London: House of Illustration

house of illustrationI wanted to blog about Open House London this week while it was still a relatively recent occurrence, but that post needs more editing than I’m in the mood to do today (I’ve been getting a lot of eye strain lately, might be time to get my eyes checked!) so it’ll have to wait for another week or two.  Instead, here’s one on the House of Illustration that I wrote a while ago (as you can probably tell, given that all the exhibits I talk about ended weeks ago). The House of Illustration is a fairly new museum (opened in 2014), and as far as I can tell, not terribly well publicised (the first I’d heard of it was when I was looking through the National Art Fund pass holders book for stuff to do around London).  It’s part of the whole King’s Cross regeneration deal (I don’t think I’d ever been in Granary Square before the regeneration, probably due to the reason why it needed to be “regenerated” in the first place, but it does seem pretty nice now), and was founded in part by Quentin Blake (illustrator extraordinaire, most memorably for many of Roald Dahl’s books).

Admission is normally £7; we only went because the National Art Pass got us half-price entry (and we hadn’t used the membership in a while, what with going to New Zealand and all). The House of Illustration did sort of seem like a work still-in-progress, as the Quentin Blake gallery had only just opened a few months ago, so they might be planning to add more to it, but as it stands now, there are two main galleries, with an extra little exhibition room off one of the galleries (the admission fee includes both galleries, which is not how it looks on their rather confusing website).  Oh, and they don’t allow photographs, so you’ll just have to use your imagination, which is frankly a bit crap when we’re talking about a “house of illustration” (that’s why I’ve inserted links to the illustrations I could find online. I know it’s a bit of a pain to click them, but I wasn’t sure of their copyright statuses, so I didn’t want to just copy them into the post).

I got the impression that all the exhibits here are temporary exhibits, but the main (largest) one on at the time of our visit (some months ago now, sorry, I was trying to finish up with Australia first) was “A New Childhood: Picture Books from Soviet Russia” which was on until September 11.  I was intrigued by this, because as you all know, I quite like Soviet art.  Basically, when Russia first became the Soviet Union, there was a brief flourishing of creativity in the world of children’s books.  Fairy tales were out, but animals were still acceptable, as were stories about everyday Soviet life, and some wonderful things were produced, including, for the first time in Russia, many Jewish children’s books, some illustrated by big name modernist artists like Marc Chagall, and a Soviet version of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories.  However, this period only lasted from the 1920s to the early 1930s, when Stalin cracked down on creativity; from then on, books could only be about boring state-approved topics, like methods of production, Soviet workers, and the might of the Soviet empire.  Snooze central.

However, I really loved some of the books from the heyday of Soviet art; there were lots of farm animals (I really like chickens, I don’t know why.  Actually, scratch that: I think it’s because of the Feather Town books I owned as a child.  I loved Fran and Emma!) and for some reason, elephants, and even a story about a family of fleas, including a grandma flea clad in a babushka, which was kind of adorable.  They had a few English translation copies of picture books set out at the end of the exhibit that you could look through, and I especially took to Samuil Marshak and Vladimir Lebedev’s Ice Cream, which appeared to use a “fat man” eating ice cream as a stand-in for capitalist pigs; he ate all the ice cream that an ice cream cart was selling, so no one else could have any, but at the end, he began turning blue from eating so much ice cream, and eventually exploded, a la Mr. Creosote, only instead of spewing out partially masticated food over disgusted restaurant patrons, he magically turned into snow that covered the streets, much to the delight of children (personally, I would think they’d be pissed, as not only would they not get any ice cream, they now had to have snow during Russia’s brief summer, but it was still a great, and charmingly illustrated story).

The other main gallery is the Quentin Blake wing, which, true to its name, is all about Quentin Blake.  When we visited, it housed both “7 Kinds of Magic,” which included drawings from 7 children’s books about magic that Blake has illustrated (including The Witches, delightful!), and, in the larger room, “The BFG in Pictures,” which included some never-before-seen BFG art (I assume this is in response to that absolutely dreadful looking new movie.  Please stop ruining my favourite children’s books by making horrible movies out of them!).  I absolutely love Quentin Blake’s drawings, and in particular the BFG, who reminds me very much of my grandpa (must be the big ears…I tear up every time I read The BFG), though I suppose that wouldn’t have been the case if they’d gone with the original cruder illustrations, where the BFG wasn’t quite as gaunt and wrinkly.  But yes, I loved seeing new and different illustrations that didn’t make it into the books, and it was also a delight to look at the colour version of pictures that did (the scene where the BFG dines at Buckingham Palace is one of my favourites!).  I mean, I can’t complain about a bunch of Quentin Blake art.

