Seals, Crayfish and Snow-Capped Mountains

kaikoura seal sign

Kaikoura: the only place where a meal from a van at the side of the road costs more than from a posh restaurant. To be fair, that meal consists of freshly caught crayfish. That’s what Kaikoura means, in fact: meal of crayfish – so you have to try some. The price, however, is why my fiancé and I settled for crayfish fritters, as opposed to a whole, or even half of one. We ate them crowded on a bench with other tourists, on a strip of grass between the road and the sea. It was actually lovely.

kaikoura seal

People from all over the world handed each other ketchup, exchanging smiles and travel advice.

“Have you seen any seals yet?”

“Yeah, there are lots down there.”

“We saw a dead one up the road.”

“Well, if you climb up there, you can see whales surfacing.”

kaikoura whale bones

The crayfish was lovely too. And the view: seals silhouetted against a sparkling bay, surveyed by a row of snow-capped mountains. That’s what Kaikoura’s all about, really. It’s a small town that used to be a whaling station. Now people go there to watch whales instead, as well as seals and other examples of marine wildlife.

kaikoura

There are some nice, little shops in the town, all aimed at tourists, of course. The selection of cafes and restaurants is decent, although the many roadside vans seem to offer a more authentic Kaikoura dining experience. The tourist activities are endless. You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to marine safaris. I quite fancied going on a seal kayak tour.

Now, you’re not allowed to “freedom camp” in Kaikoura, but don’t despair, fellow New Zealand campervan travellers: we found a wonderful place to stay. It’s called Donegal House, which, aside from being one of the best Irish pubs in New Zealand, allows campervans to stay overnight in its carpark for free! Oh, and here’s the view from its carpark:

kaikoura donegal house

The food at Donegal House was sublime, the décor was genuinely interesting (and humorous,) and the barman was the epitome of Irish hospitality. He even offered us breakfast on the house.

kaikoura seals

As for the road to Kaikoura, it is open, but, as of time of writing, it’s still being repaired from that big earthquake. There’s a lot of waiting, but the coastal drive remains preferable to the inland one, both in terms of time and views. There are places to stop and observe seals along the way. We pulled over at one point, expecting to stay for a few minutes, take a few photos and be off again. Before we knew it, we’d been watching the seals for an hour!

kaikoura seals

The Dead Seal Sketch

On the evening we arrived in Kaikoura, we pulled over on the rocky shore to enjoy the light of dusk on the Pacific Ocean. In a distant rock pool, guarded by an adult, a crèche of baby seals was splashing about. Closer to the road, however, a fellow tourist had spotted something.

“Oh my God, look, a baby!” she squealed, pointing to a small, limp seal practically at our feet. “It’s so cute!”

“Looks dead to me,” I said.

“No, it’s just sleeping,” she replied, without a hint of irony.

I was unconvinced. I crept closer until I could see its face. Sure enough, I was greeted by a pair of empty eye sockets. Rather worryingly, a little further along the beach, there was another dead seal. Neither looked like they’d been attacked, but my fiancé contacted the Department of Conservation – as you’re supposed to do if you spot sick, injured or dead animals – just in case. Next to the second dead seal, I saw a gleaming paua shell, but I didn’t pick it up.

paua shell

Thankfully, we saw far more live seals than dead ones.

Apart from the seals and the crayfish, the thing I found special about Kaikoura was the backdrop of snowy peaks. I think it’s the only time in my life I’ve seen the sea and snow-capped mountains in the same frame, as it were. Even just wandering from shop to shop and looking up to see the mountains looming over the town felt special to me.

new zealand fur seal

We didn’t end up going on a whale safari, as our time and money was limited, but that just gives us an excuse to go back at some point!

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.

To Rivendell where Elves yet dwell

The first Lord of the Rings film came out nearly twenty years ago.

Let that sink in.

The Fellowship of the Ring hit cinemas in December 2001, not five months after I arrived in New Zealand. (At what point do I stop being a British immigrant and become simply a New Zealander?) I was ten years old and I was in love.

At once, it became my favourite film, surpassing even The Return of the Jedi. (It remains amongst my favourites to this day, more prominent in my heart than both The Two Towers and The Return of the King.) I suppose, as well as being a masterpiece, it was, for me, the perfect film at the perfect time.

