Kurnell, NSW Australia: Kamay Botany Bay National Park

DSC06568This isn’t the kind of thing I’d normally devote an entire post to, but I promised a while ago that there’d be more Captain Cook, and this is a pretty key Cook site. Botany Bay is where Cook first made landfall in Australia, and was thus the first point of contact between Europeans and Aborigines.  Unfortunately, the historical importance of the site wasn’t enough to stop the encroachment of the modern world, and whilst the landing site and a section of park around it have been preserved, the view from the bay is not so attractive, being mainly industrial plants belching smoke into the sky (it didn’t really look like water you’d want to swim in, even if there wasn’t the threat of jellyfish and/or sharks, this being Australia).

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Anyway, although you can just drive right into the park (after first navigating through quite a lot of ugly urban sprawl on the trip down from Sydney), you’re apparently meant to purchase a pass, which is $8 per car.  We did see the sign at the entrance warning us about the fee, but it wasn’t clear where we were meant to get the pass from.  There were also no signs by the visitor centre, so we just parked up and did the Cook walk.  It wasn’t until after we finished walking and used the toilets that we caught sight of a large sign (by the sinks!) warning of a $400 fine for non-payment, so we then hurriedly made our way inside the visitors’ centre and requested a pass from the rather unfriendly and bemused woman inside.  Moral of the story is: I don’t think they enforce the fine very well, but if you’re concerned, you can buy a pass from the visitors’ centre, and apparently from machines somewhere by the entrance, which aren’t very obvious, because we missed them entirely.

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The walk is self-guided, with the help of some arrows posted around the trail now and again; we followed the main trail, but apparently we should have been doing the wheelchair accessible trail, because we missed a whole bunch of stuff and had to backtrack to see it (unless we just followed the signs incorrectly, they did kind of peter out after a while).  I got the impression that the park was at one time way more Euro-centric, and they changed it within the last couple decades to embrace the Aborigines more, as some of the Aboriginal culture stuff felt kind of tacked-on, as though it were an afterthought.  There was a large stone structure at the start that told us more about first contact, and I guess was meant to represent the meeting of the two peoples, which was all well and good (though it did somewhat overstate what happened at the meeting.  It was definitely momentous, but the actual encounter was somewhat anticlimactic.  The Aborigines basically told the English to go away, and ignored them as best they could), but then we had to walk through an “Aborigine soundscape,” which was a little bizarre.  I kept hearing people talking, which creeped me out a little bit because we were quite obviously alone, but it turns out that was just the “soundscape.”

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But I was excited when the short walk (I think the whole trail was only 1.5 km) took us down to the bay, and I spied the giant Captain Cook memorial near the waterfront.  Just beyond it, on a rocky outcrop, is the actual landing place, though I get the feeling that they don’t really want people going out to it, because it’s not particularly accessible.  I only noticed it because it was marked on one of the maps – you have to climb up slippery rocks covered in sharp pointy oysters to get a look at it, and hop over about a two foot gap from one rock to the other, which I was not confident enough to do in jandals (and certainly not in bare feet, because of all those damn oysters), so I only walked up to the rock facing it, and my boyfriend hopped over and snagged a picture of the plaque for me.

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There’s also meant to be a buoy somewhere marking where the Endeavour was anchored whilst the men were onshore, but I didn’t see it.  Probably hidden amongst all those industrial plants.  The beach wasn’t great, but it was still pretty cool to stand right where Cook and his men (including that dishy Joseph Banks) did, and I enjoyed it, even though my feet stank like rotten clams for the rest of the day (they stink anyway, but it’s usually more of a Dorito-y smell).

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There was a pier where you could walk out over the bay, and this contained more information about first contact and the Aborigine tribes that lived in the area.  Until the mid-20th century, when it was made into a national park, it was a popular holiday spot for Aborigines, who would fish and gather the oysters that are clearly here in abundance.

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I was most excited about the Joseph Banks memorial, for obvious reasons, but it was something of a disappointment.  It must have been commissioned by a man, because he chose to use a portrait of Banks from when he was old and fat, rather than the dishy young Banks that would have come ashore here.  It also wasn’t built until the 1960s or something, so was clearly a bit of an afterthought as well.

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In addition to more signs about the native flora (including Banksia, named after, well, you know who) and fauna (both of which were in abundance, hence the name Botany Bay.  If Banks and Solander hadn’t had time to go ashore here and spend a few days gathering plants, it would probably today be known as “Tolerably Well-Sheltered Bay,” going by Cook’s initial diary entry on the place), there was also a grave marker erected to the first British person to die in Australia (one of Cook’s men, who had tuberculosis.  His name escapes me, and I can’t quite make it out in the photo) put up a century or two after his death (so the spot is presumably approximate).  Even though it was a beautiful day, we didn’t see anyone else there until we headed back up to the visitors’ centre, and we then came across two groups of schoolchildren playing some sort of game with the park rangers (I think this is the sort of place that every Australian schoolchild is required to visit, so I can understand why adults aren’t keen).

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Speaking of the visitors’ centre, there was a small museum-style display in there, including a scale replica of the Endeavour, and some information about Cook’s voyages and legacy. Botany Bay was meant to be the spot where the first transported convicts would be sent, as recommended by Joseph Banks (Cook was dead by this point) and others, but Cook and his men had been there during the autumn, when it appeared to have a pleasant climate, and plenty of natural resources.  The “First Fleet” arrived during summer, when there was a drought, and found there was no source of fresh water, and not enough of a harbour, so they moved a few miles up the coast to what would become Sydney instead.  If not for that, there would be a bustling city here today, instead of urban sprawl and a bit of parkland.

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My favourite part of the whole endeavour (see what I did there?) was the mural painted on the walls of the lecture theatre. I couldn’t help but sneak a cheeky selfie with their rendition of Banks, even though it wasn’t nearly as good as the portrait of him in the National Portrait Gallery.  All told, I enjoyed Botany Bay, but this was primarily because of the Cook connection rather than what was actually in the modern park (which could do with a bit of work; some of the plaques and stuff were so worn down, you could barely read them, and the visitor’s centre wasn’t great.  I wanted a Captain Cook t-shirt or something, and they didn’t even have postcards.  Not that I particularly wanted to buy them from the surly woman working there, but still…).  3/5, but only because of the history, rather than the National Parks’ lacklustre efforts.

Sydney, NSW: Justice and Police Museum

DSC06155Carrying on with the theme of, well, convicts, right after visiting the Hyde Park Barracks, we headed over to the Justice and Police Museum, which is just a short walk away (but be warned, you pass the Botanical Gardens on your walk, which are lovely, but full of what I call scare birds, because they’re so damn scary (they’re actually white ibis, but they look just like plague doctor masks brought to life, and freak me the hell out) and giant orb spiders.  The latter are not giant in the sense of huntsmen or something, but are still plenty big if you’re not keen on spiders).  For some reason, even though it’s not a tiny museum or anything, it’s only open on weekends, so plan accordingly.  Admission is $10, or if you’re visiting a couple of the Sydney Living Museums, you can buy that pass I mentioned in the last post and save a couple bucks.

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The museum is located, as these things so often are, in a former police station, with police courtrooms and a few jail cells at the back, so you can really get a taste of what it was like to be a criminal in Sydney (from the 1850s onward).  We were assured that the museum looped back around, so we could enter any way we wanted and see the whole museum; unfortunately, as I am wont to do, I ended up getting lost, so we had to awkwardly walk past the admissions desk again to see the last two rooms of the museum, but no big deal (except for when the chick at the admissions desk said goodbye to us, and I had to mumble, “We’re not leaving, we just went the wrong way.”).

