High Cup Nick

farmhouse

The North Pennines is a powerful place. A landscape of scarred, runneled, barren moorland. The hills are long, wide and flat, not particularly tall but they emanate a sense of empty, eerie grandness. The valleys – ‘dales’ as dey called up norf – are populated, by very pleasant villages actually, but in between them are moors, proper moor. With those special Moorland roads, ones that are just a winding ribbons of tarmac set down directly on the wild, borderless heathland.

moor

I love it. Although I’m not sure I could live here, it doesn’t have the archaeological and topographical detail of the moors of home, no real sense of connection to the ocean either but it certainly holds some sway over my sensibilities and I admit that I do not know it nearly as well. Evidently it has it’s own secrets and knowledge to reveal that staying with it would surely uncover.

Remote and sparse, the great poet W.H Auden felt the magic here keenly. Perhaps initiated into its mysteries, he felt the connection we forge to certain landscapes and the names within them. The place names here are indeed evocative;  Rookhope, Cauldron Snout and High Force,  each found their inexorable way into his poems.

I’m living in Durham for the year as I attempt my much waylaid Masters degree and I’m very glad to have this lump of upland close enough for me to escape to. Like many country folk put into the city I crave the freedom of space and ‘The Roof of England’ as they call it has it in abundance. A somewhat overlooked AONB it seems, it is remarkably devoid of ramblers (something in common with Bodmin Moor), passed over perhaps for the high romance of the Lake District and the slightly more civilised Yorkshire Dales.  It does though, have a ski field, forsooth, something that caught me off guard as I drove by years ago in my little van when I was exploring the land outside of Kernow.

Those were great adventures, when I was motivated by my lack of exploration of my own country, something many people share. In New Zealand I often met people who spoke of escape from Britain, from their hometowns, like it had become too much to bear. I know what they mean, I have felt it too but there is something about England.

It is overly populated, ugly and expensive. People are poor and kept that way various forces (we are one of the richest nations on earth yet to live comfortably on ‘minimum wage’ is an impossiblity), there is no ‘wildness’ left, nearly every part of the country shows the damage of humanity; of our toils and efforts, interference and greed. Our biodiversity is shrinking. The cities are largely bland and grey, the new buildings are uniform and uninspired, the high streets homogenised, everything is bought and we need to buy everything, the people can be aggressive, mean-spirited and cruel, lacking imagination, scope and drive, as grey in their souls as pebble-dashed estates. The main roads and motorways are bleak, bland and deadly, clogged arteries, the industrial estates and retail parks that encircle nearly every town are all identical in their bland oppressive atmospheres. But, for all this England is underrated.

There is good everywhere, people are also warm, kind and happy much more than they are mean, they struggle and strive to find their own meanings and live accordingly,  everybody has their hobby, passion and families, if they look of course. The same etches of human toil can be beautiful marks of humanity: churches, hay bales, fields, even the moors themselves.  The cities have their small but thriving pockets of creativity, colour, imagination, rebellion and subversion. It is still so green, the Atlantic ocean of home so blue and clear.  It is cleaner than it was. There are crisp winter days amongst bare oak trees in a park, watching happy people. There is swimming in the Avon river underneath a weeping willow in June, a deserted beach at home, good food, pubs with friends.  There is beauty even in the unkempt scrub of an industrial estate, for there are the largely eradicated wildflowers that have been left to live. There is much to be done, but much to be savoured. Modernity is remorselessly destructive, greedy and ugly but also people are relentlessly creative and loving.

There is a sense I get when I walk in England, even when I drive in it, a connection to the land and history – some would call this land-magic -it is a connection with something much deeper and older than all of the things I list above. As if the land itself has a soul. It has its own taste or aura, spirit or quality, it is energising and is ultimately what brings me back here and when I feel oppressed by negativity and depression, as I suppose we all are at times, I can find it.

So with metaphysical claims about the land aside I will tell of a walk up in these rare hills.

hoss

A few weeks ago I decided to head out to High Cup Nick where not so long back – geologically speaking – the glaciers that dominated England north of the Severn river carved out a rather picturesque, almost perfect u-shaped valley. This is the very edge of the North Pennine upland and the high land abruptly drops into the flat and fertile Vale of Eden.