I had just left my own ‘Shire’ and embarked upon a long, scary journey through Middle-earth, a.k.a. New Zealand.

The fact that New Zealand literally was Middle-earth helped me a little in coming to terms with living in it. I could almost pretend I was living in a fantasy story. (In fact, this was when I started writing fantasy in earnest, beginning a life-long obsession.)

I can’t adequately express how much The Fellowship of the Ring means to me; how much the beauty of its aesthetic and music thrill me on a deeper-than-nostalgic level. I’m getting married in Hobbiton in less than four months, which rather feels like coming full circle. (Is that the point at which I’ll become a New Zealander? I am marrying one, after all!)

What I meant to say, before I got side-tracked, is that despite coming out nearly twenty years ago, The Lord of the Rings is practically impossible for New Zealand’s tourists to escape. This is especially true the nearer you get to Wellington, Peter Jackson’s lair. A while ago, Tim and I were driving towards Wellington in our campervan rental, having just visited the Putangirua Pinnacles, themselves a Lord of the Rings location, when we passed an unobtrusive sign saying only ‘Rivendell’. Now dusk was fast approaching, but what were we supposed to do, not visit the House of Elrond?

So we turned down the beckoning road into what turned out to be Kaitoke Regional Park, just north of Upper Hutt. We knew we had to find Rivendell quickly, as the park gates would soon be locked, so we jumped out of the campervan and rushed off into the gloaming. The first sign of ‘Rivendell where Elves yet dwell’ was an ornate post bearing an Elvish script. More posts followed, explaining a little about the movies, and a map pointing out which bits were filmed where.

Don’t expect to recognise anything. It’s just a random bit of forest above a river. I mean there is this one tree with twisting roots, perched atop a rocky mound, that looks kind of cool… (Orlando Bloom posed there in his Legolas gear, apparently.) I imagine it would be a lovely place for a picnic.

I was about to give the place up as not really worth visiting, when I spotted an ancient, stone archway through the trees. Of course, it wasn’t ancient, or stone, but it looked awesome. It would be fantastic for wedding or cosplay photographs!

In the end, Rivendell made for an unexpected, delightful diversion. We didn’t have time to visit the nearby Gardens of Isengard, unfortunately. Does anyone know if they’re worth it?

Come to Crystal Mountain, Charlie!

Way back in the mid-noughties, my generation became suddenly and inexplicably obsessed with a certain unicorn named Charlie. Charlie was a cynical soul who just wanted to sleep, but two younger unicorns badgered him into accompanying them to the mythical Candy Mountain.

“Candy Mountain, Charlie!” came their simpering, sing-song cry. “Candy Mountain!”

It turned out it was all a ploy to steal Charlie’s kidney.

The irreverent fairy tale resonated with Millennials everywhere. Some of us quote it to this day, to the confusion of our elders.

Why?

Umm… we just do. It’s kind of funny. Thus, every time my fiancé and I drive past the sign for Crystal Mountain in West Auckland, it’s hard for us not to cry, “Chaaar-lieee!”

crystal mountain

At the gates of Crystal Mountain

“We’ll have to actually go there one day,” I added, a few years ago.

“I went when I was a kid,” Tim replied, focussed on the road.

“What was it like?” I asked.

“There were crystals.”

“Oh, really?” I joked. “Were there crystals at Crystal Mountain, Charlie? Did a magical liopleurodon tell you the way, Charlie? Chaaar-lieee!”

Fast-forward to a couple of weeks ago. Once again, we were driving past the Crystal Mountain sign, but this time, we had our flatmate, Ems, with us. Now Ems is… how to put this delicately? Her bedroom is so full of crystal energy you have to beat it back with a stick. An incense stick. We couldn’t not go now!

So, we went. Most of these photos are Ems’s.

Now, understandably, I was expecting Crystal Mountain to be a glorified crystal shop, and it did indeed have one – an enormous one – but it also had a rollercoaster – a small, lonely rollercoaster that looked more than a little old and dodgy – and dinosaurs. In fact, there was a whole animal park with things for children to ride on, but we didn’t experience any of that. We headed straight for the main building, which housed the shop, café and an underground crystal museum.

The entrance was flanked by real crystal monoliths. Ems made me take a photo of her hugging one.

“I want to get married here,” she said.

“Does Grant know you two are getting married?” Tim asked, jokingly, as I quipped, “Who to? Grant or the crystal?”

