The rainy season


I was in Brisbane last week for a wedding in a registry office. I used to think that a rego office wedding would be really cool and chilled out, but the ceremony in Australia made me feel actual rage.

Since Australia’s Marriage Amendment Act 2004, celebrants are required to give an explanation of the nature of marriage, which includes this text:

“Marriage, according to law in Australia, is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.”

Which pretty much has “So there, homos” after it in invisible ink. When the celebrant read it out, I had this moment of “Wait, did he actually say that?” In a normal situation if someone was saying dickish things like that, I’d walk out or make an angry tweet, but it’s not cool to do that at your brother’s wedding.

I felt a bit like a naive New Zealander and I wondered if this it was just accepted in Australia. But I googled it and found various Australian couples wanting advice on what they can add to their vows to not alienate their gay friends and family.

It makes me appreciate the freedom that New Zealanders have in the world of weddings. Dudes and chicks can get hitched in any pairing, if they want to. Yay, New Zealand.


Talking about the weather

Eagle Street Pier on a rainy afternoon.

Eagle Street Pier on a rainy afternoon.

It rained a lot in Brisbane, but Brisbane does rain well. I think this is because a lot of the infrastructure that makes the city comfortable in the filthy hot summer months, also works during the wet seasons. So the covered walkways that protect summer pedestrians from the baking Queensland sun also work as rain shelter in March. The various city malls, arcades and underground routes likewise let people get around without being bothered too much by the cruel outside world.

It’s a good umbrella town. It’s unlike Wellington – where using an umbrella is a sign of mental illness – or Auckland – where using an umbrella is an unwelcome admission of the truth that no one likes to face: that Auckland is rainy as. Brisbane happy faces the rainy weather, everyone uses umbrellas (and not just in black!) and malls even have free umbrella wrapping stations so you don’t end up dripping everywhere.

There’s something really satisfying about being out in the rain but not getting wet. Maybe there’s a basic human instinct that’s all “SEEK SHELTER!” but it’s very liberating to be able to ignore that and just get out and do regular stuff without fear of getting soaked. Though it seems Queensland still hasn’t figured out how to protect against hair frizz.


I went to the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art. After I’d been thoroughly impressed by the epic faux taxidermy of Cai Guo-Qiang, I wandered upstairs and discovered something kinda wonderful.

It was a video work called King: A Portait of Michael Jackson by Candice Breitz. She’d selected 16 hardcore Michael Jackson fans – none of whom could really sing or dance – and filmed them singing and moving along to the Thriller album. So there were 16 TV screens playing the video vertically, each TV playing the audio track of the individual depicted on screen. The end result was an amateur chorus of Thriller.

The singing sounded surprising gentle, like Anglican church service singing. I think that was a combination of the amateur singers not being able to project their voices, along with nerves and being unable to replicate MJ’s unique high-but-tough voice.

Some people were well into it, others did that thing where you kind of mumble the verses but go hard on the familiar chorus. Because there was no music playing, each song started with the performers jiggling about and it was fun to guess the song. Suddenly everyone gets all tough-guy and, oh, it’s “Beat It”. The zombie hands come out for “Thriller”.

It was a dorky but spectacular experience. As hilarious as it was seeing all the daggy dancing and wobbly notes, there was something incredibly uplifting and life-affirming about sitting in a dark room while 16 people suddenly burst into “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin”.

This video is the whole darn thing at 42 minutes long, so feel free to just watch a little bit.

Observatory, Places


Lame-arse travel tips

One thing I noticed on my travels: most hotel rooms have powerpoints in really awkward places. In the olden days, back when the only thing that needed to be plugged in was the bedside clock radio, not a smartphone or tablet, meaning a modern user can be in for complicated experience finding somewhere to plug in.

So I had this idea. Instead of trying to relax in a bed that you’ve pulled out 20cm from the wall in order to accommodate the giant iPhone plug, what if you brought along a power board to plug in and bring power points to the comfort of your bedside table?

I thought about doing this when I was on holiday but then I thought, oh, what if the cleaner sees it and thinks it’s part of some meth lab I’m in the middle of setting up and then they call the cops and my holiday is totally ruined. A rational thought, you understand.

