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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.