The walk starts in a small village called Dufton in the Eden Valley and from there you skirt the edge of the looming fells until you turn up into them, coming into the almost perfectly shaped valley of  High Cup and walking up the moorland stream to its irruption from the bedrock. I think I did the walk backwards by the way, it seems you are to descend the ‘Miners Track’, not ascend it but whichever works.

From the bottom
Straight ahead is the Miners Track, I have an image of men carrying rocks up and down this by hand…

It was a genuinely tough climb up, my legs actually gave out, something that has never previously occurred to me, and I had to stop and munch my Greggs sandwich, which it may be fairly claimed to be the absolute worst sandwich I have ever eaten, but I was ravenous. I blame leg day.

It was a cold day in October and the winds that met me when I clambered the precipitous path to the top of High Cup, were fierce, sharp and cold, coming straight from the north.

left hand side

When you stand up here, looking out over the flat valley to the Dales and the Lakes you can really imagine the glaciers. Where only the highest peaks would just be visible. The rest just barren ice.

I can’t say enough about the view here, it really may be one of the most beautiful I’ve seen in England. I plan to camp up here in Summer and wake up to it.

high cup

The walk back was much easier, traversing a wide path along the right hand side of the cup, where it descends (relatively) gently to Dufton. I was happy to choose a particularly beautiful time to return. The sun was setting over the distant jagged crest of the Lake District and the calm, quiet of dusk was with me as I walked through the milder, tamed, sheep-grazed farmland. My boots sending a rare hare skitting into the undergrowth as Foxes started to stalk the fields.

Sounds seem to sharpen at dusk, tractor trailer clank, a car in the distance, bull bellow and sheep bleat. Senses alert and heightened but also feelings in this case; satisfaction and happiness.

 

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The Tors

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The Moor is an occult place in all senses of the word. Mostly bypassed, hidden in plain sight, it dominates the landscape yet it is diminutive in the scale of most uplands. It is a world given to juxtaposition. Alien and natural, wild yet tamed, secretive yet exposed, wandering up here is to be amongst inaccessible, ancient secrets that are not given readily or to the uninitiated. It is not the Cornwall that most know. Moor walkers, dwellers, admirers extoll the virtues yet keep favoured places to their chests; a place to retreat to. A place of ancient serenity retaining its peace even in the hectic six weeks of Summer.

It is a sacred place and has been so for millennia, the land and air is palpably infused with thousands of years of meanings, venerations, fears, loves, deaths and lives. This is part of the magic of the moor. The tangible and intangible traces left by otherwise untold generations of human life.

Walking the granite crumble of Rough Tor with a friend, I was blithely and haughtily pointing out various things I had learned from Time Team and passing off as knowledge when I caught sight of the uncanny stacks of stone on the summit, preternaturally resembling some kind of walled fortress. Not for the first time I imagined them constructed by some ancient giant race of beings, gods perhaps, usually this a thought whimsically dismissed. This time, I was listening to my friend speak and the thought took its opportunity to linger, when I resumed within my own brain I struck upon something.

People must have always looked at the Tors and instinctively seen the work of something powerful yet unseen or extinct. A God, the Gods, a forgotten tribe of powerful ancestors, a race of giants or even the power of the earth.

Modern eyes are in the privileged position to know with certainty that the seemingly unerring Tors are the current manifestations of the architecture of the Earth itself and its implacable processes. However, even this scientific answer holds a mystical dimension. The inconceivable age involved far exceeding humanity, the relentless slow power and the confrontation of the idea that that which seems eternal to us in our lifetimes crystallises into fragility when spread out over aeons.

I am sure this instinctive knowledge, that the tors were created somehow, is one of the reasons why the moor holds sacrosanct, what made it hallowed ground to begin with when the first people came. It is an obvious realisation really but one obscured by the tors themselves and the desire to understand them.

Those Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age peoples who found homes on and around the Tors, who cleared the stunted ancient woodland with fire and who deigned to build the enigmatic megalithic monuments we revel in attempting to understand, these folk would surely have assumed divine or mystical ancestral origins to these strikingly artificial looking yet impossible to recreate granite formations defining and marking the landscape in so many ways that were useful to the earth-and-sky-wise Moorfolk. Way-markers, vantage points, topographical landmarks, cairns, sacred burial mounds, abode of Gods, shelters, defensive positions. Enough uses to start to assume they were placed there deliberately for them.