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The first room we went into, one of the museum’s temporary exhibition rooms, featured an exhibit on mugshots.  Or more particularly, the very peculiar (and rather charming) mugshots that Sydney police stations specialised in.  A short video was playing when we walked in, so we had a seat and learned all about how Sydney refused to conform to the norm where early 20th century mugshots were concerned; instead of standing in front of the traditional height chart while holding up a sign with their name and other identifying information written on it, criminals were allowed to pose in their own clothes in front of various backdrops, pretty much however they wanted, and their names and details were written in later, on top the photographic plate.  We came in halfway through the video, so it was never really explained why they made this unusual “artistic” decision, but we did get to view many of these mugshots, with a wry narrator analysing the stance and expressions of the people in them (some of the people were surprisingly dapper, for, you know, hardened criminals).

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The second room contained biographies of some of the criminals in the mugshots we’d just looked at, including one poor girl who was basically turned into a drug smuggler by her mother (she had her mugshot taken in her ratty old fur coat, but was actually quite pretty, which probably helped get her a light sentence.  Plus the fact that she had a terrible mother didn’t hurt either).  Then, we were on to the old police courts, where up to 120 cases per day were heard while they were in use. The accused were made to sit in a caged area (that apparently they sometimes refused to leave, if the trial didn’t go their way. However, only minor offences were tried here, so the worst they would have been facing was a short spell in jail).  Though I of course posed for the obligatory cage picture (cage can be seen a  few paragraphs up, without me in it), I was most excited when I climbed up to the magistrate’s bench and found the chair pictured above.  In fact, I shouted, “it’s a hemorrhoid doughnut!” and started cackling, because I’m incredibly mature like that.  And then I sat on it, of course (still laughing hysterically, as you can probably tell from the other picture).

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I was, as usual, way more entertained by the confiscated weapons room than I should have been.  I mean, there were a lot of boring guns and such, but some of the more unusual weapons had terse labels explaining how they were used, and oh man, what kind of perseverance do you have to have to murder someone with a hammer?  I guess if you’re strong enough, you can probably smash someone’s skull in pretty quickly, but I imagine it’s more likely to be a case of multiple blows.  Brutal.

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There was a charge room, which was once the entrance to the police station, and had a small partitioned seat for women in the corner that was unfortunately located right across from the barred seat where they kept unruly drunks and other out-of-control criminals, which I’m sure resulted in an uncomfortable amount of ogling/heckling (the women would also have had to be slim, and only in there one at a time, because that seat was tiny).  We also went in some of the old cells that were still decked out to look as they would have in the 1890s; basically you got a hard bench that you had to share with up to 5 other people (up to 12 people could be kept in a cell at once).

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The other cells were full of exhibits, including one about Sydney police dogs (the taxidermied one shown here, and another who they trained to drive a small car, so she could perform at police benefits and such.  It was pretty adorable, but I still feel kind of bad for the dog), and another about bushrangers, who in the early days were simply convicts who slipped away into the outback to try to eke out a living there, but they became more like highwaymen or something, and preyed on travellers and legitimate settlers.  And presumably Aborigines too, but since they didn’t count as Australian citizens until 1967 (an appalling fact I learned at the museum), probably nobody cared if they were murdered.

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The most interesting room, as far as I was concerned, was the forensics room, which focused on a couple of high profile 20th century murder cases.  The first was the kidnapping and murder of Graeme Thorne in 1960.  Poor Graeme was an eight year old boy whose father had recently won the lottery, and he was initially kidnapped and held for ransom, but his kidnapper, Stephen Bradley, decided to kill him less than 24 hours after abducting him (it has been speculated that he initially meant to kidnap Graeme’s younger sister, as she was too young to identify him so she could have been safely released on payment on the ransom, but she was never away from her parents, so he had to kidnap Graeme instead, and then panicked when he realised the boy would be able to identify him.  Which is just dumb, because what the hell did he think he was going to happen if he abducted an eight year old without wearing a mask or anything?!).  One of the things that eventually led to Bradley’s arrest and successful prosecution was his very stupid looking dog, as seen above.  Hairs from the dog were found on the rug that Graeme’s body was wrapped in, and matched with Bradley’s actual dog (still alive at the time, obviously), which is why it has been so cunningly preserved here.  The other big case was the Pyjama Girl murder of 1934, where the body of a comely young woman wearing silk pajamas was found partially burnt on the side of a creek.  Although the case was initially unsolved, it was reopened ten years later; through dental records, the woman was determined to be Linda Agostini, and her husband eventually confessed to her murder (apparently there is still some controversy over this, because someone just wrote a book about it in 2004 claiming the body couldn’t have been Linda Agostini, as for one thing, her eyes were a different colour).  This captured a great deal of attention in its day, as not only was it a brutal murder, but the pajama girl was so young and stylish (in her pajamas) that it seemed especially horrific.

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The final rooms (the ones I had to go back past the entrance to see, after taking a wrong turn past the police court) contained temporary exhibits, including more in-depth biographies of interesting murderers (there was a female poisoner, which is my favourite kind of murderer to read about.  There’s usually an intriguing back story), complete with artefacts like death masks and weapons they actually used to commit their murders.  The final room had an exhibit on lockpickers and safecrackers, with a big safe plonked down in the middle of the room so you could learn more about their techniques.

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I always enjoy a crime museum, and this one was no exception (that’s why I chose it over the many, many other museums in Sydney we could have seen if we’d had the time.  I passed up a medical museum for this, people!).  I liked that it was housed in an actual police station, and the exhibitions were always interesting, and just the right amount of grisly to keep me satisfied. An all-around good effort.  3.5/5.

Sydney, NSW Australia: Hyde Park Barracks Museum

DSC05945I didn’t have time to see as many museums as I would have liked to in Sydney, but I did make sure that Hyde Park Barracks made the cut, because it was (they were?  According to the internet, barracks can be both a singular and a plural, so I’m just going with what feels less awkward) so integral to the history of Sydney and well, all of modern Australia.  Although the “First Fleet”(carrying the first batch of convicts to be sent to Australia) arrived in 1788, and the barracks wasn’t built in 1819, until convict transportation ended three decades later, the Hyde Park Barracks was central to the life of many Sydneysiders.  Although convicts could serve out their sentences being put to work in different ways, and many would eventually earn their freedom, over 50,000 new Australians lived here at one point or another in the crowded hammock-strewn dormitories still set up on its upper floors – for the most part, these were men and boys put to work in government gangs, though after transportation stopped, the building served variously as a girls’ orphanage, an immigration centre, and a home for destitute women.

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But that’s enough history for now, let’s get to the modern day museum!  Admission is 10 AUD, although it’s part of the Sydney Living Museums Group that also includes the Museum of Sydney, The Justice and Police Museum (more on that one next week), and Susannah Place.  Even if you’re only going to visit two of these museums, it’s worth getting the Living Museums Pass for $18, because the museums are $10 each (except Susannah Place, that’s only $8), so you save $2 if you make it to two, and anything beyond that is then basically free!  The Barracks also give you a free audio guide (with or without the pass), which was actually not too terrible, as far as these things go.

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The museum is interesting because it’s a mix of modern interactive museum rooms, and empty dilapidated old rooms where you can better appreciate the architecture and what the building looked like when it was actually being used as barracks.  They even had a “ghost staircase” which unfortunately sounded cooler than it looked (it was just a metal bar marking where the staircase would have been).  The first museum room was about what life would have been like for the first convicts to come over, including the food they were given to eat, the clothes they had to wear, and the disciplinary measures that would have been meted out to those who disobeyed the rules.  There were big computer screens built into the tables, where you could select different objects in a painting of people awaiting transportation to learn more about them, though it didn’t seem to be working that well when I was there (I kept trying to click on things, and only a few of them were responsive).

