A Capital New Year
Whether it be self-inflicted or societal in origin, I always feel an inordinate pressure to do something exciting for New Year’s Eve (or Hogmanay as it is known in my native Scotland). In the northern Hemisphere, this means either shivering outside in the cold with a thousand layers on, or packing into someone’s house or a local venue to share in the festivities. In the southern Hemisphere where summer is in full swing, for me at least, it generally means escaping somewhere for a holiday or mini-break to enjoy some warmth and sunshine. Or so was the plan, anyway.
On a clear day, the flight from Christchurch in the South Island to the North Island of New Zealand is always worthy of a window seat. Hugging the east coast, we flew over the Southern Alps and stunning coastline. The flight to Auckland usually takes in the sweeping expanse of Golden Bay and Farewell Spit, but on this occasion, on route to New Zealand’s capital city of Wellington on a lower altitude flight path, and with cloud hugging the west coast, this landmark point was out of sight. On arrival, we wasted no time at all catching the bus to Courtenay Place in the city centre (or central business district [CBD] as it is called here). It had been some time since I’d last been in ‘Windy Welly’, a city that I’ve always enjoyed visiting. Following the November 14th earthquake, although the epicentre was in the south island, Wellington such as it is, suffered some damage also. Here, on Courtenay Place, a whole facade of businesses was fenced off and closed down. Suddenly, Wellington reminded us of Christchurch, a city that for years has been defined by cones, fences and cranes.
After checking in, my partner and I took a wander along the main streets of the CBD and were shocked at how deserted the place seemed. We’d been there in summer and winter in the past and this was the quietest we’d both ever seen the place. It was a sunny morning though, although the cloud was building, and we took the famous cable car up the side of the hill to the top of Wellington’s Botanic Gardens. Next to the top station is one of those postcard views of the city and harbour, especially when the cable car slides into the view. Sprawled across a steep hillside, the Botanical Gardens has plenty of colour-coded options for walking routes, and we picked a route we hadn’t done before to get us to the bottom. Once there, a marked route leads back into the streets of the city.
On a whim, my partner suggested we jump on a train and go out to one of the suburbs. Not knowing what was there, but always eager to do something different when I return to a previously visited city, we checked out the timetables and bought ourselves a ticket to Upper Hutt. For 45 minutes we followed first the Wellington shoreline and then the Hutt valley to reach our destination. The scenery wasn’t particularly exciting and as it turned out, neither was Upper Hutt. My partner had been convinced there was something to see there but couldn’t think what it was, but as it turned out there really is no reason to visit as anything other than a resident. We did a circuit round the main streets, the outer park and then back to the train station where we then waited for the return train to Wellington. Still, not every new experience is exciting, and we laughed at ourselves for the randomness of our failed spontaneity.
Back in Wellington we took my favourite walking route round the foreshore to Oriental Parade. The sun was shining gloriously but unfortunately the wind that the city is famous for was so strong that we were being whipped by sand from the small beach as we walked along. We got our customary ice cream which is always a must at the beach only to find it hard to enjoy with the added flavour of sand, and in my case my hair blowing onto it all the time. In the end, we decided to retreat for a bit to have a rest ahead of the night’s festivities. Like many big cities, there was a public firework display to mark the coming of the new year. We wondered if the wind would put a stop to it, but we never got word to say it was cancelled, so as the evening wore on, we set about heading out for dinner.
Like Melbourne in Australia, another city famous for its eating and drinking culture, Wellington has a great selection of places to eat and imbibe, and like its bigger Aussie brother, wandering down an alleyway can often yield a secret and intriguing find. Down one such alley we found Little Beer Quarter, a neat, slightly grungy bar that served us a delicious pizza. After a while we headed off to catch up with my partner’s cousin who was working in a pub on the edge of the CBD. Even though there was no change in time zone and no jet lag to contend with, we were both tired, so decided that instead of going to the midnight fireworks, we’d go for the 9 o’clock display then head back to the pub to hang out. But with a cider in hand and some dessert in my belly, I found myself struggling to stay awake. During the process of drinking and chatting we found ourselves too late to go to the fireworks and shortly after 9, we decided to have an early night. It didn’t take either of us long to drop off to sleep, although I awoke to the sound of fireworks and was delighted to discover on looking out my window, that my room was facing the ocean and I had a prime view of the display. My partner slept through it, but I watched the flashing lights until they finished and promptly returned to bed. This was the exciting action-packed Hogmanay of a 33-year old.