But that’s not going to stop me from complaining about the museum as a whole!  I think £7 is extremely steep for the size of this museum, and was very glad we only paid half price.  Just thinking of all the museums you can see for free in London, it seems ridiculous to have to pay that much for something this small and rather out of the way of the rest of London’s tourist destinations, so I’d be interested to see how many visitors this museum gets.  I also wasn’t super keen about the no photography rule (maybe for copyright reasons, because otherwise it didn’t make sense?), and the fact that you had to keep your ticket handy (which was just a receipt) because the set-up of the museum means that galleries are through separate doors, both off the gift shop, and someone checks your ticket inside each of them (there must be a better way of doing things that doesn’t require every visitor to frantically dig round their pockets when entering).  That said, the gift shop had a rather excellent little collection of postcards and greeting cards that I probably spent too long looking at, and I did really enjoy the exhibits that the museum had, I just think there wasn’t quite enough of them to justify the admission fee.  So I’ll give it 3/5; most enjoyable content, particularly for Quentin Blake fans, but downgraded for price, size of museum, and rather odd layout.

London: Museum of Richmond

img_20160909_142253054There’s a very good reason why I had to drag all those New Zealand and Australia posts out for what probably seemed an interminable length of time.  In the nearly four months I’ve been back home, I’ve only gone to three museums, which is a remarkably low number for someone who blogs at least once a week.  Part of it was burn out from travelling, but mostly it was because we sold our car to help finance the trip, which means I can no longer easily get to destinations outside London, and except for special exhibitions (which cost money that I don’t really have) I feel I’ve exhausted most of what London has to offer.  Which leads me to the Museum of Richmond.

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Now, I have nothing against local museums, but sometimes it feels like when you’ve seen one local museum, you’ve seen ’em all.  Obviously that isn’t true, because many of them contain hidden treasures, as I’ve discussed in many, many past posts, but it’s hard to muster up the same kind of enthusiasm for a local museum as I would for say, a crime museum, or a medical museum.  Therefore, although I’ve been aware of the Museum of Richmond’s existence for a while, I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to get out there.  Actually, before visiting this museum, I don’t think I’d ever actually been in Richmond proper.  I’ve been to Kew Gardens and the National Archives a good few times, and I’ve (been) driven through the centre of Richmond en route to other places, but I’d never actually been to Richmond Station or walked up the high street.  And frankly, it’s so busy and full of traffic there that I’m not exactly in a hurry to go back, despite their surprisingly large Whole Foods (why doesn’t Wimbledon get a Whole Foods?  I want a Whole Foods!).  But enough filler, on to the museum!

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The museum is located on the second floor of the Old Town Hall, which meant it was quite hot and stuffy on the day of our visit (and, I suspect, much too cold in winter, in the way of poorly insulated British buildings. Says someone who lives in one).  Fortunately, it was free, and the volunteer at the desk was very friendly (some American guy happened to pass by as I was chatting with her, and commented that I “didn’t have an accent,” so I must be American, which led to all three of us discussing how many fewer regional American accents exist than British ones.  This conversation ran on for quite some time. And Richmond is apparently full of Americans.  Must be that Whole Foods).  At the time of our visit, there was a special exhibit on about Capability Brown (who I tend to refer to as “Bloody Stupid Johnson,” thanks to the late great Terry Pratchett), which consisted of a bunch of paintings of gardens he designed around Richmond.

