The Giant’s House, Akaroa

Once upon a time, a little girl looked up at a house on a hill. It was a big-boned house, built of imposing pieces of timber.

“It must be a giant’s house,” she said.

And so the grandest colonial villa in Akaroa got its name.

akaroaNot far from Christchurch, Akaroa is different to other New Zealand towns in that it used to be a French colony. Its street names are French, it has an obsession with French food and wine, and there’s a French flag flying over its tranquil harbour. Its main draw is that it’s the only place in the world in which you can swim with the world’s smallest, and rarest, species of dolphin. Hector’s dolphins are incredibly cute, but while you’re in Akaroa, make sure you also check out the Giant’s House.

giants house

Built in 1880 by Akaroa’s first bank manager, the Giant’s House has, for the last few decades, been owned by an artist called Josie Martin. She’s transformed the terraced garden into a psychedelic wonderland of mosaic sculptures.

giants house

Don’t make our mistake of showing up half an hour before closing. We really had to rush around the garden in order to see everything. Give yourself at least an hour to appreciate it.

giants house

Be warned, though: it’s far from wheelchair-friendly!

giants house

It costs $20 to get in. From May to September, it’s only open from 11am until 2pm, but from October to April, it’s open until 4pm. From October to April, it also functions as a cafe.

giants house

It’s quite exciting to explore. I, for one, felt like a little kid again.

giants house

Well, it does call itself the happiest garden on earth.

giants house

It has also achieved the official status of a Garden of International Significance.

giants house

Further adding to its awesomeness, the Giant’s House commands amazing views of the Akaroa Harbour.

giants house

À bientôt!

New Zealand’s Magical Castle Hill

castle hill

There are places in the world that make you feel like you’ve tumbled through the pages of an epic fantasy. Castle Hill, in the middle of New Zealand’s South Island, is such a place.

Surrounded by mountains, but easy to get to, Castle Hill does not actually have a castle on it. You can definitely see why it was called that, though. The cyclopean stones atop it almost resemble ancient walls and towers, long since fallen into ruin.

castle hill mountain snow sheep new zealand

The approach to Castle Hill is rather idyllic, what with all the sheep grazing the adjacent fields. We went at the perfect time: it was sunny, but the surrounding mountains were still decorated with snow. The slope at the side of the path is strewn with colossal boulders, seemingly thrown there long ago by giants defending their hilltop fortress. Each one has a curious shape. No wonder tourists are keen to climb on them for photographs!

The hill itself is punishingly steep. Rocks looms dizzyingly over your ascent. I had to be careful not to slip, especially as snow clung to the shadows. Getting to the top is like finding your way through a maze. It really would be a fantastic defensive spot. Even if the enemy managed to make it to the top, they’d be exhausted!

castle hill

At last, panting, I emerged into a treeless glade of rocks. My immediate impression was that I had intruded upon an elvish encampment. I half expected figures to stand suddenly up from behind various boulders, pointing arrows at me. My second impression was that this would be the perfect place in which to perform some sort of druidic ritual. Just imagine LARPing there…

castle hill

I simply cannot believe it wasn’t used in the Lord of the Rings films. I think part of Andrew Adamson’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was filmed there, unless I’m remembering wrong, but I can’t recall anything else that was. It seems far too obvious. I mean, you can feel the magic in the air! The Dalai Lama obviously felt it too, as he once proclaimed it a Spiritual Centre of the Universe.

castle hill

The rocks of Castle Hill are endlessly fascinating, forming archways, altars and alcoves. And whenever you pause to look up, the mountains are looking back down at you. It reminded me of Castlerigg, a stone circle in the Lake District in England, surrounded by a ring of mountains. Certainly, a cosplay shoot there would be awesome. I didn’t want to leave.

castle hill

Now, when you go to Castle Hill, make sure you’re wearing sturdy shoes, and take water, snacks and a jacket with you. In fact, a family picnic there would be wonderful. It’s completely free to visit, and is less than an hour-and-a-half’s drive out of Christchurch. We stopped there on our way to Arthur’s Pass to see the kea. We certainly did see them, but that’s a subject for a future blog.

