Archive for March, 2016

Film Review: Late Spring (1949). 5/5 Stars

March 27, 2016

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 Noriko Somiya played by Setsuko Hara. 

Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) was an academic failure who stumbled into filmmaking in 1923. By the 1940s he was a master of Shomingeki, a genre whose themes dealt with the daily lives of ordinary working people. His unusual low set camera sat constantly centre-frame offering up images reminiscent of an Edward Hopper canvas, that place of light and space found between words and movement. This camera also conversed directly with his characters while casting clever observational asides about life, society and culture. Everything about Ozu the filmmaker was unique. He was a visual poet, an imaginative film technician and a self-made legend who drank too much and died too early. His catalogue is thin but remarkable.

1949 saw the release of the first of the three films that were to seal his reputation as a master. ‘Late Spring’ (1949), ‘Early Summer’ (1951) and ‘Tokyo Story’ (1953), collectively known as the Noriko trilogy. ‘Noriko’ is a central character in each of these films though in Ozu’s typically idiosyncratic style while the name is the same the character is not. His films belong to the order of film narrative called Shomingeki, in its time a hugely popular genre that dealt with the daily lives of ordinary working people.

 

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Yasujiro Ozu.

 

In ‘Late Spring’ the vivid and charismatic Setsuko Hara stars as 27-year-old Noriko the unmarried daughter of widower Professor Shukichi Somiya. She is a dutiful daughter who is content with the simple rhythms of life, caring for her father and tending to domestic duties. Her sunny disposition and even temperement belie the hardships she has recently endured as a labourer working in a munitions factory.

With Japans defeat she is rescued by her anxious father found starving, exhausted and close to death. Safely home, he nurses her back to health. Despite the contentment of their existence he is worried that she will spend the best years of her life tending the needs of an old man so he conceives a plan to gently push her from the home.

Sometime you happen upon a film that leaves you a better person for the experience. ‘Late Spring’ is a sad, joyous, humorous and heartfelt film about familial loyalty and personal sacrifice that explores the inner world of father and daughter while casting subtle eyes across Japans rapidly shifting cultural landscape, especially in regard to the all-pervasive influence of the American Forces of Occupation. Its sensitivity is profound, its touch wise and transformative, its social commentary subtle but deft.

In the 2012 edition of British Film Institutes influential Sight and Sound ‘Greatest Films Of All Time Poll’ ‘Tokyo Story’ was ranked number one, ‘Late Spring’ number fifteen.

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Film Review: Sweetgrass (2003). 5/5 Stars

March 25, 2016

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What is the miracle of the sheep herd? There is the man and woman, their horses and dogs: a collective intelligence feeding, protecting and maintaining the flock. It is the dream of the seasons, flowing cycle of birth, death and rebirth. The flock is constant but ever changing

The drama of birth: The Sheppard separates new mother and lamb from the flock. The mother’s instinct for the protection of the crowd and to be with her lamb pulls her in two directions. The pull of her offspring’s cry is too strong and she allows herself to be separated and penned. Safely apart she might now be carefully looked after and required to feed an orphan, a singular process of trickery whereby the Sheppard hoodwinks the mother into accepting a lamb that isn’t her own.

 

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With the springtime comes the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains and the 3000 head flock is let loose from the barn that has sheltered it across the raging scope of the Montana winter. The flock, like schooling fish or flocking birds, weaves its way across the landscape in flowing patterns. The dog, watching for subtle gestures from the Sheppard turns the flock this way and that. A study in enthusiasm, a portrait of intelligence.

 

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Prairie, glacial valley, mountainside, forest. The flock moves across wild summer pasture, growing fat and fat is money in the bank. The bond between sheep and lamb, dog and man is further revealed. Bears prey, knees wear, horses grow thin and dogs lame. 150 miles of mountain go by and exhaustion sets in. Cocksuckers, sonofabitch, dirty stinking motherfucking whores. Little sleep, predators and hard weather, the Sheppard weeps thinking he can’t take anymore.

 

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‘Sweetgrass’ is a stunning meditation about man, dog, sheep, horse and grizzly bear. It is a rumination on passing seasons and food supply. It is a prayer, portrait and narrative and hymn to the soul of the landscape and it leaves no stone unturned as it seeks to set to record a tradition that is about to be consigned to memory for the times they are a changing. The sheep drive has been going on for well over a 150 years but the economics of it don’t add up anymore.

I don’t know why I chose this one. It looked like it could be boring. It wasn’t. It was rich and subtle, deep and luminous. It was perfect.

 

Film Review: Embrace The Serpent. 5/5 Stars

March 23, 2016

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Embrace of the Serpent is the story of Karamakate (pictured), an Amazonian shaman and last survivor of his people and two scientists he works with over the course of 40 years in a search for a sacred healing plant.

Filmed in searing black and white, perhaps top remind us that most of us walk through life half asleep blind to the depth and breadth and vast myriad colours of reality, the primary purpose of this film is to commemorate the lost people of the Amazon, people whose stories have been lost to Christian subjugation, slavery and deforestation.

The narrative examines environmentalism, ideas and truth and introduces us to a world whose primordial knowledge has a lot to teach us about the art of living.

Perhaps the closet comparison I can draw is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and like this film, Embrace of the Serpent examines with prescient majesty, the grand mysteries of life.

Intense, deep, moving and profound; I highly recommend this film to anyone seeking a spiritual experience.