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The permanent collections of the museum were fairly standard local museum fare (which I totally want to spell fayre in this context).  There were posters that gave the history of Richmond, which of course skipped neatly from Neolithic times to medieval, because clearly nothing in between was much worth talking about (I kid, I’m sure they mentioned the boring old Romans too), and from there led to Richmond Palace, which sounded awesome, but was destroyed by Oliver Hater-of-Fun Cromwell (or at least his followers.  I mean, I don’t think he personally wielded a smashing mallet or anything).  All that remains today is the gate, a few of the outbuildings, and a pair of awesome trumpeter statues; a replica of one of them is shown at the start of this post, because he was basically my favourite damn thing in the museum.

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Aside from that death’s head carving from Richmond Parish Church of course, because I am enough of a goth/punk to love me some skulls and bones.  In the way of all local museums, the Museum of Richmond had some cool knickknacks laying around the cases, but to get to them, you had to make your way through a veritable wall of text.  This was one wordy museum.  I mean, I’d rather have too much information than not enough, but there are limits to what even I will read through, and this museum was indeed taking me to the limit (and now I’ll have the Eagles stuck in my head all day, not that that’s a bad thing).

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But still, the artefacts.  Well, there was a model of Richmond Palace, and a couple of chunks of stained glass that were salvaged from it.  Other things that I thought were cool included some shoes found inside an 18th century house (put there for luck, and certainly better than the tradition of bricking up a live cat in the walls (and seriously, how would that bring luck?  All it does is make you some kind of psychopathic cat-torturer, and guarantee that if ghost cats are a thing, you’re going to have one running around your house.  Actually, I wouldn’t mind having a pet ghost cat, because I’m allergic to the real thing, but obviously it would have to be one that died of natural causes, because I’m not a psychopath)), a delightful Charlie Chaplin doll, and a really cool map that showed all the bombs that hit Richmond during the Blitz (not the map pictured below, I don’t seem to have a picture of the bomb map for some reason).

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It looked as though Richmond Park was bombed a shitload of times (I think some infantry were stationed there, but it was still a lot of bombings for a park). The museum had a lot of information on the history of Richmond Park (no surprises there, since they had A LOT of information on everything in the museum), which was quite interesting.  As I’m sure fellow Londoners know, Richmond Park is one of the Royal Parks, but it’s open to the public and a bunch of deer; however, that was not always the case (where the humans were concerned anyway; deer were always welcome for hunting purposes).  Charles I established it and decided to enclose it, which pissed everyone off, but he still allowed pedestrian access, so no one raised too much of a fuss.  However, in the mid-18th century, ownership passed to Princess Amelia, who was George II’s daughter.  She decided that only she and her friends would be allowed inside, and it was then that the local people took action.  A man called John Lewis (not affiliated with the department store, I don’t think) sued for pedestrian access to the park and won, becoming a local hero.  He is now commemorated on a small blue plaque inside the park, which I have never noticed, but Richmond Park is a big place, and I certainly haven’t walked the whole of it.

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In the end, the Museum of Richmond certainly wasn’t anything out of the ordinary as far as local museums go, but it was nice enough.  To be honest, the only reason I decided to trek out there in the first place was because I wanted to try an Icelandic soft serve place in Ravenscourt Park (will travel for soft serve, especially if you roll it in Daim chunks), and it only seemed logical to try to visit a museum along that arm of the District line at the same time, so Richmond it was (there is a real dearth of museums out Hammersmith way, or at least, everything that is out there was bizarrely closed for repairs this September), but the museum was decent enough that tubing all the way out there wasn’t quite the waste of time I’d imagined it would be.  I appreciated how nice the volunteer was, and the informativeness of the museum, but maybe they could have had some interactive things to break up all that text.  2.5/5.

Melbourne, Australia: Cooks’ Cottage

DSC07292And so this Antipodean Adventure at last comes to an end, with Cooks’ Cottage.  This is rather fitting because Cooks’ Cottage was built in England and shipped to Australia, so it’s a nice segue back to Britain.  Cooks’ Cottage is also, frankly, the most ridiculous attraction of the whole trip (a trip that included pancake rocks, Demolition World, a giant doughnut statue, a $59 Antarctic Centre, a steampunk themed art gallery, and a killer whale museum, so that’s really saying something).

