The Haka: Is it unfair?

Even the most humble kiwi can be reduced to a goose-bumped, watery-eyed, hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-the-necked patriot when watching the All Blacks doing the haka. There is something about seeing our team doing us proud with their passionate rendition of Ka Mate, which has even been known to captivate Aussies, Brits and South Africans.

Though some haka are war dances, they are more often a challenge to the opposition – a way of showing the enemy your strength and dominance. They can also be performed to honour or welcome people too, so they’re not all meant to be scary.

We can thank the All Blacks for bringing the haka to the international stage. Aside from honouring cultural tradition, there are biological reasons for performing it too. Supporters of the Wallabies and Springboks have pointed out (rather annoyingly!) that it gives the All Blacks an unfair advantage. How so?

Psychologically, it puts them in a position to intimidate the other team. They show the whites of their eyes, and make aggressive movements and stick out their tongues. Though this may sound ridiculous and not the least bit intimidating, if you had a 120kg guy built of pure muscle yelling in your face, then you would probably not be laughing.

Image

Photo from here

This gives the All Blacks the upper hand right from kick off –  they have already told the other team who is boss, and the movement, crouching and jumping also help their muscles to warm up while the other team is obliged to stand still and watch.

Performing the haka triggers the release of the hormones testosterone and adrenaline into the blood stream, which triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response. Their reactions become quicker, muscles poised to act, eyes widened to improve vision, and heart rate stepped up a notch, preparing them both psychologically and physically for the game. – Take note Lance Armstrong, no need for drugs when you can do the haka.

So yes (I can’t believe I’m saying this), the All Blacks definitely gain an advantage from it.

Some American football teams have picked up on using the haka as part of their pre-match preparation too. Though the cultural meaning of the haka surely has no significance for them whatsoever, they are obviously getting some benefit out of it. They aren’t allowed to perform it on the field (this violates field rules), so they do it in the changing rooms instead.

Image

Photo from here

The idea of a team performing the haka on the other side of the world, with no knowledge of its cultural significance, yelling at no one but a brick wall is a bit stoopid. But obviously the biological benefits are enough to get them suitably fired up, so good for them.

A post about killing bunnies

When I was about 11 years old my brother and I found two rabbits. That’s not very remarkable seeing as we lived next to a farm, but these were tame lop-eared rabbits. We just walked right up to them in the paddock and picked them up. Obviously they’d been dumped, so we took them home, put them in a cage and named them Token (she was mostly black and we were insensitive) and Bob (we were also unimaginative). A couple of weeks later there were five rabbits in that cage (Token, Bob, David Brent, Gareth Keenan and Keith). So we took Bob out and gave him to the neighbours, but somehow a couple of weeks after that there were 10 rabbits in our cage. And soon there were 14. (I think the neighbours’ cage was pretty un-rabbit-proof). We were giving away baby rabbits to every kid in the neighbourhood, whether they were allowed one or not. We couldn’t get rid of them fast enough. Dare I say they were breeding like, well, rabbits.

Image

(Photo from here)

I’m pretty sure Central Otago is some sort of Mecca for rabbits. They gather in such numbers that if you walk into a field at dusk, it sort of explodes with rabbits running away in all directions.

Image

(Wikimedia commons)

Every Easter in Alexandra, there is a competition called the Great Easter Bunny Hunt, where teams compete to shoot the most rabbits in a weekend. This usually deals with about 20,000 bunnies – just the tip of the iceberg. The Central Otago bunnies are the wild brown ones – not as sweet as lops but they still have that dawww factor. That is, until you see what they do, and then bunny killing becomes quite a fun sport!

Image

Victims of the Easter Bunny Hunt (photo from here)

Rabbits are a massive problem because they dig holes (holes is actually an understatement – more like giant underground labyrinths) all over fields, which make them erode away. Any areas of grass that they didn’t cause to erode become their feeding grounds, leaving nothing for farmers to graze stock on.