Well waking up on the first day of 2017 was rather different to what we’d closed our eyes to the night before. It was torrential rain and blowing a gale. There was little incentive to get moving, but mid-morning, we found ourselves in a nice cafe near the hotel where we had a lovely breakfast and caught up with my partner’s aunt who lives in the city. Unlike me, who was off work for 4 days, my partner had to go back to work that night, so after brunch, he made his way to the airport to catch his flight home. The airport in Wellington has a reputation for some rather dramatic flying conditions, and with the rate of rain and wind, I was in no way envious of his flight that day. I on the other hand, sought out one of the city’s main indoor attractions, the Te Papa museum. I’d been there before, and worthy as it is of a visit when in the city, it is far from my favourite museum. But at the time of visiting, there was a temporary exhibit called Gallipoli: the Scale of Our War which I was very keen to visit. With models constructed by the Weta workshop (of Lord of the Rings fame), it had rave reviews, and although the exhibit was free to enter, it was so popular there was a queuing system to get into it.
Also on at the time was another special exhibit with an entrance fee, known as Bug’s World. With giant bug sculptures again thanks to the Weta workshop, this was an awesome exhibit even if it was largely aimed at children. With bug-related science experiments, and giant moving bugs, psychedelic colours and loud noises, it was busy, stimulating and very popular. From there I headed straight downstairs and joined the very long queue for the Gallipoli exhibit. Coming from Scotland, where history lessons revolved around the British army’s involvement in the two World Wars, I knew nothing about Gallipoli when I moved to New Zealand. But since then, between both Australian and New Zealand museums, I have picked up a lot of information about this famous battleground. At times when scenes of modern warfare are so rife on the daily news that it is possible to feel numb about it all, it takes a well-designed exhibit to grasp the frustration, heartache, and dizzying waste of life that is the reality of war. Spread through inter-connecting rooms, the main draw of this particular exhibit are the larger-than-life but amazingly realistic figures that depict particular people from the annals of history. A lieutenant, a medic, a nurse and a collection of other soldiers are impeccably detailed right down to the hairs on the legs or arms.
I hadn’t planned on staying at Te Papa beyond that exhibit, having seen the other unchanging exhibits before, but the weather was still diabolical outside so I ended up jostling with the large crowd that was also hiding out in the museum. But even having seen it all before, I managed to kill a few hours here before eventually having to brave the bad weather again. I found a nearby place to eat dinner which was understandably packed, before retiring to my comfy bed with a bag of junk food for dessert and an evening of holiday movies to watch.
The next morning it was still raining, although thankfully not as hard as the day before. Prior to coming to Wellington, I’d planned on spending a day out on Matiu Sommes Island, a bird sanctuary out in the harbour, but the poor weather meant there was no point, and I’d reluctantly canned the idea. My other desire for this visit was to go to Zealandia, a wildlife ecosanctuary on the edge of the city. Another outdoor activity, I toyed with the idea of canning this too, but decided that the rain was of a level that could be tolerated, and so I headed down to the visitor information centre in the CBD from where a free shuttle bus takes you to the entrance of the sanctuary. In the end, despite the drizzle, this was the highlight of my whole trip.
A 250-hectare fully predator-fenced ecosanctuary designed to allow a small spot of New Zealand to return to its wild origins sits a mere 4km out of Wellington’s CBD and as obsessed as I am with native fauna, for me it was paradise. For a country famous for its landscapes and its controversial ‘100% Pure’ slogan, the New Zealand of today couldn’t be more different from the New Zealand of the past. Before man invaded, burned forests for pastureland, and introduced non-native mammals, historically, New Zealand was a land of dense jungle-like forests filled with a cacophany of birdsong, and prowled by large creatures such as the Giant Moa and their equally large hunter, the Haast’s eagle. Now, thanks to industrialisation, farming and the ever-present bane of hungry predators, there are many woodlands and forests that lie eerily quiet, many rivers that have changed their course, and many species that have fallen into the abyss of extinction. The videos and displays within the visitor centre are a real eye-opener to the negative impact of humans on an environment.
