What Connects a Train Station in Germany to a Toilet in New Zealand?

It was New Year’s Eve and we were on our way to Berlin. As we’d purchased the cheapest train tickets possible, we weren’t speeding between cities, but meandering from small station to small station. Standing, freezing, on dilapidated platforms, we gazed across the tracks towards a succession of depressed and depressing buildings. One such station boasted a vainly optimistic advertisement inviting the traveller to actually stop there for a change, instead of merely passing through. ‘Passing-through towns’ seems an apt name for these places.

There was, however, one town we passed through whose station was surprisingly intriguing. Even beautiful. I was so tired – all the shabby stations we’d passed through already had so blurred before my eyes – that at first I didn’t notice this one was any different. Then strange shapes started to loom out of the mass: wavy lines, bulging columns clad in garish mosaics, and golden spheres that could have been from an old, tacky sci-fi. It reminded me of the various bits of Gaudí architecture we’d recently seen in Barcelona, but it also reminded me of a public toilet.

hundertwasser uelzen bahnhof

Not just any public toilet, you understand: a specific public toilet in New Zealand, designed by an Austrian immigrant called Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser. The Hundertwasser Toilets are a major tourist attraction in Kawakawa, a small town in the Northland Region of New Zealand. If you’re ever on a road trip between Auckland and the Bay of Islands, you’ll probably pass through/water in it. The toilets are worth seeing, with an architectural style that can, at worst, be described as quirky. Built in 1999, just before Hundertwasser’s death, they’ve transformed Kawakawa from merely a ‘passing-through town’ to a destination in its own right.

hundertwasser toilets kawakawa

The longer I scrutinised that German train station, the more convinced I became that it had been designed by the same person. We googled it. Sure enough, we found the Uelzen station was indeed a Hundertwasser and, like the toilets in Kawakawa, it had transformed its hometown into a tourist destination. I wish we’d had time to explore it properly, but we were already on our next train, sauntering towards the next small station.

hundertwasser kuchlbauer tower

Another Hundertwasser, the Kuchlbauer Tower in Abensberg

Throughout our European adventure, I’ve found myself revelling in the discovery of even the slightest New Zealand connection. Despite a certain stand-up comedian in London telling me (and an amused audience) no-one gives a f**k about New Zealand, people we meet won’t stop proclaiming their love for it. On a train in Barcelona, I saw a woman with a New Zealand-themed tote bag and said, in my half-remembered high school Spanish, “Vivo en Nueva Zelanda.” Her face lit up and we talked, in a broken mix of Spanish and English, about all the places she’d visited. In London’s Natural History Museum, I pointed out a stuffed kiwi with perhaps a little too much excitement.

I think it’s fair to say that, after five-and-a-half months of globetrotting, I’m ready to return to my adopted home. First, though, we have a couple of weeks in Malaysia!

What We Did in Rarotonga


If you live in New Zealand, you’ll probably end up having a holiday in Rarotonga. Last week, I began the story of my own Rarotongan holiday. (You should probably read that before reading this. Here it is.) This week, the relaxing adventure continues. Where were we? Oh, yes. The resort.

A white, sandy beach fanned by palm trees… Recliners and thatched huts overlooking a crystal-blue ocean… A pool with a waterfall… Endless cocktails… The Rarotongan was pretty much exactly what I’d always imagined a Pacific Island resort to be like. Bliss.

Sunset on a Pacific Island Beach, Rarotonga

Except the sand was quite painful to walk on. Not that anyone else thought so. Most of the tourists there were Kiwis, and Kiwis have toughened soles from walking around barefoot. Needless to say, I don’t. Happily, the resort had an activities hut you could borrow reef shoes from.

It also had a giant chessboard – always cause for excitement. (Although one of the bishops got beheaded before Tim and I went to play.) The bar provided nice food throughout the day. We went especially crazy for the prawn twisters. (Although they ran out halfway through our stay.)

Rarotongan Resort

The restaurant at the resort was okay, but, on the second night, we found somewhere much better. It was recommended to us by the lady at the local dive school. (I didn’t actually go diving myself, as I have ichthyophobia and am prone to panic attacks.) The restaurant was called Coco Putt.

You wouldn’t expect a restaurant-cum-mini golf course to have amazingly beautiful food, but this place did. The seafood was so fresh and delicate. For the first time in my life, I enjoyed the taste of scallops, and am now obsessed with the Cook Island speciality ika mata – raw fish salad.