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The second room included a cool panorama painting, and information on the early history of Sydney, which began to grow into a substantial town outside the barracks thanks to transportees who had earned the right to live in their own homes, or were pardoned altogether (people living at the barracks weren’t technically prisoners; though they had to work for the government on weekdays, and came back to the barracks to sleep, they were allowed to work for themselves on Saturdays, and had Sunday as a day of rest.  It was in many ways a much better life than remaining in an English gaol, where you often had to pay for your upkeep and ran a pretty high risk of catching typhus, and certainly better than the punishment many of these criminals were spared through transportation, i.e. execution).  It also talked about Governor Macquarie (pronounced, going by the audio guide, as Mac-Quarry), the fifth governor of New South Wales, and a big name in these parts (you will see many things named after him and his wife), who was a reformer who genuinely seemed to want to improve life for the convicts (his record with the Aborigines is more mixed…though he took a very liberal approach towards them for the time, his policy of forcing Aborigine children to attend Westernised schools didn’t bode well for their culture).

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The next floor contained stories about the women who passed through the building when it was an immigration centre.  Each bed had a brief biography of one of the women written on the covers (some also had videos projected across the bed), and there were also chests you could open to discover more artefacts and information.  The room next to it was full of big signboards detailing the complete history of the building, and it was just a bit too wordy, really, to read all of it, though I did catch a few interesting tidbits about flogging and reports of sodomy amongst early convicts (I think my eyes just naturally get drawn to the juicy stuff).

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I enjoyed learning some convict slang words with the help of another computer screen, this one containing biographies of some convicts who passed through here (there were some bad seeds among them, like murderers and such.  I mean, I feel bad for the people who were transported just for petty theft, but murder is another thing altogether).  There was also a glass case that was meant to represent the amount of living space allocated to each convict.  As you can kind of see from the photo above, it wasn’t much.

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Despite this lack of living space, and the spartan decor, I really enjoyed relaxing in the re-creation of the dormitories up on the top floor (I suspect it was slightly more spacious than it would have been back in the day, plus I was the only one in there, which helped). I definitely wouldn’t want to sleep on a hammock every night, especially packed next to a bunch of other people, because I’m not quite sure how you’d be able to roll over without falling out, but I have to say it was very comfy for a quick rest after walking around in jandals all day (my favourite Kiwi word.  Jandals forever!); for once I wasn’t worried about the audio guide being long-winded, because I just hung around and had a listen.

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Leaving the museum in search of the toilets (they’re in the courtyard behind the museum) led me to two surprises; an old courtroom that you were free to explore (i.e. sit in ALL the chairs), and the museum’s cats, one of whom was cosily curled up on a mat not far from the toilets, but I didn’t want to disturb him as he was clearly very sleepy (though a child who found him wasn’t as considerate.  Poor kitty).

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Back inside, in the admissions/small gift shop area, there is a computer where you can check the records to see if any of your ancestors were convicts.  As my ancestors were all Polish or Slovenian immigrants who came over to America in the early 1900s (I’m pretty sure I’m the only person in my family to have even set foot in Australia), I knew I wouldn’t find anything (and I was right!), but I still checked, just in case.  All in all, this was a pretty enjoyable museum.  I learned a lot about the history of Sydney, and given my interest in true crime and such, the fact that the history of Sydney involves so many convicts was just perfect for me.  A little austere in places (by design), but nonetheless an attractive building, and an informative outing.  3.5/5.

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South Island, New Zealand: Nature Post

DSC04085_stitchEveryone we met in New Zealand said that the South Island has more spectacular scenery than the North Island, and I suppose it is grander in scale, but it really depends how much you like mountains, because that’s what most of it is.  Personally, I preferred the glow worm caves and all the crazy bubbly stink pools in the North Island, because you certainly don’t get glow worm caves and sulfur hell-stench everywhere (though the lack of the latter is probably a good thing), and to me, all mountains basically look the same, but sure, it was pretty, especially in places where the trees still had some fall colour left.  I will say that the South Island produces a ridiculous amount of rainbows.  Sometimes we saw four or five separate ones in a day.  I mean, it was almost too many, if there can be such a thing as too many rainbows.

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One of the main “mountain-appreciation” things we did was go on a cruise of Milford Sound.  I confess I had mixed feelings about this, mainly because it is so far from civilization; we had to spend two nights in Te Anau, which I hated more than anywhere else we stayed.  It was pretty much just a small tourist town, but it was the off season when we visited; being late autumn, it was too early for ski season, and too late for summer activities, so almost everything in the town was shut, except for their terrible supermarket and a just-OK chippy.  I can live off bread, hummus, chips, and ice cream for a surprisingly long period of time, but I at least demand a certain minimum quality of bread, and this supermarket bakery did not deliver.  Plus the place we were staying was not very clean, which didn’t help matters.  But Milford Sound is indeed rather majestic, and possibly worth putting up with the discomfort (well, not to me, but a less finicky person would be happy enough I think).

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As it was not particularly warm outside, we opted for the two hour cruise without kayaking, which I think was a wise decision (not least because if we took a three hour cruise, I would have been singing the Gilligan’s Island theme song the whole day).  Two hours was certainly plenty of time to appreciate the fiordland (I was starting to get sick of it by the time we turned back, especially after they parked the boat under a couple of waterfalls so we could sample the glacial water, which would have been fun if it was warmer, but as it was nearly winter when we were there, just left me cold and cranky).  We were fairly lucky in that it was a clear day, with no rain on the Sound, and we got to see seals and dolphins.  I may be alone in not really liking dolphins (I find them insufferably smug, except for poor Opo), but I guess it was cool that there were some around, since obviously they can’t guarantee that sort of thing.

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However, there was a local animal I was taken with: the mountain kea.  They are basically big parrots that live in the mountains, and though they look charmingly dumb, with their waddle and annoying “caw-caw,” they are apparently as intelligent as a 5 year old child.  As they were described to us at one point, “they can open your backpack, remove a plastic container containing cake, open the container, take the cake, reseal the container and put it back in your backpack, and then eat the cake on a ledge whilst laughing at you.” We were warned not to leave the car door open when driving up to the Sound, as they will steal things out of your car (they’re often described as “cheeky” which I assume is code for “obnoxious”).  We stopped at various points of interest on the way there (and because I was about to puke, it being a winding mountain road and all. “Scenic drives” are never for the motion-sickness prone, and New Zealand has a LOT of them) and they came right up to us on several occasions, though you’re obviously not meant to feed them or anything.  They’re great though.  By far my favourite bird of the trip (and New Zealand’s got a lot of weird birds).

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I was quite relieved when we left Te Anau and headed for Queenstown, Queenstown being a sort of extreme sport and resort town in the vein of Aspen (I say this having never been to Colorado) or something.  So it had an extremely well-stocked (albeit expensive) grocery store, NY Style pizza, a shop selling warm cookies, luxurious accommodation (with free hot chocolate); basically many things I deem essential to my happiness.  And it was quite picturesque (albeit of the mountainous variety), but I was most excited for the (very expensive) street luge track.  I’m not an extreme sports person, but I am quite happy to speed downhill in some kind of cart device (like that summer toboggan in Lake Bled).  I may have taken it a bit too seriously (I was loudly swearing at people who wouldn’t get out of my way, and I almost flipped the cart a couple times), but it was good fun, and you got to ride a chairlift up to the top each time.

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I was sad to leave Queenstown for Franz Josef Glacier, as it was an even tinier village than Te Anau, but we only spent a night there, and our motel room was surprisingly nice, so it was fine (and I had learned my lesson, and stocked up on food in Queenstown).  You can actually take a helicopter up onto the glacier and walk around, but that cost something insane like $370 per person, so we opted for the glacial valley walk, which gives good views of the rapidly retreating glacier without actually going up on it.  It is also not a particularly challenging walk, which suited me fine.