Image

(Wikimedia commons)

The rabbit population in New Zealand was almost at the point where they could seriously consider world domination (aka “the rabbit plague”) in the late 90s when somehow, mysteriously a virus was introduced which made them drop like flies. The virus basically made the rabbits haemorrhage, which isn’t a very nice way to die, but it was very effective. The New Zealand Ministry of Health had previously denied the introduction of the virus, because it’s kind of dodgy to bring a deadly virus into a new area without testing it first. But somehow, two months later the virus mysteriously appeared in Central Otago, wiping out countless rabbits.  Some farmers admitted to deliberately spreading the disease by putting diseased carcasses in the blender and spreading the sludge (hopefully these weren’t their kitchen blenders), but no one knows who actually snuck it into the country. I’d say there are a few farmers out there who would gladly buy that person a drink though, if they knew who it was. Unfortunately, the virus was introduced at the wrong time of the season, just after breeding had finished. Rabbits under 2 weeks old were immune to the virus, so the next season these immune rabbits reproduced and had immune offspring. So now, almost 15 years later, rabbits are once again reaching plague numbers and are being controlled with poison, which isn’t ideal.

I may sound like a brutal and callous person (would you believe that Watership Down and Peter Rabbit were some of my favourite stories as a kid?), and don’t get me wrong I loved Token and Bob, but as for those wild Central Otago rabbits? I now consider it my duty as a road user to dispose of at least one rabbit per car trip.Image

(Wikimedia commons)

Wakatipu: The lake that breathes

Lake Wakatipu is one of the South Island’s stunning southern lakes, lying on the border between Otago and Southland. The lake has been the backdrop for Hollywood movies, including the Lord of the Rings trilogy – scenery which attracts not only movie directors, but also millions of tourists each year. But with the beautiful scenery comes a mystery which has bewildered residents, tourists and scientists alike – its level rises and falls by about 20cm every 27 minutes or so. It is nowhere near big enough to be tidal (and the rise and fall is too quick to be tidal anyway), and the inlets and outlets have been measured, and don’t explain this phenomenon. Since this “breathing” was pointed out to me as a kid, it has intrigued me how this could happen, so I decided to finally set the record straight and find out.

Image

Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu, with the Remarkables mountains in the background. (Image from here)

This is the traditional (illustrated by me) Maori explanation:

Long ago, there was a Maori chief who had a beautiful daughter named Manata. There were many men who wanted to marry her, but she had her eye on one man in particular – Matakauri. Unfortunately Manata’s father thought Matakauri was unworthy to marry his beautiful daughter. One day, a giant, came into their village and stole Manata. Her father was absolutely distraught and said any man who brought her back could marry her. Image

This was Matakauri’s chance. He went into the mountains, where he observed that whenever the warm nor’wester winds blew, the giant would fall asleep. He waited for the wind to come, and then snuck into the giant’s cave to steal Manata back. She was tied up with strong cords, and Matakauri couldn’t free her, so he started to cry. His tears fell on the cord and the love in the tears dissolved them.

The pair fled together, and the chief allowed them to marry, as promised. Image

But the giant was still up in the mountains, which made Matakauri uneasy, so he decided to deal with him once and for all. So he went up into the mountains and waited for the nor’west wind to blow, then he set the giant’s bed of bracken alight. The giant went up in flames, and the fat in his body made a fire so intense it burnt a 400m deep hole in the ground. The flames melted the snow on the surrounding mountains, and filled the hole with water.

This explains why lake Wakatipu is in the shape of a sleeping giant. The head is at Glenorchy, the knee at Queenstown, and the feet at Kingston.

A giant’s heart cannot be destroyed, so it still beats to this day. This is why the water level in lake Wakatipu rises and falls about 20cms every few minutes. Image

Image

Landsat image from NASA

Here is the scientists’ version of events:

A huge glacier once filled the valley in which Lake Wakatipu lies about 15 000 years ago. Although a glacier is frozen, it still moves. The ice on the bottom of the glacier grinds the rock beneath it, which makes a hole that gets deeper and deeper. Over time, Wakatipu the glacier retreated and then disappeared, but the hole was left behind. The hole filled with water and became Lake Wakatipu.