 

Film Review: Young Mr Lincoln

March 23, 2016

 

 images Henry Fonda as Abe Lincoln.

John Ford’s directing career began in the silent era (his directorial debut was in 1917) and stuttered to a close in the late 1966 (seven years before his death) and his legacy includes a slew of masterpieces including ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, ‘How Green was My Valley’ and ‘The Searchers’, the latter often included in critics lists of the greatest films ever made. ‘Young Mr Lincoln’ is less celebrated but must rank among the best in the Ford’s considerable catalogue.

A celebration of the life of the man considered one of three greatest figures to ascend to the American presidency, this joyous and celebratory film condenses the mythology of Lincoln’s young adult years in a yarn about a lawyer, Lincoln, defending two young brothers accused of murder. Along the way we witness Lincoln’s celebrated wit and humour and his skill at managing tense situations. The man is revealed to be sharply intelligent and one whose easy going attitude and demeanour leads foes and competitors to easily misjudge and underestimate him.

It is an incomplete portrait as revealed in the scenes dealing with the death of his first love Ann Rutledge. The light melancholy of these moments belies the actuality recorded by his friends and associates in their personal diaries at the time. Lincoln fell into a deep depression and many worried that he was going to take his own life and care was taken to ensure that no firearms were available to him and he was otherwise carefully watched.

Also ignored are his faults, which at that time included a propensity for using his considerable verbal and intellectual skills to aggravate and rile political opponents. He learned the hard way that this was not the best way to deal with people and later changed his ways. Otherwise the evolution of Abe is handled with grace, reverence and humour. The general thrust of ‘Young Mr Lincoln’ could be summed up in central scene where the young Abe is pondering on the nature of the law. He concludes that all it comes down to is doing the right thing thereby setting the foundation on which he will build his life’s philosophy.

Throughout ‘Young Mr Lincoln’ Ford’s deep focus lens is intent on examining time and place. The landscape of the American frontier is detailed with loving authenticity and the performances of Ford’s ensemble cast are mesmerising especially so Henry Fonda who as Lincoln the younger offers a nuanced and finely honed representation of all the characteristics Abe was famous for.

Films like this are all about building/accentuating mythology and one must always keep in mind that at the end of the day, no matter the talent of the individual, the person remains human and to be human is to be possessed of flaws as well as virtue. That aside Young Mr Lincoln is an allegory about the man and his America made most obvious in the astonishing closing scene. As Abe walks away from his friends and home, the sunshine of his innocent youth turns into the storm (the civil war) and yet he flinches not, smile unmoved as he faces what has to be faced. Overall a fantastic film viewing experience and one that I will long cherish.

Prosperity and Austerity: A Brief History of the Economic Tensions that Define Modern New Zealand.

March 22, 2016

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John A Lee 1936.

John A Lee: Portrait of a Well Meaning Extremist.

John A Lee was 21 when the First World War broke out. He had been on the road since he was 14, sleeping rough and eating inadequately. He had been in and out of institutions (mostly for petty theft) and had picked up tuberculosis somewhere along the way. Not especially interested in the idea of fighting for King and Country he nevertheless volunteered immediately imaging death on the battlefield preferable to death in a hospital bed if that was the way his disease was going to take him. It was the condition of his lungs kept him out of uniform but he persisted and with the help of an understanding Doctor was finally able to join the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces in 1916. He often said that he went to war as an observer and not as an ardent soldier nevertheless his time in service was remarkable.

He singlehandedly captured four German soldiers manning a machine gun emplacement on the Wytschaete Road near Messines in Belgium in 1916 and later that same year saved his Taranaki Company from a machine gun nest when he and two others crept up around behind it and captured forty two men and two machine guns. His left forearm was amputated after he was caught in an explosion during the Battle of the Somme in September 1916 and his war was over. For his efforts he was awarded the DCM, The Distinguished Conduct Medal.

His war adventures go some way toward describing his character and temperement but only pain half the picture. Born in 1891 he was the child of a solo mother in a time when such a thing was considered shocking. (His father was by all accounts a wild and charismatic entertainer with a gambling habit). His siblings shared different fathers and his mother often sought charitable help to keep everyone fed. He described their family life as one of ‘grinding poverty.’

He attended school infrequently and drifted into a life of petty crime. A sometime ward of the state he experienced the harsh indignities of the workhouse/borstal system (the infamous Burnham Industrial School) an experience that was to inform him for the rest of his life. An incorrigible escapee he was often on the run and through various misadventures learned the art of subterfuge in order to maintain his freedom.

He educated himself at provincial libraries and remained a voracious reader throughout his life. He was a particular and devoted student of socialist writers Jack London and Upton Sinclair and by the time he joined the army he was so deeply committed to the concept of socialism that he was nicked named ‘Bolshie Lee.’ His last jail stint ended in 1913 after he was released from Mt Eden Prison for smuggling alcohol into the King Country.

*Liquor was prohibited in the King Country for more than 70 years although tales of ‘sly groggers’ who smuggled alcohol into the district abound. Prohibition began in and ended on 13th November 1954 after the locals voted for an end in a referendum.

His 1963 book ‘Simple on a Soapbox’ was Lee’s account of his time in the first Labour Government and addressed his the events that lead to his expulsion from the Labour party and was one of the three books on the shelf of my childhood home that weren’t Readers Digest Condensed Books. I used to wonder at the title and often took it down to examine the cover art, a sort of modernist style sketch that I found endlessly fascinating.

