New Zealand’s Most Enchanting Museum

Tawhiti Museum, Taranaki, New Zealand

You know sometimes you go somewhere not expecting much, but end up utterly enchanted? That’s what happened when I went to Nigel Ogle’s Tawhiti Museum in Taranaki. I can’t recommend it highly enough! Just go there, and make sure you give yourself plenty of time to see everything – a few hours at least. And visit the café. It’s just… well… let me explain…

Tawhiti Museum 01Tawhiti is the largest private museum in New Zealand. Housed in a former cheese factory, it was developed by an artist called Nigel Ogle, who spends his time creating life-sized models of people, using moulds cast from co-opted locals. These models, along with many scale dioramas, tell the story of Taranaki, from the early interactions of the European sailors and Maori tribesmen, to the tragic life of mid-twentieth century local author, Ronald Hugh Morrieson.

The entrance of Tawhiti has the look of one of those historic villages: quite charming. It costs $15 to get into the museum, and a further $15 to do the ‘Traders and Whalers’ bit – and, trust me, you want to do the ‘Traders and Whalers’ bit. There’s also a ‘bush railway’ ride for another $6, but that only runs on certain days.

Tawhiti Museum, Taranaki, New ZealandThe first thing I did was visit Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s attic. It wasn’t just a recreation; it was his actual attic, rescued by a local farmer when the rest of the house was demolished in favour of a KFC, and restored by Nigel Ogle. It was a room I felt right at home in: a 1950’s writer’s paradise. And there was the writer himself, sitting at a messy desk overlooking the attic window – a model, obviously.

Ronald Hugh Morrieson was born in 1922 and never left his parents’ house. His father died in 1928, leaving him, a sickly child, to be raised by his mother and aunt. He never married, was an alcoholic, and became increasingly reclusive. He quite clearly suffered from depression, tortured by the feeling that his writing wasn’t good enough. It’s a state of mind I’m all-too-familiar with and my dad, who was with me in the attic, jokingly reminded me that I musn’t become like Morrieson. It wasn’t really a joke and I was suddenly chilled to the core.

Morrieson died in poverty at just fifty years old. He once said to the famous New Zealand writer Maurice Shadbolt, “I hope I’m not another one of these poor buggers who get discovered when they’re dead.” Well, that’s just what happened. Two of his novels, The Scarecrow and Came a Hot Friday, were published during his lifetime, but did not become popular until years later. Morrieson’s third and fourth novels, Predicament and Pallet on the Floor, which were rejected by publishers during Morrieson’s lifetime, were published posthumously, and all four of his novels were later made into films.

Tawhiti Museum 10

Already impressed with the museum, I made my way to the ‘Traders and Whalers’ bit, stopping at the pirate-themed shop on the way. Tawhiti has two shops. The main museum shop sells some of Nigel Ogle’s pottery and other more ordinary souvenirs, but the ‘Traders and Whalers’ shop is like an exhibition in itself. You’d think perhaps that a pirate-themed shop would be tacky, but in this case it isn’t. I found some really nice, interesting things in there.

Tawhiti Museum 04

‘Traders and Whalers’ reminded me a little of Jorvik, the Viking museum in York where you go on a ride through a life-sized recreation of what York would have been like in Viking times, complete with people, animals and unsavoury smells. This didn’t have the smells, but it was almost as good. It was a short boat ride through a pre-European Maori village that was in the process of being visited by a shipload of European traders and whalers. The children seated in front of me absolutely loved it, and were thrilled when a surprise canon went off, lightly dousing us in mist. I must admit, it made me jump.

Tawhiti Museum 05

The next part of the museum was, for me, incredibly dull. My dad quite liked it, and we did find one interesting thing, which I’ll get to in a moment, but basically it’s an enormous hall full of old tractors. God, it was dull. Anyway, the interesting thing: Taranaki farmers have been at war with their boxthorn hedges for nearly 150 years, and at some point one crazy farmer decided to deal with his hedges by attaching an enormous propeller of blades to the side of an old WWII army tank and, well, you can imagine the rest.