As for the breathing, scientists think it is because of a phenomenon called a seiche or a standing wave. Basically a wave passes by every 27 minutes which raises the water level by 20cm.

To visualise a seiche, imagine you are sitting in a fairly full bath and rock back and forth. You’ll find that there is a particular period to your rocking which will cause waves to grow until they overflow the bath (about once a second).

Scientists think that a similar thing is happening in Lake Wakatipu, but it is triggered by wind and atmospheric changes, rather than a person rocking in the bath.

Image

(Wikimedia commons)

But the great thing about science is nothing can ever be proven for absolute certain – maybe one day they will discover the heart of a giant beating at the bottom of the lake.

How to navigate using the Southern Cross – this could save your life

The stars on the USA flag represent states. The stars on the Chinese flag represent the people under the rule of the communist party. The stars on the New Zealand flag represent, well…stars.

Image

(Wikimedia commons)

Those four stars, as any Kiwi will know, are in the shape of the Southern Cross (Crux, if you’re Latin), which are also on the Australian, Samoan, Papua New Guinean and Brazilian flags – although you have to look closely at Brazil’s flag (number 6).

Image

(Wikimedia commons)

As far as I’m concerned, you’re not a true Southerner unless you can navigate by the Southern Cross. Merp. Sorry. But if you can’t, that’s ok because I can show you how right now. Then you can just pretend that you always knew how to do it.

All you need to do is draw imaginary lines, like the ones in my hugely technical and accurate drawing below. The two bright stars to the left of the cross are called the pointers. The first imaginary line joins them together. The second imaginary line goes out at right angles to this (yes, this line is supposed to be straight, but I have an unsteady hand!). The third line goes through the length of the cross, and carries on.  The place where the second and third lines meet is the south celestial pole. If you find the spot on the horizon that is directly below that, then you’ll be looking south.

Image

I’m sure this information is hugely useful to you and may indeed save your life if you happen to be cast out at sea. In a boat. With no landmarks. At night. In good weather.  And you happen to know the direction in which you want to travel. – You never know… it could happen.

If it wasn’t for the stars, the Maori people wouldn’t have found their way to New Zealand, and a whole lot of other people and animals would have got lost too.

Although the Southern Cross is supposedly a southern thing, it actually is visible in the North sometimes. In April, it can be seen for a few hours each night from some places between 25 degrees North and the equator, such as Cancun. So if you happen to be in Cancun right now, take a break from your partying and cast your eyes upwards to appreciate these southern stars in your northern sky. The only places that can see it year-round are south of 34 degrees latitude – that is roughly south of Cape Town and Perth.

This hasn’t always been the case though. The cross was actually visible to the ancient Greeks, and could be seen as far north as Britain around 4000BC. Because of a phenomenon called Equinoxial Precession (it’s a big word, but is really quite simple), the constellation has gradually moved below the horizon for Northern Hemisphere dwellers, and was eventually forgotten by them until explorers later reported it in the 1500s.

Image

(Wikimedia commons)

If you imagine the Earth rotating (white arrows) around the red axis. This then rotates itself very slowly around the white circle, kind of like a wobbling spinning-top. This gradually changes the position of the South Celestial pole (the crossing point between the imaginary lines from my drawing above), which appears to move in a circle if you watch it for 26 000 years or so.

Basically, this means that the Southern Cross won’t always be a southern thing, just as the North Star won’t always be the North Star. Eventually (sometime in the next 26 000 years), the cross will become visible in the North again, which may call for some flag redesigning in the future.

The sun doesn’t shine out of my backside, but the moon does

I live in dark damp caves in New Zealand. From far away, I look beautiful, but up close I am quite repulsive. If you are small, I am deadly to you. I set up elaborate traps, and lure you in by tricking you that I am something nice. In fact I look so nice, that even humans come to see me. Once you become ensnared, I will wind you in on a string, kill you and eat you.

No, this is not me:

Image

I’m a glow worm.

Well, really I’m not a worm, but rather the maggot (larva) of the fungus gnat. Not sounding so nice now, am I?

