land of the long white cloud

clouds hang along the mountains around glenorchy, where many scenes for the “lord of the rings” trilogy were filmed

say the name. aotearoa. [it’s pronounced aɔˈtɛaɾɔa. or “ow-TAY-rwa”]. it could soon be on the “a-list” of united nations member states.

ok. it’s new zealand. at least for now. but the indigenous name change movement seems to be gaining steam (or at least cloud vapor).

aotearoa means “land of the long white cloud” in the māori language of new zealand’s first settlers. it’s easy to see why they chose it. during a three week visit to aotearoa/new zealand, so many strips of cotton fluff lay draped along the landscape we began to wonder; are they real, or are they memorex (computer generated)?

we became suspicious when we met ian taylor, founder and c.e.o. of animation research limited, a pioneer in computer generated imagery (c.g.i). animation research is based in dunedin, one of the southernmost cities on the planet.

interestingly, dunedin is only a laser beam away from where those cumulus streams were draped around towering peaks, just as a party of dignitaries was touring new zealand’s south island. coincidence?

from humble beginnings, raised by his māori mother in a north island village, sir ian has risen to the heights of the c.g.i. industry. if you’ve watched the master’s golf tournament, formula one racing, major league baseball, test cricket and the like, you’ve seen virtual eye’s innovative storytelling technology, which is revolutionizing how people watch sports.

virtual eye’s graphic overlays add so much to the experience of real time televised sports there’s hardly any point battling masked crowds to watch in-person anymore. and it’s all done from dunedin, half a world away from most major sports venues.

so hanging a virtual cloud around the mountains of tolkien’s middle earth? don’t be surprised if one day sir ian and company are outed for projecting clouds against the mountains, just for giggles. they’re good.

looks like tolkien’s mt. doom?

after all, aotearoa is imagination central. one of its claims to fame is that it’s where tolkien’s “hobbit” and the “lord of the rings” trilogy came to life. we suspect one of sir ian’s band of c.g.i. wizards is named gandalf.

honestly though, we have no proof. it’s just a good conspiracy theory. a really good one.

taylor and company were at their proudest showcasing the virtual eye coverage of this year’s america’s cup yacht race. the race was on home turf (surf), and the kiwis successfully defended the “auld mug” they won in 2018. it was the fourth time they’ve won in the last eight races. three other times they’ve finished second. yacht-a yacht-a yacht-a, as seinfeld might say.

c.g.i depiction of the kiwis crossing the finish line to win the 2021 america’s cup

the roving ambassadorial entourage also had a taste of aotearoa’s other big sport, rugby, at dunedin’s forsyth-barr stadium, the scene of past and future world cup matches.

the all blacks, the kiwi national team, are a rugby legend. they’ve won three of the nine rugby world cup competitions. the south african ambassador dumped a little rain on the kiwi parade, however, noting that the springboks have also won three, and are the current cup holders.

the all blacks perform a haka before a match in the 2011 rugby world cup competition

unfortunately, the all blacks weren’t there to perform a traditonal māori welcome haka. (they did play fiji in dunedin in july, however.) but for kiwi youngsters steeped in rugby lore, forsyth-barr is a field of dreams.

speaking of young kiwis, we did receive a welcome haka from the youth of dunedin. not as ferocious as the all blacks, but a sign of the current revival of māori language and culture among aotearoa’s emerging generation.

click the pic for a taste

at every stop our welcome included māori language and customs. at one stop we were given cards allowing us to taste the words with our own tongues.

and at every stop, unfailingly, the greeting was the māori “kia ora”.

kia ora is the national greeting, not a small car

dunedin’s otago university is not only the oldest institution of higher learning in aotearoa, it’s the southernmost university in the world. during our visit there, a power point presentation by university administrators was done with māori language visuals and english subtitles.

dunedin’s public art gallery is currently featuring an exhibit that elevates māori and indigenous voices, titled “hurahia ana kā whetū – unveiling the stars”.

when it came to elevating voices and unveiling stars, dunedin’s mayor aaron hawkins took us to the art gallery for dinner. after the main course, three of the waiters revealed themselves as frauds. they weren’t waiters at all, but opera virtuosos in aprons, stars of dunedin’s opera otago, the longest-running opera company in aotearoa.

so after serving our supper, they sang for our supper; a performance worthy of la scala, except we were sitting on stage, and la scala ticket prices are a few octaves higher.

i had the presence of mind to video the grand finale, an audience participation number that brought down the house.

click on the pic to watch.

a rousing rendition of “that’s amore” brought the house to its feet.

