragmented attempts at conversation with Tala the taxi-driver translating. He is fully engaged in the mission by now. But no – probably the older woman there was not one of the girls, because she had no recollection about a family of palangi living over the road, and if she’d been the playmate of a couple of young New Zealand girls, that would surely be unforgettable.

No worries. Smiles and hugs and photos all round, and a little more exploring of the neighbourhood. The concrete block plant that made the blocks for the hospital is still there, but the Copra Board plant behind the house was gone – there is no longer a copra industry.  It used to be that a family could make enough Pa’anga from collecting coconuts to pay the school fees.  Now it seems the money comes from the family members working in NZ. Tonga’s main industry is the export of its labour.

New buildings line the streets, replacing those destroyed in the riots in 2006. The anger over the Chinese businesses and contractors continues – the rebuild is largely being done with imported Chinese labour instead of training the locals. The income and profit goes straight out of the country again.  One wonders … but a fleeting visit and a few conversations doesn’t really entitle one to an opinion.

Back then, the old King had been adamant that the hospital would be built with Tongan labour.  That created a few challenges for a young Swiss German engineer from a very different working culture – but an occasional rallying speech from the top of the boiler platform reminding them that they were building the place for their families, would work miracles.

Back into town through familiar yet unfamiliar roads, a very sweaty wander round the market, and back to the wharf again.  Mani and Margaret had left from there with some other notables for a private evening’s entertainment, conversation and dancing on the yacht Britannia during those celebrations 48 years before.  That was the night Mani danced with the Queen of England, and Margaret with Prince Phillip. His soft spot for her continues. “A very knowledgeable and intelligent woman – and a great sense of humour”. We wonder again if it is too late to take up the invitation of afternoon tea at the Palace. Probably, (sigh).

And so it goes.  Mani’s curiosity is satisfied.  Some bits of the original work remain:  in a way it’s nice that there hasn’t been a great demolition and tidy-up.  The current generation of engineers have learned a little about the history of the work they continue.  And there’s that sense of completion about having been part of something that really mattered at the time.

Farewell, again, from Tonga.


All Roads Lead to Rome


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Strange and wonderful, isn’t it, how when you’re travelling, unintended themes emerge.

The last few weeks, it’s been the Romans!   Of course they’ve left their traces all over the place around here – Mani’s family home is on an old Roman road – but on our recent travels, there the Romans have been lined up, front and centre.

That always makes me feel very ‘new world’ and aware that our history of habitation in New Zealand is as shallow as our topsoil.  In Switzerland the topsoil can be metres deep.  And right through those layers, are layers of human history.  The wonder works both ways of course.  A well-educated friend asked me the other day “You don’t have Roman ruins in New Zealand, do you?”  “ Uh, no.  We didn’t even have formed roads until a couple of centuries ago.”

So, the first encounter was, naturally, in Italy.  We’d gone to Sirmione, on Lake Garda for a few days.

Rocco Scaligera, Sirmione, by Tom Esplin

Rocco Scaligera, Sirmione, by Tom Esplin

Old Sirmione, on a narrow tongue at the foot of Lake Garda, has its sentinel castle, Rocco Scaligera, at the entrance to the bulbous end of the peninsula.  Many photos were taken, but imagine my delight when a Tom Esplin painting of the castle came up at Dunbar Sloane’s auction this week and I managed to snaffle it!  I’ve always liked his work, and this makes a fine souvenir.   Better still, it will be waiting for me in NZ – no carrying!

Back to the Romans.

Grotte di Catullo, no small matter!

Grotte di Catullo, no small matter!

A little tourist-train ride up to the top of the Sirmione peninsula – just to see what was there – took us to the entry of the Grotte di Catullo, most important example of a patrician Roman villa  in Northern Italy.  The blasé Europeans of our party opted for more cool drinks, but I sweated my way around the huge site, some 20,000 square metres. Extraordinary – and perhaps the prime piece of real estate in the region; lake views on three sides, and a climate moderated by the water.IMG_9181_1

There’s a bit of a conflation in the name of the place: the poet Catullus did have a family villa up there, but his death predated the construction of this particular villa by perhaps a century, so it doesn’t do to picture him declaiming here.  And the “Grotte” (caves) part of the name was because by the Middle Ages the buildings were largely buried by dirt and vegetation  – so it’s better just to let the place speak for itself. As it does, of sophisticated engineering and society.












