Barr-Brown Bush Reserve: a local scenic gem

We’ve been in the Wairarapa for 20 years now and until yesterday had never investigated a splendid attraction in nearby Featherston: the Barr-Brown Bush Reserve.

The five acre (two hectares) block is entrancing in spite of its tiny size. It’s one of the last examples of bushland that once was common on drier alluvial soils in the Wairarapa Basin. These forests, principally of matai, totara, titoki and tawa, were cleared for farming and timber production.

Initial slide2

Totara and matai were popular for fencing, flooring and other activities. There are still totara fence posts on Wairarapa farms, and The Wool Shed Museum in Masterton incorporates the old Roselea wool shed made from hand-adzed totara cleared from the property to create sheep grazing land. Matai timber, which is very hard, provides floors for many local older houses and farm buildings.

While including some of the same species that are in the neighboring Rimutaka Range, the Barr-Brown bush reserve forest is drier and more open. Less of a jungle.


The reserve dates back to the Second World War when a Wellington-based woodworking and construction company, Barr-Brown Ltd, bought 30 acres of land on the western outskirts of Featherston. In 1946, Allan John Barr-Brown had the foresight to declare ten acres of the property as a wildlife sanctuary. This was later designated a wildlife refuge and then, in the 1970s, a private scenic reserve. After his father’s death in 1974, Allan Francis Barr-Brown sold the land with a protection clause for five acres of it to be kept as a bush reserve in memory of his father.


There are some impressive original trees. Many of the trees are large second-growth. On the outskirts of the reserve are a few non-natives: enormous old man pine and blue gum. The forest underfloor includes a great deal of low kawakawa bush (seen in the photo immediately below).


Access to the reserve, from Underhill Street, is easy unless you’re in a wheelchair. It is flat, with well-formed tracks.


A short video slideshow of our visit is here:

This was the first real workout for the camera on my new Chinese Oppo mobile phone. Until now I’ve resisted taking photos with phones. Gimme a real camera! But not a clumsy great SLR – I gave up on them some years ago because of their heft when traveling. I like a camera you can carry in your pocket and whip out for quick grabshots. I switched to high-end compact cameras and currently use a Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS40.

The Panasonic has a good lens and I love its zoom. But it doesn’t handle backlighting well. Or low light conditions. It doesn’t have much of a wide angle.

I’d become aware that phone cameras were getting pretty good, but the lack of optical zoom always put me off them. However over the past year or so a new generation of cameras, particularly from Huawei and Oppo, has introduced genuine optical zoom. So I finally bought one – the Oppo Reno 10x. It’s very similar to the Huawei, but overall the Oppo camera is slightly inferior. But I didn’t like the uncertainties hanging over the Huawei company.

I’m impressed with the new phone/camera. Overall it’s doing a better job than my real camera. It’s a very clear winner for back-lit and low light photography. It also has a genuine wide angle lens – my Panasonic doesn’t. The Oppo doesn’t zoom as far, but the extent is still useful.

One of the drawbacks of a phone camera is that physically it’s not as quick and easy to handle. It’s harder to immobilise in the hand for zoom photos, though no doubt practice will help. One considerable handling improvement I’ve already introduced is a wrist strap. Also an adaptor that lets me use a camera tripod.

This week Android Authority ran an interesting comparison between the Huawei P30, a Pixel 4 and a high end Sony compact camera. The article’s headline: “Compact camera vs smartphone shootout: It’s not even close.” (The smartphones came out on top.)

A fancy big DSLR will certainly trump both compact cameras and phone cameras for overall quality, but I don’t want to lug one of those behemoths around, particularly for my main interest, which is travel photography.

Posted in New Zealand bush | Tagged | 1 Comment

Simple Launcher for Android phones

For the past few months I’ve been a voluntary coach at a New Zealand programme called Digital Seniors, which is being piloted here in Wairarapa.

Most of our advice and tweaking during the clinics we hold in the region’s towns relates to mobile devices.

