Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

02 December 2009

N.Z. House & Cottage 9. Rhodes Cottage, The Levels

I wrote and illustrated ‘New Zealand House and Cottage’. It was published in I997. It’s a snapshot of some historic New Zealand homes - both grand and modest - as they were preserved at the end of the 20th century.
I have decided to share some of the entries from the book from time to time on this blog.


The starlings of South Canterbury must think that this is the largest nest in the world. On the spring day that I visited they had successfully penetrated the screen of chicken wire that covers the thatch and were cavorting inside and outside, squealing and fluttering like feathered extras in a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’.

Despite that, this fascinating cabin is well enough cared for and sits attractively, somewhat hidden, in a neat private historic reserve garden beside the modern farm house. It’s a strong building, not because it was intended to last but because of its materials: solid, vertical totara slabs lined with cob supporting substantial rough-hewn rafters and a deep thatch of wheat straw which a craftsman thatcher would have no difficulty maintaining or replacing. It’s the oldest surviving building in South Canterbury and is unique.

The Levels Station, named after his Yorkshire home, was first settled by George Rhodes and his brothers in 1851. George took his new wife, Elizabeth, whom he’d married at Lyttelton, to her new home in 1854. It took them eight days to ride from Banks Peninsula to The Levels, a journey you can do these days between breakfast and morning smoko. At first they stayed near the beach at Timaru but soon moved inland to occupy the slab hut in which they were to live until a more suitable dwelling was erected by 1856. The hut measured three metres wide by nine long. It had two rooms, with an open fireplace at one end. The floors were of clay which, I imagine, would have created a fine dust to coat clothes, furniture, food and books. I daresay, too, that it was subject to constant re-levelling for the more used areas, the doorway for example, would otherwise have soon worn into potholes.

George died tragically in 1864, having contracted typhoid while dipping sheep, and Elizabeth, with her four sons and a daughter moved into Timaru. Later the tract containing the hut passed into the ownership of the Orbell family and, in 1946, the ‘old hut’, dilapidated and propped up, was given to the South Canterbury Historical Society. The Rhodes family restored it in 1951 and it has since been further restored and maintained by the Historic Places Trust.

A romantic sidenote: it was from The Levels that the much mythologized James McKenzie and his fabulous dog ’stole’ 1000 sheep and drove them over the hills and far away towards what became Mackenzie Country.



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By Don Donovan

About Me

My photo

Don Donovan: Biography

I was born on 20 January 1933, nine days before Hitler came to power in Germany, I grew up in south London. Although evacuated during the phoney war and the quieter times I lived in and out of air raid shelters during the blitz and experienced both V1 and V2 attacks on London. Left grammar school in 1948 aged 15 substantially undereducated. I wanted to go to art school but because of family ‘poverty’ joined a commercial art studio in the West End. I was, thereafter, variously a messenger boy, commercial artist and typographer. I was in the Royal Air Force from 1951 to 1953 when the only useful thing I did was to take part in King George VI’s funeral parade.

In 1955 I married Patricia O’Donnell, a RADA graduate, at that time playing opposite Derek Nimmo, they were juvenile leads in a touring repertory company. He went on to great success because he had a funny voice.

We came to New Zealand in 1960 where I worked in advertising. At length I became managing director of one of the companies of whose holding company (the largest domestic advertising complex in New Zealand) I was also a proprietor and shareholder. I left the industry in 1990 when my company was bought out by American interests. My timing was brilliant, at that point my first book had been published and the next was on its way.

We have two daughters and four grand-children.

Now, apart from writing, I function as a self-educated grumpy old man.

Books & Writings

‘New Zealand Odyssey’, with Euan Sarginson, Heinemann-Reed, 1989.

‘One Man’s Heart Attack’, New House, 1990. (A special edition of this book was purchased by CIBA-Geigy for distribution to NZ doctors).

‘Open 7 Days’, Random Century, October 1991.

‘The Good Old Kiwi Pub’ by Saint Publishing in 1995 followed by:
‘New Zealand House & Cottage’ in 1997. (Saint Publishing have also published calendars for the years 1994 to 2004 using my watercolour illustrations).

‘The Wastings’, my first novel was published in July 1999 by Hazard Press. Although an international subject it had very limited distribution, only in New Zealand, and the rights have reverted to me. (Colin Dexter read 'The Wastings' and wrote to me: 'I enjoyed and admired "The Wastings"... a beautifully written work... a splendid debut in crime fiction... More please!'.)

Also the texts of photographic books:
‘Colourful New Zealand’
‘New Zealand in Colour’
‘Top of the South’
‘Above Auckland’
‘Hauraki Gulf Destinations’
‘Bay of Plenty’
and a compilation of photographs and quotations titled ‘Anzac Memories’ 2004 all published by New Holland.

My written and illustrated book, ‘Country Churches of New Zealand’ was published in October 2002 by New Holland, who also published ‘Rural New Zealand’ 2004 (photographs and text), and a series of four humorous books of photographs and quotations in 2004 and 2005 titled ‘Woolly Wisdom’, ‘Chewing the Cud’, ‘Fowl Play’, and ‘Pig Tales’. My most recent book was published in August 2006 by New Holland, titled ‘Political Animals’.

Over the years I have written for NZ Herald, Heritage Magazine, Next Magazine and various local and overseas travel and general interest media.