Fire in the hole, fire in the sky, fire everywhere. The year – the decade – went up in flames, one apocalyptic fireball after another in 2019, from the merely spectacular (the roof of the New Zealand International Convention Centre, big deal), to the heat and flameless horror of Whakaari/White Island, to the bush fires sending bad, bad smoke across the water from Australia.
"Who by fire," Leonard Cohen sang, in his litany of the endless ways to die. Who by gas and sulphurous ash at the precise moment of a volcano erupting off the Bay of Plenty coast. Whakaari/White Island looked like the pits of hell, in the photos and film taken by tourists during the eruption, and almost even more so in the Defence Force photo taken during the mission to bring out the dead – you know the one I mean, a helicopter (or drone) shot of two SAS guys in yellow anti-death outfits walking across the gray-green crater. They were really quite flimsy anti-death outfits. This sentence, published on the morning of the rescue mission: "There is a 6 per cent chance of being eliminated in another eruption." The word doing all the work is "eliminated".
I was asked by the Herald to write something about the tragedy the day after it happened. I guess they wanted me to think about its meaning and to put into words the way we all felt about it as a nation, as a people who live on these strange, steaming islands at the end of the world.
But I failed the assignment, and wrote a piece that was merely transfixed with horror at the tourist photos and the bits and pieces of information that were coming out in the first few hours. I wrote it after midnight. It was thought then that maybe six people were still on the island: "You pictured the island under darkness, and the possibility there were survivors on the shore," I wrote. I made amendments to the piece in the morning: "It was reportedly very cold in nearby Whakatāne last night, with a bitter wind, and there were bolts of lightning out at sea. But now we know there wasn't anyone alive on White Island to see it."
I've moved on from being transfixed with horror. I haven't moved on much. I'm now sort of dazed with horror at the photos, the film, the interviews with incredibly brave and resourceful people who described what they saw when they saved lives or tried to save lives.
But it's possible to see some things a bit more clearly. In its apparatus of police and state, and in the heroism and kindness of strangers, New Zealand responded to the crisis swiftly and with courage. Whakaari/White Island was a crisis. New Zealand rose to it. Māori in Whakatāne gave it a special depth of feeling with their slow processions and their profound sense of respect for the dead and the families of the dead. Jacinda Ardern, too, was a symbol of seriousness and compassion. She put her arms around people. She held them close. I suppose the Governor-General was involved somewhere or other but Ardern, by her actions and sincerity, is the person we look to as our head of state.
Key was rubbish in a crisis. Pike River was on his watch, and the mission to bring out the dead is only now getting somewhere. In 2019, we were able to take immense pride in the way the police and army co-ordinated the Whakaari/White Island rescue. Does it make what happened any better? I think it kind of does.
"As a name, and as a concept, White Island is about to take on a new and terrible resonance," I wrote, stunned in the midnight hour of the tragedy. "The first thing it'll mean when we hear it mentioned - like the names Tangiwai, Erebus, Aramoana, Wahine, Pike River – is death."
Yeah, okay, good point, I agree with myself, but it's not the only thing it'll mean. The job that the SAS guys carried out, at risk of elimination as they crawled through the ash in their gas masks and sticky fabrics, will long be remembered as a thing of pride and awe.
Everyone in New Zealand is talking about what happened at Whakaari/White Island. The other day I talked about what happened with Sir Bob Harvey. Bob has become a good friend this year. He visits, we have tea and biscuits, he listens to my petty complaints. And then he tells wonderful stories; the former mayor of Waitakere and president of the Labour Party has been around, likes an adventure, so of course he has set foot on White Island.
It was back in the 60s. Tours weren't a thing back then. He went there on a boat with a mate. They climbed into the crater only wearing speedos and sandshoes. It was steaming, smoking, boiling. They were conscious of the 1914 incident when a lahar killed 10 sulphur miners; not a trace of the men was ever found. "They were vapourised," said Bob. And then after a good look around, he and his mate had a swim.
Sounds awesome. I hope the tourist trips to Whakaari/White Island get back up and running. I'd love to go to that amazing island. It's one of the many things that makes New Zealand special, in our strange, remote archipelago of pits, tunnels, vents, craters, lakes, and other black holes.
Every year can feel like end times but 2019 made a pretty credible claim. The convention fire was just an accident and what happened at White Island/Whakaari was a freak event of the worst kind but Australia's bush fires was like a preview of things to come – global warming on an acceleration towards global burning.
At least our fires were contained. Australia's fires went on the move, epic and restless, burning everything in its path. The latest statistics, which will need updating as soon as you read this: Six people dead, 2.7m hectares scorched, 724 homes, 49 facilities and 1582 outbuildings destroyed. You could measure the devastation in numbers, or you could just stare at the colours. There was a terrible beauty to the film and the photographs. All that deep, glowing red, with stark black silhouettes of firemen in the foreground – they looked as thin and vulnerable as branches.
There wasn't anything beautiful about the film and the photographs of Sydney. It looked sick as a dog, the air black and smudgy, the Opera House like shells in a mangrove sludge. It was these images which served as a prophecy of things to come. It's quite possible to view wasteland fires – even including the Blue Mountains, where the smoke is so thick that it looks like a volcano has erupted - with a shrug. Callous, but possible. It's another matter entirely when you see what it does to places where people live. Sydney, for God's sake! This isn't some small fragile one-dingo joint on the edge of a frontier; this is the greatest city in Oceania, and it's beneath an acrid haze. Its sun is bright red. Its air quality is rated 12th worst on the planet. Dystopia, here we come.
