Rotorua

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.

maori-jesus

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 Arawa, 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.

Napier 5: In the big house

Napier Prison most definitely wasn’t a tourist attraction back in 1973. Back then it was, well, the local prison, full of local criminals. But with the Hawke’s Bay Regional Prison opening in 1989, Napier Prison eventually closed soon after, before reopening in 2002 as a backpackers hostel.

The hostel facilities have now closed (well, it wouldn’t have been particularly pleasant staying there in winter), but both guided and audio tours are available in the old prison.

As it happens, I’ve been to a few old prisons around the world – the majestic ruins of Port Arthur in Tasmania, Old Melbourne Gaol’s anti-self-pleasure gloves and Ned Kelly death mask, and the tragic history of Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin. What penal delights would Napier Prison have for me?

From the outside, Napier Prison looks like a mighty prison indeed. A giant stone wall surrounds it, and from a distance it looked like it might be bluestone, but as I got closer I realised it was just dirty old stones. Nonetheless, it is an impressive stonework, and deserving of its heritage listing.

But inside the prison, the stonework ends. The prison buildings themselves are wood and concrete, looking more like a rundown school camp than a prison for ruthless criminal gangsta villains. I was almost expecting to be offered a watery mug of Milo.

As I wandered around the prison, going from location to location on the audio tour, I was followed around by Basil, the prison’s resident cat. Actually, he didn’t so much follow me as show me the way. I assume he’s so used to the path of the tour that he knows exactly where the humans will go. Aptly enough, there was a bowl of cat food waiting for Basil in the mess hall.

Basil in the mess hall

Basil led me into one of the old cell blocks. One cell had a collection of bed bases that had been doodled upon by various inmates, reinforcing the brand identity of their affiliated gangs. Since the prison closed, some of the former inmates have tried to retrieve their handiwork. I suppose some would like to show their grandchildren the really awesome likeness of the Zig-Zag man they did that time.

I noticed Basil duck off into another cell and so I followed him in there. There he was sitting next to a dead body – oh, wait – a mannequin made up to look like a dead body. It actually gave me a fright, but Basil was so nonchalant about the faux corpse, merrily licking his cat bits, that I couldn’t stay frightened for long.

There were plenty of spooky corridors, especially when the buildings are eerily quiet, not brightly lit and empty of other tourists in the early morning. But around a corner I found a most intriguing place.

In 2006, TVNZ screened a series called “Redemption Hill”, a cross between “Scared Straight” and “Maggie’s Garden Show”. A typical ’00s reality series, it took 10 troubled teens and sent them to old Napier prison where they were yelled at and given a group task of revamping a little corner garden.

So the “Redemption Hill” garden is still there. It’s cleverly designed to have lots of different visual features but with little needing mowing or weeding. A central pathway area is laid with paving stones, each hand decorated, no doubt by the troubled teens.

Five years on, the garden feels very much a product of the ’00s and slowly on its way to looking a bit naff (the way that things a few years out of fashion do). The little shrubs edging the pathway are starting to grow out a bit, but I guess the troubled teens aren’t around any more to maintain it. Wikipedia notes that two of the teens have since died in separate car crashes.

Redemption Hill garden

And from the Redemption Hill garden it was on to the small burial area and the hanging yard. And I was standing there listening to the tour commentary trying to strike a balance between ye-olde-comedy clanky-chains drama-voice prison tour and the reality that people were killed here and people are buried here.

It was an awkward tone to end on and I didn’t feel like standing around in the hanging yard, listening to the audio tour any longer. So I bid farewell to Basil the cat and made my way out.

Napier Prison feels quite low-key compared to the other old prison tours I’ve visited. Perhaps it’s because the prison was never very large or elaborate, and that it’s been out of use for less than 20 years. I’m sure there have been some fearsome inmates, but it’s hard to find it all that scary when there’s a peeling, crudely drawn mural depicting a topless wahine (Pania, perhaps) lazing about in the ocean.

A mural in prison

I left the prison and realised I’d gone back to doing something Maurice had done – I admired “fine views of Hawke’s Bay from Bluff Hill”.

That’s what I like about using the Shell Guide to New Zealand – whether I follow it precisely or just let it generally guide me in particular direction, it always ends up an interesting experience. It’s an insight to the way things used to be and the way things are now. And a reminder that sometimes it’s just nice to have a little sit-down in a rose garden.

Napier 4: Hedge fun

Hawke’s Bay is wine country, and Maurice notes that “vineyard visiting [is] a pleasure here – some of country’s best wines [are] available for sampling.” I like to imagine Maurice having a bit of a “Sideways” adventure. Out in Napier making notes for the third edition of the Shell Guide, he finds himself and/or gets sloshed in the region’s tasting rooms.

In particular Maurice singles out the Mission Vineyards, “begun in mid-19th century by French priests, and [is the] oldest wine-making enterprise in the country.” But it’s not all booze and priests. The winery is “set among hedges, shrines and large old trees [and] is extremely picturesque.”

These sounded like good footsteps to retrace, so I got the bus out to Greenmeadows and made my way up the Mission Estate Winery’s long, tree-lined driveway.

