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

Road to Wellington

wellington harbour

Qualifying for the National Harry Potter Quiz – see last week’s post – meant an unexpected trip to New Zealand’s capital city. I’d been to Wellington before, once as a child and once as an adult. In fact, I’d written about it in an article called My Weekend in Wellington. The plan was to drive down on the Friday, cram as much sightseeing into the Saturday (before the quiz) as possible, and drive back on the Sunday. We shoved our Harry Potter costumes into the boot and off we went.

Driving from Hamilton to Wellington takes about seven hours, so pretty much a full day. As we had more than one driver, the journey was actually quite nice. The rolling hills of the Waikato Region gave way to glimpses of Lake Taupō, before the greenery was replaced by the tawny scrub and snowy peaks of Tongariro National Park. We stopped briefly in Turangi, where the hospice shop was notable for the number of skis it was selling, and then in Taihape.

taihape gumboot

The famous corrugated iron gumboot did not disappoint.

We did a short walk up to a lookout tower in Taihape. It was pleasant enough.

taihape view

The next notable place we passed through was Bulls. Yes, it’s a strange name for a town, but they’ve run with it. Boy have they run with it. It deserves a blog to itself, so that’s what I’ll do. It was already getting dark as we approached it, so I requested that we explore Bulls on the way back up instead, which we did. Blog to come!

We got to Wellington in time for a late dinner. We settled into our B&B and walked to Courtenay Place to find somewhere to eat. As Courtenay Place is pretty much all restaurants, this was easy. Or, at least, it would have been if our group hadn’t included both a coeliac-sufferer and a low-FODMAP dieter! Oh, the joys of living with food allergies and intolerances.

plimmer wellingtonThe next morning, my travelling companions went to visit friends of theirs, leaving me to my own devices. I like exploring cities on my own. I wanted to get pictures of places I hadn’t gotten pictures of before, so I ignored Mount Victoria and the Beehive, (New Zealand’s infamously hideous parliament building,) and set off on foot towards Old St Paul’s Cathedral. On the way, I passed a few second-hand bookshops and a gorgeous, Edwardian-looking shopping arcade that had the archaeological remains of a boat beneath it. It’s called the Old Bank Arcade on Lambton Quay, opposite Plimmer’s Steps.

I wanted to get some photos of Old St Paul’s because it’s not just another cathedral – it’s made entirely out of wood, you see. When I got there, however, it was closed for renovations.

old st paul's

Bugger.

Ah well. No biggie. Onwards, to the next destination on my list, the Katherine Mansfield House and Garden. (I’ve written about Katherine Mansfield before, in my blog about Hamilton’s Katherine Mansfield Garden.) This place was where she was born, and it’s now a museum. When I got there, however, it was closed for renovations.

Bugger.

wellington harbour

Feeling a little bummed, I made my way down to the harbour. The walk along the harbour is wonderful. I’ve enjoyed it all three times I’ve been in Wellington. It was Saturday afternoon, so the Underground Market was on there, as a little bonus.

wellington underground market

I walked all the way around to Te Papa, the National Museum of New Zealand, before heading back up to the centre of Wellington. Cuba Street’s rainbow crossing looked especially inviting.

cuba street rainbow crossing

What with all my walking, I’d run out of time to visit anywhere else. It was time to go and get changed for the Harry Potter Quiz. (See last week’s blog to find out how we did!)

wellington harbour bicycle

Solscape: A Relaxing Campsite in Raglan

solscape raglan

You know when your tent starts glowing with the light of dawn? And the sounds of nature gradually permeate your dreams? Cockerels cock-a-doodle-dooing. Cicadas building to their perpetual crescendo. Distant waves rushing into the bay. Other couples thinking they’re bonking quietly. You know that moment, when you feel totally in another world? Work doesn’t exist here. You’re free to do nothing but stare at the view.

solscape ragland

And what a view Solscape has. It’s not a place I’d have chosen to come myself. It’s a friend’s birthday and he chose the place. It’s one of those eco campsites that oozes kombucha-flavoured self-righteousness. It advertises itself as a ‘harmonious diversion from conventional forms and patterns’ and uses phrases such as ‘holistic wellness’ and ‘to nurture our connection with each other and the natural world’. The café is called the Conscious Kitchen. You get the idea.

railway carriage caboose solscape raglan

And though we’ve all made a few too many chakras jokes since arriving, even I have to admit that I like it here. The Conscious Kitchen overlooks a gorgeous bay. The composting toilets and solar showers are actually quite nice. The cabooses made from old railway carriages look awesome, as do the earth domes and the tipi forest. The permaculture gardens and glorious sunflowers add to the relaxed atmosphere, and even though I can’t eat much of the food here due to an intolerance to veganism – note that I’m not trying to be a dick; I am genuinely intolerant to most fruits, many vegetables, some nuts and all beans (including, of course, soy) – I would definitely come here again.

