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



You can get New Zealand included as a stopover on a Globehopper RTW or a Navigator RTW or on our New Zealand via Australia deal

The Stewart Island ferry: New Zealand’s greatest stomach test

Proud of his ability to withhold sea-sickness, David Whitley took on his greatest challenge – the ferry across the Foveaux Strait

The forewarning had been ample. Before stepping on the catamaran, I knew that if one boat trip was going to force me to reconsider my opinion of my constitution, this would be it.

While not claiming an iron stomach, I have generally been sick about once every three years during my adult life – and this includes some fearsome binge drinking as a student and backpacker. Sea sickness, though? I’ve a pretty darned strong record. I vaguely remember a small maritime upchuck as a child, but beyond that I’ve been a model of seaborne fortitude.

The Foveaux Strait between New Zealand’s South Island and Stewart Island, a 39km stretch of often vicious, wind-swept sea, has a long track record of destroying such reputations. Smack bang in the middle of the Roaring Forties – a latitude that gives albatrosses much delight and sailors the tremors – the Strait is something only reluctantly tackled by the Stewart Islanders themselves.

It only took a few minutes for things to get somewhat lurchy. The skipper had set course across some might big swells, the catamaran bounding upwards and downwards like a carriage on a big dipper. Huge dousings of spray splashed violently all the way up the glass windows, everyone inside rather thankful that they didn’t have to be out on deck. And any thoughts of going to the bar for a pint were quickly disregarded.

Spotting the regulars was a fairly simple task. One old guy slurped merrily at his coffee looking entirely unperturbed. The skipper stared out to the horizon with sturdy determination. The couple in front seemed to enter a well-honed meditation technique.

Elsewhere, however, the inexperience was shining through like a beacon. One woman and her daughter sat out at the back, clearly hoping that fresh air would make things less grotesque, yet failing to follow the standard advice of looking out directly at the horizon. The Japanese couple in the middle didn’t seem to have any strategy at all. They simply looked terrified.

There was a crushing inevitability hanging in the air. Once someone’s stomach gave way, everyone’s would.

After about 20 minutes, the first victim fell. The Japanese woman reached for the sick bag, and sent the wafting smell of vomit across the boat. She spent the next 40 minutes making her way through an impressive collection of bags, most dutifully handed to her by her husband until he too succumbed.

Behind, the bravery of a couple taking four children on the ferry quickly started to look like foolhardiness. The crying started, the stomachs churned and the junior travellers started adding to the victim count. At one delightful moment, one poor boy missed the sick bag and coated his mother’s hand.

As the journey began to draw to an end, I was left thankful that the one hour catamaran trip had replaced the two-to-three hour ferry ordeal of days gone by. My stomach was giving notice. I wasn’t going to last too much longer. Around 50% of the passengers had gone, and I was pretty sure I’d be next.

Then came merciful relief. The battering calmed as the catamaran eased into port at Bluff. I was a survivor. Brimming with pride, as I stepped off, I asked one of the crew how bad that journey was, comparatively.

“Ah, only about a four out of ten,” came the nonchalant reply.

Disclosure: David was a guest of Tourism New Zealand.

by David Whitley



You can get New Zealand included as a stopover on a Globehopper RTW or a Navigator RTW or on our New Zealand via Australia deal