A declaration

flagsA couple of weeks ago when I’d just arrived in Kohukohu, I was walking along the main street when suddenly I saw a number of the United Tribes flags flying. At first I thought, “Whoa, things are different here,” (which is true of the Hokianga anyway), but then I discovered the flags were related to an exhibit of work by local artists, He W’akaputanga Mai o te Rangatiratanga – a proclamation. The artists have created work in response to the Declaration of Independence, signed by various northern chiefs in 1835. The exhibition was really good, very thought-provoking, an unexpected discovery in that sleepy little seaside village.

As it happens, the exhibition’s travelled to another sleepy little seaside village, Devonport. It opened yesterday at Depot Artspace and is on display until the end of March. If you’re in the area, you should go and see it. Here’s a report from Maori TV on the exhibition.

Stick it on

When I was in Kaitaia, I kind ran out of things to do. I tweeted asking for suggestions (which led to a visit to out to the beach at Ahipara, and on to a couple of kauri places at Awanui), but while I was waiting for the replies, I had a wander along the main street and ended up going into all the $2 shops in town (there are a few) and buying all the different types of party moustaches that I could find.


I actually have experience with all these from previous moustache parties in Wellington, so I can offer the following comments.

Self-adhesive Facial Hair Kit
This one has a bit of a Deadwood thing happening, but due to it having eyebrows, sideburns and a soul patch, it’s also the most versatile of the three. The pieces are cut from a thick felty material that isn’t much like actual facial hair when seen up close, but it’s ok from a distance. I wouldn’t recommend using all the components at once. It’s like with makeup – you either emphasise the lips or the eyes (or the sideburns?), not both.

Mustache Party
This is my favourite, and I think everyone should keep a Mustache Party in that drawer in the kitchen where all the random stuff goes. You never know when you’ll need it. The biggest feature – six different styles in two different colours, though I’d personally have preferred the Scoundrel to come in black, rather than grey. The moustaches are made of the thinnest material of the three packs, and on some you can even see the weave.

Party Mustache
From a distance this one looks really good. It’s a big fat hairy moustache that would look great, right? Well, part of the problem is its hairiness. There’s fibres flaking off it in the packet, and you don’t want something like that next to your nose. It would be ok if you were wanting to wear a moustache for a selfie, but it fails on the requirements of being a good party moustache.



The western side of Northland.

The Hokianga

It's ok - unlike the old one, the new Pak'n Save doesn't look like it's been hit by a cyclone.

It’s ok – unlike the old one, the new Pak’n Save doesn’t look like it’s been hit by a cyclone.

There’s something strangely satisfying about Kaitaia. It’s the northern-most town in New Zealand and it’s big enough to have a Farmers and a Warehouse. The Far North is about the least prosperous part of New Zealand, but it never really gets cold there and it’s really pretty.

When I left Kaitaia, it was a grey, cloudy day, doing that misty Far North thing I’d come to expect. I avoided State Highway One (so mainstream) and headed south on a road that went from Ahipara to Kohukohu, via the pleasant valley town of Broadwood.

Kohukohu was on the itinerary because that’s where my gran was born and where she met my grandfather, a cool dude rocking into town on his motorcycle, with stories of Chicago. Kohukohu is now a chilled out little settlement on the shores of the Hokianga. There’s nothing to do there, which is why people go there.

Let's call this "the old wharf" and get a far-off look in our eyes.

Let’s call this “the old wharf” and get a far-off look in our eyes.

From Kohukohu I got the car ferry over to Rawene. It’s not like those boganny Auckland passenger ferries, hooning across the harbour. The Rawene car ferry is smooth and slower. And it comes with the added sensation of being seated in one’s car, watching the landscape move, but not having to actually do any driving.

Rawene is another sweet little harbourside town. As the guide at the historic Clendon House said, living in the Hokianga is like living in the 1950s, except they’ve got the internet. Even the local diary still has “MILK BAR” written on its window, as if a car full of those newfangled teen-agers is going to pull up and slurp milkshakes while listening to Johnny Devlin.