I’d scheduled my visit so I would arrive in time for the daily 2pm tour of the winery, but the sole pourer at the bar explained that she was the only person working that day, so the tour was off. Selling wine obviously took precedence. Instead I was welcome to have a wander around the old seminary building and grounds.

Cliff

In a side room, a large television played a DVD of Cliff Richard’s 2003 concert at the estate. Every year the Mission holds a big ol’ outdoor concert where baby boomers bring along camping chairs and get boozed up on wine while they politely bop along to such artists as Chris de Burgh, Tom Jones, Olivia Newton John and Dave Dobbyn. A cabinet displayed the special wines bottled for the occasion. Hey, let’s crack open the Dionne Warwick and drown our sorrows as we listen to “Walk on By”.

The tasting bar was crowded with tourists, all wanting to get their specially discounted airport-compliant three-pack of wine, so I wandered into the gift shop. It turned out to be full of insane crafts, the tail end of the 1970s fashion for twee handmade crafts, with little acknowledgement of the modern craft resurgence. Things like little pottery plaques with handwritten mottos on such topics as doing the dishes, turning 40, having a messy home and how getting older is (somehow) like a tree. And because it was a Catholic craft shop, there were lots of crosses – wonky, consciously handmade crosses. For the Catholic who enjoys a shabby chic aesthetic.

I was excited by Maurice’s observation of shrines, but I didn’t find any. There was one room with information on the history of the Marist order, but most of the seminary building didn’t feel particularly Catholic. I guess there’s a balance between having a serious-money tourist attraction and a religious centre.

Outside there were splendid views of Napier, stretching all the way to the sea, with long rows of grapes extending out in front. The gardens were immaculate, in a “oh, this would be a nice place to have our wedding, darling” way, and I was happy to spot a neat little hedge, just like Maurice did. It was, indeed, picturesque.

Hedges

There’s a photo in the Shell Guide showing a priest in a long black cassock, cigarette in hand, sharing a joke with a vineyard worker. The trainee priests are now all in Auckland, and the Mission Estate feels like a fancy winery with a sideline in fine Catholic souvenirs.

I had to leave to catch the hourly bus, so I didn’t have the chance to further search for secret shrines. Wait, secret shrines? That sounds like something out of “The Da Vinci Code”. Actually, that would be quite cool – killer wine-making monks in Napier. Maybe they could switch to that if the whole pop-concert thing doesn’t work out.

Back in town, it was time for one last adventure, but I didn’t feel like following Maurice’s directions any more. It was time to go off-book and head straight to prison.

Z’s dead, baby

It’s just been announced that Greenstone Energy, the company the has the Shell petrol station brand in New Zealand, will be rebranding as Z Energy, pronounced “Zed Energy”.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. While I do not currently own an automobile and have little direct need for petroleum byproducts, I do occasionally pop into servos for the purchase of such items as drinks or maybe an ice block if it’s a really hot summer’s day.

And Shell is, of course, the sponsor of Maurice Shadbolt’s travel book “The Shell Guide to New Zealand”, so even though it’s an international brand, it has a long history in New Zealand. Evidently Greenstone are just going to piss that history away because, as they told the Herald, “research showed demand for a distinctly Kiwi identity.”

Oh really? How is naming your company after the dungeon sadist from Pulp Fiction a Kiwi identity?

Greenstone CEO Mike Bennetts told the Herald, “Z is the first letter of the last word of the country to which our business is solely committed.” Oh, that’s quite clever. Hey, New Zealand is a country, and I can think of a word you can make from some of the letters in ‘country’ that also symbolises New Zealand’s national identity.

Wikipedia tells me that Shell got its name from the original owner’s family business importing seashells. There was no industry-specific consumer research behind that name. It literally described the business, then when the commodity changed from seashells to gasoline, they kept the name even though it wasn’t a literal fit.

Scoop notes that “[t]he swirly red and orange Z symbol, which does look a little bit like the number 8, is in fact a statement of New Zealand having moved beyond the number 8 fencing wire ‘battler’ to a ‘more confident and assured sense of our place in the world’.”

This rebranding is also coming at a time when margins on petrol are low and suburban petrol stations are closing down all around the country. The city is full of empty forecourts with boarded-up Shell Shops.

Petrol prices are rising and the young carefree motorist that Maurice Shadbolt was writing his book for now has a careful eye on the eftpos card, and is more reluctant to go on a road trip.

The few petrol stations left can’t rely on just selling petrol. They have to turn themselves into convenience stores and cafes. And indeed this is part of the Z rebranding.

Again from the Herald: “Greenstone has been working hard to develop new ‘cafe quality’ food and coffee in its stations. The company had not opted for sit down cafes but has ditched Australian pie suppliers and will sell pies made in Hawke’s Bay and sell cupcakes.”

So, hooray for (sort of) locally made pies, but cupcakes? Cupcakes? The time for cupcakes was in the early ’00s. Now they say the chic sweet is macarons, with the over-frosted cupcake having devolved into a signifier of nu housewifery – how to look and act like a 1950s housewife without actually having a house or being anyone’s wife. “Try them,” Z’s new website cheerfully urges. “The icing is the best!”

Cupcakes are to the ’10s what muffins were to the ’90s – a way of snacking on a sweet treat, but being able to convince yourself that it’s good for you. The muffin contains fruit so it is healthly; the cupcake is a high quality indulgence and therefore is emotionally healthy.

