The Kingdom of Zion: Big cats in New Zealand

The Kingdom of Zion: Big cats in New Zealand

Kingdom of Zion-49

You could be forgiven for thinking that the Kingdom of Zion is in Jamaica, but we found it in New Zealand. Calie and I were returning from a conference (both not very well) when it caught our eye. You never know with tourist attractions. Sometimes, they can be tawdry and disappointing but sometimes you happen upon a gem.

And if you are a fan of the Chronicles of Narnia films (me not so much) or the CS Lewis books (which I avidly read to my children when they were younger) then it transpires that Aslan now lives in the Kingdom of Zion.  And quite a lot of the film was shot in New Zealand, which I did not know.

The site has some history. Like many ventures conceived from obsession and emotion, it has had its share of financial ups and downs. In 2009 a keeper was mauled to death and many changes occurred. One was the strengthening of the enclosures.

From a photographers point of view it means shooting through wire all the time. I grumbled gently until one of the animals took a dislike to my pointing a long lens at it (the guide had warned me but I always know best). I had a very senior moment as the tiger charged me and was very grateful for the wire enclosure.  These magnificent cats move rapidly and with deadly purpose. So I contented myself with taking photos and in some cases trying to include the enclosures in the story. By reducing the depth of focus I was able to blur the fence significantly. In some images, I incorporated it into the picture, to good effect, I think.

The tour is guided and our guide was informative, interesting and well-qualified. She patiently answered all of my daft questions and I got the feeling that I would run out of steam long before she ran out of good humour.

I have mixed feelings about animals in captivity but did not get a bad feeling from these animals. Like all cats, they spend a significant proportion of their time sleeping, only moving into action to hunt and kill as necessary. In some respects, I think they mind being protected and fed as much as the average tabby. I would think you need to visit and form your own view. The experience was thought-provoking and I went away with a deep respect for them.

I know this blog is beginning to sound like a travelogue advertising New Zealand but this is another gem that I would strongly suggest seeing if you get a chance!

Cape Palliser and the Fur Seals

New Zealand Fur Seal

The Manawatu Camera Club

I recently had the chance to visit Cape Palliser, the most southerly point of the North Island (try saying that after a few glasses of wine). This was with the MCC - Manawatu Camera Club - not the cricketers. A really nice bunch.

Cape Palliser

It was very good for me, as we all got up first thing in the morning to get the 'golden hour' when the light is warm and inviting, normally a time of day when my duvet is also warm and inviting.
The light is a fickle instrument on a cold New Zealand winter morning, and grey forms a significant part of the palate. Being a stout individualist - another term for bloody-minded fool - I set off in the opposite direction to the pundits. This is occasionally referred to as ‘the wrong direction’. One of those deviations produced the picture below.

While everyone else climbed up to the lighthouse and obtained fantastic shots, I stumbled away from the lighthouse across the rough ground for about a kilometre. My rationale was that the lighthouse was the focal point and the farther I got away from it, the better. As I went blundering through the dark landscape I managed to disturb an adult seal sleeping in the bushes that I had taken to be a large grey rock. When it reared up and started roaring at me, I suffered some intestinal disturbance. I later found out they can be quite nasty when disturbed.

Cape Palliser Lighthouse New Zealand
Cape Palliser Lighthouse on a winters morning

Putangirua Pinnacles

The weather was fairly average but improved as the weekend went on. I experimented a lot with HDR and need to do a lot more with the images to make them usable. We visited the Putangirua Pinnacles, which are the result of 120,000 years of erosion. This has produced spectacular pinnacles, or 'hoodoos'. They were used as a backdrop for the filming of Dimholt Road in the Return of the King, for those Lord of the Rings fans out there. (for you, I have also posted about Hobbiton.)

pinnacles New Zealand
Putangirua Pinnacles


We travelled along the road to the Ngawi fishing village, which is a lovely oddity. Its main claim to fame is that there are more bulldozers per head of population than anywhere else. The beach looks over the Cook Straits, and the weather can be ferocious. The fishermen drag their boats up out of the water using bulldozers, of which there are a great variety. If you are into old machinery, it’s wonderful.

Fishing village
Ngwai Village Cape Palliser New Zealand

Seal Colony

The area also has the largest fur seal colony in the North Island. We were deeply privileged to be there, essentially by ourselves, when there were lots of pups frolicking about. I spent a long time watching three young pups sitting on a rock watching me back and playing silly buggers like the three stooges (the pups not me). I was able to get some nice shots of the animals as they interacted.

