North Island

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!


Wellington, New Zealand: Te Papa Tongarewa

DSC03305Te Papa, or the National Museum of New Zealand (the Maori name roughly translates to “the place of many treasures”) was similar in many ways to the Auckland Museum.  It was large, spread out over multiple stories, and featured a pretty kick-ass temporary exhibition.  Unlike the Auckland Museum, it had the added benefit of being free, temporary exhibit and all, which I’ve come to realise is extremely rare in New Zealand, especially for a museum of this calibre.  Because of its sheer size, this was the only museum I had time to see in Wellington (though I did take the time to see Harry McNeish’s grave, because of Mrs. Chippy (Mrs. Chippy’s story is pretty sad, and Harry McNeish also got a bit of a bum deal as a result)), but because it was so comprehensive, I don’t really feel as though I missed out.

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The highlight of the museum was undoubtedly its temporary exhibit, Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War, which was put together in collaboration with the Weta Workshop (the special effects company founded in part by Peter Jackson), who created these amazing giant soldier figures. Gallipoli is famously commemorated in New Zealand and Australia on ANZAC Day every year, but I think in Britain, we sometimes don’t realise just how huge of an impact the war had on this small country.  I discussed some of the casualty figures in the Auckland Museum post, but 2779 Kiwis were killed in Gallipoli alone, a full sixth of all the Kiwi soldiers fighting in the campaign, and I think Gallipoli is really where the war hit home for the people of New Zealand; even though a greater number of men would be killed on the Western Front, Gallipoli was the first major loss, which is why it is so well remembered to this day.

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We were warned on the website that there would probably be a queue for the exhibit, so we headed there first after arriving, and were indeed met with a queue, but decided to just go for it, because it might be worse later on.  As it turned out, the line moved fairly quickly, which was both good and bad; good because we didn’t have much of a wait, bad because the people in front of us didn’t really have time to clear out before we entered, so the exhibit was very crowded (when we were leaving the museum, there was no queue at all, so I think going in the afternoon is probably the better option.  We should really have gone back in then to appreciate it without the crowds, but we were so tired at that point we couldn’t be bothered).

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Obviously, the focal point of the exhibition was the giant figures, which were extremely lifelike (although maybe a bit too muscular. The soldiers I’ve been researching had an average height of about 5’4″-5’7″, and weighed somewhere between 110-140 lbs (how they met the minimum chest size requirement is beyond me), but I imagine their ANZAC counterparts could have been a bit beefier, having access to better food at home and such. Still, knowing all the problems they had with dysentery in the army, they must still have been depleted physically as the campaign stretched on, even if they joined up in good condition)), and rather moving , but the rest of the exhibit was pretty good too. It provided a comprehensive history of Gallipoli, including aspects of the battle, soldier life, and the home front.

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My main (bully) beef with the exhibit, as you can probably guess, was the crowds.  There were lots of great interactive things, and plenty of touchscreens where you could learn more about individual soldiers killed in the battle, but because there were so many people, I only got to use a couple of them.  I did, nonetheless, think it was very well put-together.  Although the big figures were the draw, they also had some charming miniatures, including a model of a hospital ship (complete with a teeny version of the soldiers’ bulldog mascot, adorable!).  They gave everyone a red poppy made of paper at the end, which you could either keep or write a message of remembrance on and throw in the lake surrounding the final soldier.  I think this exhibit is on til 2018, so I highly recommend stopping by if you find yourself in New Zealand before then.

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Now, onto the rest of the museum!  Like the Auckland Museum, they had a dedicated geology/volcano gallery, which I think may have also had an earthquake house, though we didn’t bother with going in this one after the rather underwhelming experience in Auckland.  However, the Natural History section was much better, because they have the only preserved colossal squid in any museum in the world!  I do think squids are hella gross, and this one was no exception, but since it was, you know, dead, and soaking in formaldehyde, it couldn’t try to suck my brain out or whatever it is squids do, so I was happy to look at it (though I couldn’t quite the keep the expression of disgust off my face).