It fits that veneration and mythologizing of prominent or important topographical features is a commonality amongst many cultures and tribal societies right up to the modern day. I have recently returned from New Zealand and on the North Island there, where the majority of the Maori live, the great Volcanoes that dominate the landscape there each have personalities, stories and legends that surround and cling to them like the long white clouds.

It occurred to me that it could well be that the Moor-folk of the Neolithic and Bronze Age, with their gradual shifts into more static and pastoral living, were moved to recreate this enigmatic architecture. Inspired by some imagined being constructing these impossible stacks long ago. It is human to observe and recreate. Hence we have the mysterious stone-circles and dolmens. I would not posit that it is the only reason for megalithic monuments but it may be part of their inspiration.

It could be that the idea that the Tors are the work of ancestors, gods or giants motivated our moorland kin to both call this home and to achieve the seemingly impossible. To come up with the means, technology and drive needed to manhandle incomprehensibly heavy menhirs into precarious positions and to try to work out the meanings of the Tors before them. As we marvel and puzzle at their work, their dolmens, passage tombs, henges and stone circles, so might they have done with oddly shaped precisely balancing boulders of Stowe’s Hill and Rough Tor, the peculiarly deliberate looking outcrops of Garrow and Hawks.

Jodi and the giants 2

Inspired by the landscape, the tors themselves and their interpretation of what was before them, to achieve what these gods or deified ancestors apparently could. A functional and artistic testament to them and themselves, stirred by what they had assumed was created. The megalithic monuments that we pore over are, amongst other things, a monument to the Tors and those that had created them, an attempt to reach them in the enduring medium of stone.

The granite is the Moor after all. Everything that endures up here – and anywhere – is built with it, the same stone of the Tors. Blended in with the land. This was understood as surely then as now.

The oldest farmsteads, drystone walls, the abandoned houses still standing, churches, the stone circles and dolmens that are older than Pyramids are all the same pale granite. Eventually they will weather and crumble away but the Tors themselves still last longer than invented gods, farmsteads, pyramids, humans, trees and even the moor as we know it but the whole time they are there and there are humans to interact with them and interpret them then they will continue to inspire. Else n house

 

 

 

Little Beach

If you’re going to write about home then perhaps the best time to do this is after a prolonged absence.

sea

This will likely be the last year I spend any real time here. The squat little whitewashed 1920’s bungalow perched on the hill that I grew up in is being sold and my parents are vacating the county. I severed most of my emotional ties with the house years ago but I confess that I may have been re-attaching some of those in the last few weeks.

Sea Wall

Every year since I was able, except the last, I have swum off what has always been known as ‘Little Beach’ at Pentewan. It wouldn’t be too much hyperbole to say I grew up here on the coarse sands. Childhood, adolescence, adulthood. A number of the formative experiences of those indistinct phases we all encounter have occurred within the confines of this little coastal village.

it’s quite something to have such a constant, taken for granted of course but now this constant has its end in sight I am sensitive to my time here. Finality is a powerful impetus. As I approach thirty whole years of age, I start to see life for what it is, or so I think. The remnants of a sea wall crumbling into the sea built on the shifting sands of a childhood. A glassy sea in June, capable of great violence but now appeased and peaceful. A collection of memories. A mark left somehow, small or large, far reaching or localised, both perhaps.

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So now I am here again, home in a sun-drenched Cornwall in June, battling the same old vices of indolence and nicotine addiction but trying hard to appreciate every sunset, the immensity of the trees in full bloom, every cool swim in the clear sea, forge new friendships, write more things, draw more.

I heard somewhere that the mind is like a soft rock. When water runs over it it forms channels and funnels, paths of least resistance, through which it will flow more easily and erode further as we age. This is a great analogy. I suppose we have to force that water to flow differently. Follow new paths. Carve new grooves. Easier said.

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Home

I’m home. A year and half has passed.

Going from winter to summer in 24 hours landed me in the humid air of Heathrow. Body clock shot, seasonally confused.

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I had forgotten the feel of England in summer and I have spent the subsequent week revelling in it. Lush and verdant. Despite the depressive homogeneity of the high streets and chainstores, industrial estates and service stations (the same anywhere). There is a great deal to be relished and delighted in. Old stone buildings, field patterns, the thick and effulgent trees and grassy meadows at their peak, the familiar insects at dusk.

