New Zealand: 8 To the Nation’s Capital

After Napier, we had another long day on the road for our last day on North Island. One of the features of driving in New Zealand, is the number of major roads that are closed for long periods of time because of earthquakes or rockfalls. The diversionary routes are often smaller roads, not designed for the volume of heavy traffic they’re now expected to carry. So there is a constant programme of road repair works to keep them going, and this work is done – as it is all over the world – in the summer. Once or twice we even found ourselves in lines of traffic, waiting for the Stop – Go signs to change.

The road from Napier to Wellington took us across the southern part of North Island on State Highways 2 and 57, to join eventually with SH1 for the last stretch down the west coast. Our morning stop was in the little town of Dannevirke, whose unusual name comes from the fact that it was originally settled by people from Denmark. Here I visited my favourite public toilets in New Zealand: not as aesthetically stunning as the Hundertwasser toilets in Kawakawa, but much more sociable. These were the talking toilets of Dannevirke.

On entering, and sliding the door closed, you are greeted by a voice telling you, “The door is not locked. Press the LOCK button, to lock the door.” When you’ve done so, it informs you, “You now have ten minutes, after which the door will unlock automatically.” Then it plays you some piano music: ‘What the world needs now, is love, sweet love’. When you’re ready to leave and press the blue button again, it tells you “Door is unlocked”. I found myself saying “Thank you” as I stepped out into the street, to the amusement of the workers who were mending one of the toilets. We had a good chat about toilets we have known. New Zealanders are friendly and hospitable, like that.

When we reached Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand, our first stop was the Te Papa National Museum, where there was lots (too much) to see in displays about New Zealand history, geology, flora and fauna. My favourites were the Gallipoli exhibit, telling the story of the Anzacs’ traumatic World War I experience in 1915-16, in which 2,721 New Zealanders were killed and many more wounded; and – other end of the seriousness spectrum – the Lego exhibits (not my picture). Sadly I didn’t have time to join in.

Lego at Te Papa museum

Wellington is a fun city, not perhaps as lively as Auckland. We had an obligatory photo stop near the Parliament buildings but although I have pictures I don’t think they were interesting enough to share. If you’re curious, you can find some on Google Images. In the evening, looking for somewhere to eat, we wandered down to the harbour side and found a branch of Wagamama. We’ve been missing Wagamama – the Oxford branch is closed for refurbishment. 1 So how could we resist eating there? And we felt even more at home when our server was a young woman with a distinctly Glaswegian accent.


  1. It’s been closed since November, and was supposed to be reopening on 6 February, but when we passed by earlier this week, there was still a skip outside and the building looked like a shell. So it’ll be a while yet. ↩︎

Written with StackEdit.

New Zealand: 7. Art Deco Napier

The next day took us from Rotorua south towards Lake Taupo, the largest lake in North Island, and then south-east to the east coast city of Napier. This was the scene of a huge earthquake in 1931 which destroyed the city. It was then rebuilt in the currently fashionable Art Deco style, with the result that the city probably has the largest concentration of Art Deco buildings anywhere in the world. There was a time around the mid-1980s when some of the buildings were beginning to look a bit tired, and one or two were demolished and replaced by buildings in the 1980s Brutalist style. Then the people of Napier woke up and realised what a treasure they were taking for granted. The Napier Art Deco Trust was established to protect, preserve, restore and promote the city’s very special character.

It was raining, the afternoon we arrived in Napier. But that didn’t stop us enjoying a guided walk around the city centre, led by an enthusiast guide from the Trust. We were shown not only some of the most interesting exteriors, but also a few of the striking and beautiful interior features of some of the buildings. Some of my favourites (mostly forgotten the exact places, sadly…)

Even the manhole covers in the street:

We loved Napier! Also that evening (though it took us a long and rather grumpy walk to find it) we enjoyed our first Indonesian restaurant meal, at Restaurant Indonesia, which claims to be “Currently the ONLY restaurant in New Zealand where you can enjoy ‘Rijsttafel’, the famous Indonesian banquet, where a multitude of cold and warm dishes is directly served to your table and kept warm on small candle powered heaters.” Delicious.

New Zealand 6: The Shire to Rotorua

The roads in New Zealand are like those in Britain in that they drive on the left; unlike, in that they measure distances in kilometres.

