Friday, January 25, 2013

New Roots in Aotearoa (New Zealand)

Star Compass (to teach star navigation) at Hector Busby's in Doubtless Bay
Aotearoa, as the Maori call it, is the last major land mass to be colonized by our species,within the last thousand years. I've made it to the far north island, where I will stay until the end of February learning from master Waka (canoe) builder and navigator Hekenukumai Busby. As the ancestors had done, eighty year old Hector builds and sails different styles of Maori canoe, using native woods such as the giant Kauri tree, and navigating without a compass, using stars and signs from the natural environment. Having just completed the polynesian triangle (sailing to Hawaii, Aotearoa, and recently Easter Island) it is a perfect time to be learning from this true master and hero of culture.

Tane Mahuta (God of the Forest), the largest of the Kauri
I visited the western side of the North Island to visit the last big patch of old growth Kauri forest, the trees in which the Maori used for centuries to build various types of canoes, big and small, for all types of water. The entire process of building a canoe, like many processes in Maori culture, is sacred and interwoven with spiritual practices. This begins, with canoe building, in how the builders approach the revered tree, considered an embodiment of the forest god. I was blessed to see Tane Mahuta, an incredibly massive tree which exhudes an intense energy and power.

Mataatua Puhi, the first Waka Taua Hector built, now resting along side 127 foot NgaToki Mataawhaaorua, from the 1930's at the Waitungi Treaty Grounds.
Also, in the 10 days or so that I have been here on the island, I had the chance to visit the Waitungi Treaty Grounds, where the treaty was signed in 1840 between the British Empire and the Maori tribes, allow a coexistence upon the island. Two canoes, viewed above, rest there at the museum, both Waka Taua.

Hector directing the Waka Taua hull to be moved inside to finish 
The week wasnt without canoe building. We are finishing a roughly 40 foot waka taua, a hull made from 12000 year old Kauri wood, a thousand year old tree which had been preserved in a swamp. Correcting the hull and painting the carvings, beautiful faces and designs which run along side the canoe paying homage to the ancestors. in preparation for lashing has taken up most of the days.

You will learn a lot more about the culture and canoes of the Maori and this beautiful land in the next few posts. In the mean time, Ive got to keep net fishing on the sacred river Awapoko here in Doubtless Bay and enjoying the place for what it is - unlike any other.
Opo, fellow canoe builder, paddling Waka Tiwai  (small river canoe) while netfishing

Monday, January 14, 2013

Exploring the Omani Coast

Enjoying the company of friends on a fine evening near Sohar

Here I am, crossing the Omani border in a little blue Mitsubishi thinking I had just learned from the last of the last. It's true, on the Emirate side of the Gulf,  only one man is still continuing the art of the Shasha. Yet as I explored the beaches and backroads  (the main roads are impeccable) of Oman, pretending that I was driving a dune buggy (I'm surprised I never got stuck in a pit of sand or that I didn't pop one of the tires off on a huge rock!) I was pleasantly surprised by the surviving culture in a rapidly changing world.

Shasha in fisherman's shack, also made from date palm frond

I documented more than two dozen remaining Shoosh along the coast, the kind fishermen owners of which didn't seem to mind my questions or photo taking of their fantastic boats. The tradition survives in particular near the towns of Sohar (the home of many famous sailors including the semi-fictional Sindbad) and Saham, where I was able to witness a bullfight between giant bulls led into a sand ring along the beach and then thrown into a competition of strength. They are broken up, before anyone gets hurt, and then washed off in the warm ocean. Embracing this event while discussing religion or politics in Arabic while eating dates and smoking Sheesha (which I was able to enjoy thanks to Oliver!) and you've really got the idea!

Each Shasha is unique. This style of "canoe" really lends itself to practicality, like much of Arabian art, and different materials that fisherman could find to suit there needs are used accordingly. Even different designs, with or without gunwales, opening for a fishing line, or ways of tying the rope can be found different in each one. In those handful of remaining Shoosh, no two were the same. Seeing each was a joy in itself.

Lone palm near Sohar beach. 

Oman's civilization has been ruling the Western Indian Ocean's seas for thousands of years. Visiting the small (n today's terms) town of Sohar, you would find it hard to believe that it was at one point a capital of a vast oceanic trading network spreading from what was the Persia, today Iran), south along the African coast, including the spice rich and familiar Zanzibar.  The rise of fall of frankincense, pearls, and even oil today have mixed with the desert and ocean cultures of a now very Islamic culture to be one of the oldest and most influential in regional commerce. I continued driving south through the beaches until I reached the capital of Oman and historical capital of the fertile plane protected by the Harar Mountains in what is truly oman's breadbasket.

Muscat Coastline looking over the Muttrah Souk (market)

After admiring the gold, beduin artifacts and strong aromas of frankincense, myrrh and other beautiful goods in the Muttrah souk, I headed up up and up into the mountains, driving along dirt roads to the top of Jebel Shams, Oman's highest peak at over 3000 meters. There, I slept and enjoyed a rock and desert sunrise the next morning. How that tiny little car survived my totally wacko driving, I'll never know.

