Extraordinary! The Giant’s House sculpture mosaic garden

27 November 2019

New Zealand is full of surprises, but it’s saved one of the best until the very end of our trip. I’ve never seen anything quite like the Giant’s House sculpture mosaic garden. It is, quite simply, extraordinary!

The Giant’s House is a magnificent two storey villa dating from 1880. It was built for the first bank manager of Akaroa, which probably explains why it’s such a grand affair. However it’s not the house itself that’s brought us here, but rather its terraced gardens adorned with various sculptures and mosaics.

The gardens are the work of artist Josie Martin. Although starting out as a painter, in 1993 Josie turned her hand to sculpture. Her website says:

Ever adventurous Josie is mindful of the larger world and other ways of seeing. Josie’s elegant abstract sculptures are seriously playful and a celebration of life. They are surreal, biomorphic entities, whimsical and flamboyant, organic and eccentric. Constantly changing metomorphosing [sic] forms confronting or circumscribing void spaces refer to her interest in horticulture reflecting the zany balance of nature.

SOURCE: The Giant’s House website, retrieved 10 January 2020

Even though the Giant’s House has been recognised since 2018 as a Garden of International Significance, if I’d read that quote from Josie’s website before visiting, it would have put me right off. To use an inelegant and slightly vulgar phrase that we Brits reserve for artistic pretension, it sounds like a load of “arty-farty” nonsense. Sorry, Josie.

But I know now this assessment is totally wrong, and I regret that it ever crossed my mind. Far from being pretentious and slightly preposterous, we quickly discover that the garden here is a work of quirky, creative genius.

It began very simply, almost accidentally. Josie dug up some pretty bits of broken china while gardening and used them to make a mosaic doorstep. And after that, she just kept on going, using broken china, tile, mirror and glass to clothe and populate her garden with mosaic masterpieces.

Mosaics are everywhere, including paths, steps and walls, benches, arches and seats. And scattered along the winding paths is a host of life-sized sculptures, here a lady seated on a bench eating strawberries, there French mime artist Marcel Marceau resplendent in a blue top hat and waistcoat.

There are animals too: look, there’s an elephant and a giraffe peering over a low-slung hedge, in front of which is a wall decorated with images of kiwi. And have you seen over there, a man-sized blue cat playing a musical instrument? The cat is a member of a four-piece band calling itself Kitty Catch-Me and the Rolling Dice … well of course he is, cool cats belong in jazz bands, don’t they?

In front of the Giant’s House sits a grand piano. Fashioned from mosaic, inevitably. The piano lid is held open by two lanky, naked dancers, and inside the piano are living, growing succulent plants. And why not, this is a garden after all.

The piano bears the legend “sweet patooti”. It means nowt to me (I’m an ancient English fossil, don’t you know), but according to my old pal Professor Google, “patootie” is a North American term for an attractive girl or girlfriend, or is slang for buttocks. The piano stool, which may or may not be shaped to accommodate the buttocks of said girlfriend, is supported by four dog legs, and each of its four corners is embellished with a dog’s head.

Do I understand what’s going on here? No, not really. Do I care that I don’t know what’s going on here? Not in the slightest. Life’s full of mysteries, and this one’s up there with the pyramids. And everyone admires the pyramids, even if they don’t fully understand them.

The piano and stool sit on a paved area carved out of the lawn and inlaid with the legend “You never know”. Yes, that’s it, you never know what you’ll find in this garden, just around the next corner or lurking behind a nearby bush. This place is quirky, crazy … totally bloody bonkers, in fact. And I love it.

Everyone else loves it too. Everywhere we see visitors smiling, chuckling and sometimes laughing uproariously. There’s a spring in their step as they move between the exhibits, pointing out quirky little details and animatedly discussing the sculptures with their fellows.

The essence of art is about how we see the world. Some art is deadly serious, encouraging us to reflect on matters of life and death. The Giant’s House garden isn’t serious at all: it’s about the joy of living and laughter, showing us reasons to be cheerful in the most mundane of subjects and situations.

Nobody other than the world’s unreconstructed misery-guts could spend an hour or two in the gardens at the Giant’s House without having their spirits lifted. This place is truly magical.

Another outstanding museum in “the middle of nowhere”

27 November 2019

We head out from Akaroa further around Banks Peninsula towards the tiny village of Okains Bay. On the way we call in at the Akaroa lighthouse. The six-sided wooded structure dates from 1878-79, and originally stood at the entrance to Akaroa harbour. In 1977 it was replaced by an automated lighthouse, and the following year a Lighthouse Preservation Society was formed in Akaroa. The Society arranged for the original lighthouse to be dismantled and re-assembled on its present site. It’s possibly the most impressive of all the lighthouses we’ve seen in New Zealand, even if it is in the “wrong place”.

The main purpose of our drive this morning is to visit the Okains Bay Māori and Colonial Museum. The museum incorporates a range of replica and relocated heritage buildings, the most striking of which is the whare whakairo, or carved meeting house. According to the Culture Trip website the whare whakairo is probably the most iconic building of all native Maori architecture, playing a pivotal role in the day to day life of a tribe’s village.

