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September 11th, 2010

New Zealand--Kauri Museum

"We're not aggressive tourists," Ellen said in Warkworth, as we were figuring out the rest of our trip (againagainagain).  "We're more interested in being somewhere than seeing lots of sights."  Which is both a true word and a good thing, especially on a trip as haphazard as this one has turned out to be.

A final word about Warkworth.  If you ever find yourself on your way to the New Zealand Northland, tired, stressed, perhaps, by your first encounter with the wrong side of the road and Auckland traffic and the puzzling roundabout system, by all means stop at the Warkworth Lodge in Warkworth.  It's pretty, the rooms are comfortable, there's a spa and a pool and a view of the mountains, and a large lounge wit a fire and cheap WiFi and a large parrot called Houdini, who companionably cracks seeds while you check your email.  And the fanciest and most expensive room, with a kitchenette, goes for NZ $140, which is about $100.  Just do it.  You'll be happy.  There's even a fully equipped common kitchen where you can cook yourself pretty much anything you want..

Still, we were just as happy to leave Warkworth, its friendly optometrist, numerous health food stores and cafes, and excellent restaurant behind to explore other pastures.  Our goal was the Kauri Museum, which the helpful couple at the restaurant the other night had recommended highly, and some beautiful scenery.

We certainly got the latter, and plenty of it.  It's pretty feeble to keep saying that New Zealand is gorgeous, but it is.  The hills don't just roll, they leap like dolphins.  At first, we were reminded of lowland Scotland and the marches of Wales, and that's not a bad comparison.  But the hills of New Zealand are not as harsh, more wooded in their uplands and more velvet in their downlands.  And then there's the vegetation, which is utterly itself:  tree ferns like gigantic green feather-dusters, scrubby little palms, tawari and Dr. Seuss trees (aka neinei) and of, course, (once we reached the west coast) the huge and ancient Kauri trees, wide as redwoods but silver-grey and smooth-barked, their straight trunks clear of branches until their spreading, bushy crowns, which poke out above the lower canopy like secondary hills.

Which brings us to the Kauri Museum.

Imagine a long, low, broad building, architecturally undistinguished, set on a hill overlooking rolling green farmland dotted with sheep and cows.  It looks a little like an industrial park or a souvenir and antiques mall.  What it really is, is a series of glimpses into 19th and early 20th century life along the west coast of New Zealand.

The exhibits consist mostly of dioramas and model rooms--parlors, bedrooms, a dentist's surgery, a surveyor's office, a gum-buyer's desk--furnished with furniture and artifacts donated by the descendants of the original settlers, peopled by wax mannequins modeled on pictures of early settlers or their living descendants--in other words, on real, individual people.  I found the effect both spooky and enchanting, as if I were spying on two nice old ladies having their afternoon tea and gossip, peering in a bedroom where a bride was trying to get ready for her wedding while her difficult aunt checked her killer ostrich-feather hat in the room's only mirror, or a lonely sheep station's cook boiled porridge in a big iron kettle in a bark-sided hut.  There was something for everyone:  wood-cutting and splitting gear, steam engines, picks and lanterns and shovels and guns and an explanation of how to make a barrel for the technologically inclined, Kauri furniture of unparalleled Victorian magnificence for the aesthetic, typewriters, cook ware, moustache combs, razors, buttonhooks, and bootjacks for the social anthropologist, and a huge collection of antique glass bottles of all shapes, sizes, colors, and uses.  Did you know poison bottles were stamped with a raised pattern of dots so that people with impaired vision would be able to tell from the feel that they were about to take a dose of, say, rat poison instead of spring tonic?  Cool, huh?

And I haven't even talked about the gum room (kauri gum, that is, which polishes up like amber and was used to make varnish and linoleum, back in the day), or the coopering exhibit or the model saw mill.  I'll just have to say that they were remarkable (I particularly liked the miniature cyanide pistol for ladies, for shooting rodents with cyanide capsules) and move on, or we'll never get to the Waipoua Forest.

We didn't, not right away, anyway.  It rained like fury yesterday and we were tired with the backlash from Medical Crises and Left-Hand Driving and winding mountain roads and end of con.  So we sat by the fire in the lounge of the Waipoua Lodge, drank tea, ate homemade cookies and fresh fruit, caught up with email and posting journals, and oh, yes, writing 1500 words on my story, hurray, hurray.  Which had been much influenced, in an indirect, atmospheric sort of way, by the night walk we'd taken the night before (part of the special Nature-Lover's package at the Lodge).

Which I think I'll write about in the next post, because this one is getting endless.

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