Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Piopiotahi and the Mountains of Fiordland

Milford Sound, New Zealand (June 3, 2008)


Maui was the first mortal man. He wasn't born so... in fact he almost wasn't born at all. He was the last son of Taranga, who rejected him as an infant and threw him into the sea. Rangi, the god of the sky, took pity of him: so it happened that Maui was raised by Rangi as one of his children. Years later Maui went to look for his mother and siblings. He found them in her home, and confronted his mother. She at first denied his claims, but finally relented and accepted him as is last son, the one that she had in her old age, which she abandoned at sea in her girdle. So Maui become known as Maui-the-girdle-of-Taranga and was accepted in her home.

A fall in Milford Sound
His brothers were jealous, but were eventually won over by his indefatigable personality. A Maori Hercules, he enlisted his brothers in a series of superhuman enterprises, among which snaring the Sun, stealing the fire from the gods and raising land from the ocean. When he was bored he transformed his brother-in-law into a dog and stole his grandmother jawbone. He was restless, always in search of a new challenge.

And the ultimate challenge he found, when he decided that he would seek and defeat Hine-nui-te-po, the first woman and the goddess of the underworld. Rangi warned him that he would perish in the attempt, but he decided to try anyway. He gathered the company of the birds of the forest, and set out to the west, where the sky meet the Earth and the Sun sets. There he found Hine, asleep and revealing the entrance to the underworld. Set in-between her tights, it was a dark cave encrusted with sharp flints and gemstones, ready to crush anybody daring to venture inside. His companions the birds again warned him that he would die if he tried to enter the cave, and that they would laugh at him for his recklessness. But he didn't want to hear any of it, and prepared to go inside, his mighty war club tightly tied to his arm. Just as he was at the entrance of the cave, however, the piopio bird burst into a laugh. The old lady suddenly awoke, shut close her legs and cut Maui in two.

This was the end of Maui, who became the first men to die, after which all humans are bound to death. The piopio was overwhelmed with sorrow, and flew to the deserted lands to the south, where the sea enters the mountains in deep cold fiords. There he was found many years laters by Maori explorers, the piopiotahi, the lone fantail bird still in mourning for having caused the mortality of humankind. That's the name the Maori gave to the fiord that we call Milford Sound. [You can read more about the myths and legends of New Zealand at the Te Ara encyclopedia]

We visited Milford Sound in our 2008 trip to New Zealand. To access the fiord one has to drive to a scenic mountain road that passes through the mountains in the panorama below. The fiord itself is very spectacular, with high peaks (like Mitre Peak, the triangular pyramid on the left in the photo above) raising straight from its deep dark waters. The waters are dark because the high rainfall in the area (feeding the numerous waterfalls like the one on the left) wash in the fiord the tannin-rich vegetation growing on their steep slopes. That makes Milford Sound waters very opaque, and give rise to a unique ecosystem in which fish and coral species that in other areas of the world only live at great depth, are here accessible just a few meters from the surface.

With this story, is time to leave the island of Middle Earth and cross the Pacific due East, where the mighty mountain chain of the Andes, with their telescopes scrutinizing the southern sky, are waiting.

Along the road to Milford Sound, New Zealand (June 3, 2008)

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