Heat circulated under the floor, and up wall vents.

Heat circulated under the floor, and up wall vents.

We got a really good look at that engineering later, in the Mosel Valley.  There are a number of Roman villas there, and in the one at Mehring you can get a good look at the hypocaust, the system that provided under-floor heating through the villa, and hot water to the baths.


The other quite contemporary thing about it was the way the owners added on rooms as their establishment increased.  Another child, more servants, perhaps a granny flat… ending up with 34 rooms by the time the Germanic peoples decided to take back their land in about 355AD.

Roman, taking a proprietary stance outside 'his' villa, the Roman Villa Rustica at Mehring (2 - 5C AD)

Roman, taking a proprietary stance outside ‘his’ villa, the Roman Villa Rustica at Mehring (2 – 5C AD)


But by then, the glorious foundations of the Mosel were well and truly laid … in the Roman Wine Road, which complemented the less-reliable river.

1 of 4 stone wine-boats made as a substantial gravestone.


A reconstructed Roman wineship made by the present folk at Neumagen Dhron

The gang approaching a reconstructed Roman wineship made by the present folk at Neumagen-Dhron

Bless the Romans desire to have wine wherever they went: we’ll tag along joyfully.

Adam (right), tastng a wine as old as he is, from our favourite Trittenheim winemaker Peter Arenz (left)

Adam (right), tasting a wine as old as he is, from our favourite Trittenheim winemaker Peter Arenz (left). Vreni and Martin are hiding behind the glassware

And this visit, we really sampled Trier, at the southern end of the Mosel Valley. The first time we went to the Mosel, we drove into Trier, the wrong way, up a bus lane. Inauspicious start.  Found a carpark, enquired at a hotel and were quoted an eye-watering price.  Out of there!  The upside then was discovering Trittenheim, a small town dedicated to wine and good food in a hairpin bend of the river, to which we keep returning.

Trier seems much more approachable the second time around! Porta Nigra in the background

Trier seems much more approachable the second time around! Porta Nigra in the background.

This time finally we risked Trier again, and loved it.   The city was developed as the second Rome – the Romans’ ruling base this side of the Alps. Augustus established the original town in about 16 BC, and  by the end of the 3rd Century AD it was the capital of the Western Roman Empire.  A bridge built then still carries city traffic. The Porto Nigra stands sentinel, and huge bath complexes are still being excavated.

The bridge pilings are 2nd Century, still holding up 1717/1718 arches, and 21st C traffic.

The bridge pilings are 2nd Century, still holding up 1717/1718 arches, and 21st C traffic.

Much of the amphitheatre has disappeared, its stones being recycled over the centuries.  But you can explore the cellars under the arena. A while back we’d seen a television programme reconstructing the underground stage machinery for lifting cages of lions, gladiators, and other entertainment into the centre of such arenas.  Amazing to be able to visualise that.    A couple of weeks before in Verona I’d just prowled around the outside of the arena, saving the excitement of being inside for when we go back there for the opera, maybe next year.  But here in Trier, you could stand in the centre and conjure up the thunderous reality of roaring crowds and animals, the terror, the horror, and the exaltation.


Under the arena


Mani and Vreni face off…







Awe-inspiring, those ancient Romans.

And of course, you can’t help but wonder what the traces we leave will say about us.

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

William Faulkner

Enough Rain Already


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I rain

Because your meadows call

For God.

Hafiz, 14C Sufi poet.

(This entire poem at the end.)

Thank you Hafiz, but enough already.

It’s been an exceptionally cool and soggy June – though fortunately here we’ve not had the deadly floods that Germany and France have suffered.   But there’s been enough rain that Bodensee (Lake Constance) is full-to-nearly overflowing.


Storm-clouds over Bodense

So there’s only one thing to do – celebrate the drama of the weather, and the ingenuity of engineers as they find ways to deal with it!

I’m reading Gaia Vince’s “Adventures in the Anthropocene” at the moment, which deals with not just the human-caused climate changes, but also some of the extraordinary innovative options for adaptation.  We need such creative brilliance more than ever.


A newly re-engineered river on the other side of the Alps. (Not so much recent rain there!)

