I Visited New Zealand’s Only Castle

larnach castle

New Zealand’s only castle can be found in the South Island, lording it over the Otago Peninsula. But wait, you think: New Zealand doesn’t have any castles! Well you’re right. Larnach Castle is merely a nineteenth century mansion with delusions of grandeur. I still enjoyed visiting it, though.

larnach castle

This so-called castle is impressive enough upon approach. There are crenellations. Stone lions flank an imposing staircase. It’s small, even for a mere mansion, but it has an undeniably distinctive character.

What makes Larnach Castle different from all of the similar buildings I’ve seen, (mostly around England and Scotland,) is that it’s ringed by a glass-encased veranda. It’s like a laird’s estate spliced together with a colonial villa.

larnach castle

The first thing we – my fiancé, my little sister and I – did was seek out the café. It’s located in the ballroom, which has a cosy, yet grand hunting lodge feel to it. To our delight, we found it serving proper tea and scones with jam and clotted cream!

Next, we explored the garden, finding not only the White Rabbit, but a statue of Alice trying to play croquet with a flamingo, amongst the expected fountains and topiary. Finally, it was time to have a nosy around the house itself.

larnach castle white rabbit

The child in me delighted in the labyrinthine staircases. The adult in me delighted at the antique furniture. The crazy cat lady in me delighted at the stained-glass window showing the Larnach family’s feline sigil, complete with the motto SANS PEVR – without fear.

At first, I didn’t get why the Larnach ancestors would have chosen a cat to represent the concept of fearlessness. I mean ‘scaredy cat’ is a common insult for a reason! Then I read that it’s meant to be a Scottish wild cat, which makes a lot more sense.

Of course, you can’t visit Larnach Castle without climbing to the top of the tower. From it, you get commanding views of not only the garden, but the whole Otago Harbour. I didn’t stay up there very long, as it was quite cold.

larnach castle tower new zealand flag

Standing, shivering, atop the tower, grey sky looming overhead, reminded me of my childhood. So many rainy, British weekends visiting castles. “Can we go inside now?” I’d moan. Not that I didn’t like visiting castles.

Another thing that reminded me of my childhood was the castle giftshop. Larnach Castle’s giftshop is pretty good. I bought a lovely notebook, which I’m writing in right now. They were even selling their own brand of whiskey. I was tempted, but wouldn’t buy it without tasting it first!

Books, Cheese and Victorian Costumes

steampunk hq oamaru

Oamaru is a coastal town between Christchurch and Dunedin. It’s known for two things: little blue penguins and steampunk. I went penguin watching there when I was a kid, so this visit, I headed straight for Steampunk HQ.

Steampunk HQ is an art gallery, but no ordinary one. It has an immersive atmosphere that’s almost spooky, showcasing Victorian inventions from the realm of fantasy. It can be found on the fringe of Oamaru’s Victorian Precinct, an area of preserved and restored buildings from the town’s 1800s heyday. The buildings are all made out of stone, more specifically a hard kind of limestone called whitestone. This is what gives Oamaru its distinctive look.

oamaru criterion hotel victorian precinct

I was excited to explore the Victorian Precinct. Walking down Harbour Street felt like stepping back in time. As well as museums, galleries and giftshops, there was an old-fashioned bakery, a bookbinder’s, vintage clothes boutiques, a whisky tasting place and not one, but two second-hand bookshops.

penny-farthingBoth bookshops were interestingly decorated. The first I visited, Adventure Books, was exploration-themed. There were old globes and maps, and – just casually – an entire, full-sized sailing boat sitting in the shop. The second, Slightly Foxed, had a more general selection of literature. Alice in Wonderland art and quotes adorned the walls, and the cupboard under the stairs was a children’s playroom. It even had a mezzanine, from which you could look out over the whole shop. I made a few too many purchases, all of which were entered in a Victorian-style ledger, wrapped in brown paper packages and tied up with string!

victorian costumeThe Victorian Precinct is right by the harbour, where you’ll find a large, steampunk-themed playground and a rather good pub called Scotts Brewing Co. – it’s a microbrewery that does tastings as well as great pizza. It was recommended to me by one of the wonderful guides at Whitestone City, a small but brilliant museum on Harbour Street. Not only are you encouraged to interact with the artefacts, you can dress up in Victorian clothing to do so! My fiancé and I had a whale of a time there, especially riding on the penny-farthing carousel.