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One of my favourite spur-of-the-moment stops was this former mining town called Ross, which we encountered when driving from Franz Josef to Greymouth.  To be honest, we only stopped because I needed to pee (a common theme on road trips), but when I realised it was a mining town, with old miners’ cottages, I insisted we have a look around.  This ended up turning into a full-on rainforest walk that somehow managed to be almost entirely uphill, because we went the wrong way round, but I was determined to see the old cemetery, so we pressed on.

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The walk was strenuous, but very scenic, and there were still bits and pieces of the old mining equipment scattered about.  And the cemetery (on a hill of course) offered excellent views of the surrounding area, and lots of neat 19th century tombstones with interesting inscriptions.  Recommended.  They also have a small museum there, but it just looked like loads of laminated information sheets that I couldn’t be bothered to read, so we skipped it.

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My boyfriend being a geologist and all, we also saw a lot of rocks on this trip.  More than I would find ideal, to be honest.  There were some “pancake rocks” north of Greymouth in Punakaiki that I was disappointed to find did not actually look like pancakes, they were just layered.  And there were a lot of blowholes, if that kind of thing interests you.  We also saw some round boulders in Moeraki, on the Otago Coast, but that visit was mercifully cut short by the tide coming in literally all the way up the beach, forcing us to hightail it out of there in a hurry.

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Not really nature related, but there was a town called Springfield on the way back to Christchurch that had a giant pink iconic Homer Simpson doughnut right in the middle of it.  I had to wait irritatingly long for some stupid 20-something girls to finish taking five million selfies (we literally were waiting for twenty minutes, and I finally had to ask if they could step aside for a minute so I could grab a quick photo, whereupon they acted as if I was greatly inconveniencing them.  I should have just forcibly pushed them off through the doughnut hole), but it was still pretty cool for someone who loves classic Simpsons as much as I do (nothing beyond Season 9 please, and even that’s pushing it), though I wish they had actually had pink frosted doughnuts for sale.

I realise this post is much whinier than the North Island one, which is more a reflection on me and my dislike of being away from the amenities of a city or at least a large town than the South Island itself, which was, for the most part, full of friendly people and attractive terrain.  Anyway, this pretty much wraps up our time in New Zealand, but I’ve got more Antipodean adventures in Australia to report on next!

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I wasn’t joking about all the rainbows.

 

 

North Island, New Zealand: Nature Post

DSC02733There’ll be a brief detour from museums this week, as I bring you two (yes, two!) posts on what most normal people go to New Zealand to see: natural wonders.  However, me being me, I have compressed everything nature-related into these two posts (one per island) so I can get back to museums and other things that don’t involve going outside as soon as possible.  As you might expect, we saw a lot that was scenic up on the North Island.  Not all just sheep, as this picture may have you believe (to be honest, we probably saw more cows than sheep because of how big the dairy industry is on the North Island, but there were still sheep.  Lots of them), but lots of other things as well, which I’ll talk a little about here (and show you photos, of course!).

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I already mentioned the kauri forests in my post about the Kauri Museum, but here’s a couple more photos.  Although all the walks we saw listed were fairly short (from 5-20 minutes), and you have to wash off your shoes before entering and leaving the trails, which made my jandals so unfortunately squeaky that everyone else in the forest was staring as me as I literally squeaked past them, I think they’re very worth visiting, especially to see Tane Mahuta and the other large trees.  Just be aware that if you’re prone to motion sickness, the road through the forests will not be your friend.

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I also briefly mentioned Opo the Friendly Dolphin in another post, but here is the actual statue paying tribute to her, in tiny little Opononi (really we only stopped so I could use the toilet, so discovering this was a nice bonus.  And speaking of public toilets, New Zealand has some surprisingly famous ones, like the Hundertwasser Toilets in Kawakawa, where we also availed ourselves of the facilities.  They are genuinely worth stopping for, (though perhaps not detouring for) even if you don’t need the loo).

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We spent a day in Russell; formerly known as the “hellhole of the South Pacific,” it is now very touristy and apparently full of wealthy British expats.  I did not visit their museum, because this was early on in the trip when I still balked at paying $10 for a tiny museum, but isn’t the bay gorgeous?

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We also saw a few waterfalls.  We visited the very pretty Rainbow Falls in Kerikeri (picture on the left) on a rainy day when there wasn’t much else to do, and they were still lovely.  Much more aggressive, and slightly less picturesque, were the Huka Falls outside Taupo.  When I say aggressive, I mean it, and these were also somewhat spoiled by the high concentration of tourists here.  Whereas Rainbow Falls was more or less deserted, as was the case at most of the attractions we visited in Northland (not that I’m complaining!).

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One of the things I was genuinely really excited about seeing (as isn’t always the case with nature-related stuff) was the glow worm caves in Waitomo. I mean, I love caves, and I enjoy glowing lights, so what wasn’t to like?  At the recommendation both of a guidebook, and someone who had actually been on the tour (and indirectly, David Attenborough, who filmed there twice), we booked our “cave experience” in advance with Spellbound.  They have a smaller operation than many of the other tour companies, and only take a max of twelve people per tour, which was a selling point for me with my hatred of crowds (they are admittedly pricy, at $75 per head, but so are all the other tours, and it is a good three and a half hours long).  Basically, the ceilings (and walls) of these caves glow because of these fly larvae who live inside and feed on juices (I think) from the insects who fly in.  They let down these little threads to catch the insects, and glow to attract them in the first place.  I didn’t include any pictures of the glowing, because it is very hard to photograph, but I’m pretty sure there’s some on the Spellbound website I linked to.  Trust me, it is pretty amazing.  They take you through on a small boat in complete darkness for a good half an hour so you have plenty of time to see and appreciate them.  I sense it would be quite romantic if you weren’t sitting shoulder to shoulder with strangers.

They then give you a hot beverage of your choice (including hot chocolate, which will always be my hot beverage of choice if there’s no chai about) with biscuits, and take you inside the Weta Cave, which was the bit I was apprehensive about.  I mentioned cave wetas in my post on the Auckland Museum; essentially, they are ugly giant grasshoppery things with super long, skinny legs, kind of like a daddy-long-legs, only with a big fat gross grasshopper body.  From the name “Weta Cave,” I imagined they’d be crawling over everything in the place, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom style, but nope, they keep to themselves in one small corner, so even the bug-averse like me can deal.  Really, the Weta Cave was just a normal kind of cave, but with some moa bones and a few more glow worms hidden inside.  The whole experience was a really awesome time, and I highly recommend the Waitomo Caves to anyone who visits New Zealand.  I thought Spellbound were great, though I can’t attest to the quality of the other tour operators.  Oh, and make sure you stop for a “big azz” real fruit ice cream at the farm shop on the way into Waitomo.  Very tasty, and indeed big-ass (though I suspect they were going for “big as” rather than big-ass, that’s not going to stop me from calling them big-ass ice creams).

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We made the mistake of spending a night in Rotorua.  If it doesn’t bill itself as the stinkiest place on Earth, it probably should.  The whole town, and I mean the whole damn town, reeks of horrible sulphurous rotting eggs.  And you don’t even get used to the smell. You might briefly stop noticing it, but then you breathe in especially deeply, and there it is again.  Our motel was grim too, which didn’t help.  But anyway, the reason Rotorua is so stinky is because it is in a major volcanic activity zone, and there are these steaming mud pools all over town that give off the stench.  You can see some of them for free in the town park, which is probably worth doing if you can bear the odours, because staring down into the burping primordial ooze is really something.  The other picture is of the Rotorua Museum, which I did not go in (too anxious to escape the reek), but it is in such a beautiful colonial style building (a former bathhouse) that I wanted to show it to you anyway.

