The making of New Zealand: a Maori creation myth

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.

The Stewart Island story

New Zealanders we’ve met on our travels have been impressed that Stewart Island is on our itinerary. Although tourism is a major part of its economy that’s not saying much for an island with fewer than 400 permanent residents. Few New Zealanders appear to have made the trip, although many speak wistfully of popping over “one day”. It’s a classic bucket list destination.

Ulva Island viewed from Observation Point

So what’s the attraction of Stewart, the third, smallest and most southerly of New Zealand’s main islands? Visitors who cross the 30 kilometres of the Foveaux Strait mostly make the journey to go tramping (hiking). There’s a lot for them to have a go at.

At 1,680 square kilometres (650 square miles) Stewart Island is about the size of Greater London. Most of it is a rugged land of undulating hills and low peaks cloaked in pristine, primeval forest and bush growing down to the sea’s edge. Offshore is a scattering of small, picturesque islands and rocky outcrops.

Today 85% of the island is protected as a National Park, and much of the rest is uninhabited and owned by the Rakiura Māori Land Trust. The Stewart Island wilderness remains almost as it was before the first Polynesians – predecessors of the Maori – arrived in the late 13th century.

Leask Bay

A small part of me wishes we could visit Rakiura National Park, that we could do what all the fit young things with their enormous rucksacks come here to do, which is to tramp off into the bush and have an adventure in the land that time forgot.

But that’s not going to happen, partly for health reasons but mainly because life’s too short. And anyway, there’s plenty to see and to admire in the small bit of the island that’s accessible to non-trampers like us.

Halfmoon Bay, Oban. The red-roofed building on the right is the hotel.

Most of Stewart Island’s residents live in the township of Oban, on Halfmoon Bay. I guess the best word for it is quaint, just a scattering of buildings along a few roads, a tiny supermarket and a hotel that acts as the social centre for islanders and visitors alike. There’s even a giant outdoor chessboard, in case anyone gets bored.

Stewart also boasts a library, a sports and community hall, and a museum. The latter will soon be replaced by a brand new, purpose-built multi-million dollar building, the result of years of fund-raising. Given its tiny population the island has a surprising wealth of facilities that would not look out of place in a town many times its size.

On the hill overlooking Halfmoon Bay stands Oban Presbyterian Church. Being Presbyterian the church, like the name ‘Oban’, is a clue to the Scottish heritage of many of the early settlers here. Wooden and built in 1904, it’s one of the few buildings of any note in the island.

Oban Presbyterian Church

Unsurprisingly the church doesn’t have a resident minister, but worshippers benefit from various visiting preachers including Baptist, Salvation Army and Methodist as well as Presbyterian. This flexible approach to religious observance is, I suppose, another example of the compromises that have to be made in such a remote corner of New Zealand.

There’s evidently a strong sense of community: they’re all in this together, Stewart Islanders, living the dream in New Zealand’s very own “lands end.” Inevitably in a place so small everyone knows everyone else, and nobody locks their doors except the tourists. It’s a friendly, peaceful island, an improbable yet welcome escape from the hurly-burly of the modern world.

In the early decades of European colonisation whaling and sealing were mainstays of the local economy, but thankfully those activities are now but a distant memory. Fishing once employed much of the population, but modern techniques require fewer workers, so it’s left to tourism to pick up the slack.

But most of the tourists are away in the bush, doing whatever it is that trampers do, so there’s little to spoil the tranquillity of Oban other than the occasional stag party attended by mainlanders out on the razzle.

Giant chessboard on the seafront, and behind the dock from which the ferry to the mainland departs

For us Stewart Island’s most attractive feature is its birdlife. Many native New Zealand birds thrive here due to the absence of stoats and other mammalian predators. Outlandish though it may seem, to help ensure the island remains a safe haven for birds dogs must attend ‘kiwi aversion’ classes, where they are trained not to pursue these flightless New Zealand icons.