The whare whakiro (meeting house)

The whare whakairo at the museum is very impressive, and it’s easy to believe that we are looking at something that is deeply embedded in Maori history. But don’t be fooled. As with so much on this trip, things aren’t quite what they seem:

These meeting houses weren’t really a part of Maori village life until after the arrival of European settlers. The mid-19th century was a time of social, political and spiritual change. There was much selling of land to the settlers coming over from Great Britain, and the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and Christianity all created a need for discussions within and between communities …

The whare whakairo is a larger and more elaborate version of earlier house designs such as the wharepuni (sleeping house) and pātaka (storehouse). It is not an ancient form of architecture, but seems to have first appeared after contact with Europeans in the mid-19th century.

SOURCE: Culture Tip website, retrieved 9 January 2020

Whare whakairo are usually elaborately decorated, both inside and out, with images of ancestors, gods and other figures, and with more abstract designs

The whare whakairo at the museum was built on site in accordance with tikanga Maori (Maori custom). The rafters came from an old meeting house in Tokomaru Bay on North Island, in keeping with the tradition that each new house should have something within it from an old one.

Cottage built in 1883 from totara slabs and shingles

As well as Maori buildings the museum boasts a number of others built by Europeans. The totara slab cottage was built in 1883. Totara wood is hard, straight-grained and very resistant to rot. Such cottages were common in early colonial times, but very few have survived to the present day. The cottage at the museum was destroyed by a storm at its original location in 1968, after which the pieces were salvaged, relocated and rebuilt on the museum site.

The historic Okains Bay Store. Dating from 1883, it is believed to be the oldest continuously operated shop in New Zealand

Next to the museum on the main street – indeed, just about the only street in Okains Bay – is the historic Okains Bay Store, which dates from 1883. Owned by the museum and let to the tenants who run the business, it is believed to be the oldest continuously operated shop in New Zealand.

Replica of a traditional Maori waka (canoe)

The museum’s treasures are spread all over Okains Bay. On the opposite side of the road from the main site is the Riverside Waka Shed. Waka (canoes) are integral to Maori culture, and it’s good to be able to get up close to a full size replica.

Okains Bay is not the obvious site for a museum. Plainly the Banks Peninsula attracts a good number of tourists, but surely not in sufficient numbers to maintain a museum on the scale and to the standard of the Okains Bay Maori and Colonial Museum? The museum must attract a good deal of dedicated support from the local community. It reinforces the impression that’s been growing on us throughout our travels, that although New Zealand is a young country it takes its history and culture – both Maori and European – seriously. New Zealand “does museums” very well indeed.

Q: So, when is a castle not a castle? A: When it’s Larnach Castle

22 November 2019

We have some free time before this afternoon’s birding tour on the Otago Peninsula, so we head out to Larnach Castle to see what all the fuss is about. It grandly styles itself “New Zealand’s only castle,” which is a marketing strapline that’s both agreeably catchy and totally wrong. But that’s the nature of marketing, isn’t it?

Larnach Castle, near Dunedin, dominated by an Australian-style wrap-around iron lacework verandah

When I was a kid growing up in England castles were understood to be very old, grim and grey, bristling with battlements for defence, and towers for locking up captured enemy warriors and random passing princesses. And there’d be a moat and a portcullis, and one of those little holes through which you could pour hot oil and other nasties on to the heads of your adversaries.

On the verandah

Larnach Castle isn’t a bit like that. In the manner of Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where our fair Queen hangs her hat every summer, it’s a mansion built for boasting rather than battles.

Larnach Castle was conceived and constructed in the second half of the 19th century, not by a king or a prince or a nobleman, but by a get-rich-quick Australian banker. William Larnach arrived in New Zealand in 1867 to take up an appointment as the manager of the Bank of Otago. He did well for himself, earning so much through land speculation, farming investments, and a timber business that in 1871 he was able to start on his great building project, the mansion that would ultimately become Larnach Castle.

The dining room

The original plans for the building came from England, and were based on the Gothic Revival style of architecture. However they were substantially altered by Dunedin architect R. A. Lawson, who was born in Scotland but worked in Melbourne before crossing the Tasman Sea to New Zealand.

Lawson wrapped the core of the building in substantial but delicate iron lace work verandahs, in accordance with the Australian style. In so doing he created a new world version of old world architecture, a mansion that is either an icon or a bit of an oddball, depending on your taste.

William Larnach spared no expense in building his Castle. Materials were brought to the site from around the world. There was slate from Wales, iron, ceramics and twenty tons of glass from France, mosaics from Belgium, marble from Italy, bricks from Marseille, Huon Pine and Tasmanian Blackwood from Australia, Douglas Fir from North America and many more European and tropical woods.

The emblem and motto of clan Sutherland, from which William Larnach claimed descent

Nor could locals be trusted to deliver Larnach’s vision: they just didn’t have the skills, so he imported the necessary craftsmen including woodcarvers from England, and stonemasons from England and Scotland. The Castle’s fine plasterwork was executed by two Italians. No expense was spared.

Larnach also took the opportunity to draw attention to his Scottish ancestry. He claimed descent from clan Sutherland, which boasts a wildcat on its crest and the motto “Sans Peur” (without fear). A cat and the motto are shown on stained glass above some internal windows, although the moggie is a pale imitation of a fearless wildcat and more like a cuddly pussy cat.