solscape raglan mud huts

If you’re on a New Zealand campervan trip, I’d recommend booking one of the powered van sites here. It’s a little on the expensive side, but it’s a place worth seeing. As we’re in Raglan, one of the most famous surfing spots in the world, Solscape offers surfing lessons as well as the expected yoga. There’s a beach within easy walking distance, and the town of Raglan is a short drive away. I’ve written about the town before, in Raglan on a Winter’s Day – you should definitely check it out.

solscape raglan mud huts

Raglan’s a bit of a hippy (as well as a surfers’) paradise. It’s full of quirky craft shops and cafés, often down intriguing, little alleyways. If you’re a fan of household art, vintage clothing and macramé necklaces, it’s got your name crocheted all over it. There’s even a tiny secondhand bookshop. You can walk straight from the town centre to the sea and – not far away – you can find one of the most beautiful waterfalls in New Zealand, Bridal Veil Falls.

sunflowers solcape raglan

It’s time for us to leave now; to return to our respective unconscious kitchens. I’m really going to miss this view.

solscape raglan

The Great Tower of Matamata

It’s not often you see a tower like this in New Zealand. It’s called Firth Tower and it’s in Matamata, not far from Hobbiton. What’s a stone tower doing in a Waikato farming community, you ask? A couple of weeks ago, I went to find out. I ended up finding a lot more than I expected…

Firth Tower

It’s not just a tower, you see. There’s a whole complex of historic buildings containing museum exhibits, from a Victorian post office to machinery sheds and railway carriages. Not only that, the grounds around them are extensive and quite lovely, with beautiful flowers and trees.

flower butterfly

You’re allowed to explore the grounds for free, but a small fee is required if you want to go inside the buildings. You’re also allowed to stay the night there in your campervan. If you’re on a New Zealand campervan rental holiday, I highly recommend taking advantage of this. There are decent toilets and picnic spots on top of everything else.

firth tower museum

I was delighted to discover that the Victorian post office contained a miniature secondhand bookshop. The selection left a lot to be desired, but still… nice idea. The best exhibition, I thought, was the main house, which had a scene-setting audio track. Why was there a tower in the garden? Because the Victorian estate owner simply felt like having one.

I entered the tower and climbed the precarious, wooden stairs around and around, all the way up to the lookout. I climbed the final ladder and marvelled at the expanse of fields… for a second or two. It was stifling up there! I hurriedly retreated, squeezing my way around the latest generation of children excited to be inside a “castle”.

firth tower

I had a lovely time at Firth Tower Museum. The day had started off cold and gloomy, but became wonderfully hot and sunny. I spent a lot of time simply wandering the grounds, taking photographs of the flowers. Unsurprisingly, you can hire the place out for weddings, as one of the historic buildings is a church.

firth tower museum

train carriages firth tower museum

old farm machinery firth tower museum

red flower

There’s a church made of trees – and it’s just outside Hamilton!

The Tree Church

That’s right. There’s a tree church… in Ohaupo.

The Tree Church

It was made by this guy whose job was transplanting trees, so he decided to transplant some into his own garden in the shape of a church. It looked so amazing that people persuaded him to open it to the public, and the rest is history.

The Tree Church

It’s not just a church: there’s a whole massive garden to explore, with a labyrinth, a pond, a stunning avenue of trees and absolutely glorious flowers. And cats.

The Tree Church

The ginger cat, in particular, has become world-famous for its habit of lounging in the Tree Church and charming the tourists. As soon as it saw me, it sprang up and trotted towards me, meowing. I never wanted to leave it!

The Tree Church

The Tree Church is only open on Tuesdays and Sundays from late October until the end of March, between the hours of 10 and 4, but you can book it for weddings as well. It costs $15 to enter, and children under twelve are only allowed in by prior arrangement.

The Tree Church

Whilst we were walking around, my partner Tim turned to me and said, “This has got to be one of the best places to go in the Waikato. Up there with Hobbiton.”

The Tree Church

High praise, indeed.

The Tree Church

It was beautiful. We had the perfect weather for it.

The Tree Church

We ended up chatting to the owner for a while. The poor guy hates being stuck in the ticket booth when he could be gardening!

Butterfly

Sitting inside the Tree Church was so wonderfully peaceful. There was an altar, a bell and a crucifix, but also pentagrams on the doors. I didn’t feel especially spiritual inside it, because I’m not a spiritual person, but I could tell that other people would. I felt that it would be a magical place to spend time writing in.

The Tree Church

If you fancy visiting this place, check out the Tree Church website.

The Tree Church

The Blue Spring

The Blue Spring

Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?

Well it used to be.

A river that sauntered between rolling hills and bush, so clear as to seem invisible and thick with flowing greenery, it had a swimming hole that was straight from a fairy tale. On the opposite bank to the path, overhanging trees and rocks created a small, circular dell bubbling with water of the purest sapphire blue. It looked like a magical portal; a sacred pool in a sorceress’s cave.

