Matariki’s first rising on New Zealand's East Coast
11 Jun 2010
A pre-dawn gathering on a New Zealand East Coast beach will be first to witness Matariki rising and the dawning of Māori New Year this weekend - at the same location that’s famously first in the world to see the sun.
Just before daylight on Sunday 13 June, the Pleiades star group will rise out of the sea near Gisborne on the eastern extremity of the North Island - where Captain Cook reported spotting the transit of Venus in 1769 on his discovery voyage around New Zealand.
Each year members of the Gisborne Astronomical Society (GAS) stage an early morning vigil at Tatapouri Beach, east of Gisborne, to celebrate the dawning of Matariki - the most important event on the Māori cultural calendar.
The group will gather at 5.30am, and set up telescopes and lasers so they can point out Matariki to members of the public, as the stars make their nightsky appearance.
Over a traditional hangi breakfast, Māori lore and legend experts will explain the significance of the star groups and what Matariki means to New Zealanders.
The rising of the Pleiades star group signifies new life and new beginnings, and the Matariki or Māori New Year festival has a strong emphasis on family, food and sharing hospitality.
It’s the third year GAS has held the Tatapouri Beach event in conjunction with local Kahukura Art Gallery, and vice-president John Drummond says interest in Matariki grows every year.
Gisborne was renowned for being the first place in the world to see the sun each day, but was also the first to see the stars which was of growing interest to tourists as well, he said.
Astronomy has a strong following in the region, and the world's most eastern astronomical observatory - James Cook Observatory, is located on Kaiti Hill in Gisborne. Public viewing nights are held there each Tuesday evening.
Drummond, a teacher, has been fascinated by astronomy since the age of 12 and, as well as being involved with GAS, he has developed his own backyard observatory.
The home-made ‘Possum Observatory’ is unlike conventional types where the bulk of the building is fixed and the upper dome rotates.
This observatory is a feat of Kiwi ingenuity where the whole building (walls, roof and some of the floor) sits on a 1.8m ring that came from a pea combine harvester, and can spin around.
The original was gifted by a close astronomy friend Bill McLachlan, who passed away in 1995 and left the observatory to Drummond.
Bill’s observatory known as Te Whare Whetu - Māori for ‘The Star House’ was much smaller.
"I used to bump my head on the ceiling at night so in the winter of 2000 Bill’s son and I dismantled it and then rebuilt the whole thing five months later," Drummond said.
The new observatory is 3.4 x 3.1 metres, made of plywood and cost NZ$1950.
Drummond says it is very user-friendly, and part of a wall folds down so that lower altitude objects can be viewed.
"Domes are handy but you’ve got a round circle on a square building so as an observatory you miss out on the corners. The advantage with this is that the whole building can be used and the design is cheap. You just put the building on steel rollers and off she goes," he said.
Five years ago Drummond moved out of Gisborne into the country to get away from street lights, and spends many hours on a hobby that also has international significance.
He is now involved in gravitational microlensing in conjunction with Ohio State University in the United States.
"I’ve got some pretty powerful equipment and basically we’re discovering planets going around stars thousands of light years away. Amateurs can do this sort of thing from their back yard and it is helping the professionals who need these images," he said.
"They simply can’t spend as much time on it whereas amateurs like me can wander out into the yard and do this when ever we like."
Drummond also photographs stars, and his work has been published in magazines and books world-wide.
He says there are many people in New Zealand involved in astronomy at grass-roots level, and about eight who provide images and information and work on gravitational micro-lensing.
"We’re lucky in New Zealand with the lack of light pollution - you look at a world map and see continents that are totally lit up. New Zealand engineers are also into cut off lighting which doesn’t project upwards so that helps," Drummond said.
In the future, John Drummond hopes to develop his two-acre property and observatory into a home-stay venue for astronomy enthusiasts.
New Zealand is awaiting confirmation of a bid to get world heritage status for a ‘Starlight Reserve’ at Lake Tekapo, in the South Island.
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Māori hangi - a real taste of culture
Video news release:
Matariki: Māori New Year
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