Said to be the only Georgian-style hanging staircase in the Southern Hemisphere

It’s easy to be cynical (who? me?) about Larnach’s obvious attempt to show off his great wealth, but although the two stone lions guarding the steps up to the grand entrance are more than a little pretentious, I confess I like Larnach Castle a lot. And the fact that it’s here for me to enjoy is thanks to its current owners, the Barker family, who rescued it in the second half of the last century. Here’s what the visitor guide tells us about its turbulent history:

[William] Larnach lived in the Castle with three successive wives until 1898, when he took his own life in New Zealand’s House of Parliament. Larnach’s children sold the property which changed hands several times and was twice abandoned. The grounds were engulfed by second growth when we discovered Larnach Castle and the surrounding 14 hectares of wilderness in 1967. In a leap of faith we purchased this historic property, and its restoration and development became a life’s work for our family.

SOURCE: Leaflet “Larnach Castle, Dunedin, New Zealand” received on the day of our visit, 22 November 2019

View back to the Castle from the garden

Another leaflet hints at how much effort has gone into the restoration:

… when we bought the Castle in 1967 it was empty of furniture, and in a very sad state of repair, with many leaks in the roof. We would like to record our sincere thanks to all those people who have loaned or sold us original pieces.

SOURCE: Leaflet “Your guide to Larnach Castle” received on the day of our visit, 22 November 2019

As we work our way through the building, trying hard to avoid the selfie-obsessed Chinese tour group, it’s apparent that the Castle is smaller on the inside than it appears from outside, like the Tardis in reverse. This is a good thing, making the place feel less cavernous and more homely than we’d expected. I can easily imagine sitting on the verandah, sipping cocktails and watching the sun go down over the glorious garden. By no stretch of the imagination is this place a castle, but it surely is a triumph.

View from the battlements out to sea along the Otago Peninsula; the Harbour is t the left

We make our way up the narrow winding stone staircase to the fake battlements. Here we are 320 metres – around 1,000 feet – above the sea. The panoramic view down to Otago Harbour and along the Otago Peninsula is spectacular. It’s also a good place from which to appreciate the Castle gardens.

Colourful plantings

The visitor leaflet leaves us in no doubt as to the credentials of the gardens when it says:

A South Seas’ Garden between harbour and ocean, at 300 metres, Larnach Castle Garden feels close to the sky. Enclosures and spaces flow, one into another, from open colourful plantings to areas shaded and green, each with an ambience, an idea, and all leading on to the beautiful views.

SOURCE: Leaflet “Larnach Castle, Dunedin, New Zealand” received on the day of our visit, 22 November 2019

Flowery prose indeed. Sounds like hype, but to be fair the gardens really are rather good. While the Castle and its outbuildings were largely William Larnach’s creation, the gardens are mostly down to the Barkers.

An improvement in the weather (at last!) shows the gardens at their best

Having said that, a glass cupola on the lawn outside the front of the Castle dates from between 1927-39, when the property was owned by a Mr and Mrs Purdie.

Internal view of the cupola roof

There’s a bit of an Alice in Wonderland theme going on in parts of the garden, also dating from the Purdies’ time in the 1930s. The Purdies were fans of the English novelist Lewis Carroll and his young heroine, and the Barkers have maintained the tradition.

In November 2007 the Mayor of Dunedin unveiled a bronze sculpture of Alice to commemorate the 40 years of the Barker family’s guardianship of the Castle. The sculpture is by Christchurch sculptor Stephen Gleeson, and depicts the moment when Alice is about to play croquet with the Queen of Hearts, using a flamingo as a mallet and a curled up hedgehog for the ball. And they say the English are animal lovers…

Alice in Wonderland, about to be unspeakably cruel to a flamingo and a hedgehog

The garden is a fine, ongoing piece of work, and although we can see the city of Dunedin just beyond the harbour, the Castle and its gardens belong to a different world. I could happily stay longer here but we have to dash as we’re hoping to spend the afternoon in the company of penguins, and maybe the odd albatross or two.

From the garden, a view across Otago Harbour towards Dunedin

Larnach Castle is a quirky, unexpected find, but well worth a visit … as long as you’re not expecting to see a REAL castle, that is!


A Dunedin Masterpiece: The Toitu Otago Settlers Museum

21 November 2019

We’re in Dunedin to take an afternoon train ride along the Taieri Gorge, but we have a couple of hours to kill so we pop into the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum next to the railway station.

The museum is housed, in part, in a stunning art deco building. Coming from England, where history oozes from every corner and crevice, it would be easy to fall into the trap of assuming that 20th century architecture is inferior to “proper old stuff” from earlier centuries. This, in turn, would be to condemn most New Zealand buildings as unworthy of serious consideration. The masterpiece that is the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum is proof positive that such views are seriously misguided.

The magnificent art deco exterior of the Toitu Otago Setllers Museum

The museum is

dedicated to telling the story of the people of Dunedin and the surrounding area, whose character, culture, technology, art, fashion and transport shaped New Zealand’s first great city.

SOURCE: Toitu Otago Settlers’ Museum website, retrieved 21 December 2019

Although the museum is mostly devoted to social history since the arrival of the Europeans, Maori lives are also represented. Suspended from the ceiling of one of the galleries is a Manu Tukutuku, a bird-like kite which was flown to celebrate the Maori New Year. Made from woven New Zealand flax it’s one of the Maori exhibits that catches the eye.

