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.

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 making of New Zealand: a Maori creation myth

18 November 2019

After a couple of magical days on Stewart Island it’s time to get the ferry back to South Island, pick up our car, and head off on the final leg of our trip. We’ll be flying home from Christchurch in just a couple of weeks, but there’s a lot for us to pack in before we bid farewell to New Zealand.

A distant view of Stewart Island, from the Bluff lookout on South Island

We drive up to Bluff lookout, just a couple of kilometres from the ferry terminal, for one last look at Stewart Island. From here it seems ordinary, just a dark, inconsequential finger of land hunkering down for protection from the howling winds and torrential rains that torment it, but we know it’s much more than that. Stewart Island – and its outliers – is peaceful, picturesque, a temporary retreat from the madness of the modern world and a haven for native vegetation and wildlife.

It is also, according to a Maori creation myth, an anchor stone.

The hero of our story is the legendary voyager Maui. Maui lived in Hawaiki, the island homeland of the ancestral Polynesians from which they set off in their boats to colonise Polynesia. One day, daredevil Maui stowed away in the bottom of his brothers’ canoe when they went on a long fishing expedition. Later in the voyage our hero threw his magical fish-hook over the side of the canoe, and soon felt an enormous tug on the line. With his brothers’ help he hauled up his catch, and landed not a fish but the North Island of New Zealand.

The Maori name for North Island is, therefore, Te Ika-a-Maui, or the Fish of Maui. In some Maori creation myths, South Island is known as Te Waka a Maui, or the Canoe of Maui.

The anchor chain at Stirling Point is firmly shackled to the bedrock

But of course the Fish of Maui was huge, and extraordinary steps were required to land it successfully. To stabilise his canoe, Maui hauled up Rakiura (Stewart Island) from the ocean floor to be its anchorstone. With his vessel thus secured Maui was finally able to bring up his catch – North Island. Rakiura (Stewart Island) is therefore known to the Maori as Te Puka a Maui, the anchorstone of Maui.

The anchor chain is massive, and spans the coastal footpath

The essence of this creation myth is portrayed in a wonderful piece of public art at Stirling Point, in Bluff. A stylised anchor chain is firmly secured to the land by a shackle, but disappears beneath the Foveaux Strait and heads out towards Stewart Island. The chain emerges at Lee Bay on Stewart Island, where we took a photo of it two days ago.

The anchor chain re-appears at Lee Bay, on Stewart Island

Designed by Russell Back in 2008 and fashioned from aluminium, this piece represents all that’s best in public art, simple, striking, thought-provoking and connected with the place in which it is set. A mini-masterpiece, in my humble opinion.

Before we set off towards the Catlins we take a look at the Stirling Point signpost, just a stone’s throw away from the Te Puka a Maui public art installation. The adjacent signage proudly proclaims that “the world famous Stirling Point attracts many thousands of visitors every year.” World famous? Really? Not in my world, that’s for sure.

The “world famous” Stirling Point signpost

But don’t knock it. The humble signpost is a reminder of where we are, or to be more precise, of where we are not. We’re closer to the South Pole (4,810 kilometres) than to the equator (5,123 kilometres), which probably explains the grey, brooding clouds and chill wind. Moreover, London is 18,598 kilometres away, meaning that we’ve managed to put some serious distance between ourselves and the political nonsense that’s cracking off in the Mother Country right now, a fact for which I am truly grateful.

With a final, wistful glance towards Stewart Island, one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been, we turn and stride briskly back to the car. It’s time to go off in search of the world’s rarest species of penguin.

A record breaking spring

2 November 2019

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!

St Pauls Memorial Church, Putiki: a stunning church decorated in the Maori style

26 October 2019

The church at Putiki, in the suburbs of Wanganui, is nothing special to look at from the outside. We’ve already seen several others that are quite similar, and it hardly seems worthy of a second glance.

But inside is different: this place is a stunner. Here’s what the Visit Wanganui website has to say about it:

A special taonga (treasure) in Whanganui is St Pauls Memorial Church in Putiki. Filled with beautiful and intricate Māori carvings and tukutuku (wall panels), they weave a tale of the people and the land in this area that dates back to the 1830’s. St Pauls Anglican Memorial Church in Putiki, Whanganui, is one of the most intricately and beautifully decorated Churches in Aotearoa, New Zealand. This unique building is adorned with fascinating Maori tukutuku and lattice designs which speak of the history of the church and the area.

Source: Visit Whanganui website, retrieved 2 November 2019

It sounds like hype, doesn’t it, just the sort of thing you’d expect a promotional tourist website to say, but it’s bang on. The interior of this place is fabulous.

You have to pay for a guided tour, but it’s worth it to hear our volunteer Maori guide Simon tell us about the church’s history and explain how traditional Maori motifs were re-used and reinterpreted to spread a Christian message.

Simon also tells us that like churches the world over congregations are dwindling and most of those who now attend services are elderly. I worry about who will care for this magnificent building when the current generation of worshippers passes away. This place is a national treasure; it deserves to be better known and must be protected for future generations to admire.