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One of the reasons why Cooks’ Cottage is such a ludicrous tourist attraction is that Captain Cook never lived here.  The cottage was built in Great Ayton in Yorkshire in 1755, by Cook’s parents (which is why it is Cooks’ Cottage, rather than Cook’s Cottage).  Unfortunately, James Cook had left home ten years earlier at the age of 16, and never lived at home again, having joined the merchant navy after completing his schooling, followed by the Royal Navy.  I mean, he may have spent a night or two here during a visit, but it didn’t play any kind of important role in his life.  This didn’t stop the city of Melbourne from buying the cottage in 1934, and having it dissembled and shipped to this park, which rather hilariously makes it the oldest building in Australia (also, why Melbourne?  Cook never landed here.  It would have made more sense for Sydney to buy it, since he was along that coast).  The shitty thing about this (if Tony Horwitz is to be believed in Blue Latitudes) is that when a house that Cook actually DID live in was up for sale in the 1960s (the home in Wapping where he lived with his family during the brief stints when he wasn’t at sea), Melbourne, perhaps finally realising the bum deal they’d gotten with Cooks’ Cottage, declined to buy it, so it was demolished.  Though I guess that really reflects poorly on London for not valuing Cook more than the brewery that was built where the house once stood.

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Anyway, Cooks’ Cottage costs $6.20 to enter, which, whilst significantly cheaper than most Australian museums, I think anyone would agree is still a preposterous sum when they get a look at the cottage.  See those four pictures above?  Well, you’ve basically seen the entirety of the cottage.  It is all of two rooms (it used to be slightly bigger, but they had to chop it in half to accommodate a road, which just adds to the absurdity).  The only people visiting it were us, and a load of Chinese tourists.  But I had to do it, for Cook, and more importantly, for the statue of Cook outside that they cleverly placed behind the gates of the cottage so if you wanted a picture with it, you had to cough up the admission fee.

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No way was Cook that, er, sexily attired in real life, but I can roll with it (of course I felt up his thigh).  They also had a selection of Georgian-esque costumes you could dress up in; unfortunately, they were all being hogged by the other visitors, so I ended up with the dregs, hence my flood-skirt.

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There were also some Cook-related plants scattered around the garden, like scurvy grass and such, and a museum room at the back of the cottage (which we nearly missed) that talked about Cook’s voyages.  The cottage sort of lies by omission…it never explicitly states that Cook lived in the cottage, but it doesn’t mention that he didn’t, either.  I did, however, learn that Cook’s wife apparently moved to a house built on the site of Merton Priory for a little while after his death, which is interesting because I live not far from there, and it’s also quite near to where Nelson used to live with Emma Hamilton.

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So I think we can all agree that Cooks’ Cottage is quite lame, though the volunteers did try their best, and the only reason to see it is to snatch a picture with that well-endowed statue. 1/5. Fitzroy Gardens is also home to a random miniature Tudor Village (built by a Londoner, but meant to depict Stratford-upon-Avon, it was a gift from Lambeth because Melbourne sent food to Britain during WWII.  Because I’m sure a miniature Tudor village is just what they wanted) and a fairy tree, so there’s that too, as long as we’re seeing attractions that are faintly ridiculous.  Oh, and I’ve neglected to mention the ice cream in Australia (even though I ate some every day we were there), so I’ll tell you now that Gelato Messina was the best we had (handily, there are locations in Sydney and Australia, and their special flavours (which change weekly) are amazing).  And now I’ll leave you with what we wrote in the guest book at the cottage, because I’m really rather proud of my puns.

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Melbourne, Australia: Old Melbourne Gaol

DSC07237(Warning: in case you couldn’t tell from the death mask right at the start, this post has a lot in it about hanging, and pictures of other death masks, so if you’re of a sensitive disposition, you might not want to read on.  Of course, if you’re a regular reader, you’re probably used to me and my macabre ways by now.)

There’s just something about museums that spell jail “gaol.”  They’re always a good time (though presumably not for the prisoners who were originally incarcerated in them), maybe because the “gaol” bit means they’re going to be old-timey.  Old Melbourne Gaol was of course no exception to this rule, despite it giving off the initial impression of being a huge tourist trap.  Fortunately, aside from the price, the Ned Kelly merch, and the slightly gimmicky Watch House “experience,” the gaol was a legitimate museum, with some decently informative displays.

