Archive for July, 2009

Overseas adventure

Souda Bay war cemetery in Crete (click for full image on Flickr)

Souda Bay war cemetery in Crete (click for full image on Flickr)

I’ve recently returned from Europe after spending five weeks travelling. We were in Greece for a family wedding, but also ended up tiki-touring around western Europe.

My family has quite a few connections to Europe, mainly through war, so we made an effort to pay our respects to a few of these places.

First, we travelled to Ireland – my great-great-grandmother, who married Īhāia Hūtana in Waipawa, was Irish – so we went to her birthplace Dun Loaghaire just outside of Dublin.

We then travelled to London and managed to go to Guildford. Clandon Park in Guildford is home to the original Hinemihi meeting house from the Tarawera eruption (my partner is a descendant). Ngāti Rānana Māori Club use her as their ‘base’ in England. She is truly beautiful up close!

After that we made our way towards Greece, visiting places like Paris, Venice, Vienna and Munich.

After the wedding we travelled to Chania, Crete. We paid our respects at the Commonwealth cemetery, Souda Bay. We have family who fought on Crete and an uncle who died there during the Battle for Crete.

Lastly, we travelled to Rome. We had a day’s outing to Cassino. My pa, like many others, fought in Cassino as part of the Māori Battalion (and was later captured in Florence). So it was amazing to see Monte Cassino and be able to walk around the monastery. We also visited the Commonwealth cemetery in Cassino – one of the largest in Italy, with more than 4,000 people buried there.

I am now missing the sunshine and settling back into working life.

Mercury falling

A chilly day in Otago

A chilly day in Otago

Pasture stops growing. Keas mate. In Central Otago there can be hoar frost. In the past old biddies judged pies. In the 1960s Tokelauans were welcomed to Te Puke.

Winter induces some strange behaviours – budgie smugglers and 9 degrees Celsius are a bad mix. Pagans celebrate the solstice at the Wairarapa Stonehenge. I hunker down near the woodburner waiting for the weekend when football is cancelled and the All Blacks win (well maybe not this year).

The shortest day has passed, so days are lengthening – not that you’d notice. Whether you’re in Leigh or Lauder you won’t get sunburnt. For Māori the arrival of Matariki in the morning sky marks a new year.

If you think it’s all going to get better from here, it’s not quite that simple. The coldest weather occurs after the shortest day. July (average monthly air temperature 7.3°C) is colder than June (average monthly air temperature 7.9°C). In the North Island August is about as cold as June, September about the same as May. In the South Island August is milder compared with June and September milder than May. Throughout New Zealand October is cooler than April and November cooler than March.

There is a lag in the atmosphere before longer days (more solar radiation) translate into warmer temperatures – the months before the longest day aren’t as warm as we think they should be. Some years winter just doesn’t seem to quit (I remember snow flurries around Boxing Day in the Mackenzie Country a few years ago). But it also cuts the other way – in autumn it takes awhile for shorter days to steal summer’s warmth.

So beware longer days, as they can be false prophets – in terms of temperature that is. But lightening morns and eves quickly lift spirits, if not the mercury.

Joan Wiffen Valley

For two days a week I can usually be found doing copyright administration for Te Ara. This year, as part of my non-Te Ara work, I’ve been photographing sites connected with New Zealand science history. These have included buildings, monuments, streets and landscapes.

Around 7.30 a.m. on Saturday 20 June I met up with Robin Adams just north of Napier airport and, after picking up his friend Frances, we headed into the Mōhaka Forest for the day. Because it’s a commercial forestry area, Robin was my driver, guide, radio monitor (listening out for logging-truck movements) and gate-opener. We were headed for the Mangahouanga Stream – the site where New Zealand’s most famous (amateur) paleontologist, Joan Wiffen, found evidence that dinosaurs had lived in New Zealand.

Dinosaur stream – the Mangahouanga

Dinosaur stream – the Mangahouanga

Robin and Frances have been coming up here for years, joining Joan on her expeditions, helping find fossils in the stream, carting the rocks out of the bush for preparation, and just hanging out.

That Saturday was a classic four-seasons-in-one-day kind of day, quite suited to a day in the mountains just south of the Ureweras. We arrived at the fossil hunters’ huts around 10.30 a.m., just in time for tea and cake. Afterwards, I was directed towards the bush, where I followed the track to Top Beach. Having a deep affection for the bush round here, and with nothing better to do, Frances joined me for some of the walk.

It was a fairly short walk through lovely native forest – I’d hazard a guess that it’s beech forest, but I’ve never been too good with my trees. There are a couple of ladders you need to climb down to get to the stream itself. I spent the best part of an hour down there, photographing, videoing, trying to keep my feet dry, and soaking in the atmosphere. (Visit to view photos.)

I was hoping for a find of my own, but no such luck. Talking to Robin and Frances afterwards they said that summer is the best time for fossil hunting, when the stream is low and the rocks more visible. But even then you’re not likely to stumble across something, as you need to know what you’re looking for in the rocks.

Robin said Joan hadn’t been up there for a couple of years probably, as she was getting on a bit. When you’ve only ever known someone from 15-year-old photos, sometimes you need reminding that they aren’t as young as you imagine them. Somewhat presciently, Robin said he wasn’t sure if Joan would ever be back to the huts.