Of course the subject matter itself was way and afar beyond my ability to understand but not so his autobiographical work ‘Children of the Poor’ which I found later in the school library. A rip-roaring account of his time in institutions and on the run from the law it is also a powerful political polemic that takes square aim at the social and economic injustices Lee was keen to expunge from society. I was shocked and moved by Lee’s portrait of social injustice in New Zealand and experienced my own first primitive political stirrings as a result.

I later learned that this book created quite a storm when it was published in 1934 lifting the veil as did on mainstream attitudes toward the poor, disadvantaged and disenfranchised. His critics accused him of overstating his case and exaggerating his experiences nevertheless it was an influential work that sold by the truckload and stirred much debate and reflective soul searching.

Lee, variously described as charismatic, fiery, impetuous and witty, believed that New Zealand was uniquely placed to create a unique brand of democratic socialism that recognised the nations inherent individualistic qualities (i.e. that perhaps socialist collectivism was not the best method for our primary industries) while providing for the disenfranchised and standing up for the rights of the workers.

With the tsunami of the Great Depression sweeping over the land Lee wrote ‘We are living in an ethical twilight, with the ideals of the new in our hearts and the pattern of the old upon our minds.’ In his mind Capitalism was collapsing and all societies had to choose, he believed, between fascist reaction and socialism. ‘We will lead you on a march that will inspire the whole of the earth’ he prophesied and indeed, the experiments of first Labour Government (1935) were closely watched and had a profound influence on many societies seeking solutions to the challenge of the Great Depression.

Lee was first elected to parliament in 1922 (the youngest ever MP at that time), lost in 1928 and won again in 1935 with single biggest majority ever achieved in the young nations history but despite his value to the party as an orator, policy maker and charismatic frontman (as a war hero his presence was invaluable), his impetuous and fiery temperament set off warning bells with the parties leadership.

Savage Vs Lee

 

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Michael Joseph Savage on the campaign trail

Like Lee, Michael Joseph Savage came from a background marked by poverty and hard labour and like Lee he was a self-educated and well-read socialist and with that education came a desire to improve the lot of the working person. Savage, who was a first hand witness to the tragic lot of the working poor and socially disenfranchised, described his take on socialism as ‘true Christianity in action’ a political philosophy that was interested primarily in social and economic justice rather than hard-core socialist ideology. In Savage’s mind, capitalism wasn’t beyond redemption, a position that was at odds with radicals like Lee who believed that capitalism was essentially a failure. This difference in perspective proved the breaking point in a friendship that had had otherwise been very close.

Savage had inherited the leadership of the party after his predecessor and fellow Australian Harry Holland died suddenly of a heart attack while attending the funeral of the Maori King in 1933, an accession that was rigorously opposed by Lee who felt that Savage was too cautious in his approach yet in the eyes of the electorate, then as now suspicious of extremism, the centrist and conciliatory Savage was the perfect figure for the day and carried Labour to their first electoral win in a landslide victory in 1935.

Lee began to resent Savage and Savage become wary of Lee (describing him as ‘too wild and unconventional’) and despite Lee’s obvious abilities as an organiser and manager; Savage kept him at arms length. The frustrated Lee did not help his case for a Cabinet position with a constant stream of abusive backbiting aimed directly at Savage whose considered approach to change clashed with Lee’s radical urgency.

In 1938 Savage fell ill with colon cancer but he postponed the required surgery focused as he was on a raft of reforms and the looming European war. Sensing opportunity in Savage’s misfortune Lee stepped up his campaign against him with the publication of an essay in 1940 titled ‘Psychopathology in Politics’ which implied that Savage’s physical condition had destroyed him mentally.

Savage responded at that years Labour Party Conference by stating that Lee had made ‘ two years my life a living hell with all the venom and lying innuendo of the political sewer, using my illness to destroy me as a political force’. As a result Lee was expelled from the Labour Party and 24 hours later, early on 27 March 1940, Savage died at his home in Wellington.

Lee had been undone by his inability to control the aspects of his nature that allowed him such success on the field of battle. His temerity given full reign became an obsessive urge that undermined his position in Labour’s inner circle, and whatever he thought about Savage, the party and public did not agree.

Lee’s response was to launch a new political movement called the Democratic Labour Party renamed the Democratic Soldier Labour Party for the 1943 elections. Lee’s autocratic leadership style had a negative impact on the new party and confirmed that Labour’s decision to keep him out of the central leadership had been a wise one. Lee lost his Grey Lynn seat and political career was effectively over. He devoted the rest of his life to writing, critiquing Labour (‘Labour is a despotic machine, hostile to democratic values, and victim of an unholy alliance of greedy unionism with corrupt politicians’) and running a successful bookshop, Vital Books. He died at his home in 1982, aged 91.

 

Reform Within Capitalism

Savage’s government of reform shaped the economic and social direction of New Zealand for decades to come creating in the process not only one of the world’s wealthiest nations, but also one of the fairest. 40 years after Savage’s historic victory, NZ had the distinction of having the most equitable distribution of wealth in the world.

Despite their differences Lee and Savage helped transform the nature of the society they had inherited. Dispensing with the social and economic traditions inherited from Britain, they and their contemporaries set NZ on a new course of economic self-determination that made humanitarian concerns the central factor of economic policy and the process redefining the nature of nationhood and the purpose of society.

