Posted by: John Looker | 18 October, 2014

A Postcard From New Zealand


A Postcard From New Zealand
In the Evening a pleasant Breeze
and all Hands at the mast-head.
Land still distant at 7 or 8 leagues
and appears now larger than ever:
4 or 5 ranges of hills are seen
rising one over the other
and over them all a range of Mountains
some prodigiously high.
On the following morn, hoping for a Harbour,
our Ship stood in to a bay
and before we were well within the heads
Canoes — large Canoes — appeared.
There were houses, low but neat.
People on the beach observing us.
And a regular Paling, remarkably high,
inclosing the top of a hill.
For what Purpose we could not tell.

© John Stevens 2014


We are in New Zealand for six weeks visiting daughters and family and I send this as my postcard to my WordPress friends. It is modelled on extracts from Sir Joseph Banks’ journal for October 1769, the first sighting of this land by Capt James Cook and HMS Endeavour.


  1. Those canoes…large canoes…I daresay a whole lot more impressive than our Indian canoes here in New England. Is it because those in New Zealand were dug out of a kind of tree much greater in size than our birches and pines?
    Hope you are enjoying your stay, John. Kia ora and godspeed!


    • I think they had canoes of every size but to judge from examples in museums their great sea-going craft — for exploration, fishing, raiding and warfare — were comparable to Viking longboats or Roman galleys. Most impressive.


      • I was reading about a waka taua, ( with 80 paddlers) carved out of a single log…OMG. what kind of tree was that?


  2. Interesting use of the old text. The way it unfolds toward the unknown paling, one may be forgiven to feel something is beyond the pale about this poem, for all its pre-modern objectivity. Umberto Eco often gets this effect in his ” historical” novels. I am aware that this response will seem almost solipsistic or at least hopelessly tangled with irrelevant theory to many of your readers (hi Cynthia!).


    • Reading the old text was fascinating Tom. Neither the ship’s company nor the indigenous people knew what to expect of the other and the first contact led to bloodshed and death. I was struck by the impression of both groups straining to see and puzzle out the other. The suspense; the auguries.


  3. Like it was for the first European settlers, the first impression of New Zealand must be asthonishing (this was not your first visit of course 🙂 How many? ) Enjoyed the poem and hope you will enjoy your time there. Springtime! Arohanui 🙂


  4. Fascinating, John. I can’t think what it reminded me of, but something good. I have to admit a familial interest – my paternal great-grandfather Fleck hailed from Whitby, and was supposedly descended from Captain Cook – though I’d guess a lot of people around there would claim that! I remember you saying something about the New World outdoors lacking the historical associations of Britain, but this piece captures the strangely eerie, edgy charm of the unknown landscapes…


    • Glad it was of interest to you. By chance your own latest blog reflections, on islands and Shakespeare’s Tempest, seem to celebrate the same feelings of a ship’s company on arriving at a strange shore. “Be not afeard” etc!


  5. Stunning, John. And rich with the language of the old explorers. I sailed into that heading with you surrounded by the native canoes and the unknown land ahead.


  6. White ghost invaders, their strange craft filling fainter hearts with fright. Men sailed towards them, horribly tattooed.


    • Good response Pete — I like it!
      My own attempt at the Maoris’ perspective was in an earlier poem ‘Watershed’.


  7. Great poem, John. When I toured the wananga with the Maori, they took me to a place where the actually were making modern versions of the old canoes in Bank’s saw. I was given the tour by Mana Forbes, one of the Maori who actually has the gift of seeing and communicating with those who have passed on. I am not sure this will all print, but thought you might enjoy the poem I wrote about that experience at the time.

    They stood on the enormous white yacht’s deck, drinks in hands,
    Wearing elegant light colored slack and shirts in evening’s chill.
    As big as two or three white whales,
    Gleaming slightly from reflections of Auckland Harbor lights,
    The yacht’s name was emblazoned in large black letters
    On both sides of its hull, INTEGRITY.

    Those who wished to challenge for the America’s Cup were racing daily,
    Trying to get to where they could challenge New Zealand’s champion.
    Harbor life was abuzz with restaurants crammed with diners,
    Men and women strolling,
    And music and lights from huge yachts and sailing boats
    Worth more than the capital worth of a Maori village
    Or a small American Indian reservation.
    Excitement and laughter danced in counterpoint to still, dark harbor waters.
    The world had slipped loose from moorings
    And poured wealth and elegance into Auckland Harbor with reckless abandon.

    Earlier that day, driving from the east coast,
    We had visited a large metal warehouse
    Te Wanagna O Aotearo was remodeling
    To make into a technical school and college.
    Inside the warehouse we had been shown
    An eighty foot canoe, waka, with two hulls,
    That towered over our heads,
    And an unfinished cabin being built beside the hulls.

    “This will be the second largest waka sailing,”
    The chief craftsman, waka builder, told us, eyes shining.
    “She’ll fly over water, close to waves,
    And with a good navigator you could follow
    Killer whales as they migrated around the world.”

    “The ocean would sting your face,” he said.
    “You’d ride big waves up and down
    And see stars swimming huge at night
    As you lived, really lived, life as it was meant to be!”

    Each of us ran hands on the waka’s smooth outer surface
    And tried to imagine sailing a waka
    Along with a small crew between Pacific Ocean islands,
    Living on the ocean, always looking for land.

    “The Maori could find land every three days,” Mana told us.
    “They sailed three days, found land, took on provisions,
    Then went sailing again, measuring who they were,
    Their ancestors were, against endless ocean,
    Currents, winds, fish, birds, and storms.”

    At Auckland Harbor that night,
    After checking into a hotel so elegant
    We had to swim through lobby carpet to get to the doors,
    We walked through corridors of lights and music
    And looked at the display of conspicuous wealth
    The way anyone who had recently walked with rainbows would look.

    “Just think how many schools one of these yachts would build,”
    Naumai , a Maori women who had walked to the docks with us, said.

    Then we followed the dock’s horseshoe path
    And walked to the harbor’s darker side where INTEGRITY lay
    Beside a small Maori waka not half the size of the warehouse waka.
    Ropes were drawn tight from masts to decks.
    Decks were cluttered with stuff needed for weeks of ocean living.
    From the dock its coffin-sized sleeping compartment,
    Where one crewman after another took turns sleeping,
    And flags and small wooden cabin
    Seemed shrunken beside the white behemoth beside it.
    A young Maori sailor looked up from deck and saw us,
    Smiled with white teeth so bright they shined in dark.

    Mana laughed, backed away from the dock’s railing,
    Held his arms up toward a sky dark with clouds,
    And said to me, in a loud exuberant voice,

    “Now I ask you, Tom,” he said.
    “Which one of these. . .” he pointed at the white whale
    And then at the waka lapped at by dark waters.
    “Is integrity?”

    We laughed
    As we saw ourselves skimming ocean.
    Waves sent spray into bodies and faces,
    And dolphins powered beside us.

    The waka sang with waves as ocean flew past,
    And our small sails billowed breath of wind.


    • Ah, that’s terrific Tom! You captured both the Auckland harbour scene that I know and the Maori and Pacific Islanders’ seafaring skills and history. It must have been quite some experience! The Maori waka and their traditional wooden buildings are beautifully carved too, aren’t they? Another proof of culture.


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