I’m writing to you from the isolation ward of Auckland City Hospital. My husband Frans has pneumonia. No worries: he’s healing though it’s taking time. First, get the fever down, rehydrate the body, and find the nasty bug that’s causing all the trouble. Then, match the bug to the right silver bullet. Finally, wait for the medicine to do its work. In the meantime, keep Frans in the isolation ward so he doesn’t infect the rest of us.

This was not the way it was supposed to be. We came to New Zealand for the nature and its unique culture. The plan was to go hiking, whale watching and wine tasting. Start on the North Island and work our way south. This is what happened instead.

Big Trees

Tasman Sea
Kai Iwi Lakes Coastal Track. Photo credit: Karen Kao

We begin in the Northland, the northernmost tip of the North Island. It’s bordered on the west by the Tasman Sea and on the east by the Pacific Ocean. The land was once densely forested. It remains a fecund subtropical haven for giant ferns, thick vines, and the enormous kauri trees that can live for 3,000 years.

The kauri belong to the ancient conifer family, Araucariaceae, and are believed to have evolved 20 million years ago. They grow only in the north of New Zealand as well as in New Guinea, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. There are national parks in New Zealand dedicated to the kauri and we’ve come to stay in the heart of kauri land.

Kauri tree in isolation
Crown of kauri tree, Trounson Kauri Park. Photo credit: Karen Kao

It’s dusk the first time I see one of the kauri. The light enters the forest through the canopy, turning ferns into lace and moss into emeralds. Entire ecosystems live in the kauri’s branches from lichen to small trees.

It’s awesome — in the literal sense of the word — to stand in the presence of a tree that’s been alive for 2000 years. Think of the stories it could tell.

Alas! The kauri are sick. A pathogen called kauri dieback is infecting these giants. There is no known cure. All it takes is a pinhead worth of infected soil to spread this deadly disease. So some kauri trails have been permanently closed while others are being upgraded to install raised boardwalks and cleaning stations. This is the tree equivalent of an isolation ward.

First Contact

The Māori see the kauri as the protectors of the forest. They understand the significance of the kauri for the many other species of trees, plants, and insects that make up the kauri ecosystem. Kauri are regarded as a taonga, a sign of the general well-being of the forest and its peoples.

Ceremonial war canoes
Ceremonial waka, Waitangi Treaty Grounds. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Perhaps the Māori understand that the kauri ruled this place long before humans. What we now know as New Zealand was once part of the supercontinent Gondwana, which broke off about 85 million years ago. This explains the absence of any native mammals, let alone human beings.

The first settlers come from eastern Polynesia in the 1300s, crossing the Pacific Ocean in canoes they call waka. These are the Māori. Kupe is their leader. His wife gifts this place with its name. At first sight of land, Kuramārōtini says, a cloud, a white cloud, a long white cloud: Aotearoa.

The Dutchman Abel Tasman arrives in 1642, making him the first European known to have reached Aotearoa. Tasman bestows upon the land another name: New Zealand. Captain Cook soon follows. By the 1800s, European settlers are here for good. The Māori call them Pākehā.

The Māori could have killed all the Pākehā. Instead, on 6 February 1840, they sign the Treaty of Waitangi with the British Crown. The Māori choose trade over isolation. New Zealand becomes a nation of two peoples: the Māori and the Pākehā.

In the Isolation Ward

These days, I spend my time in the bus going back and forth from Auckland City Hospital. In an odd way, this place reminds me of Hawaii. But it’s not until I eavesdrop on a bus conversation that I understand why.

The first 130 years of Māori/Pākehā relations were marred by misinterpretations, misunderstandings and outright treaty violations. The Waitangi Commission was created in 1975 to redress present and past injustices.

Street art
Street art, Auckland. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Today, Māori and Pākehā intermarry with each other as well as the many other ethnic groups that come to New Zealand. The land of the long white cloud is made up of all the colors of the rainbow.

Māori and Pākehā orderlies shuttle my husband to Radiology. A South Korean nurse holds Frans’ hand while a Pākehā surgeon implants the chest drain. In the Respiratory Ward, a Filipino nurse keeps the watch over my husband by day and an Indian nurse takes charge at night.

The doctors get really excited when they hear our litany of travel stops, the dog bites in Vietnam and, of course, the news coming out of Wuhan. We try to imagine what it would have been like trying to get help in a Chinese hospital. Total transportation shutdown, chaos inside the hospitals, a lack of reliable information to know where to go or what to do. If we have to interrupt our round-the-world adventure, then let it be in the isolation ward of a New Zealand hospital.