Vikings, Trolls and a Magical Gateway

Streets in Norsewood

There’s something strange going on in Norsewood. A small, sad town on the way up to Napier, its main tourist attraction is a shop selling woollen socks. Most people don’t bother looking further than that, but I’m glad I did. Like I wasn’t going to explore a town whose street names include Odin, Thor, Hengist and Horsa!

Campervan in Tongariro National Park

My partner Tim and I were on a New Zealand campervan hire tour of the central North Island. (That’s why I didn’t post anything last week.) After a couple of days around Tongariro National Park, we were driving towards Napier and decided to spend the night at Dannevirke Holiday Park, because it had received excellent reviews on the Rankers Camping NZ app.

Dannevirke Playground Viking Longship

The first thing you notice upon entering Dannevirke is a giant Viking. That’s because Dannevirke, like the nearby town of Norsewood, was settled by Scandinavians. Dannevirke literally means Danes’ work. The roadside barriers in the town centre are decorated with shields, there’s a miniature windmill in the town square, and the children’s playground features a Viking longship!

Fantasy Cave, Dannevirke

Unfortunately, there wasn’t all that much for us to do there, and the Fantasy Cave, which looks delightful, albeit tacky, was closed. We decided to continue on to Norsewood. It was a little eerie when we arrived. No one was about, although, to be fair, it was raining. We popped into the information centre: a tiny room devoid of human life.

At least there were people in the café, which was actually quite nice. Outside, three ugly trolls were waiting for us. They led us into the Pioneer Cottage Museum. I’ve explored many such cottages throughout New Zealand and this was definitely one of the best, although the cardboard cut-outs of the early settlers were very creepy – especially when the lights suddenly went off!

Norsewood Trolls

You turn on the lights yourself when you go in, and they only stay on for a few minutes at a time, you see. I was in the barn at the back of the cottage when it went dark, surrounded by scary farming implements and sour-faced settlers, including an old woman who looked like a cross between Peter Cushing and blue vein cheese. It was like I’d suddenly entered a horror movie. I was half-convinced the figures would come to life and converge on me!

Stavkirke in New Zealand

Across the street from the Pioneer Village is a place called Johanna’s World. It’s advertised as having a traditional Norwegian log cabin, a troll cave and the southern hemisphere’s only stavkirke, or stave church. (If you don’t know what they are, google it – they look really cool!) When we stood at the wooden gate, looking in, there was no one there. It kind of seemed like someone’s garden, but there was no sign telling us not to go in, so we opened the gate.

CatImmediately, a cat came running up to us. It was super friendly, but still managed to be regal and authoritative, demanding much attention. When we started to explore the attractions, it followed us.

“Are you our tour guide?” I asked it.

It meowed affirmatively.

The cat accompanied us around the log cabin and the stavkirke. There was still no sign of human life. I began to suspect that our feline tour guide was Johanna’s World’s actual tour guide, turned into a cat by some malign magic.

“It must be the trolls’ doing,” Tim agreed.

Norsewood Troll CaveThe troll cave was actually quite disappointing. It’s not a real cave, but a children’s playroom inside a storehouse. Of course, there were no children there.

“Are we even allowed to be here?” Tim asked.

I had no idea, but the cat was delighted with our presence, and that was good enough for me. I was sorry to leave it.

We had a last look around the village before heading off, checking out an old, wooden gaol and meeting a pair of affectionate horses that stared mournfully after us as we walked away. Had all the humans in Norsewood been turned into animals? No, of course not – what about the people in the café? It was then that we discovered the Gateway.

Gateway Garden, Norsewood

We almost missed it: a tiny garden tucked away in a corner. At the back, partially obscured by foliage, was a gateway – but a gateway to what? Feeling rather like Lucy stepping through the wardrobe, I stepped through the gate and found… nothing. Just the back of the garden, a narrow strip of earth and a high fence.

“Maybe the portal only appears if you believe hard enough,” said Tim.

So I took a deep breath, pictured Bifrost, the rainbow bridge that connects our world to Asgard, and jumped through the Gateway.

Norsewood Crest

I landed on the earth in front of the fence.

I must not have believed hard enough.

Norsewood PostSo that was Dannevirke and Norsewood. If you’re into history, fantasy or Norse mythology, I recommend having a look around both, if you happen to be in the vicinity of Napier. Otherwise don’t bother. The one person we did meet seemed thoroughly confused as to why we’d want to be there. It was an old, scruffy-bearded guy in a battered pickup truck.

