Crayfish, religious zeal and 700 steps

We arrived at our accommodation just as dusk began to approach the North Island’s easternmost points, and were invited by our host to join him and several others by the fire. Minutes later, we had been generously offered an entire crayfish each and settled down to enjoy it, just metres from the shore of the beautiful bay in which the hostel is situated. Despite my fondness for crayfish, the object itself is not the matter that lingers foremost in my memories, but rather the hospitality and openness with which we were greeted.

The following day was a Sunday, and we made our way towards Gisborne via East Cape. As the rain fell on a dour morning, we parked at East Cape and discussed whether it was worth walking to the lighthouse in these weather conditions. Having decided that it was, we were almost instantly rewarded by the delightfully simple timber steps (more than 700 of them) that lead up the hill. However, a truly remarkable experience awaited us at the top, where members of a religious group were using the top of the hill as an informal venue for worship. Whilst several people intoned loud prayers in turn, one woman walked vigorously around the grassed summit of the hill with a flag bearing the Star of David, and we stood silently off to the side - taking in an experience that was far outside the normal reality of our lives.

Invisible Cities

At a relatively early stage in the project, we met up with Finn McCahon-Jones in the centre of Auckland, in order that Finn could show us many of the built layers that reside within the city centre, including the diversity of stone that one finds on many of our kerbs. As a dedicated walker of cities himself, David had also amassed a considerable amount of observations of the details that go largely unnoticed in our urban areas.

However, Finn’s interest in the minutiae of the urban fabric is a level apart from any knowledge that David or I had previously garnered. Taking in the place of various types of basalt, Hauraki Gulf shingle, shell and Coromandel granite in Auckland’s kerbs, walls and stairs (many standing in close association) provided a different view of the static, contemporary ‘reality’ of our city.

One of my favourite books is Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’, in which Marco Polo recounts a large number of fantastical cities to Kublai Khan; all of which are surreal manifestations of Venice (or perhaps better said, experiences or impressions of Venice). Like the apartment dweller who places a makeshift clothes-drying setup suspended above a lane, or the homeless person for whom a city becomes a series of stations and shelters (some unwelcome, others accessible), staring intently at our city’s layers opened up alternative perspectives on experiencing places – the kinds of impressions and characters that I find heightened to such an imaginative level in Calvino’s masterful writing.

A sense of community

Chance conversations were an inevitable, and welcome, part of observing our everyday landscapes throughout the country. These occurred on a relatively frequent basis, as the sight of two men expressing an abnormal amount of interest in a wall or bench tends to pique curiosity. Whilst at Orere Point (to the southeast of Auckland), one of these conversations gave an additional layer of interest to some simple concrete-and-block benches and tables that sit by the shoreline.

A local resident came over to talk to us, and explained that these were a community initiative (which he had played a significant part in bringing about) to contribute towards the social character of this space, where many people launch boats on the weekend. The main point that I took away from this conversation was the level of generosity that is associated with the creation of such objects.

Other examples of places where community construction was particularly evident were Kellys Bay, on the Kaipara Harbour (a charming bay where bright primary colours have been painted on furniture and pontoons as a catalyst for making people welcome and enthusiastic about the bay), and the cobbled-together boat ramp of the Cape Egmont Boating Club, which has taken on an accidentally intriguing composition through various stages of its ad hoc construction.

Junction Hotel Takaka

As lunches go, a whitebait sandwich and a beer in Takaka wasn’t a bad way to refuel on our trip to the uppermost areas of the Nelson region. However, what made this particular stop most memorable was the character of the pub in which we chose to find sustenance. Whilst waiting for our whitebait sandwiches to be made, we took a walk around the Junction Hotel Takaka, in which very little has changed for several decades.

The central point of the marvellous dining room was a depiction of an idealised Māori scene, flanked by round mirrors, whilst other areas (like the gambling room) were equally untouched by any hint of renovation. All of this made much more sense months later, when I heard a National Radio programme about this delightful local institution, which was occasioned by the fact that the Junction Hotel was due to close down (due in part to changes in drinking behaviour caused by new liquor licensing laws). In the National programme, the publican, Nola Drummond, commented especially upon the fact that almost nothing had been altered since the early days of their tenure, as well as communicating the pride that went into making and running such an establishment.


On our West Coast and Canterbury trip, David made the suggestion that we take tents and stay at (mostly DoC) camping grounds along the way. This made sense due to the far-flung places that we wished to visit (which also required some level of flexibility), as well as the fact that the book project had already used up a lot of our personal finances over the previous 18 months.

As it turns out, this was an inspired decision, as we went to as far as one can drive on the northern end of the West Coast, to Kohaihai (the westernmost point of the Heaphy Track). This stretch of coastline, bounded by a long beach, a winding river feeding out to sea, and the forest of the Heaphy Track, was one of the most beautiful places we visited on the entire journey. From a personal point of view, it was also very interesting for the large patches of the increasingly rare sand coprosma (Coprosma acerosa) that grow next to the camping site.

