The year that was: 2018's highlights and lowlights

by Bevan Rapson / 31 December, 2018
Illustrations by Daron Parton.
Could Lego Batman make the Waimate “horror maze” even more amazing?

Could Lego Batman make the Waimate “horror maze” even more amazing?

RelatedArticlesModule - 2018

We look back on the highlights and lowlights of 2018 – weird, wacky and sometimes wonderful – for another somewhat unreliable review.

January

Strap in, people. Things are about to get weird. Our South Pacific paradise has always had a slightly strange underbelly, what with the birds that can’t fly and taniwha-infested waterways. But the opening weeks of 2018 suggest we’ve entered a whole new dimension of the bizarre, peculiar and downright paranormal.

Should we blame the plans announced for a new “disorientating vortex” in the annual Waimate horror maize maze? It is disorienting just learning that Waimate has a “horror maze” (as if South Canterbury wasn’t gothic enough already), but farmer Rory Foley reveals he is upping the ante this year by adding a “colossal” vortex of whirling walls and ultraviolet lights. Just because the proceeds are going to Plunket doesn’t mean he isn’t dabbling with some pretty complex space-time paradigms, right? Let’s hope he never gets hold of a DeLorean.

Just as we try to get our heads around the vortex concept, Rocket Lab blasts a giant disco ball into space from its Mahia Peninsula launchpad. Now, these guys are Men and Women of Science, but the “Humanity Star”, a carbon-fibre geodesic sphere made up of 76 panels to reflect the sun’s light, has no clear scientific purpose. Instead, it’s “a shared experience for all of humanity” designed to be a reminder about our “fragile place in the universe”, which all sounds a bit Hollywood for a bunch of space boffins. Next, they’ll be getting Captain Kirk on the team!

While we’re pondering our fragility, perhaps we should ask who else might be sharing the experience: someone resembling the “alien” image revealed on a cliff face north of Kaikōura, perhaps? Thought to have been created in the 2016 earthquake, the likeness makes headlines (okay, a headline) after being noticed in the backdrop of an aerial shot. Kaikōura was, of course, the scene in 1978 of New Zealand’s most famous cluster of “UFO” sightings. Back then, we put an Airforce Skyhawk on stand-by; today we’d probably just borrow Rory’s vortex.

January’s last few days bring yet more Comic Con-style craziness when a massive Lego Batman is put up for sale on Trade Me because its owner can’t fit it into his Christchurch house. Disappointingly for a Lego-related object, the 1.9m-tall figurine, does not come apart to be squeezed through doorways, although its cape and spray bottle of “Bat-Shark Repellent” can be removed. Around the same time, a stuffed bat in a glass coffin is stolen from Rotorua’s Arts Village. Coincidence? Normally, we’d say yes, but it’s been an unusual month.
No one should really be surprised when news subsequently arrives that January has been the hottest month in New Zealand in 150 years. Did anyone check the thermostat on that darned Humanity Star?

February

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gutses out five straight days at Waitangi, a place some previous PMs preferred to avoid at this time of year, due to the chances of being clobbered with a flying dildo, or having to play besties with Titewhai Harawira. Was it a “statement” or did Jacinda just have trouble dragging Clarke away from all those fascinating meet-and-greet conversations about what constitutes a really big kingfish?

Either way, her impressive display of endurance may have helped tip the balance for former PM Bill English, who brings his second stint as National Party leader to a close, just three and a half months after relinquishing the prime-ministerial reins to Ardern. Unlike his successor, English can actually speak some Māori, though whether that would make Waitangi’s ritual tongue-lashings more enjoyable or less is open to question. Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Simon Bridges wins the contest to succeed English, at least partly thanks to his energetic young numbers man, Jami-Lee Ross, who has previously been associated with the likes of Judith Collins, Cameron “Whale Oil” Slater and political gun-for-hire Simon Lusk. What could possibly go wrong? With National riding high in the polls and its leadership refreshed, it’s clear Jacinda and Clarke should enjoy the prime-ministerial hangi-and-barbecue circuit while they can.

