An Afternoon in Russell

Christchurch, Russell

I’d wanted to visit Russell ever since I’d read it was once known as ‘the hellhole of the Pacific’. New Zealand’s first European settlement, the port seethed with boozing, gambling and native girls offering their services in exchange for nails, muskets and syphilis. Traders and whalers mingled with Māori tribesmen and missionaries. Sails creaked. Barrels rolled up and down gangplanks.

You’d never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.

Russell

Today, Russell is a bit different. It’s a charming, little tourist town in the Bay of Islands, which you can reach by ferry. (There’s a passenger ferry from Paihia, or a vehicle ferry from Ōpua. There’s also a road that wends its way around from Kawakawa, but having driven it with my partner, I don’t recommend it. Just get the ferry.)

Aside from water-based activities such as swimming with dolphins, Russell’s three main attractions are the museum, the old church and the Victorian printery. Personally, I’d say the number one thing you can do in Russell is have an evening meal on the Strand, overlooking the sea. The Strand is an idyllic street of old, wooden buildings containing a row of very nice restaurants, with an abundance of beachside seating. But more on that later.

The Strand, Russell

When my partner Tim and I arrived in Russell, it was absolutely chucking it down with rain, so we sought refuge in the museum. It was actually quite disappointing for the price. There were only two rooms, but I’ve visited some excellent small-town museums and this… wasn’t one. (If you want to visit an excellent small-town museum in Northland, go to Waipu.) I’d still recommend checking it out if you know nothing about Russell’s history, but if you don’t have much time in Russell, definitely visit the Victorian printery instead, otherwise known as the Pompallier Mission House.

Both my partner and I really enjoyed our tour of the printery. By this time, the rain had stopped and the sun was blazing. (New Zealand summer!) Consequently, the gardens around the house – and the fishing-boat-bobbing sea beyond – looked glorious. There was a tannery behind the house; the gift shop sold leather-bound notebooks made on the premises. Next to the house was a lovely-seeming café, but unfortunately, we were too late to patronise it, having caught the last tour of the day.

Pompallier Mission House Printery

As for Russell’s old church, Christ Church, it won’t take you long to look around. Do, though. It’s rather pretty and if you look closely, you can find a few musket ball holes in its side. The graves are quite interesting as well. We saw one that had what looked like a chessboard on top of it, and we both though it might be nice to be buried with a chessboard on top of us, so our descendants can come and play chess on our graves. Then Tim thought why stop at chess? You could have a hexagonal layout for playing Settlers of Catan, or a world map for playing Risk… But anyway.

The Strand, Russell

We’d made a booking for dinner at New Zealand’s oldest restaurant, The Gables, on the Strand. It was built in 1847. We had a window table, which opened right out onto the beachfront. The water reflected the golden light of the evening as we dined. And the food was wonderful, of course.

Russell

The ferries to get you out of Russell keep going until quite late. They’re also really cheap, which was good for us after we’d splashed out at the restaurant. We drove away from Russell feeling all warm and fuzzy. We’d just had a marvellous day.

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Is This the Coolest Information Centre Ever?

Matamata Hobbiton Information Centre

This is the tourist information centre in Matamata, a town in the Waikato Region of New Zealand. Why does it look so awesome, you ask? Well, this is the town’s other, unofficial name…

welcome to hobbiton, matamata

Matamata was rebranded as Hobbiton following the filming of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies. The home of the hobbits was built on a farm just outside the town. Of course, you can visit the set and it’s completely wonderful – read my account of it here!

Matamata Information Centre

The information centre is the most interesting thing in the Matamata CBD, to be honest. Unless you count a shoe shop called Strider and this pub…

gollum, matamata

Not that there’s nothing else to do around Matamata. The Firth Tower Museum looks like it’s worth a visit, as do the Daltons Plantation Gardens. Also, the Kamai Cheese Factory isn’t far away.

Matamata Information Centre

The attention to detail around the outside of the information centre is impressive. I wish, somewhere in New Zealand, there was a pub like it. The inside, though, is just a regular information centre, albeit with more than the usual focus on Lord of the Rings-based merchandise. And this statue, which is pretty cool…

gollum statue

Down the road from the information centre, there’s a café called Dew Drop Inn that’s perfect for Lord of the Rings fans. The inside is decorated like Bag End…

Bag End, Dew Drop Inn, Matamata

And this is the outside…

Dew Drop Inn, Matamata

They even have a costume rack, so you can dress up as a hobbit as you sip your tea from one of their darling, little cups.

teacup

So, that’s Matamata: a small town made magical by association with Lord of the Rings. Do you think it’s got the coolest information centre ever, or do you know of somewhere that’s got an even cooler one?

