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.
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.
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?