New Zealand Has Its Own Stonehenge!

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

I love stone circles. I’m not a ‘spiritual’ person, but such ancient monuments fill me with awe. My favourite is the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney, which I visited last year. My sense of awe was only slightly dampened by the various tourists trying to ‘fall through’ the stones. (The Outlander TV series was at its most popular and the lure of dashing, eighteenth century highlanders waiting to be the tamed by modern, sexually enlightened time travellers was potent.)

Of course, there were nowhere near as many tourists at Brodgar as there were when I visited Stonehenge – the Stonehenge. I often joke that the thick ring of tourists revolving around the circle made it look like it had an extra layer of megaliths, each wearing a different, brightly coloured anorak and speaking in a loud, American accent. Nevertheless, it was awesome to behold. I lingered so long the bus almost left without me. I can still see my teachers rolling their eyes.

So, when I heard New Zealand had its own Stonehenge, I had to see it. I was apprehensive, though. I mean, how could it possibly live up the original? Well, it couldn’t. I knew that. What I didn’t know was that it wasn’t trying to.

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

Stonehenge Aotearoa is located between Masterton and Martinborough, near the bottom of the North Island. Most people who haven’t been think it’s a replica of England’s Stonehenge, and are worried, therefore, about it being tacky. I was in the ‘I want it to be awesome, but will be probably be disappointed’ camp. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect. I mean, wrongly assumed it would be the sort of tourist attraction with a café.

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

The thing is, it wasn’t built as a tourist attraction. It’s a passion project, built on the farm of a couple of retired astronomers by members of the Phoenix Astronomical Society. It was never meant to be a replica of the original Stonehenge, but an accurate calendar for its specific place in the world. Yes, it was built on a similar scale to the original, but it combines modern scientific thinking with the starlore of many cultures, including Māori. The small gift shop is more focussed on educational gifts than spiritual.

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

There’s an explanatory video to watch to before you make your way out to the circle, through a modest but lovely garden. Though the site promotes science and education, it still attracts the druidic crowd. It holds equinox celebrations, which include storytelling and music. Apparently, the acoustics are something else! Beside the entrance, there’s an old school building set up with a cinema screen, which will hopefully see more use in the future.

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

As for the circle itself, it’s underwhelming, but still pretty damn cool. There’s no getting around the fact that it’s concrete. The lines are disconcertingly clean, but of course they are – the pillars and lintels are brand new! They haven’t been subjected to thousands of years of weather, or Victorian souvenir hunters with chisels. You have to appreciate Stonehenge Aotearoa for what it is, not what it isn’t.

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

There are a few interesting touches, such as an analemma, an obelisk and a statue of Artemis. There’s also a star sign tracker – an accurate one. Apparently, people are always disappointed to learn that their star signs are wrong! I’m really glad I visited Stonehenge Aotearoa. I’d recommend it to anyone travelling down to, or up from Wellington.

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

So What’s New Zealand’s Best University?

People keep asking me what the best university in New Zealand is. Of course, I have to be loyal to my alma mater and say Auckland. The University of Auckland is New Zealand’s only university in the top 100 of the QS World University Rankings – 85th as of time of writing. This was a factor in my deciding to attend Auckland in first place. Does this mean, however, that it’s actually the best place at which to study?

The Auckland Uni Clock Tower

There are two other universities in Auckland: Massey and AUT, which stands for Auckland University of Technology. (It often calls itself AUT University, which would make it the Auckland University of Technology University, which is silly and should disqualify it from the best university race under the rule of snobbery, if nothing else.) Both AUT University and Massey University are good for practical, as opposed to purely academic, degrees. AUT’s supposed to be good for hospitality and sports; Massey for agriculture. The problem with studying in Auckland is the eye-watering cost of rent.

An hour-and-a-half south of Auckland, we come to the University of Waikato in Hamilton. Accommodation costs are far friendlier here. I never even considered Waikato when I was choosing which university to attend, because it’s a lot less “prestigious” than Auckland. (And Hamilton is seen as a hole by the rest of New Zealand. I’ve lived in Hamilton for four years now and it’s definitely not a hole.) Looking back, I regret not considering Waikato, because its campus is actually a lot nicer than Auckland’s. It’s currently ranked 274th in the world.

Eight hours south of Auckland, we come to the Victoria University of Wellington. The is one of the universities I considered, but was put off by how far away from home it was. (And by how windy Wellington had been the only other time I’d visited – so windy my jaw had been in constant pain!) Maybe if I’d wanted to study Law, I would have gone. Being right next to Parliament, Victoria is great for that. It’s currently ranked 221st in the world.