But the battle against predators hasn’t been won. Rats remain a significant problem, and while they don’t appear to threaten the adult kiwi, they prevent other native birds spreading from Stewart’s offshore sanctuary islands and gaining a foothold here.

In response, several years ago the US-based Dancing Star Foundation purchased an area of land at Mamaku Point. They enclosed it with state-of-the art predator-proof fencing, eliminated the rats and reintroduced some long-absent bird species.

Ugly but effective: part of the predator-proof fence at Mamaku Point

The Mamaku Point Conservation Trust has recently taken over from Dancing Star, and has exciting plans for its “mainland island” reserve.

The trust’s primary objective is to continue Dancing Star Foundation’s successful efforts to conserve and enhance the health and diversity of the native flora and fauna within the reserve, and the secondary objective is to facilitate education, research and public awareness of the importance of these activities.

We’re also focused on making sure the trust and reserve are as financially and environmentally sustainable as possible. In this respect, we’re working with local eco-tourism operators to develop exciting eco-tourism opportunities that will make the property accessible to the public.

SOURCE: Statement by Auckland businessman Roy Thompson, owner of the site, quoted in an article in the online news magazine Stuff, 2 August 2017, retrieved 6 December 2019.

It sounds like a brilliant initiative, which will presumably result in the creation of a reserve with similarities to the one we visited at Bushy Park a few weeks ago. Although it’s a pity we’re not able to visit the reserve, it’s encouraging to learn that there are wealthy New Zealanders prepared to support important conservation initiatives with hard cash.

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!

Farewell Spit: sand, seals and sunsets

Collingwood sits on Golden Bay, in the north-west corner of South Island. Its population reached its peak in the mid-nineteenth century, when it was a base for the gold mining industry. Remarkably it was even briefly in the running to become New Zealand’s capital, but Wellington got the gig instead and with the decline of gold mining Collingwood quickly embraced obscurity. Almost destroyed by fire in 1904, it’s still hanging in there, but only just.

Today Collingwood feels like a one horse town the day after they ate the horse. Don’t get me wrong, it’s inoffensive and not bad looking, like the girl in class who everybody likes but nobody invites to parties.

However we’re not in Collingwood because we think we might fall in love with its quaint architecture, but simply because it’s the pick-up point for our tour of Farewell Spit.

Farewell Spit stretches 34km out into the ocean, making it the longest natural sandspit in New Zealand, and one of the longest in the world. It’s continuing to grow, albeit very slowly, and according to some boffins may possibly one day join up with North Island!!

Inevitably none of us will be around to see if they’re right or wrong. but we can already say with certainty that this part of South Island is further north than the most southerly point of North Island. Confused? Me too, but I’m told that if you check it out on a large scale map it will all make sense. Honest!

Farewell Spit is a wetland of international importance, and has been a bird sanctuary since the 1930’s. Visits to it are strictly controlled too and the tour operators we are travelling with today are the only ones licensed to take groups there. As it happens, today’s group comprises just me, Mrs P and our guide, so a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Before we start driving the length of the spit, there’s just time to admire some of the spectacular rocky coastline at the landward end of the spit.

And then it’s out on to the sand. But we’re not alone. Although this is supposed to be a bird sanctuary the New Zealand Fur Seals haven’t been told, and they are dotted about here and there along the beach, chilling out.

For the most part the seals are unperturbed by our presence and our vehicle is able to approach quite close. Some look us in the eye, as if to say this is my beach, so keep your distance buster.

Amongst the fur seals our guide makes a surprising discovery, a juvenile Leopard Seal. His body shape, and in particular his elongated nose, give him away. Elaine’s been doing this trip for 15 years and reckons it’s just the fifth Leopard Seal she’s seen. He’s way off course, and should be much further south. But you know how it is with teenagers, who always reckon they know best and do their own thing regardless of what the grown-ups tell them. No doubt he’ll learn.

Many of the birds that breed on Farewell Spit have yet to make it back from their wintering grounds, but it’s good to see two species of oystercatcher. The oystercatcher is my favourite bird, and the Pied Oystercatcher- a handsome fellow, dressed in a black suit and wearing a white waistcoat – reminds me of the species we have back in the UK.