So, if you’re ever out this way do make a point of taking the guided tour, and drop a few dollars into the donations box as you leave. This is a vital piece of New Zealand’s cultural history, and ordinary tourists like us can do their bit to help protect it,

Waimangu Volcanic Valley

19 October 2019

We leave Kohutapu Lodge and head west towards Waimangu Volcanic Valley, via a circuitous route that takes us through the huge Kaingaroa Forest.  For Ena this is a magical place and she harbours a romantic notion that one day she will give up the tourist business and become a bushman (forester). But we see it differently. 

Vast swathes of non-native monoculture tree plantations, interrupted only by patches of brutal clear-cut harvesting, does nothing for the visual appeal of this area.  Nor does it bring much employment for the local Maori now that forestry is so mechanised. Worse still, the Maoris having in the distant past sold the land for a pittance, we are told that most of the profits of the enterprise end up in the coffers of a certain US Ivy League University.  Cleary New Zealand, despite being – geographically speaking – in the middle of nowhere, is plainly not immune from some of the negative impacts of globalisation.

Kaingaroa Forest is without doubt the most depressing thing we’ve seen in New Zealand so far, and we’re delighted to leave it behind us and instead explore the geothermal delights of Waimangu Volcanic Valley.

New Zealand lies on – and indeed is a child of – the Pacific Ring of Fire, where the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates collide. In North Island this has given rise to a landscape in which extinct volcanic cones and other, still active, geothermal features are widespread. In Waimangu Valley, geothermal activity remains a fact of day-to-day life. But it wasn’t always this way.

As we stand at the valley overlook and admire the lush vegetation interspersed with plumes of steam, it’s difficult to believe that prior to 10 June 1886 this area was rolling scrub country with no visible indication of any geothermal activity. Equally difficult to believe is the fact that in the months and years that followed, the Waimangu Valley was a wasteland, the result of a violent eruption on that date which created a line of craters and destroyed all plant, animal and bird life.

We spend several hours working our way along a well-marked trail, admiring a range of spectacular geothermal features that have all developed and matured since that cataclysmic event in June 1886.

During that period native forest has established itself in the wasteland and is flourishing.  To see geothermal features against a backdrop of splendid tree ferns is both a shock and a delight.  

Another delight is that the lower end of the Waimangu Valley is a hotspot for birds, where native species like the Pukeko and the New Zealand Kingfisher, and modern arrivals from overseas such as the [Australian] Black Swan are thriving. Mrs P doesn’t have her long lens with her (the lens is too heavy and the path is too steep), but some of the birds come close enough to be photographed with her “landscapes lens”. I also manage a couple of minutes of decent video: view it here.

We are well acquainted with geothermal landscapes from the USA, Iceland, Costa Rica and Japan, but Waimangu Volcanic Valley has exceeded all our expectations. It’s definitely the highlight of our first few days in New Zealand.

The Maori way

18 October 2019

In their desperate pursuit of the tourist dollar most nations present a sanitised view of their history. The marketing men know that when on vacation most tourists want a bit of gentle fun and some light entertainment; very few want to be exposed to the inconvenient truths of the country they’ve paid to visit.

However Mrs P and I are made of sterner stuff. From the outset we’ve been determined that when we leave New Zealand we’ll know more about the Maori people than their traditional dances.

Kohutapu Lodge gives us better opportunities to explore Maori culture and the challenges facing the Maori people than the traditional New Zealand vacation would allow. Run by Maoris who are plainly determined that we should understand the reality of life for their fellow tribe members, Kohutapu Lodge offers a warts-and-all insight into life in the nearby Maori township of Murupara.

We learn about the desperate socio-economic plight of Muruparu residents, and the gang culture that thrives in this isolated rural community where opportunities for gainful employment are few. The people who run the Lodge are determined that their guests should be more than just passive witnesses to the realities of life in Muruparu, so they arrange for us to visit the local school.

The kids greet our group in the traditional way, and we then split up to play with them, to talk to them and maybe to inspire them to believe that their lives are not hopeless, that their fates are not already sealed by the accident of their births.

Mrs P and I also spend a morning with Ena, a resident of Muruparu who is a passionate advocate for her community. She tells it like it is, but is realistic rather than downhearted.

Ena takes us to a sacred Maori site, which can only be visited with the permission of the local tribe, to see the oldest Maori rock carvings anywhere in New Zealand. The carvings tell the story of the great Polynesian migration to the islands of New Zealand many hundreds of years ago, and Ena’s pride in their achievement is obvious.

Kohutapu Lodge also provides an opportunity to try out some traditional Maori crafts like basket weaving, and to experience a hangi, a feast cooked using heated rocks buried in a pit oven. Any food left over is distributed to the destitute of Murapuru the following day.

This is not a normal holiday experience; indeed I guess some people would say that it’s no holiday at all. But for us it’s just right. After all, what’s the point of a holiday if at the end of it you are as ignorant as you were at the beginning? Certainly, for Mrs P and I, it’s been a eye opener which will help to shape our sensitivities during the rest of this visit to New Zealand.

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.

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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!

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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?