From lonely trees to magical clocks, Michael Lamb uncovers nine hidden gems
Last year a man called Jake Brown was so bored during lockdown he stood at his cellar door and stared at the wall.
As he looked, he noticed an odd change in its texture. With nothing better to do, he drilled a few holes and ended up discovering a 15-metre deep, 120-year-old cavern running under his house. A newspaper he found inside confirmed nobody had been in there since the early 1960s.
The moral of the story is it's always refreshing to discover something new right under your nose.
Happily, New Zealand is blessed with its fair share of the odd, forgotten, secret and mysterious. It doesn't matter how many fences are adorned with bras (looking at you Cardrona) or toothbrushes (hello, Te Pahu), or the obligatory giant fruits and vegetables guarding small towns all over the country, there's always another curiosity to be winkled out of the landscape.
From obscure hot springs to handmade nuttiness, here's a further selection of delightful New Zealand obscurities – all bucket-list worthy and ready to explore.
Rock of Ages: Taupō's Māori Rock Carvings
Back in 1976, the grandmother of Māori carver Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell asked him to create a likeness of her ancestor Ngatoroirangi on a tōtara tree, as a symbol of their family connection to the land. When Matahi couldn't find a suitable tōtara around Taupō, a paddle across the lake gave him a better idea. Putting together a team of fellow carvers, four years later he unveiled the grand sequence of carvings in the rock alcove at Mine Bay and a landmark was born.
These stunning carvings rise 14 metres above the waters of Lake Taupō, complete with added depictions of the tūpuna (ancestors) and kaitiaki (guardians) of local Māori. You can only view them from the water so you'll need a kayak, boat or, for the more leisurely option, a ticket on one of the local scenic cruises.
Lightning On Demand: Kaukapakapa's giant Tesla coil
Who doesn't love giant sparks? Up at Gibbs Farm north of Auckland, there's a tribute to Nikola Tesla's quirky genius that's much more fun than some overhyped electric car brand. Its full name is 'Electrum (for Len Lye)' because it's actually an art project - and it lays claim to being the world's largest Tesla coil.
It's 11.5m tall and when cranked up to full three million volt power it shoots out alarming 15m bolts of lightning.
Electrical engineer Greg Leyh built the coil to a design by the late artist Eric Orr. Leyh's party trick is to sit inside the wire sphere at the top of the coil while it does its thing, safe in the knowledge he's protected by the Faraday Cage effect.
Tree Needs Hug: Campbell Island's lonely tree
Nestled by a bay on the subantarctic Campbell Island (Motu Ihupuku), about 700km south of mainland New Zealand, is a solitary sitka spruce. It's the only tree on the island and they call it "the world's loneliest tree". Previously it was more commonly referred to as "Ranfurly's Tree", since it is believed to have been planted by then Governor-General of New Zealand, Lord Ranfurly, in the early 1900s.
You can visit the friendless fir with an Auckland Islands cruise with Heritage Expeditions. Just don't expect good weather. Campbell Island is considered one of the cloudiest places in the subantarctic, basking in less than 600 hours of sunshine a year and soaking in 325 days of rain per annum.
Play It Strange: Dunedin's Alexander Piano
The world's longest piano started out as a backyard project when Adrian Mann was a 15-year-old schoolboy. After starting piano lessons he realised he was more interested in the mechanics of the instrument than tickling the ivories. He was especially intrigued by the possibilities around long bass strings, which are normally wrapped in copper so they can fit piano formats. Working in a friend's shed, he single-handedly built a 6m long, 1.2-tonne musical monster.
According to Adrian, the sound quality of the super-long bass strings in his one-off wonder is very different, producing a boomier, deeper sound and greater dynamic contrast. It must be true, since many top pianists have beaten a path to Adrian's door to play the grander than grand piano, including Dimitri Vassilakis and Michael Houstoun.
Barney's Rubble: Nelson's Boulder Bank
The remarkable 13km-long Nelson Boulder Bank (Te Pokohiwi) is the largest natural reef of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. Part of the bank is an 8km-long spit running out into the bay, which is a stumbly three-hour walk one way (given the terrain of giant pebbles, ankle supporting boots are recommended). There's the added lure of the old 19th-century cast-iron lighthouse towards the end of the spit, offering dramatic views back over the city.
The rock pile was formed more than 10,000 years ago as lateral sea currents swept material down along the coast from the neighbouring Mackay Bluff. The granite-like rocks are technically known as granodiorite and apparently, the shelter they provide from Tasman Bay (Te Tai-o-Aorere) was a key factor in selecting the site of Nelson as a settler town.
In Hot Water: Lake Ohakuri's hidden springs
New Zealand seems to float on hot water. It seems if you're willing to drill down far enough, there's thermally heated water to be had in vast quantities. Finding free, uncrowded hot pools is another matter. On the eastern side of Lake Ohakuri, which is roughly midway between Taupō and Rotorua, is a secluded lake spring called Paradise (Waihunuhunu). Frequented mostly by in-the-know locals, you can get there either by boat or by sniffing out the dirt access track that runs off Te Kopia Rd. But it's well worth hunting out Paradise to bathe in the warm thermal waters that bubble up into this artificial lake. Just make sure you don't wander into the nearby nudist camp by mistake, or you could be in hot water of a different kind.
Time's Never Up: Dunedin's Beverly Clock
Imagine if that science experiment you did back in Year 9 was still running? Well, there's one little trial in the foyer of the Physics Department of Otago University that's been going since 1864 and they reckon it's now one of the longest-running experiments in the world.
It's the Beverly Clock, devised by Arthur Beverly and to date, it has never been wound. This fiendishly clever device uses changes in atmospheric pressure to power its mechanism. Apparently as little as a six-degree temperature variation does the trick, providing enough force to raise a one-pound weight an inch, which then descends, powering the clock.
Pure genius? Yes, just about, except the clock has stopped a few times over the years due to mechanical failures, cleaning, lack of temperature variations, or relocating. But it always starts itself up again, proving conclusively that time waits for no one.
Taken For A Ride: Whanganui's Durie Hill Underground Elevator
In the early 1900s, the only way for the good people of Whanganui to ascend to the new suburb of Durie Hill was via a steep, gut-wrenching staircase. This would never do, so the idea of an elevator was mooted and found favour. Built between 1916 and 1919, the result is New Zealand's only public underground elevator. You approach it through a slightly dystopian, bright white, 213m tunnel, then take the electric tram engine-powered lift 66m up to the top. All for just a pretty penny – or two dollars in actual money.
Go for the elevator, stay for the views: on a clear day Mount Taranaki and Mount Ruapehu will be part of the pleasant vista that awaits you, plus there's the Durie Hill War Memorial Tower up there as well.
Glow In The Dark: Wellington's lonely lighthouse
When Bruce Stokell wanted to brighten up his wife's life, he went literal and built her a surprise lighthouse. That was in 1994. Given his wife loved to paint, he thought she'd love to render it in oils, but apparently, she thought it was "too nice" for that kind of carry on.
Now it's a lonely lighthouse that you can actually go and stay in, with the facilities spread out over three floors: ground floor kitchen, middle floor bedroom, top floor seating area with a balcony for spectacular harbour views.
It's actually not that lonely, being just 15 minutes' drive from central Wellington out at Island Bay. Guests can wander the beach, gaze out at Taputeranga Island or visit the seal colony at nearby Red Rocks. Any passing shipping will pay you no heed though: Bruce has never put the bulb in.