This is the view from the house I grew up in, looking up the Pentewan valley on a warm evening. Something I had been able to look at every year until the last one.

The air is thick with summer and I am relatively at peace trying to catch up with old friends and full of new resolutions for the months ahead.

South, Berlins.

The South Island is diffferent. Apparent from the moment the large, comfortable Interislander ferry, escaping the rolling oceanic swells of the Cook Straits, glided into Marlborough Sounds at dusk.

A world away from the busy industry of the Wellington ports and the relative bustle of the North. It is immediately quieter, calmer but wilder and more remote, I suppose one could draw analogies with the Kiwi psyche. The brashness and loudness of the quasi tropical, volcanic north juxtaposed with the remote and quiet wildness of the outrageously beautiful south.

Mount patriarch.jpg
Mount Patriarch. A fairly unheralded mountain in the empty Kahurangi national park. It got to me though, walking miles from anyone. Calling me to climb it as mountains tend to do. 

Travelling again is refreshing but expensive. I am dwelling within a fairly dilapidated, leaky van that fustrates as much as it delights.

Van

I have pushed this beast to Nelson, Takaka and the very north of the south, to the Kaharangi National Park and the Wangapeka River and now it sits in a rainly campsite in an odd little place called Berlins, consisting entirely of an old pub overlooking the powerful Buller River. Taken over and run by the quintessentially Kiwi Dean and rejuvenated into a pub/truck stop/diner/campground. Catering to the endless stream of motorised tourists travelling the long and winding highway 6 to the West Coast. A haven for travellers, motorhomes and sandflies. The sign in the door said help wanted and so I stayed in this peculiar limbo-like little place for the Easter. It felt right.

The three residents are colourful enough to form the basis for a novel that I am too ill-disciplined to write. A permanently grumpy but in fact rather kind waitress escaping something in her past, a french girl who speaks no English despite living here for a year, a haphazard, grizzled, taciturn but friendly and eminently likeable owner who has quite clearly done, seen and been part of a great deal. This, I suppose, is the essence of travelling, the unexpected meetings, interactions and lives that you encounter.

I can’t help but think on fatalism in the rain. Was I always going to end up here? Was I supposed to meet and mix with this odd collection of humans. Is there a reason I am supposed to find? I felt drawn here. When you look at a map do you find you are drawn to certain places? I do. I like to follow that.

It makes one think though just how much control we have and the irrational part of my mind debates the rational.

If I hadn’t stopped and spend Easter with Dean and the crew at Berlins then would life have been different? Would I have gone to Karamea afterwards, would I have met the Czech girl there, would I have seen the Cave Spider at the Oparara Arches and eyed the broiling Tasman trying to lure me in to kill me? Would I have travelled south or along the west coast or would I have gone to do the Kirwins track in Reefton as I had meant to and seen Arthurs Pass rather than take the coastal route.

Life takes the path that it does of course but it’s such an arbitrary lineage of choices and their outcomes that it takes some getting one’s head around. I suppose this frighteningly complex nebula of possibilities and consequences is so mind-fucking that the thought of being guided through it is calming. It is remarkably calming actually.  Also the fact that quite of few of us to negotiate this minefield with relative luck, ease and success it feels as though we are being guided.

 

 

 

Taranaki

Nine months in Taupo.

Restless. I suppose we are all inclined to self-criticism; I should have done this or seen that, should have saved more money, should have spoken to that person but in the end I guess that we do what we do.

The spring came through the winter and we were stir crazy. So we went south.  Traversing the ‘Forgotten Highway’ out of Taumarunui.

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Mount Ruapehu

North Island countryside follows a certain pattern, one largely laid down by its hugely explosive volcanic past; sharp, angular grassy hills in jagged rows.

This was a journey between two volcanos. Mount Ruapehu, the irregular giant at the end of Lake Taupo taking up the heart of the North to the uniform, neater cone of Mount Taranaki, guarding the southwest coastline and looking out to the brutal Tasman sea.

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Typical countryside of the North Island. Farmland, steep-sided hills, little wooden farmsteads. The native bush razed to make way a century ago.