The Otago Uni Clock Tower

Next, we’re leaving the North Island of New Zealand entirely and heading into the wild south. The most prestigious university in the South Island is the University of Otago. My little sister’s there at the moment. It’s in Dunedin, an inexpensive student Mecca surrounded by stunning scenery. If you want to study Science, or anything to with wildlife and the great outdoors, Otago would be an amazing experience. It’s ranked 175th in the world.

Our final two universities are also in the South Island, in its main city, Christchurch. The first, Lincoln University, is the second-lowest ranked on this list, after AUT University, (356th and 442nd in the world respectively.) It’s a small university that specialises in agriculture. The second, the University of Canterbury, is 227th in the world, making it the fourth-highest ranked university in New Zealand. It’s supposed to be especially good for engineering, but one of its most notable alumni was Ernest Rutherford – yes, as in the father of nuclear physics, Ernest Rutherford!

Ernest Rutherford

Obviously, the best university for you depends on what you want out of studying. I can’t really answer, because I’ve only been to one. My personal preference for top three would probably be:

1) Auckland, because Auckland’s a great city to live in and explore, despite the cost of rent, and it’s a good all-round university with a vibrant student culture.

2) Otago, because it’s cheap to live in Dunedin, the student experience there is legendary, the university clocktower is picturesque and the South Island is gorgeous.

3) Victoria, because the quality of education there is good and Wellington is New Zealand’s capital city AND/OR Waikato, because the campus is awesome and it’s becoming a well-respected university.

A drawing of Otago Uni’s Clock Tower Building from 1879

The Ethics of Owning a Cat in New Zealand

A few years ago, a certain would-be politician became New Zealand Cat Enemy Number One. He denounced cats as sadistic serial killers and called for their eradication. Not only did he want every stray cat to be killed, he wanted people to stop owning cats altogether. Of course, the national outrage was great and ensured many ailurophiles would never vote for him, regardless of what his party’s cat policies actually were. The thing is, though, he wasn’t wrong.

I love cats. I’m known as a crazy cat lady. I’ve just spent the better part of five months fostering seven kittens and their mother. I’ve watched them grow from this…

weekoldkittens

… to this…

kittens

… to this…

kittens

… and now my fiancé and our flatmate have adopted three of them between us, Lennon, Loki and Circe. In fact, this whole article is nothing more than an excuse to show you our most adorable cat pictures!

Why, then, do I agree with New Zealand Cat Enemy Number One?

Well… I do and I don’t.

kittenThe thing you have to remember about New Zealand is, before humans colonised it, there were no cats. In fact, there were no land mammals at all. (Well, there were bats, but they only ate insects.) In a world without mammalian predators, New Zealand’s native birds, such as the flightless kiwi and kakapo, thrived. Then humans came, bringing with them rats and dogs and possums and cats, and bird numbers plummeted – the flightless birds didn’t stand a chance! Now, many of New Zealand’s native birds are endangered and cats certainly don’t help.

It’s not just that cats – yes, even pet cats – hunt the native birds. They also contribute to the spread of toxoplasmosis, a parasite that can harm other animals. My little sister studies wildlife conservation, and she goes on whole rants about why we shouldn’t have cats, or should at least limit ourselves to one cat per household. When I told her about our fostering plans, she got annoyed that we were rescuing unwanted cats rather than putting them down. It’s not that she doesn’t like cats either – we grew up with them in our home.

kittenswithswordsThat’s where I draw the line, though. I see nothing wrong with getting cats off the streets, desexing them and giving them a good home. I agree that you should have to desex your cats by law, unless you have a breeder’s licence, and that you should take steps to protect the native wildlife around your home. Obviously, the easiest way to do this is to have an indoor-only cat, but I also feel like it’s kind of cruel to keep cats inside their whole lives. For me, the best solution seems to be building a cat run in the garden, especially if you live in the country.

If you live in an apartment, I suggest taking your cats for walks on leads. Yeah, it’s a little weird, but it’s becoming more and more common. Maybe it’ll be the norm soon. We’re going to try it with ours… Wish us luck.

I guess I feel a bit guilty. Owning a cat in New Zealand is a bit dodgy, ethically speaking. But I’m not going to not have cats because cats are gorgeous and funny and cuddly and enrich our lives infinitely. If New Zealand ever decided to ban cats, (which it won’t,) I would seriously consider emigrating. I have a purring kitten on my lap as I write this and it just feels right.

gingerkittens

Bulls: A Town Like No Udder

bulls sign

Yes, that was really what was written on the sign: A Town Like No Udder. We were unable to suppress our groans as we drove past it. We knew Bulls was famous for bad puns – that was why we were stopping here on our way back from Wellington – but the small town had already exceeded our expectations.

