Hot stuff

by Denis Welch / 30 December, 2006
2006 - the year the temperature dial got stuck on high.

It was a warm year. Warm enough for icebergs to run away from their Antarctic home and go cruising off the Otago coast; warm enough for drought to develop into devastating bushfires across the Tasman; warm enough for our politicians to get hot under the collar with one another.

Sparks flew, as Labour and National traded salvoes over who ripped off whom during the last election campaign. Labour got badly scorched, but in the end it was Don Brash who went down in a ball of flame.

The full extent of the payback for man-made climate change over the past century really came to the forefront of global consciousness this year. Or should we say the Gorefront? Ex-almost-president Al Gore sang his theme tune "Baby, it's warm outside" to New Zealanders in November, having warmed us up already with his scary film An Inconvenient Truth.

We got the message. 2006 was the year when phrases like "carbon-neutral" and "emissions trading" joined the mainstream; when the idea of personal responsibility for one's own ecological footprint on the planet was no longer seen as the preserve of tree-lovers and organic cyclists.

The world got warmer politically, too. The Iraq imbroglio deepened for the Americans; George W Bush felt the heat when his party lost control of Congress in midterm elections; North Korea provocatively flashed some nuclear thigh at the big powers before modestly rearranging its skirts; Russia and Ukraine had a nasty falling-out over gas supply (energy issues again: welcome to the 21st century); and the devastating civil war in Sudan showed no sign of going away.

There were some lighter energy-related moments. June saw the return of that popular festive function the Auckland blackout, which now promises to be an annual event - put on, apparently, for the entertainment of the rest of the country. There were even reports of South Islanders videoing news clips of Aucklanders scrambling around in the blackout and watching the reruns over and over while drinking Speight's and eating Jaffas.

Amusement swelled into hysterical laughter when Auckland tied itself in knots trying to decide whether or not a stadium should be built on its waterfront for the Rugby World Cup in 2011. A hurricane called Trevor gusting in from the south only made matters worse. After a month of huffing and blowing, it was decided - if that's not too strong a word - to stick with the original cup venue of Eden Park.

Frankly, the All Blacks could play in a ploughed paddock and still win. They won just about everything in sight this year. Tana Umaga stepped down as All Black captain but attained a new kind of fame when he swatted an errant colleague in a bar with a handbag.

Petrol prices soared and then came down. Sort of. It was the energy thing again, the resources thing. People are turning to hybrid cars that run on everything from electricity to liquefied broccoli. What next: hybrid houses? Emotions trading? Carbon-neutral marriages? Coming up after the break: some highlights of the year.

January 1 The year started with the threat of avian flu invading Europe after two people died of it in Turkey, but little more was heard of bird flu for the rest of the year. Perhaps, after all, it was just turkey flu.

February 5 Another kind of epidemic supplanted it: Muslim outrage at Western insensitivity - outrage that spread contagiously after a Danish newspaper published cartoons satirising the Prophet Muhammad. Two New Zealand newspapers did likewise but later apologised.

March 31 The jury in the controversial Louise Nicholas rape trial at the Auckland High Court found assistant police commissioner Clint Rickards and two former officers not guilty of all 20 charges. However, the three men now face charges of sexual offences against another woman, and the much-postponed report of the inquiry into police conduct has been put off again.

April 18 The Pacific, already unsettled by rising sea levels, got more unstable when violence erupted in the Solomons, causing PM-elect Snyder Rini to step aside. With a detour to East Timor on the side, the instability shook Tonga in October and Fiji a few weeks later - leaving Fiji, as the year ended, apparently leaderless and increasingly touristless.

May 9 Trapped a kilometre down in a Tasmanian goldmine for two weeks (see page 17) two miners were finally rescued; two weeks after that, Enron chiefs Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay, who'd been working on a different kind of gold-mine, were convicted of massive fraud and conspiracy.

June 4 With no warning in this part of the world, Monte-negro declared independence. Counselling was available for those who needed it.

July 10 Italy won the (soccer) World Cup. A vicious war flared between Israel and Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon: nobody won.

