A skyboat to Aotearoa

In 950, intrepid explorers set off by canoe and discovered New Zealand. Chris Carter follows in their wake.

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In 950, intrepid explorers set off by canoe and discovered New Zealand. Chris Carter follows in their wake.

According to legend, the Polynesian navigator Kupe left Tahiti in his canoe, the Matahorua, in 950 and headed south with his wife and daughters. Accompanying the Matahorua was another canoe, named the Tawirirangi, carrying a chief called Ngahue. For many days the weary flotilla traversed the boundless waves until at last Kupe's wife cried, "A cloud! A cloud!" a sign that land was near.

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As they approached, the cloud rose higher and higher. "Aotea! Aotea!" they shouted. "The white cloud! The white cloud!" Green hills and valleys began to stretch out below "the long white cloud", or "Aotearoa" in the Maori language. With this word, the Maori named the newly discovered country. We call it New Zealand.

I, too, went in search of a long white cloud this month. In fact, I saw many of them. From Heathrow, we flew through the night, arriving in Hong Kong as night fell again. There, the good people at Cathay Pacific took pity on your weary correspondent, and I was able to recover in the business-class lounge after the long flight. Believe you me, never has a hot shower felt like such a luxury.

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Then I boarded the craft that would take me south-east to New Zealand. Not a canoe, admittedly, but a socking great Airbus A350, with all the mod-cons you could hope for during a long flight. I have to say, I could definitely get used to eating dim sum for breakfast. We flew through the night (again) and arrived the next day, blinking into the daylight, in Tamaki-makau-rau.

Journey up a volcano

Auckland, as you may better know it, is Polynesia's biggest city (New Zealand forming the bottom-most point of the "Polynesian Triangle", with Hawaii in the north and Easter Island in the east). Some 1.6 million people live among the hills and slopes of the city the hilliness caused by the ongoing volcanic activity below ground.

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On the island of Rangitoto, a short ferry hop from the city's harbour, one of the largest eruptions in recent history occurred around 600 years ago, leaving fields of jagged, black rocks in its wake. You can even walk through some of the caves carved out of the rock by the flows of molten magma. The journey to the summit takes about an hour and a half, but is worth it for the spectacular views over the sky-blue Hauraki Gulf and the hazy Auckland skyline with the iconic Sky Tower in the distance.

This lofty edifice was only completed in 1997, affording stunning vistas over the city from its Sky Deck. I opted to take in the view over a dinner of Hawke's Bay lamb and a bottle of red at Orbit, the revolving restaurant at the top, with a constellation of city lights scattered below.

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Extraordinary museum

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That said, nothing brings you to your senses faster the morning after than being confronted by a group of Maori shouting at you. Familiar to fans of the All Blacks New Zealand rugby team, this war dance, known as the haka, was originally performed by Maori as a challenge to encroaching tribes.

Luckily for me, I was sitting in the auditorium of the Auckland War Memorial Museum, and the haka was the culmination of a cultural performance that explored the songs and traditions of the Maori. The museum is one of the best in the country (the other being the Te Papa Tongarewa museum in the capital, Wellington), and well worth a visit if only for its extraordinary collection of carvings, weapons and meeting houses. There is no better introduction to New Zealand than this.

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Chris flew as a guest of Cathay Pacific. The airline offers a choice of three routes between the UK and Hong Kong, and onwards to more than 190 destinations globally. These include five flights daily from London Heathrow, and daily flights from Gatwick Airport and Manchester Airport. Returns to Auckland from £1,059. For further information, visit CathayPacific.co.uk or call 0800-917 8260.

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