Last month, after a week of meetings in Auckland, I spent a weekend poking around New Zealand's Northland, the long thin peninsula that extends northwest of the city. North is the direction of the tropics, but there's no New Zealand Riviera. Northland is a little warmer than Auckland, I'm told, but what I saw was a moody temperate landscape, wrapped, as New Zealand so often is, in cloud.
The Maori name for northern New Zealand, Aotearoa, appears to mean something like "land of the long white cloud," or at least that's the version that's fed to the vague inquisitions of tourists. (Maori doesn't slur adjacent vowels, by the way, so "Aotearoa" is six quick syllables, the vowels roughly as in Italian or Spanish.) This windward side of the North Island is a wet, temperate clime -- never really hot or really cold -- that will be instantly familiar to anyone from Britain, or Oregon.
I spent the weekend inside a cloud, driving through landscapes that kept invoking the small-town Oregon of my childhood ... farming, timber, mining, and some very low-key gestures toward tourism.
Most wandering benefits from the illusion of a destination, and in this part of the world that's the job of Tane Mahuta, the largest of the giant kauri (Agathis australis). As giant, ancient trees go, it's not exceptionally tall, but it's certainly massive. What's most striking, though, is its presentation. The rainforest boardwalk brings us out at a viewpoint where we see just the mass of its main trunk, the top just beginning to flare out, exactly as though this were a column of a cathedral. It really does look like it's holding up the forest canopy, if not the world.
But the settled landscape is correspondingly humble. Despite the wet temperate climate, there's a tendency toward very small leaves, which are more busy than lush to the distant eye.
The white stuff is pampas grass, a weed. The black mass of conifers in the first pic is probably a weed as well -- either Cupressus macrocarpa or Pinus radiata. (Both, remarkably, are native to the same small area of coastal California; Californians call them Monterey Cypress and Monterey Pine, respectively. The Monterey area is to forestry as Britain was to culture: a dominant global influence exerted from a tiny patch of land.)
But some plants here that repeatedly poke my eye with their distinctiveness. In a heath landscape, it's Cordyline, locally called the cabbage tree. Against the backdrop of heath or low forest, they look like little explosions or exclamations.
When planted in a row, Cordyline look like a row of cheerleaders with their pompoms, an odd eruption in such a dour landscape. It's as though all those laconic rural farmers, mostly descended from people who farmed similar heaths in Britain, secretly want to be clowns.
Briefly I think of Gordon Brown as a cheerleader, bouncing and waving.