Manu Tukutuku

The early history of Dunedin is captured by some fine old photographs, which are strategically displayed throughout the museum. The undated image below reflects the earliest days of the city, and gives a clue to the effort needed to carve it out of the virgin bush.

Early days in Dunedin

Early Dunedin was, of course, fashioned largely from timber, and it’s no surprise therefore that the city fathers were worried about the danger of fire. A fire brigade was established in 1862, and kitted out with the latest in fire engine technology. The Pride of Dunedin was built by Shand Mason and Company of London, and brought to the other side of the world to help keep Dunedin safe.

The Pride of Dunedin fire engine, built in 1862

Dunedin’s origins lie in the wish of a group of breakaway Presbyterian Scots to create a vigorous new community, where members of the Free Church of Scotland could live out their faith and advance themselves. The first of them arrived in 1848. It’s joked that these early immigrants from Scotland were looking for somewhere cold, damp and miserable to make them feel at home, and the area they chose – which was to become Dunedin – fitted that bill perfectly.

In another acknowledgment of their Scottish heritage the early settlers wanted to call their city New Edinburgh. Soon, however, that was superseded by Dunedin, derived from Dùn Èideann, the Scots Gaelic name for Edinburgh.

The Dunedin Stationery Warehouse in the late 19th century

Dunedin grew rapidly during the central Otago goldrush, beginning in the 1860s. In the mid-1860s, and between 1878 and 1881, it was New Zealand’s largest urban area. The image above shows the Dunedin Stationery Warehouse at around this time, and reflects a local economy that was doing well.

A Dunedin tram

The development of Dunedin as a city and the wealth that it generated in due course required the creation of a public transport infrastructure, including trams.

The Automobile association of Otago’s service vehicle, built in 1924

Private car ownership began in the early 20th century, and of course with it grew also the fear of mechanical breakdown. When their members found themselves in difficulty the Automobile Association of Otago’s service vehicle – built in England in 1924 – could be called upon to help out. Notice that the yellow colour of this early vehicle reflects the branding of today’s Automobile Association (AA), both in New Zealand and the UK.

Peugeot motorcycle pictured at Waipori in 1906

As well as cars, motorcycles were an important part of the transport infrastructure. The image above shows Dunedin motor agent C. J. Fox and his Peugeot motorcycle in the Dunedin township of Waipori in 1906, while below is one of the museum’s must-see exhibits, a restored 1916 Harley-Davidson.

Harley-Davidson, built 1906

I could happily spend all day here at the Otago Settlers Museum, but we have a train to catch. It’s become evident over the last few weeks that New Zealand does museums well, and this one is no exception. It is, like the other museums we’ve visited on this trip, an excellent facility that deserves to be treasured by visitors and locals alike.

The Lost Gypsy Gallery: a 21st century curiosity shop

19 November 2019

Let’s start this post with a confession: I’m not very practical. I never build or make things (to be fair, Mrs P says I’m an expert at making a mess, but that doesn’t count). I have absolutely no idea how, or why, things work, and I can’t fix mechanical stuff when it breaks down. And when I was a kid I never had, nor did I ever have the slightest desire to own, a Mecanno set.

OK, a couple of decades ago I did manage to wire a plug. It’s true I didn’t get electrocuted and the house didn’t burn down, but I reckon that was just beginner’s luck.

Blair Somerville and I evidently come from different planets, maybe even different galaxies. Blair is the creator of the Lost Gypsy Caravan and Gallery, a collection of weird, whimsical and wonderful stuff that has no real purpose other than to intrigue and delight its viewers.

The original Lost Gypsy ‘Caravan’ – a converted Leyland bus

He describes himself as an organic mechanic, and calls his creations automators. He fashions them largely from the odds and ends that other people throw away: springs, switches, bicycle wheels, vintage toys, camera bits, circuit boards, old tins, bones, shells, and random pieces of metal and wood.

So although his work is quirky and quaint, with more than a whiff of a more innocent bygone age – an age when cell phones were simply the pipedream of deranged science fiction writers – Blair’s a committed up-cycler, and therefore bang on trend. Not at all what we’d expected to encounter here, in this remote outpost of New Zealand’s South Island.

The Lost Gypsy Caravan is parked up at Papatowai, halfway along the main road between Invercargill and Dunedin, deep in the heart of the Catlins. It’s not really a caravan, just an old Leyland bus, gutted of its original furnishings and kitted out with all manner of gadgets and gizmos that Blair has built.

As you approach the Lost Gypsy Caravan you’re immediately aware this is an oddball kind of place when you spot the bicycle-riding skeleton on the sidewalk. Mrs P cranks the handle and we watch him pedal, his toothy jaw snapping open and then shut with the effort.

Nearby a two metres long sperm whale, apparently made from slices of galvanised trashcan, waits patiently for his turn. Again Mrs P does her duty, working the handle until the whale’s body begins to flex and thrash, gently riding the waves of our curiosity.

Close by is the Lost Gypsy Caravan’s mailbox, again in the shape of a whale, this time being ridden by a swimsuit-wearing maiden. A painted message on the whale’s side informs those who care to look that this one isn’t a sperm whale, it’s a mail-whale.