 

The Forgotten highway cuts through the central plateau linking Stratford and New Plymouth to Taumarunui. It is a long, old road carving through precipitous gorges and the ubiquitous farmlands and then, suddenly, it ends and the landscape becomes flat as  the fertile plains emanating out from the nearly symmetrical Mount Taranaki are reached.

And so New Plymouth, a coastal city with a definitive beachy vibe, interspersed with some colonial architecture and modern glass shopping centres. A small shiny, bright city. Like the air here.

New Plymouth is so named due to it being here that the first landfalls of the West Country settlers were made. Mount Taranaki would have been the first thing that met their eyes as they neared this part of Land of the Long White Cloud.  An alien sight to the people used to the relatively gentle hills of home, although the battered coastline around the south-western cape called to mind immediately areas of North Cornwall around Treyarnon, Trevose and Harlyn so perhaps it also did to the first Cornishmen on the William Bryan.

The ‘settlement’, incidentally, did not go well. Heavily affected by famine, disease, mutual distrust and eventual war with the local Maori Iwi. Taranaki is sacred in Maori lore and the surrounding plains were relatively densely populated by the Maori during European colonisation so conflict was inevitable

MountainMount Taranaki is a startling sight, magnetic, I had to force myself to keep my eyes on the road as the clouds lifted from the summit.

The Surf Highway follows the hemispherical coast and the coast circles the mountain. From the air the peculiar landscape is made obvious.

03 Mt Taranaki, from air, New Zealand
Not my picture unfortunately.

The odd green circle is the National Park boundary, where the native bush starts and the fertile, artificial farmland – mainly dairy – ends.

These mountains have a certain mystique about them I find, being so singular and dominant. I can perfectly understand why Maori legend personifies them into separate quarrelling entities, ancient god-like beings, a conceptualisation brought all the more sharply into focus when their latent geophysical power is taken into account.

Taranaki then was once standing with other Volcanoes in the central plateau but was sent retreating to his lonely position after viciously losing to the powerful Tongariro in a battle for the affections of the diminuative but beautiful Pihanga, where it is said that when he remembers his lost love he calls the clouds in to hide his tears.

And that was how we left him, returning to Taupo after a clear night under a Supermoon and inverted constellations.

 

Taupo

So I have settled, for the time being at least, in a ramshackle but charming hostel on the shore of Lake Taupo. New Zealand is an expensive country to travel about in and winter employment was in order.

The town of Taupo (toe-paw, not t-ow-po) is fine, occupying an inlet at the north end of the lake, the second largest in Oceana, it has the standard grid system, uninspiring buildings and general air of a smallish kiwi town. Not much in itself other than a relatively friendly, community vibe but New Zealand’s prowess does not lie in its urbanism, although there are some notable exceptions, the country’s prime attraction is its natural beauty.

mountain at faltrocks

Taupo is well situated for scenic splendour and is a principle reason that in season it is one of the busier places in the North Island.  It capitalises on its location, having established itself as a central hub for providers of various adventure tourism activities.

The grand volcanic plateau, pinnacling in the mountains of Ruapehu (2797metres), Tongariro (1978 metres) and Ngrauruhoe (2291 metres), rears up from the south side of the drinkably clean, trout packed lake. These peaks are not large by global standards, or even domestic – Aoraki (Mount Cook) on the South Island is 3724 metres – but their topographical prominence and often snow-capped summits lend them a somewhat majestic air. I have been known to exhale dramatically at small hills in Cornwall so these are impressive to me at least. Lending to their majesty is that they are very active volcanically speaking. Thus they could wreak untold havoc at any moment. In fact, it’s a geological certainty they will at some point.

The town of Taupo is situated rather close to something even more humbling. A Supervolcano (yeah I linked Wikipedia).  It could not be any closer actually, being directly on top of it as it is.

Supervolcanoes are one of the many potentially cataclysmic things modern humans carefully and dutifully ignore, one that is quite literally under our noses here in Taupo. Happily providing us tourists with various exciting and relaxing leisure activities. When they erupt in earnest, rather large swathes of, well, everything becomes quite inconvenienced.

Thus it is an unfortunate fact of Kiwi life if the Taupo Caldera – which comprises the entire lake – decides to go, and it seems there could be little warning, the North Island, as it is, goes with it.