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Finally, there is the Waimangu Volcanic Valley, just outside Rotorua, which is also pretty incredible (I kept jokingly referring to it as a geologist’s wet dream, and I don’t think I was entirely wrong).  It bills itself as “the world’s youngest geothermal system” because the most recent volcanic eruption here was in the 1970s, and judging by all the steaming and burbling going on, I have to believe there’s going to be another one in the near future.  There are a number of walks you can do around it (well, really it’s all on the same trail, but you have options of different lengths if you take the bus back, and there’s also a “hike” off the main walking path).

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First, the good: I’m not really a rock person, but even I could appreciate the awesomeness of many of the geologic features (aka, hot geothermal action).  You could actually see the water boiling in some of the pools, and other pools were fun colours on account of minerals, or so surrounded with ferns they looked like dinosaurs could have lived there (though they couldn’t have, most of the park was formed following an exceptionally large eruption in 1917).  There were also points of interest what seemed like every ten metres or so throughout the park, so we didn’t have a chance to get bored, even though we did about two and a half hours of walking, which is about an hour and a half more than I find ideal.

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Now, the bad: it costs 37 NZD per person to get in, which seems like a fortune to pay for a walk you’re taking yourself.  Granted, the paths are very well maintained, especially relative to British trails I’ve walked on, but that’s still very expensive for a damn walk.  Also, they seem to grossly overestimate the difficulty of the trails, perhaps to decrease any liability if someone gets injured.  We rocked up wearing Converse, because I don’t even own special walking shoes.  I mean, Chuckie T’s are the only kind of sneakers I’ve owned since I was 13 (I went through a brief Vans skatery phase in middle school, but it didn’t last), and my feet are used to them; generally speaking, if I can’t do something athletic whilst wearing Converse, I’m not going to do it at all.  So, the girl selling tickets took one look at us, and advised us not to do the hike portion of the trail unless we had special hiking boots.  Being stubborn, and seeing the excellent condition of the rest of the trail, we did it anyway, and there is no way you need any kind of special footwear.  The whole path is well-packed dirt and gravel, and there’s steps up the steep parts.  In fact, climbing the millions of steps up to the trail was the only difficult part of the hike; the rest was level and easy.

The reason this annoys me is because I feel their attitude might put some people off, as it did me initially, when in fact you don’t need any special equipment to do this walk or “hike;” any comfortable shoes with some kind of tread will be sufficient.  Yes, even Converse high tops with no socks, as I proved (because I don’t mind having stinky feet).  So if you can stomach paying a fortune to do a walk, I think this is a very cool thing to do, especially because we didn’t see any other people on the trail until we were walking back up it (most people only walk down and get the bus back, and I can see why; the way back is mostly uphill), perhaps because the admissions desk lady had scared them all away by telling them how challenging the walk is.  If you have a reasonable level of fitness, you’ll do fine.

I suppose that’s it for the nature-y stuff we did on the North Island, but if you like mountains, stay tuned, as the South Island is coming up later this week!

 

Christchurch, New Zealand: The Canterbury Museum

DSC05917Having now visited both the International Antarctic Centre, and the Canterbury Museum, I can safely say that if you only have time to visit one museum in Christchurch, make it the Canterbury Museum.  Not only will it free up a whole lotta money that you could be spending on vegetarian dumplings from Dumplings Paradise inside Re:Start (the best dumplings by far of the many, many veggie dumplings I sampled on this trip) or real fruit ice cream, but it is also one of the most delightfully old-fashioned museums I have ever had the pleasure of visiting.

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Canterbury Museum is free, and like most attractions in New Zealand, staffed by very friendly people who were only too happy to present us with a map of the museum and tell us their favourite exhibits (even as we tried to slink by unnoticed; living in London makes us awkwardly unaccustomed to talking to strangers).  On the whole, the museum seems to have escaped the 2011 earthquake relatively unscathed (apparently there was minor damage to the front of the building, but it remains structurally sound), save for a dollhouse that had some furniture knocked over which they have purposely left in a state of disarray in earthquake remembrance, because many of the exhibits in here looked like they were about fifty years old (which is no bad thing, except perhaps their unfortunate use of some once ok, but now outdated terminology on a couple of the signs).  Case in point: the Maori and native New Zealand fauna tableaux near the museum’s entrance.  They put me in mind of similar (but probably slightly more offensive) displays at the Natural History Museum in Cleveland, which I adored as a child (except the shrunken heads, they freaked me out).

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There were also some displays on what I suppose you’d call the anthropology of the Pacific Islands, and on early New Zealand settlers.  I was rather intrigued by the reconstruction of a cabin that a family with something like eight children (or was it thirteen?) lived in, along with two servants and their child.  I don’t know if this cabin was supposed to be actual size, because while they mentioned how cramped it was, the one on display only had one tiny bed in it, and the rest of the living space was completely full of furniture.  Like, I literally don’t understand how that many people would have even fitted in there, let alone how children were conceived and birthed in there (there was also a story about how the wife gave birth once outside during a rainstorm, under an umbrella.  Poor woman.)

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In keeping with the old-timey theme, the museum had a rather extensive hall of yesteryear, which was where the dollhouse I spoke about was kept (you can see me studying it in the above photo), in addition to a penny farthing and a fake horse you could pose for photos atop of (in theory; I couldn’t because about fifty million children beat me to it).  There was also a costume gallery with the most superlative mustachioed mannequins inside, as you can plainly see.

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Not everything in the museum dates from 1950-something, or earlier, however.  My absolute favourite thing in the museum, Fred and Myrtle’s Paua Shell House (that link is to a brief video about them), was only added in 2008 after the couple passed away and their grandson donated the shells and their interior furnishings to the museum (ok, so the decorations are probably from the 1950s, but the exhibit itself is new!).  Fred and Myrtle were basically the cutest couple ever – they lived in a bungalow in Bluff, a seaside town known for its oysters, but chose to decorate the interior of their home with paua shells (paua being a type of sea snail with a particularly lovely iridescent bluey-green shell. I’m told they make good eatin’ if cooked properly, but I wouldn’t know), lovingly collected and polished by Fred, and a selection of other various knickknacks, including a few bits of taxidermy. After their entire lounge was covered in the shells, they invited tourists into their home, which became a national attraction.  Fred and Myrtle were even featured in TV commercials!  They lived into their 100s, but passed away in the early 2000s, after which their lounge was taken apart and eventually moved to the museum, which includes an exact replica of their lounge and part of the bungalow’s exterior, right down to the cheerful organ music that Fred loved, and a short film about their life, which had me tearing up because they were so damn adorable. I wouldn’t mind living somewhere decorated like this when I’m old, though I am certainly not nice or extroverted enough to invite tourists into my home like they did!

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The museum also had a temporary exhibit on about a local alternative radio station, which I didn’t really take the time to browse because we had to catch a flight to Sydney that afternoon, and I needed to see their Antarctic gallery before we left.  I’m so glad I did, because it was fantastic!

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Not only did they have extremely detailed busts of each of the major Antarctic Expedition leaders (Amundson was uglier than I thought, and I think they made Byrd more attractive than he was in real life), they also had a selection of artefacts from most of those expeditions (save for Mawson’s; maybe there was some animosity towards him because he was Australian?).

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These included things like leftover food supplies and cooking pots used to make hoosh (a rather horrible sounding stew consisting of pemmican, biscuits, and melted snow), boots, tents, sledges, and a glove actually worn by Scott, amongst many other excellent things.  I spent ages in here, and could easily have spent even longer if I had time.  Everything the International Antarctic Centre was missing in terms of actual history was in here.  If only they’d had a Hagglund ride, I could have skipped the Antarctic Centre altogether!