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Because the children’s gallery was deserted, I was able to wander in and play a game to learn about my carbon footprint, and of course, crawl inside a model of a blue whale’s heart (I actually only crawled halfway in, because I was worried I might get stuck).  They also had an outside garden, which was understandably empty as it was right on the seafront and it was an extremely windy and rainy day, but that was fine with me, because I could jump up and down on the swing bridge without getting funny looks.  That swing bridge probably was the most fun I had all day, but they also had a little replica of a glow worm cave that was neat (though nowhere near as neat as the real thing).

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Heading back inside, we ventured up to the third floor, which not only contained a cannon from the Endeavour (awesome!), but a gallery about New Zealand before Europeans arrived, which of course included moa and other native animals, and a room where you could touch a rock from each corner of New Zealand (it had something to do with a Maori custom, but also touching stuff is fun).  There were also some fun interactives in here, including a game where you got to analyse moa poop (accompanied by hilarious farting sounds!  I’m not sure if birds can actually fart though).

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The fourth floor was all about the people of New Zealand, starting with Maori settlements, and moving up to the present day.  You were asked not to take pictures in the Maori section, so the lack of photos is not a deliberate omission on my part, but I have to say that I liked this gallery much better than the Auckland Museum’s Maori collections.  For one thing, the captions were much more detailed; even if they didn’t know what the exact provenance of an object was, they still described its meaning to the Maori people and what it was used for in great detail, which I appreciated, because it’s much easier to gain insight into a culture if some of their beliefs and customs are explained to you.  There were also a couple of beautiful marae, one of which is actually still used by the community.  The Maori history carried on with a gallery about the Treaty of Waitangi, where New Zealand (for better or worse) was handed over to the British.

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There were a couple small galleries on Pacific Islanders, who have immigrated to New Zealand in large numbers in recent years, for education and jobs.  I think my favourite object was the cow sculpture made of corned beef tins (all tinned food is referred to as pisupo in the Pacific Islands, because pea soup was the first canned thing to be imported), to highlight the problems associated with imported foods and the encroachment of the West on traditional cultures.  There were many more cool artefacts though, including some clothing made by contemporary designers, and a game where you could try navigating to New Zealand by the sun and stars.

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I loved the gallery about 19th century immigration; they had pull-out drawers (which required a fair amount of muscle to pull out!) containing the stories of immigrants from many different countries, a game where you could be the captain of an immigrant ship (I killed off a whole family from scarlet fever, but my ship made it into port in time, so yay?), and other ship-related fun. The gallery about early 20th century to modern day New Zealand was also delightful, with (you guessed it) more games, and junk about the Queen (for real, why are Kiwis so keen on the Royal Family?).

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The top two floors of the museum are known as Arts Te Papa, and are dedicated to the museum’s art collection (as you might expect).  The entire first room had drawing stations set up with mirrors, where you were encouraged to take selfies, draw a self portrait (me and my boyfriend actually drew pictures of each other, to change it up a bit; the one I drew still cracks me up), or write poetry using a magnetic wall full of random words.  I really enjoyed some of the paintings up here because they portrayed various sites we’d already seen around New Zealand as they looked a hundred or more years ago, and it was interesting to compare.  The photographic collection was also nice; I got to learn more about Opo the Friendly Dolphin, whose grave and statue we rather depressingly (and randomly) encountered on the beach in Opononi the week before. (I just learned there’s a song written about her!  I know what I’m listening to after I finish writing this post!)  The top floor was jewelley and ceramics, but we were both just too damn tired (and unconcerned about jewellery and ceramics) by that point to venture up, so I hope I didn’t miss anything amazing.

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To sum up, Te Papa has an excellent temporary exhibit, lots of cool permanent exhibits (and the only preserved colossal squid, if that matters to you), and is free, so there is absolutely no reason not to go.  If you’ve got a spare day in Wellington, fill it up with this (I must confess that I actually had two days in Wellington, but I spent the first one going to various sites from Braindead, because it’s one of my favourite films.  We even stayed right down the street from Lionel’s house (I could see it from our window!). I don’t regret this decision, because Te Papa + Braindead made for an excellent two days here).  4.5/5.




