It was Matariki, the Māori new year, signalled by the rising of the Matariki star cluster, or the Pleiades, just before dawn. The forecast was for clear skies and I decided to do some morning stargazing from Wright’s Hill in Karori.
I leave the house at around 5.30am. The streetlights are still out after the storm, but I can see my way in the bright light of the waning moon. I can make out the mass of Wright’s Hill against a backdrop of stars.
I take the path from Croyden Street to the top of the hill rather than the road, because I’ve never used my headtorch for walking in the dark and I want to try it out. I zigzag steadily uphill along the narrow path in my own bubble of white light, through a tunnel of ghostly trees. I have no sense of progress, especially as I’m walking much more slowly than normal. The ground is surprisingly wet and slippery. The trees are heavy with dew, shining drops of moisture clustered on the underside of their leaves. Apart from the occasional vehicle in the distance, all I can hear are my own footsteps.
Towards the top of the hill I start to feel nervous. I have a vague, unformulated fear that something or someone might be lurking at the top of the hill in the darkness. As I approach the lookout, it looks as if there is a light up there, but I realise it’s just my headtorch reflecting off something. All the same, I turn it off as I climb the last few steps to the top. There is no one around. It’s windy up here, the wind singing through the radio masts, wire cables slapping against metal.
The sky is not as dark as I thought it would be, maybe because of the brightness of the moon, but also because I have to look out over the lights of the city below to find Matariki. I can clearly see the constellation of Orion in front of me in the east, with the bright star of Puanga (Rigel)*. Puanga rather than Matariki was used to mark the new year by some iwi, including the Te Ati Awa in Wellington. Matariki, being lower on the horizon, is obscured by hills in many places. In some Māori traditions, the three stars of Orion’s belt are a bird perch, and Puanga a shining fruit that attracts the birds to the perch.
Level with Orion’s belt and further round to the north, I can see the red star of Aldebaran – or Taumata-kuku – and then further north, above the hills of Newlands, I can just make out a faint twinkling cluster of stars which must be Matariki.
The rising of Matariki and Puanga around the winter solstice marked the changing of the seasons and was a signal to think about planting. Other cultures used stars in the same way including the ancient Babylonians and Greeks. The Mapuche Indians in southern Chile and Argentina also used the Matariki cluster to signal New Year, calling it Ngauponi, which looks suspiciously like a te reo Māori word.
I sit down and drink tea from my flask, looking down on the city lights below clustered around the harbour. I can see car headlights snaking along the motorway through a curving chain of parallel orange lights against the darkness of hills and harbour. Red lights flick on and off around the edge of the harbour. At the harbour entrance, a slowly pulsing white light must be the Pencarrow lighthouse. I watch planes taking off from the airport, following their tail-lights as they arc over the harbour and disappear westwards.
Māori had an in-depth knowledge of astronomy although much of this knowledge was lost with the arrival of Europeans. A few weeks ago, I went to a talk at the Carter Observatory where researchers from Victoria Univeristy talked about their work trying to preserve and revitalise Māori astronomical knowledge. They explained how Māori used whakapapa (genealogy) to describe the relationship from humankind back to the origins of life. There were various versions of the cosmological whakapapa, but one of the speakers presented one which showed the stars as cousins to humankind, which seems apt given that we are all in fact made of stardust. According to some stories, humans were the children of Tāne, the god of forests and birds. Tāne also seems to have been responsible for scattering the stars in the sky. In one story, he put them on a canoe – Te waka o Tama-rereti – which is the southern part of the milky way. This should be visible low in the sky, but I can’t see it. I can see Sirius however, the brightest star in the night sky, known to Māori as Takurua, the winter star.
To the south, the sky is darker and I can see the Southern Cross, low in the sky. Just further along to the west, I’m looking for Scorpius, my own star sign, but also because the J-shaped curve of the scorpion was known as Maui’s fish hook to Māori. I struggle to find it at first and then realise that the images I’d found of it showed it the other way up, as it would be seen in the northern hemisphere. Maui used this fish hook to fish up the North Island. One of the speakers at the Carter Observatory suggested that Wellington’s pre-European name of Te Upoko o te Ika a Maui (the head of Maui’s fish) – might have been a place marker for early Māori explorers and navigators, who used the stars to guide them. Maui’s fish would have been hooked in its mouth, and the latitude of Wellington, at 41 degrees, is the same latitude as Scorpius, or Maui’s fish hook.
When I turn back to look at the east, the Orongorongo hills are just visible, with a pink glow behind them, even though it is well over an hour before sunrise.
I’m surprised to hear very clearly a man’s voice shouting, somewhere behind me. I turn, looking for the glow of a torch, but can’t see anything. I wonder how visible I am standing on the lookout in the moonlight. I hear a whistle and another shout. A very early morning dog walker.
I watch the peach-coloured glow in the sky grow steadily lighter. The stars are still visible as I leave the top of the hill, taking the winding road to get back down. I meet a jogger, huffing his way up the hill, his dog trotting behind him. On my way home, lights are on in most of the houses and some early risers are setting off for work. By the time I reach my front door, only the moon is left in the clear morning sky.
*Most of the stars I talk about here are shown on this Phoenix Astronomical Society graphic.