New Zealand’s Most Enchanting Museum

Tawhiti Museum, Taranaki, New Zealand

You know sometimes you go somewhere not expecting much, but end up utterly enchanted? That’s what happened when I went to Nigel Ogle’s Tawhiti Museum in Taranaki. I can’t recommend it highly enough! Just go there, and make sure you give yourself plenty of time to see everything – a few hours at least. And visit the café. It’s just… well… let me explain…

Tawhiti Museum 01Tawhiti is the largest private museum in New Zealand. Housed in a former cheese factory, it was developed by an artist called Nigel Ogle, who spends his time creating life-sized models of people, using moulds cast from co-opted locals. These models, along with many scale dioramas, tell the story of Taranaki, from the early interactions of the European sailors and Maori tribesmen, to the tragic life of mid-twentieth century local author, Ronald Hugh Morrieson.

The entrance of Tawhiti has the look of one of those historic villages: quite charming. It costs $15 to get into the museum, and a further $15 to do the ‘Traders and Whalers’ bit – and, trust me, you want to do the ‘Traders and Whalers’ bit. There’s also a ‘bush railway’ ride for another $6, but that only runs on certain days.

Tawhiti Museum, Taranaki, New ZealandThe first thing I did was visit Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s attic. It wasn’t just a recreation; it was his actual attic, rescued by a local farmer when the rest of the house was demolished in favour of a KFC, and restored by Nigel Ogle. It was a room I felt right at home in: a 1950’s writer’s paradise. And there was the writer himself, sitting at a messy desk overlooking the attic window – a model, obviously.

Ronald Hugh Morrieson was born in 1922 and never left his parents’ house. His father died in 1928, leaving him, a sickly child, to be raised by his mother and aunt. He never married, was an alcoholic, and became increasingly reclusive. He quite clearly suffered from depression, tortured by the feeling that his writing wasn’t good enough. It’s a state of mind I’m all-too-familiar with and my dad, who was with me in the attic, jokingly reminded me that I musn’t become like Morrieson. It wasn’t really a joke and I was suddenly chilled to the core.

Morrieson died in poverty at just fifty years old. He once said to the famous New Zealand writer Maurice Shadbolt, “I hope I’m not another one of these poor buggers who get discovered when they’re dead.” Well, that’s just what happened. Two of his novels, The Scarecrow and Came a Hot Friday, were published during his lifetime, but did not become popular until years later. Morrieson’s third and fourth novels, Predicament and Pallet on the Floor, which were rejected by publishers during Morrieson’s lifetime, were published posthumously, and all four of his novels were later made into films.

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Already impressed with the museum, I made my way to the ‘Traders and Whalers’ bit, stopping at the pirate-themed shop on the way. Tawhiti has two shops. The main museum shop sells some of Nigel Ogle’s pottery and other more ordinary souvenirs, but the ‘Traders and Whalers’ shop is like an exhibition in itself. You’d think perhaps that a pirate-themed shop would be tacky, but in this case it isn’t. I found some really nice, interesting things in there.

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‘Traders and Whalers’ reminded me a little of Jorvik, the Viking museum in York where you go on a ride through a life-sized recreation of what York would have been like in Viking times, complete with people, animals and unsavoury smells. This didn’t have the smells, but it was almost as good. It was a short boat ride through a pre-European Maori village that was in the process of being visited by a shipload of European traders and whalers. The children seated in front of me absolutely loved it, and were thrilled when a surprise canon went off, lightly dousing us in mist. I must admit, it made me jump.

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The next part of the museum was, for me, incredibly dull. My dad quite liked it, and we did find one interesting thing, which I’ll get to in a moment, but basically it’s an enormous hall full of old tractors. God, it was dull. Anyway, the interesting thing: Taranaki farmers have been at war with their boxthorn hedges for nearly 150 years, and at some point one crazy farmer decided to deal with his hedges by attaching an enormous propeller of blades to the side of an old WWII army tank and, well, you can imagine the rest.