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The rest of the upstairs was fairly standard local museum stuff – a hall of ceramics and sculpture and things from around the world, and a natural history section full of taxidermied things that was fairly bird heavy (perhaps because New Zealand only has one native mammal, which is a bat), but was still pretty delightful, again, because of the old-schoolness.

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We concluded with a trip back to the hall of yesteryear to see if I could grab a picture on that penny farthing yet (nope, even busier than before) and found a room we’d missed before, which was evidently the re-creation of the study of some eccentric collector; lots more delightful taxidermy and skeletons.  Of course, we swung by the gift shop too to collect a few postcards.  They actually sell paua shells in there, so you can re-create Fred and Myrtle’s decor in your own home if you’re so inclined (at something like $12 a pop, it’s not too likely you’ll be able to acquire 1000+ of them, though we did buy one.  Then again, it took Fred and Myrtle 40 years to collect all their shells, so I’ve got time).  I really really loved this museum, especially the Antarctic section, and Fred and Myrtle (obviously). Even the parking ticket that awaited us upon leaving the museum (for apparently parking with our car facing in the wrong direction; we didn’t even know this was a thing you could be ticketed for) didn’t dampen my enthusiasm. 4/5.

 

 

Arrowtown, New Zealand: Lakes District Museum and Chinese Settlement

DSC04814I’m fascinated by the Wild West (nothing to do with the disturbing crush I have on Val Kilmer as an extremely consumptive Doc Holliday in Tombstone, ok, well, maybe a little to do with that), so I thought it was pretty cool that New Zealand had its own version of the Gold Rush, and there are still old mining towns around that you can go and visit.  Really, I wanted to visit one of the ghost towns, like Macetown or St. Bathans, but unfortunately those are only accessible by a road where a bunch of people got trapped in the snow the day before I was there, so I had to settle for Arrowtown, which is a cutesy, touristy former mining town only about a twenty minute drive from Queenstown, and is home to the Lakes District Museum and a partially re-created Chinese Settlement.

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Arrowtown is indeed pretty cute (though it does feel like the town is trying just a bit too hard to be all quaint and old-timey), and I suspect it’s downright gorgeous at the height of autumn, judging by the leaves that were still clinging to a few of the trees when I visited.  The building the museum is housed in is also aiming for adorable (and mostly succeeds), but it is obviously new-ish, being built on the site of the old bank (you can view the ruins inside).  Entrance is 10 NZD, which is fairly standard for small museums in New Zealand (doesn’t mean I was thrilled to pay it, but I was used to it).  The museum basically aims to cover the history of Arrowtown, and, more generally, of the Gold Rush in New Zealand; we entered through a hallway covered with posters telling us about the discovery of gold in Arrowtown in 1862 by a fellow called “Maori Jack” (because he was Maori, of course), which was followed shortly by an influx of settlers and various mining and sluicing operations.  However, the first actual room of the museum (or maybe the last, if I went through backwards somehow) was somewhat disappointing as it just had a random collection of generic pioneer-life bits and bobs (look kids, a butter churn!), without much explanation provided.

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The basement was more my style than the first upstairs room, being a re-creation of Old Arrowtown, complete with mannequins.  The nicest surprise came when I opened the outhouse door and was met with a recorded voice telling me to go away (complete with buzzing fly sound effects), and an old miner availing himself of the facilities (I’ve encountered this gimmick at a good few museums now, but it never fails to delight).

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But yeah, the mannequins ran the whole gamut, from Poops Magee up there, to a drunk in the saloon, and an industrious baker and printer in their respective shops (Arrowtown had its own newspaper, and there were historic reprints available for a small donation).  There were some random boards about Chinese settlers set up in the schoolhouse, which were interesting to read, though they would have been easier to peruse if they were actually up on the walls, instead of sitting on the floor.

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As I mentioned earlier, there was also the vault from the old bank down here, though alas, it had been stripped of gold nuggets before the bank closed, as a sign soberly informed me.  The museum had made the dubious artistic decision to put a banker dummy inside the vault, lurking creepily in the dark, which gave me a bit of a shock when I first looked over.

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The other upstairs room was much better than the first, and focused on the stories of the immigrants who came to Arrowtown to participate in the Gold Rush; not only Chinese people, but also Brits, Germans, Australians, and many others.  This collection included some of the culturally-specific objects they would have brought with them (rather than the generic crap in t’other room); I was particularly intrigued by the collection of opium smoking paraphernalia and the sauerkraut making machine (though I wouldn’t particularly want to use it; I hate sauerkraut!).

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The museum also had an offer where for $3 (plus a $10 deposit, which we got back when we returned our pan), they would loan us a pan and spade for as long as we wanted, and we could pan for gold in the Arrow River behind the museum (where mining started in Arrowtown in the mid-1800s).  Even though it was near freezing when we visited (there were actually patches of ice on the riverbank), we couldn’t resist taking them up on it, and crouched near the river for almost an hour, though we didn’t find anything in the end.  Not even a gold flake or two.

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After our gold panning adventure, we trudged to the other side of town to look at the old gaol.  Much to my dismay, I found a sign on the fence informing us that if we wanted to go inside the gaol, we could ask for the key at the museum!  I really wish they had a sign at the museum mentioning this, because I didn’t even realise you could go inside the gaol, and even though I would very much have liked to explore it, there was no way I was walking back to the museum and then uphill to the gaol again, especially after all that gold panning (I did bravely ford the river in search of more fruitful gravel, after all, just like a grizzled prospector!).  So if you do find yourself in Arrowtown, remember to acquire a key before heading for the gaol!

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We crossed town yet again to go to the Chinese Settlement (Arrowtown wasn’t really that big, but being outside in the cold for so long was getting old), which is now operated by the Department of Conservation, and is free to visit. They suggested the settlement would take 40 minutes to walk around, but if you’re a fast reader and walk quickly (because you’re freezing your ass off and want to get back to a warm car), you can easily see it in half that time.  Ah Lum’s store is the only building that has been restored to any significant extent (Ah Lum was apparently the unofficial head of the Chinese Settlement, and was well-respected by even the white settlers, especially after he saved the life of a white miner), but there are a few other shacks lining the cliff face that you can poke your head into.  It was frankly kind of depressing; the shacks were dark, dingy, tiny, and not particularly well sheltered from the elements.

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Thanks to the accompanying signs, we learned more about life would have been like for the Chinese men who settled here (lonely, most likely, since most of the miners left their families behind, and never saw them again.  Though apparently there wasn’t much open hostility towards the Chinese from the white settlers until they started to open businesses of their own in competition with the white merchants, and even then, Arrowtown was spared the violence rife in other mining towns). The huts were a bit grim (albeit in a historically accurate way), but the rest of the park was rather pretty, and had a real autumnal feel (I love that whole wood-smoke, leafy vibe.  Autumn is my favourite season by far, so I’m pretty happy that I get to experience it twice this year!).

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As we headed back to our car, we came across the “X” marking the spot where the first piece of gold was found (by the aforementioned “Maori Jack” aka Jack Tewa), which was a nice surprise. Despite the cold, I really enjoyed our day in Arrowtown (actually, the cold probably helped with that, by keeping other tourists away.  We were the only ones bold/stupid enough to pan for gold), though I still would like to see some of the ghost towns someday – I think I’d prefer them to a town full of souvenir shops trying to get me to buy big tacky pieces of jade or kiwi statues made from every conceivable material (probably even gold). (Though the ghost towns aren’t likely to have millionaire’s shortbread for sale…  It’s always a struggle between my hatred of people and my love of creature comforts.  Cookies usually win.)  3.5/5 for our Arrowtown experience as a whole; even though the museum and the leaves weren’t all they could have been, I still had a good time.

Invercargill, New Zealand: Demolition World

DSC03802If you like chickens AND feeling like you’re on the set of a real-life horror movie, then Demolition World is most definitely the place for you.  If however, like many normal people, you are creeped out by mannequins under the best of circumstances, then you should avoid this place like the plague. Being the former sort of person, I had an amazing time.