I’ve come across some very messy and confusing home/launch screens on some of our Digital Seniors’ Android phones. Usually app icons are spread over several half-full pages and there’s been no attempt to group most-used apps together. Some of the apps that appear are ones the phone owners will never use – they typically have no idea why the icons are there or what they do. They are usually apps that the phone company (I’m looking at you, Samsung!) has pre-loaded and many of them are of little or no use.

While it’s possible to prune and re-arrange the icon mess in the phones’ own launchers, I recently went to the Android Play Store and investigated simplified launcher programs. There are quite a few of them.

Some use icons that are patronisingly large and some of the apps are either pay-for or contain advertising. After trying several of them I settled on the free and ad-free Simple Launcher, by Cloud Innovation Studio. I trialled it on my wife’s phone, and she’s still very happily using it. So are a couple of Digital Seniors clients whose phones I’ve installed it on.

Finding the app in the Play Store is tricky because several other apps have Simple Launcher in their name. Look out for the light blue icon:

Play Store

The launcher has a main launch page (on the left below) where you put nine most-used apps. Additional commonly used apps can be put on a page (or pages) you can right-swipe to. While the important apps will be put on the launch page, all of the apps installed on the phone are available by swiping below the launch screen – another version of the App Drawer.

Clicking the EDIT link puts the pages into edit mode. In this mode you can add and remove app icons and phone numbers.

Main & contacts pages

Swiping left takes you to the phone contacts screen, shown above on the right. Here you can put instant-dial contacts for family and friends.

Breakout contacts

The screens above show the breakout pages from the Family and SOS icons. One click on these icons starts the phone call – no need to separately launch the phone app. I wish I could have included the emergency 111 number in the SOS calls, but this isn’t possible. Simple Launcher sources phone numbers from the Contacts app and I haven’t found a way to add 111 to Contacts. (Any suggestions?)

Control centre list

The phone contacts/SOS page also includes a Control Center (see its menu on the right).

Generally I think Simple Launcher is great phone improvement for anyone whose needs are relatively simple. It’s not for me – I have many apps and like to group some of them in folders. I use the Nova Launcher.

Simple Launcher looks particularly good on a plain background such as I have here. It won’t look so good against social photos wallpaper, but even then it will be easier to figure out than most launchers.

I do have a couple of niggles. One is the inability to include the emergency 111 number, but to be fair, this is probably also the case with all other launchers. They probably have to source any easy-dial numbers from the Contacts app. It is of course possible to make the 111 number prominent elsewhere – e.g. on the lock screen, but that requires you to open the phone app separately and dial manually. Also, if you have been actively using your phone, it’s hard to get to the lock screen, because the phone may not yet have ‘gone to sleep’.

Another quibble is that it is not possible to long-press on app icons and move them around. It’s a nuisance, but not a deal-breaker.

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How dare they mock him? (How could they not?)

Today’s World Wide Web is full of reaction to Donald Trump’s pronouncement that he’s a “very stable genius”.  You might wonder at a man who is so unaware that he can’t understand that such a twitterclaim would dump him straight into ordure. But not The Donald. He believes firmly that ‘any publicity is good publicity’. He may be right. I may just be another unwitting cypher burnishing his ongoing greatness. Along with the cartoonists, bless them…

Narcissus and the reflecting pool

Buffalo News

Trump Buffalo News2

Trump Buffalo News

Trump Wapost2


Baltimore Sun Stable Genius

Baltimore Sun


The New Yorker

Fire and Fury

Trump Wapost



Washington Post

Donald at the end

Wishful thinking



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Traction engine display at the Wool Shed

We’re gradually filling new exhibition space at Masterton’s Wool Shed Museum, and the latest arrivals have been a steam-powered roller along with some explanatory panels. The council offered us a good deal that let us build a new wing, in return for storing their old Aveling & Porter steamroller. It’s a working vehicle that still puffs its way around local fairs and agricultural shows, several times a year.