Tawhiti Museum, Taranaki, New Zealand

Before going to the main part of the museum, we decided to refuel at the café, which, like the ‘Traders and Whalers’ shop, is an exhibition in itself. It’s called Mr Badger’s Country Café because its beautiful interior is decorated with scenes from Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. There’s even a human-sized Badger reading by the fireplace in the corner! And in the opposite corner, sitting at a table, staring wistfully out of the window, is an eerily lifelike figure…

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The main part of Tawhiti focuses on the lives of Taranaki’s Victorian settlers, but there’s a wonderful 1920’s house too, donated by the recently deceased local woman who lived there, along with all her period furniture. The most fascinating exhibition, I think, is the one about the New Zealand Wars – so many incredibly detailed dioramas!

I learned so much history as I walked around. Tawhiti seems more personal than other museums. Well, I mean, it is. It’s Nigel Ogle’s personal museum. But more than that. The individual personalities of the historical people leap out at you more than at ‘normal’ museums. You get the feeling that Tawhiti is a love letter to Taranaki. It’s not just a collection of artefacts behind glass.

One small room is dedicated to the life of nineteenth century merchant Chau Tseung, known to the locals as Chew Chong. He overcame racial prejudice to become an important figure in Taranaki’s history.

Tawhiti Museum, Taranaki, New Zealand

I was especially gripped by the story of Kimble Bent, an American who enlisted in the British Army because he’d spent all his money on drink. He ended up in New Zealand fighting the Maori, but was so harshly treated by army life – a fact not helped by his lying, thieving and boozing ways – that he deserted, throwing himself upon the mercy of a Maori chief called Tito Hanataua, who took him as a slave. Bent lived with the Maori for many years. When he eventually rejoined European society, he told his extraordinary life story to a journalist called James Cowan, who published a book called The Adventures of Kimble Bent: A Story of Wild Life in the New Zealand Bush.

Tawhiti Museum, Taranaki, New Zealand

Tawhiti is the quirkiest museum I’ve ever been to. In fact, I found it quite magical. And if this blog hasn’t convinced you of the necessity of visiting, just check out its amazing TripAdvisor reviews!

More from around Taranaki…

New Plymouth’s Festival of Lights

The Goblin Forest

The Festival, the Campervan and the Cyclone That Wasn’t

Taranaki, New Zealand

The Goblin Forest

Goblin Forest, Taranaki, New Zealand by Abigail Simpson

Before I went to Hogwarts, I spent my childhood exploring Enid Blyton’s Enchanted Wood. A few weeks ago, on the slopes of Taranaki, I felt like I’d returned.

Taranaki is a dormant volcano on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. When the clouds clear, it’s truly spectacular to behold. I went there with my family this summer – my mum, my dad and my grandpa, who’s visiting us from England. We didn’t want to actually climb the volcano, also known as Mount Egmont, but we drove up to the visitor centre to look around.

Though we were standing right below the peak, it was completely invisible, shrouded by stubborn clouds. Disappointed, we entered the building to see if there were any short, easy walks we could do. There were plenty to choose from, of course, and there were many mentions of a ‘goblin forest’ – apparently the bush surrounding Taranaki was not your typical New Zealand bush.

Goblin Forest Taranaki New Zealand

I don’t know what I was expecting, but as soon as the forest swallowed us I knew it was different. Amazingly so. I’d never seen a forest like it – not in real life. You really could imagine goblins scampering beneath the gnarled roots, swinging on the frayed vines and bouncing upon the verdant moss.

The trees looked like towering hags, decaying robes hanging in tatters from their twisted, emaciated frames. Yet they weren’t ugly. The golden sunlight filtering through their branches cast a glamour upon them.

The narrow, winding path was bordered by plush carpets of moss so luminously green they seemed almost artificial. I was careful to stay on it. I had the funny feeling that if I left it the forest would play all sorts of tricks on me. That I’d wander for days through a fairy world, led astray by false visions, taunted by sights of sumptuous feasts laid out in clearings ahead, only to have each one vanish just as I reached it.

Goblin Forest Taranaki New Zealand

The path was not always properly formed. It was often left to the tree roots to act as staircases. Some of them were courteous about it.

The walk we were on was called the Ngatoro Loop Track, which takes an hour to complete, starting and ending at the visitor centre. It got quite steep in places – I had to use to my hands and occasionally my bum. Luckily my grandpa’s very fit for his age! All the up and down might have been unpleasant were it not for the cool mountain air and our magical surroundings.