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At $25, Melbourne Gaol is not cheap, not that you’d really expect something that bills itself as “Australia’s premiere award winning heritage attraction” to be (this phrase (and the price) is what made me initially think tourist trap).  And the admission fee does include the Police Watch House experience.  As one of these was set to begin about ten minutes after we got to the museum, we headed there first.

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We took a short walk down the street (there were signs) and queued up in front of the Watch House, feeling somewhat apprehensive as the brochure promised we would “experience a real life encounter of what it would feel like to be arrested and locked up,” and I was worried we were a) going to get yelled at and b) have to participate, both things I dread.  We were greeted by a police sergeant who ordered us to put away our phones and cameras and line up single file, with men along one wall, and women along another.  However, judging by the fact that small children were on the tour, I needn’t have been too worried; she did yell at us a bit, and made us show her our hands and bottoms of our shoes to make sure we weren’t concealing anything (museum visitors are spared a strip search), but it was obviously all done in a humorous way.  Only a few people were handed fake police reports and asked to give their “name” and offense; fortunately I wasn’t one of them, though Marcus was (poor guy, but I did laugh at his misfortune a bit), and then we were all herded into cells for a couple minutes before the “experience” part of the tour was over and we were free to wander around the jail, which only fell out of use in 1994.

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It’s probably worth going on the “experience” simply for the photo opportunities; they have a camera set up behind some bars to make it look like you’re in prison, and though you have to pay for those photos (I forgot to find out how much it was), you can take your own mug shots in front of the height chart for free.  I’m not sure why this is a good thing, but we were certainly all excited about it!  It was the 30th anniversary of the Russell Street Bombing this year, so there was a special exhibit about that in here; the story behind it is that some random criminals decided they wanted to kill as many police officers as possible (I guess in revenge?), so they planted a car bomb outside the Watch House which ripped through HQ and killed one policewoman and injured 22 others.  Three men were eventually convicted of the crime and sentenced to life imprisonment.

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After all this, we headed back to the main museum.  Melbourne Gaol looked grim (I mean, all prisons look grim, but this especially so), because it was built in the 1840s, which is right about when prison “reformers” were keen on the “separate system” famously used by Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.  Prisoners spent their days in solitary confinement, and had to wear horrible constricting masks when leaving their cells so as not to have any contact with their fellow prisoners.  Prisoners who had committed minor offences, such as debtors, were allowed to stay in communal cells with other prisoners and go outside to work in the yards, but the solitary gang on the ground floor would have been driven to the brink of madness.

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As if life here wasn’t bad enough, the gaol also saw its fair share of hangings (133 to be exact), and all the cells in the ground floor were devoted to the stories of executed prisoners, each one containing an informative poster and a death mask.  The first people to be executed in Melbourne were two Aborigine men who were found guilty of murdering a couple of whalers; they were followed by a whole host of people, particularly during the Gold Rush, including several men from China and the Philippines who didn’t speak enough English to properly defend themselves.  There were also some people with obvious mental problems who never should have been executed (I mean, I’m opposed to capital punishment regardless, but there were clear miscarriages of justice here), as well as at least one man who was later proved to be innocent with the help of modern forensic techniques (Colin Ross, hanged in 1922, and posthumously pardoned in 2008, though a fat lot of good that’s done him).

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The middle floor carried on with the whole hanging theme, so we got to see the scaffold and read about some of the executioners who served at Melbourne Gaol throughout the years (they were often prisoners themselves, or shady looking characters at the very least).  The condemned cell was up here too, and also a few cells with dirty mattresses shoved in the corner so you could try out the whole prisoner experience for yourself.

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Though it is, of course, morbid, I found myself studying the snippets from A Handbook on Hanging (written after the long drop had been introduced; before that, you basically just strangled) to see how much of a drop it would have taken to kill me – I think it was something like 7.5 feet.  Of course, hangmen often miscalculated, so the victim was left either strangling like in the old days if the rope was too short, or they could be effectively decapitated if the rope was too long.

