Proof That New Zealanders Really Are Hobbits

On my first day of school in New Zealand, I was shocked to discover that no one was wearing shoes. I was ten years old, a recent immigrant, and my classmates were actually laughing at me for wearing shoes.

I found it strange to say the least. Where I’d just come from, England, the opposite would’ve happened: you’d get laughed at for not wearing shoes.

I remember asking a girl why she and the other kids weren’t wearing shoes.

“Dunno,” she replied in her upwardly inflecting Kiwi accent. “It’s more comfy wearing bare feet, I s’pose.”

shoes-for-kids-930176_960_720As she turned away, I struggled to undo the confused knot my face had become. How was it more comfortable to not wear shoes outside, walking over concrete, gravel and bark chippings? (I was also laughed at for saying ‘bark chippings’ instead of simply ‘bark’.) I could understand not wearing shoes on the school field, but some kids walked home ‘in bare feet’ as well.

Maybe it’s cooler, I thought. It was quite warm, after all, even though it was August – winter in New Zealand.

I should mention that this story takes place in Waiuku, a small town surrounded by farmland and beaches. You don’t see many people walking around barefoot in New Zealand’s cities. You do see some though.

footprint-648194_960_720I’ve talked about this before, (in Kiwis, Kiwis and Kiwis: The People of New Zealand.) I met a kid who’d had a slither of broken glass stuck in their foot for the past few days. They didn’t seem too bothered by it, though. Their soles were so thick and toughened from years of going barefoot that it barely even hurt. I watched, oddly fascinated, as they casually dug it out with a needle.

What more proof do you need that New Zealanders really are hobbits?

feet-830503_960_720My experience of being laughed at for wearing shoes is far from unique. Recently, I read an article in the Hamilton Press – that’s the free paper that keeps appearing in our letterbox – about a 105-year-old woman with similar memories to mine. She moved to New Zealand from England nearly 100 years ago – way back in 1918. Apparently, all the children at the local school went barefoot and called her a sissy for wearing shoes. As a result, she took her shoes off as soon as she arrived at school each day. Her feet became tough. Kiwi feet. Hobbit feet.

It’s funny how things don’t change. My feet have never hardened, though.

A few months ago, some people I know – Kiwis – clubbed together to buy a PS4 for one of their mates. He’d recently been burgled, you see, so this was an awesome act of friendship. They tricked him into accompanying them into an electronics store and surprised him, filming his reaction on a cell phone. This is the video – it went kinda viral:

As well as praise, it attracted quite a few nasty comments. (Well, duh, it was posted on the Internet.) Most of the nasty comments were from non-Kiwis disgusted at the guys’ lack of shoes. Another video was made to address the issue. I want to show it to you because it’s a lovely insight into this particular aspect of Kiwi culture. The guys are just so down-to-earth and light-heartedly funny about it – so Kiwi about it – that it makes me smile. Here it is:

Stratford-upon-Patea: Town of Pioneers, Players and Peaks

Taranaki Pioneer Village

StratfordA Tudor-style clock tower isn’t what one expects to see when driving through a small New Zealand town. When one realises the town’s name is Stratford, however, it makes perfect sense.

The Stratford Clock Tower is unique in New Zealand. It houses a glockenspiel. On the hour, human figures made by Nigel Ogle pop out of various windows to recite lines from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Most of Stratford’s streets are named after Shakespeare characters. We stopped at the entrance of Prospero Place to watch the glockenspiel perform. Due to the traffic passing in front of the clock tower, it was sometimes difficult to hear, but it was something different, at least.

The performance lasts for about five minutes. You can catch it at 10am, 1pm, 3pm and 7pm.

StratfordToilets

The public toilets behind the clock tower are a bit different too.

Stratford-upon-Patea is in Taranaki, right next to Egmont National Park. As such, it boasts fabulous views of Mount Taranaki. It’s also the last place to get petrol before embarking upon the Forgotten World Highway.

Mount Taranaki Egmont New Zealand

One place in Stratford I really wanted to visit was the Taranaki Pioneer Village. It’s a living museum made up of authentic Victorian buildings. There’s a church, a courthouse, a hospital, a jail, a school, a forge, a bookbinder’s… even a vintage railway.