You know what would be really useful on the hangi-and-barbecue circuit? A motorised chilly bin – though only ever with a sober driver in charge, a precaution not taken by the 35-year-old man who pleads guilty in the New Plymouth District Court to drink-driving just such a machine while going to the dairy “to get some smokes”. Did New Plymouth’s reinvention as an oasis of arty sophistication just lose a little momentum?

March

What is it about the Bay of Plenty and stuffed animals? With the Rotorua bat in the glass coffin still fresh in our minds, we’re forced to contemplate the work of a Tauranga taxidermist who is auctioning off the stuffed body of his dead cat (as a “rug”), and a jar of unborn baby rabbits that apparently “looks great when lit up”. And you thought Tauranga was all bowls clubs and sun-kissed retirees?

In another “believe it or not” moment, Fonterra CEO Theo Spierings announces that he’s chucking in his $8 million-a-year job. It’s a lot of moo-lah, so he must have been pretty cheesed off not to just keep milking it, etcetera. The cooperative denies its troubles in China (leading to a $405 million writedown of its holding in Chinese food manufacturer Beingmate) are behind his decision to quit, so maybe he’s just had enough of – gone sour on? – the bad dairy-related puns. Asked if he has any regrets, Spierings says: “No, but I have learnings.” Given that only goobers say “learnings”, we’ll assume he meant to say “earnings”.

Another high-profile resignation causes two star broadcasters of yesteryear to flare back into prominence. One of them, Radio New Zealand senior manager and former TV frontwoman Carol Hirschfeld, is forced to quit the state broadcaster after telling her bosses a cosy prearranged Wellington coffee meeting with Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran was coincidental, causing them to provide incorrect information to Parliament. The other is one of those bosses, RNZ chair and one-time lion of the parliamentary Press Gallery, Richard Griffin, whose snowy mane is back glinting under the spotlights as the saga plays out in a select committee hearing. Glamourpuss Hirschfeld is pure star quality, of course (just ask the women’s mags) but the camera also loves 70-something silver fox Griffin as he climbs aboard his high horse to tangle with MPs. If someone’s not working on a lightly fictionalised mini-series, New Zealand on Air needs a clean-out.

Happy as Larry the Lamb: Cantabs under a roof.

April

Dunedin recovers from its “biggest weekend ever” following three performances by pop singer Ed Sheeran at Forsyth Barr Stadium. His visit is later estimated to have injected $37 million into the local economy, although the association – complete with towering $8000 mural of the British star – doesn’t quite square with the lovingly nurtured dark moodiness associated with the city’s fashion scene or famed “Dunedin Sound”. Couldn’t he have given The Puddle a support slot or something? Almost a third of the 108,000 Sheeran tickets were taken by visitors from Canterbury, although it’s unclear whether they were most attracted by the ginger minstrel or the sheer excitement of being in a stadium with a roof.

You can understand why Christchurch residents were so keen to get out of town when complaints surface that the city’s newly chlorinated water now tastes and smells “like a swimming pool”. The chlorination will continue for about a year while repairs are made to the city’s “boreheads” – by which they mean well equipment, not people like that Cantab down the pub who keeps banging on about Super Rugby titles.

Marama Davidson is elected female co-leader of the Green Party, which presumably means James Shaw, who has been boldly leading the party alone since Metiria Turei’s resignation ahead of last year’s election, can finally have a cup of herbal tea and a lie down. As the Greens negotiate the minefield of sharing power, swallowing dead rats such as New Zealand First’s waka-jumping law and basking in the glow of moves like the government’s ban on oil and gas exploration, Davidson eventually wins her first big splash of attention as leader by, um, seeking to reclaim the c-word. Now, if she can just find a way of generating energy from the subsequent outrage (“Appalling” – W. Peters; “Disgusting” – P. Bennett) our fossil-fuel problems will be over.

