Just outside Tauranga, off State Highway 2, lies somewhere I wish I’d been a long time ago.
I wasn’t expecting much when I went with my family last week, but Te Puna Quarry Park surprised me in the best way possible. It’s a place of both tranquillity and intrigue; of beauty and of fun. It would have been wonderful to have gone there as a kid, but, aside from the fact that I lived in England when I was a kid, the place didn’t exist back then.
Well, it existed, but it was a disused quarry. Then, in the mid-nineties, the Te Puna Quarry Park Society began work on transforming the scarred hillside into a slice of Eden. It opened to the public in 2000 and has been growing lovelier ever since.
The first thing you see when you drive into the car park is a huge, rusted piece of machinery that looks like a work of art: a digger that children can clamber into and pretend to operate. We didn’t have any children with us, but for a moment I thought my dad was going to climb up into the cab. There’s also a small sensory garden in the car park, but it’s quite underwhelming – the cool stuff comes later.
As you enter the park proper, you are confronted with an interesting sculpture of a face basking in the sunlight. (Or, I suppose, if it was a rainy day, the face would seem to be welcoming the cool droplets on her skin.) Behind the face is a shaded picnic area, before it a stretch of grass to play on, dotted with trees and a statue of a famous New Zealand icon: Buzzy Bee. To the face’s left, paths wind off into flowers and trees.
It’s like a labyrinth, (or, I should say, a maze, as technically labyrinths consist of a single path with obstacles along the way, but the word ‘labyrinth’ does sound rather more magical than ‘maze’.) It’s difficult to choose which path to take. In fact, you’ll be lucky to explore all of Te Puna Quarry Park in one visit: there are so many offshoots to get lost in.
Basically, it’s like Alice’s Wonderland. That was my immediate impression at least. Later, I thought it reminded me of a less impressive, but no less charming, version of The Forbidden Corner, a fantastical garden park in North Yorkshire that we went to when I was nine – just before we moved to New Zealand.
Te Puna Quarry Park is full of quirky pieces of artwork. Right at the beginning of our adventure, we came across a little bridge that had a load of old boots tied to it. My grandpa, who was visiting us from England, looked at it and shook his head in amusement. “Only in New Zealand,” he said.
In some parts of the park, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were deep in the New Zealand bush, but you’re soon out in the sunshine again, turning a corner to find yourself in a herb garden or a bonsai garden, a tropical garden or a butterfly garden. There are ponds and stonewalls, waterfalls and statues – it’s utterly enchanting.
You can even go abseiling down a cliff.
As you walk around, many sounds will mix themselves into the heady atmosphere: the crunch of the pathways, the shrill chorus of the cicadas, the warbling of the native birds and, every now and then, the deep, clear clang of a bell echoing around the quarry. If you can find it, there is an old bell that you can strike – and no one who walks past it can resist. The clanging adds a strange air of excitement to park; like you’re being roused to something, but you’re not sure what. A procession of fairies, perhaps?
Spending time at Te Puna Quarry Park is an experience for all the senses: the sounds, the colours, the smells of the flowers, the textures of the trails and the art that you can interact with… I even associate the taste of the frozen yoghurt I got at the fresh vegetable market just up the road from the quarry with that fantastic day out. (You’ll definitely fancy an ice cream when you leave, as it’s very hot in the quarry, so get yourself to the vegetable market I mentioned – it’s back towards Tauranga and does real fruit ice cream and frozen yoghurt, mixed before your eyes.)
Perhaps the best part of walking around the quarry is the view, which gets better and better the higher you climb. You can look out over Tauranga and Mount Maunganui, right out into the Bay of Plenty. I spent a long time just sitting and staring at that view. Pictures really can’t capture it. Mine couldn’t, anyway.
Then there’s the dragon.
I stumbled upon it when I got separated from my family: in the shade of a tree was the base of a stone tower with a very medieval-looking wooden door built into it, and with steps wrapped around it, and wrapped around the steps was a large, stone dragon.
I walked up the steps, noticing a metal slide curving down around the other side of the tower. Oh, how I wished I was child in that moment. The dragon wasn’t really that impressive, but to a child it would have been awesome. At the top of the steps was a wishing well and a couple of fantasy towers made from old pipes.
I knew my family would be looking for me, and I knew that, knowing me, they wouldn’t fail to look where the dragon was, so I settled myself down in the shade of a tree by the dragon’s head and began to write. (I take a notebook with me everywhere I go.)
After a while, a group of little kids approached the dragon and proceeded to swarm all over it. I didn’t begrudge them that in the slightest. One little boy looked at me and said, “It isn’t a real dragon. It isn’t alive.”
“It’s asleep,” I said. “A wizard turned it to stone a thousand years ago. It just needs another wizard to come along and wake it up.”
The boy regarded me for a moment as though I was a very strange person, and turned away to climb up the dragon’s back.
My family found me soon after that and we went to get ice cream.
Te Puna Quarry Park is free to enter, and it’s really close to a nice holiday park, which is good for people taking a New Zealand campervan hire tour in the area. I’d say definitely go, especially if you’ve got kids, but make sure you wear sturdy shoes and sunscreen, and take a hat and a bottle of water with you.
For more places to go in Tauranga, see my Top 10 Things to Do in Tauranga list.