We parked on the road outside a café with the following sign in the window:

Sighing, we proceeded to explore.

New Zealand is teeming with small, boring towns that have chosen a single quirk to double down on, thus turning themselves into tourist destinations. Or, at least, towns you’d get out and look around in, as opposed to just driving through. Katikati, for example, is full of murals, whereas Tirau is full of giant, corrugated iron things.

tirau sheep

Bulls, of course, is full of… well, actually, quite nice boutique shops. We were pleasantly surprised by that. The antiques shops were especially cool, although I failed to spot a sign that said COLLECT-A-BULL, which – come on – surely, I must have missed, because if there isn’t one, that’s a serious oversight.

First, though, I needed to relive myself. Thankfully, I found some public toilets labelled RELIEVE-A-BULL at the information centre, which was labelled…

bulls sign

INFORM-A-BULL. Nearby stood an outlet of the fast-food chain Subway that had declared itself SUBMERGE-A-BULL, and the local police station: CONST-A-BULL. It had a cute – if PREDICT-A-BULL – mural on its side.

bulls police

But that wasn’t the only mural in Bulls. This one looked oddly familiar:

bulls american gothic

I found it opposite the local Plunket building. (Plunket is a New Zealand charity that provides free health services to children under five.) Incidentally, the sign on the side of that building said NON RETURN-A-BULL.

As I made my way towards the centre of town, I appreciated the milk churn-shaped rubbish bins encouraging people to be RESPONSE-A-BULL.

bulls bin

The hub of the town, opposite some FASHION-A-BULL shops, is the old town hall:

bulls town hall

Very SOCI-A-BULL. Though one mustn’t forget the MEMOR-A-BULL museum or the CURE-A-BULL medical centre, which, for some reason, has a Trojan bull outside of it.

trojan bull

We had a late lunch at a posh café – DELECT-A-BULL – and squeed at a collection of BLING-A-BULL wedding tiaras. (Though I think I’ll keep it simple with a flower garland for my wedding at Hobbiton.) I liked that the library was READ-A-BULL, and guessed that the church would be BELIEVE-A-BULL, but I was wrong. As we drove out of Bulls, I leaned into the window to check. It was FORGIVE-A-BULL.

bulls

The National Harry Potter Quiz Championship

Harry Potter quiz

It was amazing, really: New Zealand’s hundred nerdiest Harry Potter fans gathered in one room. We were in a pub in Wellington, magically decorated with Hogwarts flags and fairy lights. Each table had been given a pack of Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans. Most people were in costume. We were there because we were the best, the winning teams of our respective regional Harry Potter quizzes. Tonight’s quiz would crown the best of the best. Tonight, one team would claim the coveted title of New Zealand’s Biggest Insufferable Know-It-Alls.

My team, the DA, was representing Hamilton. (It’s quite a journey from Hamilton to Wellington, so kudos to the teams who came all the way from Dunedin!) We were dressed as the Hogwarts Founders – Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin – with the Sorting Hat and some cuddly animal mascots. We ended up getting second prize for costumes, actually! None of us expected to do that well with the actual questions, but we were in for a nice surprise. In the meantime, we ordered some Harry Potter-themed bar snacks and cocktails.

Hogwarts HousesThe pub was called Leroy’s Bar in the centre of Wellington. The quiz was being run by Gee Quiz. The quizmaster was wearing an impeccable Mad-Eye Moody costume. Other great costumes included a fantastically detailed Luna wearing her lion headdress and carrying a light-up balloon that had been fashioned into a hare, (her Patronus,) and a whole team dressed as wizards trying to dress like muggles. I’ll be tempted to go back to Leroy’s Bar when I’m in Wellington again, as it seemed like it would have a decent atmosphere even without all the Harry Potter accoutrements.

The questions were surprising. We’d done some revising in the weeks leading up to the quiz, making mental notes of things that were likely to be in it, but there were many things we’d never have thought of. I must say, it was fun digging around in my brain, excavating things I didn’t realise were there. I suppose I read (and listened to Stephen Fry reading) Harry Potter so many times as a child that those things are there to stay. It was the same for the others in my team. The same for the whole room, no doubt.