On the next day of our adventure we covered fewer kilometres, but saw a lot of new things. The first part of the drive from Cambridge took us further across the Waikato region, and especially through the Matamata district, an area of rolling grassy hills that looks uncommonly like the Shire. In fact, it was the Shire in the LOTR movie. For copyright reasons, all the sets for the movie had to be dismantled when filming was completed: the only set that remains is the Hobbiton Movie Set which is close to Matamata. Sadly, it wasn’t on our itinerary – it turns out to be an expensive option for a visit – but we were able to visit the office and have our pictures taken with Gandalf:

Our way went ever on and on to Rotorua (which is Maori for Lake #2). A strong wind was sweeping across the lake, which made our lunch break a cool and blowy occasion. In the gardens of Rotorua we enjoyed the municipal flower gardens, and a more-English-than-the-English croquet tournament in progress. I never knew there were such things as croquet pros, like the pro golfers. I do now.

Rotorua is known for its thermal activity, with super-heated steam escaping from cracks in the ground in random places all over town. Near the lake is St Faith’s church, modelled on, and decorated in the manner of, a traditional Maori meeting house. The side chapel window shows Christ dressed in a Maori cloak, appearing to walk on the water of the lake beyond. Because of the thermal activity, conventional burials are impossible so the dead are interred over-ground, as they are in parts of Italy, New Orleans and other exotic places. If you bend over and touch the ground in the churchyard, it’s hot.

Our afternoon visits took us to the Te Puia Maori cultural centre and geothermal valley with the spectacular Pohutu geyser and the bubbling mud pools. The high winds meant we didn’t see the geyser attain its full height, but it did well for length, soaking visitors over quite a wide area. In the evening we enjoyed a hangi or aori feast at the Whakarewarewa Village. The food cooked underground by the geothermal heat, and informative talks and entertainment by many of the local people. Highlights: the men of our party called to the front to perform the haka, and the very camp Maori in the lineup who reminded you of Frankie Howerd. Was he deliberately ‘sending up’ the whole performance, was it part of the act, or was he genuinely a third-gender person, like the Two-spirit people among indigenous North Americans? As Grandpa knows, there are more questions than answers…

New Zealand: 5. New Zealand’s most photographed public toilet, and a homestead stay

The next day was the first of many long days on the road, as we left the Northland heading south into the centre of North Island.

The first stop on the way was at Kawakawa, to cast our eyes on, and even make use of, the most photographed public toilets in New Zealand. You feel a bit awkward walking into a public toilet with your camera – is this perhaps an arrestable offence? or at least, likely to arouse suspicion? So I took the coward’s way out and locked myself in one of the cubicles before bringing my camera out.

These toilets were designed by the Austrian architect Friedenreich Hundertwasser. An eccentric, and probably difficult to live with – at least, the women he married generally divorced him after only a year or two – he moved to New Zealand were he lived the last 25 years of his life as a kind of recluse, in a house without any power or electricity. The local community persuaded him to use his talents to build something for them, and this was the result.

Public toilet attracts attention from tourists

The whole of Kawakawa has an arty kind of feel to it, with numbers of murals, and other buildings that must have been either designed by Hundertwasser himself, or by other people in homage to him.

Our road then took us back through Auckland and on into the Waikato region. At over 400 km, the Waikato (= long water) is the longest river in New Zealand, powering lots of hydroelectric schemes that generate some large proportion of the country’s electricity needs. For sure Denis told us the exact figure, but …

At Cambridge (good name!) we were met by our hosts for the evening’s Homestead Stay. Alison and I, together with fellow-travellers Chris and Judy, were entertained by Ron and Beth Richardson. Ron is a retired police inspector who now farms, owning and raising horses for the popular local sport of harness racing. Beth was in high hopes that their horse would win the trophy at the following Saturday’s race. We never did find out whether they succeeded. A brief tour of the farm, riding on a trailer behind the tractor; then we sat down to some real home cooking: roast lamb with, I think Alison counted 8 or 9 vegetables.

The homestead visit is an increasingly popular part of many tours to this part of the country, enjoyed by both the visitors and the hosts, for whom it must be a source of company and also income.

Tapu tapu tapu

That little wooden church in Russell, which is said to be the oldest church in New Zealand, was one of the special holy places, for me, of our visit to New Zealand.