Wait, of course it makes sense that Z will sell cupcakes. Go on, grab a cupcake with your petrol. It will make the price of petrol seem less painful, and also make you less mournful of having to live way out in the false economy of car-centric Churton Park because it seemed like the only affordable suburb.

Eventually all the Shell livery will come down and the Zs will go up. Eventually the Shell logo will look like a ye olde remnant of the 1950s, and Z will be just another petrol station brand.

The Shell Guide to New Zealand

Napier 3: Digging in the dirt

When Maurice visited Napier, his described Marine Parade like this: “Marine Parade, lined with Norfolk pines, has three km of seafront attractions including an illuminated fountain, war memorial hall, dolphin pool, soundshell, skating rink, boating lake and putting green.” This is a fairly thorough list, so I decided to compare this with the Marine Parade of today.

I don’t know where that 3km comes from (or indeed the even longer 2 miles in the earlier pre-metric editions). At a stretch, it could be a little over 2km, unless perhaps Maurice was so taken by the stretch of barren coast further south that he just had to include that too.

The Norfolk pines are still there, running along both the central median strip of the road as well the beachfront areas. It seems like a clever trick – the wintery pines always make the sunny Hawke’s Bay weather seem much more summery than it really is.

The illuminated fountain is still there, along with the neighbouring Pania of the Reef statue. Pania was unveiled in 1954, but evidently she wasn’t considered significant enough for Maurice to give her a mention in any edition of the Shell Guide. Perhaps her patina wasn’t green enough.

The war memorial hall is still there, only it’s been expanded and renamed. It’s now the Napier War Memorial Conference Centre. Yes.

War Memorial Conference Centre

After the World War I, most New Zealand towns erected war memorials to honour the dead – these were typically cenotaphs. After World War II, war memorials tended to be community buildings, typically war memorial halls, but also things like Lower Hutt’s war memorial library.

So while a war memorial conference centre isn’t entirely out of place, it just seems a bit sad. Is this how we honour Napier’s war dead – with bowls of individually wrapped mints, flip charts and breakaway brainstorming groups? Well, I guess our forefathers fought for freedom for all and you have to take the dull with the good.

The soundshell is still there, though the concrete in front of the stage is a bit cracked. While I was there, a number of maintenance workers were discussing the different shapes of their poo. I’m sure it all comes alive on Art Deco Weekend, though.

As for the putting green, from what I can tell it used to be a large grassed area, but now it’s been divided off into the information centre and a minigolf course. Minigolf is so much more fun than a putting green, though I’d easily recommend the Shell Guide over a fistful of brochures from the information centre.

The skating rink is still there, with little structurally changed from Maurice’s time. The big difference is that the concrete rink is now covered in ramps and the is now open to all sorts of wheels – rollerskates, rollerblades, skateboards, scooters and bikes. It seems that no matter the era, there’ll always be something with wheels on it that the kids want to ride, so the rink just tweaks itself to accommodate the radical-dude-action needs of the day.

Bikes

Maurice’s dolphin pool is, of course, sad old Marineland. The idea of dolphins being held in captivity and being forced to perform tricks in exchange for food now seems so archaic, though there are still people who’d like to see the dolphins return to Marineland.

But we’ve seen The Cove, we know that dolphins are smart, that it’s not so great for them to be kept in small pools instead of the endless ocean. So it’s unlikely that Marineland will reopen as a marine amusement centre.

But the closure of Marineland has created a vast expanse of nothing along Marine Parade. Between the skating rink and the National Aquarium, there’s almost one kilometre of emptiness.

The park across the road from my motel was mostly empty, apart from some public art and a few Norfolk pines. At one stage some tents were erected in the park and I got all excited thinking some gypsies had come to town, but disappointingly it turned out to be a one-day trade show for painting supplies.

I was intrigued by Maurice’s mention of a boating lake because despite walking along Marine Parade many times, I couldn’t find anything that looked like a boating lake.

So back at my motel, I hit the googles. It turns out that indeed there used to be a little boating lake. It was kidney-shaped with a mini lighthouse in the indent. People could hire little pedalo boats and go for a hoon around the lake. It actually looked like fun, and if it was still around, I’d have gladly hired a boat.

But what happened to it? Well, by the ’90s it was all a bit run down and probably all the grunge kids of Napier were like, “Ugh, that’s so lame.” Unloved, it was pulled out, along with a few similarly naff amusements nearby.

I was surprised to realise that the boating lake would have just across the road from my motel – the loss of the boating lake meant the gain of uninterrupted sea views for the motels of Marine Parade. There’s a slight indentation where the boating lake used to be, a ghostly reminder of leisure time past.

1990s screen saver

Something that didn’t make it into the Shell Guide was the National Aquarium of New Zealand, first opened in 1976. It’s a decent enough aquarium, complete with a conveyor-belt walk-through acrylic tunnel.

But despite all the fish and other marine life there, I found myself more captivated by the kiwi house. One kiwi was scratching around by the window at the front of his enclosure. He poked around with his long beak, running it along the join between the bottom of the glass and the floor of the enclosure. It was as if he was on the verge of having a “Truman Show” moment, where he was about to realise that his reality of a bushland habitat was actually totally fake; that not even the sun in the sky was real.