On the face of it, an urban steamroller makes no sense in an agricultural museum, but there are a couple of – sort of – justifications. First, it was the only way we could afford to extend the museum. Second, the steam roller is almost the same as the many traction engines that played an important role in New Zealand’s rural community between the 1880s and 1930s. Behind the front axle they are identical.

In order to link the steam roller with the traction engines that were used on farms and for road haulage, I spent several weeks researching old newspapers and photos and then designing the enormous panels we’ve put on the walls.


View of the Aveling and Porter steamroller, beside the information panels I produced. The insulation in the ceiling (and behind the wall panels) is, of course, wool.

Still to be installed is a large red button which we think will be popular with kids who come into the museum. Pressing the button will launch a loud “toot toot”, then the sound of working traction engine.


Here’s some information about traction engines I wrote for one of the display panels:
Steam engines were first developed commercially during the 18th century, in Britain. Initially replacing water and wind power for running pumps and machinery, they soon provided motive power for boats and railway trains. The engines were large and very heavy, and it wasn’t until the 1850s that serious attempts were made to make self-powered steam vehicles that could travel on roads and farmland, rather than on rails. Traction engine design developed rapidly until the end of the 1860s, after which the format remained essentially unchanged.
Reports of the new vehicles, their hauling feats and claimed superiority over horse power, appeared in New Zealand newspapers from 1857. We would see our first traction engine ten years later, when a machine built by the Howard Brothers of Bedford, England, was imported by W A Willes. He used it to cultivate his property at Waikara Plains, North Canterbury. A handful of traction engines were imported over the next few years and their novelty kept them in the news.
In 1871 a machine imported by the Auckland Provincial Government attracted many column inches of reportage, some very skeptical. Announcing trials for Auckland’s first traction engine in 1871, the Evening Star (later the Auckland Star) advised: “Tie up your horses, feed them well and lock the stable door, else will the snorting engine find them out and incite them to violent and rampageous rebellion.”
Horses hated the machines, which also caused much damage to roads and bridges. Bylaws required people to walk 200 yards in front of traction engines to warn other road users.
From the 1880s, traction engines were being regularly imported from Britain, with brands including Barrett, McLaren, Fowler, Aveling & Porter and Burrell. The last two brands were particularly common in New Zealand. The machines were usually owned by contractors or local authorities.
Traction engines had a variety of uses. One was hauling loads along roads. Immense tonnages could be pulled – far more than horses could manage. Local authorities used the roller variant, such as the Aveling & Porter machine in this museum, for making roads. They were common on farms until the 1930s, though their use began to decline soon after the First World War, with competition from lighter and more efficient internal combustion engine trucks and tractors.
On farms, traction engines were mostly used as stationary engines. They were driven into place and, using their flywheel and a belt, they powered equipment such as threshing machines, sawmills and shearing gear. They also pulled ploughs and other cultivating equipment. About 2000 of these machines were in New Zealand at their peak around 1920.

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Poppies in Martinborough

Poppies-title--slideWe’ve had a few opium poppies (Papaver Somniferum) in a flower bed for several years. They grow well and look very pretty. Unfortunately they are very good at spraying their seed and spreading. This year a dense swarm descended on part of our vegetable garden. We didn’t get around to weeding them out and then we thought we’d see what a poppy thicket would look like. Nice! At least it does for the moment – we must get rid of the plants before they fire their seed over the rest of the vegetable garden.


Liz picking black currants for the freezer.


Bumble bees are really enjoying the poppies.

While it’s legal to grow opium poppies in New Zealand, it’s illegal to process them into a drug. Which does seem a little strange and overly trusting. You can’t grow marijuana plants as ornamentals, even if you say you won’t use them as a drug (yeah right). Possibly opium poppies are let of the hook because it’s much more of a hassle to turn the plant into opioid drugs. A commercial drug pusher would find it much cheaper to import heroin and other opiates.  Besides which, it’s hard to disguise large plots of brilliantly coloured flowers.

I understand the law in America is less understanding and growing opium poppies, even for ornamental use, is mostly a no-no.

Posted in Gardening, Martinborough, Opium poppies | Tagged | 3 Comments