“Are you lost?” he asked.

“No, we’re just looking around,” Tim replied.

He gave a sceptical shrug and drove off, leaving us to wonder whether we’d just escaped the local serial killer. Either way, it was time for us to be moving on.

Norwegian Log Cabin

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How Many Trees Does One Tree Hill Have?

One Tree Hill

It’s not a trick question, but I bet you’d have a hard time telling me the answer…

One Tree Hill Auckland View

My little sister, me, my mum and my grandpa at the summit of One Tree Hill

Cornwall Park is a great place to go if you’re in Auckland: marvellous views, large playing fields, nice cafés, historic buildings, surprisingly stunning tree-lined avenues, an observatory and planetarium, and a lot more farm animals than I was expecting from a park in the middle of a city. At its centre lies a volcanic cone topped by a distinctive obelisk. It’s called One Tree Hill – the very One Tree Hill that U2 wrote a song about – but look at this photograph from last year:

Why is it called One Tree Hill? There isn’t a single tree on it. (And if you’re counting the trees on the slopes, well, there’s a lot more than one.) You see, way back before the British came to New Zealand, One Tree Hill was the site of a Māori pā, or hill fort. Then, in 1845, the British acquired the hill and named it after the single, striking tree that stood near its summit. That tree was cut down by a British settler in 1852, either to make some sort of point, or because he needed firewood.

Either way: dick move.

In 1853, the land surrounding the hill was purchased by Sir John Logan Campbell, who repeatedly attempted to grow trees on the summit, but it was like the place was cursed. Only two trees survived. (Two Tree Hill?) One was chopped down in 1960 in another dick move, and so for over thirty years the hill once again lived up to its name. Then the remaining tree was attacked by Māori activists with a chainsaw. Twice.

One Tree Hill

Me and Grandpa at One Tree Hill in 2005

Despite a valiant effort, the tree could not be saved and, in the year 2000, it finally came down. One Tree Hill was now, yet again, None Tree Hill.

But that’s not the end of the story. Last year, after that photograph was taken, not one, but nine new trees were planted on the summit of One Tree Hill. Apparently, the plan is to get rid of the weaker trees until a single strong tree remains, and One Tree Hill has one tree once more. I wonder how long that tree will survive…

So, you see, “How many trees does One Tree Hill have?” has no simple answer. However many it has – one, none, two, nine, or however many the future may hold – it’s a place worth visiting.

Cornwall Park

Cornwall Park

A Look Inside the Oldest Library in New Zealand

The Oldest Library in New Zealand

You wouldn’t expect to find New Zealand’s first library down an unassuming street in Tauranga. Nor would you expect it to contain a secret trapdoor, under which treasures (and people) could be hidden in the event of attack. Imagine yourself crammed into the 1.8-metre-deep oubliette, trying not to make a sound as invading enemies stomp across the floorboards inches above your head, tearing your precious books from their shelves.

A Beautiful Book at the Elms Mission Station

Thankfully, the library was never actually attacked. It’s a tiny, wooden building on the edge of the Elms Mission Station, completed in 1839. The Elms, then known as Te Papa Mission Station, was established by the Reverend Alfred Brown, who was sent from England to educate the children of other New Zealand missionaries. Living at Te Papa was risky: the spot chosen for the mission station was prone to bouts of intertribal warfare.

Reverend Brown was keen to spread Christianity to the native tribesmen. He taught as many Māori as he could how to read and write, and about Western agriculture. (Or, as the European immigrants of the time no doubt saw it, how to be civilised and farm properly.) Our tour guide at the Elms was, however, proud to point out that Reverend Brown supposedly treated his Māori pupils as friends and fellow human beings, rather than as savages to be tamed.

The First Library in New ZealandIt was Reverend Brown who built the library. He needed to keep his extensive book collection safe and dry. William Gisborne, a nineteenth century New Zealand politician and fellow English immigrant, described it in the following words:

“The room was surrounded with shelves, on which large volumes, heavy to carry, and I daresay, heavy to read, gloomily reposed, while, from among, above and below them long rows of tempting, rosy-cheeked apples, brightly reflecting the ruddy fire, shone in delightful contrast with their more sedate brethren.”

Chapel Bell, The Elms, Tauranga(This quote comes from the Elms Mission Station’s website.) As for the rest of the mission station, you can explore the garden by yourself for free, but if you want to enter any of the buildings, including the library, you’ll need to pay $5 for a tour. I found the tour a little awkward, as it was just me and my parents being talked at by an old lady who was obviously used to addressing tourists and children who have no knowledge of either English or New Zealand history.