 

P.S. I’ve just had a short story published in Breach, a magazine devoted to sci-fi, dark fantasy and horror. My story is called The Girl, the Cat and the Goblins, and you can read it for just $1.99 here.

The Glass Ballerina

My skin crawled with sweat as I wrestled the tinsel around the tree. I was only wearing a slip, but summer had come hard. I sighed and dug through the bag of decorations: relics of my childhood in England. Every year, Grandpa would take my sister and I to a special shop heaving with the spirit of Christmas; every year, we were allowed to choose two new tree ornaments each. The result was a wonderful, eclectic mess.

To my child’s mind, the shop had been truly magical. It was so filled with shiny things that time and space had seemed distorted within it. Choosing just two decorations was always a trial, but I’ll never forget the year I found the glass ballerina.

Back then, I dreamed of being a ballerina. (I wasn’t yet lonely enough to dream of being a writer.)

The glass ballerina had me immediately enchanted. She was beautiful. I made a stage for her on the palm of my hand as she hung from her display. She was delicate and clear, like ice sculpture, balancing on the point of one slipper.

She wasn’t actually glass; she was plastic, but I didn’t realise that at the time, and she was forever glass to me.

Every year from then, when we were decorating the tree, my glass ballerina was the first ornament I looked for. It was the first ornament I looked for now, sweating under the New Zealand sun. I found her and fished her out, only to see that the foot she balanced on had broken off.

I searched for it to no avail. Indeed, I found that many of the decorations we’d bought back in England were broken.

I wasn’t surprised. Plastic degrades, and they were all two decades old, give or take a few years. It was just more evidence of my life in England crumbling under the relentless onslaught of time.

I put them on the tree anyway. You couldn’t tell they were broken from a distance.

Why Do Kiwis Suck at Asking People Out?

For years, I thought that awkward tiptoeing around was how everybody did it. Everyone was dithering and clueless when it came to asking people out.

American sitcoms made it look easy, but they represented a fantasy. No one was actually like that.

Then I went back to England for the first time in years. I was shocked – genuinely taken aback – by how forward the guys were. They simply asked.

Now, if you’re an American, (or indeed any other nationality,) you probably find the idea of British blokes being forward laughable. Brits, surely, are the quintessential examples of awkwardness?

Well, compared to New Zealanders, they’re smooth-talking Casanovas.

Italian Renaissance Garden Hamilton

I thought maybe I was mistaken. Maybe it was just the guys I fancied.

But no.

Lots of people I’ve talked to think the same.

I was talking to an American guy at uni. He was confused that a certain Kiwi girl thought he liked her, even though he hadn’t made any moves in her direction.

“If I wanted to go on a date with her, I’d ask,” he said.

I did my best to explain that she probably wasn’t used to guys just asking, and not because she was undesirable.

Out of all the boyfriends I’ve had growing up in New Zealand, for example, only two came straight out and asked me. (The rest were a result of me asking them out, or of the awkward tiptoeing around I mentioned before.) In fact, the only guys who have overtly and confidently flirted with me have been either British, Indian or American.

Oh, wait, there was that one guy – a complete stranger – who stood at the end of my driveway and – without preamble – asked for my number when I walked past him. I was confused as to why a complete stranger would want my number, and when I refused to give it to him, he called me a bitch. He was Kiwi.

Now I’m not of the old-fashioned mindset that it should be up to the guy to ask the girl out. Kiwi girls are almost as bad at asking, despite them supposedly being the most promiscuous females on the planet. According to one rather unscientific survey done by Durex a few years ago, Kiwi women rack up considerably more bedpost notches on average than Kiwi men. Then, more recently, there was that pathetic MRA-produced article about how Kiwi women are ‘the worst’.

In general, Kiwis suck at asking people out, but why is that?

Is it because they’re too shy? Because they fear the embarrassment of rejection? Because they think they’re not good enough?