But he gave up and went up the back where a female kiwi was rooting around in the dirt. The male did similar and seemed to accidentally bump into her. They both quickly moved away from each other, doing the old “Oh, I’m not even all that interested in you” move. But, of course, secretly they were both hot for each other and within seconds they were engaged in a different kind of rooting.

I stood there watching the two kiwis going at it and I felt quite proud to be a New Zealander.

But still I had to follow another of Maurice’s recommendations – and this time he was nudging me in the direction of wine country.

Napier 2: Inside the trainroom

The last time I visited Napier, I wondered if someone’s great-grandpops had make a Faustian pact – a devastating earthquake in exchange for turning the swampy land surrounding the growing city into habitable suburbs, and the opportunity to rebuild the town centre to meet the needs of a modern, expanding population.

Maurice notes that after the earthquake, “Napier gained 3200 ha of new ground in earthquake, which gave new suburbs such as Marewa (‘raised from the sea’).”

Marewa prides itself on being Napier’s “art deco suburb”, to the point where even non-art-deco buildings are being decofied to fit the script.

An electrical substation, built in 1951 in a plain New Zealand government style, has had some triangles and deco-themed edging glued on to the building, along with trompe l’oeil painted stonework. Somewhere, someone approves of this and thinks it raises the character of Marewa.

Genuine faux deco

It’s worth nothing that none of the three editions of the Shell Guide mention Marewa’s or Napier’s art deco character. Back then, the style was only 30 to 40 years old and it would be another couple of decades before art deco became fashionable again. When Maurice visited, the art deco buildings were probably just seen as slightly shabby, naff old buildings.

Because Marewa was “raised from the sea”, it has a slightly swampy feel to it. The suburb is bisected by long drainage ditches, which no one seems to have tried to disguise as streams. Or art deco streams.

Maurice has one specific Marewa recommendation: the “superb Kennedy Park Rose Gardens”.

Kennedy Park is mostly occupied by a campground, but the eastern edge of the park is home to the rose garden. It opened in 1951, but didn’t make it into the first edition of the Shell. But by 1976, Maurice had visited it and it must have made quite an impression for him to call it “superb” (compare with the “interesting” cathedral).

I’m not sure I feel the same. Well, yes, they were nice enough rose gardens, and there were still plenty of blooms, looking vibrant in the bright autumn sun. But there are better rose gardens in New Zealand.

I grew up with the Hamilton rose garden, and there is the Parnell rose garden in Auckland and the Lady Norwood rose garden in Wellington. Not to mention Te Awamutu the [alleged, so-called] rose town of New Zealand.

But then maybe things were different back in the ’70s. Perhaps Maurice visited on a sunny November morning and enjoyed the roses in full bloom. And perhaps he enjoyed some sandwiches on the lawn, watching the sparrows splash about in the fountain. Perhaps, after long days on the road researching the book, it was a welcome break in a tranquil little corner of New Zealand. That really would have been superb.

Splish splash

In the same sentence as his rose gardens recommendation, Maurice also puts in a word for the “Lilliput village and model railway”. I was intrigued by this, and didn’t even know if it still existed. So I turned to my semi-broken iPhone and googled it hard.

From what I could find out, the Lilliput model railway story goes like this – it was first housed in a building at the Hawke’s Bay Museum, before being evicted in 1988 when the museum needed more space. It then moved to Marineland, but was again kicked out in 2008 when Marineland needed more space. I discovered its new home was a place called Trainworld, conveniently located in central Napier, and apparently not in need of more space.

I was a little nervous making my way up the flight of stairs that took visitors to the first-floor Trainworld (and second-hand bookshop). My fears were realised when I came face to face with a whole lot of model railways.

This isn’t just a lone Thomas the Tank Engine looping around a plastic house. These are are complex model railway systems and miniature villages that men spend hours and hours perfecting in their trainrooms (what your uncle renames your cousin’s bedroom when she leaves home).

Trainworld was run by an elderly couple, and the man confessed to me that he liked the technical side of constructing and running tracks, and is less fussed by the modelling side of things.

Shell

There were several large tracks, including one with a tiny illuminated sign for Maurice’s sponsor, Shell. But I was only there to see one – the oldest one, Lilliput.

Work on the Lilliput model village and railway started in 1948 by Mr Bill Knapp of Napier. He worked on it for 25 years, taking it to Wellington for show every Christmas. Napier’s mayor was so impressed by Lilliput that he bought it and gifted it to the city in 1970. I wonder what that council meeting would have been like…

Councillor: Kia ora, Your Worship. How was your holiday in Nelson?
The Mayor: OMG, it was so amazing. I saw this awesome model railway.
Councillor: Oh, true?
The Mayor: Hells yeah. In fact, it was so awse that I totally bought it and am gifting it to the city! Cos that’s just the kind of dude I am! Sharing the love!
Councillor: [cries]

But poor old Lilliput. 18 years at the museum, 10 years at Marineland. Has it found a permanent home at Trainworld?