The Variable Oystercatcher is more black than white, and in some parts of New Zealand is entirely black. Mrs P’s photo clearly shows his demonic red eye. Like his Pied cousin, the Variable Oystercatcher sports an exceptionally long red bill which he stabs into the sand to hunt for worms and molluscs. Oyster’s aren’t on the menu however, so his name is a bit misleading.

We’re also pleased to see a few Caspian Terns flying over the beach. A couple even land briefly for a photo call, and Mrs P is happy to oblige.

The Australasian Gannets don’t land on the beach, of course – that’s not their style – but a few fly over as they set off on fishing sorties from their nearby gannetry. Visually they look very similar to the Northern Gannet that we are familiar with in the UK, but doubtless they speak with a strange accent and prefer rugby to soccer.

Farewell Spit is, of course, a potential hazard to shipping, and has therefore been home to a lighthouse since 1869. In these days of automation there’s no need for keepers, but the lighthouse still flashes every night, warning passing marine vessels to keep clear or face the consequences. It remains a striking landmark on a sandspit that is otherwise largely flat and featureless except for a few trees planted by the first lighthouse keepers, who had to bring soil from the mainland in order to raise them.

And as we take our leave of Farewell Spit we are treated to a spectacular sunset. Look carefully at Mrs P’s photo and you can just see the lighthouse raising its head above the trees to the right. Any minute now it will get down to business, and flash away happily until the sun rises again tomorrow morning.

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

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,

Wanganui … officially New Zealand’s most beautiful city

On 24 October Wanganui (a.k.a. Whanganui, the correct pronunciation of which, confusingly, is Fanganui!) won the awards for Most Beautiful City and Best Street in a competition run by the Keep New Zealand Beautiful organisation.

A couple of days later we roll into town to see what all the fuss is about. The main reason for our visit is to take a river trip on a restored 120 years old paddle steamer, but it quickly became apparent that Wanganui has a lot more to offer.

As we make our way down to the wharf where we will catch the paddle steamer we can see a row of elegant heritage buildings. New Zealand is a young country and inevitably buildings of age and character are pretty thin on the ground, so it was a pleasant surprise to see Wanganui has a few elegant examples. Reading up subsequently about the Keep New Zealand Beautiful Awards it’s clear that the town has many other fine historic buildings that we didn’t manage to track down.

Fortunately we are in Wanganui on a Saturday and are therefore able to enjoy “The River Traders”, a pop-up market with around 100 stalls. This weekly market reflects the history of this place before Europeans arrived, as it was a busy riverside trading site for local Maoris. As we wander around we can see it’s a hive of activity, with a variety of stalls selling food, craft products and much more.

We were happily enjoying ourselves nosing around the market when the unmistakable sound of Scottish bagpipes splits the air. Lots of New Zealanders are of Scottish descent, and it’s clear that – at least here in Wanganui – they’re working hard to maintain links with their heritage. The pipe band plays several sets in various locations in and around the market, and gathers an appreciative audience each time.

It is a slightly surreal experience, hearing authentic bagpipe music being played with such passion so far from the Scottish Highlands, but it adds to the atmosphere of what is clearly a thriving, lively town. This place has a wow factor, and it’s easy to see how the Keep New Zealand Beautiful judges would have been impressed.

Wanganui also boasts an exceptional water tower, even better than the one we saw in Hawera a day or two ago. Extraordinarily, and perhaps somewhat pretentiously for a tiny town on the opposite side of the globe, the Bastia Hill Water Tower was designed to reflect the arched aqueducts and towers of the water supply network of ancient Rome! It was built in 1927 and still deserves to be seen today.

When the time comes we make our way to the paddle steamer Waimarie. It was built by Yarrow & Co. Shipbuilders at Poplar, London in 1899 and transported to New Zealand in kit form, split across 73 separate crates.