August 15 The Maori Queen, Dame Te Atairangi-kaahu, died after a 40-year reign and, in a way no one predicted, her tangi at Ngarua-wahia seized the attention of all New Zealand, uniting us, briefly, in grief and pride. There seemed to be a message in this, but it's not clear why someone had to die for the message to be delivered.

September 22 The carpet was pulled from under Feltex, which went into receivership.

October 12 It was payback time for political parties when Auditor-General Kevin Brady released his long-heralded report indicting them for misspending public funds during last year's election campaign. Labour, billed for more than $80,000, immediately started a "big whiparound" among its members. Some whip. Some around.

November 27 John Key took over from Don Brash as National's leader - the same John Key who, a month earlier, had said: "We've got a leader we're very happy with and we're united behind him." If that's united, we'd hate to see divided.

December 7 The heavyweight Iraq Study Group report, headed by former US Secretary of State James Baker, dealt a further blow to the increasingly lame administration of George W Bush by saying the war in Iraq was costing the US dear and proposing a range of options for getting out. Soon. 2007. Whenever.

===Bugger off, No 9, Your Time is Up===

Pluto was deemed the weakest link on August 24 by the astronomical powers that be. It was demoted and given a new title: dwarf planet (which is surely politically incorrect - shouldn't it be celestially challenged?). The poor wee thing has been lurking on the outskirts of the solar system since being discovered in 1930, but the International Astronomical Union decided it wasn't an actual planet because its orbit overlaps with bigger neighbour Neptune. The demotion changes the mnemonics that people use to remember the order of the nine planets, such as "My Very Eccentric Mate Just Shot Uncle Ned's Pig" (which becomes much more sinister without the last word). Unfortunately for Pluto, the tribe has spoken.

===Stop your Whaling===

While others were oohing and aahing over those touching scenes of Keisha Castle-Hughes riding a whale, Japan was busy buying the votes of small, financially desperate islands in order to overthrow the International Whaling Commission's moratorium on killing whales commercially. There was general dismay among anti-whaling nations in June when the IWC passed a resolution stating that the moratorium was no longer necessary. Luckily for the whales, the one-vote majority was far from the 75% of votes needed to overturn the ban, but it brought Japan ever closer to its goal of filling supermarket shelves with whalemeat.

===Chris, Cru & Liam===

Two shocking crimes dominated headlines this year: the killing of the tiny Kahui twins Chris and Cru and the murder of teenager Liam Ashley in a prison van. The latter case appeared to reach some kind of closure with the murder conviction of Liam's killer, George Baker, and the findings of a Corrections Department report, which identified a chain of blunders and said Liam's death was avoidable. The Ashley family remain unsatisfied, especially as - maintaining a distinguished New Zealand tradition in cases of official dereliction - no minister, public servant or officer has stepped up to take the blame. Meanwhile, the twins' father Chris awaits trial for their murder, after a painstakingly drawn-out four-month police investigation finally led to his arrest.

===Miracles of survival #1 Underground Ordeal===

Like some white-knuckle Hollywood movie starring, say, Bruce Willis, the drama of the two trapped Tasmanian miners had the public gripped for two weeks in April and May. Wedged inside a partly crushed metal cage by a rock collapse in the Beaconsfield gold-mine, with not enough room to both lie down at the same time, Brant Webb and Todd Russell (above, with Aussie PM John Howard) didn't even know for the first five days whether anyone was coming to rescue them. Finally contact was made and the painstaking business began of driving a rescue tunnel through the rock without causing further falls. On May 9 the two men walked free, to a tumultuous welcome - and lucrative media deals. Neither has gone back to mining.

===Keef's Head Soup===

Concert-goers had a big year, with the Rolling Stones providing some serious satisfaction in April, and U2 fans finally finding what they'd been looking for in November. However, two weeks after performing here, Stones legend Keith Richards had to be flown back to Auckland for brain surgery, having reportedly fallen five metres out of a coconut palm while holidaying at the Fiji resort of Wakaya. Don't ask. Keef's fine now, thanks to the Ascot Hospital op to drain a blood clot, but recently sought to set the record straight. "It certainly was not a coconut tree," he told Britain's Sun. "Fiji has other trees, too. It was just a little tree. You wouldn't believe it if you saw it."

