The seven hidden wonders of New Zealand gallery

Electrum is a sculpture on Alan Gibb's Makarau farm.
David Hartley-Mitchell

Electrum is a sculpture on Alan Gibb's Makarau farm.

From the strange to curious, these seven wonders will inspire awe and wanderlust.


Like its cousin the giant squid, the colossal squid is an elusive beast. The cephalopod, which is shorter but heavier than the giant squid, lives 3,000 feet (914.4 m) deep in the pitch-black waters surrounding Antarctica. The first clues of its existence came in the form of two sucker-covered arms found in the belly of a sperm whale. Until 2007, only three complete colossal squid specimens had ever been captured and recorded. 

Photo: Malcolm Rees

In February of that year, the New Zealand fishing vessel San Aspiring was hunting near the Ross Ice Shelf when something tugged at the boat's fishing line with an unusually strong force. The crew pulled up the line to discover a 1,000-pound (453.6 kg) colossal squid attached to an Antarctic toothfish, refusing to let go. Knowing they'd happened upon something special, the fishermen hauled the squid on board, froze it, and plotted a swift course back to New Zealand.

Wellington's Te Papa Museum—a national institution focused on art, history, the natural world, and Maori culture—gratefully received the specimen, preserving it in formalin while staff pondered what to do with it. The squid remained in frozen storage for over a year until scientists thawed it in a specially built tank filled with ice and salt water. Webcams provided a live broadcast of the 60-hour thawing and examination process.

Though initially estimated at 30 feet (9.1 m) long, the squid measured 13 feet 9 inches (4.2 m)—a discrepancy attributed to postmortem tentacle shrinkage. Nicknamed "Messie," after its scientific name of Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni, it is on display in a horizontal tank, forming the centerpiece of Te Papa's colossal squid exhibit. Here you will learn—or be reminded—that the squids have three hearts, rotating hooks on the ends of their tentacles, and an esophagus that passes through the center of a donut-shaped brain.

55 Cable Street, Wellington. Te Papa Museum is a 20-minute walk, or a 10-minute bus ride, from Wellington Station. S 41.290502 E 174.781737

Taupo, Waikato

Photo: Andrew Sole

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Swirling wisps of steam billow from the basins and bubbling mud pools at Craters of the Moon, a geothermal field encircled by a raised wooden walkway.

The area was not always a hotbed of activity. The craters began to appear in the 1950s, when the installation of a nearby geothermal power station caused a reduction in underground water pressure, allowing hot water to come to the surface and escape as steam. 

Since then, the land has been in a state of constant shift. New craters—up to 65 feet (19.8 m) deep—form during hydrothermal eruptions, which occur about once per year. Blowholes emitting steam and gas pop up more frequently—so much so that the walkway needs regular rerouting to bypass new vents and avoid scalding visitors.

Karapiti Road. Wairakei. Taupo is a 5-hour bus ride or 45-minute flight from Auckland. The Craters of the Moon site is 3 miles (4.8 km) north of the city center. S 38.646667 E 176.103753


Photo: David Hartley-Mitchell​

In addition to being one of New Zealand's wealthiest people, Alan Gibbs can control lightning. His farm is home to a sculpture called Electrum, the world's largest Tesla coil. 

At night, from his balcony 50 feet (15.2 m) away, Gibbs can flip a switch that sends lightning streaming from the top of the 38-foot (11.6 m) structure, which consists of a simple sphere atop a column. When the coil discharges, it sends up to three million volts into the surrounding air. You can hear an earsplitting crackling sound and feel the hair on your head standing on end. That burning smell is ozone, the result of oxygen molecules breaking up and reforming in new combinations.

Electrum is the artistic realization of Gibbs's long-held fascination with lightning. To create the work, he commissioned late American artist Eric Orr, whose sculptures often combined fire, water, and a sense of high drama. With the help of electrical engineer Greg Leyh and teams in New Zealand and San Francisco, Orr designed and built a cylinder with a hollow sphere (known as a Faraday cage) on top. At its first test demonstration, during which a constant stream of lightning discharged amid a tremendous buzz, Leyh sat protected inside the sphere reading a book—an homage to the famous photograph of Tesla reading in a chair while a coil erupts into a lightning frenzy behind him.

Since 1998, the sculpture has been part of Gibbs Farm—a large bayside property an hour north of Auckland with more than 20 large-scale, site-specific art installations. All have been commissioned by Gibbs, who collaborates with artists on the abstract-minimalist works. Adding to the unusual landscape are roaming zebras, giraffes, alpacas, emus, and goats.