But outside was what I really enjoyed. There are a choice of walking paths to take, with most people following the main, low-level circuit to the upper dam and back. But in reality this is a mere fraction of the sanctuary’s size, and there are rougher hiking tracks heading further into the bush from here. I had arranged to meet up with my partner’s aunt again that afternoon, so I restricted myself to the main track and a few side tracks to places of interest. Firstly the track followed the lower lake to a lookout near where some shags were nesting, and some juveniles were evident amongst the adults, neither perturbed by the constant flow of people passing nearby. Near here, I was excited to see a sign saying takahe were nearby. A relative of the comical-looking pukeko, these stocky flightless birds are severely endangered, having already been thought to have become extinct before later being rediscovered. I’d never seen one, and struggled to contain my excitement when one came wandering down the path ahead of me.
Past wetlands and into the woods, I was acutely aware of the impressive volume of birdsong. Nowhere else in New Zealand had I heard this much life in the forest and it was incredible. More so than this was the sightings of bird species I’d never seen before including some Kaka, a species of parrot. I adore Kea, the smaller alpine parrot that lives in the south island, and it was a total joy to see the larger Kaka, another vulnerable species. They were loud and rambunctious and a total pleasure to watch. Skirting the upper dam where the surrounding vegetation was thick, I took a side track which was deserted in comparison to the main track, and there I came across the noisy antics of the North Island saddleback, another bird I’d never seen before. Reportedly recovering in numbers, I’d never even heard of them before, but one in particular, which given its behaviour I assumed it was a fledgling, was so unbelievably loud for such a little bird.
On my way back to the visitor’s centre, I spotted a tuatara, a native reptile that outlived the dinosaurs. Technically wild, all the tuatara in the ecosanctuary are tagged, and are known to reside in specific locations making them semi-easy to spot. Past them, a side track took me up the hill to a cave which is open for a distance to enter. In the darkness, you would have no idea what was in there with you, but the torchlight on my phone illuminated an expansive population of cave weta. Weta are a group of insects endemic to New Zealand which includes the Giant Weta, one of the heaviest and larger insects in the world. On my first sweep with the torch, the weta within the cave looked quite small, but as I turned round to face the opposite wall, I was suddenly presented with some rather large specimens that had been hair-raisingly close to the back of my head just moments before. Insects don’t normally bother me, but these large creatures with their swaying antennae were big enough and close enough to my face to make my skin crawl. Still, I was fascinated enough to suppress this sensation in order to look at them for a while.
Following lunch at the visitor’s centre, I was picked up and whisked away to the hillside suburbs to the south, first visiting the giant Meridian wind turbine overlooking the city, and then heading to the southern suburbs on the coast where the waves pounded angrily on the shore. It was cold and grey overhead as we drove round the coast briefly before I was taken to the renovated Roxy Cinema in Miramar, a beautifully restored building outside of which stood a statue of Ian McKellan as Gandalf the Grey from the Lord of the Rings franchise. Miramar is the realm of Peter Jackson, the film director, and round from here is the Weta workshop which I visited on a previous occasion and is well worth a tour around. But now it was time to retire, and my partner’s aunt cooked me a lovely dinner before I headed back to my hotel for the night.
The next morning it was torrential rain again. It had been such a frustrating trip this time round, and I really wasn’t feeling the love for Wellington on this occasion. Being a public holiday, it felt like large portions of the city were closed down, and zones of the city were like a ghost town. I was struggling to find things to fill my time with. I’m not a fan of art galleries, and with all the usual things I like to do outdoors, I found myself back at Te Papa where I once again waited out the rain. In between breaks in the showers, I took a brief wander around the marina, before eventually finding a movie to watch at the Embassy Theatre. This was the location for the grand premier of the Lord of the Rings trilogy movies, but unlike the Roxy Theatre which had been lovingly restored, the Embassy Theatre looked drab, old and greatly in need of some TLC. It was still raining when I left the movie a couple of hours later, and with nothing else to do, I simply retrieved my stuff from the hotel and headed to the airport. Taking off in the rain, the plane arrived back in Christchurch to relatively clear skies. With an approach heading right over the city, it was a welcome sight to be back home after a washout of a weekend in the capital.