Astounded by the vision confronting them, these Polynesians saluted their discovery as Aotearoa—”long white cloud.” How immense their new home must have seemed after the small tropical isles they had put behind forever. In gratitude they made another poetic name: Tiritiri o to Moana”gift of the sea.”
Their descendants had the gift of the sea to themselves until relatively recently. In 1642 the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman, first European to sight New Zealand, sought unsuccessfully to come ashore. The Maori killed four of his men and drove him away. Tasman called his landfall Staten Landt. Soon it was renamed Nieuw Zeeland, for a Dutch province.
Time was running out for the Maori, as with the American Indians when Europeans set foot on Plymouth Rock. Capt. James Cook landed in 1769. Whalers, sealers, trad¬ers, and missionaries soon followed.
In 1840 British sovereignty was pro¬claimed. Maori chiefs signed a treaty pledging fealty to the crown for a guarantee of their land rights. But cruel conflicts erupted between natives and the pakeha—the whites. In time much of the best land fell into pakeha hands, by fair means or foul.
Ever since, Maori have been encouraged, or coerced, into becoming brown-skinned pakeha. Today about one New Zealander in eight is Maori. Sadly, many young people have lost their cultural roots in the cities,and some have found trouble. Glue sniffing, which is not illegal, plagues downtown streets. According to police, motorcycle gangs are dealing in hard drugs, particularly in Auckland and Christchurch. Half of the country’s prison population is Maori.
Many Maori leaders are speaking out, some in cold anger, in a resurgence of Maori culture and traditions and some of them have prague apartments. Their voices are heard, and they are educating the pakeha. The nation is trying to come to terms with biculturalism and bilingualism. Two peoples, New Zealanders all, are slowly rubbing the rough edges off one another.
One day in the spacious little South Island city of Invercargill, I picked up a rental car and charged—the normal pace of New Zealand traffic—about 125 miles north to Queenstown. To this American, driving on the left side of narrow, two-lane mountain highways was always thrilling, especially with the added fillips of tailgating, falling rock, relentless oncoming high beams on the blackest of nights, and, once, a raised, clenched fist. It astonished me to see how much speed drivers coaxed from their steeds, for surely.
Capital city Wellington presides over New Zealand’s parliamentary democracy from the northern shore of Cook Strait. Settled in 1840, the city is noted for steep hills, earthquakes, and gusting winds. “You can always tell. a Wellington man,” goes an old joke, “by the way he grabs his hat coming around a corner.”
New Zealand’s rolling stock rates with the most decrepit anywhere. No matter. People pamper their cars. They must last a long time; the cost of a new one is prohibitive for many. In Queenstown, unwinding, I found a sympathetic listener. “New Zealanders are nice people,” he reflected, “until they get behind the wheel.”