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The top floor contained the old whipping triangle, where they whipped male prisoners who misbehaved (again, the whipping was often done by fellow prisoners, or the executioner), and signage about women and children who were imprisoned here (some of the women were executed as well; many of them were “baby farmers” who killed the children left in their care).  This floor also had information about Melbourne Gaol during the war years….the gaol closed in 1924, but was reopened during WWII to house military prisoners, typically soldiers who had gone AWOL.  Their experiences were particularly unpleasant because most of them weren’t criminals, just soldiers who didn’t feel they’d been given enough leave for one reason or another (many of them were just desperate to visit their wives or mothers, and if their families lived on the other side of Australia, three days or even a week wasn’t enough time to get there and back in those days), yet here they were treated as prisoners; demoralised, kept in horrible conditions, etc, and many of them tried their best to block the experience from their minds, even years later.

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However, the most notorious prisoner to be housed and executed here was undoubtedly Ned Kelly, whose death mask is shown at the start of the post.  Ned Kelly is THE iconic Australian outlaw, and still apparently a folk hero to many, so there was a whole section of the ground floor devoted solely to him (we saw this last because there was a school group there when we first arrived).  It not only gave biographical information about his childhood and life up until the famous shootout at Glenrowan, but also contained artefacts from that final stand, even the gun he used during the shootout, with a chip in it where a shot from a policeman hit the butt and shattered Kelly’s little finger.  There is also a replica of his armour that you can try on, which I duly did (I don’t think it fit me properly, as it didn’t cover my chest, leaving my heart dangerously exposed. I’ve no doubt it fit Ned Kelly better), and a clip of a silent film from 1906 where the actor playing Kelly wore his actual armour (grainy footage, but very cool).

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Say what you will about the glorification of a criminal (though in fairness to Kelly, he did save another boy’s life when he was a kid.  It seems to be the death of his father in prison that set him on a bad course), but Ned Kelly also happened to be rather photogenic (with his quiff and big bushy beard, he kind of looks like the original hipster. Seriously, if you dropped him into Hackney or something, he would not look out of place), so much of the gift shop is devoted to Kelly memorabilia, and I confess I bought a t-shirt for my brother, and an apron for myself (it has a picture of Kelly and his last meal, which was apparently lamb, peas, and claret.  Not at all what I would choose).  So in that regard, I suppose it is quite touristy, but even with the hefty price tag, I still think the gaol was well worth the visit, as we managed to kill a couple of hours here, and I really enjoyed myself.  I love crime museums anyway, so getting to learn specific details about so many of the prisoners here was very interesting, and I suppose all the Ned Kelly stuff was just a bonus, since he is so famous in this part of the world.  I’ll give it 3.5/5.

 

Eden, NSW Australia: The Killer Whale Museum (and Wilsons Promontory)

DSC06619Even when I was a kid, I hated Sea World.  Not on grounds of animal cruelty, because I don’t think many children are particularly conscious of that, but because I didn’t really like killer whales (or dolphins, they’re smug, but that’s another story).  I’m not big on sea life in general I guess; it’s fine if it stays in the sea, where it belongs, but don’t be coming on land.  So the Killer Whale Museum wasn’t so appealing at first glance, until I learned it wasn’t really about killer whales so much as whaling.  You see, in Eden, the local whalers had a special relationship with the killer whales.  The whales would help herd right or sperm whales towards the shore, where they could be easily killed, and in return, the whalers would throw the killer whales the tongues of the right whales after the carcasses had been stripped of blubber and such.  Which is really pretty interesting, if a bit gruesome.

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We visited the Killer Whale Museum during a long day of driving when there wasn’t much else to see along the way, so we were glad of a chance to get out and stretch our legs for a bit, even though admission was $10.  The museum was on two floors, though only the top floor was really about whaling.  Without a doubt, the highlight of the collection was the skeleton of Old Tom, one of the whalers’ favourite whales.  Once, when a man was drowned crossing a river, and his body wasn’t immediately found, Old Tom went and swam next to the body, enabling the searchers to drag it onshore and bury it.  When Old Tom himself was dying, he swam up a river and died there, which is how they were able to collect his skeleton (he wasn’t killed or anything). He was just one of many orcas in the pod that assisted the whalers, and they were all given special names.  Orcas and whalers were downright cozy in Eden.