The Lost Gypsy Caravan’s mail-whale

Clearly this isn’t going to resemble any gallery we’ve previously visited. We’re venturing into unknown territory, unsure what to expect.

Next to the steps leading into the caravan is a large notice saying “There are many temptations in life, this button is one of them … ” Beneath the notice sits a button, small, white, inviting, oh-so-tempting.

What harm could there be? I ask myself, but before I have time to answer a young lady next to me decides to find out. She presses the button, then squeals with shock and delight as a jet of cold water blasts the back of her head.

And that sums up the Lost Gypsy Caravan experience, at the same both completely pointless and totally captivating, an innocent bit of inventive fun and frivolity in an otherwise dismal world.

Once inside there are more buttons to press (no more jets of cold water, though) and cranks to wind. Each makes something happen: lights flash, bells ring, water gurgles, a tiny pink pig flaps its wings, a row of fabricated chickens peck energetically at imaginary corn.

The walls are plastered with newspaper cuttings and sundry signage culled from god-knows-where. A headline proclaims boldly “Mother of child with pointed ears tells how … I GAVE BIRTH TO UFO BABY.” Sounds like Star Trek’s Mr Spock has been playing away, the lecherous old Vulcan.

Nearby a photocopied notice, done in a vintage typeface, reads “This room is equipped with ‘Edison Electric Light.’ Do not attempt to light with match. Simply turn key on wall by the door.” Makes you think, doesn’t it, once upon a time electric lights were new and unfamiliar, a must-have state-of-the-art technological marvel, the Smartphones of their day.

And to my left, another newspaper cutting warns darkly that “One in two hundred Americans is from outer space.” So few? I muse idly.

I tear myself away from contemplating the celestial origins of my trans-Atlantic cousins, and look up. The ceiling is completely lined with old circuit boards, presumably culled from bits of technology that have exceeded their sell-by date. Why? Who knows? Who cares? It’s quirky, bizarre, totally bloody bonkers in fact … and I love it.

Although as a kid I never played with Meccano I did have a trainset, so I’m delighted to see a track running in a circuit around the inside of the caravan, varying between waist-high and head high. It’s a little steam engine called the Train of Thought. Flick a switch and the Train of Thought does a lap of the caravan, setting off reactions as it goes, ringing a bell here, turning on a light or two over there, blasting its horn as it rounds a sharp bend. This place is crazy.

The caravan is full to overflowing, so Blair’s creations have spilled over into a garden and The Winding Thoughts Theatre (of Sorts) further up the hill. Here are some larger products of his fertile imagination. Wind that handle over there, and the tin tentacles of an unseen alien beast wave at you from the bushes. Or pedal that ancient exercise bike really hard to power up the screen in front of you: if you’re fast enough your grainy image will eventually appear, sweating copiously.

But my favourite of Blair’s creations is back in the caravan. It’s deceptively simple: a model hand – four fingers and a thumb – rests on tiny flat table in front of us. Push a button, and the fingers drum the table irritably. The piece is called “Impatient outpatient.”

As we leave I spot one final, ironic notice stuck to the inside wall of the caravan. It reads “Having fun prohibited.” Blair Somerville’s a joker and this is his ultimate tongue-in-cheek jest, the parting shot of a hugely talented artist who is without doubt New Zealand’s master of mechanical mirth.

Edwin Fox: Old ship, great history

31 October 2019

Strange as it may seem, the only surviving ship to have transported convicts to Australia is laid up in a dry dock at Picton Harbour in the north of New Zealand’s South Island. But that’s only a small part of the history of the good ship Edwin Fox, which has lived one hell of a life.

The Edwin Fox in dry dock, protected from the elements

She was built in Calcutta from teak, and was destined to be a merchant ship. But within months the British Government chartered her for use as a troop ship supporting the Crimean War campaign, reputedly carrying such illustrious passengers as Florence Nightingale (although there is no proof that this is so.)

Following the fall of Sebastopol she was refitted to once again carry civilian passengers and general cargo. But in 1858 the British Government chartered her to carry convicts to Freemantle in Western Australia.

Exterior view of the hull

Having done with convicts, the Edwin Fox returned to more mainstream duties. Between 1858 and 1872 she sailed frequently between England and the East as a trader carrying a range of cargoes. This included several trips to India carrying pale ale, earning her the nickname of “Booze Barge”.

During the same period she also worked as a troop ship again, making several voyages carrying troops from Britain to Bombay. The return voyages often carried casualties, with many dying on the way.

Main deck. Most of the decking timbers are missing

In 1873, the Edwin Fox took on yet another new role, this time carrying immigrants to New Zealand. She made four such voyages, carrying a total of 751 passengers on journeys of four to six months. Interestingly, during our visit to see the ship a man introduced himself to the staff, explaining that one of his ancestors had been born on the Edwin Fox. However, he added that as the mother was a poor immigrant the event went unmentioned in the captain’s log.

The preserved Edwin Fox includes a recreation of some steerage class beds, where the poorest migrants would rest up during the trip to New Zealand. Cramped, claustrophobic and fetid are the words that spring to mind. The people condemned to live in such conditions for several months must have had high hopes for their new lives in New Zealand, or perhaps their stoicism was simply a reflection of how wretched their lives were in Britain.