Tawhiti Museum, Taranaki, New Zealand

Before going to the main part of the museum, we decided to refuel at the café, which, like the ‘Traders and Whalers’ shop, is an exhibition in itself. It’s called Mr Badger’s Country Café because its beautiful interior is decorated with scenes from Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. There’s even a human-sized Badger reading by the fireplace in the corner! And in the opposite corner, sitting at a table, staring wistfully out of the window, is an eerily lifelike figure…

Tawhiti Museum 09

The main part of Tawhiti focuses on the lives of Taranaki’s Victorian settlers, but there’s a wonderful 1920’s house too, donated by the recently deceased local woman who lived there, along with all her period furniture. The most fascinating exhibition, I think, is the one about the New Zealand Wars – so many incredibly detailed dioramas!

I learned so much history as I walked around. Tawhiti seems more personal than other museums. Well, I mean, it is. It’s Nigel Ogle’s personal museum. But more than that. The individual personalities of the historical people leap out at you more than at ‘normal’ museums. You get the feeling that Tawhiti is a love letter to Taranaki. It’s not just a collection of artefacts behind glass.

One small room is dedicated to the life of nineteenth century merchant Chau Tseung, known to the locals as Chew Chong. He overcame racial prejudice to become an important figure in Taranaki’s history.

Tawhiti Museum, Taranaki, New Zealand

I was especially gripped by the story of Kimble Bent, an American who enlisted in the British Army because he’d spent all his money on drink. He ended up in New Zealand fighting the Maori, but was so harshly treated by army life – a fact not helped by his lying, thieving and boozing ways – that he deserted, throwing himself upon the mercy of a Maori chief called Tito Hanataua, who took him as a slave. Bent lived with the Maori for many years. When he eventually rejoined European society, he told his extraordinary life story to a journalist called James Cowan, who published a book called The Adventures of Kimble Bent: A Story of Wild Life in the New Zealand Bush.

Tawhiti Museum, Taranaki, New Zealand

Tawhiti is the quirkiest museum I’ve ever been to. In fact, I found it quite magical. And if this blog hasn’t convinced you of the necessity of visiting, just check out its amazing TripAdvisor reviews!

More from around Taranaki…

New Plymouth’s Festival of Lights

The Goblin Forest

The Festival, the Campervan and the Cyclone That Wasn’t

Taranaki, New Zealand

Across the Sea: A Brief History of Immigration to New Zealand

When I was eleven, my class studied a topic I’ll never forget. At least I’ll never forget the image of a dead baby being thrown overboard wrapped in a Union Jack. The topic dealt with the history of immigration to New Zealand.

Each member of my class had to write a pretend diary from the perspective of an English immigrant making the long and perilous voyage to New Zealand in the nineteenth century. As I was an English immigrant whose family had moved to New Zealand only a year previously, I found the topic particularly affecting.

Of course, my family had not come to New Zealand by ship, but by plane. And it had taken us twenty-four hours of travelling, not six months. And none of us had died on the way. Still, I understood the heartbreaking enormity of leaving your home for a strange country on the other side of the world.

Maori Chief with Facial Tattoo from the 18th Century

An 18th-century Maori chief

Well any history of immigration to New Zealand – however brief – should begin with the Maori. The ancestors of the Maori came to New Zealand from Hawaiki, a Polynesian homeland that has passed into legend. They came in canoes, guided by the stars. No one knows exactly when they first arrived, but archaeological evidence seems to suggest that it was during the thirteenth century.* To put this in perspective, at around the same time as the Magna Carta was being signed, as European knights were crusading their way across the Middle East, and as Braveheart was yelling “FREEEEEEDOM!” in a totally non-anachronistic way, New Zealand was only just being settled.

Europeans didn’t discover New Zealand until the seventeenth century. The first, that we know of, was Abel Tasman in 1642. Tasman’s first meeting with the Maori did not go well. He anchored in what is now Golden Bay in New Zealand’s Abel Tasman National Park, and sent some of his crew to find water, but they were immediately attacked by a group of Maori in a waka, or canoe. This led Tasman to sail away rather quickly, and to name his place of anchorage Murderers’ Bay. (But Golden Bay sounds much better to tourists.)

A drawing one of Tasman's crew did of "Murderers' Bay"

Murderers’ Bay, as depicted by Tasman’s ship’s artist

Golden Bay Abel Tasman National Park New Zealand

Golden Bay today

European immigration to New Zealand didn’t begin until the nineteenth century, although trade between Europeans and Maori had been gradually increasing throughout the eighteenth century. During that time, New Zealand had become very popular with European and American whalers, (and escaped Australian convicts.) Their favourite port of call was Kororareka, a settlement which would become known as Russell – and the hellhole of the Pacific. This wretched hive of scum and villainy had been commended by James Cook as a “most noble anchorage” and, since his 1769-70 voyage around New Zealand, had become a haven for entrepreneurial Maori. European goods such as muskets were traded for Maori goods such as women. Needless to say, this behaviour shocked arriving missionaries.