Harar Mountains near Jebel Shams and my little blue Mitsubishi

Soon I leave the Arabian Peninsula after a brief yet incredibly stay. Another culture, land, and artwork has embraced me and taught me. All I can say is that I've grown and am always ready for the next bit of  learning. I begin making the long journey to Polynesia, where on the North Island of New Zealand i'll begin learning from the Maori.

Shasha waiting for its fisherman

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Looking for the Last: Arabian Peninsula and the Shasha

Temporary river oasiswith date palms living in the rocks, Harar Mountains
Desert. The Arabian Penninsula is full of it. It is about the last place you would expect me to be, looking for traditional canoe type craft. Yet, contrary to most conceptions, the desert is full of life. What rain it does recieve sprouts an unmatched resourcefulness and will to survive from its plants, animals and people. No plant signifies this more than the date palm, the hardy fruit bearing tree that has been the sustenance of the oasis searching peoples for thousands of years.

So I traveled east from Dubai to the Emirate of Fujairah on the Gulf of Oman. Here, between the elegant and challenging Harar Mountains and the vast ocean, is a fertile, yet still desert, lowland strip which sustains much of the regions agricultural production. This spreadout oasis is where the Arabian canoe called the Shasha (or Shoosh for plural) can be found.

Shasha on a gulf beach  
There was so little information, published or online, about this boat that it was extremely difficult to know whether it survived. I had read an article by Geoff Pound and heard that a man name Suleiman was keeping the tradition alive in Fujairah (the last person in the United Arab Emirates) to sell as cultural artifacts. 

Suleiman explaining the building process
Indeed, the last of the Emirate Shasha builders, Suleiman was quite the knowledgable and kind man. With his son, also knowledgeable in the craft, Abdulaiman's help in translation from Arabic he was able to tell me about the process and give me a few lessons.

Suleiman adds a palm leaf to the coconut rope to make it easier to insert while Abuleiman begins weaving
The process begins with selecting the right branches or fronts from the palm tree and then soaking them until they are soft. Then the fronts are woven together to make a basket between 3 and 6 meters in length. This weaving process uses a tool called the Shekinah to weave through rope (or Kumbar) made from coconut fibre (very similar to Zanzibari fibre).

Shekinah, tools for spreading the palm to insert rope
 Once this outer shell basket is made, sticks are inserted as ribs and a few thwarts are made from palm wood. An evenly sized cuts of palmwood are stood vertically throughout the inside the boat (this process has been replaced by styrofoam) and then covered with another layer of palm fibre on top to finish the boat. Afterwards it is ready to be rowed out for fishing or pearling!

Shasha building workshop
Perhaps no place on earth has changed more in the last twenty years then the Arab Penninsula, particularly the UAE where entire cities like Dubai have seemed to appear overnight, somewhat like Aladdin's palace in the tales of 1001 Arabian Nights. It is to no surprise that traditions such as this are barely surviving. Yet could Suleiman really be the only person in the gulf who was still building these boats? Could the species, so to speak, be this close to exstinction? I rented a car and began traveling south along the Oman coast armed with with nothing but a bag of dates and these questions.

Dubai at Jumeirah Lake Towers, is that a canoe outline I see in the distance between tower and water


Sunday, January 6, 2013

White Nile Whitewater

Yes, those are my feet (photos by Nalubale Rafting)
Lake Victoria is the headwaters of the White Nile, a massive output of water northwards through Sudan and Egypt, meeting our familiar Blue Nile in Khartoum. Hosting some of the craziest class 5 and 6 rapids, it was hard for us to keep dry over the holidays.

Crew of 8 paddling out of a beautiful flow
We went north from Jinja, where water pours out of the Lake. We took on eight huge rapids, traveling nearly 30 miles. The common day trip route after a new hydroelectric dam, it was incredible to see, and feel, the Nile's power as one of the world's greatest rivers. An ounce of disrespect and she will kill you, a hint of ignorance will get you mangled. But approaching the beautiful Nile in the right way makes for one of the best experiences in my life.

Keeping the food dry

I could sweat out some poetry on the whole experience, but the pictures do more justice than my words can.   Cheers to the mighty river.

Sewn Plank Canoe in Uganda National Museum
 Another highlight since we last talked was a visit to the important Uganda National Museum. Documenting well the arrival of humanity on Earth, this museum's exhibits show the progression of human beings over the course of millions of years of evolution. Explanations of cultural diversity in the region and the rich cultural history of Uganda make it quite the place to be on any random afternoon. But the highlight for me was a huge  sewn plank canoe preserved near the section on the Nile River. Using a hollowed dugout and sewing planks onto the form, this style of boat is the predecessor to many plank boats we have seen in the region.

Seams up close and personal
Beautiful stems, gunwales, and seams around a connecting piece, the Victoria plank boats give me the itch to run screaming out of the museum looking for the nearest paddle and body of water. It makes me remember, yea sure humans invented boats so that they could fish, travel, and essentially survive - but are we really willing to write off the basic notion that paddling is fun. The joy of it is a motivator strong enough to stand alone.

Storms a' brewin' on the White Nile with a modern planked canoe shrouded in stillness