May

In response to persistent rumours, the Police advise that Clarke “Kingfish” Gayford is not and has not been the subject of a police inquiry – over exaggerated fishing stories or anything else. It’s to be hoped those responsible for spreading the baseless scuttlebutt have had a good, long, hard look at themselves. And perhaps the police could give similar assurances about [snip – Ed] and [snip] and that story about them [snip]ping a [snip] with a [snip-snip-snip].

The Girl Guides have obviously had a good, long, hard look at themselves and decided that, in a world of soaring obesity, mass-marketing sugary snacks is maybe not the most constructive activity for a youth organisation with otherwise admirable goals. After one last campaign, they’re planning to stop selling their famous biscuits, which were once a briefly available treat but morphed into a months-long chocolate-smothered national dietary disaster. Please don’t let this turn into one of those pathetic campaigns where something gets revived “by popular demand”, but we may have to inhale a packet or two more when the final batch goes on sale – just to commemorate the end of an era.

Anyone want to buy a used ruler? We suspect one may have been going cheap after the trial of a Kāpiti councillor found guilty of indecent assault. In the course of proceedings, the accused’s GP was asked to measure the length of his patient’s penis with a wooden ruler. The measurement was suppressed, but mightn’t it have been influenced by various factors, including room temperature? Isn’t opening this particular can of worms just a bit “how long is a piece of string”? Presumably the Law Commission is onto it and coming up with some protocols as we speak, including a requirement that, for hygiene purposes, court rulers (“penises; for the measuring of”) should be made of plastic.

Blenheim’s dancing forecourt attendant spread a little joy; twerking Act MP David Seymour? Not so much.

Blenheim’s dancing forecourt attendant spread a little joy; twerking Act MP David Seymour? Not so much.

June

C’mon everybody, let’s dance! In Blenheim, petrol pump attendant Luka Coura is stopping traffic with the dance moves he fits in between pumping gas and washing windscreens, and in Porirua, the enthusiastic antics of a stop-go worker go viral after being captured on video. It’s enough to get the rest of us on our feet and busting out our favourite moves! And then Act MP David Seymour twerks on national television and we all sit back down and feel a little bit dead inside.

Young tyro Winston Raymond Peters attaches the L-plates and slips into the nation’s driving seat, which you have to admit is pretty good going for somebody with only 43 years in politics and more “haterz” than Sonny Bill Williams. He takes the wheel for six weeks while Jacinda Ardern becomes only the second elected head of government to give birth while in office (after Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto in 1990). Neve Te Aroha instantly upstages whoever that guy is who’s acting Prime Minister and, by subjecting her mother to broken sleep, aggrieved wailing and a constant stream of messes to be cleaned up, ensures Ardern will be job-ready for her return to the Beehive.

The free-range lentils are hitting the fan in Christchurch, where the local arm of the New Zealand Vegetarian Society has split away to rebrand as vegan, a move that means losing its office and most of its other assets but finally not having to worry about something suspiciously eggy turning up in the pot-luck catering. The society admits things have gone “a bit pear-shaped” and says it wants vegetarians and vegans to “stick together”, presumably using some kind of plant-based adhesive. It also reveals that 50% cent of its members are vegetarian, a third are vegan, and – get this – the rest eat meat. Presumably the latter group try not to attend meetings smelling of bacon.

Hey, if carnivores can be in a vegetarian society, what’s stopping Labour from putting a fox properly in the henhouse and getting a former National Party prime minister to lead a shake-up of workplace law? Nothing, it turns out. Jim Bolger will head the panel redesigning the country’s industrial relations regime. This triggers some unease on both the left and right of the political spectrum, although with a man sometimes known as “Spud” in charge, at least the vegetarians should be happy.

In animal control, KFC and theology can be way  more effective than a Taser.

July

Make Airline Food Great Again could be just the slogan for Acting PM Peters, who joins criticism of Air New Zealand for offering a meat-free burger made by an American company. Peters says the national carrier should be marketing the New Zealand meat industry (current slogan: Mmm, iron!), but the airline refuses to eat humble pie, saying the media coverage has been invaluable. To be honest, we’d prefer any kind of pie to a synthetic burger served on a plastic tray at 35,000ft, with every chance of turbulence and a self-congratulatory video to supercharge the nausea factor, but let’s commend their willingness to innovate. Now, which airline will be forward-thinking enough to start turning those long-haul “omelettes” into groovy, animal-friendly footwear?