The crystal museum was quite cool. We took an almost eerie elevator ride down into what was basically a crystal-encrusted bunker. There were some epic specimens, including a fossilised T. rex head. Ems could identify most of the crystals without reading the signs. She was in heaven. If you’re not into crystals, $8 might seem a bit over-priced to visit the small museum, but if you are – or if you have children that are into dinosaurs and fossils – I recommend going.

As for the animal park bit… well, I only saw it from the outside, but it looked, frankly, lame – especially at $88 for family pass! (Oh, and you have to pay for rides individually on top of that.) As well as the aforementioned rollercoaster, the rides include a tractor and a train that isn’t on a track. Let’s just say I’m sceptical.

Ems said the crystals in the shop were very reasonably priced, though.

cm08

The Road to the Door to the Paths of the Dead

putangirua pinnacles

Who shall call them from the grey twilight,

the forgotten people?

He shall pass the Door to the Paths of the Dead.

putangirua pinnacles

These words are part of the prophecy recited by Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, before he, Legolas and Gimli brave the Dimholt Road that leads to the Paths of the Dead. In the extended version of the Peter Jackson film, it is Legolas, a.k.a. the Exposition Elf, who says them, as the heroes approach the Door. That scene was filmed at the Putangirua Pinnacles, on the south coast of New Zealand’s North Island, somewhere I had wanted to visit for years. This is the story of when I finally made it.

putangirua pinnacles

Darkness descended long before our rental campervan reached the car park of the Putangirua Pinnacles Scenic Reserve. It was a darkness so deep our headlights struggled to penetrate it, which was a little scary on the winding, coastal Cape Palliser Road, a section of which had crumbled into the waves! Our uneasiness did not abate upon arrival at the Putangirua Pinnacles Campsite: it was completely deserted.

“I don’t like camping somewhere so isolated,” my fiancé said, as though trying to call the narrative of an urban legend horror story down upon us. Then, sure enough, another campervan arrived, no doubt containing an axe murderer.

putangirua pinnacles

By some miracle, we survived the night. The grey light of morning revealed not only a friendly fellow campervanner, but our first sight of the geographical feature known as Badlands erosion. The cliffs visible from the car park were nowhere near as dramatic as the film had promised, but they were only a sniff of what awaited us, jagged and grey as bone dust. Forbidding columns emerged from them, slanted, straight and sharp, like the bars of an orcish prison. I’d never seen such a landscape.

The path to the ‘Dimholt Road’ was, to my surprise, a rocky riverbed. I should have researched it beforehand, because all I had was a pair of light trainers, when I could really have done with proper hiking boots. Ah well – I only fell over twice! I would have had an easier time of it if I’d just waded through the water, but I was determined not to get my feet wet. Thus began the most challenging game of stepping stones I’d ever played.

putangirua pinnacles

I lost count of the times we had to cross the stream. My freakishly tall fiancé could stride over the water with the confidence of an elf, but I was lumbered with the legs of a hobbit. At one point, I had to take a long, running leap… which resulted in me impaling my thigh on a broken blade of pampas grass that was sticking out of the opposite bank! The wound was a few millimetres deep, but it wasn’t painful enough to thwart the quest, so I resolved to carry on and remember to clean it thoroughly when we got back to the campervan.

Eventually, the riverbed began to rise. Being a hobbit, I struggled to climb it at one point. Then, after an exhaustingly steep section, the canyon walls closed in and I recognised the Dimholt Road. It was eerie. Seriously. I felt less like Aragorn and more like a red shirt beamed down to scout the planet of the week. The sci-fi feeling was not helped by the fact that some unseen person was flying their drone between the bone-dust-grey columns. The noise it made echoed around us like the buzzing of an angry, mechanical insect.

My fiancé walked ahead of me. He looked so small amidst the gloomy towers. My mouth hung open in awe. I was glad I hadn’t turned back when I’d realised how difficult the road to the door to the Paths of the Dead would be, or when I’d injured my leg. This was unlike anything I’d experienced before.

putangirua pinnaclesOf course, the alcove that contained the entrance to the Paths of the Dead in the film had been a set, but it was easy to imagine. There were many nooks and crannies between the crumbling columns. Some of the columns resembled crude spears, while others were more, well, phallic.