Labour won 4 consecutive elections before losing the government benches in 1949. It would be 8 years before they would govern again. In the meantime the new conservative National party government maintained Labour’s ‘cradle to the grave’ universalist welfare state, building on those early foundations and further enhancing NZ’s status as a world leading social laboratory.

Tension is a defining factor in any robust democracy and in New Zealand this tension has manifested itself in a endless tug of war between private and public interests and the challenge of governments, both of the political left and right, has been to maintain a balance that does not tip the scale too far in either direction. As New Zealand matured as a democracy one thing became certain to among most political players, this electorate did not tolerate extremism, favouring instead a sense of fair play that considered the needs of the majority above the needs of the few. A delicate balance that governments by in large maintained successfully until the 1980s when the nation set itself on a new direction.

With Lee’s passing in 1982 the nation buried the last of the reforming architects of the 1930s. Two years later that legacy became the target of a robust ideological war of attrition that was to become the defining hallmark of that decade. The 4th Labour government introduced free-market liberalism by stealth.

The previous conservative government headed by the autocratic Robert Muldoon was a strange mix of heavy-handed interventionist socialism and conservative social values that divided the community on a series of issues. The early 1980’s were marked by anxiety and an atmosphere of tension as New Zealand examined itself with rigorous intensity. By the time the 1984 election rolled around the electorate was ready for change. The nation had looked into itself and did not like what it was seeing and a new Labour government with revolutionary social agenda marched triumphantly into office.

Led by the charismatic David Lange this government was ready to met all the expectations of a community ready to take a bold step forward into the future but for one factor. The new minister of finance Roger Douglas surprised everyone, including the party itself, with a reformist economic agenda that was totally at odds with Labour’s traditions. Trade barriers were dismantled, financial rules were loosened, unions were disempowered and much of the nations state owned infrastructure was sold off in what could be described as a knee-jerk reaction to the previous forty years of state control.

The Doors to Fortress NZ were thrown wide open and the nation was set to wheel and deal its way to a new level of prosperity, or so the sale pitch went. With hindsight it is easily argued that the economy was due an overhaul and some liberalisation was necessary but for ordinary working Kiwis the extent of the changes came as a psychological shock. None of the caution of Savage here, this was the anti-Lee given full reign.

The government fractured, warped and ate itself as the reformists argued for further and more radical economic liberalisation while the traditionalists called time saying enough was enough. A new conservative government elected in 1990 took up the argument.

Centrist Prime Minister Jim Bolger held his radicals in check for a considerable time before being rolled by the extremist faction headed by Jenny Shipley. The nations first female Prime Minister was an avowed right wing conservative of limited ability whose biggest fault was her lack of perception regarding the wider electorate and its intolerance for ideological politics. Mistaking her inner circles enthusiasm for extreme reform as the pulse of the nation she found herself quickly and unceremoniously dumped at the next available election.

Since then the electorate has selected economically centrist governments dedicated to New Zealand’s tradition of social progressiveness but 81 years after the first Labour government addressed the dire social condition of working people, our love affair with unfettered free market economics has bought us perilously close to that which we left behind many decades ago.

Today our income disparity rates among the widest in the developed world, total combined national debt has reached staggering heights and many of the acquired rights of working people have been watered down if not struck for the law books. Child poverty is at it’s worst since the 1930s and public housing is being sold off at a time when the working poor are finding it difficult to pay the rent.

The official response from the current conservative government has consistently been “there is no poverty in New Zealand,” or in other words, “nothing to see hear move along,” a similar response to the conservatives of yore as they faced the looming threat of the Great Depression.

In early 2016 comments from the conservative Minister of Finance Bill English warned that a period of ‘Austerity’ might be necessary to address national debt. As with the rest of the developed world the conceit in New Zealand has been that that it is the Corporations and wealthy individuals who create jobs and that by providing them with tax breaks we are encouraging them in their noble endeavours.

These tax breaks have been instrumental in powering the nations debt as the government has been borrowing to fill the gap between tax revenue and the needs of the community. The statistical evidence reminds us that it is in actually small business that provides for the bulk of working people yet the mythology overstating the contribution of the 1% persists meaning that ‘Austerity’ will be directed at those who can least afford to bear it.

I return here to John A Lee. In 1932 he persuaded the Labour Party to organise mass meetings to address the conservative governments ‘retrenchment’ response to the Great Depression. At a meeting in Dunedin Lee declared: ‘we are at war against those who are trying to drag the people down to degradation and poverty. We are starving our way to prosperity in a world of plenty, and it can’t be done’.

 

Epilogue

My grandfather Bill was a young Dairy farmer in 1935 when the Savage led Labour government came to power. The price for butterfat was low, his debt was high and like so many other farmers he was wondering if he was going to lose his land. Lee and Savage were monetary reformers determined to use the mechanics of the banking system to benefit the nations people and the plan was use Reserve Bank credit to pay Dairy Farmers a guaranteed price for butterfat. (This was one of the areas of disagreement between the two men. Lee wanted to take the use of reserve band credit much further than Savage was prepared to do. Savage preferred a more orthodox approach using a mix of conventional debt borrowing and government credit fearing inflationary kickbacks if too much new money was set loose in the economy).

Bill had been to see both Lee and Savage speak and returned to the farm convinced by their plan and besides the ruling conservatives (the traditional party of the farmers) had nothing offer beyond belt tightening.