Towards the west coast is the town of Opononi, best known for being the home of Opo the happy/gay/friendly dolpin. Opo’s fame only lasted for nine months before her tragic death in March 1956, but that summer of ’55/’56 must have been the most golden summer ever for Opononi – a celebrity dolphin that drew thousands of tourists to the area.

Opo was buried in front of the War Memorial Hall. And even though it happened almost 60 years ago, the village is still full of dolphin icons. Opononi’s identity is very much “dolphin woz here in ’55”.

The Kauri Coast

A random German tourist gives Tane Manuta the thumbs up. New Zealanders relax, knowing that an international visitor approves.

A random German tourist gives Tane Manuta the thumbs up. New Zealanders relax, knowing that an international visitor approves.

The area between the Hokianga and Kaipara harbours is called the Kauri Coast. I discovered that it has this nickname because there is literally nothing else in the area. It’s either kauri trees, shops selling products made from swamp kauri and museums filled with shovels and gum. There is nothing else.

Oh, actually – there was the Waimamaku Wild West Festival. Wamamaki is a tiny settlement just south of Opononi and I was passing through on the day of their annual Wild West Festival. Must of the festival actually seemed to be happening on State Highway 12 itself (there was no way for traffic to bypass), so I was driving along at about 10km/h while ladies did linedancing just centimetres away from my window and crowds cheered on the other side. Horrifyingly, there were children running around on the road. And even though I wasn’t going fast, it’s still really unpleasant to have to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting a hyperactive 10-year-old. But these incidents were accompanied by a man on a loudhailer yelled at the kids to bloody stop running around, ya mongrels, which probably counts as effective crowd control in the wild west.

Further along State Highway 12 is the star attraction of the kauri coast – Tane Mahutu aka Giant Kauri Tree. It’s a short walk from the main road, and suddenly there it is – this giant tree. It was like Cape Reinga – I was expecting it to be a deeply spiritual experience, but it was just a big tree. I prefer the Tane Mahuta that I imagined before I got there, with naked hippies leaping over the fence to hump the trunk. It’s less thrilling when the reality is busloads of European tourists all lining up to have their photo taken in front of the really big tree in New Zealand.


It matches the sky.

It matches the sky.

The road between the Tane Mahuta and Dargaville is bleak and boring. There’s the ever-twisting roads of Waipoua Forest, and then that flattens out into dull farmland. There’s nothing there. There aren’t even towns. Occasionally there’ll be a pub or a war memorial hall or a general store, but it’s mainly all swampy farms.

Dargaville was a welcome relief, which surprised me. It’s quite a pleasant riverside town, though it does have a really hardcore bogan vibe to it. I would not be surprised if it had the highest goatee ratio per head of popular.

Dargaville Museum had three highlights. The first was the introductory video about swamp kauri. It looked homemade and involved a couple of codgers talking about the “tsunamu” that probably made all the trees falls over. The video concluded with an artisan turning a gnarled log of swamp kauri into a highly varnished, shiny orange gnarled log coffee table. The second highlight was the hall commemorating the gumdiggers of the region, including a the spades of mostly Dalmatian gumdiggers. The hall was dedicated in memory to one of the locals who’d been fundamental in getting it organised, borrowing Christopher Wren’s memorial at St Paul’s Cathedral: “Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you.”

A handsome fellow in Spanish national costume, one of the many national costumes of the world.

A handsome fellow in Spanish national costume, one of the many national costumes of the world.

The third highlight was what I called the Hall of Crap. It was full of collections of odd items, the sort of thing that people collect and their bewildered family donate to the local museum upon passing. So there’s a giant wall display of souvenir boomerangs, a cabinet of thimbles, a selection of dolls wearing national costumes. This is why all museums need a clear acquisition policy. Though perhaps Dargaville Museum is quite happy to say yes to old Doris’ collection of irons.

The last stop on the Kauri Coast was the Kauri Museum in Matakohe. I don’t even know where Matakohe is.