If it’s innovation you’re after, check out Ngāti Whātua’s plan for a giant statue of Papatūānuku the Earth Mother to stand at the entrance to Auckland harbour, like our very own version of the Statue of Liberty. Cool, right? The jury is out on whether this is a genuine proposal, however, or just another Queen City chimera, like the fabled third harbour crossing, a downtown stadium or – in the realms of total fantasy – a successful Warriors team.

Evidence that the country’s great marketing brains don’t all work for Air New Zealand: the Marlborough branch of Rural Women announce a “101 Ways with Wool” festival, where they plan to display things like eco-friendly wool coffins but also get all “Scarfie” on it and burn a couple of couches. The torching of a synthetic couch and a wool couch is intended to demonstrate how wool “doesn’t really burn”. Who wouldn’t want to watch that? Throw in a few gallons of chilled sauv blanc and this sounds like it could be Blenheim’s answer to Coachella.

August

Video of a South Island sheep called Bacon bouncing enthusiastically on a trampoline gets 2.4 million views and media attention around the world. Rural Women of Marlborough? We think we’ve found your headliner.
Katherine Mansfield’s look was all about the bob, right? Yet it’s the great writer’s ponytail that turns up on display in Wellington, 130 years after her birth. It’s included alongside many other locks of hair in what would seem to be a slightly icky Alexander Turnbull Library exhibition called Death & Desire: Hair in the Turnbull Collections. It’s not known whether ponytail-pulling former Prime Minister John Key visits the show, but we presume the exhibits are kept safely behind glass in case anyone gets too touchy-feely.

Ten months after the government appointed Kelvin Davis the Crown-Māori Relations Minister, it’s still unclear what his job is. Given that its 178 years since the Treaty of Waitangi was signed and it’s still not exactly clear what the relationship between the Crown and Māori is, this delay actually seems entirely fitting. And Davis is at least doing better than Clare Curran, who is finally removed from Cabinet after failing to disclose another meeting and, after a flustered performance in Parliament a few weeks later, eventually quits as a minister, citing “intolerable pressure”, thereby freeing up heaps more time for coffee meetings on Lambton Quay.

In Waihi, chips and buns from KFC are used by police to bring a 150kg escaped pig under control. The animal is safely secured in a makeshift pen at the local Presbyterian church, police report, where he is “left to contemplate his sinful behaviour”. Compared to the infamous case of a goat in Ōamaru that was Tasered 13 times, the fast food-and-theology policing solution is seen as a model for future animal-related callouts.

September

To become famous as a scarecrow, you apparently don’t always have to be “out standing in your field”. In Timaru, the mysterious disappearance of Squeedle and Bike Polo Bob, two straw-stuffed individuals tasked with publicising a school fair, is enough to get them in the news. Which, thinking about it, probably fulfils their mission better than just standing there. Meanwhile, up at Bell Block, north of New Plymouth, controversy erupts over a scarecrow called Buddy, who at least one complainant to the council believes is making a Nazi salute. Its creators clarify that Buddy, perched on a pile of dirt at a building site, is in fact performing a “dab”, which kind of helps us recover a little from the effects of David Seymour’s twerk.

They might need a scarecrow to keep the wildlife out of the ruins of ChristChurch Cathedral. It’s reported that at least one cat has taken up residence amid the pews and pigeon droppings, although it’s not known whether it is “contemplating its sinful behaviour”. In by far the month’s biggest animal news, however, a Kaikōura seal slaps a kayaker across the face with an octopus. Could there be any way of feeling more alive? Auckland’s top spas almost certainly rush to add the exfoliating octopus-slap to their top-end treatment menus.