Lilliput itself is quite fun, though obviously constructed with American model train kitset pieces. It’s a time capsule of post-war Americana. There’s a drive-in (complete with naughtily rocking cars), a collection of modernist ranch houses, but also a few Napier touches, including a decent enough replica of the T&G building.

Downtown

It’s a rather eccentric little tourist attraction. I suspect that because it’s not overtly New Zealandic, it doesn’t yet have the same sense of importance as other elaborate, homemade, 60-year-old craft objects would.

But in a way, finding Lilliput in a corner of nerdy old Trainworld seems apt. It’s the sort of thing that little boys go mental for, but I also think it has appeal for older boys, like Maurice.

Yes, back to Maurice. His next recommendation was a classic Napier tourist attraction – a stroll along Marine Parade.

Napier 1: The giant kidult scifi cross

So, I’d come back from Japan, had spend a few days relaxing at my parents’ place, but I wasn’t quite ready to return to Wellington. I wanted a nice seaside town to explore. I chose Napier, evidently unable to stay away from seismic sightseeing.

To help me with my exploring, I decided to use the assistance of ol’ Maurice Shadbolt and the Shell Guide to New Zealand. I didn’t have a copy with me, but the Napier Library had the 1976 edition, so I copied the Napier page and let Maurice be my guide.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but while the 1976 Shell Guide has exactly the same number of pages as the original 1968 edition, its Napier entry is almost 100 words longer. Only one location is dropped (the site of the battle of Omarunui), with the extra hundred words highlighting new attractions, suggesting that in an eight-year period, Napier suddenly grew into a tourism wonderland. Well, I had a few days in which to explore and see if this was still the case.

One new addition was the Waiapu Anglican Cathedral of St John the Evangelist. Consecrated in 1967, so too late for the first edition, it was described by Maurice as “interesting”. I like interesting things, so I had to pay a visit.

The original brick cathedral collapsed in the 1931 earthquake, and work didn’t start on the replacement until the late ’40s. This means it managed to escape the art deco styles of the immediate Napier rebuild and is one of the few historic buildings in Napier that isn’t art deco.

It’s a cool mid-century modern style, light and open. But here’s the thing – I have a mild claustrophobia involving large enclosed spaces, which usually means that cathedrals tend to make me feel really uncomfortable. The Napier cathedral was even worse – its interior was massive, made even larger by its almost flat roof.

I stuck to the lower edges of the building, keeping calm as I carried on around the building. I’m not sure, but if I was a regular churchgoer, I’d probably have to take a Valium every Sunday. Or perhaps God would sort me out.

Above the altar, a giant cross was suspended. It was made of wood and had a semi-opaque red centre. This was meant to symbolise the love of God, but it looked more like a prop from a 1970s sci-fi kidult TV series. I kind of expected to find a secret lever that would make the red thing start glowing, and the whole cathedral would turn into an alien spaceship, letting the stranded aliens return to their home planet after they’d crash landed in 1931.

1980s scifi kidult prop

But even though the cathedral is all clean and modern, there are remnants of the destructive past. The cathedral features a stained glass window constructed from smashed pieces of glass from the old cathedral, the bits salvaged by an eagle-eyed local woman. There’s also a cross made from old nails from the bombed Coventry Cathedral. It seems that it’s important to keep a connection with the past devastation, no matter how tempting it can feel to make it seem like nothing bad ever happened. Note well, Christchurch.

I was looking forward to visiting the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery (it is “good”, says Maurice), but it was all closed for a massive and ambitious expansion and overhaul. Hopefully the new museum will be better than just “good”.

So with the museum off limits, I turned to Maurice for another attraction to visit. He recommended Napier’s “fine botanic garden”. I had to google it, but there it was – on the side of the rather steep Hospital Hill. I decided to start from the top and work my way down, which first meant a long slog up Chaucer Street.

About halfway up the street the suburb started to look eerily familiar. And then I realised – it was the location of the 2009 shootings. The house that gunman Jan Molenaar barricaded himself in is still there. From the street, it looks like an unremarkable suburban house. It’s only the sheet of plywood replacing one of the garage doors that suggests something unusual might have happened here. A cat contently sat on a deck railing, just like any other subrban New Zealand house.

Finally I reached the top entrance of the botanic gardens. A pictogram at the entrance seemed to indicate that there’d be mohawked punks at the gardens, but then I realised it was a likeness of a cockatoo. Exotic birds? Cool!

I made my way down through wet winding paths. Maybe if I’d had a botanical guide who could talk me through the flora on display, then I could fully appreciate the botanic wonderland. But on my own, it all just seemed like lots of plants.

Things got more interesting as the land flattened out. I came across an aviary – ah, the exotic cockatoos! Except as I walked along, it became obvious that the cages were empty. Near the end, there was a large hole in the mesh. Inside a collection of sparrows gaily played on the perches and playthings that had previously been the domain of the exotic birds.

It was like a scene from a post-apocalyptic bird movie, where all the cockatoos were dead, leaving the street sparrows to freely roam the overgrown remains of the former luxury quarters of their fallen avian foes.

Around a corner I found another aviary full of budgerigars. Australian in origin, this was confirmed by the giant mural of outback desert scenes decorating the back wall of the aviary. Apart from the fact that the desert isn’t the natural habitat of the budgie.