The two easiest responses to crisis is to do nothing, or to do nothing except panic and proclaim that the end is nigh. Please allow me to listlessly point to the Australian bush fires and proclaim that the end is nigh. But the end is always nigh, isn't it? There were fears of a second atomic blast after Hiroshima; nothing happened. There were fears Kruschev's USSR and Kennedy's USA were heading for a nuclear showdown after the Bay of Pigs incident; nothing happened. There were fears after 9/11 that the world was going to hell in an Islamic-extremist suicide kit, hat optional; a lot happened, and continues to happen, but the planet holds on.
In 2019, despite the evidence of climate change, it's tempting to surrender to complacency. It's possible to ignore Greta Thunberg. Dumb, but possible. To ignore Sir David Attenborough, as well, seems reckless.
Not long after the fires began, and Sydney started resembling something from one of the bleaker movies in the Mad Max franchise (Beyond Thunderdome is set in the grimy post-apocalyptic city of Barter Town), Attenborough was interviewed on England's Channel 4. It was put to him that an 11-year-old had asked, "Is it too late to reverse climate change?" He replied, devastatingly, "It's too late to reverse it. Not only in my lifetime, but in the next lifetime."
Wait, it got worse. Attenborough imagined the future, thus: "I think civil unrest on a great scale, and mass migration on a great scale. I think we will go on finding enough food, though it may not be precisely the choice that we would take freely."
Eventually, though, he expressed a note of... not exactly optimism, but something resembling hope. "I don't think you can reverse climate change," he reiterated. "I think the best we can hope is that we will slow it down and slow it down considerably. If we can do that."
I have a kid. She's 12. All parents worry about the world their children will inherit but the thought of "civil unrest on a great scale" is truly frightening. More fire; more chaos. "We finally, really did it," Charlton Heston fulminates in the famous last scene of Planet of the Apes. "You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! God damn you all to hell!"
That speech coming soon, to a scorched Earth near you.
"As crimes pile up, they become invisible," wrote Berthold Brecht. It may seem outrageous that an essay on New Zealand in 2019 has only just now made any kind of acknowledgement of the date even school children know as shorthand for an atrocity: March 15.
No disrespect is intended. What happened in Christchurch ranks high in the catalogue of grave sins in this country's history.
It was a one-off, it wasn't a one-off. It was a random event, it wasn't a random event. It was the loss of innocence, it wasn't the loss of innocence ... The only thing I'm sure about is the latter. Hard to claim a loss of innocence when New Zealand never really had it in the first place; such is the way of colonialism, and its long, enduring displacement of indigenous peoples.
Some of the meaning of what happened may or may not become clearer when the man accused of killing 51 people at the Al-Noor mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre appears in the High Court of Christchurch on June 2. But I don't think I'll ask to cover it. Court reporting is something I like to do and I'm attracted to high-profile trials for quite base reasons which I excuse as wanting to witness history. I was in Wellington in August for the Supreme Court appeal of Mark Lundy. I sat and watched Malcolm Rewa lie his head off at his murder trial in February at the High Court of Auckland. By all means buy my book published next year which includes an account of last month's High Court trial for the murder of Grace Millane.
This guy in Christchurch, though ... What's there to be learned, and more to the point of reporting on it, how much of it can be shared? It's not so much his alleged crimes are invisible as his identity. He began to disappear when Jacinda Ardern made her famous declaration that she would not speak his name. News media have come up with special instructions for their reporters about what they can and cannot report about him at the trial. I understand it but I don't think I want any part of it.
The deaths of 51 people were the worst kind of fire: gunfire. Again, like Whakaari/White Island, New Zealand responded with acts of heroism and acts of kindness. We ought to take something from that. We live in a beautiful country and the best of our national character – strength, generosity, aroha - lives up to the setting, and gives it a spirit unique to these islands.
Awful things happen. They don't happen that often. We're not defined by March 15 or Whakaari/White Island. I think a better, more everyday definition, which said something about the Kiwi way of life and the style we put into it, was provided this year by a guy called Remopita Pongi.
Herald reporter Ben Leahy wrote about him in June. Pongi, 29, was swept out to sea but held onto a piece of driftwood until rescuers plucked him out of the water. The drama began when he had an argument with his brother. It left him stranded near Opotiki. He only had the clothes on his back and spent the night on the beach. Ben wrote, "With no food, he noticed birds pecking over a snapper head and rushed in to steal it and cook it up." Pongi told him, "I ate what I could and the rest burnt."
The story continues, "The next morning he faced an 80km walk along the road to get to his mum's house at Kawerau. A look at Google Maps suggested 25km could be slashed from the journey if he instead walked along the coast and swam from Ohiwa Beach across the estuary at Ohiwa Bar to Ohope on the other side. But the riptide was too strong and Pongi was soon left clinging to his driftwood…"
A story with a happy ending. No harm done. But it was the journey that made it special – the fish head, the prospect of an 80km walk, the decision to swim across an estuary. Kiwi as. All good bro. Just another day in paradise.