“Who shall call them from the grey twilight?” I whispered to myself. Pretentious twit.

The world was grey. The ground, the sky, the canyon walls… I’d never seen anywhere more suited to an army of ghosts. I kept expecting to see scraps of grey, sun-bleached fabric fluttering against grey skeletons.

We found the guy flying the drone. I gave him my email address so he could send me the footage. This is it:

Then, just as he put his drone away, the heavens opened. Luckily, we’d brought rain coats, but that didn’t make the descent down a riverbed now slippery with mud any easier. My feet skidded from under me a few times, but I managed to stay upright, my squeals ringing around the grey canyon.

putangirua pinnacles

It took an age to get back. I immediately sought out our first aid kit, which in retrospect, we should probably have taken with us on the hike. My thigh hurt far more now than it had when I’d pulled the stick out of it, and an interesting bruise had already formed. I rubbed disinfectant into it and hoped for the best. (It was fine, as it turned out. I would have gotten an emergency medical appointment at the first sign of blood poisoning.)

Now it was time to drive to Wellington. Little did we know we’d find Rivendell before we got there, but that’s a story for another time…

To Rivendell, where Elves yet dwell
In glades beneath the misty fell,
Through moor and waste we ride in haste,
And whither then we cannot tell.

Victorian Villas and Vineyards

greytown

New Zealand’s most complete main street of wooden Victorian buildings – that was what attracted me to Greytown. Nestled in the vineyard-rich Wairarapa, just north of Wellington, it was recently voted New Zealand’s most beautiful small town. I can’t really dispute this. The day my fiancé and I went there, the sun had gilded every surface. In fact, it was almost too hot to walk around!

greytown

Using my umbrella as a parasol, I felt like a proper Victorian lady promenading down the high street. It seemed as though each shop was a fancy boutique, mostly catering for middle-aged women. There were a few nice-looking cafes and bakeries, and a bicycle shop old-fashioned enough to make hipsters drool. I got more enjoyment from the architecture than the shops themselves, although there was one shop that I spent a little too much in… the chocolate shop.

greytownSchoc Chocolates is right next to Greytown’s historical village. The shop is actually inside a tiny Victorian cottage, and the chocolate they make there is divine. There’s a range of interesting, and often experimental flavours, but my favourite is their Earl Grey tea dark chocolate. The aroma is intense without being overwhelming, and the chocolate feels velvety in your mouth. You can’t help but eat it slowly, savouring the aftertaste of every piece.

greytownThe historical village itself was unfortunately closed when I was there. From the outside, though, it looked unbelievably pretty, especially as dappled light was filtering down through the trees. The walk back towards the centre of town was a slog in the heat, but the houses along the road were pleasing to look at. To cool off, we had a drink in The White Swan, an old, wooden building with a large balcony. We’d run out of things to do in Greytown, so we headed to the nearby village of Martinborough.

martinboroughMartinborough is entirely surrounded by vineyards. It has a few fancy boutiques, though nowhere near as many as Greytown, including an old-fashioned sweet shop, a predictably impressive wine shop and a disappointingly expensive bookshop. There’s a selection of good restaurants around the village green, serving, naturally, local wines. My fiancé and I went to a little place called Pinocchio. It was expensive, but he was treating me, and the food was orgasmic.

cat martinborough holiday parkAs a side note, the Marlborough TOP 10 Holiday Park was a brilliant place to stay. We were in a rental campervan, and though we didn’t need to plug in, there weren’t any convenient free campsites around. This place had unlimited free Wi-Fi, nice facilities and a friendly pussycat.

So, in conclusion, if you’re a wealthy, middle-aged lady with a liking for designer clothes and fine wine, the Wairarapa Region is for you!

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

Waimangu Volcanic Valley

waimangu volcanic valley

Waimangu Volcanic Valley is the youngest geothermal system in the world. Tourists were flocking to the area before it was even formed, to see the Pink and White Terraces. Then, in 1886, Mount Tarawera erupted. Over a hundred people died, the Pink and White Terraces were destroyed, and Waimangu was born.

pink and white terraces

A painting of the Pink and White Terraces

Pronounced with a silent ‘g’, Waimangu means ‘black water’. It was named for a geyser – the largest in the world at the time – whose water was dark with mud and debris. Unfortunately, this geyser was only active from 1900 to 1904, but it saw many tourists during that time. Four people died in 1903, when the geyser took them by surprise, and another two in 1917, when an eruption destroyed a nearby accommodation house.