Birds

There was plenty of other urban fauna to enjoy – a large dovecote full of albino pigeons (apparently these are known as “doves”), and a duckpond full of ducks. There’s something quite nice about sitting in a park and watching ducks.

The botanic garden felt like it had seen much better days. And if it was worth a mention by Maurice, then it must have been rather enjoyable in its heyday.

I was intrigued by the slice of 1970s Napier that Maurice was offering, and he had more curious recommendations for me to investigate. Would the rose garden still be in bloom, and what exactly was the mysterious Lilliput village?

Mix and Mash and Maurice

I recently gave a talk at the Webstock Mix and Mash Mini on the topic of my fave new book, The Shell Guide to New Zealand.

To celebrate the launch of Digital NZ’s Mix and Mash competition, the theme of the evening was mashups and remixes, so my talk focused on the idea of a travel guide from the 1968 being recontextualised in 2010. Yeah, that’s right – recontextualised.

So first, the text of my speech:

Time, Travel with Maurice

The Shell Guide to New Zealand

Last year, I came across a copy of Maurice Shadbolt’s 1968 travel book, The Shell Guide to New Zealand. And I thought, “Ha ha! A fruity old travel guide. This will be hilarious!”

But when I started to read it, I realised that not only was it a well-written and interesting book, but it might actually still work as a travel guide. Little did I know how it would change my perspective on New Zealand.

But first, I had to take it on the road, starting with a local exploration.

Amongst Wellington’s sights, Maurice notes that the Carter Observatory of 1968 is “occasionally open to the public through the week”.

I like to think this meant having to convince the codger astronomer on duty to let you in, and if you bribed him with a steak and kidney pie, he’d let you have a look through a telescope.

Compare that with the extravagance of today, with the interactive exhibitions, light, colour and the planetarium with its rool-trippy-as domed ceiling projection. And it’s open seven days.

Let’s go further afield.

When I was in Gisborne earlier this year, Maurice pointed me in the direction of the waterfront monument to Captain Cook’s first landing in New Zealand.

He wrote, “Beside the monument is a ship’s cannon reputedly from the Endeavour.”

The old monument was there, but there was no sign of the cannon. What had happened to this noteworthy historic artefact? Had it been deemed culturally offensive, a reminder of colonial oppression?

Well, it turns out that the cannon was proven to have not actually come from the Endeavour. The now non-famous weapon has since been moved to the local museum where it’s been hilariously renamed “Not Cook’s Cannon”.

But there was something else missing from the Captain Cook Memorial – the waterfront had mysteriously vanished.

Yeah, the historic beachfront by the monument has been reclaimed to make space for storing logs. This historic New Zealand site has been casually destroyed, now making the monument honour Captain Cook’s remarkable ability to go for an inland hoon in the Endeavour.

And the book is full of other glimpses into “New Zealandness”.

Describing Auckland, Maurice notes that its mild climate means that fruits such as the “Chinese gooseberry” can be grown. He adds that, in Asia the Chinese gooseberry is known as a “kiwi fruit”.

This suggests that in 1968, the term kiwifruit was yet to catch on in New Zealand, and was probably still viewed suspiciously as a marketing term, much like we consider Zespri today.

And – as my friend Giovanni discovered – this is the only use of the word “kiwi” in the book. We’re still – quite elegantly – New Zealanders.

I like to think that when we dropped “Chinese gooseberry” and started calling that small brown furry treat a “kiwifruit”, we’d progressed a bit with our national identity. “Hey, we have a fruit named after us!… even though it’s native to Southern China…”

One of the most curious things I found in the book was Maurice’s recommendation that visitors to Auckland should check out the Building Centre, with its “comprehensive displays of building materials”.

Yep, that’s one of those places where homeowners go to check out Formica samples and insulation options, and he’s recommending it in the same list as the museum, art gallery and library.

So I paid a visit to the modern equivalent – the Home Ideas Centre in Petone – to see if the magic was still there.

I really enjoyed it! And I don’t even own a house. A wonderland of doors that open to nowhere, porno bathtubs, and kitchen benchtops available in a huge range of beiges, creams and greys – like a suburban funhouse that just happens to also reveal truths of middle New Zealand. Yeah, Maurice knew what he was recommending.

And that’s what I’ve gained the most from the Shell Guide to New Zealand – an old book for motoring tourists has given me the ability to find intriguing places to visit, things to do and new perspectives on both the New Zealand of 40 years ago and of today. A way to turn a holiday into time travel. The kind of adventures that wouldn’t normally be found in a travel guide.

And Maurice seems to agree. He concludes:

Today the traveller through New Zealand will, if observant, find a land of fascinating if sometimes enigmatic and ambiguous signposts, pointing into the past as much as towards the future. In the end, perhaps, no guide book will truly help him. It can indicate where signposts may be found, but it is up to the traveller to read the signposts for himself.

The signposts are there, all around this country. Get out and read them.

Extra for experts

So, you’ve read that and you’re all fired up and want to hit the open road. The  first thing people want to know is where they can get a copy of the Shell Guide to New Zealand.

Well, they’re always coming up for sale on Trade Me, so that’s the best place to look. Try this search – you should be able to get one on a Buy Now for under $10. But if you like it IRL, just have look in the New Zealand section of your local second-hand bookshop.

