The 'Wackily Serious' Puzzling World - New Zealand

It was the next morning, on the way to the far-off glacier town of Franz Josef, well after we left Queenstown, New Zealand, that I discovered that my credit card was missing. After hitting panic stations and tracing all my movements over the last twenty four hours, I realized that the last time I had used it was at Puzzling World, Wanaka, on the previous evening. 

Deep down in the Southern Hemisphere, at an hour's drive from Queenstown in New Zealand, exists an alternate universe called Puzzling World (PW) that blows your mind off. The brain child of Stuart Landsborough and his wife, Puzzling World was born in 1973 when they sold their house to buy barren land in the middle of nowhere, because they wanted to build a maze. Just that - a maze in a small town with a population of only about 800 people. Predictably, banks did not give them a loan. They went ahead anyway, sold their house, and built the maze in time for the summer vacations of 1973. Almost 18,000 people visited the maze once it was ready, and the Landsborough couple never looked back. In 1983, they added bridges and steps to the maze, making it the world's first 3-D maze and the largest of its time. In the years that followed, they added multiple mind-bending attractions and made PW one of the most interesting, eclectic, and quirky amusement centres.

PW did not feature much in populist itineraries. The regular beat covered Auckland, Rotorua, Queenstown (for its adventure sports), Glacier Land, and finally Christchurch, give and take a few attractions along the way. PW is located in Wanaka, about an hour's drive from the closest hub, Queenstown, and its last admission is around 4:30pm. This could call for an extra day at Queenstown (or Wanaka), perhaps explaining why it did not feature on the regular beat. But from what we had seen of PW on its website, visiting it was non-negotiable.

After an early morning flight from bone-chilling Rotorua to Queenstown, a blitz of a check-in at the hotel, and a big hurrah for the streamlined self-drive ecosystem of New Zealand, we were on the road to Wanaka - and it was already noon. There was very little traffic; so little that we thought we had lost our way several times. It was a beautiful road, lined on both sides with greenery of various hues, from dry yellowish to vibrantly verdant, set against the backdrop of the snow-capped Crown Range mountains. The road seemed a destination in itself. After a drive that seemed longer than an hour by one, we suddenly came up on a huge concrete tower leaning dangerously, with just one corner moored to the ground. This was the Leaning Tower of Wanaka.

The Tumbling Towers

Behind it lay a few single-storied cottages and four skewed but inter-connected towers - the Tumbling Towers. They looked straight out of a fairy tale.

We had reached Puzzling World. 

As expected, it was not teeming with humankind, and there were just a few parked cars. The vibe was a bit underwhelming, but only till we stepped into a cheerful cafe and souvenir store. Excited children and bemused adults pored over neatly arranged tables, tending not to their beverages, but instead to the puzzles that were set out on each table. These were not your routine Ludo or snakes-and-ladders. They were mind-bending challenges that compelled attention, so much so that food soon became the last thing on our minds.                              

The Think Tank Cafe


Thoroughly reassured, we picked up a map of the place and started with the Hologram Hall - purportedly the largest collection of 3D and 2D Hologram features and photos in the world. Some of them were familiar, but most others, like the plasma holograms, had our grey cells working hard.


The next stop was the Hall of Following Faces - a dark octagonal room whose walls were covered with concave face models of famous people like Einstein, Abraham Lincoln and Churchill. The only light in the room came from small bulbs behind the masks. At first glance, there was nothing remarkable about these masks. But when we approached them with one eye closed (as instructed), the concave faces appeared fully convex AND the eyes of the faces followed us as we moved around the room in any direction. Eerie? Not in the least bit; therein lies the uniqueness of Puzzling World. 


At Puzzling World, complex cognitive, mathematical and optical principles are presented in the most interesting way, so you really cannot help learning something new. Take for example, the concept of ambigrams in the Illusion Rooms. I must confess that I had no clue as to what an ambigram was till I saw it in Puzzling World. An ambigram is a typographical creation that represents two or more separate words in the same space. It takes the mind a while to look beyond the obvious word and spot the other, which is an antonym or a complementary word that completes the phrase. There were rotational ambigrams, reflected ambigrams, perceptual shift ambigrams and what have you. Then there were pictures that hid so many more within them and models that had us scratching our heads till we picked out their underlying forms.

Moving on we entered the Tilted House, where no matter how straight we stood, we were leaning at an angle. Gravity? Illusion? Why was water flowing upwards and how was the ball on a downward-sloping billiards table creeping up the table? At the Dazzle Room, we wondered whether it was us that was moving or the room itself. At the Ames room, I shrank in size as I crossed over to the other end; when I watched the video playback, my thirteen year old was much taller than I was. These were some of the most unusual experiences we had ever had. It took considerable effort not to feel disoriented. In fact, there is a clear warning that these rooms may cause disturbances in orientation and balance - but that was the whole novelty of  the experience.

All this had left us with no time for the Great Maze. PW was closing in half-an-hour and all we had time for was the Puzzle Shop, which had the widest array of puzzles for children of all ages from six to seventy five. There were trick beer glasses that looked like inverted bottles without a lid, shot glasses that leaned precariously without  a drop spilling out, Turkish Puzzle rings, and impossible jigsaw puzzles and T-Shirts that defied comprehension. What took the cake and the bakery, though, was the Backward Clock where the numbers were arranged anti-clockwise and the minute-hand and the hour-hand went backwards. The ultimate brain teaser, it takes even the sharpest at least a minute to figure out the exact time. The verdict on the Backward Clock was unanimous - it had to be part of our collection.


The shopping basket was getting full and there was hectic to-ing and fro-ing from the shelves to the billing counter when, right on cue, my thirteen year old said that he had to use the wash room. With five minutes for PW to shut down, he dashed towards the Roman Toilet and in three seconds, he dashed out again.

“There are four or five people using it! All at the same time!” he screeched incredulously. 

“Of course there will be four or five people using the toilet at the same time, but they must be in cubicles. Come.” I took his arm and went back towards the toilet.

And that is how I forgot my credit card! 

Let me say no more, except that whatever you do or don’t, do not miss the Roman Toilets at Puzzling World, Wanaka, New Zealand. 

(All photos by the author)




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