Hogwarts Founders costumes

Being in a room filled with people united by a singular passion was a special experience. The excitement was contagious. I thought I wouldn’t care too much about the final scores, but by the time they were being read out, I was on tenterhooks. Sixteen teams. We were in the top fifty percent… then the top twenty-five percent… and we came third, only two points behind the winners! We got a bar tab and some keyrings and posters, but, most importantly, bragging rights. I am now officially one of the biggest Harry Potter nerds in New Zealand!

Harry Potter in New Zealand

All the Colours of the Waikato Show

waikato show

One of the most important events of the Hamiltonian year is the Waikato Show. It’s been held every year since 1908, which means this year’s show was the 111th in a row! I’d never been before, but one of my jobs involves wandering around events in outrageous costumes, so…

waikato show

Yup, that’s me. I was asked if I was feeling blue by no less than nine people.

Now, I’d expected the Waikato Show to be boring, which is why I’d never been before. I thought it would be all tractors and livestock and lame fairground rides. I was wrong. I’d have been happy wandering around the place even I wasn’t being paid to.

waikato show

There was so much to see. Yes, there was the expected sheep shearing and competitive wood chopping, but there were also local products to sample like cheese and honey, jewellery stalls, animal rescue shelters and a guide dog organisation that’d brought friendly dogs along for people to pat, a good variety of food stalls, electric cars and, amongst many other things, the Imperial Fifth Waikato Dragoons Regiment led by Major Blunder.

waikato show

The Waikato Show began as a way to connect the townsfolk of Hamilton to the agricultural workers of the surrounding region. It still is, but now it’s less livestock and more lifestyle expo. There were rather a lot of alpacas, though. They didn’t like my costume.

Being on duty, I couldn’t give into my urge to collect a free sample from every single stall that offered one, but I did get some locally made goat cheese. I will never not get goat cheese. At some point, someone gave me a blue lollipop because it matched my costume. It was fun telling children not to eat too many blue lollipops, because look what happens!

waikato show

I wasn’t the only performer from the Free Lunch Street Theatre Company wandering around the show. I was the Blue Lady; we also had the Silver Lady, the Golden Girl, the Red Queen and a pair of Red Footmen. Against the backdrop of the sun-brightened fairground rides, we all looked wonderfully garish! So many people asked for photos. Humans like us even if alpacas don’t.

waikato show

So, that was the Waikato Show. In other news, guess who’ll be representing Hamilton at the National Harry Potter Quiz Championship in Wellington – this nerd!

Abigail Simpson

My team, the DA, came second in the Hamilton Harry Potter Quiz, and I got the prize for third-best costume: the Golden Snitch. (A very short and very fabulous dress covered entirely in gold sequins, plus a pair of angel wings!) It seems, then, that a campervan trip to Wellington is in order…

waikato show

Frankton Thunder

I went to a cool, little festival the other day. There were classic cars, steampunk market stalls, old motorbikes, bands, vintage pin-up girls, army vehicles, awesome costumes and even an electric car that had been opened up to reveal its inner workings. It was an annual festival called Frankton Thunder. It took place in Frankton Village, a part of Hamilton I’d never been to before. I’ll definitely go again, though – it looked like there were a few interesting shops around.

The sun was bright and the cars were gleaming. I was wearing a hastily-thrown-together steampunk costume, (because, as you know, I grab any excuse to wear a costume, even though most of mine are still packed from moving house,) which – much to my surprise – won a spot prize from the Hamilton Steampunk Society! It was their first market and it was a good one. My mum got us a couple of fabulous hats.

At one point whilst we were browsing the stalls, some Glen Miller music started playing. Now that’s my kind of festival! There were a few food trucks off to the side, but we ended up going into a nice café with our steampunk purchases. I didn’t end up buying a chainmail (well, scale mail) bikini, but I was very tempted. Aw hell, I was tempted by everything – it was that kind of market – from corsets to blasters to a gorgeous edition of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

As well as the steampunk stalls, there were a few wonderful-looking steampunk vehicles on display. The creativity of some of them astounded me. They were made out of quite ordinary vehicles, a bit of bike here; a bit of tractor there. They weren’t truly Victorian, but they were cool. I also enjoyed looking at the army vehicles and classic cars more than I thought I would. Overall, the festival was a bit of an eclectic mix, but it worked. I look forward to next years’ Frankton Thunder.

There seems to be a festival on every weekend in Hamilton at the moment. I really do enjoy living here. During the six months my fiancé and I were away in Europe, even more improvements have been made, including a beautiful area in the centre of town, down by the river. I need to get some pictures of it! In fact, I have a whole lineup of new places I need to visit and blog about. (If anyone has any suggestions, feel free to drop a comment below.) It’s going to be a busy year.