Of course, we played a round of mini golf afterward. We’d already had an incredibly good cocktail served in a nu (young) coconut, and now we set off with a golf club in one hand and a G&T in the other. I’m not surprised I fell over one of the holes rather spectacularly – straight onto my arse!

To be fair, it was dark. I saved one G&T and managed to escape with only a bruise on my leg. (A pretty enormous bruise that I still bear.) Luckily, no trip to the hospital was required, as Rarotongan healthcare isn’t exactly the best. The Cook Islands are a third-world country, after all.

Rarotongan Court House

If you’re seriously injured in Rarotonga, you’re better off flying to New Zealand for hospital treatment there. That’s why you should never go without travel insurance. A man at the resort said he’d taken one of his kids to hospital, but wouldn’t even let them put a plaster on – it was so filthy.

But anyway. As I wouldn’t go diving, the others insisted I at least join them on a semi-submersible boat trip. As I stared through the glass at the ocean floor, an enormous fish – I swear it was almost as large as me – wriggled past. They’d started throwing food in to lure them. I looked away.

The guide told us a story that will no doubt fuel my nightmares for years to come. A stupid tourist wanted to film the fish feeding from underwater, so he jumped in with his camera and the fish mistook him for food. They took many large chunks out of him before he was rushed to hospital.

South Pacific

Unfortunately, the coral around Rarotonga is nowhere near as colourful as it used to be, due to ocean acidification. The weather was also awful – storms the entire day – so we didn’t see much. We went past a shipwreck, though. I couldn’t help rolling my eyes as they played My Heart Will Go On.

We only had two days of bad weather. The rest of the week was glorious, especially for the middle of winter. I absolutely adored going kayaking around the island. In my opinion, the best way to see Rarotonga is from a kayak. (Check out my Top 10 Places to Go Kayaking in New Zealand.)

Rarotongan Jungle

We hired a comically small car – the last one they had left – and drove around the island. It only takes an hour. On our way round we came across a French bakery and celebrated Bastille Day, (completely oblivious to the terror attack in Nice.)

My partner’s father bought, for $25, a bottle of French cider so old that the label had worn off. Apparently, the previous owner of the bakery had brought it back with him from France, and they had no idea how old it was. Perhaps very old.

It was covered with dust and cobwebs and, at some point, an insect had burrowed partly into the cork. Possibly, it would be off, but for $25 that seemed a reasonable risk. I suspected it wasn’t quite as old as Tim’s dad was saying, as the muselet was a metallic shade of blue, but what did I know?

We opened it with a satisfying pop. It smelled revolting, but tasted quite nice. Still, I sipped it very cautiously. As the cork was passed around for people to look at, I noticed a number printed on its bottom: 2006. Ha. There went our dreams.

The other drink we had at the French bakery was a bottle of Lindauer Brut… a $40 bottle of Lindauer Brut! (For those that don’t know, Lindauer Brut is, in New Zealand, the bog-standard, barely-drinkable sparkling wine that I still quite enjoy, and usually costs about $10 at supermarkets.)


I didn’t just drink alcohol in Rarotonga! I discovered a love for fresh coconut milk drunk directly from the coconut with a straw. I only really like the nu coconuts, though. I like eating their slimy flesh. Most people seem to prefer the tougher flesh of older coconuts.

I was intrigued by the scavenging animals around Rarotonga’s restaurant tables. In New Zealand, we’re used to pigeons. Here, their place was taken by rather assertive Indian myna birds. And feral cats. Skinny, patchy, gashed, filthy… and utterly adorable.

I know, I know, I’m a crazy cat lady, but these wild cats are obviously well used to tourists being kind to them. One of them leapt onto my lap for a cuddle as soon as I showed it the slightest sign of attention. Yes, I was a little worried about fleas, but it was so lovely!

Anyway, back we got into the comically small car. The only reason Tim’s grandma’s wheelchair fit in the boot was because there was no back window, just a plastic cover! Mechanics in Rarotonga rarely do their job properly, we were told. Ah well – the maximum speed limit on the island is 50kmph.

We went to the Maire Nui Botanical Gardens. The café there only served salads, but – my goodness – they were beautiful salads, garnished with produce straight from the garden. The place was so peaceful, with plants unlike any I’d ever seen.

Wigmores Waterfall, Rarotonga

We also went to Wigmore’s Waterfall – a short diversion down a pothole-strewn road into the jungle. It wasn’t that great, really. One of the least interesting waterfalls I’ve ever seen. Still, it was nice to see and – hey – it was the deepest we got into the jungle all trip.