castle hill

Seals, Crayfish and Snow-Capped Mountains

kaikoura seal sign

Kaikoura: the only place where a meal from a van at the side of the road costs more than from a posh restaurant. To be fair, that meal consists of freshly caught crayfish. That’s what Kaikoura means, in fact: meal of crayfish – so you have to try some. The price, however, is why my fiancé and I settled for crayfish fritters, as opposed to a whole, or even half of one. We ate them crowded on a bench with other tourists, on a strip of grass between the road and the sea. It was actually lovely.

kaikoura seal

People from all over the world handed each other ketchup, exchanging smiles and travel advice.

“Have you seen any seals yet?”

“Yeah, there are lots down there.”

“We saw a dead one up the road.”

“Well, if you climb up there, you can see whales surfacing.”

kaikoura whale bones

The crayfish was lovely too. And the view: seals silhouetted against a sparkling bay, surveyed by a row of snow-capped mountains. That’s what Kaikoura’s all about, really. It’s a small town that used to be a whaling station. Now people go there to watch whales instead, as well as seals and other examples of marine wildlife.

kaikoura

There are some nice, little shops in the town, all aimed at tourists, of course. The selection of cafes and restaurants is decent, although the many roadside vans seem to offer a more authentic Kaikoura dining experience. The tourist activities are endless. You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to marine safaris. I quite fancied going on a seal kayak tour.

Now, you’re not allowed to “freedom camp” in Kaikoura, but don’t despair, fellow New Zealand campervan travellers: we found a wonderful place to stay. It’s called Donegal House, which, aside from being one of the best Irish pubs in New Zealand, allows campervans to stay overnight in its carpark for free! Oh, and here’s the view from its carpark:

kaikoura donegal house

The food at Donegal House was sublime, the décor was genuinely interesting (and humorous,) and the barman was the epitome of Irish hospitality. He even offered us breakfast on the house.

kaikoura seals

As for the road to Kaikoura, it is open, but, as of time of writing, it’s still being repaired from that big earthquake. There’s a lot of waiting, but the coastal drive remains preferable to the inland one, both in terms of time and views. There are places to stop and observe seals along the way. We pulled over at one point, expecting to stay for a few minutes, take a few photos and be off again. Before we knew it, we’d been watching the seals for an hour!

kaikoura seals

The Dead Seal Sketch

On the evening we arrived in Kaikoura, we pulled over on the rocky shore to enjoy the light of dusk on the Pacific Ocean. In a distant rock pool, guarded by an adult, a crèche of baby seals was splashing about. Closer to the road, however, a fellow tourist had spotted something.

“Oh my God, look, a baby!” she squealed, pointing to a small, limp seal practically at our feet. “It’s so cute!”

“Looks dead to me,” I said.

“No, it’s just sleeping,” she replied, without a hint of irony.

I was unconvinced. I crept closer until I could see its face. Sure enough, I was greeted by a pair of empty eye sockets. Rather worryingly, a little further along the beach, there was another dead seal. Neither looked like they’d been attacked, but my fiancé contacted the Department of Conservation – as you’re supposed to do if you spot sick, injured or dead animals – just in case. Next to the second dead seal, I saw a gleaming paua shell, but I didn’t pick it up.

paua shell

Thankfully, we saw far more live seals than dead ones.

Apart from the seals and the crayfish, the thing I found special about Kaikoura was the backdrop of snowy peaks. I think it’s the only time in my life I’ve seen the sea and snow-capped mountains in the same frame, as it were. Even just wandering from shop to shop and looking up to see the mountains looming over the town felt special to me.

new zealand fur seal

We didn’t end up going on a whale safari, as our time and money was limited, but that just gives us an excuse to go back at some point!

