Best playground in New Zealand? According to whom, exactly? Tara Ward and her kids review Whanganui’s greatest claim to fame.
This article was published in October 2018
In last week’s debut episode of The Great Kiwi Bake Off, one contestant made a statement that shook me like an underbaked ornamental trifle terrine. “I’m from Whanganui,” said amateur baker Clayton, “and it’s a fact we’ve got the best playground in New Zealand”.
Woah there, Clayton, step away from the cooking sherry. On one hand, that’s a bloody bold claim; on the other, anything that inspires a masterpiece like this must be a truly magical place.
When chocolate cake calls, you always answer. I decided to visit Kowhai Park to see if it really was the nation’s best playground, to leave no swing unswung, no see-saw unseen-sawn in my pursuit of the truth. I would look that dinosaur between the eyes to see who blinked first. I was Laura Dern in Jurassic Park, I was Mary Berry with a soggy bottom, but mostly I was hungry. Hungry for adventure. Hungry for cake.
Readers, Clayton was right. Kowhai Park is everything.
Kowhai Park is a paradise with no beginning and no end, a technicolour portal into another world. There’s a giant octopus with swings dangling from its tentacles. There are sprinklers and water guns and seats made of turtles. The Three Bears wait for porridge that will never come, the merry-go-round is indeed both merry and round, and a castle sits next to a pirate ship that’s surrounded by a Tiny Tot Railway that hoons past a trio of moa lurking in the bushes.
No wonder Barney Rubble looks stunned. He gets to stare at this majestic vision all day, every day.
The magic of Kowhai Park began the moment I arrived. My children launched themselves out of the car and disappeared, joyfully sucked into the vortex of Nursery Rhyme Land. I had no idea where they went, and I didn’t care. I was too busy being The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, climbing inside a giant boot to squeeze my aged buttocks down a child-sized slide and slither through the worn-out toe.
You can be anything in Kowhai Park. I was just a girl, standing in front of Fred Flintstone, asking him to love her.
In the marine area, swings dangle from a giant sea snake’s stomach and a whale has its mouth forever ajar. I climbed my own personal Everest to sit atop a rocky iceberg, surrounded by a sea of silently smiling penguins. There’s no global warming in Kowhai Park, and wherever my children were, I knew old mate Humpty Dumpty would watch over them like the one-eyed guardian angel that he is.
I mean, this a face you can trust, right?
Kowhai Park belongs to another time and place, when playgrounds spread themselves over a gazillion hectares and health and safety was a sign saying ‘Welcome to Kowhai Park’. Built in the 1950s, this place has seen generations of children tunnel under the volcano and launch off in the rocket ship. Miss Muffet’s sat on that tuffet for nigh on 60 years, and you can bet your concrete porpoise she’s seen some shit go down.
It’s a playground oozing with nostalgia and old school charm. The stainless-steel slides guarantee a classic summer burn on the backs of your thighs, and the whole nursery rhyme zone harks back to a time when it was fun to chant a poem about a financially deprived woman who mistreats the thousands of hungry children she’s single-handedly raising inside a boot. Good times, New Zealand. Good times.
Whatever, that big shoe is SO CUTE.
Here’s the boring but important stuff: yes, there are toilets, and yes, they are clean. The park is free, though there’s a small cost for the train that runs every weekend. It’s not fully enclosed and is next to the Whanganui River, but the main play area has good wheelchair and buggy access. Parking is right outside, there’s plenty of shade and picnic tables, and there’s even a free barbeque area. You’ll find it inside the giant pumpkin, of course.
It might be a bit chipped around the edges, but Kowhai Park makes the world a better place. I mean, look at these seals. You can’t fake this kind of happy.
But what of the inspiration for Clayton’s cake of dreams? As I climbed up the Brontosaurus’ spiky tail, Kowhai Park stretched out before me, a rainbow of joy sparkling in the afternoon sun. I threw my old woman husk of a body down the slide. It burned the back of my thighs, and I was as happy as a seal stuck to concrete.
Verdict: As delicious as the rice-crispy hind legs on a chocolate dinosaur cake.
Good or bad: So good it burns.