The first Labour Government paid Dairy farmers a pound for a pound of butterfat, more than enough to shore up the farms finances. It allowed him and his contemporaries the income to invest in their local dairy Co-Operatives and create solid middle class lives for their families. For the rest of his life my grandfather spoke fondly of both Savage and Lee and the differences these men made to his life.

My paternal grandfather, forever after a proponent of monetary reform (using the Reserve Bank to create and distribute debt free money to stimulate growth and pay for the necessities that couldn’t be covered through general taxation) shared something of Lee’s suspicion of overly powerful Unions (in order to strengthen the position of working people in society the first Labour government had made unionism compulsory and thereby powerful, a power which many, including Lee, claimed made them somewhat corrupt) and transferred his vote to Lee’s Democratic Labour movement hence the books pride of place on the families bookshelf.

I grew up in the 1960 and 70s safe in the bosom of a middle-income family, the third generation to be raised on that piece of land my grandfather had wrested from infertile former swampland. We were not rich but neither did we want for anything and there was never any doubt that our prosperity was due to the likes of Lee and Savage. Their story is not history; rather it is a prescient tale about the swings and roundabouts of political fashion, a story that reminds us that when testing times come knocking complacent orthodoxy is not the solution but then neither is radical extremism. The truth lies always in the vast grey rather in the carefully drawn black and white and best of New Zealand has always been found in that grey.

Government has a sacred duty to step up when times are tough and provide where private interests cannot and will not and to ensure that the needs of ordinary citizens are adequately provided for. Contemplating the heady times of the 1930’s and the approaching Austerity of 2016 I realise as much as everything has changed, so much stays the same. I am also reminded of the importance of perspective, a quality valued little the arena of ideology.

Books by John A Lee:

  • Children of the Poor, 1934.
  • The Hunted, 1936.
  • Civilian into Soldier, 1937.
  • Socialism in New Zealand, 1938.
  • The Yanks are Coming, 1943.
  • Shining with the Shiner, 1944.
  • Simple on a Soapbox, 1963.
  • Shiner Slattery, 1964
  • Rhetoric at the Red Dawn, 1965.
  • The Lee Way to Public Speaking, 1965
  • Delinquent Days, 1967.
  • Mussolini’s Millions, 1970
  • Political Notebooks, 1973.
  • For Mine is the Kingdom, 1975
  • Soldier, 1976
  • The Scrim-Lee Papers. 1976 (with CG Scrimgeour & Tony Simson)
  • Roughnecks, Rolling Stones & Rouseabouts, 1977
  • Early Days in New Zealand, 1977
  • The John A. Lee Diaries 1936–1940, 1981

 

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John A Lee 1981, the year before his death

 

 

Things To Do In The Central Waikato Before Passing Through on Your Way to Somewhere Else

March 17, 2016

 

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Between Auckland and a whole host of palatable destinations like Rotorua, the Volcanic Plateau of the Central North Island and the golden beaches of the Bay of Plenty is the Waikato. A vast fertile basin of temperate climate, the Waikato region stretches from the wild black sand beaches of the North Islands West Coast to the Coromandel on the Islands East coast. In between is a cornucopia of landscapes that is mostly overlooked by the casual tourist flying into the country via Auckland and hurrying on through on their way toward more famous destinations.

Perfectly suited to the growing of grass, the Waikato is the centre of New Zealand’s behemoth Dairy industry and home to the giant Dairy Co-Operative Fonterra, a brand that dominates international dairy trade and is New Zealand’s largest manufacturing and export industry. The Waikato boasts one of the world’s premier ‘young’ Universities in the University of Waikato, whose Business School is considered secondly only to Harvard’s. The region is also a major international centre of scientific research with a particular specialty in bovine genetics.

The Waikato is NZ’s fourth largest regional economy with an annual GDP of around $16.5 billion.

Heading Southward from Auckland, the Waikato can be approached from 3 directions:

  1. Straight down via State Highway One, which takes us through Huntly, Ngaruawahia, Hamilton, Cambridge and Tirau.
  2. Via State Highway 27, the gateway to the Coromandel and Bay of Plenty, which takes us through Te Aroha, Morrinsville and Matamata.
  3. Or by way of the West Coast, a cornucopia of marginal roads that offer a wholly unique driving experience and includes the Limestone district (as featured in the film trilogy Lord Of The Rings), the iconic surfing town of Raglan, Kawhia and Otorohanga.

The West Coast route begins at Port Waikato, a brief 40 minutes from the Auckland CBD where the countries longest river, the 425 km long Waikato, meets the sea. This road takes us past the regions three harbours, Raglan, Aotea and Kawhia.

Weathertop

Raglan is a two-hour drive from Port Waikato. This route abounds with spectacular scenery and includes the Limestone Downs District, or as it is referred to in the Lord of the Rings movies, Weathertop. There are numerous lakes, coastal vistas and native forests to see on a drive that seldom includes other vehicles.

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Limestone Downs

Raglan

Raglan is home to some 3000 people and the coffee and food is first class. Hamilton’s (the capital city of the Waikato region) weekend getaway spot is a magnet for alternative lifestyler’s, surfers and those seeking respite from the rat race. The Wharf District, Bridal Veil Falls (a spectacular waterfall surrounded by native forest) and the many bays and beaches are all well worth your time as is the famed toothbrush fence at the little settlement Te Pahu, a few kilometres down the line. Don’t forget to bring your old tooth scrubbers along for some artistic recycling.