Recreation of steerage class bunks for emigrants to New Zealand

By the 1880s the Edwin Fox’s sailing days were over, but her owners still had a use for her. She was fitted out as a freezer hulk, and used to hold frozen lamb carcasses before they were transferred to the freezers of ocean-going steam ships for the trip to Britain. This came as a surprise to me: I had no idea before visiting the Edwin Fox that, as early as the 1880s, freezing technology was available and sufficiently effective to enable the export of frozen meat to the other side of the world.

In 1905 the Edwin Fox was converted into a coal store hulk. By this time she had long since lost her rigging and masts, and holes had been cut in her sides to allow the coal to be moved in and out. Most of her fittings had also been removed. The ship remained in use until 1950, and was then abandoned to rot at her moorings.

In 1965 the Edwin Fox Society was formed with a view to preserving her. She was purchased for one shilling. In 1967 she was towed to Shakespeare Bay where she remained for the next 20 years. After much further fundraising the Edwin Fox was refloated and towed to her final home, a dry dock on the Picton waterfront. She was floated in and the dock was drained. Restoration could now begin.

The hull of the Edwin Fox is preserved in a covered dry dock. Most of the upper deck has been lost, but it’s possible to walk around the lower deck, inspect the timbers that were laid down over 160 years ago, and admire the carpentry skills of the men who built her.

But, in my view, the surviving timbers are simply a means to an end. The real joy of a visit to this vessel is to find out about its varied history, and through it to understand more about some of the events to which she was a witness, including the Crimean War, transportation to Australia, immigration to New Zealand and the growth of New Zealand’s livestock trade with Great Britain. What a story … absolutely fascinating!

An unexpected delight: the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre

30 October 2019

When we arrived here in New Zealand we had a fairly clear idea of what we were likely to see: some fantastic scenery, numerous rare and exotic birds, loads of vineyards, a few volcanoes, lots of sheep and cattle, a couple of glaciers, maybe even the odd Hobbit or two. What we never anticipated, and could never have imagined, was a world class aviation museum.

The Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre is the brainchild of local aviation enthusiasts, who set up the New Zealand Aviation Museum Trust in the late 1990s. But it was the involvement of fellow aviation aficionado Sir Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings movies, that moved the project to a different level.

Jackson has a particular interest in aircraft from World War 1, and his success in the movie business has enabled him to indulge his passion by purchasing a number original and replica planes from that period. In 2005 he agreed to display his private collection of Great War aircraft and artefacts at the Heritage Centre.

Just as important as the exhibits was the expertise that Jackson was able to bring to the project. The Centre’s philosophy was to avoid creating “a warehouse of relics,” and instead to use the machinery, artefacts and other devices to tell stories. Jackson’s connections in the movie industry enabled him to track down and employ experts who could create the dioramas and vignettes that would bring the stories to life.


Sir Peter Jackson’s private collection is displayed in the Knights of the Sky Great War exhibition, which occupies one hangar at the Centre. One of the most striking exhibits (below) is the Etrich Taube (Igor Etrich was the designer; taube is the German for dove).

By the standards of the day the Etrich Taube was an old plane, having first flown in 1910. It was used by the German military as an aerial observation post for monitoring enemy troop movements. It was ill-equipped for combat, and the diorama shows the observer taking a pot shot at an approaching British plane, while sitting behind him the pilot manoeuvres his aircraft.

The Curtiss MF Flying (above) was designed by American Glenn H. Curtiss, who is remembered for perfecting the seaplane. The model on display was built in Philadephia; it probably didn’t see active service, but was instead used as a training aircraft.

Perhaps the most interesting exhibit is the diorama illustrating the aftermath of the shooting down of the Red Baron’s iconic Fokker triplane. As a boy I can remember being thrilled by the stories of Baron von Richthofen’s skill and bravery. What I had not known, until we visited the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, was that there was a feeding frenzy of trophy hunters following the downing of the plane.


A second hangar houses the Dangerous Skies exhibition of World War 2 aircraft. These planes belong to the Trust rather than to Sir Peter Jackson, but the movie director’s influence is evident in the way they are displayed as well the lighting of the exhibits, which is superb.

Like most boys of my age growing up in the UK in the late 1950s / early 1960s, I was fascinated by World War 2. My father had fought in the conflict and told me the story of “his” war. He also encouraged an interest in World War 2 aircraft, and helped me make and paint Airfix models which “flew” suspended from a couple of strings strung across my bedroom ceiling.

One of my favourites was the German stuka (above), a dive bomber with an unmistakable wing-shape. It terrorised the Allies in the early years of the war, but was ultimately too sluggish to survive the attention of swifter and more manoeuvrable fighter planes.

And amongst the Allied fighter planes none was more iconic than the Spitfire (below). The aircraft on display is a late model, an upgrade on the one that fought in the Battle of Britain, and which “flew” – in kit form – suspended from my bedroom ceiling.

Nowhere is the commitment to telling a story better displayed than in the diorama featuring a Lockheed Hudson, an American-built light bomber and coastal reconnaissance aircraft which is suspended in a dramatic crash scene in the depths of a Pacific island jungle (below).


However the thing that made the greatest impression on me at Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre was not the aircraft on display, or even the dioramas in which the planes are set. Rather, it was the information panel about the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), one of four information boards about women’s role in the war.