Swanny
He’d be the first to go. Little bastard.

It has blown before, the last in was in 120 AD and the consensus is that it will again. The Oruanui eruption occurred roughly 25000 years B.P. and is the world’s most recent supervolcanic eruption. Without a doubt this eruption affected things for us Homo Sapiens who were still firmly within our Paleolithic (living in caves and sharpening rocks with other rocks) phase. The most recent major eruption here (‘major’ being an eruption with a volcanic explosivity index – or VEI – of 3 or more ) was the Hatepe eruption in 180 AD, a relatively mild event compared to the Oruanui. This one affected the global climate extensively enough for the Romans to look up and wonder what had happened to the sun for a while. For comparison the Hatepe eruption expelled 120 cubic kilometres of material, the Oruanui ejected 1170. Well, shit.

This notion is really quite present in my mind. The steaming streams and geothermal pools that we recline in, the faint odour of sulphur in the frosty mornings, the occasional rumble in the earth as I lie in bed serve as little elbow nudges, reminding me I am dwellling in a part of the world where the earth’s crust is somewhat thinner than I’m used to.

Autumn Mountain

I haven’t really written about New Zealand. I have been writing other things. Which is nice as I haven’t really written anything of note for a long time.

It high time that I do put some words out on this strange new place though, if only to collate some solid opinions – does anyone else find that opinions sometimes only coherently form when you actually set about writing?

The first thing I noticed is that the air is pure. It’s fresh, clean and clear. Taupo is indeed colder than most places on the North Island (which might explain why it’s full of English people) being at a rough elevation of 500 metres but still, whichever way the wind blows the air retains its clarity. Even in Auckland in the tail-end of Summer the air was crisp enough. The southern hemisphere is fairly renowned for having less pollution and less ozone than the north so this wont be a surprise for most but I notice it a great deal. Following this the sun really is outrageously strong. I had heard this, taken note of it and still burned myself to a comical extent within my first half an hour of solar exposure, foolish pallid human that I am.

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Clear air over clear water.

I was also under the general impression that there are great deal of similarities with the UK, culturally there are some of course but there is little resemblance in the landscape.

The British landscape is ancient. Its geological turbulence long since passed, with that comes a stolid solidity, the hills and mountains are impassive, the rivers entrenched and old, the land is well trodden and the seas are overfished. I love the ancient air of home, theres magic in it, but New Zealand feels much younger, much more active and volatile but also much more vitalised and healthy and there’s a different kind of magic in that too.

This sense of youth bleeds over into its anthropological history as well.  All valid historical evidence points to the islands first being happened upon by the genius level oceanic explorations of East Polynesians in the late 13th century. The lush, green, spacious and temperate land was subsequently – and presumably enthusiastically – settled and thus formed the beginnings of the Maori Culture (for the record Maori is pronounced ‘Ma – aowl – dy’). This is remarkably recent for a such large landmass. Incidentally, in Maori tradition, Taupo is one of the first places the great priest/chief Ngātoro-i-rangi came to when New Zealand was first settled by the Maori and where he named the peaks of the volcanic plateau.

There are fringe theories about pre-Maori settlement but absolutely no reliable evidence to support them and as far as I can tell the theories that posit a celtic/megalithic history are largely racially motivated, which is most unpleasant.

That said, there is solid evidence that Australia has been peopled for around 65000 years, an enormous span of time really, so perhaps there is a remote chance ocean navigating people reached New Zealand before the Oruanui eruption and subsequently had their culture – which presumably would have been Paleolithic hunter-gatherer in the same vein as the Aboriginal Australians – erased but I also know very little about the pre-history of this part of the world so I’m merely thinking aloud, as mentioned I’m not aware of any evidence to support this. I’ll have proper read over the next few months.

Anyway, yes, I like New Zealand, it’s home at the moment and I am stuck/settled in the town of Taupo until I save up enough money to get the hell out. Handily I have landed centrally so barring imminent supereruptions I will be motoring out and about more now the weather is improving and I have a dashing beige Honda Odyssey which I am quite fond of to do it in. Sweet bru.

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Old trees atop Mount Tauhara, the extinct volcano that stands over the town that Ngātoro-i-rangi climbed. Beautiful bush. Pun intended.