There was hardly anyone else there when we went, which made the village seem really eerie. It was good for getting an idea of how the European pioneers of New Zealand lived. Seeing the walls of a two-roomed homestead covered with old newspaper, presumably because it was their only means of insulation, was mildly harrowing, as was discovering how school mistresses were expected to live!

Taranaki Pioneer Village

We couldn’t go in the church because it was being used for a wedding, but we could catch a ride on the little train. I spent some time hanging out with the village’s free range chickens and a pair of very demanding sheep.

I imagine the village would have been a lot more interesting if we’d gone on a ‘live’ day, but their website doesn’t seem to have any listed. Seeing people walking around in period costume would have been wonderful.

Taranaki Pioneer Village

If you have plenty of time to spare in Taranaki, the Pioneer Village is a nice place to spend an hour or two. If your time is limited, however, you’re better off spending it at Nigel Ogle’s Tawhiti Museum. That place is freakin’ awesome.

An English Paradise in Taranaki

This is a rare sight in New Zealand: a beautiful English-style mansion surrounded by perfect gardens – complete with gardeners’ cottage – on a hill overlooking a river. It really is wonderfully twee. It’s called Tupare and it’s located just outside the city of New Plymouth. Built in the 1930s by a rich business man and his wife following an architecturally inspiring honeymoon in England, it’s now owned by the Taranaki Regional Council and is free to enter for everyone.

Tupare Garden StepsI came across a leaflet for Tupare at the Tawhiti Museum, whilst holidaying in Taranaki this summer with my parents and grandfather. My whole family loves nice gardens, so it wasn’t too difficult to convince them to go. My dad, at least, wasn’t expecting much, though. After all, how could somewhere in New Zealand live up all those National Trust houses and gardens we used to visit in England when I was a child?

Well, I don’t know whether we’ve been too long deprived of English historical sites, but Tupare more than surpassed our expectations. We were quite enchanted.

English Country House Tupare

The gardens were gorgeous. Seeing the Tudor-style gatehouse made me feel quite emotional, like I was a kid again, visiting an old country manor. Many paths snaked down to the house and on to the river. I had visions of Mary Lennox in a white dress and straw boater running between the manicured flowerbeds and quaint archways. I think if I lived in Taranaki I’d go there all the time, just to sit and read.

English Garden Tupare

Tours of the house are free too. They don’t run every day, but, quite by accident, our visit coincided with one. Seeing the antique furniture was delightful, but the best part of the house was the playroom: tucked away at the end of the upstairs corridor, all but concealed behind a narrow gap between two walls, only a slim adult would be able to squeeze into it. The children of the house must have found it magical, a hidden world all to themselves.

New Zealand Wood Pigeon Tupare

The only downside of Tupare is part of what makes it special: it’s on a steep hill. The walk back up to the car park was torture! But without the steep hill, there would be no views down to the river. There were a couple of teenage boys swimming in the river when we got there. Just imagine what it must have been like growing up there. It’s like a little bubble of old England. Only the tree ferns at the edge of the garden give away that it’s in New Zealand.

Upon leaving Tupare, we drove to the nearby Pukeiti, an enormous garden that’s been in development since the 1950s. It’s apparently renowned for its rhododendrons, but it was the wrong time of year for us to see them in all their glory. If you want to explore the whole garden, it will take you a few hours, but there are walks of different lengths to choose from. We had lunch at the café, which turned out to be quite nice, and set off on the one-hour Valley of the Giants Walk.

Pukeiti Flowers Taranaki

For us, Pukeiti suffered in comparison to Tupare, but it’s a different kind of garden, surrounded by native rainforest. During our walk, we came across a magnificent, dizzyingly tall hollow tree and some strikingly beautiful flowers. Like Tupare, Pukeiti is owned by the Taranaki Regional Council and is free to enter, as is Hollard Gardens, which we didn’t have time to visit, but which looks rather nice too.

Pink LillySo if any British immigrants to New Zealand find themselves feeling homesick, a road trip to Taranaki may be in order. The old English house and gardens of Tupare filled me with warm feelings, but it’s a great place to visit for anyone. (Unless you have walking difficulties, of course. The hill really is steep.)

I’d suggest taking a picnic with you, along with a blanket to put it in. Oh, and swimming gear might be a good idea too.

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.

Tawhiti Museum 10

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.

Tawhiti Museum 04

‘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.

Tawhiti Museum 05

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…

Tawhiti Museum 09

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