Some random colonial men

British immigration to New Zealand began in earnest with the formation of the New Zealand Company, whose main mission was to acquire as much land from the Maori as possible – fairly or otherwise. The British government stepped in to regulate this, and other “lawless” behaviours by the immigrants, in 1839. This led to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, which gave the Maori the same rights as British citizens – in exchange for ceding their sovereignty to the British Crown. At least that’s what the English version says. The Maori translation of the treaty isn’t perfect, so it’s possible that many of the Maori chieftains didn’t have a full understanding of what they were signing. Besides, even if the Maori and the British were on the same page, it’s not like every Maori chieftain in country signed it. The document remains in dispute to this day.

Irish immigrants

Irish immigrants

Other Europeans continued to arrive, but the bulk of immigrants were British and Irish. Maori chiefs in the Waikato became alarmed at the rate at which their land was being taken over, and came together to resist further land acquisitions by the government. This led to the New Zealand Wars, which ended in the early 1870s with the victorious government confiscating huge areas of Maori-held land.

In the 1860s, New Zealand experienced its own Gold Rush, resulting in the arrival of many more immigrants, including a significant population of Chinese prospectors. The government attempted to limit the number of Asian immigrants and, in 1881, imposed a poll tax on all incoming Chinese citizens. It wasn’t repealed until the Second World War. The war, of course, brought a few thousand European refugees to New Zealand.

Captain James Cook

Captain James Cook claimed New Zealand on behalf of Great Britain in 1769

Following the Second World War, skilled immigrants from the British Isles and Northern Europe were encouraged to come and settle in New Zealand. Many Dutch people arrived at this time, including one of my family’s greatest friends when we first arrived. I remember being fascinated by his story of coming by ship in 1950s – a journey that took five weeks.

From the 1960s, large numbers of Pacific Islanders began to arrive in New Zealand. In 1987, the government stopped choosing migrants based on race, opting instead to assess individual skills.

The last twenty years have seen a huge increase in the number of Asian immigrants, but the influx of British immigrants remains high. A few years ago, there was concern over the number of New Zealanders leaving to live in Australia, seeking higher wages, but the rush seems to be slowing. In 2006, 23% of New Zealand’s total population were people born overseas, and the number of incomers continues to rise. Though there’s a lot more frustrating paperwork these days, moving to New Zealand is a lot easier now than it was in the nineteenth century.

An immigrant ship

An immigrant ship

The New Zealand Maritime Museum on Auckland’s harbour front has a fantastic exhibition detailing the experiences of those early European immigrants. As a kid, I was particularly affected by it. It has a reproduction of an 1840s steerage cabin, so you can get an idea of the frightful conditions that people had to endure for months to reach New Zealand. Many of the immigrants kept diaries, which, I suppose, was the inspiration for the school project I did. Here’s an example of one. It’s by someone called Hannah Butler, who sailed to New Zealand in 1840. At least seven children died during her voyage.

I remember being bewildered, when I was a kid, as to why so many immigrants would take the risk. Surely a new life in New Zealand wasn’t worth at least one of your children dying on the way? But then, I suppose, it wasn’t unusual for large numbers of children to die back then anyway.

Cook's ship, HMS Endeavour

Cook’s ship, HMS Endeavour

I’m very glad my family came by plane.

* This date is highly disputed. Researching it is frustrating, as every thing I read seems to say something different. Could be a few hundred years earlier.

A Wander through Waikato Museum

I’ve been meaning to visit our local museum for ages. I’ve walked past it so many times, on Hamilton’s main street, overlooking the Waikato River. It’s free to enter, except for a couple of children’s exhibitions, and doesn’t take that long to go round. It’s also in quite a nice building, at least from the back, the side facing the river. Well today I finally checked it out.

Waikato Museum

Part of the back of the museum

By far the best exhibition was entitled ‘For us They Fell’, all about the people of Waikato’s involvement in the First World War, but I also enjoyed ‘Passing People’, and exhibition showcasing the art of John Badcock.