Kaipara Coast Highway, Makarau. The farm is a private residence, but its art park is open to the public by appointment. S 36.616196 E 174.491259 

Waitomo, Waikato

Photo: Martin Rietze/

The tour of Waitomo's glowworm caves ends with a silent boat ride in the dark beneath a dense scattering of blue-tinged stars. Or at least that's what it looks like. The dots of light on the ceiling are actually bioluminescent fungus gnats.

This remarkable sight greeted local Maori chief Tane Tinorau and English surveyor Fred Mace when they explored the Waitomo caves for the first time in 1887. Entering through a stream and paddling on a raft by candlelight, the two men were astonished to discover the beauty of the caves, which formed approximately 30 million years ago. Return visits yielded greater rewards—the pair found an entry point on land and, by 1889, were guiding visitors through the caves for a small fee.

The Waitomo caves contain magnificent natural limestone formations that resemble cathedrals, pipe organs, and twisted columns. But the main attraction is, of course, the glowworms. Found only in New Zealand, Arachnocampa luminosa emit a blue-green light during their 6-to-12-month larval stage. The bio-luminescence occurs due to chemical reactions in the gnat's excretory organs, and, along with dangling feeding lines, helps attract prey to the silk webs where the larvae live. The hungrier a larva is, the more brightly it glows. These are the gnat's glory days—after emerging from the pupal stage mouthless, they will die of starvation within 100 hours, devoting their short adult life to mating and, if female, laying about a hundred or so eggs.

39 Waitomo Caves Road, Waikato. The nearest major city is Hamilton, a 1-hour drive or bus ride away. Photography is forbidden in the caves and you are asked to remain silent when near the glowworms. S 38.250961 E 175.170983

Matamata, Waikato

Photo: Atlas Obscura

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit—and that hole is located in Matamata, New Zealand. What remains of the Shire movie set for Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and Hobbit adaptations lies on Alexander Farm, a 2-square-mile (3.2 km2) family property with 13,000 sheep and 300 beef cattle. 

Jackson selected the site after an aerial survey of the area revealed its hills were the perfect size and shape for the cozy hobbit houses described in J. R. R. 

Tolkien's books. To transform the farm into a Hollywood-approved Hobbiton, the film crew built a mill and bridge, brought in foliage, and wired individual fake leaves to a dead tree, all after enlisting the help of the New Zealand Army to pave an access road.

After taking a 1-hour guided tour of Hobbiton, visitors are welcome to bottle-feed a lamb or watch one being shorn.

501 Buckland Rd., Hinuera, Matamata. InterCity buses from Auckland take just over 3 hours to reach Matamata. A free shuttle runs from the bus stop to the farm. S 37.879794 E 175.650222 

Coromandel Peninsula, Waikato

Photo: Robert Bird​

Arrive on Hot Water Beach at the right time, and you'll be able to dig yourself a custom-size hot tub out of the sand, with adjustable water temperature. A small section of the beach sits on an underground geothermal water trough. A little digging between low and high tide releases the warm water, making it possible to create a personal spa.

Finding the temperature sweet spot can be tricky—on some patches of the beach, the underground water is hot enough to scald. The best approach is to fill a bucket with cold seawater and pour it into the hot tub if you start sizzling.

If diligently dammed, hot tubs will last for about four hours before being claimed by the sea as high tide approaches.

Check tide times before you go. Aim to arrive about 2 hours before low tide to claim your spot, start digging, and get the most time out of your hot tub before it washes away. S 36.881667 E 175.583333


Photo: Atlas Obscura

The 1949 creation of crocodile-hunter-turned-economist Bill Phillips, the MONIAC (Monetary National Income Analogue Computer) demonstrates the workings of a national economy, using flowing water to represent the movement of money. 

The 6-foot-7-inch (2 m) ma-chine, which Phillips made from spare parts in his land-lady's garage while studying at the London School of Economics, consists of transparent plastic tanks mounted on a wooden board, connected by plastic tubing. Each tank represents a part of the economy, such as imports, health, and education. Adjusting the flow rate of the water causes changes throughout the system, providing a clear simulation of the system-wide effects of spending, saving, investment, interest rates, and taxation.

Phillips created the MONIAC to demonstrate the ways in which small changes can have complex and far-reaching results within a national economy. Fourteen of the hulking, noisy machines were built following the initial prototype, but the advent of computers during the 1950s soon rendered them obsolete. One of the few surviving models is on display at the Reserve Bank Museum. Another can be found at the Science Museum in London.

Reserve Bank Museum, 2 The Terrace, Wellington. The museum is a 10-minute walk from the Wellington train station. 

S 41.278997 E 174.775217

Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras & Ella Morton (Workman Publishing).

 - Stuff


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