Friday, June 22, 2018


I've talked with Mark Amery about Ghost South Road on Radio New Zealand.

Friday, June 15, 2018

The triangular dancers

The slab of beachrock, with its dancing, triangular figures, had been lying for centuries under the sand. It might have been an ancient tablet buried in a Sumerian or an Egyptian desert, covered in a script that had become archaic, that was recognised only by scholars and madmen. Then, at the end of 2008, a storm lurched through the Ha'apai archipelago, and wiped the beach clean. Suddenly the dancers of Foa island performed for a new audience: astonished local fishermen, uncomprehending palangi holidaymakers.
David Burley hurried to Foa. He knew the seas were rising, that the low islands of Ha'apai sinking. Another storm might submerge the dancers, or veil them again in sand.
Burley remembered how, on the neighbouring island of Ha'ano, fourteen years earlier, locals had dug up & destroyed a centuries-old temple he had only just rediscovered, surveyed, described in an academic article. The Christians of Ha'ano did not want to be reminded of their pagan ancestors. Ancient Tonga is fragile.
Burley called his study of the stone dancers 'Triangular Men on One Very Long Voyage'. The rock on Foa's coast had been carved, he decided, by Hawai'ian visitors. It remembered an epic ancient voyage, between West & East Polynesia.
For Tongan scholar 'Okusi Mahina, the petroglyph was no surprise. It was written proof for the oral histories he had collected, collated. It showed that his ancestors' homeland had been a liquid continent, an ancient superpower, not an isolated archipelago. 
Last year Visesio Siasau heard a story from his home island of Ha'ano, a place where the sea gnaws old canoe landings & where stone tombs and songs remember chiefs and fish conjurers. Another storm had taken more of the beach, the story said. A strange stone tablet had been exposed. 
Next month I'll be visiting Ha'apai with Visesio Siasau. Sio wants to land at Ha'ano again, to see the newly exposed stone for himself. Is it another fragment of ancient Pacific history? And can it avoid the fate of the temple David Burley rediscovered?

Friday, June 08, 2018


The Tongan polymath Futa Helu dreamed of creating a space where the ideas & cultures of Greece & the Pacific could dialogue as equals, and learn from one another. But is it possible such a dialogue had already occurred, many centuries ago, on the high seas? Waruno Mahdi thinks so.
I'm grateful to Lorenz Gonschor, the brilliant German scholar who has been teaching for a few months at 'Atenisi, the school Futa Helu founded, for introducing me to the work of Waruno Mahdi, an Indonesian authority on the history of words, ships, navigation, and cultural diffusion.
We in the South Pacific are used to the idea that Austronesian peoples expanded eastwards, from Taiwan all the way to Rapa Nui, Hawai'i, and South America. But Waruno Mahdi's research helps to show that Austronesians also made epic voyages and established societies in the west.
In a long, learned essay that teems with astonishing details, Mahdi argues that the Austronesians established colonies in India, sailed up the Ganges, had a presence on Africa's East Coast, & even entered a text by Pliny, disguised as Ethiopians.
In the most extraordinary part of his text, Mahdi argues, using his knowledge of linguistics, navigation, and ships, that Austronesian and Mediterranean sailors encountered each other somewhere in the Indian Ocean, & influenced each other's aquatechnology. Futa Helu would be delighted!