At some point, I foolishly agreed to get on ‘the party bus’ – an open-sided vehicle escorting revellers from club to club around the island. The bus was all flashing lights, ear-splitting music and drunk, yelling strangers pressing in… My idea of hell, basically. But I’m young – I’m supposed to enjoy it.

Apart from kayaking, the activity I most enjoyed during my week in Rarotonga was lasertag – but how could you not enjoy lasertag when it’s set in the real-life ruins of an old, abandoned resort? Running around it was actually quite dangerous – rusted oil drums, broken tiles, dark rooms…

The story of why there’s an old, abandoned resort in Rarotonga is quite interesting, told with relish by the locals. It involves the mafia. Really. The place is called The Sheraton, if you’re interested. You can also do paintball there, but you do not want to be throwing yourself to the ground in that place!

View from Highland Paradise, Rarotonga

On our last night in Rarotonga, we went to a fantastic cultural show at Highland Paradise. It was great because they didn’t take themselves too seriously, but, at the same time, were very interesting, informative and entertaining. I learned a lot about the history of Rarotonga.

The Maori migrated to New Zealand from the Cook Islands. It was fascinating to see the similarities and the differences between New Zealand Maori and Cook Island Maori culture. We heard tales of warring tribes and cannibals, and witnessed traditional dances from different periods in history.

The island drumming was thrilling. Apparently, the Highland Paradise show isn’t as spectacular as the one at Te Vara Nui, but it is better. Hearing about how the missionaries made the Cook Islanders wear their grass skirts above the belly button was hilarious. (They moved back below for tourists.)

Highland Paradise isn’t just a cultural show (with GORGEOUS food, I might add – I especially liked the taro leaves cooked in coconut cream.) It’s an archaeological site. A tribe lived there before the missionaries arrived. Now its descendants are re-discovering their history; teaching their children.

Ancient Marae

We were taken to see an ancient marae on a hillside. In New Zealand, a marae is a large meeting house. This was an outdoor platform carefully constructed of stone, with different levels for different statuses. Seeing this was one of the highlights of the holiday for me.

The view from Highland Paradise was breathtaking – alone worth the somewhat scary drive up. So make sure you go up during the day as well as for the evening show. I’m only disappointed I didn’t get to see everything. Apparently, on the full tour, you get taken to see the Sacrifice Stone!

View from Highland Paradise, Rarotonga

After the cultural show, we went back to the hotel to collect our suitcases – we would be flying back to New Zealand at three o’ clock in the morning! The show’s amiable host had boasted that at most airports you are greeted by security guards; in Rarotonga you are greeted by a guy playing a ukulele.

It turned out our flight was delayed until five o’ clock in the morning, so it wasn’t a fun night. Duty free shops are only amusing up to a point. I spent my last triangular Cook Island dollar and then realised I probably should have kept it as a souvenir. The night passed.

Amazingly, even though it was now five o’ clock in the morning, a guy with a ukulele was there to serenade us as we boarded our flight! Thus we left Rarotonga. How lovely. As well as a bottle of duty free alcohol, I took with me some awesome memories and a renewed appreciation for warm places.


I look forward to doing some more travelling within New Zealand itself. I probably won’t be able to get anywhere for at least a few weeks, though, and then it’ll just be daytrips. I’m running out of stuff to write about – this blog’s been going for over three years, you know!

Where New Zealanders Go On Holiday


If you’re wondering why I didn’t post anything last week, it’s because I was in paradise. And in paradise, Internet access is eye-wateringly expensive. I was also too busy drinking cocktails on the beach. Poor me.

I was in Rarotonga, one of the Cook Islands, a country in the tropical South Pacific. It’s a very popular winter getaway destination for Kiwis. Indeed, just about every other tourist I met there was from New Zealand.

The reason is more than mere proximity. The Cook Islands are a four-hour flight from Auckland – (New Zealand is so far away from everywhere that your only cheap holiday destinations are Australia and the Pacific Islands) – but they’re also closely tied to New Zealand politically.

The country was a protectorate of New Zealand until the 1960s, and still uses New Zealand currency. Cook Islanders are automatically New Zealand citizens. (The population of the Cook Islands is approximately 20,000, yet over 60,000 Cook Islanders live in New Zealand.)

Rarotongan Resort 01

You don’t need a visa to visit, just proof of accommodation and a return ticket, and at least six months left on your passport. It’s so easy for New Zealanders to visit the Cook Islands. Everywhere you go, you’re blasted with advertisements for holidays there.

In the lead-up to my holiday, every time I saw such an advertisement I had to pinch myself – I was actually going! And it couldn’t have been more welcome. The last few weeks in New Zealand have been freezing.