 

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Raglan Surf

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Bridal Veil Falls

The coastal road South takes us around the beautiful Mt Karioi (where there is plenty of good hiking) and past the Te Toto Gorge, a wild cliff face that plunges with sudden and breath-taking drama from the land to the sea. The drive will take about two hours and remember to stop and check out the untouched glories of the Aotea Harbour along the way. A former glacial valley, (fed by the Pakoka River which you would have seen earlier as the Bridal Veil Falls), this peaceful harbour is unpopulated and bordered by regenerating native forest and rolling pastureland.

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Te Toto Gorge

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http://www.aoteaharbour.co.nz/

Kahwia Harbour

Kawhia Harbour was the one of the original landing places of the first wave of Polynesian migrants some 7-800 years ago. With such a long history, the district has many stories to tell.  It is also a mecca for fossil hunters and new discoveries about NZ’s distant past are being unearthed all the time. The latest major discovery is the fossilized remains of a penguin that stood as tall as a human. Amateur geologists will also have a field day exploring the unique rock formations on display.

The main beach is typically North Island West Coast black sand but under that sand you will find a multitude of hot water springs that can be accessed for two hours either side of low tide. Dig a hole, let it fill with hot water then slide in, sit back and sigh loudly.

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Hot Water Springs Kawhia Beach

The town itself is a sleepy little settlement of some 600 people with a beautiful Marae at its heart (a Marae is a traditional Maori meeting place). The fish and chips are very good and just south of Kawhia, they mine iron-sand for steel making. It’s a huge operation but probably only worth your while if you are an ‘enthusiast’.

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Otorohanga

58kms east of Kawhia is the town of Otorohanga (pop. 2,600). The central feature of the town is the Ed Hillary Walkway named for famous New Zealand adventurer Ed Hilary, the first person to reach the summit of Everest the world’s tallest mountain.

The walkway is a notable and extensive collection of Kiwiana (historic New Zealand brands and cultural artefacts) featuring everything from Buzzy Bees to All-Black memorabilia. Don’t forget to check out Haddad’s Menswear, a glimpse into New Zealand’s retail past, the Haddad brothers have been dressing the districts men for 50 years.

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Ed Hilary Walkway

The Otorohanga Kiwi House and Native Bird Park boasts the nations largest domed aviary, and is the perfect place to see and observe a selection of rare native birds, including the Kiwi. This flightless bird possesses a brain structure more akin to mammal than an avian and behaves more like a cat than a bird. Soft and warm with plenty to say, the Kiwi is a delight to behold.

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Otorohanga Kiwi House - feeding Longfin eels

Eel feeding at the Otorohanga Kiwi House

 

Pirongia, Te Awamutu

From Otorohanga you head south to New Plymouth (and take in some of the North Islands most scenic road views) or head north into Hamilton, a route that will take you past the stunning 962 meter high Mt Pirongia, an extinct volcano where you will find an array native birds including fantails, kingfishers, kereru, and tui as well as some spectacular stands of old growth native trees like rimu, tawa and totara. The walkways are numerous and well developed.

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Tirohanga, Pirongia Forest Park

Pirongia village itself is a reliable coffee stop as is the bustling dairy farming town of Te Awamutu a little further north.

http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/places-to-go/waikato/places/pirongia-forest-park/

While in Te Awamutu, check out the Rose Gardens, (considered to be among the world’s finest), and the museum which hosts a permanent display to towns most famous sons, The Finn Brothers. The Finn Brothers are responsible for some of New Zealand’s most iconic music: as solo artists, as a duo and as members of international hit makers the pop/rock bands Split Enz and Crowded House.

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Hamilton

Hamilton is the Capital of the Waikato region. With a population closing in on 190,000, it is NZ’s fourth largest city.

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http://www.hamiltonwaikato.com/

Hamilton Central boasts some 115 eateries, the suburbs a whole lot more. Hood Street is the main entertainment district and home to a variety of bars, clubs and restaurant’s offering craft beer, live music and a host of other goodies. A little further south along the main street is the Meteor, NZ’s largest ‘black box’ theatre and there is something going on here most nights. Its worth timing your visit for the Meteors regular Performance Cafe, a night when the cities poets, musicians, performance artists and comedians gather to do their thing in front of a rowdy audience.

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Just across the road from Hood Street is the cities Museum and Art Gallery where the visitor can view, among the varied permanent displays, the 200 year Maori war waka (canoe) Te Winika.

http://waikatomuseum.co.nz/

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Te Winika 

 

Don’t forget to seek out Browser’s an iconic second hand bookstore. Browser’s is warm, welcoming and endlessly eclectic, offering the bibliophile a host of rare and unexpected delights.

The glory of Browser’s is only matched by Auteur House further up the main street. At the top of the slightly seedy looking stairwell is a cinephiles heaven. This World Cinema DVD rental store is the repository one of the countries largest private film collections. You’ll find films here that you never knew existed.
While you’re in town don’t forget to say hello to Riff Raff. Designed by Weta Workshop (The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings) this statue is a tribute to one of the cities favourite sons Richard O’Brien. Situated on the former site of the Embassy Movie Theatre where a young O’Brien immersed himself in the B-Grade Horror films that later inspired him to create ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’, the world’s longest running theatrical production. O’Brien (who found further fame hosting iconic British game show The Crystal Maze between 1990 and 1994) played Riff Raff in the original stage production and later movie adaptation.