Image

I make a trap of silk strings covered in sticky mucous. I sit behind these strings, showing off my glowing backside to attract flying insects who think it is moonlight. My kidneys have been modified so a chemical reaction takes place, which produces the eerie blue-green light.

When my prey flies towards my light, they get stuck in my mucous-covered trap. Their struggle to escape alerts me that I’ve captured a victim, so I wind in the string and eat them.  Yum.

Image

You can visit me in caves throughout New Zealand. I’m most famous in the Waitomo Caves in the North Island, and in Te Anau in the South, where you can go on tours and view me from a boat. In Dunedin, you can walk up Nichols creek and see me for free!

All images: Wikimedia Commons

You say potayto, I say potahto. You say kiwi, I say kiwifruit

Image

To a New Zealander: Kiwi.  To an American: Kiwi-bird

Image

To a New Zealander: Kiwifruit.  To an American: Kiwi

Image

This one’s definitely a kiwi. (Picture from here)

Much as we try to be humble, New Zealanders are a pretty proud bunch. After all, we have all that Kiwiana stuff to be proud of: Gumboots (rainboots/wellingtons/galoshes, whatever you like to call them), jandals (thongs/flip-flops…gosh we need to hold an international footwear naming convention), plastic tikis, the All Blacks, no. 8 wire, pavlova – wait…what? The Aussies claim pavlova too? But it’s got kiwifruit on top…it’s got to be kiwi, right?

Well actually, kiwifruit are not kiwi at all. (Note: When I’m talking about something “being kiwi”, I mean “being New Zealand-ish”). In fact, they didn’t even exist in this country until 1906, when some seeds were brought here from China.

Any older New Zealander will tell you that they didn’t always go by the name “kiwifruit”, but rather by the much less charismatic name of “Chinese gooseberries”. This name was a bit misleading though, because they don’t have any close relation to gooseberries at all, and quite frankly that name makes them sound pretty yuck.

Back in the 1930s, when orchardists realised the fruit grew well in the North Island and could be a good commercial crop, they decided to change the name to make it synonymous with New Zealand.

They settled on “kiwifruit”, partially because it is a Maori word that many people overseas could associate with New Zealand, and also because of the fruit’s supposed resemblance to the bird (maybe if you gave the bird some trimming).

Image

Picture from here

In order to produce fruit, the flowers need to be pollinated by bees. Kiwifruit have separate male and female plants, so they can’t self-pollinate like a lot of other plants do. Much like humans, only female kiwifruit plants produce fruit, but (unlike humans) they are very difficult to pollinate/fertilise. This is because bees don’t really like them, so for many producers the only way to get the job done is to flood the orchard with so many bees that they have no choice but to visit kiwifruit flowers.

In 2010, a kiwifruit disease somehow evaded New Zealand’s tough biosecurity screening process, and proceeded to wreck havoc on kiwifruit crops across the North Island. The disease is a bacteria that infects the vines and leaves, and can kill the plant. It isn’t really known how it got here, but possibly on someone’s clothing or equipment. This spelled disaster for many growers – 70% of kiwifruit hectares are currently affected, and the government has contributed $25m, matched dollar for dollar by growers in a (seemingly unsuccessful) attempt to control the disease.

Image

Photo from here

It was also disastrous for university students working over their summer holidays, who were denied the only perks of slaving on a kiwifruit orchard – fresh air and a tan – by having to wear these suits all summer:

Image

Photo: R. Ferguson

Despite the disease, we still produce enough fruit to export, and always have plenty for the Christmas pavlova. Supposedly, kiwifruit produce an enzyme that breaks down milk proteins, so you’d think it would be a silly move to put it on top of cream, but I’ve never had a pavlova last long enough to see what would happen.

Image

Photo from here

Although kiwifruit have become one of New Zealand’s icons, ironically both Italy and Chile produce more of them than we do. New Zealanders will be proud to note that Australia’s contribution to the kiwifruit market is negligible compared to ours, which leaves me with one thing to say to Aussies:

You can have Phar Lap; you can have Russell Crowe; heck, you can even have Sonny Bill. But the kiwifruit pavlova is ours!

(First two pictures from Wikimedia commons).