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.


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.



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.

All shook down

Inner-city Christchurch feels like the set of a 1980s apocalyptic action film. Walking down Barbadoes Street, there was so much rubble and so few people, it felt like the only person I’d be likely to encounter was a Bruno Lawrence type, who’d show up in a ute, holler “Get in”, and we’d drive off into the hills to have last-people-on-earth erotic adventures.

Instead my lone encounter was with an old man who yelled at me not to graffiti a colourful wall that I was only photographing. There were no erotic adventures; just the realisation that the Christchurch I had known was gone. Post-earthquake Christchurch is a different city.


After the destructive quake in February, I’d vowed to return to the shaky town. I expected things would be different, but wasn’t sure how different they would be.

My worst fears were realised when I arrived at my motel in early December and discovered a construction site, swarming with diggers and trucks. I panicked – what if after I booked the room, the motel had been condemned? Where would I sleep? Maybe I could squat in the plywood-boarded house next door, or join the Occupy Christchurch camp in Hagley Park. But it turned out that the motel car park was just being resealed. “You get used to things looking like this,” said my taxi driver.

If Christchurch isn’t looking like a construction site or a futuristic action film, it’s looking like a 1980s music video, complete with mangled cars, giant fields of rubble, and frayed curtains miserably flapping out of broken windows. And like a music video shoot, there’s always a food truck around the corner, catering to the masses amongst the broken bricks.

I was surprised at how quickly I got used to it all. Walking down the road, I became adept at avoiding potholes, cracks and giant gaps. Everything felt a little bit broken, but yet somehow normal.

But there were signs of civilisation returning to the CBD. Cashel Mall had finally reopened. Most of the shops have been demolished, replaced by clever configurations of fancied-up shipping containers. It’s all high-end retail to draw in the tourists, but if you need some “Keep Calm and Carry On” merchandise, there is plenty.


At the end of Cashel Mall is the Red Zone walkway, a fenced off area taking visitors along Colombo Street to Cathedral Square. Many of the buildings on Colombo Street have been or will be demolished, but a sign informed visitors that the very ordinary McDonald’s building is ok. This makes me wonder if, in years to come, the McDonald’s will get a historic listing and people will take their grandchildren along to see a beautifully restored antique McNugget fryer.

Cathedral Square is a bit freaky. It seems that every building around the square has something wrong with it. But no one’s looking at the cracked pavers outside the Starbucks. They’re looking at the cathedral.

Perhaps World War II photography has prepared me for the sight of a smashed, collapsed broken cathedral. But while it’s awful, there is also something strangely poetic about the cathedral. Even though ChristChurch Cathedral has been deconsecrated, the building is still doing its job as a icon of the city.

I also took the Red Zone bus tour, the only way for civilians to experience most of the out-of-bounds areas. Passengers were warned that due to the instability of the buildings along the tour route, in the event of another major earthquake “you might not survive”. This sounded alarming, but then I realised that this caveat can pretty much apply to life in general. Onwards!

I was expecting the Red Zone bus tour to be a sombre, emotional journey but it was much more ordinary than that. As the bus passed the military cordon and toodled along Oxford Terrace, I saw a battered mannequin lying by the side of the road. It had a target painted on its bottom. Moments later the bus stopped across the river from the site of the PGC building collapse. It was a scheduled moment of reflection, but all I could think about was the mannequin. How did it get there? Who painted the target on its bottom? Oh, what does it all mean?

And that’s what the bus tour was like. One moment it’s the site of the tragic CTV building collapse, the next moment I’m feeling sad that the Japanese/Korean restaurant where I twice had disappointing vegetable tempura was being demolished.

I realised that most of my previous Christchurch experiences involve places that don’t exist any more. My favourite hotel sits dormant and doomed, cursed by its neighbour the Grand Chancellor. The cafe that did the really amazing scrambled eggs is now rubble. I even found myself missing the incredibly annoying bad classical music played to stop youth loitering at the High Street pedestrian mall.


But beyond the rubble, there were new things to do, new places to explore. A random tweet threw me in the direction of Black Betty cafe, a new tenant of a strong old building. They do good eggs, and I even saw a staffer take a photo of some eggs he was particularly proud of.

I found the new home of C4 Coffee, nestled in the corner of their coffee warehouse, across the road from a giant field of rubble. And across that rubble – past felled power poles, a spectacularly smashed car and a sleepy guard dog – was The National, a gallery forced to turn its back door into a front door. Its exhibition of the grungy, grotesque rings by jeweller Karl Fritsch seemed a perfect match for their new surroundings. It left me wondering if I could make my own jewellery using Red Zone rubble.

Being in an earthquake town colours every experience in some way. I stopped by the Book Fridge and picked up a Mills and Boon. I figured it would be a light and amusing read. Except the heroine – on an archeological dig with her estranged husband who she still secretly loved – encountered an earthquake, which came complete with one (1) aftershock. It all seemed a little loathsome after that. I didn’t have time to return the book before I left, but I figured it might be better to take it out of circulation, or at least put a warning on the cover: “CONTAINS BADLY WRITTEN EARTHQUAKE SCENARIOS”.

There were no aftershocks during my three days in Christchurch. I was a little twitchy having just experienced an unusually strong quake in Wellington that had sent books flying off my shelves. But by the time I left Christchurch, it seemed quite reasonable to think that the worst of the aftershocks were history. Except that wasn’t the case, and a couple of weeks later, things have again been undone and shaken up a bit.

I’ve realised that the Christchurch I had known no longer exists. There’s a totally new city there, slowly figuring out its new identity. Part of Christchurch seems determined to to cling on to its England-of-the-South-Seas past, but there’s a new Christchurch coming through. This is a shaky, swampy city now.

Cures all ills

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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.