But Oamaru has delights beyond the Victorian Precinct. The Public Gardens are well worth a walk through. In fact, our accommodation was directly adjacent to the Oamaru Public Gardens, perfectly situated for an evening stroll. I especially enjoyed the Wonderland Garden, a space inspired by children’s fantasy literature, featuring a fairy statue gifted to Oamaru in 1926. I would have loved to have had a picnic there; alas there was no time.

oamaru public gardens

There was time, however, to visit one of the best cheesemakers in New Zealand. The Whitestone Cheese factory has a shop and café, and you can take a tour to see how the cheese is made. We didn’t do the tour, but we did indulge in a tasting platter. I, a cheese snob, was impressed. We ended up buying a few blocks for the road. Their blue cheese is particularly good.

fairy statue

All in all, Oamaru felt like a holiday destination tailor-made for the likes of me: lovers of books, cheese, history, gardens and dressing up! And don’t forget the penguins.

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.

The Adventures of Kimble Bent: Drinker, Deserter, Slave, Folk Hero

James Cowan https://wellington.recollect.co.nz/nodes/view/3183#idx3722

James Cowan, courtesy of wellington.recollect.co.nz

In 1903, New Zealand journalist James Cowan met an old man with an extraordinary story. He was American, he said, but after decades of living amongst the Māori, avoiding European settlements, he was barely able to speak English. His name was Kimble Bent. Slowly, through a series of letters written in te reo Māori, he told Cowan the tale of his life.

Born in Maine in 1837, Bent was restless young man. He took to the sea as a teenager, eventually ending up in Liverpool, England. A penniless drunk by 1859, he joined the British Army. He hated it. After serving in India, he was sent to New Zealand, into the middle of the Taranaki Wars.

The Taranaki Wars had begun in 1860. A growing faction of Māori, worried that the British rule would destroy their way of life, had rebelled. In response, the Government had confiscated vast tracks of Māori land. This, naturally, led to more fighting.

Bent, still a drinker, drank even more to cope with the harsh conditions of fighting in the New Zealand bush. He was often punished for drunkenness, as well as for thievery and insubordination. He even did a stint in prison, where he received twenty-five lashes. By 1865, he’d had enough. He deserted.

A forest in Taranaki

Pretending he wanted to bathe, Bent left his comrades, making his way down to a nearby river. He tried to ford it, but found the current too strong. Instead, he bashed his way through the ferns along the riverbank until he was exhausted. As luck would have it, he soon encountered a Māori scout on a pony. As even more luck would have it, the scout didn’t shoot him on sight.

“Take me with you!” Bent begged.

After a little consideration, the scout asked, “What your name, pakeha?”

“Kimble Bent.”

“Too hard,” said the scout. “We give you more better name – good Māori name. If my tribe don’t kill you.”

Obviously, the Ngati Ruanui tribe didn’t kill Bent. Instead, he became the personal slave of their leader, Tito te Hanataua. He was given the name Ringiringi, as well as a tribeswoman’s hand in marriage. The latter, Bent was not so happy with, as he thought her ugly. Later, he was to marry a younger, prettier Māori woman, (or, rather, a fifteen-year-old girl,) but she died soon after the death of their only child.

kimble bent

Kimble Bent as an old man

Fearing punishment for desertion should he rejoin European society, Bent stayed amongst the Māori for many years. He participated in rituals, tended to the sick and wounded, and crafted weaponry. Of course, he would never admit to taking up arms against the British. We can only speculate as to the truth of much of what he told James Cowan.

Kimble Bent died in 1916. James Cowan’s swashbuckling biography, The Adventures of Kimble Bent, was published in 1911. It’s a fantastic read. I first learned of Kimble Bent at Nigel Ogle’s magical Tawhiti Museum in South Taranaki. (I can’t recommend that place enough.) They sell books about Bent in the gift shop, and there’s a free digital version of Cowan’s book on the Victoria University of Wellington Library’s website. I used that and Kimble Bent’s Te Ara encyclopedia entry as sources for this article. The featured image is of Mount Taranaki.

If you liked this story, you’ll like The Legend of Charlotte Badger, New Zealand’s First White Woman . Reckon I should do more of these? I quite enjoy them.