If you like kauri wood and kauri gum and the history or kauri gum digging and milling and swamp kauri, then the Kauri Museum will be a real treat for you. But by this stage, I was sick of all things Kauri. It was a novelty when I saw some stuff about it in the Kataia museum, but when that’s all there is, it gets tiresome fast.

Kauri gum. Woteva.

Kauri gum. Woteva.

I found myself wandering around the different halls, totally numb to the apparent allure of kauri. The highlight was a giant, kitschy table, originally made by Lion for their boardroom, later donated to the Governor General, and now taking pride of place in the Kauri Museum. No wonder the GG didn’t want it – it had a crack in it.

I started to fantasise about being in a room with all white walls. No kauri. No glowing orange gum. No rich orange wood panels.

So obviously by this stage I needed to go home. By the time I reached West Auckland, I was thrilled by the novelty of roads with things – buildings, people, other cars. The further south I drove, the cooler the weather came. Back into the Waikato where the land is criss-crossed with roads and villages, back along a boring-as road where nothing happens.



The eastern side of Northland


Warkworth seems to have reinvented itself as a service centre for people with holiday homes north of Auckland. The local supermarket is stocked with all the kinds of posh food that central Auckland supermarkets have. The traffic is crazy and I found myself faced with a traffic jam at the rush hour of about 5.30pm on Friday, no doubt repeated on Sunday afternoon.

Towards the coast is the town of Matakana, reinvented from a sleepy inland town to a super fun destination for the aforementioned people with holiday houses. Like, it’s all very well having a bach in a quiet coastal bay, but that can get a bit boring. Matakana comes to the rescue with cafes, a cinema (playing 100% old-people films), a posh food shop, various gift boutiques, and a weekly farmers market.


Bay of Islands

This is historic Northland. It’s also very scenic. It’s possibly the most piratey part of New Zealand, and feels like what tropical islands are like, just without the oppressive heat. When I think about the European settlers coming to the area in the 19th century, they must have been well chuffed with this picturesque new land.

I went to the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi and I remembered what happened when I was last there, in 2006: the introduction video makes me cry. Sitting in a dark theaterette with a random selection of overseas tourists, there I was with something in my eye, feeling all proud at being a New Zealander and the complicated though mighty history of the Treaty.

By the way, the gift shop at the Treaty Grounds is rubbish. They sell high-end tourist crap – decorative kauri bowls with paua shell inlays, weird merino vests, and other things that only exist in tourist shops. Whereas the Historic Places Trust have the coolest stuff in their shops, including custom designed items that captures the spirit of the property. You can buy handmade nails at the Stone Store in Kerikeri – just like the store used to sell in the olden times. Also – moustache wax.

Here’s another weird thing – there aren’t many New Zealanders exploring historic Northland. I always take a look in visitors books and most of the signatures come from exotic locales – Leeds, Melbourne, Glasgow, Unterengstringen (Switzerland) – and there in the middle off it will be a lone Hawera. Ticket people always sound surprised and delighted when I say I’m from Raglan, and they usually take joy in administering the special admission price for New Zealanders.


Cape Reinga

When I left the Bay of Islands it was sunny. When I arrived in Doubtless Bay, the clouds had rolled in. This is proper Far North weather – a white sky, flat light and a bit of mist just for some extra atmosphere.

I drove to Cape Reinga, purely for completionist reasons. The road (sealed the whole way there, as of 2010) was almost totally devoid of cars. Lots of tourists go by bus along 90 Mile Beach, but I don’t think I could deal with that sort of experience.

So I was driving along this empty road, full of twists and turns, with the sky, the sea and even a bit of landscape turning all an indistinguishable bright grey mass. And then sudden at the end of the road there’s a car park, some eco toilets and a bogan drinking a can of premix bourbon and cola.

From there I walked down to the light house and direction sign. Compared to Bluff, it takes a lot more effort to get there. Bluff has a tearooms and a nearby maritime museum. Cape Reinga is all sacred and holy and every twist and turn of the path to the lighthouse has a story to be told.

I don’t know if I was expecting to have some sort of moment of epiphany. I was just trying not to get a mouthful of hair as the drama wind kept blowing it in my face. It was all full of tourists taking photos next to the direction sign, so they could say they did it. Well, that’s why I was there.