I think it’s an extension of the good old Tall Poppy Syndrome that Kiwis are famous for. As a result, Kiwis are so afraid of appearing arrogant that they can’t allow themselves to assume that anyone fancies them.

Don’t get me wrong: being humble is a positive thing. It’s definitely more attractive than the opposite. But do you really have to dither quite so much?

My Favourite Places in Hamilton

We’ve lived in Hamilton nearly three years now and our Auckland friends still mock us for it. In all honesty, though, it’s a great place to be. Here’s a list of my top ten favourite spots around the city:

10) Down by the river

Hamilton straddles the Waikato River, which, on sunny days, actually looks quite pretty. Extensive pathways adorn both banks, which make for very pleasant walks (and bike rides.) I love having somewhere so peaceful right next to the central business district.

9) Embassy Park, a.k.a. the one with the Rocky Horror statue in it

riff raff statue hamiltonOne of the many paths that leads from Hamilton’s main street down to the river goes through Embassy Park. It’s where the Embassy Theatre used to be, which is where Richard O’Brien, the creator of The Rocky Horror Show, saw his first drag act. There’s a statue of him – well, Riff Raff – as well as a rather quirky public toilet. (It lights up and makes noise when you activate the ‘transducer’… I had a lot of fun with it when I was pissed.) There’s also a sign on the wall telling you how to do the Time Warp. And gargoyles. And a resident population of stray cats.

8) La Cave

This is a shop out in Hillcrest that does imported French food. Cheese, wine, pâté, truffle oil… and baked goods… Heaven, really.

7) The Gouda Cheese Shop

I am obsessed with cheese. There was no way the Dutch cheese shop wouldn’t make it onto a list of my favourite places in Hamilton. It has two branches, one near La Cave and one in Rototuna. They sell both local and imported cheese, as well as Dutch confectionary. You can sample the cheese before you buy it, of course.

Casabella Lane, Hamilton, New Zealand6) Casabella Lane

Hidden amongst Hamilton’s not-so-attractive streets is this adorable, desperately-trying-to-be-European lane. It has fountains and wall foliage and interesting little shops, and I wish there were more places in New Zealand like it.

I probably wouldn’t spend so much time there if it wasn’t for a certain delightful little bookshop called Poppies.

5) Victoria Street Bistro

This is my favourite restaurant, and not just in Hamilton. I love the food so much it’s becoming a tradition to go there for my birthday. It’s in the middle of Hamilton’s main street.

4) The Meteor Theatre

At the top of Victoria Street, this unpretentious theatre has become an important part of my life. I’ve performed in quite a few plays there and witnessed its transformation from a bit shabby to pretty neat. There’s always something interesting on, so if you want to see some original theatre for cheap, check it out.

3) Memorial Park

The first time I explored Memorial Park, I was blown away by how nice it was and continue to be impressed. I wrote more about it in Exploring Hamilton’s Parks.

Memorial Park, Hamilton

2) The Italian Renaissance Garden in the Hamilton Gardens

I’ve written so much about the Hamilton Gardens, because they really are wonderful. It’s hard to choose a favourite garden, but I do love sitting on the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ balcony in the Italian Renaissance Garden.

1) Browsers

Yes. My number one favourite place in Hamilton is a secondhand bookshop. It’s one of the best in the country. (I’ve been to a few!) It has a really cool feel to it and it’s open until 9.30pm on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. If you’re a bibliophile, make it your mission to seek it out on Victoria Street.

Of Calf Club and Culture Shock

lambs

I hadn’t long been in New Zealand when I was confronted by the sight of sheep on the school field.

And cows.

And goats.

Walking amongst them was a surreal experience. Adding to my surprise was the fact that none of the other children were wearing shoes. Neither did they seem bothered about stepping in the ever-increasing quantity of dung.

I’d found it strange enough that there were no uniforms at my new school, and that classes finished half an hour earlier than they had in England, and that there was no fence around the school, and that everyone had a meat pie and a chocolate milkshake for lunch, and that they all thought I spoke posh even though my Retford accent was as broad as a donkey’s backside.

Now the school field had become a farmyard.

It was Calf Club Day, an annual event that had been part of rural New Zealand primary school life since the 1920s. Each kid got given their own lamb, or calf, or – err – kid to raise, and then they’d bring them into school and show them off. Then they ate them.