Our flight to Rarotonga arrived in the early hours of the morning. The Cook Islands are twenty-two hours behind New Zealand, so whilst there wasn’t much jetlag to be had, living through the same day twice (then skipping a day entirely on the way back) was a little confusing.

Crossing the International Date Line involves too much mental exercise when you’ve been up all night! It’s bad enough filling in your arrival card when you’re in that state. I unsurely put down my profession as ‘writer’.

Rarotongan Resort 05(I always get a thrill giving my job as ‘writer’. For so long, being a professional writer was my dream. Even though I’ve been getting paid for it for a while now it still seems unreal. Like I’m a fraud or something. The customs guy at Auckland Airport seemed to treat me with suspicion for it, anyway.)

The thing is, though, is you’re not legally allowed to practise your profession when you’re in the Cook Islands on holiday. This meant that every time I jotted down a story idea or made a note of the things we’d done, I was sort of breaking the law.

My partner pointed this out and named me a pirate writer. (A label I very much liked!) Beginning a new science fiction story whilst sitting in a hut overlooking the clear, turquoise ocean felt quite wonderful.

Landing in Rarotonga and finding it to be cosily warm was one of the best parts of the whole holiday. Several members of our party found the duty free cigarettes and alcohol to be just as exciting! Not so great was arriving at the resort to find that they’d screwed up our booking.

We had to spend the night in prison cell-like ‘emergency’ rooms with only half the number of beds we needed. (Well, apart from my partner’s dad. He was given the honeymoon suite!) But it was all sorted out the next day, so all good.

Rarotongan Resort 02

We decided to spend our first day in Rarotonga relaxing at the resort. I’d been looking forward to this so much. The last few weeks had been absolutely hectic and I desperately needed to spend a week relaxing.

The thing was, now I was here I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was wasting time. I was reclining beneath a palm tree and I felt like I should be doing something productive! It took a while – and a few cocktails – before I calmed down.

I started reading the first of Steven Erikson’s Malazan books and, I must say, I found the contrast between the resort around me and the gritty, gore-filled world of the book quite comical! The resort felt like it was inside a bubble of unreality.

Due to the expensiveness of Internet access, no news reached our party the entire eight days we were in Rarotonga. (Getting home to find Boris Johnson had been made UK Foreign Secretary and that there’d been another terrorist attack in France was like being hit on the head with a mallet.)

Rarotongan Resort 03

So there we were, festooned with flower garlands and strong, fruity cocktails, nicely sealed into our bubble of unreality, ready to begin our gently-paced adventure. I’ll save that adventure for next week’s post, though – there’s rather a lot to get through! Bye for now. Aere ra!

Next post: What We Did in Rarotonga

Going Medieval in Tauranga

Roman Helmets, Tauranga Medieval Faire, New Zealand

Gladiators, Tauranga Medieval Faire, New ZealandThe air tasted of sweat, dust and sunscreen. The scent of parched grass, greasy food and distant animal dung hung over the arena. Two potbellied gladiators sized each other up, blunted weapons poised. They hadn’t quite gotten the cheers they’d wanted – the crowd encircling them was half-wilted by the fierce sunlight. I was part of that crowd, and within the sweeping sleeves of my medieval dress my arms were roasting.

Celtic Cross Shield, Tauranga Medieval Faire, New ZealandI knew I’d get too hot wearing my medieval dress to the Tauranga Medieval Faire last weekend, but I couldn’t not wear it. It’s so beautiful. I got heaps of compliments! The Medieval Faire was combined with the A & P Show – that’s agricultural and pastoral – at the Tauranga Racecourse. That’s why you kept getting the smell of animal dung, but for once I didn’t mind. It made the ‘faire’ feel more realistic.

Druid, Tauranga Medieval Faire, New ZealandNot that the gladiator fights were realistic – or medieval. There were Roman reenactors amongst the medieval and Norse reenactors. And an Iron Age hut. It was jolly mix of things. There was even a real druid! I enjoyed having a go at archery – as I always do – and talking to the various stall owners. I’m not usually able to talk to strangers, but, of course, these strangers were just as passionate about history as I was. We all bemoaned New Zealand’s lack of castles!

Roman Standard, Tauranga Medieval Faire, New ZealandIt cost $10 to get into the racecourse. The Medieval Faire itself was free, but you had to pay for the A & P Show, even if you weren’t interested in going round all the farm stuff. Ah well. Hardly a rip-off. It was a good day out. (Even if, due to the heat, we didn’t actually last the full day.)