New Zealand Fur Seals
Seal puppies playing the fool

I have to go back to South Wairarapa, as the scenery is absolutely spectacular and different from other areas of New Zealand. On the last day, we were rushing to a site when we passed the most spectacular and transient landscape formed by a ray of light hitting the bay on the other side of an estuary. I wanted to stop but was following the others in convoy and didn't dare. Proving that I was in the company of true photographers, everyone else crammed on the brakes, and we returned en masse, spending some time trying to catch the fleeting light.

Cook Straights New Zealand
The South Island from Cape Palliser New Zealand

Because I do not play well with others and had not really understood the protocol, I managed to step in front of people but was graciously forgiven. Below is one of the images that I made. As always, please feedback to me. I can only improve if I have criticism!

Helicopter to the Franz Joseph Glacier

Franz Joseph Glacier from helicopter New Zealand

We had the opportunity to take a helicopter up to the top of the glacier while on our trip down the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand and - surprise - I took my camera.

It is frightening to see how fast the glacier is receding - I have been concerned about global warming for some time (one of the reasons I am now in New Zealand), but it is chilling to see an example like this. The glacier used to fill the valley and is now much reduced (and reducing).
I once again felt privileged and more than a little bit sad to think that I might be looking at something that my grandchildren will only read of.

Is this a reason to record it before it is gone, even though flying in helicopters adds to global warming? Of course, this is the paradox of ecotourism and better than I have commented extensively on this conundrum./p>
Given that the pictures were taken through a helicopter canopy I was pleased with the results. I used a polarising filter to cut through the Plexiglas and high shutter speeds to reduce the problems inherent in sitting in a vibrating, moving collection of nuts and bolts.

Because this was a tourist trip, there is always a certain amount of jostling for the prime seats and often the canopy is not a gleaming freshly polished window - this is where the polarising filter comes into its own.

Art Deco Weekend Napier

Art Deco, Napier, New Zealand


Street Photography (New Zealand Style)

Art Deco Weekend. If you don’t live in New Zealand, this might not ring any bells. If you do, the chances are that you know it.

In 1931, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake occurred in Hawke’s Bay, killing 256 people. The town of Napier was mostly destroyed, first by the earthquake and then by the fires that swept through it afterwards. For comparison, the 2011 earthquake that hit Christchurch was magnitude 6.3, killing 185 people.

The coastal areas around Napier rose by about two meters, and forty square kilometres of seabed became land. There is an interesting book, mainly comprising old photographs, called ‘Port to Port: A Pictorial History of Port Ahuriri’. I came across in the hotel we were staying in and it shows how much of what is now Napier was underwater before the earthquake. Sadly, I can’t find another copy anywhere.

The citizens of Napier set to work and rebuilt Napier over two or three years, setting up shop – much as containers have latterly been used after the Christchurch earthquake – in big corrugated iron sheds on the hill: The containers housing the re:START shopping area in Christchurch post-earthquake are the lineal descendants of this disaster.

I have no idea whether it was a conscious decision or simply a function of rebuilding the town in such a short time, but the ‘new’ Napier was built in Deco style and much remains.

So we now have a small city built in a style that has disappeared almost everywhere else. And they have a weekend celebrating everything Deco that is enthusiastically celebrated. People come from all over the world. All sorts of stuff happens.

Perhaps the neatest thing is that many people who attend dress up in period costumes. It makes the whole experience unique. There are hundreds of old cars to see and a steam train from Wellington to attend the weekend. It is organised by the Art Deco Trust, and it is clearly a labour of love for many who live in Napier. There are ‘Art Deco Ambassadors’ in case you need help or inspiration. It’s well worth a visit.

New Zealand continues to surprise and delight me. Having attended the art deco weekend I subsequently went to the Vintage Car Club of New Zealand meeting in Wanganui, expecting to see a few old cars. Instead, there was an astonishing show with seven hundred veteran cars attending, some incredibly rare. Yes, that was seven hundred!! Remember, New Zealand is a country with a population of only 4½ million, situated in the South Pacific.

The Deco weekend is much the same. I expected a nice weekend with a few people in costumes but instead got a whole community with tons of stuff going on left, right and centre.

I have posted a gallery of images. You can imagine that I was in my element and at times didn’t know which way to look. Interestingly, I seemed to have gravitated to my comfort zone (or perhaps where my skill-set sits best). Although there is lots of architecture to capture, I feel my best images were of people. Let me know what you think.