Who says the students of today aren’t as engaged in the important issues as they used to be? Just listen to the cries of outrage emitting from Otago University over a scandalous “abuse of power” by the authorities. Turns out a misguided proctor, whatever that is, has entered student flats and taken their bongs away, which as any half-stoned second-year pol-sci major knows, is the first sign of a totalitarian state, man. Maybe they should stand down the proctor and bring in the KFC squad?

A Bird of the Year in celebration mode.

October

As we kind of predicted back in January, Rocket Lab gets Captain Kirk on board to open its new 7500sqm rocket factory in Auckland. Eighty-seven-year-old William Shatner boldly goes into the depths of industrial Mt Wellington to do the honours ahead of performing his one-man show around the country. As the first and best captain of the Starship Enterprise, Shatner probably has a pretty good grip on the technology being employed at the new facility – although for once nobody can say “it’s not rocket science”.

The “Bird of the Year” is declared to be the kererū, and however you might categorise the annual vote – let’s be kind and call it “whimsical” – it’s clearly not an intelligence contest: kererū were just this year identified as being stupidly prone to flying into windows. In less than two years, Wellington Zoo has had to treat 38 of the fat idiots – more than all other species combined. Sometimes, presumably, they don’t recover from their injuries, but frustratingly they still can’t be eaten.

The month ends with a Royal Visit by Prince Harold and his new West Indian bride Magda, who are forced to wear ceremonial wetsuits and jewel-encrusted snorkels throughout an almost entirely submerged tour of the rainiest dominion in the realm. Oh, what fun as they treat the crowds to underwater displays of affection and gumboot throwing, etc, helping everyone realise that Harold’s 80-year-old dad Chris is going to make a brilliant emperor one day, unless his mother outlives him and the crown passes directly to Elton John. (Your heart’s not really in this one, is it? – Ed)

November

With the royals safely farewelled, it’s revealed that the British High Commission is to recruit its first-ever advisor on Māori affairs, along with a te reo teacher for the high commissioner Laura Clarke, which is excellent news. If she ever gets a grip on the exact relationship between Māori and the Crown, could she let Kelvin Davis know?

Our technology sector continues to set the pace globally, with the unveiling at Big Boys Toys of the Testimatic – touted as “the world’s first auto ball checker”. Men are invited to enter a booth, drop their pants and have an unseen urologist check their testicles for cancer through a hole. It’s Kiwi ingenuity at its best, though hopefully without the No-8 wire.

Hopes among well-remunerated party animals in the creative industries that they’ll have a “white Christmas” are almost certainly dashed with the news of a record seizure of nearly 200kg of cocaine found in a shipment of bananas. Hosts who had been counting on a little of the Bolivian marching powder to help their seasonal functions go off with a bang are left casting around for other entertainment ideas. A mechanical bull? So old-hat. Corporate boxing? Definitely not. Hey, why not hire a Testimatic and switch the dial on the back from “Medical” to “Recreational”?

December

Christmas is coming, so everyone is filled with a seasonal spirit of goodwill to all, forgetting for a few short weeks the pointless trolling and mindless social-media pile-ons that characterise public discourse for the other 11 months of the year. Kidding! This year, Santa-related events prove a particular flashpoint for conflict. In Auckland, the bloke who has played Santa in the annual Queen St parade for five years is sacked for “inappropriate” comments in relation to not hiring women to play the role, but later reinstated; in Richmond, a local jeweller somehow decides a “Rednek” Christmas float complete with beer cans and a Confederate flag is in the seasonal spirit; and just up the road in Nelson, the usual white-bearded figure is replaced by a bicultural Santa wearing a red korowai – a Māori cloak. The latter gesture, which seems perfectly in keeping with Nelson’s image for alternative thinking and wearable-art creativity, draws a predictable sack-load of wailing, gnashing and histrionics about the unexpected absence of the traditional character so lovingly handed down to us by the Coca-Cola Corporation. And Waimate thought they were the ones with a “disorientating vortex”?

This article was first published in the January 2019 issue of North & South.

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