To the end of New Zealand: Stewart Island

We’re on our way to Stewart Island, New Zealand’s third largest island. It lies 30 kilometres south of the South Island, across the Foveaux Strait. There’s no car ferry to Stewart, so we have the choice of flying in an eight-seater aircraft or taking a passenger ferry that has room for a few dozen victims.

I use the word “victims” advisedly as this crossing is notoriously rough. But the plane journey is also infamous, and the locals – who know about these things – say that if you want to visit Stewart Island you have a choice between 20 minutes of terror and 60 minutes of horror. We’ve opted for the latter, but first we’ve got a drive of several hours to get to Bluff harbour at the southern tip of South Island.

On the way we drop in at the Clifden Suspension Bridge. It’s trumpeted as a historic landmark, but one thing we’ve learned since coming here is New Zealand is so lacking in old stuff that anything that’s been around for more than a century attracts a lot of interest.

If I were being churlish I would say that it’s not a patch on the similarly named Clifton Suspension Bridge in the UK, but at 112 metres it represents a decent piece of civil engineering for a remote part of New Zealand in 1898/99. A single lane bridge, it was originally used by horse and cart traffic and later by motor vehicles, and remained in operation until 1978.

We make one more stop before parking up for our trip to Stewart Island, when we call in at the Invercargill Water Tower. It’s one of several water towers we’ve visited on this trip, and although it doesn’t sound at all interesting in our view it’s a bit of an architectural gem. The New Zealand History website says that it combines utility and beauty, which sums it up nicely.

It’s time to park the car at the harbour and board the ferry to Stewart Island. Our luggage is place into bins and loaded on to the back the boat by crane, and a few minutes later we’re ready to set off.

Luckily the sea is relatively calm, but the crossing is ruined by some of our fellow passengers, a large group of rowdy young men evidently on their way to a stag party on the island. The beer flows freely, and the young men behave boorishly and shout a lot as the alcohol kicks in. Oh, such nostalgia, we could be back in the UK! …

… Until we arrive at Stewart Island, that is. The island policeman has been tipped off about the yobs’ arrival, and is there at the quayside to welcome them. He takes them aside and gives them a stern lecture on what is and is not acceptable on this island whose resident population is 380 civilians plus one policeman.

Stewart is a law-abiding island. We’re told that there’s only ever been one murder here, in the 1840’s. Nobody was arrested, but we’re reassured that investigations are ongoing and an announcement is expected soon. I think I’m going to like this place.

But for now there’s no time to explore. We need to get to our accommodation and sort ourselves out as soon as possible, because at 10pm tonight we’re booked on to a kiwi-spotting expedition. This will be our best opportunity to meet up with New Zealand’s most iconic bird, and we’re on high alert.

Will we or won’t we see a wild kiwi for first and probably the only time in our lives? Check out my next post to find the answer.

After the goldrush

It’s been surprising to discover how much of colonial New Zealand was opened up by gold miners. I’ve always associated the term goldrush with California in the 1840’s and the Klondike at the very end of the 19th century, but here in New Zealand they had a goldrush all of their own. Yesterday we stopped off at Cardrona, which grew up in the days of the New Zealand goldrush, and today we’re in Arrowtown – just outside Queenstown – which also began life as a goldminer’s settlement.

The first Europeans to visit this area established farms, but things changed dramatically in 1862 when gold was found. By the end of the year, fifteen hundred miners were camped noisily beside the Arrow River. In January 1863 the first major consignment of gold to leave the camp weighed a massive 340 kilograms.

The General Store: the only substantial building in the Chinese village

Goldminers are nothing if not greedy, and when new goldfields opened on New Zealand’s west coast many European miners legged it from Arrowtown and across the Southern Alps in favour of gold that was easier to mine. Suddenly Arrowtown was facing a crisis: without lots of miners the fledgling local economy would pretty soon be dead in the water, so the Provincial Government invited Chinese miners to come and work.

Reconstructed dwelling in the Chinese village

The Chinese miners lived in their own village on the edge of Arrowtown; some remained until as late as 1928. A few dwellings and the Chinese general store have been restored or reconstructed, and it’s evident from walking around them that these men lived hard lives a very long way from their loved ones.

Reconstructed shack and storage area in the Chinese village

Meanwhile a more permanent town emerged for the European settlers. A number of miners’ cottages remain from the later nineteenth century, and this picturesque row of buildings is said to be one of New Zealand’s most photographed sites. There’s no clue here to how the other half lived, and the stark contrast between these comfortable dwellings and the miserable shacks in which the Chinese miners lived are testimony to a deeply divided society.

Late 19th century miners’ cottages from the main town

When the gold finally ran out Arrowtown went into decline, and the majority of its population of 7,000 moved away. The town was forced to re-invent itself, first a service centre for the local farming communities and then as a holiday destination.

A number of the buildings on the main street retain their historic facades, giving the town a rather quaint, chocolate-box appeal. It’s plainly doing well, as the place is busy with day visitors who are happily splashing the cash in the local shops that cater for every tourist whim.

Arrowtown today

I suspect that Arrowtown’s history, and in particular the story of the Chinese village, has gone unnoticed by most in the scramble to buy souvenirs and trinkets. The place has an interesting story to tell, but I wonder how many visitor are actually listening. With a rueful shake of the head we agree it’s time to move on.

