Friday, January 11, 2008

A story of Empire & a legend from the time before

I’d better begin with a little background. As a pre-teen (now that will attract hits), I lived in New Plymouth, the chief town of the province of Taranaki in New Zealand. The province was named after the Māori name for the extinct volcano, often likened to Mt Fuji, that was its most striking landmark, & which, when I lived there, was known as Mount Egmont, a name given to it by Captain James Cook, following the English tendency to impose upon the lands they “discovered”, after John Perceval, 2nd Earl of Egmont, the First Lord of the Admiralty who promoted Cook's first voyage. Not until the 1980s, when New Zealand became officially bilingual, did its original name get restored.

It’s just over 8000 feet high, fairly easy to climb, perhaps a daytrip given that you can drive halfway up it before starting any climb.

Anyway, on June 2, 1953, as dutiful citizens of the Empire on which the sun never set, we gathered in Pukekura Park to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Monarchy was something no-one questioned at the time. Go to the movies & everybody stood up when they played the “National Anthem” — which was, in fact, the National Anthem of the U.K. aka God Save the Queen — at the beginning of each & every session. Even slightly less than 10 years later I was abused for not standing up when the anthem was played. Then they phased it out, & started using God Defend New Zealand as a joint anthem, & some years after that GDNZ was augmented with the Māori words — E Ihoā Atua.... — as well & it is that version that is now almost always used. But even now, unlike Australia which has a strong Republican movement (which can’t agree on how a national Head of State would be elected / appointed & it’s that fact that has stopped the action so far), New Zealand is still reasonably comfortable remaining a Dominion.

Back to 6/2/53. We proud citizens of the Empire waited excitedly for the mayor to begin the ceremony. Which he did by announcing that Edmund Hillary, a hitherto unknown New Zealand beekeeper, had become the first man to climb Mount Egmont. He corrected himself. We cheered. Hillary became an instant hero; & has remained so, untarnished by politics, a modest man who apparently got pissed off when he discovered towards the end of his descent that the then Prime Minister of New Zealand had accepted on his behalf the offer to Hillary of a knighthood.

It took 4-5 days for the news of climbing of Everest to reach “the outside world”. Hillary’s son rang his father from the summit when he completed the journey years later.

Though I’m not overfond of the publication, TIME has a good obituary of Hillary.

Now the legend, this version taken from the official New Plymouth website.
“One version of Maori history recalls how Te Maunga o Taranaki (Mount Taranaki) once lived in the centre of New Zealand's North Island with other mountain gods: Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe. Nearby stood the lovely maid Pihanga with her cloak of deep green bush, and all the mountain gods were in love with her.

What had been a long, peaceful existence for the mountain gods was disturbed when Taranaki could no longer keep his feelings in control and dared to make advances to Pihanga. A mighty conflict between Tongariro and Taranaki ensued, which shook the foundations of the earth. The mountains belched forth their anger and darkness clouded the sky.

When peace finally came to the land, Tongariro, considerably lowered in height, stood close by Pihanga's side. Taranaki, wild with grief and anger, tore himself from his roots with a mighty wrench and left his homeland.

Weeping, he plunged recklessly towards the setting sun, gouging out the Wanganui River as he went and, upon reaching the ocean, turned north. While he slumbered overnight, the Pouakai Range thrust out a spur and trapped Taranaki in the place he now rests.

According to some versions of Māori history, one day Taranaki will return to Pihanga and so it is unwise to live along the path between the two mountains.“

The name Mount Taranaki is linguistically redundant, since the word tara means mountain peak. Naki is thought to come from ngaki, meaning shining, a reference to the snow-clad winter nature of the upper slopes. Geologists refer to it as the Egmont Volcano.


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