The other buildings include an almost puritanically bare chapel, an old workshop, a fencible cottage – if you want to know what the hell fencible means, read my blog about Howick Historical Village – and, of course, the main house. I was delighted to discover that it had a games table, though it’s nowhere near as big as mine and Tim’s monstrosity. (Risk is one of our smallest, least complicated board games. We need a big table.)

The Elms Mission House Games Table

Is it worth visiting? Yes, if you’re interested in the history of Tauranga. There aren’t any proper museums in Tauranga, (except Classic Flyers,) which is surprising. I mean my family moved to Tauranga when I was fifteen and it’s only just occurred to me that it doesn’t have a museum like most places… How odd. So, for now, the Elms Mission Station is the best we’ve got. Apparently, they’re planning to build a proper museum, to go with the city centre and harbourfront upgrade, so hopefully, in a few years…

The Elms Mission House, Tauranga

Of course, if you’re a bibliophile you’ll no doubt already be planning a trip to the Elms Mission Station. While you’re there, check out my list of free things to do in Tauranga.

The Elms Mission House, Tauranga, New Zealand

Across the Sea: A Brief History of Immigration to New Zealand

POMS AWAY!

When I was eleven, my class studied a topic I’ll never forget. At least I’ll never forget the image of a dead baby being thrown overboard wrapped in a Union Jack. The topic dealt with the history of immigration to New Zealand.

Each member of my class had to write a pretend diary from the perspective of an English immigrant making the long and perilous voyage to New Zealand in the nineteenth century. As I was an English immigrant whose family had moved to New Zealand only a year previously, I found the topic particularly affecting.

Of course, my family had not come to New Zealand by ship, but by plane. And it had taken us twenty-four hours of travelling, not six months. And none of us had died on the way. Still, I understood the heartbreaking enormity of leaving your home for a strange country on the other side…

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Honestly, New Zealand DOES Have History

POMS AWAY!

“New Zealand doesn’t have any history.”

Do you know how many times I’ve heard that since moving here?

“New Zealand was the last major landmass to be settled; it’s too young for anything interesting to have happened.”

It’s not just immigrants that say it. It’s a sentiment shared by many born-and-bred New Zealanders. It’s repeated so often that people simply believe it.

I did.

1024px-bayeux_tapestry_scene57_harold_deathWhen I moved here, I bemoaned the lack of interesting history and – perhaps as an act of homesickness – began to obsess over British history.

I watched every documentary and read every book I could get my hands on. The Britons, the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, the Normans, the Plantagenets, the Tudors, the Stuarts, the Georgians, the Victorians… and then, at the twentieth century, I lost interest.

I scoffed at New Zealand’s comparatively pathetic past.

School didn’t help.

Maori Chief with Facial Tattoo from the 18th CenturyThe way New Zealand history is…

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Six Books, a Bach and a Wizard’s Robe

Getting away to “the bach” is a Great Kiwi Tradition. A bach is a holiday home, and it’s pronounced like a batch of cookies, not like the Baroque composer.

bach

Baches range from old shacks to modern mansions, although anything too “flash” isn’t really seen as being in the spirit. It’s supposed to be about getting back to basics; enjoying the beach with your family, free from technological distractions. As such, the traditional Kiwi bach is usually quite rundown. Worn-out couches, rusty kettles and board games with missing pieces are commonly found accessories.

Ruakaka Beach

Once you’ve arrived at your bach, there’s nothing to do except go to the beach. When I was younger, I despised it. I thought: I know we’re supposed to be grateful for the little things, but if you’re grateful for this, you’re an idiot. I mean this is the pinnacle of the Kiwi dream? This? But I think I get it now. “Getting it” could be to do with, you know, growing up, but I’ve also had some more positive bach experiences in the last few years.

Ruakaka Beach

I’ve had some “How’s the serenity?” moments:

Yes, that’s an Australian film, but you know… certain attitudes are similar.

Ruakaka Beach

Sometimes, having nothing to do except go to the beach is a good thing. You get there and suddenly nothing matters except the people you’re with. Earlier this year, my partner and I went to a bach with a large group of friends – a New Year getaway. The bach was in Ruakaka, in scorching Northland. When we arrived, Tim nearly passed out from the heat. Wading into the Pacific Ocean was absolute bliss.