The ruins of the accommodation house weren’t pulled down until 1970.

As far as I know, no tourists have died since, though various eruptions continue to shape and reshape the valley.

waimangu volcanic valley

It’s quite expensive to visit Waimangu. My fiancé and I only did the self-guided walk and that was $42 each! It included a shuttle ride from the bottom of the track back up to the café/gift shop, but still… If you add the Lake Rotomahana boat cruise, it’s another $43 each. Lake Rotomahana is where the Pink and White Terraces were. There are a few bubbling hot springs and geysers along the shore that are inaccessible except by boat.

It turned out my fiancé and I couldn’t have done the cruise if we’d wanted to, as the boat’s engine had just given up the ghost. We got chatting to an employee about it as we were waiting for the shuttle. Apparently – and I apologise if I’m remembering this wrong – the boat had an ex-1950s double-decker bus engine, and, well, try finding a replacement one of those in New Zealand!

So, the walk. Upon leaving the visitor centre, we were confronted with this rather nice view…

waimangu volcanic valley

… and it only got better from there. As we followed the gravel path down the valley, towards Lake Rotomahana, a smorgasbord of geothermal delights presented themselves. First came a lake half smothered with pinkish red algae so thick it looked like a rubber mat.

waimangu volcanic valley lake red algae

Then came a lake that appeared to shiver in the sunlight, but was actually bubbling with heat. Wisps of steam eddied over its surface like spirits performing a dance.

waimangu volcanic valley cathedral rocks

Then there was the stream, steaming away in full technicolour.

waimangu volcanic valley

There were lots of other interesting geothermal features on the way to the lake, but the stream is what stood out to me.

waimangu volcanic valley

It takes about two hours to get down to the lake, which is why it’s nice to be able to take the shuttle back. There’s a total of three shuttle stops along the walk, so you don’t have to do the full track. The best stuff’s in the first two-thirds, not counting the beautiful lake views. Take sturdy shoes, sun protection and a drink bottle.

waimangu volcanic valley

So, I suppose the question is should you visit Waimangu Volcanic Valley over the many other geothermal sightseeing attractions available in and around Rotorua? If you’re short on time and/or money, no: there are places with more spectacular geothermal features than this. If you’ve already visited a few of those other places and are looking for something different, yes: it’s a lovely walk.

Highlights from Our NZ Trip

New Zealand continues to amaze me. Even after all these years, I’m finding new places to visit and being re-enchanted by old ones. My recent New Zealand campervan trip was a perfect example of this, a journey of discovery and rediscovery. I’ll be writing more detailed articles about each of the places I visited, but first, here’s a list of the highlights…

1) Waimangu Volcanic Valley

This is one of the many ‘geothermal wonderland’ attractions you can visit around Rotorua. I’ve been to a few of them over the years, but this was my first time at Waimangu. It’s a pleasing walk, following a steaming stream down towards a picturesque lake. The colours along the stream are beautifully psychedelic, as you can see.

2) Stonehenge Aotearoa

I only recently learned of the existence of New Zealand’s very own Stonehenge, and I have to admit my expectations weren’t high. I mean I’ve seen the actual Stonehenge, as well as Castlerigg, Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. I was pleasantly surprised, however. Stonehenge Aotearoa is totally worth visiting.

3) The Putangirua Pinnacles

I’d wanted to see the Putangirua Pinnacles for years, but they’re rather out of the way. I’m glad I finally made it, although the walk there was more difficult than I’d imagined! It was used as a filming location for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and is an excellent example of badlands erosion. Marvelling at a landscape so different from what one usually encounters makes for a great day out.

4) Rivendell

This is a place I didn’t plan on visiting, but when a nerd sees a sign reading only ‘Rivendell’ they can’t not follow it. The light was fading and there wasn’t much time until the park gate would be locked, so I rushed off to find the House of Elrond. Or, at least, the patch of forest they’d filmed it in. It was quite lovely, actually.

5) The Edwin Fox

I first saw the Edwin Fox on Neil Oliver’s Coast: New Zealand. It’s right next to the Interislander ferry terminal in Picton, the last surviving Australian convict ship in the world. It was built in India, saw service in the Crimean War and ended up retiring in little, old New Zealand. It’s really cool to explore.