Omaka Aviation Heritage Museum

omaka aviation heritage museum

Peter Jackson’s old war planes displayed in sets built by Weta Workshop is exactly as awesome as it sounds. I’m not even interested in aviation history and I absolutely love this museum! It’s on the outskirts of Blenheim, near Brayshaw Heritage Park. There are two parts, one dedicated to the First World War and one to the Second, which you pay for separately. If you only have time for one section, make it the Second World War, as it’s the newest and most exciting, but, of course, both are worth seeing.

omaka aviation heritage museum

So, how did a museum in Blenheim come to be in possession of such awesome displays? Well, at some point in the ’90s, the people storing their planes at Omaka decided it would be cool to turn the place into a museum, so they started fundraising, holding airshows and such like. In the early 2000s, this caught the attention of Peter Jackson, a long-time war plane enthusiast. He joined the club, needing somewhere to store his collection of WWI fighter planes, which, presumably, he’d recently purchased with the profits of his phenomenally successful Lord of the Rings films. He, too, thought a museum would be cool, so he called upon the set and prop artists of The Lord of the Rings and bid them do their thing.

omaka aviation heritage museum

The result is magical. It’s hard not to get sucked into the atmosphere. The experiences of the war pilots are brought to life in harrowing detail. I especially enjoyed – well, maybe “enjoyed” isn’t the right word – the scene of the Red Baron’s demise. The churned-up dirt and the expressions on the mannequins’ faces are worryingly realistic. The scene with the plane crashed into the tree, surrounded by snow, is also highly evocative.

omaka aviation heritage museumMy favourite part of the museum is the one dedicated to WWII planes, perhaps because it has even more focus on raw human experience than the WWI part. You enter the exhibition through a recreated air raid shelter, a gloomy tunnel adorned with wartime posters. The muffled sounds of planes and bombs, accompanied by the eerie whine of an air raid siren, make it wonderfully spooky. You emerge from the tunnel to be faced with a life-sized diorama of a lovely moment involving a Kiwi pilot who’s just crash-landed onto some toff’s country estate in the middle of a garden party. He’s being offered a glass of champagne.

lydia litvyakI suppose I shouldn’t give the whole thing away, but I will say there’s a quite amazingly immersive cinematic experience pertaining to the Battle of Stalingrad. You actually feel like you’re there, which is incredible, but I imagine it would give some children nightmares, and trigger distressing flashbacks for certain soldiers and refugees. It left me weirdly winded. There’s also a bit about the Nazis that has a giant swastika flag hanging above it. This, according to the old veteran guide I got chatting to, has proven a tad controversial.

The guide was lovely, but, having mistaken me for the mother of the children in another part of the exhibition with their father, went to great lengths to emphasize a part of the exhibition that might be of more interest to “womenfolk”, and seemed surprised that I was relatively knowledgeably about certain things already. (I took great relish in flaunting my knowledge after this realisation, never revealing, of course, that aviation history isn’t really my cup of tea, my knowledge having been transferred by osmosis from a lifetime of proximity to my father.) Almost annoyingly, I did find the part of the exhibition about the Russian female fighter pilots – the Night Witches – especially interesting.

The two most impressive displays, I thought, were the one focusing on the ace fighter Lydia Litvyak, known as the White Rose of Stalingrad, and the one focusing on the bomber crashed into a patch of Pacific jungle. I made sure my fiancé experienced the Stalingrad section, because his grandfather, a German soldier, was actually stationed at Stalingrad, but was recalled to Germany for officer training just days before the battle began. It wasn’t until after the war that he discovered every single one of his friends who’d been at Stalingrad had died.

omaka aviation heritage museumNow Omaka is quite an expensive museum to visit – $40 if you want to go ’round all of it. The money does go towards improving the museum, however. They want to build an Art Deco bit to go in-between the First and Second World War bits, for example. You can also go for a plane ride if you want. Oh, and there are some amusing T-shirts in the gift shop that say “Old Fokker”!

omaka aviation heritage museumSo, if you love planes, or military history, or Peter Jackson, you’ll be in heaven in the Omaka Aviation Heritage Museum. If you don’t, you’ll still enjoy it. Like I said before, aviation history isn’t my thing, but I’m dead keen to go back once they’ve finished the Art Deco exhibition. It’s because Peter Jackson’s displays have allowed the exhibitions to highlight the human experience surrounding the planes, not merely the technical aspects of the planes themselves. Human stories are what make history so powerful.