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Riff Raff Statue

http://www.riffraffstatue.org/page/riffraff_5.php

One of Hamilton’s little known treasures are the 750 hectares of gullies that weave in and about through the city. Long abused, in recent years they have been the focus of major restoration work. Raised walkways make them easy to traverse and the curious will discover a wide variety of natural ecosystems and fresh water springs bare meters from the bustling cityscape. There are also extensive walkways along the Waikato River and around Lake Rotoroa, (Hamilton Lake). Just up behind the city centre, this peat dome lake is surrounded by gardens and several large-scale public art pieces.

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Before you leave the city don’t forget to check out the Zoo, a thoroughly modern affair dedicated to conservation. Here you will meet zebras, meerkats, tigers, giraffes, elephants and all manner of native birds in natural surroundings.

On Cobham Drive you’ll find the Hamilton Gardens, an eclectic collection of themed gardens that recently won the coveted ‘International Garden of the Year Award’ in 2014. Themes include: The Tudor Gardens, The Indian Char Bagh Garden, The Italian Renaissance Gardens, The Modernist Gardens and The Chinese Scholars Garden.
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hamilton gardens

 

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The Italian Renaissance Gardens

Cambridge

Just south of Hamilton is the heritage town of Cambridge (population 20,000). Noted for its trees, parks, boutique shopping, cafes and fine dining, there is plenty on offer for the casual visitor. New to the town is the Art-Deco themed Tivoli Cinema overlooking the Lake Te Koutu Domain as are a plethora of walkways and cycle-ways that offer extensive views of the Waikato River. If all that walking about has made you hungry you might want to check out the Queen Vic Chippy, an award winning Fish and Chip shop. Fish and Chips are New Zealand’s traditional takeaway meal.

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Lake Te Koutu Domain Cambridge

The Waikato occupies an area of 9,325 sq. km. and is home to some 2 million dairy cows and 416,000 people.

20 minutes out of town, past the historic Karapiro Hydro Dam and lake, is the Maungatautari Ecological Island, an extinct volcano whose cone has been enclosed by 50 km’s of predator proof fencing. This community led project has created the largest predator free enclosure on mainland NZ and remains one of the worlds most successful ecosystem restoration projects. Since the projects inception, endangered native birds have been proliferating and spilling out across the region. There are several walks, some longer than others, but all worth your time.

*With the exception of a species of bat and the Tuatara lizard, prior to the arrival of humans some 1000 years ago, the New Zealand islands (long isolated from the rest of the world) had no mammals or reptiles. Birds were the dominant species and evolved without knowledge of these predatory species. With the arrival of humans came rats, dogs, cats and opossums (to name a few) and they wrecked havoc on the defenceless bird populations. For many decades’ people both at community and governmental level have been working hard to preserve native ecosystems from introduced biological threats.

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Maungatautari Predator Proof Fence

Between the towns of Cambridge, Morrinsville and Matamata are circular range of hills comprising the districts of Te Miro, Maungakawa, Whitehall and Richmond Downs and some of the most spectacular scenery in the region is to be found here. The narrow roads that traverse the high plateau are a popular destination for weekend motorcyclists so be careful to stay on the left so you won’t be surprised by the row of Harley’s coming the other way. These districts also offer several stands of virgin native forest and walkways by which they can be explored.

Look out for Waterworks Road. Here you will find an artificial lake that supplies water to the town of Morrinsville. It is a popular destination for swimming, boating and barbecuing in the summer. Roads of particular scenic interest include Te Miro Rd, Whitehall Rd, Scotsman Valley Rd, French Pass and Brunskill.

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Maungakawa Hill by Rodney Hamill (1999)

Matamata

Matamata (Population 7,600) is famous for its close association with the Hobbits of Middle Earth and the small display village of Hobbiton but it has a great deal more to offer. On ‘Old Te Aroha Road’ (a few spare minutes north of the town) you will find Waiere Falls. Careering down the Kaimai Ranges, this is one of the longest waterfalls in the North Island. The trek to the top takes about one and a half hours and after the walk back down you can relax at one of the two thermal spas to be found nearby. As for food and coffee, check out Workman’s Cafe on Matamata’s mainstreet and in particular their extensive collection of ‘lewd’ postcards. Ronnie’s a nationwide bakery franchise began in Matamata, and the original cafe is the place to go if you are interested in baking. here you can try a broad range of traditional Kiwi cakes, biscuits, pastries and pies.

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The Okoriore Hotel and Spa has been trading since 1880. The Hotel buildings are all original and feature hot pools set amidst native bush as well as a coiffured nine-hole golf course. Okoriore is tucked in behind the village of Tirau on State Highway One. Tirau is also the gateway to the glorious Blue Springs from where 70% of NZ’s bottled water originates. The springs, the source of the Waihou River, are famously blue and rich in aquatic flora and fauna. This is a very special place, peaceful, uncrowded and spiritually invigorating.

 

 

Morrinsville and Te Aroha

North of Matamata are the towns Morrinsville and Te Aroha. Surrounded by the most productive dairy land in the world, Morrinsville and districts boast 3 major dairy processing plants. In the centre of town you’ll find the Wallace Gallery, home to a world-class art collection. A group of dedicated locals in conjunction with the Wallace Arts Trust (custodians of the nations largest private collection of NZ art, a collection gathered by Sir James Wallace a notable local son and CEO of large local employer Wallace Industries) have transformed the old Post Office, (a notable piece of post-modern architecture) into a gallery space where the visitor can view paintings and sculptures by iconic NZ artists. Across the road you’ll find Fitness Furnishings, a local institution where the weary traveller will find one of the region’s best coffees.