There are three editions of the book – 1968, 1973 and 1976, and I recommend them in order of oldest to newest. The biggest difference is that the 1976 edition has had all the original art (including work by Colin McCahon) replaced with colour  scenic photos, so go for the ’68 or ’73 for the art. The ’68 seems the most common, so you shouldn’t have trouble finding a copy.

But, of course, you don’t have to do exactly what I did. Maybe you’ll use a different old travel guide or perhaps a novel will inspire you.

My general philosophy is to not be reliant on the modern guidebooks, and by using an old travel guide, the reader/traveller is forced to pay more attention to their surroundings. The book  becomes a springboard to great adventures and discoveries.

Building centre

As a child growing up in Hamilton in the early 1980s, there wasn’t a lot to do on weekends, so it happened that one weekend fun activity was visiting the Building Centre, a showroom of the latest fittings and fixtures for the modern home builder or renovator.

Highlights included:

  • A fountain made of kitchen and bathroom taps
  • A sauna with a red lightbulb emulating the hot sauna effect
  • A display of insulation, showing a cross section of an insulated ceiling
  • The Fanta machine

I had pretty much filed this away as a quirk of my childhood (other kids played sports, yeah), prepared to let it belong to the past. But then Maurice came along with a bombshell.

In the Shell Guide to New Zealand, Maurice Shadbolt makes the following recommendation under “museums and exhibitions” in Auckland:

Building Centre. Victoria Street West, central city. Comprehensive displays of building materials. Monday to Thursday 9-5; Friday 9-9; Saturday 9-11.30.

That’s right. Alongside the Museum, Art Gallery and Museum of Transport and Technology is a recommendation for the Building Centre. He’s actually recommending that tourists might enjoy spending a morning browsing the Building Centre.

Now, I can understand the appeal of the Building Centre for a small bored girl in Hamilton in the early ’80s. But Auckland City in 1968? Surely there was more to recommend to visitors. Or is a building centre actually worth a trip for general leisure? I had to investigate.

The Home Ideas Centre in Petone promised to be a modern equivalent of the old Building Centre. 30 years later, people still want to tutū with their whares.

The centre occupies the two bottom floors of a softened brutalist office building near the Petone foreshore. After making my way past the lady at the front desk (“circle the numbers you’re interested in and then pick up the brochures on the way out”), I entered the labyrinth of home improvement.

Rub-a-dub-dub

You know what’s big? Baths are. Giant, stand-alone baths, with thick and flat top edges providing a good area to place your tealight candles while engaging in an indulgent ritual bath to soak away all the pressures of modern life, or at least the ones wine and Valium can’t reach. And baths with plugs in the middle, so you and your special friend can share a bath without one of you having the plug violating your arse.

I viewed the baths suspiciously, as if to partake in the Bath of Ritual Indulgence would trick me into living a life of suburban servitude, perpetually bent over with Jif and a Scotch-Brite.

It reminded me of a scene from Desperately Seeking Susan, where free-spirit Susan is looking around the home of uptight jacuzzi salesman Gary. She climbs in his fancy brown spa bath.

Susan: Nice tub.
Gary: You like it? That’s one of our most popular items. You can install it in any bathroom and it increases the resale value of your house or condominium.
Susan: I didn’t say I wanted to buy one.

I felt like the Home Ideas Centre too was pitching to me based on the resale value of my condo and/or the cult of ritual indulgence, forgetting that I just wanted to get clean; that I didn’t even own a bathroom, let alone a bath.

The Popular Colour Range

One display stand presented “the popular colour range” – a rainbow of creams, beiges and greys. It was at pains to point out that while these were the popular colours, more variety was available on request. It seemed like they’d given up on making colourful samples, but still held out for the day someone would order a fire-engine red kitchen.

Another display showed ways of hiding a television in the kitchen or bedroom, able to disappear out of sight with the flick of a switch. It’s built around the idea that having a telly in the kitchen or bedroom is entirely wrong and shameful, and when it is not being watched, a telly should be hidden from view.

Actually, would there be a market for switches that might hide other embarassing household objects? With a flick, the motor whirrs and there disappears the Jack Vettriano print, the overstuffed black vinyl couch and the latest edition of the New Zealand Fitness magazine.

Things at the Home Ideas Depot were a little crazy in places, but nothing was as extravagant as the tap fountain or faux sauna of my chilldhood. There’s no time to consider a sauna when there are all those shades of beige to choose from.

Wife and kid

I came across a few couples wandering around the centre. They all seemed to be shuffling around in a bit of a daze, with the occasional comment on a product. “That’s nice.” “We could do that in the spare room.” “That would look quite good outside.” But there never seemed to be any sparks of inspiration.

If you own a house, you’re free to renovate. The responsibility lies totally with you. So when you go home to the kitchen with the chipped wood-grain cupboards, it’s all your fault for not replacing them with stylish new kitchen storage solutions.

But if you’re renting, then your kitchen is what it is. If the cupboards are a bit old and ugly, well, there’s nothing you can do beyond Blu-Tacking up some vintage porn postcards to disguise the wear. The life of a renter is free of the burden of home improvement.