The World’s Last Surviving Convict Ship

Picton: a small port town at the top of New Zealand’s South Island. It’s known as the gateway to the stunning Marlborough Sounds. The Cook Strait ferry sails to and from it, but other than that it’s a quiet settlement. Most people pass through it, never knowing it’s the home of the world’s last surviving convict ship, the Edwin Fox. And you can board it.

The Edwin Fox was built in 1853 with the help of elephants. (It was built in India, you see.) Starting life as cargo vessel, it was soon repurposed for use in the Crimean War. Florence Nightingale herself may very well have graced its timbers! (There is actually evidence for this; it’s not just wildly wishful thinking.) In 1858, it began transporting British convicts to Australia and, in 1873, British immigrants to New Zealand.

Not only is the Edwin Fox the world’s last surviving convict ship, it’s the second-oldest surviving merchant sailing ship, the oldest surviving East Indiaman, the only surviving wooden New Zealand immigrant ship, and the ninth-oldest ship in existence. The story of how it came to be preserved in Picton is fascinating in itself, told lovingly at the Edwin Fox Maritime Museum, which you should not leave Picton without visiting! We visited it on our most recent New Zealand campervan trip, and getting to explore the venerable ship was wonderful.

The atmosphere changed the moment we entered the hulking wreck. Bright sunlight filtered through the rotten planks, but everything felt hushed; smothered by the weight of so much history. All those lives: soldiers, sailors, prisoners, families… There were bunks, showing how horrifically cramped conditions would have been – one narrow stall for a mother, father and multiple children to share. We saw how they would have eaten and whiled away their hours, days, weeks and months at sea. We saw the hammocks and barrels, chests and manacles, and then we descended into the bowels of the ship.

manacles edwin fox

What struck me was how much like a cathedral it looked. My English childhood was woven with picturesque ruins, the broken stones arching overhead like whale bones. These wooden bones were almost as magical.

So, next time you find yourself in the Marlborough Region, spare an hour for the Edwin Fox Museum. I personally think it’s one of the ten best museums in New Zealand. If this kind of thing interests you, allow me to recommend my articles Across the Sea: A Brief History of Immigration to New Zealand and The Legend of Charlotte Badger, New Zealand’s First White Woman, which is about an Australian convict who mutinied and escaped to New Zealand.

To Rivendell where Elves yet dwell

The first Lord of the Rings film came out nearly twenty years ago.

Let that sink in.

The Fellowship of the Ring hit cinemas in December 2001, not five months after I arrived in New Zealand. (At what point do I stop being a British immigrant and become simply a New Zealander?) I was ten years old and I was in love.

At once, it became my favourite film, surpassing even The Return of the Jedi. (It remains amongst my favourites to this day, more prominent in my heart than both The Two Towers and The Return of the King.) I suppose, as well as being a masterpiece, it was, for me, the perfect film at the perfect time.

I had just left my own ‘Shire’ and embarked upon a long, scary journey through Middle-earth, a.k.a. New Zealand.

The fact that New Zealand literally was Middle-earth helped me a little in coming to terms with living in it. I could almost pretend I was living in a fantasy story. (In fact, this was when I started writing fantasy in earnest, beginning a life-long obsession.)

I can’t adequately express how much The Fellowship of the Ring means to me; how much the beauty of its aesthetic and music thrill me on a deeper-than-nostalgic level. I’m getting married in Hobbiton in less than four months, which rather feels like coming full circle. (Is that the point at which I’ll become a New Zealander? I am marrying one, after all!)

What I meant to say, before I got side-tracked, is that despite coming out nearly twenty years ago, The Lord of the Rings is practically impossible for New Zealand’s tourists to escape. This is especially true the nearer you get to Wellington, Peter Jackson’s lair. A while ago, Tim and I were driving towards Wellington in our campervan rental, having just visited the Putangirua Pinnacles, themselves a Lord of the Rings location, when we passed an unobtrusive sign saying only ‘Rivendell’. Now dusk was fast approaching, but what were we supposed to do, not visit the House of Elrond?