The British military established the ATA in 1939 to ferry aircraft from factories and repair workshops around Britain to where they were needed for active service. Pilots were recruited from amongst groups considered unsuitable for active service due to age, gender or disability. Remarkably, in an age when equal pay wasn’t deemed worthy of serious consideration, ATA women were paid the same as men.

To illustrate the sexist thinking of the age, the panel quotes the editor of Aeroplane Magazine. He (and sure as hell, it was a he and not a she) declaimed as follows:

The menace is the woman who thinks she ought to be flying in a high-speed bomber when she really has not the intelligence to scrub the floor properly, or who wants to nose around as an Air Raid Warden and can’t yet cook her husband’s dinner.

Source: The editor of Aeroplane Magazine, quoted in a display panel at the Dangerous Skies Exhibition, as recorded on 29 October 2019

Wow, don’t hold back, will you! With this quotation the Aviation Heritage Centre transcends mere aviation history, and opens a window on serious social and cultural matters. While we know instinctively that many men must have held such views at the time, to see them set out so starkly in black and white is a shock. It’s easy sometimes, particularly for the older generation, to look back to the “good old days.” But the sad fact is that, so often and in so many ways, they weren’t actually very good at all.


The Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre is a truly remarkable museum. It would be remarkable anywhere in the world, but to find it here in an almost forgotten corner of New Zealand’s South Island is astonishing.

Although it touches on the role of New Zealanders in both wars it isn’t in any real sense a national museum, but rather a museum of two huge and horrible world conflicts fought thousands of miles away and, as we’ve seen, some social issues too. That the Centre is here and, by all accounts thriving – two more hangars are planned – is testimony to the vision, enthusiasm and sheer hard work of the Trust’s volunteers and Sir Peter Jackson.

Well done you guys, you’ve done a brilliant job and I’d like to think that as many people who pass this way – Kiwis and foreign tourists alike – will call in to admire what you’ve created at the Omaka airstrip on the outskirts of the little town of Blenheim on the South Island of New Zealand, somewhere in southern Pacific Ocean, a very long way from anywhere else.

The Tawhiti Museum

25 October 2019

As we leave Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge we stop off at the waterfall after which it is named. The Dawson Falls are 18m high, and pretty damned impressive. Although in the UK we’d go wild over a waterfall like this, here it seems like business as usual, just another day another waterfall. But Mrs P and I aren’t complacent, we love waterfalls and stand transfixed in front of this one for several minutes, in awe of its power and its fury.

And so from the sublime to the ridiculous. The nearby Hawera water tower was built in 1914 as part of a strategy to control the wildfires that were ravaging the area at that time.  Water towers are functional pieces of architecture that are mostly not worth a second glance, but this one is strangely appealing in a brutalist kind of way.  Good job too, because at 55m high, it’s the one building in Hawera that you simply can’t avoid.

But today’s main focus is a visit to the Tawhiti Museum which is, as the saying goes, world famous in New Zealand. That being the case it’s unsurprising that none of our research in the UK had revealed its existence, and had it not been for a suggestion from a helpful staff member at the Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge we would never have found it.

The Tawhiti Museum is the creation of one man, Nigel Ogle. He’s an art teacher by training, but gave it up in favour of creating this unique museum which combines some traditional displays of “old stuff” with the innovative use of life-size scenes portraying rural and domestic life, and a number of intricate small-scale dioramas. All of the models, both big and small, are created by Ogle using the tools of his trade as an artist. This man is seriously talented, and a bit of a visionary.

This museum is a serious attempt at representing aspects of local history, for example the dioramas illustrating the movement of people and the fighting between the Maori and the pakeha (foreigners, Europeans) in the nineteenth century.

There are also life-size representations of scenes from everyday life in another era, such as the grocery store dating from some time in the mid-twentieth century.

But there’s also lots of fun to be had here. Ogle obviously has a thing about Wind in the Willows, and has themed his museum café accordingly.

A human-scale model of Mr Badger lounges in one corner, reading a tattered copy of Wind in the Willows, while various cabinets along one wall contain dioramas illustrating events from the book. It’s magical, in a weird kind of way.

And talking about weird, can you see that man sitting at the corner table, who’s just looked up from the magazine’s he’s reading to glance out of the window? He’s another of Ogle’s creations, totally convincing and indeed even just a little bit spooky.

I can safely say I’ve never before been to a museum like this. It’s a place where one can learn stuff, and also have fun at the same time. Isn’t that what all museums should be like?

A Kiwi bloke called Barry

17 October 2019

We pick up our rental car from Auckland airport and hit the open road.   The greater Auckland area is busier than I’d anticipated, but as we press on things quieten down. 

In many ways the driving experience is very familiar.  Although New Zealand works in kilometres rather than miles, most of the road signs are pretty much the same as back in the UK.  Also New Zealanders drive on the right side of the road, by which I mean the left side … one of the few positive legacies of the late, not-at-all-great and totally unlamented British empire.

And there are roadworks all over the place, so it really does feel like home from home.

The highway is a possum’s graveyard.  Introduced from Australia many decades ago to be farmed for their fur, some inevitably escaped and bred like crazy.  They are now regarded as an invasive pest species that has murderous intent with regard to native birds.  The New Zealand government has vowed to eradicate them, but judging by the number of squashed possums on the road there’s a hell of a lot of eradicating still to be done.

