Lahar, harr and ha-ha by Angela Caldin

I’ve been learning some new words recently down here in New Zealand so I thought I’d share them.

A Force of Nature

On a recent visit to Ohakune and the volcano Mount Ruapehu in the central North Island, I discovered that there’s something called a lahar which is a Javanese word for a type of mudflow or debris flow composed of a mixture of volcanic material, rocky debris, and water. The material flows down from a volcano, usually along a river valley making a fast moving, deep and extremely destructive river of mud and rubble that looks like wet concrete.

TangiwaiA massive lahar was responsible for the Tangiwai disaster which is New Zealand’s worst rail accident. It happened on Christmas Eve 1953 when the Whangaehu River bridge collapsed underneath a Wellington to Auckland express passenger train at Tangiwai. The locomotive and first six carriages derailed into the river, killing 151 people. The cause of the accident was the collapse of the rock and lava dam holding back nearby Mount Ruapehu’s crater lake, which created a large lahar in the Whangaehu River, destroying one of the bridge piers at Tangiwai only minutes before the train reached the bridge. The death toll consisted of 148 second-class passengers, 1 first-class passenger, the engine driver and the fireman. Twenty of the bodies were never found and were presumed to have been carried 120 km downriver to the ocean. Amazingly for us in these days of DNA and dental records, there were 21 unidentified bodies who were given a state funeral attended by Prince Philip who was visiting New Zealand at the time with Queen Elizabeth. Local heroes who helped to rescue the 26 people who survived were  Cyril Ellis and John Holman who were presented with the George Medal by the Queen, and William Inglis and Arthur Bell who were awarded  the British Empire Medal.

HarrScotch Mist

Another new word which I’d never heard before is harr. The person who told me about it described it as a kind of drizzly mist or fog drifting inland from the sea. It’s often experienced in Scotland apparently, though I can’t find out anything about its derivation. It can also mean a wind from the east or, on a completely different tack, the stile or upright post that bears the hinges of a gate.

Uncontrollable Laughter

I do know what a ha-ha is to be honest, but I couldn’t resist including it here as its sound fits in so neatly with the other two words. A ha-ha is a landscape design feature that creates a vertical barrier while preserving views. The Ha-ha walldesign includes a lawn which slopes downward to a sharply vertical face, typically a masonry retaining wall. Ha-has are used in landscape design to prevent access to a garden by grazing sheep or cows, without obstructing views. The term is generally assumed to derive from the expression of surprise and amusement which bursts forth when someone encounters such a feature and just about avoids falling over it. It seems that the concept of the ha-ha is of French origin, as early as 1686 and was a feature of the gardens of the Château de Meudon designed by Dezallier d’Argenville.  Ha-has were essential to the sweeping views of Capability Brown, uninterrupted by fences or walls.

I like these interesting words and I’m looking forward to dropping them into the conversation at the first opportunity.

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