Waipu Cove

As nice as Ruakaka Beach is, a short drive up the road lies an even nicer beach: Waipu Cove. After a couple of days lounging around in Ruakaka, Tim and I decided to visit Waipu. We returned with six books and a wizard’s robe.

waipucove5

Our friends joked that only Tim and Abby could go to the beach and come back with books and a LARPing costume. (And if you’re thinking but there are only five books in the photograph – I got another book after it was taken.) There was a mobile library at the beach, you see, and they had a table full of old books they were giving away.

Waipu Cove

“If every beach was like this,” Tim said to me, “we’d get you outside more.” True as that may be, even I’ll admit that Waipu Cove is worth visiting irrespective of the presence of a mobile library. Even the toilet block has a lovely mural painted on it, chronicling the history of the Waipu settlement.

Waipu Cove Mural

As for the wizard’s robe, that came from a junk shop on Waipu’s main street. (Waipu has a few junk – one might hesitate to call them antique – shops.) The town was settled in the nineteenth century by a group of Scottish immigrants who’d had quite a time of it. They were led by a very dour-looking religious chap who fell out with the Presbyterians in Scotland because they weren’t dour enough. He took some members of his clan off to Canada, but the whole thing was a bloody disaster, so they built themselves a ship and sailed to Australia, but Australia was too full of prozzies and booze, so they got another ship and sailed to New Zealand. There they settled, and when the dour guy finally died they let their hair down and started having all the fun they’d been forbidden from having because, apparently, God hates fun. This particular brand fun included nostalgic celebrations of Celtic culture, and Waipu holds annual highland games to this day.

Waipu Museum

That’s what I gathered from Waipu’s rather excellent museum, anyway. It’s worth a visit if you’re up that way. Here’s the website. Apparently, the highland games are worth a visit too. Here’s that website.

For more of my adventures up north, read What to Do in Kerikeri.

A Vintage Train Ride and a Satisfying Walk

Karangahake Gorge, Waikino Station

Every time I go through Karangahake Gorge, I’m mesmerised. I love the way the sunlight peeks over the towering walls of rock. I love the way the water rushes around the boulders. I love the way the trees undulate up the slopes. I also love the old train station at Waikino, as you emerge from the gorge.

Waikino Vintage Railway StationIt’s a proper old train station, is Waikino. It’s got the proper old-fashioned, colonial feel. A vintage train runs between Waikino and the gold rush town of Waihi. Until a couple of weeks ago, I’d never been on it. I’d been to the station café, though, which is very nice. I’m not even a train nerd, (unlike my dad,) and I enjoy the atmosphere. If you’re driving between Auckland and the Bay of Plenty, it’s well worth a stop.

The railway through the Karangahake Gorge to Waihi was completed in 1905. Back then, the area was home to a thriving mining community. Now, the six kilometres of track between Waikino and Waihi are all that’s left. I went there with my family just after Christmas. We parked at the Waikino Station, got the train to Waihi, and then walked back along the river to our car.

Goldfields Historic Railway, Waikino Station

The walk was very easy, flat the whole way and on a well-maintained track. (I suppose it would be, being part of the Hauraki Rail Trail, an eighty-two kilometre bicycle track.) It was also, to my mind, the perfect length. I finished it feeling satisfied that I’d done a decent amount of exercise, exactly as my energy was running out.

It took about two hours, perhaps a little longer. I don’t really know, as my dad kept stopping to “geocache” along the way. I know we walked about ten kilometres, because I had Pokémon Go running the whole time. (There were no Pokémon on the trail, only at either end. I did, however, hatch quite a few eggs during the walk.)

Ohinemuri River, Hauraki Rail Trail

Although the walk was mostly along the river, the views were never outstanding. If you want outstanding views, go for a walk in Karangahake Gorge itself. It was pleasant enough, however. We deliberately went on an overcast day, knowing the walk would have little shade to offer. Though the wind when we got off the train at Waihi was bitterly cold, the walk soon warmed us up.

Karangahake Gorge Train Cogs

At the end of our walk – just past the bridge over the river and the tunnel under the road that would take us back to the Waikino Station – we found a few enormous, old cogs. They marked the beginning of another walk, one that, by now, we were far too tired to embark upon. We needed a good feed. Happily, we had Christmas leftovers waiting for us at home!

The Goldfields Historic Railway between Waikino and Waihi has a carriage for bikes, and you can hire bikes at the Waikino Station. If you’re on a New Zealand campervan hire tour, you can stay the night at the Waihi Station for just $10. I wouldn’t say this vintage train ride and walk is a must-do, but something that takes you through the Karangahake Gorge certainly is!