Each of his paintings seemed ultra-realistic – not photorealistic, but more than that. It was like you could see the lives of the people; imagine their stories. Each person was unique and amazing. I almost expected them to start talking, which is not a feeling I’ve ever had before when looking at a painting.

Waikato Museum

More of the back of the museum

There were other art exhibitions in the museum, but they didn’t really capture me. The place actually seemed more of an art gallery than a museum, but there was a small exhibition about the Freemasons, and another exhibition displaying a giant penguin fossil found in Kawhia in 2006.

The most beautiful exhibition was about the Maori King movement, an integral part of the history of Waikato – and I wished they’d gone into more detail! The centrepiece was a (restored) 200-year-old canoe, or waka, called Te Winika. You weren’t allowed to take photographs in the exhibition, but here’s a picture of Te Whare Waka o Te Winika from the outside:

Waikato Museum Te Whare Waka o Te Winika

And this is something I almost missed entirely, a piece of art you have to look out of one of the museum’s windows to see, suspended between the trees, over the river:


Cool, eh?

I’m a history geek, so I like visiting museums. Here’s a link to a thing I made about some of the best museums in New Zealand:

10 Quite Cool Museums to Visit in New Zealand

New Zealand’s Pompeii

That breathtaking view is of Lake Tarawera. As I took that photograph, I couldn’t believe how peaceful it was, how much like paradise it looked. In 1886, it was the site of the most terrifying volcanic eruption in New Zealand’s human history.

Government Gardens

Modern tourists admiring a steaming hot pool in Rotorua’s Government Gardens

Back then, Rotorua was just as much a tourist trap as it is today. People came from all over the world to see its geothermal marvels – the mud pools, the geysers, the “healing” waters – all while breathing in the magnificent smell of rotten eggs. Most spectacular of all were the Pink and White Terraces, revered as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

The Pink and White Terraces were naturally formed bathing pools. They were tiered, flowing with warm, silica-rich water. From the paintings, photographs and written descriptions of delighted tourists that remain, we know they were beautiful. They cannot be visited today because they were obliterated in 1886, along with the lives of about a hundred and twenty people, when Mt Tarawera blew its top.

Lake Tarawera

This is what Mt Tarawera looks like today, from across Lake Tarawera – a shadow of its former self. When it erupted, it buried several villages. You can visit one – Te Wairoa – that has been excavated from the ash, like Pompeii.

Nearby the Buried Village, on the shore of Lake Tarawera, lies a very nice café. The food’s surprisingly awesome, and you can sit on the deck and look out over the lake. Last time I went, it had just been raining heavily, so the lake, Mt Tarawera and the surrounding bush were swathed in mist. It was highly atmospheric. I could easily imagine the ghosts of the eruption drifting across the water. As we ate, the mist slowly cleared. Now we saw the lake in its full sparkling glory. We drove up to the lookout spot and stood amazed.

Blue Baths2 copyAfter that, we drove to somewhere we always go when we visit Rotorua: Government Gardens. I’ve written about Government Gardens before, but they’ve got even better since then. You’ll want to take your time exploring them – it’s easy to miss bits, there’s so much. On the gardens’ periphery is the gorgeous 1930s bath house of the Blue Baths. (That’s it in the picture.) My family loves it there. It’s less crowded than the more famous Polynesian Spa, and more sophisticated with its Art Deco décor.

Bringing us back to the Tarawera Eruption, the best thing about Government Gardens is they’re home to the Rotorua Museum, which has a fantastic exhibition on the subject.  I enjoyed it so much, the science, the history and the artefacts – including a pair of Victorian women’s boots I seriously wanted to steal, and a mummified cat.

Rotorua MuseumThe building that the houses the Rotorua Museum is beautiful. It was built to be a luxury bath house, offering mud baths and electroshock therapy, and some of the bathing rooms remain as exhibits. Rather excitingly, one of the exhibits is an underground labyrinth showing you all the pipes under the building. You’re offered a hardhat before you descend, but I’m so short I didn’t need one. I must say I found it rather creepy. In a good way.

You can also go up onto the roof of the building. As well as being a fascination in itself, it offers a 360° view that encompasses the Government Gardens and Lake Rotorua.