The Lord of the Rings – Hobbiton

Hobbiton New Zealand

The Lord of the Rings - Hobbiton

I devoured the Lord of the Rings trilogy as a child, thereafter re-reading them several times over the years. The films are good, the New Zealand scenery adding an element of difference that works well. Now that I live in New Zealand, I sometimes still get the same feeling that I had when watching the films. Just when you think you have it pigeon-holed, something pops up that simply isn't right to the UK brain. Like Murray-mint cows or giant ferns. And that's before you get to the South Island ('the mainland', as they call it).

When the boys were little, I read the Hobbit to them, complete with funny voices and accents. They survived relatively unscathed.

It is sometimes challenging when you see something you love and have imagined made into a film. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't.  I was slightly disappointed when I saw the Hobbit. Despite a stellar cast, the characterisation is - to me - weak and the treatment a bit too much like a Disney movie. But it was good enough that I want to see the next two, not least in the hope that they flesh out the characters.

Hobbit Houses
Hobbit Houses Hobbiton

There are a lot of places that have become part of the Lord of the Rings story in New Zealand. One of the better known is Hobbiton. This is the set built by Sir Peter Jackson, where many of the scenes relating to 'The Shire' were filmed.

The story of how Hobbiton was created on the Alexander farm is well told and a lovely tale of rags to riches. If you are a Lord of the Rings fan, it is an absolute must. We took visitors from the UK to see it and were pleasantly surprised. Many millions were spent on creating the set (to the point of what seems almost OCD) with a meticulous attention to detail. The tours are well organised so that you don"t feel pressurised, even when it's busy. The Hobbiton experience is evolving and we have been back since, enjoying it each time.

Tracking around as a tourist with a bunch of other people is not the ideal scenario for taking photographs. It would be wonderful to spend a couple of days there when it is closed to the public but that is just not going to happen for me. So, these images represent what you can see as a tourist.

The Rugby World Cup 2011

Rugby World Cup 2011

By means fair or foul, I managed to inculcate my family with the love of rugby over the years. My appreciation of the game started many years ago. A new teacher at Ridley College started us playing rugby, establishing a sevens side in the first instance. We did well, and from there I progressed to playing for a club side in Canada while at University.  We also did well, winning the provincial championships. I still have a certificate from the Premier of Ontario and I went on to play for my hospital in the UK as a medical student.

Rugby in Canada was at an early stage: I vividly remember the time that we introduced one of the major rules in rugby to our referee in the middle of a particularly torrid game against a bunch of steel workers from Hamiton. One of my mates had been reading the rule book and discovered rucking. He was very excited as he explained to us that if you were tackled and did not release the ball it was perfectly all right to try and separate the player from the ball using your feet.

One of my mates had been reading the rule book and discovered the concept of rucking. He was very excited as he explained to us that if you were tackled and did not release the ball it was perfectly all right to try and separate the player from the ball using your feet.

During the game, one of the opposition players (a steelworker somewhat resembling the girders he produced) went down and cradled the ball like it was his newborn child. We enthusiastically started kicking the shit out of him to get him to release the ball. He was outraged by this ungentlemanly behaviour and bounced up, fists ready.

Many Canadians play hockey and it is customary to have a good fight or two during the game. In my day this was called a ‘Donnybrook’ and involved all of the players throwing off their gloves and having a good fistfight. So, we all prepared for a bit of serious handbag throwing as he enquired why we had (expletive deleted) been kicking him while he was on the ground. When we explained that this was allowed by the rules, everyone lowered their fists and turned as one to the referee. You have to remember that this was 40 years ago in Canada and refereeing was also in its infancy. The referee scrabbled through the rulebook and announced that, yes, it was legal. Apologies were accepted, and shakes were given

You have to remember that this was 40 years ago in Canada and refereeing was also in its infancy. The referee scrabbled through the rulebook and announced that, yes, it was legal. Apologies were accepted, and the game went on, anyone unwise enough not to release the ball being enthusiasicallykicked off it.

Apologies were accepted, and rucking entered the game in Canada. The game was  hard, brutal stuff, played on rock hard pitches in the hot Canadian summers (playing in the winter in Canada is obviously impractical). We would happily drive a hundred miles to play a game: the trip back could be more dangerous than the game, as we stopped at hostelries to celebrate or commiserate after the games. Drink driving having been yet to be invented. Good times.

Later I played in the Hospitals Cup in the UK. The Hospital’s Cup competition is perhaps the oldest rugby competition in the world and – although not the first class sporting event of years past – was fiercely contested.