There seem to be a lot of ‘Medieval Faires’ happening around New Zealand. Apparently, many European-descended Kiwis still yearn for the old world, even as New Zealand moves into the future and talks of severing ties with England. Or maybe dressing up in medieval costumes is just fun.

Suit of Armour, Tauranga Medieval Faire, New ZealandMore from around Tauranga…

10 Free Things to Do in Tauranga

Shopping in Downtown Tauranga

Why Living in Tauranga Ruins You for Life

Mount Maunganui

Te Puna Quarry Park

New Zealand campervan hire

Another Reason to Visit Hamilton

Sumatran Tiger Hamilton Zoo New Zealand
Brown Capuchin Monkey Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Brown Capuchin Monkeys

Hamilton Zoo is a lot more than it first appears. It may not be as grand as Auckland Zoo, but it is certainly as good. Many say better. I went with my parents and boyfriend last weekend, and we found it more pleasant to walk around than Auckland Zoo. More intimate; more trees shading the paths.

Chimpanzee Hamilton Zoo New Zealand


Auckland Zoo has more animals than Hamilton Zoo, but Hamilton Zoo is almost twice as large as Auckland Zoo in terms of land area. In fact it feels deceptively large. Entry into Hamilton Zoo costs $22, which is an absolute bargain, and it’s wonderful to see the animals in such massive enclosures.

Sumatran Tigers Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Sumatran Tigers – aww!

The Sumatran tiger exhibit was especially impressive. When we arrived, three of the tigers were sleeping all snuggled up together. It was a mother and two cubs, although the cubs were a year old and didn’t look like babies anymore! I spent a long time ‘awwing’ at them, but was soon reminded that tigers aren’t always so cute.

Ostrich Hamilton Zoo New Zealand


One of the other tigers looked like it was actually trying to stalk the keepers that had come to feed them! The keepers were safe on the other side of the fence, of course, but it was only a few months ago that one of the Hamilton Zoo keepers was mauled to death by one of the tigers.

Cheetah Hamilton Zoo New Zealand


Thankfully, the tiger in question wasn’t euthanized. It was just being a tiger.

Hamilton Zoo doesn’t have any lions, but it does have some rather majestic cheetahs.

Giraffes Hamilton Zoo New Zealand


It also has giraffes, rhinos, monkeys, meerkats, red pandas, chimpanzees and an array of other creatures, including native New Zealand birds and reptiles.

Hamilton Zoo has the largest free flight aviary in New Zealand, complete with pond and waterfall.

The meerkats were adorable. One of them seemed intent on digging a tunnel to Spain, (Spain being the antipode of New Zealand,) and was already well on its way.

Meerkat Hamilton Zoo New Zealand


The giraffes were spectacular, but their limelight was stolen by the rutting blackbucks that shared their enclosure, almost beneath their notice.

Rutting Blackbucks Hamilton Zoo New Zealand


The kea were amusing – as if one could expect anything else. They are, after all, New Zealand’s funniest birds. One of them was playing dead right next to the fence. Very convincing. It even had a wing cocked at an odd angle!

Kea Hamilton Zoo New Zealand


And no, it wasn’t actually dead. It realised we were onto it and shook its head in annoyance. Apparently, it pretends to be dead a lot. Maybe it’s part of an elaborate escape plan.

All in all, we were walking around the zoo for three hours. We needed all day, really. We only just got round everything before the place closed, and we could have spent so much longer with many of the animals. I definitely want to go again at some point.

The gift shop and the café are nothing special, but there’s a playground and some okay picnic areas. The main focus is on the animals, which is as it should be.

Sleeping Peacock Hamilton Zoo New Zealand


Lake Wainamu

Lake Wainamu is a place not many people know about. Out at Bethells Beach, on Auckland’s west coast, it’s a peaceful spot of understated beauty, surrounded by low hills. You get to it either by trudging across sand dunes for about ten minutes, or by walking along a shallow river. The river way takes longer, but is less strenuous. Besides, it’s usually too hot to walk across the sand dunes barefoot; walking through the river is nice and soothing.


Lake Wainamu is great for swimming in, being so calm. It gets very deep very quickly, however, so I wouldn’t recommend going in unless you actually know how to swim. Swimming isn’t the only activity on offer at the lake, though. The sand dunes slope down to the river pretty sharply, making them the perfect place to try sand surfing. Definitely take a boogie board with you and slide on down!


