Eli Orzessek takes a walk on the wild, wonderful and weird side of Taranaki.
Walking up to a fairly unremarkable looking shed in the outskirts of New Plymouth, one could be forgiven for thinking the insides would be rather mundane.
It's a rookie mistake, as the general Taranaki area seems to be home to a greater quota of eccentric, privately run museums than anywhere else in the country.
The shed in question is the Manutahi Museum — a testament to one man's lifetime passion for taxidermy. Inside is something truly remarkable — a huge polar bear, rearing up on its hind legs and looking hungry for its next dinner.
New Plymouth local John Ward, who runs the museum, can tell a good story about every piece in his collection, and the polar bear is no different. Although his collection is made up of animals that died naturally, this great snowy beast was a "me or him" situation for the adventurer, who took it down. Ward tells us, after the bear was shot, the remains of two missing humans were found in its lair.
But it's not just exotic animals that get Ward excited — he's equally passionate showing us a white starling found in the back of someone's shed in Stratford as he is with a huge rhino head.
He even has other collections he's itching to get out on display — one of vintage tractors and another of old coins, from the 1000 pennies he bought on Trade Me for $50.
Throughout this tour, I'm getting the impression that Taranaki is a wonderful place if you're a bit of a hoarder. Buy a cheap house, set up a shed and chuck an entry fee on the door and boom! — you've gone from hoarder to serious archivist.
It's a theme I'm picking up all along the majestic Surf Highway, SH45, which goes around the coast and then loops back around Mt Taranaki — a backdrop so perfect it looks like a cartoon mountain.
A pair of decorative bread rolls welcomes you to the small town of Manaia — the bread capital of New Zealand, if you didn't know. My guide tells me that lots of hamburger patties come out of the area, and cheese as well — so with its powers combined, Taranaki is basically the cheeseburger capital of New Zealand — and that is a title to be proud of.
The town is home to the Taranaki Country Music Hall of Fame, which was unfortunately closed when I visited, as well as the "Teacup Fence" which is exactly as it sounds — a vast collection of teacups wired to the fence and garden of someone's home. A friendly sign welcomes passing gawkers in for a closer look.
However, the Tawhiti Museum in Hawera is the crown jewel in the Taranaki museum trail. Opened in 1975 by Nigel and Teresa Ogle in the old Tawhiti Cheese factory, the sprawling and ever-expanding spaces tell the history of the region — complete with life-sized models based on current residents of Taranaki.
But what makes this museum special is its Whalers and Traders attraction. Although it had been described to me before I visited, it has to be seen to be believed.
If youhave been to Disneyland, you'll feel a sense of deja vu as you enter the underground cavern and are ushered on to a hanging boat. This ride was directly inspired by the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and you're sure to notice the resemblance.
After a strict "no photography" announcement, we're on our way along a dark twisting canal, with more life-sized models re-enacting the early days of the area and the trade between whalers and local Maori.
The whole experience is an impressive feat and obviously a lot of work and passion has gone into it — I'm just surprised I'd never heard of it before. At the opening time of 10am, several car loads of people were lined up to get in.
The museum also contains a replica of local legend Ronald Hugh Morrieson's house. Though the original was knocked down to make way for a KFC, the Ogles managed to save the ceiling, which is included in the replica.
On the loop back to New Plymouth, we have a quick stop with the metal toys at the Fun Ho! Museum, but don't make it into the Lawn Bowls Museum — however, that's definitely on the list for next time.
Back in town, I pay my first visit to the biggest eccentric little museum out there — the Len Lye Centre at Govett-Brewster. Although this award-winning, mirrored building — an artwork in itself — had $10 million backing it, it somehow manages to hold the same vibe as its smaller counterparts.
Shortly before he died, Lye set up a foundation in his name to continue exploring the themes of his artworks and working out how to build them on a larger scale.
It's this foundation that has resulted in the centre showing amazing works such as Four Fountains, where I spent an hour and watched people interact with them — in particular, two little girls who deliriously pirouetted around the trembling fountains, over and over again.
And as Lye's gargantuan Wind Wand sways over the coastal walkway, I'm left with the feeling that Taranaki is just the place to realise your wildest dreams.
Six reasons Taranaki is a great place for a hipster road trip
1. Barber shops
New Plymouth has so many barber shops, there's no excuse not get a trim while passing through. Jetcharm Barber Shop and Gentleman's Quarters has a classy, old-school feel to it, with a bit of tattooed edginess. As well as haircuts and hot-towel shaves, there's also an espresso bar that makes really good, strong coffee (and you get a free one with your cut), an art gallery and a clothes shop.
2. Out-there museums
Taranaki has the best eccentric museums, from taxidermy to lawn bowls. Even the flashy Puke Ariki Museum in New Plymouth has a similar feel to the smaller shed-based museums — be sure to get a selfie with the original Taranaki Rugby mascot, Ferdinand the Bull. The museum that absolutely must not be missed, however, is the Tawhiti Museum in Hawera. Be sure to buy a ticket for the Whalers and Traders ride, it's worth every cent.
New Plymouth hosts the NZ Tattoo and Art Festival every year at TSB Stadium, so it's not surprising there are plenty of places to get inked around here. During my visit, it felt like every second shop on Devon St was a tattoo joint. I didn't have time to get some fresh ink but I definitely will next time.
For the art tourists out there, New Plymouth's Govett-Brewster Gallery and Len Lye Centre is worth a road trip on its own. The centre hosts a revolving cast of our leading contemporary artists. At Govett-Brewster, Emanations is the current show — an exhibition of "camera-less photography" with more than 200 examples ranging from 1839 to the present. It includes all 52 of Lye's "photograms" — images created by lying objects on photographic paper — and marks the first time they have been seen together.
Be sure to walk or mountain bike along New Plymouth's award-winning coastal walkway, a 12.7km promenade stretching from Pioneer Park at Port Taranaki to the eastern side of Bell Block beach.
A highlight along the way is the Te Rewa Rewa bridge, which was designed to resemble a breaking wave or a whale skeleton. Most of the hotels around here have complimentary mountain-bike hire and you should definitely take advantage of it.
Taranaki is also well known for its surf beaches — even if you don't surf, it's a great opportunity to stare moodily into the raging ocean.
6. Record store
It's arguably the most important factor in any hipster road trip and New Plymouth even has a great record store. Vinyl Countdown is on Devon St, not far from the Len Lye Centre. It packs an impressive range of vinyl into a small store, with prices you haven't seen in a decade. It's also a great place to pay tribute to New Plymouth's punk history.
Getting there: Jetstar and Air New Zealand operates daily flights to New Plymouth.
Further information: Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and the Len Lye Centre are open every day except Tuesday.