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Dunedin - the Edinburgh of the South Island
Even for me, New Zealand was far away. The Southern Alps stretched like a backbone along the southern island, carrying me closer and closer to my new home in Dunedin, the second last stop before Antarctica.
To my right, lay the bay of Awarua and the glaciers and fjords of the Tasman Sea. I had also read that according to another Maori legend, the goddess of the underworld was so alarmed by the beauty of the new land, which the God Tu-te-Rakiwhanoa had created, that she was afraid men would come and want to live there forever. To suppress this desire she went directly to Milford Sound, the most beautiful part of the southern island and released a large sandfly called a manu, which she hoped would keep them away. For a long period the sandflies only bothered the local Aborigines who hunted under the light of the phosphorescent silver ferns amidst the cascading waterfalls, rushing streams and light-flecked beech forests. But the goddess might not have bothered, because in 1642, the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman reached the islands of Aotearoa and tried to come ashore. The Maoris killed four of his men and drove him away.
The British explorer, Capt. James Cook eventually landed in 1769, and within the space of a hundred years, there were an extra 3.5 million inhabitants eager to share the godly paradise. I looked out again, through the circular window at the mountain range that spread out on a blue and white carpet thousands of feet below the plane. We were now passing by the snow capped peaks of Mount Cook, 12,349 feet high and known to the local tribespeople as Aorangi, ‘the cloud piercer’. To my left, a hundred miles down the eastern coast lay my new home, the farming port of Dunedin, blessed by plenty of rain and the centre of the nation’s most important seat of medical learning.
It was with these thoughts, I was arriving on a rainy Sunday afternoon in early 1988 to start a new life as Respiratory Registrar in Dunedin Public Hospital. It was then, while I was alone onthe plane, with the memories of the Christmas parties in Dublin still fresh in my thoughts, I wondered what the future held in store for me. The job would be challenging as the dramatic rise in the severity of asthma among young people in New Zealand in the early 1980's was focusing international attention on the possible causes of these unusual mortalities. The lady in the seat beside me smiled and for a moment I felt she shared my concerns about my new position. We talked together for a while and she told me that the city of Dunedin had been named after the Gaelic name for Edinburgh and indeed many New Zealander’s still referred to it as the ‘Edinburgh of the South’. During the gold strikes of the 1860’s the town had apparently flourished and in 1877 many Scottish Presbyterians migrated to the area, leaving their particular identity on the costal region.
"They say we only settled in Dunedin so we would have the weather to grumble about" she continued.
I later discovered that most of the streets of the city were named after familiar avenues of the Scottish capital and there was even a statue of Robbie Burns gazing down from a plinth in the octagonal main square. From these humble beginnings, the town of Dunedin rapidly grew to become the nation’s foremost educational and commercial centre, but in latter years its former grandeur had waned, leaving it as probably the best-preserved Victorian and Edwardian City in the Southern Hemisphere. The city was also home to Carisbrook, the internationally famous sports ground, and the first Rugby World Cup of 1987 had just ended, with both Scotland and Ireland having played matches in the town.
In New Zealand, as in most other outposts of the British empire, rugby had evolved into a national pastime and was played by schoolboys from all over the country. Such was the passion for the game that from an early period racism was excluded from the sport and a Maori tribesman could proudly stand side by side with the grandson of a former British soldier as they chanted the mantra of the famous Haka together.
"Ka mate! Ka mate! Ka ora! Ka ora!" ("It is death! It is death! It is life! It is life!").
"I was at the Irish World Cup game against Canada" she continued "and after the match we went to that new wee Irish Pub near the hospital called ‘The Dubliner’"
"You’ll like it here, they even have Guinness on tap!"
The air was still hot as we landed in Dunedin. The feeling of homesickness still lingered as I hired a car at the airport and made my way towards the hospital quarters. A faint thought, the echo of my girlfriend’s departing words flickered through my memory.
For many hours I stayed in the room quietly unpacking, before making my way outside to listen to the sounds of my first New Zealand night. The echoes of my memories slowly drifted away, taken on the wings of a group of fireflies that swirled and tossed under the stars of the Southern Cross. In a darkened area near the main gate of the hospital, I saw a Steinlager sign on a hotel called ‘The Captain Cook’.
It was there, about ten minutes later, that I met my first inebriated Kiwi, an out of town sheep drover, whose eyes simmered in a red haze as he turned towards me and slowly said,
"You know, when you look around you, we’re a bloody great race of people!"
"We were the first to give women the right to vote, the first to introduce a welfare state and the first people to climb Mount Everest"
"We were also the first to have powered flight and if truth was said we even discovered the atom!"
Things were indeed looking up. Although I knew that Ernest Rutherford came from New Zealand, it was many months later before I discovered that Richard William Pearse, a farmer’s son from the small, farming settlement of Waitohi, in the South Island of New Zealand flew an aircraft as early as March 1903, a full nine months before the Wright brothers. Apparently the powered plane eventually 'landed' on top of a high gorse hedge surrounding a neighbouring paddock. He left it there because of a heavy fall of snow. Meteorological records for that time show that snow fell on the 11th of July 1903, but that there was no snow during any of the years immediately before or after that date. It is documented that Orville Wright piloted Flyer from an airfield in North Carolina on 17 th of December of the same year. There was no doubt about it, all said, New Zealand was going to be a fascinating country to live in for a while.