You can also walk around the lake; there’s a proper track that does a full circuit. It takes an hour or two, but it’s worth it because hidden away behind the lake is a rather pretty swimming hole with a waterfall. Be warned, though – it’s bloody freezing! At some point around the lake track, close to the main beach, there’s a tree that leans out over the water. Local kids like to use it as a diving board.


I’d recommend wearing old clothes and shoes when you visit the lake, because everything gets full of black sand. Black sand is notoriously clingy! I’m still scraping it off my scalp from two days ago and, yes, I have washed my hair! It is luxuriously soft, though. And the silvery dunes are starkly beautiful.


Countless films, music videos, TV series and adverts have been filmed on the dunes. You can well imagine Xena having an epic duel across them, and we passed yet another film crew when we were there two days ago. They wouldn’t tell us what they were filming, but there were two guys in suits with guns. I didn’t envy the suited-up actors – the sun was blazing! I’d resorted to using my umbrella as a parasol:


My boyfriend, being a tough Kiwi, was less prepared. Even though our group was planning on walking to the lake over the dunes, and not through the river, he didn’t bring shoes. He thought about bringing shoes, but then did the usual Kiwi thing of thinking ‘she’ll be ’right’ and left them behind. Sure enough, the sand was far too hot to walk on, but – lo! – Kiwi ingenuity to the rescue! He fashioned shoes out of towels and walked to the lake thusly:


So… Lake Wainamu. It’s ‘becoming far too popular with non-locals’ and it’s easy to see why. If you’re visiting Bethells Beach, give yourself some time to walk to the lake as well. It’s completely free and there are lots of things to explore. Here’s how to find it.


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: A Land Fit for Fantasy

You know when you were a kid, when you were lonely or sad or scared and you just… imagined you were somewhere else? Where did you imagine? What fantastic landscapes did you get lost in?

Emerald valleys beribboned with sapphire rivers? Mysterious lakes mirroring snow-capped mountains? Ancient forests with hidden waterfalls? Waves crashing upon black rocks beneath stormy skies? How about bubbling, blue-grey pools surrounded by steam vents, lava flows and powdery, yellow rocks?

Fantasy Image from Pixabay.com

You know.

Growing up in England, I thought New Zealand was some sort of fantasyland. But that didn’t mean I wanted to leave my home and my friends and everything behind to go there. When my parents told me we were moving to New Zealand, I’d never been more lonely or sad or scared!

I did feel slightly better, however, when my dad informed me they were filming The Lord of the Rings there. If I was going to be forced to live somewhere, it was good that it was somewhere magical.


Bridal Veil Falls, Waikato, New Zealand

I was disappointed to find, upon arrival, that New Zealand was just like everywhere else. I mean there were a few things I found strange, but on the whole it was just like England. Of course, I’d only seen the airport, the motorway and our new town at that point. The more I saw of New Zealand’s countryside, the more magical it seemed.


Tongariro National Park, New Zealand

No wonder so many fantasy epics get filmed here! Apart from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, there was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Legend of the Seeker, Xena, Hercules, 10,000 BC, The Water Horse, Bridge to Terabithia and others I’ve forgotten. They’re doing Terry Brooks’ Shannara as we speak. (Or as I write. Whatever.)

A ridiculous amount of filming is done at Bethells Beach, for example. My boyfriend, Tim, grew up there, with a view over the valley, the silver-black sand dunes and the sea, so I’ve been a fair bit. It is beautiful, but not only that. It’s got a sort of… mystical quality. It’s not just a beach. If I believed in such things, I’d say it was a weak point in reality… a gateway to the Otherworld… You have to go when the light’s just right, I suppose.

Bethells Beach

Bethells Beach, Auckland, New Zealand

A lot of filming is also done around Queenstown. That’s where the mysterious lakes mirroring snow-capped mountains are at. My family went there on our New Zealand campervan rental tour and it’s almost overwhelming being in the midst of so much natural beauty.

Lake Pukaki

Lake Pukaki, Canterbury, New Zealand

Other places in the world are beautiful. What makes New Zealand special is simply that it has so MANY beautiful landscapes, and such a RANGE of beautiful landscapes, all within one small country. Scottish actor Graham McTavish put it well when he spoke at the 2015 Hamilton Armageddon: New Zealand is like Neverland, he said – a child’s drawing of a fantasy island with everything you could possibly want on it, in terms of natural scenery and adventure.

Cathedral Cove

Cathedral Cove, Coromandel, New Zealand

In terms of culture, well that’s improving all the time. Auckland’s getting a full-scale replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre this summer! Pity it’s only going to be a temporary ‘pop-up’ building, but still – pretty cool, eh?