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I found about Demolition World by sheer chance; we were planning a stop in Invercargill anyway to break up the long drive from Dunedin to Te Anau (and because the World’s Fastest Indian is there, see bottom of post), and I happened to pick up a tourist brochure on the town the day before that mentioned it (seriously, don’t neglect tourist literature!  Sometimes really bizarre places advertise in them that don’t have much of an internet presence); from the scanty description provided, I was most definitely intrigued.

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As far as I can tell, a couple who run an actual demolition business used the scrap to build this extraordinarily weird village outside of Invercargill, and you can just show up and walk through it whenever their business is open (they ask for a gold coin donation, meaning $1 or $2, but it’s just a donation box, not someone standing there or something, so no pressure.  Though I suppose the mannequins see all.  And it’s definitely worth it!).  So that’s what we did, despite it being a cold, wet, and windy day, as perhaps to be expected on the south coast of the South Island at the end of autumn (watch yourself though, some of the wooden steps outside the buildings were very muddy and thus slippery, and I almost fell over a couple times).

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I’m not really sure what the best way to describe this “attraction” is.  My boyfriend kept comparing it to House of Wax, which I have never seen, which is perhaps why I was not freaked out.  It is a series of old dilapidated buildings (and one rather nice solarium-type one in the middle, for some reason), arranged in a labyrinthine way, and crammed with mouldy furniture with the stuffing coming out, other random dusty decorations, and the creepiest dead-eyed mannequins you have ever seen in your life, many of them missing heads and limbs (some arranged in tableaux, but many just randomly shoved in wherever there was room).  It is most definitely not for the faint-hearted (I say that a lot, don’t I? I don’t know, I’m the kind of weirdo that leaves Halloween decorations up year-round, so I’m not really sure what normies can tolerate.  It seems like goths do wedding photo-shoots here though, if that helps to give you some idea what it’s like).

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Oh, and there were like 30 chickens (all different breeds, some fancy!) wandering around the place, along with some ducks and one turkey.  I like chickens a lot, so I was thrilled (Sainsbury’s is currently selling paper towels with chickens on them, and my boyfriend went out and bought me three packs so I can have the joy of using chicken towels for months!).  Scary mannequins AND chickens?!  The best!

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Really, this is the kind of thing you need to see for yourself.  I think I’ve expressed my enthusiasm enough (and I hope the people who are frightened by mannequins stopped reading some time ago). For me, this was by far the best part of Invercargill, and I loved that it was so casual, in that you could just rock up and see it without anyone bothering you (the fact that no one else was around at first definitely added to the unsettling atmosphere). 4/5 for being so damn delightfully weird.

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Oh, and about the World’s Fastest Indian I mentioned earlier.  In actual downtown Invercargill, there is a department store called E Hayes and Sons that is home to the motorcycle featured in the movie The World’s Fastest Indian (which is completely charming, by the way, if you haven’t seen it.  It’s the only time I’ve found Anthony Hopkins adorable instead of creepy).  I don’t really care about motorcycles, but I do love that movie (and Burt Munro, as portrayed by Anthony Hopkins), so I wanted to see Burt’s bike whilst we were in town.  The shop actually has a fairly extensive collection of vintage motorcycles and cars (for a shop that I don’t think actually sells motorcycles or cars.  Unless maybe they do.  There was a lot of crap in there), but the only one I really cared about was Burt’s.  They have both his actual bike, and one of the replicas built for the film.  I certainly wouldn’t go out of my way for it (though I might for Demolition World, because it was my kind of bizarre.  The kind where everything in it looked like it might come to life and kill you and/or give you tetanus.  For real, there was a bed in one of the houses with a lump underneath the covers, and even I was not bold enough to lift the covers and discover what it was), but it was neat to see since we were already there.

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Invercargill also has a nice Victorian water tower on the other end of town (and I do mean the other end.  We ended up having to drive there as our parking meter would have expired if we’d walked), and is known for a type of sandwich called a cheese roll, which I never ended up trying.  Partly because I didn’t see anyone selling them (though apparently chippies have them) and partly because my love of bread and cheese doesn’t quite extend to cheap white bread filled with onion soup mix, evaporated milk, and low-grade “cheddar” (scarcely deserving of the name), but since I’m talking about local curiosities, just letting you know that they exist. And that, finally, is all I have to say about Invercargill.

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Oamaru, New Zealand: Steampunk HQ

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What Oamaru is known for, insofar as it’s known for anything at all (I’d certainly never heard of it before planning this trip, but then, I’d never really researched tourist destinations in New Zealand before I knew I was going there), is its cute Victorian town centre, and its colony of little blue penguins (it’s on the coast, so they come ashore here to make their nests). The penguins don’t come out until evening, so we missed seeing them, but thanks to Steampunk HQ, “New Zealand’s Premiere [only?] Steampunk Attraction,” we did get to spend some time appreciating Victoriana (well, neo-Victoriana, anyway).

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In the past, I’ve admitted that I don’t quite “get” the whole steampunk subculture (I understand being fascinated by the Victorians, but the gears’n’goggles thing seems a bit unnecessary), but that doesn’t stop me from visiting steampunk museum exhibits and the like from time to time.  And Oamaruans are clearly very keen (in addition to this attraction, the town hosts a steampunk festival every year!), so I decided Steampunk HQ was definitely worth seeing.  It is an art installation type dealy right near the centre of town (it’s not that big of a town) that is hard to miss on account of the huge steampunky airship (I feel like steampunks would say airship rather than blimp) sticking out of the side of the building.  Admission is 10 NZD, which I guess is not too bad in the grand scheme of things.  I mean, I’d probably part with a fiver to see something this intriguing in the UK.

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When we got there, we were greeted by a couple of guys sitting outside at a picnic table, one of whom turned out to be one of the artists featured in the museum, and also the person working the admissions desk whenever a visitor showed up.  We parted with our money, were given a brief introduction to the interactive bits, and somewhat apprehensively entered a dark, industrial-looking room, to be met with a slightly sinister, delightfully bonkers mechanised world.  This strain of steampunks are clearly fans of the skulls-and-black-clothing aesthetic that I embraced in my youth (I guess that’s where the “punk” part comes in), as the HQ was full of monsters, skeletons, and weird Minotaur looking figures.  A female robotic voice welcomed us when we entered, and various things made noises as we made our way through the dimly-lit space (we were also the only people wandering through for most of our visit, which definitely enhanced the creepy atmosphere).

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The first interactive we encountered was the organ, pictured above, which played a variety of random sounds when you pressed the keys.  Sounds like that Close Encounters of the Third Kind noise they beamed into space, drumbeats, or random dialogue that I guess was supposed to blend together into a sort of song, but in practice you couldn’t really play chords because one noise stopped when you pressed down a second key.  It was still cool though.  There was also a mechanical elephant you could ride for $2, but it specifically said for under 10s only, so I didn’t risk my adult-sized ass on it, though I dearly wanted to.

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The back room of the installation/museum was similarly full of splendidly random and disquieting sculptures, including a ship used in some Russell Crowe film (I think) made by the Weta Workshop (Peter Jackson’s company; same guys who did the Gallipoli exhibit in the Te Papa post) and re-purposed to be more steampunk.

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The other main interactive thing, and in my opinion, the best part of the whole experience, was also back here: The Portal.  Upon pushing a big red button (because who doesn’t love to do that?!) and closing the door behind you, you were transported into a mirrored sound and light show that was really, really cool looking.  I enjoyed it so much I wanted to go back in, but more people showed up by the time we finished with the courtyard, so I didn’t get the chance.

