New Zealand is NOT Middle Earth
New Zealand is NOT Middle Earth. Yes, I know, the film “The Hobbit” has spurred a zealous round of tourism promotion, but Middle Earth is a dark, dicey place full of Orcs, Spiders, fairies with ulterior motives and more good and evil than Mel Gibson could summon in a lifetime. New Zealand, not so much. I know because I have visited both Middle Earth and New Zealand. As a grad student way back in “The First Age”, I dissected Tolkien’s Middle Earth in a semiology class. Semiology, along with racing hamsters, is one of the world’s most useless pursuits. It attempts to analyze everything from Shakespearean sonnets to roast chickens by examining every couplet and giblet through the twisty prisms of Freud, Jung and the Marx Brothers (Karl and Groucho). I came to the conclusion that Middle Earth, though green and seductive, was pure infidel-roasting hell.
New Zealand? Hey, I could live there.
Don’t get me wrong, New Zealand does not lack for drama. Rotorua, on the North Island, belches steam and sulphur with mythic sturm. It rests on a volcanic plateau where geysers hiss and erupt with regularity. Even though nothing cataclysmic has taken place since an eruption near here in 1886 there is, like in Middle Earth, a lot going on beneath the surface. There is also quite a lot on top, crystal blue lakes and sheep-dotted hills.
Yes, sheep are still the New Zealand cliche’. The Kiwi sheep lexicon is analogous to that of the Eskimos with their umpteen words for snow. I attended a sheep show cum chorus line where I learned that a sheep is not just a sheep, it is a Merino, a Texel, a Black Romney (Imagine one running for US President) or a Dorset Down.
Chorus Line, New Zealand – Photo R. Johnson
A depiction of the Maori from a more genteel (but perhaps just as brutal) era can be seen in the paintings of Charles Goldie and Gottfried Lindaur. Their lush classical-styled portraits of subjects ranging from village people to tattoed statesmen are on display at the Auckland Art Gallery. I was stunned by these paintings depicting people with jaw dropping dignity.
About three hours south of Auckland, I wandered the Waitomo Caves one afternoon on a quest to see its arachnocampa luminosa, a glowworm unique to New Zealand. Like all caves, they are echoey. But some say these have the acoustics of an opera house. Diva Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, in fact, performed a concert here. My walk through the caverns got off to a bad musical start, however. I was accompanied by the cacophony of small out of control children. A Maori man and his wife were having little success in herding their flock along the pathways and through the limestone cathederals. The kids shrieked, ran through the legs of visitors like terriers, eliciting scowls and scolds from visitors. We approached a little landing next to an underground stream and began boarding boats for a trip through “Glowworm Grotto.” I jumped aboard a boat and the kids clambered on behind me. But the guide pulled them back, put them in another boat and waited until we were well underway. Peace at last.
Our little rowboat sailed out into the black of the caves, the screaming fading away to echoes behind us. Then there was silence. The kids stopped screaming and the mother began to hum. Then the children joined, beginning a little off key, but finding perfect harmony. I looked up into the darkness to what seemed to be stars. They were actually worms, hungry larvae clinging to the cave ceiling glowing to attract flyby insects to eat. It was something that you might think you could only find in a fantasy world like Middle Earth, beautiful harmonies echoing in a strange tongue as you drift along a river beneath the earth under a worm-studded sky.