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I have to say, even though there was something a bit crap about this museum, it was still miles better than the one they’d put together at Butler Point, perhaps because someone in Eden appeared to have a sense of humour.  In addition to being full of the products made from whale parts, it also had a display on interesting whale-based “cures,” like the one shown above, for rheumatism, where holes were made in the side of a freshly killed whale, and sufferers (and they really would be suffering) were placed inside to bask in the whale’s remaining body heat until the carcass was considered sufficiently decomposed to let the patients out.  Amazingly, some people came back multiple times for this treatment, as they got so much benefit from it!  I can’t imagine.

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The museum also had its fair share of tall tales (though maybe some of them had some basis in fact), like the story of a real-life Jonah who was swallowed by a whale and found some time later in the whale’s stomach, after it had been killed.  His hair and skin had been bleached by the whale’s stomach acid, and he was almost blind, but he did eventually recover, though it took him some weeks (I vaguely recall reading this story elsewhere, which still doesn’t make it true).  Little quirky stories like this, and the charming, hand-painted signs gave the museum (at least the upper floor) the feeling of a less-commercialised Ripley’s Believe it or Not.

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Although this feeling subsided somewhat when we went into the movie room (which was ambitiously large), expecting to see a film about, well, whaling, only to be shown a weird tourism video for Eden (to be honest, it didn’t look like a particularly promising town) that went on for ages, so eventually we gave up and left.

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The downstairs area was more like a typical local museum, with some history of the area (illustrated in part by that frightening mannequin), both Aboriginal (I most enjoyed learning about mythical monsters, like bunyips and mindi) and European, and information about local industries other than whaling (which weren’t as interesting as whaling).  There was also a special gallery dedicated to local men who served in WWI, which was probably the most nicely-put together part of this downstairs area.  I really liked reading about the wartime experiences of some of the locals.

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There were also a few random things scattered about outside, like whale skulls and bits of boaty equipment, and a little lighthouse.  You weren’t allowed up the stairs of the lighthouse, but there was a small exhibit on the ground floor about lighthouse keepers that I found fascinating (mostly about the perils of living in such an isolated, weather-beaten environment, especially for men who brought their wives and children along) and wished it had a bit more information.

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Though I think some elements of the downstairs galleries could have used a bit of work to make them as interesting as the rest of it (there was just too much signage in the one room, and most of it was quite dull, about tools used in various industries), and $10 was probably a bit steep, I did genuinely enjoy the whaling galleries quite a bit more than those at the Whaling Museum at Butler Point, so I’ll give them 3/5 for that, although they need to sort out some of the other stuff, like that lame movie room.

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Because I don’t think it merits a whole post, but I wanted to share it with you, I’m going to talk about Wilsons Promontory a bit here as well.  It is the southernmost point of mainland Australia (and about a six hour drive from Eden…we went here the next day after lots more driving!) and had a variety of walks, but because we still had a lot of driving ahead of us (it is a LONG way from Sydney to Melbourne), we opted only to do the wildlife walk.  The problem with a wildlife walk in Australia is that many of the animals that live here are terrifying.  Case in point: emus.  I don’t know, I just don’t trust a bird that big.  Like, what are they up to that makes them have to be so big?  I’m not quite as scared of emus as I am of cassowaries (which fortunately don’t live anywhere near the parts of Australia we visited, though I did see a couple at the zoo), but I was still pretty freaked out to see a bunch of them just roaming around where we parked our car.  I definitely gave them plenty of space when heading to the trail.  However, it wasn’t just emus, or else I wouldn’t be telling you about it.  Nope, Wilsons Promontory also has kangaroos and wombats (and wallabies, though we didn’t see any).  The kangaroos were cute, and it was neat to see them in the wild (despite their stubborn refusal to actually hop about.  They were just doing a lazy walk where they put their front paws down and kind of dragged their legs behind them), but I was especially charmed by the wombats.  They are adorable fat little balls of fluff that waddle around and fart, and it was worth detouring here just to see them (we saw two different ones, I was pretty excited!), so I’d definitely recommend stopping here if you’re driving through Victoria!

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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!