Auckland, New Zealand: The Auckland War Memorial Museum


You might not know this about me, because I like to give the impression of thoroughness, but I’m generally a pretty speedy museum visitor, especially if the museum in question is crowded (I do generally at least skim over everything (it helps that I’m a fast reader), but I don’t tend to linger unless a museum has almost no other visitors AND is extraordinarily interesting).  That’s why I was amazed that we were in the Auckland Museum for a good four hours.  I genuinely can’t remember the last time I spent so long in a museum.  I’m not sure if that’s a ringing endorsement so much as the fact that our Air B&B was really far away, and I couldn’t be bothered to walk back when I’d just have to go to town again later…but no, I’m not being fair to the Auckland Museum, as it was actually pretty impressive (not to mention that I’d have just moved on to a different museum rather than spend the whole day there if it really sucked).  So let’s learn more about it, shall we?

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The Auckland Museum in its current state was first conceived of after the First World War as a kind of “living memorial” to the many ANZAC soldiers who died on Britain’s behalf.  So although the entire top floor is devoted to commemorating wars New Zealand fought in, and contains two memorial halls, the building itself is meant to be a memorial as well.  This also explains why the full name of the museum is the Auckland War Memorial Museum, even though the whole thing is not about war (this put me off a bit initially, not because I don’t enjoy military museums, but because I was worried that was all that was there.  Not to fear, there is indeed an extensive and varied collection).

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Basic admission to the museum, if you’re not a New Zealand resident, is 25 NZD, which I initially balked at, but by the end of the day, I think I probably did get my money’s worth (although Te Papa was free, and just as good, so there’s that…).  There are other admission packages that include Maori cultural performances or guided tours, but interactive cultural performances always put me off because I’m scared someone will try to make me dance or otherwise participate in front of strangers, and to be honest, the 45 NZD price tag was enough to deter me.  So just the museum it was then, but fortunately that included access to all the permanent and temporary exhibitions.

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I say “fortunately” because Air New Zealand sponsored a temporary exhibit about the history of their airline that was probably my favourite part of the whole museum.  We spent over an hour in there alone!  You’d think after spending over a whole day on a plane en route to New Zealand, I’d be reluctant to have anything to do with them for a long time (or at least until my flight home), but that was not the case here.  I was drawn in by the mock-ups of retro New Zealand aircraft, and by the collection of hideous uniforms worn by flight attendants over the years (seriously, their hats were incredibly ugly.  The ones from the 60s looked like they were about to go foxhunting or something, albeit whilst wearing a mod mini-dress and white vinyl thigh boots).  And I did very much enjoy going into the old planes to see the kind of luxury (and leg room) I was missing out on with modern planes (they can keep some of their disgusting menu items though.  I mean, plane food is disgusting today (except for the Hokey Pokey cookies they gave us on the flight from Kerikeri to Auckland; those were delicious), but at least it’s not jellied like most stuff in the ’60s seemed to be), but the best bits were probably all the interactive things.

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They had games, touch screens where you could learn more about planes, a kiosk where you could design your own airplane exterior, and even a special virtual reality room where you got to experience a four minute virtual tour around the airplane of the future (part of me suspects it was a vision of the future akin to EPCOT in Disneyworld, i.e. it sounds cool, but will never end up happening, but it was still fun.  Except for the teenagers in there going, “man, this is trippy” every three seconds.  You’re not actually high, so it’s not trippy.  Now please shut up).  There was also information about the time the Queen flew on an Air New Zealand commercial flight (they are oddly keen on the royals there), the airline’s various mascots over the years (including that very creepy squirrel above the last paragraph), and the sight-seeing flights to Antarctica in the 1970s that ended in tragedy when one of them crashed into Mount Erebus, killing everyone aboard (it remains the worst air disaster by far in New Zealand’s history).  They even had a groovy gift shop, where you could purchase old advertising poster designs on prints and postcards.

