Taieri Gorge

POMS AWAY!

Yes, I’m writing about another gorge. Karangahake Gorge last week, Taieri Gorge this week – I seem to be gorging myself.

Sorry.

I was just looking through some family photos from ten years ago and was reminded of how pretty Taieri Gorge is. Of course, for me, it could never measure up to Karangahake, but my experience of Taieri was completely different: it was by train.

Taieri Gorge is in Dunedin. We went there on our first ever campervan holiday in New Zealand, because my dad is an insufferable train nerd and also, coming from England, we all kind of missed trains, not to mention the beautiful, old railway stations of which there are hardly any in New Zealand.

Dunedin has one. From it, you can catch the Taieri Gorge tourist train, which takes you on an enchanting journey through dramatic scenery. Being twelve years old at the time…

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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

A Look Inside the Oldest Library in New Zealand

POMS AWAY!

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…

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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

Photos from Our South Island Campervan Trip

POMS AWAY!

The South Island of New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. My mum, dad, nana, sister and I travelled around much of it in a campervan; it was the best family holiday we ever had. (And yes, I am including our fortnight in Florida, visiting all the theme parks.)

The Christchurch Tram The Christchurch tram

We picked up our rental campervan in Christchurch, having flown there from Auckland. I’ve already written an article about the trip – if you haven’t read it, you can do so here – so I won’t repeat myself. I just wanted to show you these awesome photos my dad took.

(If you read last week’s article, you’ll know that I’ve been going through my dad’s old pictures!) Enjoy.

Punting on the Avon River, Christchurch Punting on the Avon, Christchurch

Castle Hill, New Zealand Castle Hill

Kea A cheeky kea, the world’s only alpine parrot

Weka Pass Railway The Weka Pass Vintage Railway

Bungy Jumping, New Zealand Watching a bungy…

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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.