I wasn’t against the killing of animals. I just wasn’t used to children my age being so blasé about it. Typical bloody townie, I suppose. Still, the experience did nothing but add to my impression that the plane which had brought my family to New Zealand had also taken us back in time.

It was as though chaos, the world of the animals, was encroaching upon order, the world of the school. I didn’t like it, but I knew I should have done.

Despite feeling a little left out, I had no desire to raise a farm animal of my own. At that stage, I had no desire to take part in any aspect of New Zealand life.

Those first few months in New Zealand, I felt like I was in a dream. I kept expecting to wake up back in England. I’d write and write until my immediate surroundings disappeared. I’d wish my characters were real, so I could be friends with them.

One day, I ordered a pie and a milkshake from the school tuck shop, but they made me feel sick. The pie was like warm, wet cat food and the milkshake was revoltingly sweet. I didn’t regret the experience, however. Ordering something from the tuck shop, rather than bringing sandwiches from home, seemed to me a sign of integration; of getting into the swing of my new life.

That was over half a lifetime ago. Surely, I’m fully integrated into the culture of New Zealand now? Well I was reading something about ‘being British’ the other day, nodding along as I conformed to trait after trait. Slowly, however, I realised that I was no longer British in at least one respect: I no longer gave a fuck about formality. That’s very Kiwi.

But I’m still not a Kiwi. It’s impossible to feel like one when every new person I meet assumes I’m on holiday, or I’ve just moved here and am therefore ignorant. (Or worse, depending on the individual’s prejudices regarding the English.)

“No, I’ve lived here since I was a kid,” I say.

“Oh, you’ve still got your accent,” they say.

But I haven’t. I no longer sound like a Retfordian. How could I when I’ve spent nearly twice as long in New Zealand?

So, what is my culture? I was thinking about it last night. (I couldn’t sleep.) I may not be entirely Kiwi; I may not be entirely British. I’ve agonised so long about not fitting in, but I have friends. I have lots of friends. And they’ve all got one thing in common.

I have a culture.

I am a nerd.

female tenth doctor cosplay

Read more about

Kiwis not wearing shoes

Starting school in New Zealand

New Zealand being back in time

My accent dilemma

The Craters of the Moon

The first time I saw the Craters of the Moon, I was crying. The hot, white, sulphurous fumes mingled with my tears, which made my face feel very strange indeed.

I was crying because I was tired, and because my family had just had an argument. I don’t remember what it was about. Perhaps my sister and I hadn’t wanted to visit any more tourist attractions. It was late and we were hungry, but here Dad was, dragging us around yet another site of supposed interest. I didn’t know or care what the place was. I was determined not to enjoy it.

The funny thing is, though, I enjoyed it immensely. I enjoyed it so much I was eager to go back years later. I couldn’t even remember it properly, but I knew it was special.

Craters of the Moon

The Craters of the Moon are just outside Taupō, the last stop on the campervan trip I recently took with my partner. I simply had to see them again. If nothing else, I remembered the feel of walking amongst them. I’d stomped off alone, half-running along the boardwalk, and suddenly I was entranced by the mystical landscape around me. Such wonder made the anger I had for my parents seem insignificant. I was lost in the billowing fumes rising from the muddy craters.

The mud was an odd colour. In fact, the whole landscape was a bit off, as though someone had sat down to paint it, but hadn’t had the right pigments.

Craters of the Moon

My partner and I paid the entry fee – $8 each – and set off along the boardwalk. I could still feel the tears on my face: cool and fresh when the wind licked them; hot and tingly when the fumes did. Of course, I wasn’t crying this time. I was an adult and I had chosen to come. I just hoped I wouldn’t be disappointed; that I hadn’t built it up too much in my mind. (Or my partner’s.)

“It doesn’t look much like the moon,” he said.

He was right, of course. But it did, I thought, look like a Victorian artist’s rendering of the moon. Picture a cartoon featuring the adventures of an intrepid space missionary reaching out to the lunar inhabitants; perhaps planting a Union Flag atop one of the larger craters. Very steampunk.

Admittedly, it’s not one of the best geothermal attractions in New Zealand, but at $8, it’s worth checking out. You can spend an hour wandering around it – more if you allow yourself to become mesmerised by the craters. My partner and I didn’t have time, unfortunately, as we had to return our campervan. I could have gazed into a few of them for ages.