IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

An endless rivalry of claims Down Under

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 30, 2013

For as long as I can remember, in other words for way too long, Australians have tried to lay claim to every successful New Zealander - animal or otherwise - who wasn't or isn't historically and genetically nailed down.

It all began back in the 1930s when a New Zealand-born racehorse called Phar Lap (that's Thai for "Lightning", but most Aussies don't know that) took a ship over to Australia, beat every nag they had and then went on to the United States and did the same.

Since then, the Aussies have claimed Phar Lap for their own, producing a movie that portrayed the chestnut gelding landing in Sydney from the South Island looking like a survivor from a horse death camp after a stormy crossing of the Tasman Sea.

The film-makers did have the decency to include one tongue-in-cheek scene where a local newspaper had two different headlines waiting for the outcome of a big race in the US - "Australian Horse Wins," "New Zealand Horse Loses".

But that did little to placate New Zealanders. And now comes what surely must be the last straw.

Adelaide University researchers are claiming that the iconic flightless Kiwi bird may have descended from an ancestor that happened to fly over from Australia 20 million years ago - a decent enough interval that leaves plenty of room for error.

For the longest time, it has been thought the Kiwi was descended from the Moa, a 3.5m-tall, 250kg flightless bird endemic to New Zealand which was hunted to extinction by the newly-arrived Maori settlers six centuries ago.

The awful thing is that this latest outrage has been perpetrated by an ex-patriot - New Zealand paleontologist Trevor Worthy - who says the fossilised ancestor was more closely related to the emu, another giant flightless bird still common to Australia.

"If, as the DNA suggests, the Kiwi is related to the emu, then both shared a common ancestor that could fly," he said. "It means they were little and volant (able to fly) and that they flew to New Zealand."

Worthy says it is not uncommon for birds to "jump" (some would say, escape) from Australia to New Zealand, citing the Mallard duck, the Little Banded Dotterel and the Cattle Egret as three species which regularly fly back and forth.

Thankfully, the Kiwi research - published by the Society of Avian Paleontology and Evolution - is not conclusive, and palaeontologists still have to find wing bones to put the theory beyond all doubt.

Until then - and, c'mon, it will really be like trying to find a needle in an over-sized haystack - New Zealanders are going to be just a little on edge. Fortunately for us, our world champion rugby team, the All Blacks, use a silver fern on their uniforms.

Over the years, the Aussies have tried to claim everyone from actors Russell Crowe (Gladiator) and Sam Neill (Jurassic Park) to film-maker Jane Campion (Piano), country and western star Keith Urban (husband of US-born Australian actress Nicole Kidman) and teenage idol Kimbra.

The reason is obvious. Australia offers New Zealand artists a much bigger stage to launch their careers - just as a steady stream of Australian-born actors and actresses, starting with the swashbuckling Errol Flynn, have made their names in Hollywood.

Of course, more often than not American reporters can't separate the two countries, so they invariably lump New Zealanders in with the Australians - just as they conveniently ignore a who's who of US showbusiness people who are actually of Canadian heritage.

The Aussies have never been able to lay a glove on Lord Of The Rings director Peter Jackson because not only was he able to make New Zealand his base of operations, but he also turned his films into cinematic showcases for the beauty of his homeland.

They haven't been able to claim Edmund Hillary either. They don't have any mountains big enough for the great man to have climbed. When an Aussie friend recently sent me a picture of himself on top of the laughably low-level Mt Kosciusko, I had to ask him, "Where's the snow?"

But the loud folks next door don't stop with famous people. Perhaps one of their most ridiculous claims is ownership of the Pavlova, the world-famous baked ice-cream dessert. As everyone should know by now, it was created by my own grandmother.

Getting back to horses, in the endless rivalry that goes on between Australians and New Zealanders, one of our greatest triumphs - to me anyway - was the 1983 Melbourne Cup, which I listened to on short-wave radio in Bangkok.

As the field entered the straight, with two of their champion stayers fighting it out for the lead, my Australian journalist friends were whooping and hollering. Then, as the winning post loomed, a New Zealand horse came from nowhere to snatch victory on the line.

The look on their faces was priceless. The little horse that had cut down the entire field in the final two furlongs was deliciously called Kiwi. Better still, it came from the green pastures of Taranaki, my home province.

Call me small-minded, but it was one of my greatest hours.

thane.cawdor@gmail.com

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 30, 2013

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