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But being that this was only a temporary exhibit, I should probably move on to the permanent collections.  The museum opened with a history of design that I admit I rushed through pretty quickly, because it was full of European objects that I could see anywhere, and I was keen to see the artefacts that were uniquely Kiwi.  However, the middle of the ground floor is taken up with a Maori Court, which includes a couple of traditional buildings; one of them is still under construction, but you’re allowed inside, if you remove your shoes (as a sign of respect…this was very welcome after walking around in hard soled sandals all day, but sadly I had to put them back on to see the rest of the museum).  There was also a portraiture exhibit that I enjoyed; there’s something so interesting about the juxtaposition of heavily tattooed Maori people wearing 19th century dress clothes, painted by European artists in a traditional portrait style.

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There was an entire gallery  of Maori and Pacific Islands artefacts down here as well; unfortunately, I found the captions a bit sparse compared to the Western artefacts (especially after seeing what Te Papa did with similar artefacts…that post is coming soon!), perhaps because it’s harder to say much about each object if you don’t know their specific provenance, other than what they were used for.

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This poor old elephant was called Rajah, and he once lived at the Auckland Zoo, but he was killed because he was taken from the wild, so obviously didn’t do well in captivity, and the keepers worried he was becoming too aggressive.  I mean, this was in the 1930s, so not a recent thing, but I still felt horrible for poor Rajah.  Surely the kind thing to do would have been to ship him back to the wild, rather than have him put down, preserved, and plonked in the middle of a New Zealand childhood exhibition.  This exhibit was rife with actual New Zealand schoolchildren running rampant, so I didn’t linger, but how creepy are those dolls, particularly the one on the left?!  She looks like she’s got a secret, and the secret is that she murdered your entire family while you were asleep.  [Shudder]

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The last thing on the ground floor was the history of New Zealand settlement (by Europeans), as told through the various beautiful objects on display; again, although these things looked nice, I didn’t spend a whole lot of time in here because many of the things were English in origin, and I could see similar stuff at home; or related to the kauri trade, which I’d already learned about extensively at the Kauri Museum.  Besides, a dishy young Edmund Hillary, floppy hair and toothy grin and all, was waiting in the stairwell, practically calling my name, along with the ice axe he used to climb Mount Everest.

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Also, there was a volcano gallery upstairs, and naturally my geologist boyfriend was keen to see it (he being less convinced about the attractiveness of a young Edmund Hillary.  Seriously, Hillary’s on the $5 New Zealand notes, and he looks foxier on those than he did in real life, so I kept one for my personal collection).  Auckland is built on a number of volcanoes (I think something like 49 of them, though most are dormant), and if one of the active ones decides to blow, the city is screwed, essentially.

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This idea was explored further in a special volcano simulator, wherein the premise was that one of the volcanoes was going to blow and engulf the city.  Basically, we sat down on a couch and watched a fake news broadcast, then the room shook a bit.  I’m glad we only waited a couple minutes for it, because it was rather lame.  Still, all the information about volcanoes was interesting, including the stories of various ones around the world that had exploded in recent history.

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There were a number of galleries featuring the art of different cultures up here (Japanese pottery, ancient Egypt, Pacific Island art, etc), but I didn’t really spend much time looking at them, because natural history!  They had a skeleton of a giant moa, and also a reconstruction of one.  I don’t think hunting things to extinction is a good thing (obviously), but I would have done the same where the moa is concerned…if I saw a bird that looked like that coming towards me, my instinct would be to kill it before it killed me.  Damn.  Emus are bad enough, as I would learn in Australia.

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There were also taxidermy versions of modern New Zealand birds (I have to say, kiwis don’t really do it for me, but I love a morepork.  Even their name is adorable) and other animals (the bat is the only native mammal, but plenty of other things have since been brought in and call the islands home.  Some of them, like possums, you’re positively encouraged to kill, as they’re seen as pests).  And re-creations of native environments, like the cave (crawling with disgusting giant cave wetas, more on them in a future post) and kauri forests.  Additionally, there was a special children’s gallery on the weird and wonderful that I cut through, because it did look rather wonderful (and there were no children in sight).  This was very Victorian-inspired, and contained even more hilarious taxidermy than what was available in the normal adult gallery.