===You've got Female===

Sisters were doing it for themselves in politics, with Liberia and Chile both joining New Zealand this year in having a woman elected leader. Liberia's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is the first elected female head of state in Africa, while Chilean president Michelle Bachelet (pictured, who visited here in November) is not only a socialist but also a single mother. Other girls on top: Angela Merkel (Germany), Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (Philippines), Han Myung-Sook (South Korea), Portia Simpson-Miller (Jamaica) and Tarja Halonen (Finland). Coming up in 2007: Segolene Royal as France's first Madame la Presidente?

===The Public Eye===

Though not in the earth-shaking league of Keith Richards's Fiji fall, TV3 sports presenter Clint Brown copped an eyeful in a Taupo fracas, the origins and nature of which remain officially obscure. Suspended from his job soon after - witnesses had claimed he was drunk and abusive - he finally gave it up altogether a month later, and now does a breakfast radio gig for Times FM in Orewa. For a while, though, his eye was the most public one around: Brown even became a role model for troubled young Jeremy Wells of Eating Media Lunch.

===Miracles of Survival #2 Against Time And Tide===

When diver Robert Hewitt hadn't been found more than three days after going missing off the Kapiti coast, only the wildest optimist - or perhaps his brother, former All Black hooker Norm - would have expected to see him again, other than as a dead body washed up on a beach. Incredibly, after 75 hours in the water, being swept up and down the coast by currents, Hewitt was spotted by a police boat. He was delirious and dehydrated but alive, saved by phenomenal stamina, his naval diving experience and a few karakia. "I prayed to God first," Hewitt said later, "and then I prayed to the gods of the sea and wind. And from there ... I knew everything was going to be all right." A documentary about Hewitt's ordeal screens on TV3 next year.

===The Unkindest Cut===

A collective "Crikey!" arose on September 4 when the news broke that crocodile hunter and colourful conservationist Steve Irwin had been killed by a stingray barb while filming on the Great Barrier Reef. Australia mourned; tributes and flowers covered the fences of Irwin's Australia Zoo, and media clamoured for interviews with his widow Terri. A state funeral was offered, but the family chose to have a private service, then a public memorial service at the zoo's Crocoseum. Irwin's legacy lives on in khaki-clad daughter Bindi, only eight but already becoming a star in her own right.

===Miracles of Survival #3 Go Thump in the Lake===

In a country where people are regularly killed in helicopter crashes, the last place you'd choose to crashland one would be Mt Ruapehu's Crater Lake. The chances of survival there would appear to be minimal. But somehow, when his chopper started losing height, pilot Bruce Lilburn got himself and his four passengers down without anyone being killed. "When it actually landed I was face down in the water, ash and mud," passenger George Taylor told the New Zealand Herald the next day. Leaving the other four huddled under the crater rim in various states of shock and injury, Lilburn then climbed a 30m ice shelf and walked for an hour to get help. All were saved.

===Sayonara Tuatara===

July 31 saw our wallets get lighter; but for once it wasn't from overspending. New, slimmer coins were released with much fanfare - a copper 10c, a teeny 20c and a 50c almost half its former size and weight. The 5c piece, however, was declared redundant and sent to that great vault in the sky. On October 31 the transition period ended, and the old coins vanished from circulation.

===We are Snailing===

The fight goes on - slowly - to save the native snails of Buller. Forty of them, whose original habitat was threatened by Solid Energy's plan to expand an open-cast coalmine, have just been moved to a new home; half of them have been fitted with electronic monitors. Solid Energy has reportedly spent $2 million helping DOC to collect hundreds of the rare powelliphanta snails, many of whom are still in a cool-store awaiting further transfer. Hang in there, guys; your time will come.

Additional reporting: Michelle Coursey

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