Of course it can’t compare in age, with the medieval churches and cathedrals of England, where God has been worshipped for so many centuries more. But this little building has been a place of Christian worship since the 1830s. It enjoys the beautiful setting of that little township on the shore of the Bay of Islands. The churchyard and the building convey an atmosphere of simplicity and peace, even with many visiting tourists in and around the place.

It was a place where Alison and I could sit and enjoy a moment of reflection. Where we found a copy of the New Zealand Prayer Book, and like the liturgy nerds that we are, pored over some of its pages to compare it with the prayers and liturgy we know. Like the liturgy of the Church in Wales, the prayer book of Aotearoa is partly bilingual, so we were able to spot some Maori words and work out what they mean.

The names of the three Persons of the Trinity, painted on weathered boards (which had been the kauri wood roof shingles of the church, before its restoration) on the wall of the church: Atua, Tama, Wairua Tapu. Father (the word also used for God, I think), Son, Holy Spirit.

Tapu is the same word as ‘taboo’, which we often take to mean something forbidden. But here it simply translates ‘holy’. In Christ the awesome Mystery of God, so alarming and terrifying apart from Jesus, becomes accessible, beautiful, adorable, ours. Yet still fills the whole universe with glory.

Tapu, tapu, he tapu te Ariki
Te Atua o te mana me te kaha,
kī tonu te rangi me te whenua i tōu korōria.
Ōhana i runga rawa.

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.

New Zealand: 4. Bay of Islands

The Bay of Islands, so named by the imaginative Captain James Cook because it was a bay with lots of islands in it. Well, give the man some slack: he was being expected to think up names for lots of places that no Englishman had boldly gone before.

It’s up towards the north end of North Island, a beautiful part of the country with a subtropical climate. We drove up from Auckland on the third day of our New Zealand tour, stopping along the way at Parry Kauri Park, Whangarei, and the Waitangi Treaty House.

Before the coming of human beings, most of New Zealand was covered with dense forests including the gigantic, slow-growing kauri trees. Maoris began to fell these to carve out their great wakas or canoes; but it was the European settlers who destroyed most of the forest cover, to clear the land for farming, use the timber for building, and eventually to export much of it to Europe. Too late they realised this was unsustainable (or perhaps they didn’t care), and now the few remaining forests of kauri are strictly protected. This is a long term project, as it takes centuries for the trees to grow to maturity. Most will live for at least 600 years, while the oldest known specimens may be 1000 or even 2000 years old.

Alison hugs kauri

The Waitangi Treaty House is said to be ‘the place where New Zealand history begins’. Here on 6 February 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between representatives of the British Crown, and the local Maori chiefs of North Island. I must have still been jet-lagged, because the enthusiastic and knowledgeable commentary given by the Maori guide who showed us round, passed all understanding. There was Too Much Information, without enough context or previous knowledge or time to look around the exhibition in the house itself. Truly, we were on the tourist group conveyor belt, I guess.

My limited knowledge of the history makes me think the British in New Zealand did try to respect, and live in some measure of harmony with, the Maoris who were already there (themselves relatively recent arrivals). And although there were tensions, wars, injustices, there were never the genocidal episodes which are such a terrible chapter in the history of the Americas. But perhaps I’m wrong about this. I really would have liked to hear other versions of the story to support or challenge the somewhat upbeat version we were hearing.

The Waitangi Treaty House

Maori ways and spirituality, their respect for Nature and the environment, seem to have many parallels with the Celtic spirituality of our own islands. I would really have liked to hear what a Maori Christian would have to say about this, as well as a critic of the Western missionary work of converting the Maoris.

On the day after we arrived in Paihia (which I think I understood was supposed to mean something like “Good place, this”) we enjoyed a boat cruise on the bay. Our all-female skipper and crew carefully told us that it was a bit bumpy out on the bay, today. One or two people chose to stay on land; some others who chose to go, were seasick and made use of the ‘Just in Case’ bags; but most survived well enough. Because there was some movement of the waters, the dolphins were out to play. Do they do all that stuff for the sheer joy of it? Or are they coming up to watch all those human beings whooping with excitement about seeing them? Or do they get a buzz from showing off to us? Who knows?