In later years, I did my penance by spending cold Sundays on the side of the pitch watching my little boys run around. But it all bore fruit, as we all enjoy watching the game now. And periodically very large mates of the boy’s visit. Ellesmere College, where the boys went, is a ‘rugby academy’ and several of their old teammates are playing representative rugby at club or international level. Hence the large mates.

We had bought tickets for the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand well before we had decided to move here. By the time of the competition, I was already in New Zealand, but my wife and one of our boys arrived the day before it started. Their luggage was lost and they arrived in Dunedin wearing summer clothes in October. Re-equipping them provided us with our first experience of how genuinely nice Kiwis are.

We wanted to watch the opening ceremony on television. We asked in the shop where we were reequipping with clothes suitable to Dunedin if this was possible and were promptly swept out of the door and into the local pub where we were placed in the best seats in the house. About 200 people had crowded into a large room to watch it on the big screen. It was a tremendous atmosphere: when the New Zealand national anthem was sung the entire room – mainly young students – stood and belted it out with passion. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end: It was beautiful.

We watched our first game (England versus Argentina) and then enjoyed the post-match camaraderie, all the more surprising given the recent history between the UK and Argentina. We subsequently watched other games up and down the country. Palmerston North hosted a couple of games, including Argentina versus Georgia. We were encouraged to dress up to support the teams. On the day, the stadium was a sea of both Argentinian and Georgian supporters. It felt like there were probably more rugby supporters wearing Georgian colours in the stadium than are in Georgia.
I went to Napier to watch Canada versus France, played in what could only be described as an antediluvian deluge. Nevertheless, it did not diminish the enthusiasm of the crowd.

We ended up going to the final in Auckland (after all you only live once and I can resist almost anything except temptation), which was nail-biting stuff.

I don’t feel that New Zealand gave itself enough credit for the World Cup. It’s a small country, with a population of about 4.5 million, but it felt as if the slogans had come to life and it really was a nation of four million rugby fans. Wherever you went, you could have an involved and technical conversation on the merits of the game. But most of all, everyone seemed to be greeted with open arms. I asked a number of visitors who I met what they thought (in my ‘Pommie’ accent). It was with quiet pleasure that I can report that they were universally impressed by New Zealand, as I have been since moving here.

Mountain Biking for the meek

Turatea Hills, Manawatu, New Zealand

It’s very curious. There is clearly something in the air in New Zealand that makes even somewhat sedentary folk want to go out and exercise.

Although New Zealand has its share of large people, there are huge numbers who are out running, jogging, plodding or biking most days. Part of it is the weather, which is so much better than the UK. But the general mindset here is clearly a factor and probably one of the reasons why New Zealand consistently punches way above its weight in all matters sporting. So, with some encouragement, I found myself on it on a push-bike, slogging up the hills.

You have to be a bit selective about offers to go out ‘walking in this country,’ as some of my former colleagues are inhumanly fit (we are talking ultra-marathons). He once took the department out for a spot of exercise, culminating with one of the registrars lying face down in the mud and snow with exhaustion. I wasn’t there, but the rest of the team thought that he was dead.

So far, courtesy of another colleague, I have had two very pleasant trips up into the hills. Twenty-two kilometres and a 500-metre vertical climb for my first effort was not bad for an old fart like myself, I feel. This week’s trip was up into the hills above the house.

Palmerston North, New Zealand
The gorge road, Manawatu

One of the defining features of the Manawatu are the many wind turbines dotted on the hills above Palmerston North. The wind farms produce about 14% of New Zealand’s electricity. There are the usual protests, mainly from NIMBYS but I thoroughly approve of renewable energy sources and think the turbines themselves are quite beautiful, especially in motion. I live relatively close to them, never hear them, and have had no problems.

After puffing up the hills, we were presented with spectacular views of the Tararua wind farms from the Aokautere forest. The forest itself has been logged out and replanted, so many of the trees are about five years old and an astonishingly vivid green. The logging roads are brilliant for biking (although I have a sneaking suspicion we were trespassing).

While going up is slow, coming down is rapid and exhilarating. I keep getting the feeling that I have regressed since coming to New Zealand and screaming down the rough logging roads on my bike produced a combination of the sense of having regained my youth, perhaps a more mature concern that I was about to kill myself, and a dose of old-fashioned exhilaration.

Approaching 60, doing things like this carries an extra piquancy that probably only those of us who have become old whilst remaining stupid can truly appreciate.