There are shorter, easier tracks on the slopes of Taranaki than the one we did. We also went up to the Ambury Monument, which has a beautiful view of the summit. At least it does on clear days. We got there and the peak was still shrouded, but we decided to wait, just in case. We sat there for about twenty minutes and were on the verge of giving up when the veil began to part. This is what we saw…

Taranaki New Zealand

I’ll be writing more about my adventures in the Taranaki Region soon. The main reason we went was to attend the Festival of Lights in New Plymouth’s Pukekura Park, (which I’ve written about here,) but we found so many other wonderful places as well. I’d definitely recommend Taranaki to anyone planning a New Zealand road trip.

Taranaki New Zealand

Going Medieval in Tauranga

Roman Helmets, Tauranga Medieval Faire, New Zealand

Gladiators, Tauranga Medieval Faire, New ZealandThe air tasted of sweat, dust and sunscreen. The scent of parched grass, greasy food and distant animal dung hung over the arena. Two potbellied gladiators sized each other up, blunted weapons poised. They hadn’t quite gotten the cheers they’d wanted – the crowd encircling them was half-wilted by the fierce sunlight. I was part of that crowd, and within the sweeping sleeves of my medieval dress my arms were roasting.

Celtic Cross Shield, Tauranga Medieval Faire, New ZealandI knew I’d get too hot wearing my medieval dress to the Tauranga Medieval Faire last weekend, but I couldn’t not wear it. It’s so beautiful. I got heaps of compliments! The Medieval Faire was combined with the A & P Show – that’s agricultural and pastoral – at the Tauranga Racecourse. That’s why you kept getting the smell of animal dung, but for once I didn’t mind. It made the ‘faire’ feel more realistic.

Druid, Tauranga Medieval Faire, New ZealandNot that the gladiator fights were realistic – or medieval. There were Roman reenactors amongst the medieval and Norse reenactors. And an Iron Age hut. It was jolly mix of things. There was even a real druid! I enjoyed having a go at archery – as I always do – and talking to the various stall owners. I’m not usually able to talk to strangers, but, of course, these strangers were just as passionate about history as I was. We all bemoaned New Zealand’s lack of castles!

Roman Standard, Tauranga Medieval Faire, New ZealandIt cost $10 to get into the racecourse. The Medieval Faire itself was free, but you had to pay for the A & P Show, even if you weren’t interested in going round all the farm stuff. Ah well. Hardly a rip-off. It was a good day out. (Even if, due to the heat, we didn’t actually last the full day.)

There seem to be a lot of ‘Medieval Faires’ happening around New Zealand. Apparently, many European-descended Kiwis still yearn for the old world, even as New Zealand moves into the future and talks of severing ties with England. Or maybe dressing up in medieval costumes is just fun.

Suit of Armour, Tauranga Medieval Faire, New ZealandMore from around Tauranga…

10 Free Things to Do in Tauranga

Shopping in Downtown Tauranga

Why Living in Tauranga Ruins You for Life

Mount Maunganui

Te Puna Quarry Park

New Zealand campervan hire

New Plymouth’s Festival of Lights

Festival of Lights, Pukekura Park, New Plymouth, Taranaki, New Zealand

This isn’t fairyland. This is Pukekura Park in New Plymouth. Every summer, from mid-December to late-January, it’s festooned with thousands of magical lights. It’s called the Festival of Lights, and people travel from all over New Zealand to see it. That’s what we did last week.

Festival of Lights, Pukekura Park, New Plymouth, Taranaki, New ZealandI’d been wanting to go for a while – ever since I got a small taste of the lights at WOMAD a couple of years ago. I like pretty lights, so I definitely expected to enjoy it. I didn’t expect to be blown away by it, but I was. We all were.

We entered the park just as the sun went down. (Not that we could see it. Taranaki is notoriously cloudy.) We were confronted by a lake filled with glowing spheres that flashed and changed colour. Swimming around the spheres were several confused ducks. They created wonderfully artistic silhouettes against a large, illuminated fountain.

Festival of Lights, Pukekura Park, New Plymouth, Taranaki, New ZealandWe walked around the lake until we came upon an otherworldly waterfall. This was the waterfall I’d seen at WOMAD, but it looked even more amazing now. The long drive down to Taranaki would have been worth it just for this, but more wonders were in store.

