Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2021

© Chris McLennan Photos

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Hot to the core

Shimmy across New Zealand's geothermal playground for a glimpse of unique Maori culture

I do not know where to start. So I am just going to tell you what happened. And you can decide for yourself what it all means.

I was in New Zealand, that country made up of two big islands and a few smaller ones. In the centre of the North Island the earth is young and virile. The mud boils, the ground shakes, the geysers dance. The city of Rotorua and the surrounding area is a peek into the beating heart of the planet.

Since forever the Maori have lived in and around this geothermal region, using the bubbling pools of different temperatures to bathe their babies, cook their food and even kill their enemies. Then they used them to attract the tourists. The same upper-class Brits who would spend one summer mountaineering in Switzerland, might spend the next admiring the Thermal Wonderland of the farthest colony.

The smell of sulphur hangs in the air in this town surrounded by geysers, mud flats and sulphur-rich hot springs. Wai-O-Tapu Park, about half an hour from Rotorua, is well known for its acid-coloured mineral pools and pluming geysers. Another "must" is a visit to the “Thermal Village” of Whakarewarewa, a suburb of Rotorua where Maori residents still use the hot pools.

One Victorian tourist described it as only a Victorian can: “Of all the impressions produced upon the visitor by this remarkable locality, perhaps the most permanent of all is that of wonder at the ‘nerve’ possessed by the dusky bipeds who elect to loll out their lives in the midst of it. Literally, there is but a step between them and death — death in the most appalling form — yet they eat, and drink, and smoke as serenely as if they had a lease in perpetuity of the crust which separates them from the nether lakes of brimstone.”

Lakes of brimstone

A century or so later, I was standing in the centre of Whakarewarewa with my guide, known to bureaucrats as Christina Hinera Gardiner and to nearly everyone else as Nana Chris. The lakes of brimstone are still there. And I was walking very carefully indeed.

Nana Chris had seen it before. “First when they come in, the smell gets them. When they get past the smell, they think it’s dangerous. But it is just fear of the unknown. Get past fear of the unknown, and it humbles you.”

Nana Chris was trying to help me get past my fear of the unknown. She was walking me through her adopted village. She comes from the hills and is a child of the mountain mist, but she married a man from Whaka, and has lived in the valley of steam for 40 years.

She explained how the men of the village used to cross the river that cuts Whaka from Rotorua with tourists on their back. Now there is a bridge. She showed us the covered holes dug into the ground, filled with tinfoil-wrapped meats cooking gently in their natural oven. We saw the hot pools where the residents boil their food. And used to boil their laundry.

But Nana Chris is no fool. “I don’t use that to boil my clothes anymore. I use the washing machine. I press the button. It’s bliss. I say to the kids, listen geniuses, can you also invent a robot that changes the kids and brings in the laundry?”

I asked what it was like to have generations of tourists walking through your home. “When I came to the village, it was sort of like a live school room. Five- and six-year-old kids knew more geography than the teachers. They watched and they listened. Our children could look at people and know where they were from, what class they were. Japanese in their kimonos, Sikh in their turbans, Indians of different castes. My daughter says ‘there are Chinese here today’, but I miss their old costumes. Now everyone is hip hop.”

Techtonic connections

We stopped at one of the steaming pools. There was a bag of corn dangling into it, cooking. Nana Chris looked at the pool, considering. “This pool pulsates, it is a former geyser. If she is in a good mood, the pulses are gentle, but if she is in a bad mood, she thumps.”

Nana Chris leaned down and scooped up a handful of sand. She threw it into the pool. Bubbles started to rise. Nana Chris laughed. “She’s having an adrenalin rush. It’s called Champagne Pool. We call it Murderous Ripples. It’ll take a life. It’s meant to cook things.”

Nana Chris was watching the roiling, boiling water carefully. The bubbles were reaching a frenzy. I could feel the ground thumping. It was thrilling, petrifying, disorienting.

“Whatever happens around the world, you can feel here.” Nana Chris looked over at another pool — one with a ‘Closed’ sign blocking access. “Last Friday, there was a shift of [the tectonic] plates and it created suction over there. This line here is connected to Europe. There are some shifts happening. There was the Los Angeles earthquake. Then two or three years later was Mexico. Then Peru. Now it’s the other side. ”

The ground was beating against my feet. Faster, faster. “I knew about [the recent earthquakes in] Morocco and Tehran. I knew it wasn’t my side of the equator, and that it would bounce back. I’ve been telling [the seismologists] that the pool over there is connected to Mount Etna. Mount Etna sends him into a frenzy. When Mount Etna is doing her thing, this one goes crazy. They think it is hilarious. I said there is nothing wrong with a long distance relationship.”

With a final surge, the thumping died down. It was over for now. We moved on.

Vikings of the South

A mischievous looking pre-schooler came up to Nana Chris and said simply: “I want.” He was chased off. I asked Nana Chris if I understood correctly. Was the boy, her grandson, called Odin?

And with that question, the day took another twist. Turns out Nana Chris’ family is descendent, in part, from a Dane: Hans Homman Jensen Falk. They are very proud of their Viking heritage. Her son wants a Viking funeral and a falcon (he loved raptors even before he found out Falk means falcon). It makes sense. The Maori are in some ways the Vikings of the South. Legendary navigators, warriors and storytellers.

It did not stop Nana Chris from teasing her son about the name he chose for his child. “Odin? You could have had another name. You didn’t have to go to the top. If he has another boy, he'll want to call him Thor... We have enough chaos with Odin.”

Then Nana Chris told me about the legendary Eighth canoe (Maori describe their migrations waves as "canoes"). The Eighth canoe consisted of ‘albinos’ or fairy people. They were, she said, a "lost tribe’ of Jews who travelled from Israel to the Urals, on to North America, South America (where they picked up the sweet potato), and finally through Polynesia to New Zealand. There are still tribes in the forest who can quote entire psalms, practice circumcision and for whom the 12th night of every month sacred. They fast from the 11th to the 12th.

I did not know what to say. It was too much for me. I started with a quaint Victorian hot spot and ended up with advanced seismology in a handful of sand, Viking of the South, lost tribes. Big things. Mythical things. Beauty. History. Science. Myth. Soul.

I kept taking notes but, looking back at them, they do not make sense. I am not sure what happened. For a few hours I was taken to another world. One day, when I am ready, I need to go back and figure out what I was trying to tell myself in my notes.

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