The Legend of Charlotte Badger, New Zealand’s First White Woman

charlotte badger

Worcestershire, 1796. A teenage girl is convicted of housebreaking and sentenced to hang. Torn from her poverty-stricken family, she is thrown in gaol to await her fate. Her sentence is commuted, however, to seven years’ transportation. Her name is Charlotte Badger. Within a decade, she will become “Australia’s first female pirate” and – more intriguingly – the first white woman to live amongst the Māori of New Zealand.

convict ship

A convict ship

We don’t know much about Charlotte’s life. Tales of her piratical exploits have almost certainly been exaggerated. The story goes that she was transported to Australia and ended up in the Parramatta Female Factory, a notorious prison/workhouse in New South Wales. There, she gave birth to a daughter. Charlotte’s adventure began when she was made a servant and sent to Hobart. She never turned up in Hobart.

The ship upon which she was being transported suffered a mutiny. The degree to which Charlotte was involved in said mutiny cannot be ascertained, but let’s go with the legendary version. Charlotte and her fellow Parramatta inmate-turned-servant, Catherine, were the only female convicts onboard. They seduced a couple of the male convicts and convinced them to start a mutiny. Then, dressed in male clothing for the ultimate swashbuckling effect, Charlotte flogged the captain in revenge for him flogging her.

female pirate

Not actually Charlotte, but Anne Bonny, a legit pirate from the 18th century

Charlotte’s child was with her throughout this escapade. Free, the convicts sailed east to New Zealand. The women were dropped off in the Bay of Islands, whilst the men went off pirating down the New Zealand coast… not very successfully. (Legend has it they were captured and eaten.) Catherine soon died of an illness. Left to fend for herself, Charlotte befriended the local Māori, members of the Ngāpuhi tribe. She may even have struck up a romantic relationship with their chief.

Maori Chief with Facial Tattoo from the 18th Century

A late eighteenth century Māori chief

Charlotte seems to have enjoyed her life amongst the Māori. She refused to leave when offered in any case. Or did she? Was she ever in New Zealand at all? The scant records we have are contradictory. For our purposes, we’ll believe she was. One story has her “escaping” the Māori aboard a whaling ship to America, via Tonga. This comes from a ship that turned up in Sydney in the 1820s. It’d just been in Tonga, where locals had mentioned seeing a white woman and her daughter some years earlier. Their description of the woman fit Charlotte, (fat, pretty much,) and she’d have been able to communicate with the Tongans, given their language’s similarity to Te Reo Māori.

And that’s it, really. I’d never heard of Charlotte Badger until her story showed up on Rejected Princesses. I researched this blog post by reading her entries in Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand and on New Zealand History, as well as an article about her from Radio New Zealand. I was immediately drawn to her story. (Might have something to do with the whole British-immigrant-to-New Zealand thing.) Stories like this – about “the little people”, as opposed to kings and captains and chiefs – make history human.

If you liked this story, read: The Adventures of Kimble Bent: Drinker, Deserter, Slave, Folk Hero.

An Intriguing Find

I found it in a secondhand bookshop in Scotland. It was called Old New Zealand: A Tale of the Good Old Days, by A Pākehā Māori. I immediately looked for the publication date. It was a 1948 edition of a book first published in 1863.

There was also a bookseller’s stamp. This copy had been purchased in a stationer’s in Pukekohe, close to where I lived when I moved to New Zealand! Here was a book that had travelled the world, from a small town in New Zealand to a small town in Scotland. Just like me.

It was quite a ragged tome. I wondered what adventures it had been on. I was intrigued by its anonymous author: A Pākehā Māori. Was this a Māori who had adopted the European settlers’ way of life, or vice versa? Or were they half-European and half-Māori by blood? Whatever the case was, it seemed they were a bridge between the two cultures, and not at all in favour of the British mission to “civilise” New Zealand.

Later, I indulged in a bit of research. The Pākehā Māori in question was an Irishman by the name of Frederick Edward Maning. He arrived in New Zealand as a young man in 1833 and lived among the Ngāpuhi, a Northland tribe. He married a Māori woman and warned people not to sign the Treaty of Waitangi, (though how much he was motivated by a desire to preserve the native culture, and how much by more selfish trading interests, I can’t say. No doubt people who’ve actually studied the subject can.)

In another connection to me, Frederick Maning was buried in Symmonds Street Cemetery, right by where I lived when I attended the University of Auckland. I’ve walked past his grave and not known it!