As we returned to the south, we made a diversion to visit the remarkable landscape of the Oparara Basin, where towering limestone arches (festooned in parts with weeping curtains of a native rata, Metrosideros colensoi) lie amongst verdant bush. Whilst I dallied on the track in the company of an attractive, white-flowering native herb that I had never seen in the wild, Jovellana repens, David had the rare experience of seeing a whio (blue duck) loitering around the margins of the river. On a note more relevant to our venture, the area north of Karamea was interesting for the continued use of old, extremely large native fenceposts, the visually striking farming method of humping-and-hollowing, and a basic yet very elegant timber fence that we both agree is one of the nicest objects not to have made it into the book.

The Bird-god temple

There were a few favours asked during the 2 years that we worked on the book. One of these involved an early morning start with my friend, Gavin Olson, to get a closer look at a structure that sits in plain view of tens of thousands of motorists on the Northwestern Motorway every day. On the same jaunt, we were able to land on Pollen Island (the large area of mangroves and shell banks that lies between the motorway and the harbour) to get photos of an enigmatic rectangle of low, ‘shell-concrete’ walls (concrete in which the aggregate is entirely shell) that sits out in the middle of this wild expanse of mangroves).

I have admired this set of poles and rungs for years, as an abstract form in the middle of the harbour, and both David and I independently considered it to be a necessary image for the book. This assemblage of poles fits the description of a type of structure known as ‘dolphins’ – freestanding moorings (in this case) that provide a point for boats to moor themselves to away from the shoreline. It is unclear what kind of a vessel they were built for (perhaps a barge), as I have never seen them in use. As we approached them, shags alighted upon their frame, leading us to refer to this peculiar structure henceforth as the Bird-god temple. 


One of our later trips was to the southernmost points of the North Island (in and around Palliser Bay), via Hawkes Bay and Wairarapa. On our way through, we stayed with Bruce Martin, a Hawkes Bay potter with whom I struck up a friendship several years ago whilst working nearby, at Te Mata Peak. The house that Bruce and his late wife, Estelle, built at the end of the 1960s has come in for a lot of attention in recent years, as one of the finest examples of early modernist architecture in New Zealand.

However, a good deal of the discussions that Bruce and I have had surround plants, as the large garden (which has a park-like quality to it) also reflects the careful consideration that Bruce and Estelle extended to their pottery and their house and studio. Subtle pond margin plantings of Japanese grasses and irises meld beautifully with the understated feel of the property, whilst many interesting species (that would have been particularly uncommon at the time of their planting) occur throughout the different areas of the garden, including Sophora longicarinata, Podocarpus waihoensis, a magnificent, perfectly symmetrical specimen of Hoheria sexstylosa and one of the most challenging of our native plants to successfully cultivate in the lowlands, Cordyline indivisa (or mountain cabbage tree, which has started coming away from its base since its main stem died off in the last couple of years).

Staying overnight with Bruce on our way through was one of the highlights of all of our travels; having fish and chips with wine for dinner, and talking to Bruce about the nature of what we were undertaking, amongst many other subjects. As an architectural photographer, it was a wonderful experience for David to absorb the house, which reinforces a notion that has thankfully gained some ground within the media at present - namely, that we should be looking into beautifully conceived small houses, and consider how much space really is necessary for living. And almost inevitably, temptation took hold, and it became an opportunity for me to add to my collection of Bruce and Estelle’s pottery.

A parallel conspectus of pies.

Although we devoted large amounts of our own resources into ‘Vernacular’, our travels were not exactly an exercise in privation. Many of our early meetings took place at our favourite Auckland restaurant, Cazador, where Rebecca and Dariush provided us with a power point at an important time (as we prepared our pitch to send to Potton & Burton Publishing). Later on in the piece, my wife and David’s girlfriend probably tired of hearing about all of the great places we had eaten meals or drunk beer as we went out to various parts of the country. In truth, the location of a certain impending meal did, on occasion, shape the agenda.

We took a special interest in conducting an informal survey of pies throughout New Zealand, and can announce our findings with some degree of authority. The South Island had it all over the North, with the best pies coming from (in descending order) The West Coast Food Co. in Hari Hari, The Kissing Gate Café in Middlemarch (where David also took great delight in consuming that staple of the South Island, the cheese roll, pictured below), and Ginger Dynamite in Riwaka (which recently reopened after a fire destroyed their premises earlier in the year). Undoubtedly, there will be some who dismiss these amateur findings as balderdash and conjecture (in favour of other establishments). It is indeed a fraught subject.

My kingdom for a walkwire !

As our travels rolled towards their conclusion in the early months of 2015, one omission nagged at the back of our minds. At an earlier stage in the book project, David Straight had shown me images of a walkwire from the Nelson Lakes area. These minimalist bridges rank amongst the most remarkable structures within our vernacular landscapes, and demonstrate the beauty that can stem from economy of design. If time and money were not an issue, we would have ideally visited an incredible example on the Dusky Track, wherein a lightweight assemblage of wires is supported by towering frames that emerge from the river.

