David Whitley plays the clown for a very special audience in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands...


As a famous fuzzy-topped German scientist would probably agree, everything is relative. It would be impossible to say a flaxen-haired, hourglass-shaped woman with angular cheek bones is beautiful if you couldn’t compare her to a dumpy, sallow-faced hag. You couldn’t claim the Taj Mahal was large and hugely grandiose without the reference point of a dingy inner-city bedsit.


Similarly, you can’t properly explain how a dolphin can be elegant and graceful without first swimming with them. The contrast is remarkable. In the deep blue waters of The Bay of Islands, the sleek, silver creatures cut through their terrain effortlessly, turning in a natural arc and leaping upward in a fluid motion. Outside of the water, perched on the edge of the deck, are fifteen humans in ill-fitting wetsuits, jerking away as they attempt to stretch rubber fins over their feet. After much tugging, one woman finally manages to slip hers over her heel, and promptly falls backwards onto her back. 


Meanwhile, others are struggling with the logistics of their snorkel and mask. Is the snorkel really supposed to be at this angle?  Let’s see… if I put my head at this angle, like it will be in the water… ah yes, I suppose it is. Resonating above the sounds of the boat and the sea is the agonising thwack of someone testing just how much slack there is in the mask strap. Another unzips his wetsuit for the third time, delves down and rearranges his boardshorts so they don’t cut off his circulation under the big black idiot costume.


Eventually, bulges in all the wrong places, overly-tightened masks ready to leave permanent scarring around the head, we’re ready to get into water with the lovely, cutesy-wutesy dolphins. If ever there is a place to go swimming with everyone’s favourite creature, then the Bay of Islands is it. A few hours north of Auckland, it gets beautiful weather and has a stunning natural setting. Suffice to say, the name is not ironic. Little outcrops of greenery dot the bay, and once you’re on one, you’ve pretty much got it to yourself. The water, meanwhile, is a playground for aquatic creatures, and there are numerous pods of dolphins that call it home. And, it seems, we’re going to be allowed to play with them.


Oh what a sight… fin tripping over fin, and John Wayne-esque splayed legs waddling hopelessly, everyone half jumps, half tumbles into the bay. It’s at this point you begin to think that the dolphins must be in absolute stitches. What are these clumsy oaf things that have come to play with us? Do they do tricks? Do you reckon they can leap through hoops of fire or balance balls on their nose?


Bemused, they gleefully curl around in front of us as we flail hopelessly towards them. We’re the marine equivalent of an uncoordinated man attempting to dance like a robot in order to impress a mysterious, gorgeous vixen whose slinky, sinewy movements have the whole dancefloor captivated.


But we do have a secret weapon, however. Oh yes, we can pull funny faces, and according to our crew, dolphins are suckers for a rubber-featured comic. Jim Carrey would get on well with them, I imagine. The reason they hang around with us is that we entertain them almost as much as the other way around. They are inherently playful critters, driven by a sense of fun. One of their favourite past times, as we discovered in the ride to this spot, is riding along in the wake of the boat. You’d expect this to be for a boring reason like helping them swim faster, but no, it’s purely because they enjoy it. Same reason that we try and bodysurf in the waves whilst at the beach, I guess.


And this is why we’re all behaving like performing monkeys, waving our arms around and gurning. We’re trying to keep them occupied and entertained so that they’ll stay with us. Get bored and they’ll just swim off elsewhere, leaving us to flounder shamefaced and struggle to heave ourselves back on the boat. It’s probably this playfulness that makes us love them – we wish we could have that attitude in life ourselves.


Even the face looks inquisitive, like there is a wry, quizzical smile emblazoned across it. It’s not us that are getting the show here – it’s them. Eventually, of course, they decide to go their own way, and we’re not allowed to follow. Wed do get a parting gift though, as one of the pair we’ve spent twenty minutes clowning around in front of, leaps out of the water. Whether it’s a round of applause or a salute, we’re not quite sure, but judging by the grins on the performers’ faces, it’s been more than alright on the night.


One castle, and a lot of controversy


Just outside Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island, is one man’s dream castle. But that dream turned into a nightmare, as David Whitley finds out

You don’t, it seems, need to be a member of the aristocracy to have your own castle. It never stopped William Larnach, after all.

New Zealand may seem like an odd place to find a castle. It has no history of medieval warfare and no reason to assume it will come under siege from trebuchets at any point soon. But Larnach, an Australian-born banker who came over to Otago during the gold rush in 1860s, saw a perfect spot on the Otago Peninsula and decided he wanted to build one there.

Larnach Castle, of course, is suitably ludicrous. Fabric wallpapers and intricately carved wood-panelling were shipped in from England, the supposed verandah was glassed over when they realised that the south of New Zealand doesn’t quite have an Australian climate and a tower was built to ensure they had a prime position to take in the views.

But traipsing through the castle to see the rooms and old furniture is only moderately interesting, despite the extraordinary efforts of the current owner to track down all the original pieces that were sold off when Larnach’s children sold the estate. What really makes the castle worth a visit is the story of the Larnach family. And frankly, you’d not be surprised if one of them was haunting the place.

It all started going a bit weird after a family trip to London, where William’s wife Eliza gave birth to their sixth child, Gladys. When they came back from London, Eliza’s sister Mary joined them and came to live in the castle.

Alas, Eliza had grown to hate the isolation of the place and being left alone while Larnach was in Wellington, strutting his stuff as a power-behind-the-throne sort of MP. So she got a townhouse in Dunedin, where she promptly died at the age of 38.

Larnach didn’t have too far to look for a new wife, and married Mary, promoting all manner of tutting from respected members of society. It also was the start of legal wranglings over Larnach’s will – suffice to say the children didn’t want Mary getting her hands on anything.

But then Mary died, again aged 38, and Larnach took a third wife – Connie – soon afterwards. But there was a substantial age gap between the castle-building MP and his new wife. She was closer to his children’s age than he was.

It seems one of the children spotted this. Rumours started circling that Larnach’s son, Douglas, was having an illicit affair with his stepmother. Keeping it in the family had become something of a family tradition.

The tale goes that Larnach didn’t know about this affair until he received an anonymous letter warning of it. And he shot himself dead inside the New Zealand parliament building the day afterwards.

He died intestate, so this triggered off huge rows about the inheritance. Connie and Douglas lined up against the other kids, who eventually won. Although a fat lot of good it did them, as they inherited a pittance – unsurprisingly for someone who sees fit to build himself a castle, Larnach had been living beyond his means for quite some time and was virtually bankrupt.

The Larnach children decided to get rid of their dad’s castle soon afterwards. Luckily neither it or the story behind it have crumbled into obsolescence.


Disclosure: David was a guest of Tourism New Zealand.

by David Whitley



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