Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

New Zealand, a Nation at Sea

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

New Zealand, a Nation at Sea

Article excerpt

Richard Jackson assesses the reasons why the New Zealand public knows little of the sea and its influence on their country.

Stand on the top of Bluff Hill, Napier. At your feet is the bustling spectacle of the port, with cargo ships sheltered by the massive arms of the breakwaters. To the north-west curve the swimming beaches of Napier's West Shore; to the north and northeast there are the waters of Hawke Bay with the horizon cut by the rugged hills leading to Mahia peninsula--Maui's fish hook according to Maori legend. But look out to the east--there is nothing but the sea, the blue water of the Pacific Ocean extending beyond sight. Similar seascapes can be found all around New Zealand; their common factor is the immense ocean which surrounds our land.

We take these seascapes for granted; yet as a society we pay little attention to our oceanic existence. Now, at the end of the 20th century, the sea has little direct impact on our daily lives. By turning to break in the land, New Zealanders have turned their backs on the sea, suggests Gerald Hensley, the Secretary of Defence. So, for the postwa `baby-boomers', brought up in peace and prosperity, the sea has been only a source of recreation. Our emphasis on economics made us aware of the place of orchardists, farmers, foresters and miners in New Zealand's prosperity, but not seafarers. The road and rail network that tamed the rugged terrain and long distances of our two islands has divorced us from sea trans port. Even Cook Strait is less of a barrier as the Lynx and other fast ferries reduce the crossing to just a novel part of a road journey. The fleet of coasters that kept the nation's seaside communities alive has vanished; the great jetties at Tolaga Bay and on the Whanganui or Waimakariri have fallen into disrepair; the communities themselves have spread along the highways rather than the water front.

Many New Zealanders have little sense of their country's maritime environment. Auckland writer Tessa Duder has commented that our nation does `have a maritime tradition. But', she concludes,'we need to keep telling our children about it'. What, then, should we tell our children? More urgently,what should we tell our policymakers?

Cultural symbol

The Jumbo jet has become a cultural symbol for New Zealanders. In the last thirty years, the Pacific has been spanned in fewer hops and less time by more and more long-range, widebody airliners. In contrast, my parents' generation talked of the `home boats'--the big cargo liners that took both New Zealand's exports and its travellers to the other side of the world.

Dame Catherine Tizard is one who recalls from the 1950s the emotion of `the streamer ceremony', when families and friends farewelled their adventurers heading off for the `great OE' on a passenger liner. `Everyone on board would throw paper streamers down to their well wishers. Bands played and everyone waved.... As the ship pulled away, the paper streamers and the ties they represented would be broken and the vessel sailed for the unknown ....'

That evocative breaking of the streamers each time the liners pulled away from the wharves at Auckland, or Wellington or Lyttelton marked the start of the three-week slog across the broad Pacific to Panama. Even the trip to Australia meant a stormy four days on the Tasman. Travellers then, and most New Zealanders, were well aware of the great ocean between us and the rest of the world.

It is different now. 'We merely wave until the departing travellers are through the barrier at the local airport and those departing just want to find the proper gate number and not prolong things', says Dame Catherine. Strapped into an aluminium tube, flying at night and watching an in-flight movie, few New Zealand travellers now are aware of the power and majesty of the ocean far below them. The symbolism of the streamer ceremony has gone, along with our shared awareness of the sea as our highway to the rest of the world. …

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