I never got to meet Joan, though I was planning to pop in on her next time I was up in Hawke’s Bay. Joan was always happy to talk about her work, and I was looking forward to having a cup of tea and a chat with her.

From what I’ve seen and heard, Joan was a rare scientist. Beyond the fact that as an amateur she did incredibly important work, she was also passionate about fossils, and loved to share her passion with others in a way that got her audience truly enthused. She wrote a book about her fossil hunting, and there’s at least one decent documentary about her work, work which changed the geological history of our country.

In my photography notes I’ve usually referred to the Mangahouanga Stream as Joan Wiffen Valley. Now may be a good time to put a case to the New Zealand Geographic Board.

All hail the Dragon Lady

Joan Wiffen – the Dragon Lady

Joan Wiffen – the Dragon Lady

Joan Wiffen (1922–2009) died on Tuesday. ‘Who?’ I hear you ask. Well, the first person to find a New Zealand dinosaur.

Most women wouldn’t like the title, but she was the Dragon Lady – in her case a term of affection and respect. She wrote about her experiences in Valley of the Dragons: the story of New Zealand’s dinosaur woman (1991).

Up until the 1980s it seemed that dinosaurs had never lived in New Zealand. But as eminent scientist Charles Fleming noted in 1967, ‘the fact that no dinosaurs have been found does not mean they have never been here.’ It was the classic absence of evidence being interpreted as evidence of absence. At the time it was thought that dinosaurs had not spread to the part of Gondwana that split away some 85 million years ago – and which today is New Zealand.

In 1975 Joan, an amateur rock hound, found a fossil bone in marine sediments in a Hawke’s Bay stream bed. Up until then it seemed logical that dinosaur bones – if there were any – were likely to be found in terrestrial sedimentary rocks (river and lake deposits) – after all dinosaurs were land animals.

Joan didn’t think her latest bone looked much like the fossils of marine reptiles. She showed it to Australian vertebrate paleontologist Ralph Molnar who told her it was the tail vertebra of a theropod dinosaur. He presented the finding in a paper to geologists at Victoria University in 1980. Afterwards a man came up to Joan. ‘I’m Charles Fleming,’ he said, ‘and I’m delighted to hear about your dinosaur.’ Apart from that she recalled ‘the reaction was thunderous silence, and general lack of interest or understanding of the geological significance of dinosaurs in New Zealand. What had I expected – a champagne party?’.

Joan Wiffen went on to find other bones that show that 75 million years ago a community of dinosaurs existed including sauropods, theropods and armoured dinosaurs. As this was 10 million years after the split from Gondwana, the dinosaurs would have evolved to be unique New Zealand species. Other researchers have also found a single Jurassic dinosaur fossil (in 1995 near the Waikato River mouth) and in 2003 dinosaur fossils were found on the Chatham Islands.

‘What does it matter?’ you ask. Well, it matters as our evolutionary history is different if we had dinosaurs. It turns out we are (or at least were) more than a land of birds. As scientists know that mammals and dinosaurs lived alongside each other in Gondwana, it is likely that along with the dinosaurs, mammals and other reptiles also hitched a ride on the landmass that broke away.

Our understanding of the evolution of New Zealand’s plants and animals is now very different to what we thought thirty years ago. For example we now also know that crocodiles lived in freshwater lakes 16 million years ago. So far no Mesozoic mammal fossils have been found in New Zealand, but it is probably only a matter of time before they are. If mammal fossils are eventually found, then the question becomes, why did mammals become extinct here when they thrived in most other lands?

Joan’s legacy exposes convential wisdom as being just that – some of what we think to be true now is unlikely to be so in the future.

Paniora – the Spanish New Zealanders

Descendents of Manuel José

Descendants of Manuel José

The king of Spain, Juan Carlos I, had no trouble pronouncing Māori words during his recent state visit to New Zealand with his wife, Queen Sofia. The vowels are pronounced much the same in both languages so a guess is likely to be near the mark.

One of the words the king used in his speech at a state banquet at the Beehive on 23 June was ‘Paniora’, the Māori version of ‘Spaniard’. Today that word is generally used to refer to the New Zealand descendants of one particular Spaniard, Manuel José.

Manuel José abandoned his whaling ship in the 1830s to come ashore at Awanui on the East Coast of the North Island. There he lived for the rest of his life, working as a shore whaler and later as a trader. He also had an active home life, marrying five wives simultaneously from different subtribes of Ngāti Porou. Today the Paniora who can trace descent from Manuel José number more than 16,000, and include MPs Dave Hereora and Moana Mackay. Many still bear the surname Manuel.

Manuel José’s exact origins in Spain were eventually forgotten by his descendants. But in 2006 a documentary by the Wellington-based and Spanish-speaking journalist Diana Burns revealed that he came from a village called Valverde near the city of Segovia. There have since been several joyful reunions between the people of Valverde, where Manuel José’s house still stands, and the Paniora of the East Coast. They might not have been able to speak each other’s languages, but they were evidently delighted to re-establish a long-lost whakapapa connection.