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The courtyard was also pretty cool; it was full of random broken-down looking junk (including a big vat thing with a hole in the middle amusingly labelled as “toilet,” though by the looks of the floor, someone may well have used it for that purpose).  I wasn’t too sure if you were actually supposed to climb on the “art,” as everything looked rusty and unsafe, but my tetanus shots are up to date, so I took a chance, and didn’t injure myself on anything!  It was fun climbing up and into stuff; kind of like an semi-dangerous playground for adults.

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There was also a small gift shop attached to the front, selling postcards, pins, and black t-shirts and things, and a few more pieces of steampunk animal sculpture, along with a story about their creator, who sadly died from cancer when he was only 37 (and only 10 days after the birth of his daughter, it really was a sad story).  Although it didn’t take us more than half an hour to see the entire attraction, it was definitely a really unusual stop, and I don’t regret going (in fact, I think I would have actually regretted it if I missed it, if I had somehow seen how neat it was inside).  Plus it was a great way to break up the long drive from Christchurch to Dunedin.  4/5.

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Christchurch, New Zealand: International Antarctic Centre

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This place is totally a tourist trap, but nonetheless, as you can tell from my grin, it’s pretty damn fun. The International Antarctic Centre was one of the first places I added to my list of “must-sees” when we decided to take this trip, and I spent the week before we left reading about Mawson’s Antarctic expedition to put myself in the mood for it (not that I really needed to.  I LOVE the “heroic age” of polar exploration.  It was so brutal).  The reason the Antarctic Centre is in Christchurch is because this city is the departure point for many modern Antarctic expeditions; being the closest large city to McMurdo Station, many countries, including the US and of course New Zealand, have special training facilities here.  The Antarctic Centre aims to give you a taste of these facilities (in a less extreme way), albeit for a premium price.

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Yes, it costs 59 NZD for the full package, or $39 for the “express package.”  And this is one case where I don’t recommend cheaping out, because the $59 package includes unlimited Hagglund rides, and that was the best part of the whole experience.  Actually, I found a $10 off voucher that was good for up to 4 people in one of the Christchurch tourist brochures from the car rental kiosk in the airport, so there are ways to avoid paying full price (though $49 is admittedly still expensive). Because many of the activities in the museum are only offered once or twice an hour, the woman at the admissions desk made us a schedule when we arrived, which was actually quite helpful.  They feed the penguins twice a day, at 10:30 and 3:30 (so it might be good to visit around one of those times), and we arrived right before the earlier feeding (we came straight from the airport; it’s literally a five minute walk away), so we headed there first.

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The Antarctic Centre has eighteen little blue penguins, which are the penguins you’ll see down the southern coast of New Zealand (in theory; I never ran into any in the wild).  These particular penguins are rescue penguins with various disabilities that wouldn’t allow them to survive in the wild, which is why they’re in here.  As you can probably guess from the “little” and “blue” in their name, these are very cute penguins.  There’s an underwater viewing area where we watched a few of them swim around and do their thing before feeding time, when a woman came out with a bucket of sprats (imported from the North Sea, as apparently these penguins are too spoiled to eat local fish) and fed them all whilst telling us about each penguin.  One of them apparently has a paralysed tongue, so has to have the fish physically placed in the back of its throat to be able to eat (that’s why she’s holding it in the picture above).  I mean, the penguin feeding is nothing you probably haven’t already seen at a zoo or evil old Sea World or something, but penguins are cute regardless.

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After penguin feeding, we had to rush outside for our first Hagglund ride of the day.  These are offered every half an hour, and while they are in theory “unlimited,” there’s a catch: you have to have a timed ticket to get on one, so unless you want to hang around all day, there will probably be a limit to how many you can do, especially if the museum’s busy.  It was not busy on the day of our visit, so we got the entire back car to ourselves.  And take it from me, the back is where you want to be!  You get bounced around a lot more, so it is obviously more fun.  Hagglunds are these vehicles that were first invented in Sweden (hence the Nordic sounding name), but are also used in Antarctica because they’re well-suited to the environment there.  They run on four treads, and can do all kinds of crazy manoeuvres like crossing a crevasse up to 1.8 metres in length, running up an extremely steep gradient, and floating for up to three hours, all of which you’ll get a taste of on the obstacle course they take you around.  It was so much fun that we did it again, though we had to wait an hour and a half to get another time slot, which gave us plenty of time to see the rest of the centre in the meantime.

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The other attraction included in the full $59 package, but not the $39 one, is the 4D movie experience.  It was basically like every other 4D movie I’ve ever seen, where there’s an occasional smell piped in, but mostly you just get squirted with water.  This one was an Antarctic exploration (of course) by boat, so the seats shifted around a bit to simulate seasickness (I was still feeling a bit queasy from the Hagglund, so I’m glad this didn’t have the intended effect), and we kept getting squirted in the neck (if you’re in the front, cover your neck!) with water meant to represent everything from sea water to bird poop.  And some bubbles came down at the end.  If this was all you were getting for the full package, I’d say skip it, but the Hagglund makes it worth your while, even if the movie is just ok.  They also had a 4D screening of Happy Feet, but we didn’t go to that one, so I can’t say how it is.

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The other attraction I was excited for was the storm chamber, where you got to experience an Antarctic storm (this was kind of shaping up to be like my dream destination of the Grimsby Fishing Heritage Centre, what with the chance to experience seasickness and changes in temperature.  I still haven’t made it up to Grimsby though, so I can’t say how it compares).  This, again, only runs once or twice an hour, so we had to time everything carefully, but we rocked up a few minutes beforehand to put on our rubber overshoes and special parkas.  (I was wearing leggings with sockless Converse, because it was pretty warm outside, which meant my ankles were exposed; even with the overshoes, this proved to be something of a mistake.)  You enter the chamber, which already has fake snow on the ground, and is pretty damn cold to start with, but then the winds pick up, and it gets WAYYY colder.  I was legitimately worried I might get frostbite if I stayed in there much longer (there’s an igloo you can shelter under when you’re in there, and the whole thing only lasts six minutes anyway) but I stuck it out so I could get a very teeny taste of what Mawson, Scott, Shackleton, et al went through.  Utter misery, I’m guessing.

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The last main section of the centre consisted of a museum room about life in the Antarctic, and geology and all that.  One corner held a mock-up of a polar tent, along with jackets, snow pants, and mittens you could put on to pose for pictures in, which is where the opening photo comes from.  I love to dress up in stuff, which is probably one reason why I had such a good time here!  There was also a small replica of Scott’s hut (though they didn’t seem overly concerned with authenticity), an “ice cave” which took about ten seconds to walk through, and some kind of flight thing where you could watch pilots preparing for a flight to the South Pole.

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I have to say that the museum section was rather lame, but that’s not really what people are here for.  The penguins, storm room, and most of all the Hagglund rides did not disappoint.  I’m not convinced that it was worth $49 (with the discount), but didn’t feel quite as swindled as I do at most tourist traps (disregarding the photo package they tried to sell us at the end, including postcards of ourselves already printed out.  Why would they print them out already?  What a waste of paper!  Do most people really buy them?!) simply because some of the things here were genuinely really fun, and all of the staff seemed very concerned about us having a good time (as in, they kept asking us if we’d done certain activities yet, and then checked to see if we enjoyed said activities.  They were extremely enthusiastic).  If you’re not that interested in polar exploration, you could safely skip this (unless you really want to ride in a Hagglund), and even if you are, there are definitely museums that offer a more comprehensive history of Antarctic exploration and more accurately portray the misery associated with it (look out for my Canterbury Museum post in a few weeks); the whole aim of this attraction is entertainment, so you really only get to experience the fun bits of the South Pole.   So although I enjoyed my time here, I could see how others wouldn’t, and the admission price still chafes a bit.  3/5.