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By then, it was time to explore the final floor (because I was getting hangry and tired), which was about war.  Apparently they’re busy constructing some new galleries, but the stuff they already have is pretty good.  It began with some colonial wars against the Maori, and New Zealand’s participation in British conflicts, like the Boer War, but quickly moved on to WWI, which was the main focus.  I suppose it wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen at other WWI museums (mock-ups of trenches, weaponry, etc), but it was very well put-together, and the perspective was a unique one; it seemed particularly unfair that the ANZAC soldiers were so hard hit when they were fighting so far away from home in a war that really had nothing to do with them.  18,166 Kiwi soldiers were killed; the population of the country was only 1 million at the time, so you can imagine what a significant loss this was.

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There was also a special exhibit about the impact of the war on the home front, which showed that of course, not everyone was eager to sign up, and honoured the courage of those who followed their convictions and chose not to fight, despite facing imprisonment and hard labour.  This was all very nicely done, and the memorial hall is a lovely tribute to the many, many soldiers who never made it home again, whose names are inscribed on the walls.  Also inside the memorial hall were smaller rooms dedicated to Holocaust remembrance, and the history of the museum itself, which is where I learned about the concept of the museum serving as a living memorial.

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WWII, which New Zealand also of course participated in, was not neglected either; fallen soldiers got their own memorial hall, and there was a whole gallery about this war as well.  Two special rooms, containing a Zero and a Spitfire, flanked this gallery (you could start up a Spitfire engine with a touch of your palm, which was especially neat), and I thought the section on kamikaze pilots was fascinating.  One of them, who donated objects to the museum later in life, only survived because the mechanics took their time making repairs to his plane in hopes that the war would end before his scheduled mission…because they managed to drag the repairs out until August, they saved the pilot’s life.

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So as you can probably tell from this extremely lengthy post, this was actually a very good museum.  Whilst I think it had its weaknesses (lack of detailed captions on some Pacific Island artefacts, too much focus in some places on European art, though I can somewhat understand the latter; for Kiwis who haven’t made it over to Europe, I suppose this would be something of a novelty), the temporary exhibition on Air New Zealand was excellent – really a lot of fun, and I think the war galleries were beautifully done as well.  Because I spent four hours here, I think it deserves a commensurate score.  4/5.

Butler Point, New Zealand: Whaling Museum

DSC02449Butler Point is on Doubtless Bay.  I tell you this because it is a great Cookism, wherein Captain Cook sailed past the area, and remarked in his journal, “it is doubtless a bay,” and the name stuck.  I know you all know that I love Joseph Banks, but that includes a fondness for Cook by extension, and I rather adore his characteristic matter-of-factness.  Butler Point Whaling Museum is one of those annoying appointment only places (though when I got there, I could kind of see why) which I normally avoid like the plague, but fortunately my boyfriend’s aunt kindly called them for us (she’s the best!), so I could avoid the sort of awkward phone conversation I hate (i.e. any phone conversation.  I HATE calling people, even people I know).  So with that out of the way, we were free to head down at our appointed time and enjoy ourselves.

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Though this information is not easy to find online, I’ll tell you here: the museum costs 20 NZD.  This did seem steep (still does), but it’s not massively out of line with what some other small museums in New Zealand charge (although the really nice ones in major cities usually cost about the same, or are free, so…), so it was best to just suck it up and pay it, especially because we weren’t asked to pay until midway through the tour, and it was certainly too late to back out then.  The museum is not exactly easy to find…satnav will fail you here, as the road it’s on doesn’t exist according to GPS, so best to go with the directions on their very old-school website.  Basically, you drive up to a gate that you have to open yourself (so it’s useful if you have a friend/travelling companion) and then carry on for another couple kilometres down a winding gravel road (unsealed, in the Kiwi parlance).  Even though we left early, we still managed to be about five minutes late, which was slightly awkward as there was already a lady waiting for us by the parking lot when we got there.  Fortunately, she didn’t seem too put off, and as we were the only visitors that day, proceeded to take us on the tour.

