New Zealand

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!


I wasn’t joking about all the rainbows.



North Island, New Zealand: Nature Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Christchurch, New Zealand: The Canterbury Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Arrowtown, New Zealand: Lakes District Museum and Chinese Settlement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Invercargill, New Zealand: Demolition World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oamaru, New Zealand: Steampunk HQ


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christchurch, New Zealand: International Antarctic Centre


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.