The highlight and destination of the Bay of Islands cruise is the Hole in the Rock, on Motukokako Island. Perhaps it’s part of the show that the skipper will tell you, “It’s a bit rough today, I’m not sure I’ll be able to steer us through,” then steer close up and retreat… But she did get us through, supposedly with just a metre clearance on each side, and here’s the video clip to prove it.

After the cruise we went ashore at Russell, once known as ‘the Hellhole of the Pacific’ because of the wild lifestyle of the whalers and sealers who lived there. It was also one of the first places to which missionaries came, and the site of the oldest Anglican church in New Zealand, Christ Church, Russell.

You eat fish at the Bay of Islands; and we did at the carefully named Only Seafood restaurant. They serve what I call a pavlova:

New Zealand: 3. Auckland

Auckland, our first city stop in New Zealand. It’s a fantastic, fun place. The largest city of NZ, with one third of the country’s 4.5 million population living in and around the city. But that means it’s still small. And it is so beautifully situated: on a narrow neck of land near the top end of North Island, with harbours on two sides. And the airport is small and beautiful too. What’s not to love about an airport where you sit in the gate lounge and look out one way over the runway, the harbour and the distant mountains, while on the other side there’s a field full of bales of hay?

Auckland is called the City of Sails, because of the number of yachts and marinas around it. There are 8 boats for every New Zealander. Or is that sheep? Yes, it must be sheep. But I think what Denis told us was that 1 in 8 New Zealanders owns a boat, which they mostly use for about 8 days a year. Something like that… after a while the statistics kind of wash over you without leaving a trace. Let’s just say, there are a lot of boats, and most of them spend most of their time in the marina or in multi-storey boat parks. (No, really.) We saw a few of the very big, very expensive millionaires’ boats heading out for the weekend, on the Saturday morning we were there.

The day before that, we had landed after a disagreeable overnight flight from Singapore (10 hours in the plane, a 5 hours time difference). It was late morning, our eyes felt like they were propped open with matchsticks, and our hotel rooms weren’t going to be ready till mid-afternoon. Jet lag for me took the form of a dodgy tummy so that I didn’t want to stray too far from the loo. Instead we had an extra bit of coach tour, across the astonishing Harbour Bridge to the bayside village of Devonport with its Victorian and Edwardian buildings and many cafés. We managed an ice cream and a stroll in the sun, still feeling pretty amazed that it was summer at all and we were walking around in tee-shirts and sun hats.

It was a relief to get back to the hotel, check in, and the rest of the day was ‘our own’. After several days (it seemed) of eating Asian food, we were glad to find a friendly little pizzeria, where the waiters were authentically German and Russian.

And then on the Saturday, a full day of looking around Auckland. The coach tour took in the waterfront (photos of men fishing), the Michael Savage Memorial, with its fine views back over the city (photos of tourists standing in front of the view), and Mission Bay, the site of the first Anglican mission established by George Augustus Selwyn. Then back into the city for a visit to the Auckland War Memorial Museum. I hadn’t expected to be quite as interested in the Maori history and culture, but both were fascinating. I hadn’t really known, for example, that the Maoris themselves were such recent arrivals in New Zealand. They first discovered the islands and settled them only around 800 years ago, before which there seem to have been no human inhabitants. Just giant flightless birds (now extinct), and a few smaller species like the famous kiwi that surprisingly gives its name to the present human inhabitants. (A bit like calling us Brits ‘chickens’; though come to think of ‘turkeys’ might be more appropriate these days.) So many possible pictures: here’s one of a traditional Maori meeting house which give just a taste of the decorations in carving, painting and weaving.

We also visited Auckland’s modern Cathedral. A bright, attractive place, once we had walked all around it and finally found a door that was unlocked. We weren’t the only visitors trying to get in, convinced it must be open because we could see people inside, but unable to find an entrance. At least British cathedrals are usually signposted so that visitors can find the way in.

One more great thing about Auckland: the city centre favours pedestrians. The traffic lights stop vehicles frequently, allowing lots of time for people to cross the roads. And at intersections the traffic is stopped in all directions so it’s possible for footgoers to cross diagonally. This would be a great idea for British cities to adopt.

Diagonal crossing at intersections

Lots more, still unprocessed and unannotated, photos of our holiday are here in this Google Photos album. If you want to explore them.