Lake McLaren

Lake McLaren, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand


Locations from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit

What Hobbiton’s Like

The Magic of Waitomo Caves

The Magical Creatures of New Zealand

Campervan Sales NZ

Auckland to Christchurch by Campervan

A friend of mine is on an epic journey. He’s just arrived in New Zealand from Europe. He’s picked up a campervan hire in Auckland and he’s taking it all the way down to Christchurch. Naturally he asked me for advice: where should he stop along the way? I was only too happy to help.

1) The Waitakere Ranges Regional Park


I often tell people the first place you should go in New Zealand (if you’ve landed in Auckland) is the Arataki Visitor Centre. It’s a great place to learn about New Zealand, especially if you’re interested in bush walks – an integral part of the New Zealand experience. The Arataki Visitor Centre is located in the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park, just half an hour’s drive west of the centre of Auckland City. It provides easy access to a multitude of bush walks, short and long; relaxing and challenging. The park also encompasses some fantastic black sand beaches – Muriwai and Bethells are my favourites.

2) The Hamilton Gardens


Hamilton’s an hour or so’s drive south of Auckland. It’s not exactly an impressive city, but it’s one of those places from which you can easily get to other places. And, as you’re passing through, you may as well visit the Hamilton Gardens. They’re actually wonderful – officially amongst the best gardens in the world. If you’re a garden person you should put them on your must-see list.

3) The Waitomo Caves

Waitomo is an hour’s drive south of Hamilton. It’s very touristy, but I had the most magical experience of my life there. The Waitomo Caves are breathtaking. As well as simple tours there are lots of different adventures to go on, including abseiling and tubing – floating down an underground river on a rubber ring. The truly magical thing about Waitomo, though, is its glowworms. Drifting beneath them in that little boat was like being surrounded by tiny, blue stars glittering upon velvet darkness… (That’s the Spellbound Tour – $75 per adult, but so worth it!)

4) The Hobbiton Movie Set

First Hobbit Hole

I know I keep going on about the Hobbiton Movie Set, but I really did love it. To call it a movie set is almost misleading – it’s like a real village, living and breathing. The hobbit holes actually meet council standards, so could be used as proper houses! Hobbiton is about three quarters of an hour’s drive east of Hamilton. It’s probably best to visit in summer, when the flowers are at their most glorious and the vivid colours of the round doors at their brightest, but going in winter would make the Green Dragon seem even cosier with its inviting fireplaces.

5) Rotorua


Rotorua is an hour’s drive south-east of Hobbiton. You want geysers, hot pools, mud pools, spa pools, fascinating history, thrilling adventure and Maori culture? Of course you do! And you don’t have to pay through the nose for it, though many places in Rotorua will try to make you do so. It’s about knowing where to go. Start with Kuirau Park – it’s free – and definitely check out How to Do Rotorua on the Cheap.

6) Taupo


An hour’s drive south of Rotorua you’ll come to Taupo, a resort town on the edge of an enormous crater lake. Hot springs abound and exciting water sports are at your fingertips. I recommend jet boating – it was invented in New Zealand after all. I also recommend a walk around the Craters of the Moon

7) Tongariro National Park


Volcanoes. Epic volcanoes. The Tongariro National Park is about an hour’s drive south of Taupo. It doubled for Mordor in The Lord of the Rings, but it’s not ugly and oppressive in real life. It’s beautiful. Camping there is quite something, especially with all the bats, and the walks are amazing. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is the most famous, but it takes at least seven hours. For a good two-hour walk you could try the Taranaki Falls Track – you get to see one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the country as well good views of the volcanoes, Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro.

8) Wellington


Four to five hour’s drive south of Tongariro we come to New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington. It’s from here that you’ll take your campervan on a ferry across Cook Strait to get to the South Island, but you should hang around a bit first. Wellington’s an unusual city, surrounded by forested hills. Walk around the harbour, visit Te Papa and Weta Workshop, and climb Mount Victoria for some fabulous views.

9) The Marlborough Sounds

At the top of the South Island are the beautiful Marlborough Sounds. They always make me think of New Zealand wine and dolphins. What I really want to do is go kayaking on the Pelorus River. That’s where they filmed the barrel ride from the second Hobbit film. (Even if you think the Hobbit films were a major disappointment compared to the Lord of the Rings films, you can’t fault the stunning nature of the New Zealand scenery.) Plus, if you’re in a campervan, there’s a fantastic campground at Pelorus Bridge – make sure you book ahead.