Oh, possum!

On my last day in Napier I visited Opossum World, as recommended by an anonymous tipster. Opossum World is a store selling products made from possum fur, but out the back is what purports to be an educational display about the menace of the possum. It’s essentially a massive anti-possum propaganda exercise, and it makes me wonder if it was created to appease tourists horrified by the slaughter of innocent possums for the fur trade. I mean, if you’re coming from Australia where the possum is beloved and protected native animal, it’s going to be horrifying to find it treated like this in New Zealand.

Such is Opossum World’s contempt for the possum, they don’t even call it by its proper name, instead borrowing the name of the possum’s North American cousin, the opossum. Maybe it’s like an admonishment – “Oh, possum!” Or a troublesome drunken Irishman, O’Possum.

Here are some highlights of the strange world of Opossum World.

The Bridge of Remembrance

Bridge of Remembrance

Past the gloves, past the hats is the Bridge of Remembrance. But is it not in memory of all the dead possums. Instead it commemorates the “70,000,000 opossums consuming 21,000 tonnes of vegetation per night”. Except humans are responsible for destroying two-thirds of New Zealand’s native forest. And the current estimate of possums in New Zealand is now only 30 million. And the Bridge of Remembrance is made of wood.

It knows


This possum can see into your soul. It knows you know it is dead. It knows you know it was murdered while it was trying to get some food. It will appear as a vision to remind you of this the next time you are at McDonald’s enjoying a replica Georgie Pie pie.

The miracle of birth

The spawning

This is the extent of Opossum World’s anti-possum propaganda. This taxidermied possum is demonstrating the joy of birth. The mother possum has just given birth to the tiny possum kitten (kitten!) that is in the process of crawling into the mother’s pouch. Except the mother possum looks like there’s a demonic alien about to burst out of her stomach, whereupon it will eat all the native birds it can find and then crap on your windscreen. All that’s missing is flickering red LED lights in the possum’s eyes.

The joy of motherhood

Feeding time

On the left, a young possum rides on the back of its mother. On the right… WHAT THE HELL IS THIS? Oh, it’s a possum that is too big to live in its mother’s pouch, but can still fit its head inside to suckle from its mom’s teats. The mother looks startled and mildly annoyed and appears to be attempting to run away. This is the possum equivalent of a 20-something young adult who still lives at home.

Man alone

Lonely hunter

And here is the lonely possum hunter. He’s been out shooting at night and has some possums to gut. He’s all by himself out there in the bush, man alone. Here he is taking a break and contemplating his life, wondering if all those dead possums have all been worth it. It would be nice if, just once, the native birds would say thanks for all the hard work.

Opossum World is located at 157 Marine Parade. The next time you’re in Napier, you should go there. Better than a winery tour.

Observatory, Places


1. Napier

I’m in Napier this week for a short break. In the heart of the ’00s, I used to go travelling, find the local internet cafe in town and update my LiveJournal. Now technology has changed to the point where I can do all that from the comfort and privacy of my motel room. Or sitting on a bench down by the waterfront, squinting at my phone.

I like Napier. It’s a nice seaside town in a very English way, and New Zealand doesn’t usually do that. Probably because we like our beachy areas wild and untamed, not with long beachside boulevards with minigolf courses, aquariums and swimming pools.

Of course, it helps that Napier has all the stylish old buildings from the 1930s. Though in the spunky new MTG Hawke’s Bay (aka the museum) there was an old plan for a grand Brighton-style Marine Parade, complete with a palatial building called the Coffee Palace, right across the road from a grand church. Sadly, these plans were never realised, missing the opportunity for Snoop Dogg’s 2002 song “From tha Chuuuch to da Palace” to have a special tie to Napier.


2. Hastings

I hired a car and drove to Hastings. Somehow it’s hard-wired into my brain that Hastings is north of Napier, not south, so on the drive there I kept thinking I was driving along a thing peninsula of land because – huh – I didn’t realise there was also sea on that side, etc.