As well as carrying cargo up and down the Wanganui River, the Waimarie (pronounced why-marry-ay) did a lot of business transporting tourists. Surprisingly perhaps, New Zealand was an upmarket tourist destination in the early twentieth century, and at a time when the road system was very limited river travel offered a good way of exploring the country.

Following an accident in 1952 the Waimarie sank, and was abandoned to its fate for 40 years. In 1992 a group of enthusiasts established a community heritage project to salvage, restore and operate the Waimarie once again. An amazing 67,000 volunteer hours later, the reincarnated Paddle Steamer Waimarie made its maiden voyage on 1 January 2000.

It’s evident from the moment we board that the volunteers have done a superb job. The Waimarie is now New Zealand’s only authentic coal-fired paddle steamer in operation and it is a privilege to sail on her for a few miles up the Wanganui River.

There is also something strangely satisfying in the fact that the Waimarie has returned to the role that she played for most of her working life, giving tourists a unique and restful view of this small corner of New Zealand’s North Island. Long may it continue.

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?

Things fall apart

Things are falling apart.  Today we were due to take a boat trip on Lake Taupo, to see some Maori rock carvings that are inaccessible by land.  However, it was blowing a gale and the skipper decided it would be too risky – or perhaps more accurately, way too unpleasant – to sail, so he cancelled the excursion.   That’s three boat trips out of four that we’ve lost to the weather since arriving in New Zealand. I’m starting to think the gods have taken a dislike to us.

Speaking of things falling apart, my shoes have disintegrated.   I bought them just a few months before leaving the UK, but within a day or two of arriving here they were virtually unwearable.  Luckily Taupo has some decent retail outlets, so instead of visiting the Maori carvings we toured the town’s shoe shops. Thankfully I managed to get a new and comfortable pair of walking shoes without much difficulty, but that’s $137 I’ll never see again.

Newly shod, it was time for me to take the wheel again and set off towards Tongariro National Park.  On the way we stopped off briefly at South Taupo Wetland in the hope of seeing some interesting local birds while we ate our lunch.  Unfortunately the birds mostly kept their distance, but we did at least enjoy the view across Lake Taupo towards a distant volcano.

As we drove on the weather started to close in ominously.  We parked up briefly at the Makatote Viaduct which, when it was built between 1906 and 1909 for New Zealand Railways, was the tallest bridge in New Zealand. 

Our brief photo stop over, we continued on towards Tongariro National Park, which is famous for its spectacular volcanoes.  We dropped in at the visitor centre at Whakapapa (confusingly, and somewhat worryingly pronounced Fukapupa) before carrying on up the steep, winding mountain road, through dark and gloomy forest, until it opened up at a car park. 

As we looked around us the top of the volcanoes were shrouded in low cloud, while the slopes were snow-covered. A bitter wind blew and sleety rain was falling, so we decided it was time to beat a hasty retreat to a lower and more agreeable altitude.

With the weather becoming ever more threatening we concluded there was no further prospect of spotting volcanoes, so we headed off to the little town of Ohakune for dinner.  This area is the self-proclaimed carrot capital of New Zealand, and the town boasts a children’s playground – called Carrot World, or something similar, I suspect – celebrating the orange root and its various veggie cousins. 

Dotted around the playground are large fibre glass characterisations of several vegetables, including a disturbingly phallic parsnip.  In retrospect this is all a bit odd, given how much kids the world over hate vegetables. Or maybe New Zealand kids do eat all their veggies, which could explain why they grow up to be such fearsome rugby players?  

But the most dramatic feature of the playground is a huge (and I mean monstrously huge) carrot on the roadside, announcing to every passing motorist that this town has truly taken the orange root to its heart.  Mrs P’s camera has barely been used all day, so she gets it out and snaps away merrily.

But, on reflection, if the best thing we can say about today is that we saw a big bridge and big carrot, then I must regretfully conclude that it has not gone well for us.  Things are indeed falling apart, and we can only hope for better fortune tomorrow.

A Kiwi bloke called Barry

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.

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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?

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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.