We head on up to Glenorchy, taking a spectacular scenic drive along Lake Wakatipu. At times I’m reminded of the drive along the banks of Scotland’s Loch Ness: high praise indeed,

Although we’re beginning to discover that this country has an interesting history and are pleased to be learning more about it, that’s not why we came here. It’s places like Lake Wakatipu Lake and Glenorchy that lift the spirits and justify the horrendous journey from London to New Zealand.

Soon we’ll be heading for Milford Sound, one of New Zealand’s most scenic destinations. It promises to be spectacular, if we can see it through the mist and rain!

Waterfall wonders and hairpin horrors

We’ve enjoyed our stay at Wilderness Lodge, and were thrilled to get within a few metres of the amazing Fiordland Crested Penguin. But this place is horrendously wet. Hereabouts they get 3.5 metres of rain every year; that’s around 10 feet for Brits and Americans who haven’t got to grips with the metric system yet! So, as we continue our journey south, the waterfalls along the Haast River are working overtime.

Roaring Billy Falls

New Zealanders have named their waterfalls thoughtfully, so you’re left in absolutely no doubt what to expect if you visit one. Take the Roaring Billy Falls, for example. Now I haven’t got a clue who Billy was, but “roaring” tells you all you need to know. Even viewed from a distance through the mist and rain it’s a spectacular sight.

Thundercreek Falls

And what about Thundercreek Falls, just a few miles down the road? Again the name leaves little to the imagination, and at 28 metres high it’s hugely impressive.

Fantail Falls

The name Fantail Falls alludes to shape, rather than the volume of water that cascades down into the Haast River. Again, a magnificent sight after all this rain.

To be honest we’re getting a bit fed up with the rain, and would be glad of a couple of days of dry, sunny weather. But Mrs P phoned home this morning and learned that our area of the UK has been hit by unprecedented floods, so we’re probably better off here … after all you don’t see too many penguins in the English Midlands.

We’ve turned our backs on the coast and are heading inland in the direction of Queenstown. On the way we pass the historic Cardrona Hotel. Dating from 1863 it’s one of New Zealand’s oldest hotels.

This area’s heyday was during the mid-nineteenth century goldrush, when Cardrona town was a prosperous settlement and a significant commercial hub for the area. How things have changed … the town has since all but vanished, and only the historic hotel facade remains to remind visitors like us of the glory days.

We’ve chosen to take the scenic, more challenging route towards Queenstown, along the Crown Range Road. It’s the highest main road in New Zealand, reaching an altitude on 1,121 metres. The road is steep and twisty, with a series of eye-watering hairpin bends. At times it’s a bit of a white-knuckle ride, but the landscape is adequate compensation for the stress of the journey. The landscape is simply stunning, and at times reminds us of the Scottish Highlands.

We’ve seen a few vintage cars on the road today, and as we pull into a scenic overlook we find ourselves confronted by a splendid Austin 8. The driver tells us that there’s a vintage rally in progress to celebrate the opening of the Haast Pass in 1965, when the first car to travel the newly opened road was a 1930 Austin 7.

The pass was the final stretch of State Highway 6 – one of New Zealand’s major roads – to be built, and was not fully sealed with tarmac until 1995. A salutary reminder, I think, that much of New Zealand’s infrastructure was built relatively recently.

Having admired the Austin 8, and the dusting of snow on the mountains behind, we set off on the final stretch of our journey. Gibbston, our final destination, lies on the outskirts of Queenstown. For the next two nights we’ll be staying at a winery, which sounds like the perfect way to wind down after the challenge of all those horrible hairpin bends!

A record breaking spring

We drive out from Golden Bay to pay a brief visit to Te Waikoropupu Springs. These are the largest freshwater springs in New Zealand, the largest cold water springs in the Southern Hemisphere and contain some of the clearest water ever measured.

Tests in 1993 showed that visibility in the spring water is an amazing 63 metres. This is very close to optically pure water, with clearer water found only beneath Antarctica’s near-frozen Weddell Sea. The water clarity is a result of natural filtering prior to the water’s emergence.

Te Waikoropupu Springs are clearly remarkable. It’s a beautiful sight, and very tranquil. The colours, and the clarity of the water, are stunning. Look carefully at the photos and you can see the water surface rippling slightly, an indication of the water bubbling into the pool from beneath the earth.

This is also an important place for local Maori, who regard it as taonga (treasure) and wāhi tapu, a place held in high cultural and spiritual regard. For this reason, to show respect for cultural values, the spring waters are closed to all forms of contact, including fishing, swimming, diving, wading, boating and drinking the water.

An interpretation panel at Te Waikoropupu Springs bears the words of a Maori waiata (song), with the English translation as follows:

Bubbling waters from the throat of the spring 
Bubbling waters from the throat of the spring
Forever bubbling from the land
Forever bubbling for the health of the people and the spring waters
The spring waters of Täkaka
The tears of the spirit ancestors,
Waters bubbling from the throat of the spring
Waters bubbling from the throat of the spring

Te Waikoropupu Springs is clearly an important place for local Maori. Increasingly, it is also an important habitat for native plants and wildlife. Once largely cleared of vegetation during the goldmining boom, it’s now protected and regenerating naturally. As native vegetation becomes re-established birds can also find a home here, and we’re delighted to catch a glimpse of a Fantail.

We’ve seen Fantails a couple of times already on this trip, always close to water and never sitting still long enough to be photographed. On this occasion Mrs P manages to grab a quick shot before the bird flies off. You can see from the shape way he holds his tail just how he got his name!

Edwin Fox: Old ship, great history

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

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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

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?