Being a history nerd from England, I often bemoan New Zealand’s comparative lack of interesting history. That day in Rotorua, visiting Lake Tarawera and then the museum, I found a new appreciation for New Zealand’s history. Besides, England doesn’t have bubbling mud pools or steaming geysers. Or quite the same danger of having lava rain from ash-darkened skies…

What to Do in Kerikeri

Guess what? I just spent four days in Kerikeri. (House sitting with my boyfriend, so free accommodation – score!)

Kerikeri is in the far north of New Zealand. It gets really hot up there. Everywhere you look it’s orchards and vineyards.

My family passed through it years ago, when we took a campervan up to Cape Reinga, but this was my first time properly exploring it.

Kerikeri 051

Rainbow Falls

I’ll start with the town itself, which is a lot bigger than I’d expected. (It has TWO supermarkets!) The main street is really picturesque. There are a few interesting shops, especially of the art and craft variety. It’s simply pleasant. Even the New World supermarket has an old-fashioned stone frontage.

On the Sunday morning, we went to the Kerikeri Farmers Market. It had wine, cheese, nuts, bread, crepes, blueberry ice-cream, avocados – did I mention cheese? It was incredible cheese. The Art and Craft Market was right next to it. One stall had handcrafted wooden toys; another had necklaces made of fossils and crystals.

The Stone Store

The Stone Store

We took our incredible cheese and walnut-and-honey bread to Rainbow Falls for a picnic. I was expecting a small waterfall, but this was awesome – so pretty! No wonder it’s the top tourist attraction in Kerikeri. Well, apart from Kemp House and the Stone Store.

Kemp House is the oldest European house in New Zealand. It was built in 1822. (That’s old for New Zealand.) The Stone Store is New Zealand’s oldest stone house, built a decade later.

The Kemp House garden

The Kemp House garden

Kemp House has a beautiful (and very English) garden. It’s next to a river that has a lovely bridge, on the other side of which is Rewa’s Village.

Rewa’s Village is a replica Maori fishing village. If you want an idea of what the pioneering Europeans would have seen when they arrived in New Zealand, take a tour.

Other places to go in Kerikeri include Charlies Rock. It’s an interesting feature that you can jump off into a swimming hole.

Charlies Rock

Charlies Rock

The waterfall there isn’t as big as Rainbow Falls, but it’s pretty too. There’s also Aroha Island, where you can see kiwi, and the Parrot Place, which kids will love.

A somewhat less advertised attraction is the Edmonds Ruins. They’re not that impressive – you’ll only spend a few minutes there and it’s a little out of the way – but it’s nice to see the stone walls of a Victorian farmhouse in New Zealand.

Also a little out of the way is the Puketi Forest. It’s well worth going, though. The forest is full of enormous kauri trees.

Puketi Forest

Puketi Forest

I mean wow!

More Puketi Forest

More Puketi Forest

There are hardly any places to see giant kauri, as most of them were logged ages ago. The Puketi Forest has a short boardwalk that’s raised up above the undergrowth, making it the only wheelchair accessible bush walk in Northland. It’s raised up to help prevent the spread of kauri dieback disease, but there’s another advantage. Being up above the undergrowth gives you a whole different perspective as you walk through the forest.

The raised boardwalk

The raised boardwalk

I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a beautiful bush walk.

Kerikeri and the surrounding area is a great place to go if you’re interested in New Zealand’s history. An easy drive north, you’ve got Matauri Bay, where the Rainbow Warrior was wrecked. An easy drive south-east, you’ve got Waitangi, where the famous (or infamous) Treaty was signed. A little further south, you’ve got the town of Kawakawa, which has glowworm caves and a vintage railway.

Edmonds Ruins

Edmonds Ruins

If you’re a booklover like me, I recommend you visit Village Books in Waipapa. It’s a rather good second-hand bookshop. I went crazy in there. I had a whole pile of classics before I realised I shouldn’t spend that much money and, painfully, I reduced the pile to just three.

A place we didn’t get to see was the Wairere Boulders. I would have liked to – it looks cool – but it would have been a long drive getting there. That’s why we didn’t go to Cape Reinga either.

A car or campervan is absolutely essential if you’re visiting Kerikeri. If you’re passing through on a New Zealand campervan hire holiday, try to do so on a weekend. That way you can visit the Farmers Market on Sunday morning.

Charlies Rock again

Charlies Rock again

One last thing: drop in at the Blue River Orchard for a fresh blueberry ice-cream or frozen yoghurt. So yum!