Further around, the lake was crossed by an elegant bridge. Dangling above it were many dazzling mirror balls, and drifting below it were people in little boats. The sterns of the boats were decorated with peacock-like frills, each lit up a different colour, so that the rowers became works of art themselves.

Festival of Lights, Pukekura Park, New Plymouth, Taranaki, New Zealand

As we walked between the enchanted trees, we became aware of jungle sounds filtering down through the branches. There was obviously a speaker somewhere. We also heard a strange, intermittent beeping that turned out to be coming from a rather unusual art installation.

Festival of Lights, Pukekura Park, New Plymouth, Taranaki, New Zealand

Suspended far above our heads was a sleeping giant. He was snoring and clutching an extremely oversized cell phone. A sign below him encouraged people to text him; the phone beeped every time he received one. I didn’t know whether it was annoying or brilliant.

Festival of Lights, Pukekura Park, New Plymouth, Taranaki, New Zealand

We passed more pieces of art, including a collection of floating jellyfish, until we came to an area where quite a crowd was gathered. It was bathed in black light, so everyone was glowing, but, more importantly, so were the paper planets and squiggles and birds that were hanging overhead. Every child there adored it. Even the stones on the pathway were glowing.

Festival of Lights, Pukekura Park, New Plymouth, Taranaki, New ZealandThere was live music too, and a guy selling cinnamon roasted almonds. I clutched the warm packet as we explored the charmingly lit fernery. The whole thing was so romantic. Unfortunately, the lights were turned off at 11pm. I would have liked to have stayed longer.

So if you’re touring New Zealand during January or the latter half of December, it might be a good idea to drop in on New Plymouth. The Festival of Lights won’t disappoint, and there are lots of other great things to do around Taranaki as well, as we found out last week…

Festival of Lights, Pukekura Park, New Plymouth, Taranaki, New Zealand

Bridal Veil Falls

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Bridal Veil Falls has to be one of the most photogenic places in New Zealand. I went for the first time last weekend and I didn’t get a single bad picture. Choosing which photographs to use for this post was no mean feat!

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Bridal Veil Falls are located at the end of a very short bush walk near Raglan, just forty minute’s drive from Hamilton. The bush walk comes out at the top of the falls. If you want to see the view from the bottom, which you do, that means a lot of steps to conquer! But it’s not too strenuous.

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There are a lot of nice waterfalls in New Zealand. This is one of the best. If you’re going to be travelling anywhere around Waikato, Bridal Veil Falls is well worth the detour. It’s obviously popular with tourists – I heard a lot of English accents on…

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The Magical Creatures of New Zealand

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Why have we in these isles no fairy dell,

No haunted wood, nor wild enchanted mere?

asked Alexander Bathgate, a nineteenth century Scottish immigrant to New Zealand, in his poem Faerie.

Our woods are dark, our lakelets’ waters clear,

he goes on,

As those of any land where fairies dwell.

In every verdant vale our streamlets tell

Their simple story to the list’ning ear,

Our craggy mountains steep are full of fear –

Even rugged men have felt their awful spell.

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Yet lack they glamour of the fairy tale,

Nor gnome nor goblin do they e’er recall,

Though Nature speaks, e’en in the wind’s sad wail

Who shall give meaning to Her voices all?

The poet’s art, –  as yet without avail, –

Must weave the story of both great and small.*

I must admit, as a fellow British immigrant to New Zealand obsessed with myth and fantasy…

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Why I Love New Zealand

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It’s easy for a young person to feel suffocated in New Zealand. I, like so many before me, couldn’t wait to get out and see the rest of the world. I spent three months travelling through eight different countries last year. Yes, it was exhausting and yes, we really needed more time in each place, but it was exactly the breath of fresh air I needed. By the end of it, I had a new appreciation for New Zealand; a new understanding of why I love it so much.

Here are just 10 reasons why I love New Zealand:

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1) It’s relatively safe.

New Zealand came in third on the latest Global Peace Index, after Iceland and Denmark. Also, you don’t have to worry about pickpockets, which was a relief after travelling through Europe.

2) It’s relatively uncorrupt.

New Zealand came in second on the latest Corruption Perceptions Index

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