Imagine swimming in that.

The Blue Spring

Unfortunately, imagine is all you can do these days. The Blue Spring used to be a local secret, but then the media discovered it. Tourists flocked to it. Within weeks, the greenery was disappearing. The natural serenity was gone; the magic was choking.

So the authorities did the only thing they could: they banned swimming in the Blue Spring.

It worked to a certain extent. The greenery was given the chance to regenerate, free from being crushed by so many feet. It’s now almost as luscious as it once was. The same cannot be said, however, for the magic.

The Blue Spring

The river is wide between the path and the dell, and there’s a barrier in the way. There’s still magic there, but you can no longer touch it. You can only squint to see it from a distance. It’s diminished.

There are so many other tourists crowded at the barrier that the serenity is all but gone.

The Blue Spring

It’s still worth visiting the Blue Spring. It’s still a pretty sight, after all. It’s just outside Putaruru, an hour’s drive from Hamilton, just over halfway towards Rotorua. I recommend stopping at Putaruru’s Over the Moon, a boutique cheesemaking factory and delicatessen.

That’s what Tim and I did; we took a picnic to eat overlooking the spring.

We were lucky to find a parking spot. The Blue Spring has a car park at each end of Te Waihou Walkway, but it’s far closer to walk to the spring from the Leslie Road end. (Ten minutes, as opposed to an hour and twenty minutes.) Of course, everyone wants to park at the closer end.

The Blue Spring

In my opinion, Rotorua’s Hamurana Springs is a more beautiful walk that the Blue Spring, if only because you can get a closer look at the magic. (You can’t swim at Hamurana either, but there are platforms right above the pretty bits, close enough to touch the water.) Maybe if you were still allowed to swim in the Blue Spring, it would edge out Hamurana, but you can’t, so…

Then again, the Blue Spring is free. Hamurana used to be, but they’ve just started charging $18 per adult, which is outrageous.

Sigh.

An Afternoon in Russell

Christchurch, Russell

I’d wanted to visit Russell ever since I’d read it was once known as ‘the hellhole of the Pacific’. New Zealand’s first European settlement, the port seethed with boozing, gambling and native girls offering their services in exchange for nails, muskets and syphilis. Traders and whalers mingled with Māori tribesmen and missionaries. Sails creaked. Barrels rolled up and down gangplanks.

You’d never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.

Russell

Today, Russell is a bit different. It’s a charming, little tourist town in the Bay of Islands, which you can reach by ferry. (There’s a passenger ferry from Paihia, or a vehicle ferry from Ōpua. There’s also a road that wends its way around from Kawakawa, but having driven it with my partner, I don’t recommend it. Just get the ferry.)

Aside from water-based activities such as swimming with dolphins, Russell’s three main attractions are the museum, the old church and the Victorian printery. Personally, I’d say the number one thing you can do in Russell is have an evening meal on the Strand, overlooking the sea. The Strand is an idyllic street of old, wooden buildings containing a row of very nice restaurants, with an abundance of beachside seating. But more on that later.

The Strand, Russell

When my partner Tim and I arrived in Russell, it was absolutely chucking it down with rain, so we sought refuge in the museum. It was actually quite disappointing for the price. There were only two rooms, but I’ve visited some excellent small-town museums and this… wasn’t one. (If you want to visit an excellent small-town museum in Northland, go to Waipu.) I’d still recommend checking it out if you know nothing about Russell’s history, but if you don’t have much time in Russell, definitely visit the Victorian printery instead, otherwise known as the Pompallier Mission House.

Both my partner and I really enjoyed our tour of the printery. By this time, the rain had stopped and the sun was blazing. (New Zealand summer!) Consequently, the gardens around the house – and the fishing-boat-bobbing sea beyond – looked glorious. There was a tannery behind the house; the gift shop sold leather-bound notebooks made on the premises. Next to the house was a lovely-seeming café, but unfortunately, we were too late to patronise it, having caught the last tour of the day.

Pompallier Mission House Printery

As for Russell’s old church, Christ Church, it won’t take you long to look around. Do, though. It’s rather pretty and if you look closely, you can find a few musket ball holes in its side. The graves are quite interesting as well. We saw one that had what looked like a chessboard on top of it, and we both though it might be nice to be buried with a chessboard on top of us, so our descendants can come and play chess on our graves. Then Tim thought why stop at chess? You could have a hexagonal layout for playing Settlers of Catan, or a world map for playing Risk… But anyway.

The Strand, Russell

We’d made a booking for dinner at New Zealand’s oldest restaurant, The Gables, on the Strand. It was built in 1847. We had a window table, which opened right out onto the beachfront. The water reflected the golden light of the evening as we dined. And the food was wonderful, of course.

Russell

The ferries to get you out of Russell keep going until quite late. They’re also really cheap, which was good for us after we’d splashed out at the restaurant. We drove away from Russell feeling all warm and fuzzy. We’d just had a marvellous day.