So we turned down the beckoning road into what turned out to be Kaitoke Regional Park, just north of Upper Hutt. We knew we had to find Rivendell quickly, as the park gates would soon be locked, so we jumped out of the campervan and rushed off into the gloaming. The first sign of ‘Rivendell where Elves yet dwell’ was an ornate post bearing an Elvish script. More posts followed, explaining a little about the movies, and a map pointing out which bits were filmed where.

Don’t expect to recognise anything. It’s just a random bit of forest above a river. I mean there is this one tree with twisting roots, perched atop a rocky mound, that looks kind of cool… (Orlando Bloom posed there in his Legolas gear, apparently.) I imagine it would be a lovely place for a picnic.

I was about to give the place up as not really worth visiting, when I spotted an ancient, stone archway through the trees. Of course, it wasn’t ancient, or stone, but it looked awesome. It would be fantastic for wedding or cosplay photographs!

In the end, Rivendell made for an unexpected, delightful diversion. We didn’t have time to visit the nearby Gardens of Isengard, unfortunately. Does anyone know if they’re worth it?

Come to Crystal Mountain, Charlie!

Way back in the mid-noughties, my generation became suddenly and inexplicably obsessed with a certain unicorn named Charlie. Charlie was a cynical soul who just wanted to sleep, but two younger unicorns badgered him into accompanying them to the mythical Candy Mountain.

“Candy Mountain, Charlie!” came their simpering, sing-song cry. “Candy Mountain!”

It turned out it was all a ploy to steal Charlie’s kidney.

The irreverent fairy tale resonated with Millennials everywhere. Some of us quote it to this day, to the confusion of our elders.

Why?

Umm… we just do. It’s kind of funny. Thus, every time my fiancé and I drive past the sign for Crystal Mountain in West Auckland, it’s hard for us not to cry, “Chaaar-lieee!”

crystal mountain

At the gates of Crystal Mountain

“We’ll have to actually go there one day,” I added, a few years ago.

“I went when I was a kid,” Tim replied, focussed on the road.

“What was it like?” I asked.

“There were crystals.”

“Oh, really?” I joked. “Were there crystals at Crystal Mountain, Charlie? Did a magical liopleurodon tell you the way, Charlie? Chaaar-lieee!”

Fast-forward to a couple of weeks ago. Once again, we were driving past the Crystal Mountain sign, but this time, we had our flatmate, Ems, with us. Now Ems is… how to put this delicately? Her bedroom is so full of crystal energy you have to beat it back with a stick. An incense stick. We couldn’t not go now!

So, we went. Most of these photos are Ems’s.

Now, understandably, I was expecting Crystal Mountain to be a glorified crystal shop, and it did indeed have one – an enormous one – but it also had a rollercoaster – a small, lonely rollercoaster that looked more than a little old and dodgy – and dinosaurs. In fact, there was a whole animal park with things for children to ride on, but we didn’t experience any of that. We headed straight for the main building, which housed the shop, café and an underground crystal museum.

The entrance was flanked by real crystal monoliths. Ems made me take a photo of her hugging one.

“I want to get married here,” she said.

“Does Grant know you two are getting married?” Tim asked, jokingly, as I quipped, “Who to? Grant or the crystal?”

The crystal museum was quite cool. We took an almost eerie elevator ride down into what was basically a crystal-encrusted bunker. There were some epic specimens, including a fossilised T. rex head. Ems could identify most of the crystals without reading the signs. She was in heaven. If you’re not into crystals, $8 might seem a bit over-priced to visit the small museum, but if you are – or if you have children that are into dinosaurs and fossils – I recommend going.

As for the animal park bit… well, I only saw it from the outside, but it looked, frankly, lame – especially at $88 for family pass! (Oh, and you have to pay for rides individually on top of that.) As well as the aforementioned rollercoaster, the rides include a tractor and a train that isn’t on a track. Let’s just say I’m sceptical.

Ems said the crystals in the shop were very reasonably priced, though.

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