My last post ended with the impulsive decision to flee Rotorua and leave the crowds behind. I had no real plan, other than I intended to visit the famous glowworm caves in Waitomo the next day before heading to Auckland. Waitomo is east of Rotorua, so that is the way I headed when my flight took place. I was instantly in a steady downpour, and I wondered what I had gotten myself in to.
After an hour or so of heading east, the rain eventually stopped and I saw the slightest hint of blue in the skies. I had entered the outstandingly beautiful Horahora Gorge Scenic Reserve, and I stopped to take some pictures and fix myself a quick lunch that I could eat while looking at the map and coming up with some sort of plan for the day.
I had two choices for my first stop. Option one was to break a promise to myself and engage in some specific “Lord of the Rings” sightseeing and go to the “Hobbiton” set and take a tour there. I’d read nothing but good things about the tour, but I had avoided this stuff for a reason. (New Zealand is a REAL place, Middle Earth is not. This doesn’t seem to bother the Kiwis, but it does me. Rant Over.)
Instead, I went for option two, which led me through some of the country’s lushest agricultural land and into one of the darkest chapters in New Zealand’s history.
About 15 miles (23km) southeast of Cambridge, is the tiny hamlet of Rangiaowhia. The battle that took place here in February of 1864 was part of the larger Waikato campaign, but to use the word ‘battle’ overstates what took place that day. A regiment of colonial and British soldiers took this previous thriving Maori settlement by surprise and completely undefended, as the the men of the village were off holding the front line to the north. There are two versions of this history from this point- the Maori history calls it a massacre of undefended women & children, the other version of the day call it a ‘crucial battle’. Either way, at the end of the day, a once thriving village that supplied food to tribes far and wide had been almost completely wiped out. Today, all that remains of the village is the tiny Anglican Church, St. Paul’s, and it’s cemetery. It’s peaceful setting conjures memories of the peaceful times before the wars started, when Anglican missionaries lived among the Maori in peace.
A few miles further south, in the village of Kihikihi, is a memorial to a famous, well- respected Maori warrior names Rewi Manipoto. He is best known for his rallying cry “We will fight on forever and ever and ever” and a famous battle where he and 300 warriors repulsed an attack by British and Colonial Forces with more than five times their strength.
As important and sacred as the sites relating to the New Zealand wars I’d just seen were, I was equally excited about my next stop, the Te Awamutu Museum.
In my pre-trip planning, I’d read so many outstanding reviews of this small museum, especially two of it’s main exhibits. The first was it’s collection of Maori artifacts, which gave the visitor a look into the tradition Maori lifestyle in the centuries before European settlement. While the collection was no where near the size of that of the National Museum of Te Papa’s was, the way it was laid out and explained made it just as effective in communicating what their daily lives were like. It was truly and exception exhibit.
The second exhibit was about two local boys who’d done well, namely Tim & Neil Finn, who are probably most famous as members of the bands Split Endz and Crowded House. Since Crowded House is one of my all time favorite bands, the geeky fan side of me was especially excited to see this part of the museum. I wasn’t disappointed. Not only did the exhibit do a good job of chronicling their music careers, it talked about their formative years growing up in this town of a little less than 10,000. The town is mentioned in the song “Mean to Me” on Crowded House’s first, self-titled, album.
The museum also had a permanent exhibit on the New Zealand Wars which was very honest in how it portrayed that conflict. It also had some impressive artifacts from that era. There was also a temporary exhibit that had reconstructions of some businesses from different eras of New Zealand’s history. All in all, I enjoyed my time at The Te Awamutu Museum as much as just about any museum I have visited anywhere in my travels. The whole experience was enhanced by the woman who was staffing the museum that day. As with most Kiwis, she was helpful, friendly and extremely knowledgeable.
So far, despite the typically schizophrenic New Zealand weather, I was ecstatic with my decision to flee Rotorua. The Maori sites had been enlightening, and the Te Awamutu Museum was a real treat. I still has most of an afternoon to kill as I left Te Awamutu, and it was too early to head straight for Waitomo, as I would have arrived there too late to take a tour of the glowworm caves, but too early to stop sightseeing for the day. I pulled out my trusty New Zealand Road Atlas and my eyes were drawn to a snake-like road that headed toward the coast, and I thought to myself “There lies the perfect adventure….”