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(There were no pictures allowed inside the museum, so you’ll have to make do with these pictures of the rather beautiful gardens the museum is situated within.)  Now, whilst I am intensely interested in historical whaling practices, I do not condone whaling in any shape or form (nor does the museum – its focus is decidedly historical).  Obviously it was a terrible thing, and it’s awful that it still goes on in some places, but nonetheless, I am a realist, and that does not change history, and the fact that whaling was once a thriving, commercially important industry.  What’s more, I tend to favour many of the more brutal aspects of history, and whaling is right up there on the harshness scale, especially where maritime history is concerned.  So it’s fair to say I already knew quite a bit about whaling at its mid-19th century peak, and unfortunately, what this museum really provides is an introduction, rather than something more in-depth.  This is not to say that our guide wasn’t well-informed, because she certainly knew loads about the whaling industry, and perhaps if I had mentioned that I was already familiar with many of the things she was talking about, she could have deviated her explanations, but it seemed rude to interrupt, and besides, it wasn’t uninteresting, especially when illustrated with the use of actual objects used in the industry.  It was more that with such a specialist subject, I guess I was hoping for a more specialised museum, rather than the overview I got.  That said, I did learn more about whaling practices specific to the area, so that’s something.

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Basically, she began by leading us up to the whaling boat parked outside the museum. Initially, it seemed bigger than I had pictured them being after reading In the Heart of the Sea, but once I saw how it looked when full of men (or towing a whale), then it really did seem insubstantial against the task at hand.  Which of course, was to harpoon whales, and then let then swim around until they tired themselves out (which could easily take hours – 3 on average, but sometimes a full day!) or managed to wreck the boat and escape.  If they did eventually tire, they’d be hauled in for the kill, and towed back to the ship, where they’d be cut apart and hauled on board, and then flensed and the blubber boiled down into oil (and spermaceti set aside for candles and such, if it was a sperm whale).  There were also big pots and a giant ladle, so you could see how the boiling-down process would have worked.  And a few portions of whale skull; baleen and toothed.

Once we got inside the actual museum, we were free to look around at leisure.  The collection was fairly standard (having since been to another whaling museum, I can safely say this); lots of scrimshaw and ambergris and such.  There were maps and factual posters, but the most interesting part was undoubtedly a video made in the 1920s that actually showed whaling in action (which is how I was able to gauge the size of the whaleboats when full), as our guide said, it really did tie everything together.

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The whole reason the museum is here in the first place is because of Captain Butler (William, not Rhett, much to my disappointment), a retired whaling ship captain (I believe he was British, but also lived in America for a while) who had his finger in many pies that horribly exploited the environment, from provisioning other whaling ships, to exporting kauri gum and trees.  Anyway, once he’d accumulated a good bit of money, he built a house here to accommodate his wife and their 13 children (though frankly, the house looks much too small for all of that), which still stands today, and is included in the whaling museum tour (still no pictures allowed though).  He wasn’t the only whaler in the area, of course, as many American whaling ships docked nearby as well (hence the provisioning), but he’s the only one who settled and has a house still standing nearby, so this is what you get.  The house only dates back to the 1840s, but is rather stuffy and rich in authentic smells.  However, as a historic house it was fairly unremarkable, and many of the rooms contained random objects (ladders, posters, etc) clearly used by the curators/caretakers rather than meant to be seen by the public.

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Once we’d finished the tour, which took about an hour and a half, we were free to explore the rest of the property on our own, which included a fernery, a walk that went down to the edge of the bay (so you could dip your feet in if you’re like me; there were a lot of bits of leaves and things floating around, but the water was nice and warm), and most excitingly, a giant tree.  While not as tall as the kauri trees, it was massively wide and clearly extremely old (I think something like 1000 years), and unlike the kauri trees, you were allowed to get right up to it and hug it if you were so inclined (which you may be able to spy me doing in the photo).  You could also walk through the forest to look out onto nearby Mangonui (a little, touristy bayfront town with a “world famous” chippy.  I can’t judge the fish, since I don’t eat it, but I’ve had much better chips).  There was also a teeny graveyard where Captain Butler was buried, along with some of his family and the subsequent owners of the house.