Hastings seems quite sensible compared to Napier. It makes Napier seem like a dandy flapping about, all like “Look at us! We have art deco!” while Hastings is all “Yep, we’ve got it too, and a K Mart.”

The last time I went to Hastings was on a family holiday in 1985 or so. The only thing I remember was finding a really cool nightie at Farmers, with pink and yellow geometric panels (I was 10; it was the mid-’80s). Hoping for lightning to strike twice, I went into the new Farmers. It’s just like all the other new Farmers. The sleepware section was filled with the usual boring things – those t-shirts with comedy slogans. A sheep with its wool in rollers and “dreaming of ewe”. I miss the ’80s?

3. Latte bowls


One of the things I discovered from Cafe Culture New Zealand is that some of the cafes haven’t really changed much since 2000. Cafe Ujazi in Napier is one of those. As I walked past it, I noticed an empty latte bowl sitting on an outdoor table. Lattes served in cafe au lait bowls, that very New Zealand invention, have all but vanished from the serious cafes of major metropolises, but it’s heartening that they’re not yet uncool in the provinces. And really, you haven’t lived until you’ve slurped down a giant bowl of hot chocolate, with melting marshmallows bothering your nose.

Observatory, Places


Detail from Volcanic Plateau painting by Juliet Peter

Detail from Volcanic Plateau painting by Juliet Peter.

I went to Rotorua earlier this year. It was during the drought, where the sky was always blue and the landscape was always brown and everything was hot and dry. I took The Shell Guide to New Zealand (of course), where Juliet Peter’s artwork depicting the Volcanic Plateau chapter includes trout, Maori carvings, state houses, bulldozers, pine trees, a volcano, a power pylon and a butterfly.

1. Hell’s Gate

The Volcanic Plateau chapter begins with a quote from George Bernard Shaw, who visited the area in 1934: “Tikitere, I think, is the most damnable place I have ever visited and I would willingly have paid ten pounds not to see it.” So obviously I had to find this place and go there.

It turns out Tikitere is the tourist attraction otherwise known as Hell’s Gate, a thermal wonderland of sulphur, steam, mud and other delights. But here’s the weird thing – Hell’s Gate is hot for George Bernard Shaw.

I went to Rotorua and all I got was this giant cloud of steam.

I went to Rotorua and all I got was this giant cloud of steam.

The place takes its name from a comment he made, and indeed many of the hot pools were named by him. Like the two erupting pools named Sodom and Gomorrah.

Was he actually walking around like a 1930s Jeremy Clarkson slagging the place off? But because he was George Bernard Shaw, internationally renowned playwright and wit, the locals were like “Lolz! That’s an awesome name, GBS! We will call it that!”

I’m willing to cut GBS some slack. While the blooping mudpools and clouds of sulphurous steam are quite fun, there’s a lot of walking involved and some pretty bleak landscapes.

And in Shaw’s day, there wasn’t a mud foot spa to relax in. Maybe if he’d been able to do that, then participate in the fun Maori carving activity, he wouldn’t have been so miserable.

2. Maori Jesus

“At opposite ends of [the] city,” writes Maurice, “are [the] Maori villages of Ohinemutu and Whakarewarewa. I’d been to Whakarewarewa many times before, but somehow Ohinemutu had never been on my radar. Ohinemutu also features in Steve Braunias’ book Civilisation: Twenty Places on the Edge of the World, so I figured it was time to make a visit. Literary men tell me so.

The star of Ohinemutu village is Saint Faith’s church, a 19th century church on thermal ground down by the lake shore. It’s a splendid old building, but the best thing about it is the Maori Jesus window.

I was slowly walking around the chapel when suddenly there it was. A large picture window overlooking the lake, with a magnificent Maori Jesus etched into the glaze, making it look like he’s walking on the lake. If I was religious I’d have probably felt closer to God. Instead I got my architecture buzz – the same feeling I got when I saw the Beehive for the first time. It was like the scene in North by Northwest where Roger and Eve are running through a forest when they suddenly realise – OMG! – they’re on top of Mount Rushmore.