6) Founders Heritage Park

Nelson is best known as the gateway to Abel Tasman National Park, but Founders Heritage Park is worth visiting too. It’s an especially pretty historic village, featuring a windmill, a church and a charming street of shops. I recommend taking a picnic on a sunny day, as the café only sells freshly baked cookies! Look out for event days.

7) Omaka Aviation Heritage Museum

This place is so cool – and I’m not even interested in planes! There are two sections – WWI and WWII – that you pay for separately. If you only have time for one, do the WWII bit, but they’re both awesome, with dramatic displays that bring the pilots to life. It’s all wonderfully atmospheric. Read more: Omaka Aviation Heritage Museum

8) Kaikoura

Kaikoura is famous for whale watching and crayfish eating, but my favourite part was going down to the beach and seeing the seals. The snow-capped mountains in the background were just a bonus! You can go kayaking with the seals, which I really wanted to do. They are some quite nice shops in Kaikoura too.

9) Castle Hill

My immediate impression of Castle Hill was it would be the perfect filming location for an epic fantasy story. There isn’t an actual castle there, of course – New Zealand doesn’t have any castles, but the natural rock formations are incredible. Adding to the epic scenery, the hill is surrounded by mountains. It’s now officially one of my favourite places in the world.

10) Arthur’s Pass

Arthur’s Pass Village in Arthur’s Pass National Park is the best place in the country to encounter wild kea. And boy did I encounter them! You can find out more about kea in this article, but basically, they’re super-intelligent vandal-parrots that like breaking into campervans. Here’s a photograph of one trying to break into a rental campervan’s roof hatch – directly above my head.

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11) The Canterbury Museum

I only wandered into Christchurch’s Canterbury Museum because it was free. I ended up being quite glad I had. As well as a Victorian street, a gallery filled with antique furniture, ornaments and clothes, and various other exhibits, it has a replica of that mad paua house – know the one I mean? This old couple who lived in Bluff covered every inch of the inside of their house with paua shells, and left their collection to the museum!

12) The Giants House

The Giants House belongs to an artist in Akaroa. You can pay to wander around her garden and I highly recommend you do, especially if you’re a fan of Gaudí or Hundertwasser. The brightly coloured mosaic sculptures are simply delightful. My nana visited it years ago and she won’t stop going on about it!

13) Oamaru

Finally, I returned to Oamaru! The gorgeous Victorian Precinct has a steampunk art gallery, a museum in which you can dress up in Victorian garb, vintage clothes shops, an old-fashioned bakery, a whiskey distillery, and one of the best second-hand bookshops in New Zealand. On top of that, Oamaru has penguins, lovely public gardens and a cheese factory. I can’t wait to write more about it.

14) The Moeraki Boulders

I’d been to Moeraki Beach and seen the boulders before, but – damn – they’re cool, aren’t they? Like alien eggs about to hatch, as my friend put it. I don’t remember there being quite so many tourists on my first visit, though! It was difficult to get pictures without people in them.

15) Larnach Castle

I know I just said New Zealand doesn’t have any castles, but it has this colonial mansion on the Otago Peninsula. It’s actually worth a visit. There’s a café in the ballroom that does posh tea and scones, and the house and garden are fun to explore. It’s an odd but pretty mix of stately home and colonial villa.

16) Lake Tekapo

One of the loveliest sights in New Zealand is the small, stone Church of the Good Shepherd perched beside the bright, turquoise water of Lake Tekapo, against a backdrop of snowy peaks. When it’s not swarming with tourists, that is. You’d probably have to go at dawn to get a decent shot. I retreated, defeated.

17) Rakaia Gorge

Excuse the inevitable pun, but Rakaia Gorge is gorge-ous. The bridge is kind of iconic. I just passed through this time, but there’s a campground and a stunning walkway. All the braided South Island rivers are breathtaking.

18) Whitecliffs Boulders

Like the Moeraki Boulders, but in a forest – sound appealing? I thought so, and they were even more magical than I’d imagined. It was like walking around inside a fairy tale! Bugger to get to, but I guess I’ll write about that another time.

So those were the highlights of my latest New Zealand campervan trip. I had such a good time. Now it’s back to reality. Circe, my tortoiseshell-tabby kitten, hasn’t left my side since I returned!