Although I didn’t walk away feeling as though I’d learned quite as much as I’d hoped, I think it’s difficult with this sort of attraction where you have to cater for all levels of knowledge, which is many cases may be fairly slight, and you don’t have that many unusual artefacts for people to admire.  As I said, I did like the video, and I did learn more about local whaling practices, so I think it was still a worthwhile trip, even if this small and surprisingly expensive museum wasn’t quite all I was hoping for.  2.5/5.


More tree, because it was pretty good.


Matakohe, New Zealand: Kauri Museum

DSC02155I was recently in New Zealand for the first time, as some of you may already know, and it was a grand time indeed (I’ll be in Australia when this post is published, if I haven’t gotten eaten by a shark or pecked to death by a cassowary or something)!  So, let the Kiwi-themed posts commence!  The first stop on your Diverting Journeys tour of the country is the Kauri Museum in Northland, but before I get into that, I should probably show you what a kauri tree is.  Basically, you’re looking at one in the picture above.  That particular specimen, located in Waipoua Forest, is the second largest tree in New Zealand.  They also have the largest tree, and several other impressive trees, and I absolutely recommend you go see them, but unfortunately all the tremendously old and huge ones were chopped down long ago (well, not that long ago, from roughly the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s or so) for the logging industry.  Which is kind of where the Kauri Museum comes in.

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If you ever wanted to learn more about kauri, this is the place to do it.  You will find out about the many uses of the kauri tree and its gum, the history of the logging/mining industry, and so much more.  All for the low, low price of 25 NZD.  Ok, so $25 for a museum admittedly seems awfully steep.  And I was extremely put off the prices of everything for my first few days in New Zealand.  But eventually I learned that this is just how much things cost here, and if you don’t suck it up and pay amounts of money that seem absolutely ridiculous ($4.30 for a Magnum ice cream?! Though to be fair, that’s the gas station price.  It’s only $2 each if you buy a box of them at a supermarket.  I recommend the cookies’n’cream ones, which are far better than any of the flavours they have in the UK, where I’m not terribly keen on Magnums at all), you won’t find yourself doing very much at all.

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This museum is not only about the kauri tree, it is also about the gum (a kind of fossilised resin coming from the tree, similar to amber), which itself became a thriving industry after most of the kauri trees had been cut down. Upon entering the museum, we immediately saw signs telling us not to miss the famous gum room in the basement, so of course that’s where we headed first.  Some guy’s life work was collecting, polishing, and occasionally carving pieces of gum, and he eventually ended up with something like 840 pieces, which are all displayed here for your pleasure.  The best were the pieces that were actually carved into things, like Maori chiefs and kiwi birds.

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Now, my boyfriend’s aunt recommended that I see this museum – she being someone who regularly reads my blog and knows my likes and dislikes quite well – in large part because of the impressive mannequin collection in this museum.  She did not lead me astray; these are some damn good mannequins.  The best part is that they are apparently all based on actual people who lived locally, which gives them a real character you don’t always get out of dummies (since ideally, they’re inanimate and all.  Unless it’s some kind of horror movie, or that spectacularly awful Kim Cattrall film).

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These tableaux were spread throughout the museum, but were especially concentrated in the re-creations of a miner’s cottage and a boarding house, which also came complete with authentic smells.  And I suspect these were authentic authentic smells, probably coming from all the wood and such.  This museum did have an old-school feel, with loads of black and white photographs with very lengthy matter-of-fact captions (case in point, a picture of an old miner in front of his shack, reading, “This is the home he will die in.”); in fact, all the text was rather overwhelming, but I didn’t feel compelled to read all of it, otherwise I would have been there well past closing time (if this does happen to you, you are allowed to return on the same ticket the next day to finish up.  We were staying over two hours away, so that wasn’t an option for us).

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Things really started to get interesting when we entered a room with old felled kauri tree stumps in it.  We had thought the ones in the forest were impressively large, but some of the stumps in here would have put the living trees to shame, judging by the girth of them (the one in the picture above, behind me in the kauri tub, was at least 800 years old when it was chopped down).  By modern estimates, over 85% of New Zealand was forested before human habitation, and though the Maori did practice some slash and burn agriculture over the centuries, by far the greatest damage was done by the logging industry – the percentage of forest in New Zealand is now something more like 25%.  So this museum comes with a price (other than just the $25), but it’s not like they recently hacked down these trees to stick them in the museum; the damage had been already been done many years ago.  (That said, they still sell things made from kauri wood in the gift shop, and I’m not entirely sure where it’s being sourced from.)