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morrinsville gallery

A few minutes’ outside of the town, down the end of Harbottle Rd lies a disused Quarry. Retired after 60 years of service, it has filled with water and is now a deep lake of viridian blue. If you have a kayak, bring it along. You will seldom find a more perfect and peaceful spot for gliding across the waters.

Te Aroha is just up the road from Morrinsville. This heritage mining town lies under the shadow of the 952 meter tall Mt Te Aroha, a spectacular volcanic peak. There is a walkway to summit that offers views as far south as Mt Taranaki (320km away). The town, a living remnant of a NZ some fifty years gone, has an extensive ‘Edwardian style’ botanical park with private spas and a large tepid pool, all fed by hot soda water from deep beneath the mountain. The botanical gardens are home to the Mokena Hou Geyser, the only natural soda water geyser in the world.

 

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TeAroha

Huntly, Taupiri and Ngaruawahia,

Due South of Auckland straight down the motorway (State Highway one) you’ll pass by three towns, Huntly, Taupiri and Ngaruawahia. The first of these, Huntly (population 7,600), could almost be described as the town of lakes. Centre of the regions historic coal mining industry and home to countries largest coal and gas -fired power plant Huntly on face value is an industrial town but behind the mines, quarries (the nations favourite brick, the Huntly brick, is baked from local clay) is a ravishing collection of lakes. Perhaps most notable of these is man made job. Lake Puketirini was formed into 1993 when the former Weaver Open Cast Coal pit was flooded. The lake is approx 64 m deep in the deepest section, 54 Hectares in size. If you haven’t got your scuba gear handy, (the lake is often used for diver training) Puketirini like neighbouring Lake Hakanoa is perfect for kayaking. The Lake Hakanoa walkway is split into thirteen zones including a native tree reserve, Japanese Garden, Global Garden, Wildlife Gardens, Palm Beach, Contemporary Maori Garden, Green Cathedral, Ponga Grove and wetlands.

 

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http://huntly.co.nz/things-to-do/

 

Between Huntly and Ngaruawahia is the small settlement of Taupiri (population 500) which sits beneath Taupiri mountain a site sacred to Waikato Maori and the is the main burial ground for the regions associated tribes.

 

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Burial on Taupiri Mountain

Ngaruawahia (population 5000) is just a few km north of Hamilton and is the sight of the Tūrangawaewae Marae a significant Maori meeting place and home of the Maori King Movement. A response to British colonisation, the Kingitanga Movement was an attempt to unite all the Tribes of New Zealand under a monarch. The thinking was that united the tribes could stand strong against British colonisation. The first Maori monarch was crowned at Ngaruawahia in 1857 and the Marae properly established in 1921. The Maori monarchs still live here today.
*Other tribes choose to sign the Treaty of Waitangi, a document that gave Maori full rights as British citizens and has since become recognised as the founding document of the nation state of New Zealand.

 

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Images from Turangawaewae 

 

Book Review: The Big Ratchet by Ruth DeFries

March 13, 2016

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I am interested in the environment at large which led me to believe that those who align themselves politically with the Green movement would make great Facebook friends. I was wrong. Where I sought discussion about the problems facing the biosphere all I got was a wall of blame and apocalyptic dread. Well, that’s a wee bit of an overstatement, not all my Green friends were that way, some were powerfully reflective but they were far and away a minority voice.

Mostly the Green’s on Facebook seemed to view the environment as a black and white thing missing the grey subtleties entirely and so after a couple of years of comments proclaiming ‘were fucked, the planets fucked and ………… (fill in the blank) is to blame’ crowding my timeline I cracked and went on a de-friending rampage. It was doing my head in.

I am not blind to, nor unconcerned about the environmental problems being wrought upon the biosphere by human activity, I simply refuse to believe that our activities are beyond redemption and the damage we have caused irreversible. In saying that I must acknowledge the role of fear and anger in stirring debate and bringing issue to light and to those former friends I say job well done but anger alone is not enough, it is but one component of the process that alters perception and behaviour.

In her book ‘The Big Ratchet’ scientist Ruth DeFries (Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology) addresses black and white perception of the human impact on the biosphere with a an easily understood scientific exploration of the processes that have allowed life to evolve and flourish on this planet. With that perspective anchored, she focuses her attention on humanity and our broader relationship with the natural world.

Here she reflects on our ability to observe, consider and then manipulate evolutionary machinery, a proclivity that has allowed us to achieve extraordinary things, most notably with food supply. Our explorations have allowed us to flourish but without a manual to steer us, our experiments have resulted in unforeseen outcomes, not always positive.

The books sub-title ‘How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis’ tells us the story of how environmental crisis triggers within us a response that has allowed us to successfully think our way through extraordinarily difficult challenges and problems. A ratchet is a mechanical device that allows continuous linear or rotary motion in only one direction while preventing motion in the opposite direction and DeFries uses this metaphor to reveal our species onwards momentum as environmental engineers.

A thoughtful writer, DeFries has produced a thrilling page-turner that is filled out with history, discovery, insightful analysis and some indications of how she sees the near future unfolding. I would imagine my Green activist friend would have a lot of problems with De Fries conclusions that despite everything, (increasing population, habitat destruction and climate changes), the future looks bright. The Big Ratchet is a hopeful big-picture kind of story and I came out of the reading somewhat better for the experience, certainly more informed.