I was free to wander around the Home Idea Centre, mentally planning my giant mansion (The formal living room will have nine hidden televisions, all set to the Living Channel. My imaginary husband and I will sit on the couch all day eating Toblerone and watching programmes about creating sponge effects on wallpaper.)

The Home Ideas centres twists around two levels of the building. It’s exactly the sort of maze-like space that enthralled me as a child. There are intriguing dead ends, doors that open to reveal a wall, wardrobes with no space to hang clothes, hidden speakers that perpetually play a radio broadcast from 2009.

If you’re not in the market for building ideas, the Building Idea Centre instead becomes like visiting the surrealistic abode of an insane millionaire. Check out the hall of the 12 toilets! Behold the slalom course of luxury baths! Open the door to nowhere!

Now I understand why Maurice recommended the Building Centre to tourists. It might not be as glamorous as cultural tourist attrations, but such building centres are interesting spaces to be in. For the visitor not needing or wanting to renovate or build, the building centre is at least as much fun to explore as a museum, art gallery or science museum.

Desperado and Hippie Green

The old brown museum, she ain’t what she used to be

At one end of Tory Street is Te Papa, at the other end is the old museum building. Actually, let’s be more formal – it’s the old National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum. Yeah, that’s more like it.

The museum building opened in 1936, but lasted only 60 years, moving into the Te Papa behemoth down the hill. The museum building is now occupied by Massey University’s College of Creative Arts. They put all the pretty subjects into the pretty building.

I have a vague memory of having visited the old museum, but it was in the early ’80s and my memory is fuzzy. I remember that the building was brown, and that’s about it.

I consulted The Shell Guide to New Zealand for Maurice Shadbolt’s take on the museum, circa 1969:

[The museum] has much for visitors. [The] Art Gallery, though its New Zealand collection is patchy and unrepresentative, also has much of interest.

I decided to explore the building and see what ghosts were still lurking.

From Buckle Street, it’s a bit like sneaking up to a haunted house. The old overgrown pohutukawa trees either side of the War Memorial seem spooky and a little menacing. But combine that with the very serious solemnity of the adjacent National War Memorial, and all that’s missing is an engraved warning of certain doom for trespassers.

The old museum

Approaching the building, it seems so full of hope and grandeur. It’s a building that says, “Hey, look at us! We’re a dominion now, and we have a museum and an art gallery! Just like a proper grown-up country.”

But with all the plaques naming great men and events, there is also the knowledge that the building wasn’t enough. It might have looked impressive from the outside, but it soon proved to be too small on the inside.

Inside, the main foyer seems oppressively small. I can’t help comparing it to the Auckland Museum with its grand entrance hall. It’s big and has always managed to keep up with increasing visitor numbers over the decades. But the old Dominion Museum’s entrance hall is so small, it feels like maybe I’ve accidentally walked in the back entrance. But I haven’t.

It was a Saturday so the university was all but empty. The stone surfaces echoed every noise, making me self-conscious of every step. I also had a vague paranoia that maybe I’m not supposed to be there. That a stern person would jump out from behind a pillar and say, “You’re not a student and/or a lecturer! Get out! Get out now!”

IMG_0735

I came to the Grand Hall. In the past this housed whare and waka and other everyday objects of traditional Maori life. Now the hall was used to house an exhibition of work by industrial design students.

Massey’s website says the exhibition provides “a quirky interpretation of everyday objects.” See what’s happened? Nothing’s happened. Everyday objects are taken out of their ordinary context and put on display in the Grand Hall.

IMG_0741

I noticed the handrails on all the big staircases in the museum building had metal kiwis supporting the rail. It looked a bit kitschy, or possibly quaint. But then I realised that Te Papa is full of such kitschy, deliberate symbolism. It’s done a lot more subtly at Te Papa, but it’s there – “grid-like spaces reflect the patterns of European settlement.”

Outside, I went for a walk around the museum building. Again I was struck by how small it was. How did this make do as the National Museum and Art Gallery? And maybe that’s why Te Papa sometimes feels empty – too much explanatory text and not enough objects. Maybe they just didn’t amass a big collection because they had no room to keep it.

Though, in The Shell Guide to New Zealand, Maurice comments that the “museum’s displays … are well arranged.” I imagine an impeccably organised Manhattan studio apartment writ large. And if you open the giant moa sculpture, there you’ll find an ancient Greek pottery… filled with freshly brewed tea. And that’s half a sixpence for a cuppa.

As I approached the back of the building, I heard some gangsta rap playing. “Oh no,” I thought. I am intruding upon the turf of the notorious Mt Cook G’s. They will surely step me up rool hard.” But when I turned the corner, there were no notorious G’s. A lone speaker was piping out the gangsta rap to no one.

Perhaps this is like the opposite of places that play classical music to keep away loitering teens. Perhaps Massey Uni wants to scare off codgers. “Yeah, piss off back to the War Memorial, gramps. This space is for the youth gone wild!”

Back around the front of the museum building, I took one more look at its audacious facade before I headed off down the hill. The old museum building feels like your aunt whose husband ran off with a younger, sexier (albeit crazy) woman. Eventually your aunt remarries a nice man who treats her really well, but he’s not your uncle and it just doesn’t feel the same like it did in the happier days.

Between