The Maori Jesus window is amazing for many reasons, but I really like that it’s a giant picture window in a church. Churches are usually very inwardly focused, with either small or stained glass windows obscuring any view of the outside world. But this window acknowledges that there’s a big lake out the window. Maybe the church figured it couldn’t compete with the lake (which, after all, God made) and so make it part of the experience. So if you want to attend a church service but stare out the window all the time, then that’s probably ok with God.


3. Tudor Towers

Admission to Rotorua Museum is $20 for out-of-towners, which is by far the highest public museum admission charge I’ve come across in this fair country. So it had better not be a rubbish museum, yeah?

Well, they’ve put the money to good use, with an extensive section dedicated to the history and culture of Rotorua, as well as the old bathhouse section (which now seems really grotty but still fascinating ). But the part I enjoyed the most was hidden away on the mezzanine level – a tale of the previous incarnation of that part of the building, as the Tudor Towers restaurant and cabaret in the 1970s and ’80s.

It was the '80s - everyone wore raspberry berets.

It was the ’80s – everyone wore raspberry berets.

At one point Tudor Towers was the only venue in town that could open late, so there’d be a nightly stream of pissed locals and tourists staggering through the gardens to dance the rest of the night away up the Tower.

In the ’80s the house band was Kairo (or Cairo, depending on who’s telling the story), and they did quite well for themselves. Te Ara has a video profile of the band from the 1980s. It just makes everything seem magical – classic Rotorua entertainment crossed with modern pop.

Downstairs there’s a exhibition devoted to Te Awara, including a hall of fame. Sure, Sir Howard and Temuera Morrison are showbiz legends, but there’s just something so much more romantic about a funk-pop house band playing in the improvised upper level of an old bathhouse in the middle of a scenic garden in the mid-1980s.


Corner shop

I happened upon a 1967 photo of the National Bank building in Wainuiomata and was delighted to discover that the Google Street View image from 2009 is taken from pretty much the same angle. Let’s compare and contrast life at 15 Queen Street, Wainuiomata:


National Bank building, Wainuiomata, Lower Hutt. Winder, Duncan, 1919-1970 : Architectural photographs. Ref: DW-3001-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

National Bank, 2008

National Bank, 2008

Spot the difference

1. The entrance has been moved. Instead of a bold corner opening, the door has been shuffled around the corner. I suspect the move happened to make the bank accessible for oldies, people with disabilities and parents with prams – none of which would have been a huge concern for a bank in the 1960s. I’ve seen Mad Men. I know how things were.

2. But all the young mums, seniors and disabled shoppers could have got inside Diana’s Coffee Lounge, which appears to have previously taken up two-fifths of the building before being kicked out to make the new street-level entrance. It looks like a proper old fashioned coffee lounge, complete with net curtains to give the diner a bit of privacy. I mean, you don’t want people to look at you when you’re trying to enjoy your ham sandwich and drip filter coffee. I bet it also had racks to slide your tray along and those flip compartments with the sandwiches in them.

3. The “National Bank” sign on the building is gone. This was probably removed at some point because it didn’t fit with the current branding of the bank. But if you look at the bank’s name on the awning signs, written in a jaunty script, that didn’t match the name on the building either. It was just a building name – an appropriate building name. But if the National Bank hadn’t removed it, the ANZ would have been up there with a crowbar soon enough.

4. In 1967 the bank was on the corner of a gravelly street with nothing much happening. Today the bank is on the corner of a pedestrian street that’s part of the Wainuiomata Shopping Centre and slightly more is happening. Whereas the original shops were an emulation of an ordinary high street, eventually the call of the mall was heard and the next expansion was a great big enclosed shopping mall. It has a ‘W’ shaped awning because it is in Wainuiomata.

5. Next door is Eddy and Gray Furnishings Ltd, no doubt providing giant brown furniture for the postwar young families making Wainuiomata their home. It’s now gone but the name lives on as Eddy’s On Queen Street Bar and Cafe. Well, that’s a substitute for Diana’s Coffee Lounge. I bet they do a good nachos.


ANZ’s crowbar has come and done its business.