The landscape is verdant, green and lumpy-bumpy, with plenty of evidence of volcanic activity in times past.  In the fields there are more cattle and fewer sheep than I’d anticipated.  There’s no apparent cereal or vegetable production – too early in the growing season maybe? – but plenty of evidence for wine production and the cultivation of kiwi fruit.


Our first stop is at Katikati (which, bizarrely, is pronounced kitty-kitty).  It’s a town that has used public art to help build communities and attract visitors, a bit like Sheffield in Tasmania which we visited about three years ago.

Katikati describes itself as a town of murals. The murals represent aspects of local and natural history, and the New Zealand landscape.  It may not be great art but it brightens the place up, and attracts people like us to spend a few dollars in local shops when we visit.

As well as dozens of murals Katikati also has a sculpture trail.  We don’t have time to explore much of this, but one sculpture in particular catches our imagination.  Barry – a Kiwi Bloke was fashioned from resin, fibre glass and copper in 1999. He sits on a bench seat outside the Art Centre.  A dog lies on the ground to Barry’s right, and at hound’s feet is a ball.  The dog looks up at Barry, hoping he’ll play, but Barry is engrossed in his newspaper and having none of it.

Again, this is not high art, but who cares?  It’s humorous and well crafted, and lifts the spirit.  Isn’t that what public art should be all about?


Our final stop of the day is at Okere Falls. The power and roar of the water is stunning, and the ground seems to tremble beneath our feet as we admire the view. Put a foot wrong and slip into the water here, and you’d be dead inside five seconds.

And of course, this being New Zealand, wherever there’s a chance of imminent death, a few mad fools are prepared to take the risk. We watch as a canary yellow inflatable full of thrill seekers tumbles down the white water, its occupants screaming inanely. Nobody died.

And while there are notices everywhere proclaiming the dangers of falling into the raging torrent, there’s a rope suspended above it that positively invites people to launch themselves into the thundering waters.

Based on my limited experience to date the Kiwis seem like decent folk, warm, friendly, interested and interesting. But clearly as mad as a box of frogs.

Plan B – see more of Auckland

15 October 2019

Mrs P’s flamingo pink mobile rings at 7:30am.  She’s bought a new SIM for this trip and only one person has her number: the local agent for New Zealand in Depth, the specialist travel company that’s arranged our road trip.  

Nobody rings this early with good news, so we brace ourselves.  And yes, you’ve guessed it, today’s keenly anticipated boat trip to Rangitoto Island to get up close and personal with a volcano has been cancelled, thanks to the horrendous rainfall that’s plagued us ever since we landed in Auckland yesterday morning. 

Bloody typical, we’ve been looking forward to this, Mrs P in particular as she has a thing about volcanoes in much the same way as I have a thing about chocolate cake, and now it’s all gone belly-up.  We are, as they say round our way, totally buggered. Don’t you just love it when the gods rain on your parade?

Time for Plan B.  If your travel plans in a big city fall apart the answer is – always – to buy yourself some time by getting the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus.  At least it will keep you dry while we come up with something more exciting.


The Auckland War Memorial Museum’s official name does it no favours.  As well as covering New Zealand’s role in twentieth century wars, it boasts extensive collections covering the culture of the Maori people, and the country’s natural history.

We’re determined to leave New Zealand a lot more knowledgeable about Maori culture and history than when we arrived, and the Museum turns out to be a good place to start.  There are some fascinating artefacts here, including a marae (meeting house) and a storehouse.  Woodcarving is an important element of Maori material culture, and there are some good examples here.

As for the natural history collection, we have mixed feelings.  Mrs P and I both prefer our wildlife to be alive rather than stuffed.  However, it’s well done and instructional. For example, we learn that the relationship between the size of a kiwi and the size of its egg is eye-watering.  If we’re ever lucky enough to see one in the wild and it’s wearing a very pained expression, we’ll assume it’s a female who’s just laid her egg. Ouch!


Auckland is dominated by the sea.  Its harbours are major players in New Zealand’s trading relationship with the rest of the world, and in their spare time many of the locals enjoy nothing more than messing around in boats.  Our ticket for the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus includes a free ferry ride across the harbour to the suburb of Devonport, so we get the chance to see Auckland from a totally different perspective.

Devonport dates from the late 19th century, although many of its buildings appear to be in the art deco style of the early 20th century.  The suburb retains more of its period charm, and is less crowded, than the other parts of Auckland we’ve visited.  It’s a pleasure to spend an hour strolling up and down its main street, before diving into The Patriot bar for a meal. 

The food at The Patriot is good, but not so the company.  There are three old guys seated close to us – all Kiwis, by the sound of their accents – debating the Queen’s speech and Brexit.  Why, in heaven’s name, would any sane Kiwi talk about Brexit? For god sake, I flew halfway round the world to getaway from rubbish like that.

But you have to take the rough with the smooth, don’t you?  On the way back to the ferry we enjoy a couple more of Devonport’s highlights; an ancient Moreton Bay fig tree (known fondly to the locals as Arthur) and a magnificent new library. 

How come here in New Zealand they can build brand new, brilliant libraries, while all we can do in the UK is trash a once great library service?