10) Kaikoura

NZ Fur Seals

Two hours or so south of Marlborough we come to Kaikoura, the whale-watching capital of New Zealand. (On the way there’s a great place to spend the night for free if you’re in a self-contained campervan, right on the edge of the sea and practically on top of a colony of seals – Paparoa Point.) Kaikoura’s famous for its mouth-watering crayfish – the name Kaikoura actually means ‘meal of crayfish’ in Maori – and for its amazing marine encounters. You can swim with dolphins and kayak with whales, and if you look back towards the shore you’ll see a backdrop of snow-capped mountains.

11) Arthur’s Pass


Arthur’s Pass is the name of a national park, a mountain pass and a village nestled within the Southern Alps. When my family was on a South Island campervan tour years ago, my dad wanted to get a photograph of someone standing in front of one of the signs, covering the P. I can’t remember whether we actually did this as the scenery was more than a little distracting. Four hours south-west of Kaikoura, Arthur’s Pass is a gateway to many wonderful walks. It’s also the perfect place to encounter kea, the most intelligent birds in the world and New Zealand’s cheekiest natives.

12) Christchurch and Beyond


Christchurch is about two hour’s drive south-east of Arthur’s Pass. There’s so much to do around the city. Visit the Botanic Gardens and the see the awesome splendour of the Waimakariri River. Or the Rakaia River. Or both! Go up Banks Peninsula and spend a night or two in Akaroa – it’s the only place in the world where you can swim with the Hector’s dolphins, which are so cute! If you drive three hours south you’ll come to Oamaru, which used to be famous for just penguins, but now it’s got penguins AND a cool steampunk thing going on.

Fur Seal 1croppedWell anyway I don’t know how many of these suggestions my friend will follow. The best places are always the ones you discover for yourself. That’s the beauty of campervan travel: you can go where you want when you want, following whims. I wonder what new places my friend will discover. He’s been to New Zealand before – we met at a larping convention in Auckland two years ago and, last year, my boyfriend and I stayed with him for one night on our European tour. Actually, I interviewed him about his time in New Zealand on this blog. (See Interview with the Larper.) He said he’d be back and this time he’s brought his girlfriend.

Seriously, though, you have to stop coming in winter!

Why You Should Visit the Arataki Visitor Centre

First time in New Zealand? Time to spare around Auckland? Head west to the Arataki Visitor Centre in the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park. It provides a fantastic introduction to life in New Zealand. You can learn about Auckland’s history, environment and wildlife in a wonderful setting with magnificent views, before embarking upon one of the many laid-back bushwalks in the area.


The Arataki Visitor Centre is one of the first places I remember visiting in New Zealand. I was ten years old; the centre was great for kids and still is. In fact it’s got even better in the last decade. You could spend hours in the kids’ corner. I discovered so much and it was fun. I learned, for example, what all the different native birds were and what a weta looked like. (Answer: scary as fuck.)


Recently, I went back for the first time in years. It still had the giant picture frame at the edge of the car park, overlooking the ‘natural masterpiece’-of-a-view. It still had the towering Maori totem pole that my little sister had climbed on, unaware that she was using the bottom figure’s penis as a handhold. But there was one important addition to the car park: a charming Danish ice-cream hut.


The ice-cream was very nice, as were the freshly made waffle cones.


I also found this rather pretty place for chaining up your bike.


As you ascend the wooden ramp into the centre there are a series of balconies taking advantage of the views. In summer they’d make good picnic spots, but the wind was too cold to stay out long this time. Thankfully there’s a place to eat inside the centre too, not a proper café, but nice tables with snacks and hot drinks available. There’s also this rather lovely window seat.


The inside of the centre has changed a lot. It looks all fancy now. The gift shop’s still the same, but there are lots of new displays. As well as informational displays about the natural and human history of the area, and about local conservation efforts, there are beautiful examples of Kiwi artwork and even live lizards! This is definitely somewhere international visitors should come.


If you plan on doing any bushwalking during your New Zealand trip – and New Zealand is pretty much impossible to escape without doing at least one little bushwalk – then the Arataki Visitor Centre is a great place prepare yourself. There are people there who can advise you on where to go and how to stay safe in the bush, and there are heaps of free leaflets available.


In fact the whole centre is free – did I mention that?


The Arataki Visitor Centre is known as the gateway to the Waitakere Ranges. I think it’s also a great gateway to New Zealand in general. Make it the beginning of your New Zealand holiday. I know a few people who say it’s the first place the place they take friends and relatives when they arrive.  Other places nearby include: Rose Hellaby House, the Waitakere Dam, Fairy Falls and Bethells Beach.