National Bank 2013


Nick Cave dolls

I was in Wellington, my first time back since I left in April, and I was furiously catching up on things. I got the bus out to the Hutt and visited the Dowse Art Museum.

It was choice, but as I left the gallery, I spied something much more intriguing across the square. Over at the Horticultural Hall, a banner advertised a show of the Wellington Porcelain Dollmakers Club. A doll show!

I’ve always wanted to go to a doll show, that secret world of ladies and fake babies, so I excitedly went inside. The lady at the door looked at me like she knew I was an outsider, a person without dolls. But my money was still good. She took my $5 and I entered the world of dolls.


I was expecting one specific thing – uncanny valley baby dolls. The show did not let me down. There’d been a competition so the best baby dolls of the region were on display. Some looked impressively real, though with an eerie stillness; others looked a bit odd. I mean, if an infant doll looks more like the Dowager Countess of Grantham, something hasn’t quite gone right.

There were also people selling old dolls, the sort of dreadlocked orphans that normally languish in the 50c bin of an op shop. But unlike the op shop dolls, these ones won’t end up part of an art student’s subversive recontexualising of women’s roles in society. The doll show is an irony-free zone. Dolls are just dolls and if one has chipped face paint, you skilfully repaint it. If the hair is matted, you replaced it with silken locks.

But there was a strangely gothic feeling to it all. I came to realise this when found an actual goth doll, “Rose Red: a gothic ballerina”. Somehow this dramatic pale-skinned, eyeliner-wearing young lady seemed more ordinary and lively than the corpse-like baby dolls.

This is a subculture that specialises in taking arms and legs and scalps and eyeballs and putting them all together to make a baby, a girl or a woman. It’s way more goth than anything a black-clad suburban teen could come up with for their art portfolio.


Back in the city, I stopped by Deluxe cafe. Deluxe is a cute little cafe that has been around since the late ’80s. It hasn’t changed much and is oddly starting to feel like a ’90s theme cafe.

As I sat with my lunch, I realised that a Nick Cave CD was playing (I googled it – it was the 1998 best-of.) And I sat there thinking that in the ’90s, this would have been a very cool experience. Sitting in a cafe, listening to Nick Cave, drinking spirulina smoothies or mochaccinos, feeling cool.

But things are different now. I’ve been to the doll show. I’ve seen the dark side. I’ve seen the scalps, the arms, the torsos. I have seen the baby with scraggly orange fluffy hair pulled into two pigtails, in an attempt to make the hair look cute and not like a Scotsman’s pubes.

Maybe the goth pop of Nick Cave has to exist to have something that’s obviously dark and alternative. Something that exists so that the ladies painting eyeballs in their spare rooms don’t feel like weirdos. Something that makes a lady in her 30s sitting in a coffee bar feel edgy and cool.



The mallification of Hamilton

The city centre of Hamilton, my sweet home town, is dying. Since the 1980s, businesses have progressively moved to the edges of town and two massive malls on the northern fringe have sucked all the retail life out of the city centre.

There’s been a lot of talk about how to revitalise the downtown area. The current solution seems to be fighting the lure of the malls with another mall. The Centre Place mini-malls (part of my life since 1985) is being expanded with another two-storey wing. Farmers is moving in as a key tenant and Ward Street is closing to be part of the outdoor mall experience.


But, ugh, I think the focus is all wrong. Instead of replicating the suburban mall experience – which will never quite work because the central city can never offer free parking – the central city should focus on the cool things it has that the malls could never match. Namely the river, cool old buildings, the atmosphere of places like Ward Street, Alexander Street, a few laneways that are yet to be created, and Garden-sodding-Place. In other words, give people a reason to exit the giant Centre Place megamall. Give them a reason to go outside and walk the city streets and feel elated, not a bit glum.

Above are two artists’ impressions of the mega mall. There aren’t many people, especially compared with the usual bustle of a busy mall. This might seem like a deliberate move, not wanting the ghost people to obscure the buildings, but that’s what Hamilton looks like. There aren’t many people around the city centre any more. It’s all a bit like a ghost town and I’m not sure if the best intentions of a property investment firm can undo that.