Regrettably, we had not found an opportunity to experience one by the time of our final South Island journey (through the West Coast, Nelson and Marlborough), as time did not permit a long jaunt into the forest for the sake of one object. At the eleventh hour, David decided that he could make a trip to Queenstown, with one of the primary reasons to photograph a walkwire near Milford (in tandem with some other photographic work unrelated to ‘Vernacular’), and I committed to paying around $400 for his flights, ostensibly solely on account of the walkwire. It is a strange set of priorities, but one only gets one shot at preparing a book, so we threw what turned out to be some very well-spent resources at one final indulgence.

In addition to a comprehensive series of photos of a walkwire (probably the most detailed observation of this type of structure that anyone has seen fit to undertake), this trip yielded an opportunity for David to visit the Carrick Water Race on a particularly beautiful day, and take some remarkable images of its winding path through the landscape. We had already looked into races of the Manuherikia Valley (and their flood irrigation), but this flying visit gave David the chance to follow one of these impressive landscape forms back into the hills that feed it with much of its volume.

Cantus in Memoriam Ute (Almost)

Sometimes, one has no choice other than to be philosophical in the face of undesirable circumstances. I pondered this with admirable stoicism as I looked upon David taking a visual record (with a little too much alacrity) of what we presumed could have been the end of 13 years with my faithful Toyota Hilux (which had just overheated on the Brynderwyns). We had plenty of time to reflect upon this event as we waited for David’s girlfriend to pick us up from Waipu, with pizza and beer to make the best of a bad situation. Luckily, this turned out not to be the case, and one cooling system later, the ute subsequently returned to service.

At a later stage, it was David’s turn to almost lose a ute to the cause, as his former vehicle (which he had borrowed from his brother) overheated in a similarly inauspicious patch of road to the previous Northland incident. As we ascended the steep section of road leading to the Flora Carpark at Mt Arthur, David was paying sufficient attention to the temperature gauge, and called a halt to proceedings before ‘Vernacular’ claimed a second victim. Thankfully, in the end (as in the case of the Hilux), no requiem was required.

Citrus Wars

Within ‘Vernacular’, one of the most arresting spaces that we encountered (almost by accident) was the amazing amphitheatre-like space called ‘The Gully’ at New Plymouth Boys’ High School (NPBHS). My two employees at O2 Landscapes are both highly-skilled landscape architecture graduates (both having completed Masters in Landscape Architecture), and both contributed to the book through the provision of sketches (as well as feedback on various ideas). One of them, James Fischer, attended NPBHS, and offers these reflections on the significance of ‘The Gully’ in the life of the school :

“As a landscape architect reflecting on my old stomping ground, I find it interesting to think of the gully as a piece of land art with outstanding character. To me it will always be the place where we catapulted oranges at ‘day boys’ (boys who went to NPBHS that didn’t stay in the hostel) from one side of the gully to the other. It will always be the place we did hakas to motivate the 1st 15 against our rival schools. It will always be the route we took to sneak out of the hostel after lights out. It lies at the heart of the school and is very much a part of every boy’s experience at NPBHS.

The Gully was primarily used for rugby matches (particularly the first fifteen home games), and it’s basically an amphitheatre. During Super 8 home games the entire school would perform hakas from the terraces to amp up the 1st 15 (the sound of which would echo through the whole school).

It was an unsanctioned rule/tradition (over a decade ago) within the hostel that any ‘day boys’ who were caught jumping down the terraces were discretely punished in a manor befitting the offense. At the time it seemed like another way to isolate the two factions of the school. But one of the true reasons was undoubtedly the preservation of the school’s valued asset, 'The Gully' – as jumping between the terraces could deteriorate the cut earth banks (some clothed in pongas; others not).”


As we travelled throughout the country in pursuit of aspects of our vernacular landscapes, we also encountered many cultural phenomena that are separate to the subject of the book. These included significant works of architecture, rare native plants and landscapes, and objects that are best classed in the category of ‘Miscellanea’.

A particularly fine example of the latter grouping greeted us as we looked around the shores of Lake Alexandrina, during our first research trip (to inland Canterbury - notably the impressive landscapes of the Mackenzie Basin). Evidently, some inventive types while away periods of their holidays by playing ‘Holeball’; a simple game that appears to involve throwing a ball at one of three holes in what looks like an old picnic table. Apparently confined to one site in the centre of the South Island at present, Holeball could well be making its way elsewhere this summer.

Akmons + Tetrapods

In trying to keep the erosive force of the ocean at bay, we often end up simply throwing materials at the shoreline. Rocks are the most common candidate employed for breaking the action of waves, although other approaches are used – including the deliberate wrecking of ships (such as at the brilliantly-titled Aramoana Mole near Dunedin).

In places, concrete units of varying geometries serve this role. Some take the form of simple cubes or pyramids (such as at Greymouth, pictured below) where pyramidal units hold the side of a breakwater), whilst others have more complex, interlocking forms that give them an appearance akin to a giant game of knucklebones. Some of these complex types are called tetrapods (due to the four ‘feet’, which are really shallow prongs, that make them lock together), whilst another variant is the akmon (pictured above, adjacent to Wellington Airport)– a form that is named after the Greek word for anvil (an analogy that is blatantly apparent when one views these impressive units upon our coastlines).