if dunedin was the main course of our “magical diplomacy tour”, queenstown/glenorchy was a luscious dessert. en route to queenstown, the bus pulled into highlands motorsports park, a competition-tested 4.1 km racetrack boasting a few jewels.

pernille settled in behind the wheel of a radical sr3 race car. i was a bit nervous. spoiler alert: damages were minimal.

the park’s showpiece is a $2.3 million aston martin vulcan. no driving, though. it’s in an on-site museum, just for racing enthusiasts to drool over. an attendant is always on duty to wipe up after tourists.

there’s also an attendant standing by to clean up after visitors to the men’s room. it’s often needed at the “orange man” urinal, where people lining up to pay “respects” have to mind their pees in queues.

according to “peer reviews”, the big mouth is a fan favorite, though it’s easy to miss while snickering. if you do miss, urine good company. there’s a lot of miss-chief, (and not much privacy.)

next up, queenstown; and glenorchy, where the clouds go on forever and the mountains meet the fjords.

the “dip-pack” debussed at glenorchy (if you can deplane, you can debus) for an end-of-tour group photo in front of the old red boat shed, with the spectacular mountains in the background. (see left). a professional photographer stood by with a ladder to capture the moment, (see right). but we got nary a peek at the peaks. photo bombed by a cloud.

whaddaya think? a diabolical plot? the animation research folks, maybe? just asking. for a friend.

instead we assembled on the shore behind the shed, in front of a thin sliver of drab hillside sandwiched between a cardboard gray sky and a dishwater gray lake. the inverse of a long white cloud. very clever, sir ian.

the gang of 52

the faces in the photo are small, but the tallest fellow in the back row center with a tan coat and scarf is jonathan austin, acting chief of protocol for the kiwi ministry of foreign affairs and trade. he and his team of sally forrest, fiona fowler, penny mitropoulos, alistair ferris and martin waikara herded diplomatic cats with aplomb during four action packed days, but they couldn’t overcome the diabolical cloud conspiracy.

as our magical mystery tour bus rolled back down the winding road toward queenstown and flights home to wellington and canberra, the curtain over the mountain peaks began to lift. it was a tease, just enough to fuel a final frenzied, but futile cell phone photo op of the fantasy land where the orcs roamed in the lord of the rings trilogy.

pernille and i elected to stay on a couple more days in glenorchy to retrace our daughter’s steps trekking after her semester abroad at the university of auckland in 2018, and to search for the fabled canyon stream known as the “orc-chasm”. (it’s real; no faking!)

we rented a cabin a stone’s throw away from the glenorchy landing. that evening, the sky was crystal clear as pernille went out for a sunset stroll to survey the local bird life.

the next morning, we peeked out our front door to see the snow-capped peaks peeking through. a long white cloud was draped along the surface of lake whakatipu. of course.

lake whakatipu

oh, and the bird pernille had spotted the evening before? a peeking duck.

gabby, shown here, is actually not a duck; she’s an albatross. she’s the city icon of dunedin. more on her in the next installment.

we spent the day hiking the routeburn track, considered among the world’s premier scenic trails. even on an overcast winter day deep in the southern hemisphere, it’s easy to see why glenorchy is a magnet for backpackers, lord of the rings fans, māori history buffs, or anyone who can get there by hook or by crook.

a place this gorgeous has attracted big bucks and big names, some you’d instantly recognize. there’s a spa catering to international jet setters embarking on “wellness adventures” to “rejuvenate the human spirit”.

then there’s paul and debbi brainerd, and camp glenorchy. it’s not a scout hangout. it’s an “eco retreat”.

paul brainerd might not be a household name. but back in the 80s, as a computer programmer in seattle, washington, brainerd developed a little thing called “page maker”, which in combination with the apple macintosh computer launched the desktop publishing revolution. he is actually credited with coining the term “desktop publishing”.

brainerd was eventually bought out by adobe. with the leftover change, he switched careers to philanthropy.

paul and debbi founded camp glenorchy in 2018 as aotearoa’s first net positive energy visitor destination, generating more power than it uses. they keep asking “what if?” the answers are promising.

time magazine listed camp glenorchy among the world’s 100 greatest places of 2019, and one of 44 “must go” accommodation destinations.

in retrospect, we wonder whether paul brainerd the desktop publisher and ian taylor the c.g.i. innovator might be old friends. it could explain a lot.

a parting photo as we drove away

we’ll be back, land of the long white cloud, whatever you call yourself.


  1. Robert WILLIAM HOWARD says:

    What an amazing trip your on Pete.The Long White Cloud is beautiful!


  2. Susan Sims says:

    What a wonderful trip and story! Thanks Pete


    1. i’m thrilled that you take the time to read these whimsical wanderings. my best to you and bob.


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