Of course, we’ve been adapting nature’s waterways for centuries, and here we live by the banks of an example.

The very top part of the mighty Rhine river (the part technically called the Alpine Rhine) runs through the Rheintal and into the Bodensee.  It always flooded with rain and snow-melt, which is why all the old towns lie up along the foothills.

The 19th Century was a time of great re-engineering along the entire Rhine, and the Alpine Rhine was rechannelled, straightened and deepened to increase its flow, and contain its waters – and offer a rich valley floor of alluvial silt for more secure farming and horticulture.  The ‘new Rhine’ flows out through Austria.


The ferry returning from Rheineck when the Alter Rhein is full, but not TOO full.

The ‘old Rhine’ (Alter Rhein), which still forms the border with Austria, was left as a swamp,  which was later dug out to make a navigable river up to Rheineck. Between the two is all nature reserve – and some of our favourite bike tracks.


Iron sculpture at the mouth of the Alten Rhein, celebrating the dig-out


Post 1999, all the properties along the rivers have flood protection. A barrier comes across to shut off the gate.

And right now – it’s full!  The new Rhine had filled up the channels either side between its first and second stop- banks, though it’s now back in line, and the old Rhine – itself further reengineered after the 1999 floods – overflowed the path I normally walk.


The Alter Rhein last week

The ferry landing / wading

The ferry landing / wading

The Weisse House restaurant rebuilt after the 1999 floods. The log was souvenired from INSIDE the old restaurant.

The Weisse House restaurant rebuilt after the 1999 floods. The log was souvenired from INSIDE the old restaurant.










Along the Alter Rhein and around Bodensee, water-birds’ nests have been flooded, and we’ve had flocks of gulls shrieking overhead as they look for options. There are a few floating nesting platforms – now highly prized and contested real estate.


To compare and contrast….


2011 – only the fishing boats could come up the river. Too shallow for the ferry.


Bodensee 2011 (from the local paper)


But the show must go on…

Margrit, Maria and I made our annual pilgrimage to the Kloster St Gallen for the outdoor opera. This year was Le Cid by Massenet, which I’d not seen before but now add to my favourites. It started in the rain, singers all exposed, and audience all in rain-condoms (or so I titled the multi-coloured plastic hooded capes that people pulled from their handbags for protection).  By mid-opera, the rain had stopped; still a great night.


Margrit under the red umbrella, and half of Maria!

And, as in New Zealand where a post-rain trip in Fiordland offers the best gushing roadside waterfalls, our trip through the passes to the sun of northern Italy was highlighted with full mountain streams.IMG_8977_1_1

So… to celebrate the rain.  The refresher of streambeds, the greener of pastures, the reminder of the source of life itself!

And, confession time – it’s easier to finish writing this after a few days in the sun of Lake Garda (of which more later), and with sunshine (and lawn-mowing!) waiting for me outside.


A postscript.

A couple of years ago (it can’t have been 2012) I reported on a snail that had improbably taken up residence in our little wind-machine.   Here’s its kin, inside the bird feeder suspended by wire, and firmly capped.  The only way in was through one of the feeding holes towards the bottom.  How? And more puzzlingly, Why?  Most fanciful explanation so far is that a bird might have seen the feeder as a larder and popped the snail in there for later. Other ideas welcome!IMG_8856


The previously inhabited wind-machine is still there to the right

Back to the Wetness…..


…  For some creatures that love the rain…..

I Rain

I rain

Because your meadows call

For God.

I weave light into words so that

When your mind holds them

Your eyes will relinquish their sadness.

Turn bright, a little brighter, giving to us

The way a candle does

To the dark.

I have wrapped my laughter like a birthday gift

And left it beside your bed.

I have planted the wisdom in my heart

Next to every signpost in the sky.

A wealthy man

Often becomes eccentric.

A divine crazed soul

Is transformed into infinite generosity

Tying gold sacks of gratuity

To the dangling feet of moons, planets, ecstatic

Midair dervishes, and singing birds.

I speak

Because every cell in your body

Is reaching out

For God.

From The Gift, a collection of poems by Hafiz, whose given name was Shams-ud-din-Muhammad (c. 1320 – 1389), translated by Daniel Ladinsky.  Pub. Penguin Compass,  1999.