From Taupo, I continued my trip through the center of the North Island towards the land-locked city of Hamilton. Along the way I stopped in the little towns of Tokoroa, Tirau, and Cambridge, which are famous for their Talking Poles, sheet metal, and Anglophilia, respectively. (Tokoroa has a series of totems throughout the city depicting their cultural heritage, everything in Tirau – including their Information Centre – is built at least partially out of sheet metal, and Cambridge does their very best to copycat the famous English city of the same name.) I didn’t really stay very long in any of them.
In Cambridge I did stop briefly to drive up to the top of a “scenic lookout” I’d seen signposted along the side of the road. The road started out promisingly, winding its way through green fields out into the countryside, but when I got to the top I found this:
They did have a nice brick picnic spot with another world compass at the top though (which a sign indicated was “another Lions Club project”), so that was good…
When I got into Hamilton I was a little taken aback by the traffic (it was the biggest city I’d driven in so far!), but I eventually recovered enough to find my way back to the outskirts of the city and spend some time in the Hamilton Gardens (ok, so I might have been trying to avoid the stressful rush hour traffic too). I didn’t know much about the gardens except that Lonely Planet said they were “worthwhile,” and that they were free and stayed open until sunset, so in the interest of honoring my budget I thought I’d give them a chance. The gray skies had followed me from Taupo and it was late on a Saturday evening, so the gardens were deserted except for a few Indian tourists (who you can never really seem to avoid anyway). I told myself I’d look at a few of the gardens and then head out, but by the end of my visit I nearly had to run out of the park for fear they’d shut the parking lot gates for the night and lock me in!
Hamilton Gardens is owned and managed by the Hamilton City Council, and the grounds cover 58 hectares (143 acres!) including a cafe, restaurant, visitors center, events venue, a lake, greenhouses, pagodas, picnic areas, and 5 highly-developed separate garden collections (to which many are being added). The five collections – Paradise, Productive, Fantasy, Cultivar and Landscape – are divided into themes designed to tell the story of gardens and their relationship with people over the centuries.
I entered the grounds through the Paradise Collection, which houses gardens representing some of the most significant garden design traditions. The collection covers a huge amount of space and holds six different gardens: a Chinese Scholars Garden, American Modernist Garden, English Flower Garden, Italian Renaissance Garden, Indian Char Bagh Garden, and a Japanese Garden of Contemplation. Each was a completely realized separate concept, with its own unique plant life, architecture, color palette, and purpose. Even the bird songs were different! They must have spent incredible amounts of money and time constructing them. I probably looked like a crazy person, walking around the empty gardens muttering to myself, but I couldn’t help exclaiming out loud at every new space I walked into, such was the beauty and intricacy of the design. I’ve never been a huge fan of touring gardens before – they never seemed all that interesting, and I got bored quickly – but this was a totally different experience. I was emotionally overwhelmed, totally unprepared for the way each one had its own personality, energy, and presence. Walking into each garden was like walking into an entirely new universe – I had underestimated the immense effect a simple change of space can have on a person.
As if the gardens in the Paradise Collection weren’t spectacular enough, they represent only a sixth (!) of the collections in the Hamilton property. They also have gardens replicating traditional Maori horticulture, perfume gardens, herb gardens, greenhouses… even a “21st century sustainable garden”, where they’re educating people on sustainable food production and permaculture! They’re also in the process of constructing Tudor, Tropical, and Surrealist gardens (among others!). I trailed my way through everything I could get to, and eventually found myself looking down from a replica of a Russian log bell tower that stood in a secluded wood at the top of the property. It was a sturdy little house that smelled of cedar and mist, and I don’t think I could have achieved such peace through hours of meditation.
That peace was somewhat short-lived however, when I checked into my hostel for the night (the local YWCA) a little while later. Walking into the big concrete building was like walking back in time – the room was almost an exact replica of my dorm at IU, the same old wooden built-in desks and cabinets, the same stripped beds, the same white concrete block walls… very disconcerting! Even the awkward feeling of not knowing anyone on the floor was the same, except that this dorm experience was decidedly more creepy since the YWCA also apparently provides “long-term” housing for people with mental illnesses and those who can’t afford to pay the rent elsewhere. This place was the most expensive I’d stayed in, and yet they didn’t even have sheets on the beds or pots and pans in the kitchen (as every hostel in New Zealand does)! Needless to say, I checked out the next day.
I assuaged my slightly-frayed nerves that Sunday morning by taking a walk through the Waikato Museum instead, which tells the cultural story of the Waikato region and its native peoples. The museum is free (always a good thing!), and they have a great selection of different exhibits – including, but not limited to, a huge 200-year-old carved waka taua (Maori war canoe), a local history exhibition on Hamilton, and “Ngaa Pou Whenua,” a modern story of the four iwi (tribes) of Tainui (Waikato, Pare Hauraki, Raukawa and Maniapoto). Everything is displayed in accessible and interesting ways, and the museum is set right on the edge of the beautiful Waikato River… it was really quite a wonderful way to spend an hour or two!
Leaving the museum I also stopped at ArtsPost, another free (!) venue right next door to the museum, which is a combination art gallery and shop. Their selection is fairly small (I was expecting an art museum!), but they’ve got lots of interesting local artists represented in the store – one particular artist was selling picture frames made out of 6000-year-old kauri wood! Beautiful pieces, even if they were far too expensive to consider buying.
I took a brief walk along the river on my way into the heart of the city, and my opinion of Hamilton grew even better – they’ve constructed a beautiful paved trail alongside the river, and local artists are represented along the way in carvings, mosaics, and paintings. Even though the weather was still gray and the clouds were wearing me down, the walk was still an unplanned bright spot in an already nice morning. I also found this:
I found my way to an internet cafe and lost a few hours inside (no amount of time ever seems long enough!), and when I came out I found that I’d missed the annual Santa Claus Parade down the main street :( I did catch the post-parade Carols For Kids event in Garden Square, though! People dressed as elves were walking around on stilts (?), a huge Christmas tree had been constructed in the square, and a stage had been set up where musicians ranging from Brazilian drummers to “The Funky Monkeys,” a popular childrens band, were performing.
Christmas in the summertime, indeed! I capped off my day in my favorite hostel yet – The Eagles Nest, a tiny homey hostel with no locks on the doors and cool mugs in the kitchen (always a good sign!) – and sent some love vibes to Hamilton as I drifted off to sleep. Next stop: HOBBITON!