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This museum also had a fair amount of random crap in it; while there was of course a variety of furniture and carvings made from kauri wood (including about five different busts of various museum benefactors or other important locals), there was also a section with pottery and bottles, displays of taxidermied native animals, and a WWI display for all the ANZAC soldiers who fought in the First World War (you’re going to hear a LOT about Gallipoli in future posts).  I was quite partial to the bottle shaped like a potato.

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They also had a room showing the logging industry at work, which was very noisy, but gave you a chance to see the old machines in action, accompanied, of course, by more mannequins, because why the hell not?  Throwing more mannequins at something invariably makes it better (as you’ll see in my upcoming post on Demolition World).

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My favourite part of the whole experience probably came in the next gallery, which was devoted to farming.  They had a replica of a milking machine (complete with fake cow, because that’s the kind of wondrous place this was), which started up, rather loudly, when one pressed a button.  There were a couple of older ladies trailing us throughout the museum (as in, I tried multiple times to shake them by deliberately going a different way, but they kept popping up again) who would loudly read each caption to each other, and then stand there discussing it (they were pretty much the only people in the museum besides us, which was why it was markedly irritating).  Anyway, one of them pressed the milking machine button whilst the other one wasn’t really paying attention, and she jumped a foot in the air when it started up, and started yelling at her companion (I tried my best not to laugh, but didn’t entirely succeed.  Fortunately, the noise from the milking machine hid all).  But seriously, there were also a number of photographs dedicated to the “cow of the century,” a “magnificent uddered cow,” and those were pretty great too.

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But wait, there’s more!  Although this was the end of the museum galleries (and these alone would have been fairly impressive), there were a couple more rooms just past the admissions desk, by the toilets.  These contained wooden panels (I’m assuming kauri wood) depicting native birds, and a gallery dedicated to the life of Joseph Gordon Coates, who served in WWI, and became the prime minister of New Zealand from 1925-1928.  He was mentioned throughout the museum, since he was born in Matakohe, but this was a more comprehensive look at his life and work.  There was also a church dedicated to him across the street.

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Also across the street was a pioneer church, one of the outbuildings that was included with your museum admission.  There was also an old post office, a telephone exchange, and a school, all complete with their full complement of mannequins, though I unfortunately didn’t get to visit the school as it was closed due to a wasp infestation (I’m glad they warned us, I’d much rather not visit it than end up with a bunch of nasty wasp bites).  Additionally, there was a cafe, which was open when I left the museum; I briefly popped my head in the pioneer church, and then headed to the cafe for an ice cream, but by the time I got there, they’d stuck a closed sign on the door.  It was very bizarre, as the museum itself was open for another hour and a half.  Maybe they just didn’t like the look of me, and they saw me coming?

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Despite my annoyance at getting deprived of ice cream (that is why I know exactly how much a Magnum costs; because we had to stop at a gas station so I could get one on the way back, since I had a taste for ice cream at that point (who am I kidding, I ALWAYS have a taste for ice cream!)), I really did enjoy this museum.  It was much bigger than you’d expect from a museum that was essentially in the middle of nowhere (it was an hour and a half drive from the actual kauri forest, and even a fair bit of a way from Dargaville, the largest nearby town, which is apparently the kumara capital of the world (kumara being a slightly rancid tasting sweet potato-ey root veg)), and damned if those mannequins weren’t unusually impressive.  And of course the massive tree stumps, and all the information about life in the time of kauri logging/mining.  The whole package was really rather impressive.  However, I will add the caveat that this is an incredibly European-centric museum; the Maori are barely mentioned at all, and the extent of the damage that the loggers did to the native forests of New Zealand is also glossed over (I learned those statistics I mentioned earlier at the Auckland Museum and Te Papa, since they weren’t discussed at the Kauri Museum). Because of these glaring omissions, I’m going to give it a 3.5/5, but it nonetheless made for an entertaining afternoon.

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