Tomorrow morning, Kath and I board the ferry to the South Island, kissing half of this fascinating country good-bye. And we’ve just arrived! Well, the intention of this trip was really to simply see the South Island and focus on its raw nature and emptiness, but after spending a few days on the North Island, in the beautiful capital of this island nation, I’m not so sure that we shouldn’t have allocated part of our time to see the “northland” (as they call it), as well.
First of all, I have to preface this with the fact that Wellington is one of the windiest cities on Earth. Chicago, move over. You have nothing on the sub-Antarctic blasts that rip through this place, adding a bit of chill to what should be the emergence of summer. However, it says a lot about a place that, thanks to the grace of its people and the fascination of its sights, you don’t even notice the weather until a raindrop hits your face or a gust blows you over. And Wellington is just that sort of place.
We spent our first day simply wandering around and catching some of the better museums. I can recommend to anyone that the first thing you should do in Wellington, so long as it is daytime, is to take the cable car to the top of hill that overlooks the city and then wander through the botanic gardens as you walk downhill back to the city. The part about downhill is very important. Downtown Wellington is shaped like a roughly-shaped bowl, open on the side that faces the harbor. As long as you stay near the water, you will not have to climb too many hills. However, leave the main downtown area and you will really give your legs (and lungs and heart) a work-out. After a couple of days, Kath and I have learned to ask questions of ourselves when planning a particular trek, such as: “How far up will this take us?” or “Is there a similar store that is not over that steep ridge?”
The cable car trip is very pleasant, if a bit short, but it doesn’t prepare you for the absolutely breathtaking view at the top or the stress-reducing and fragrant trip down the hill, meandering through succulants and orchids and prehistoric fern trees and rose gardens, as well as an old (at least for this part of the world) graveyard. We ended up in the main government district, including the national capital building (aptly nicknamed “the beehive”), and the beginning of the harbor museum district. The Wellington, City and Sea, museum is very interesting, with some very dramatic footage of the sinking of the Wahine, a ferry that killed over 50 people when it sunk in Wellington harbor in 1968.
The museum that really got me excited about coming to Wellington was Te Papa, the new national museum opened only a few years ago. And, I can say that the museum really doesn’t disappoint, expecially since I mostly wanted to see exhibits concerning the experiences of the Maori people (the native inhabitants of New Zealand). I read several books regarding the inital impact of European culture on Maoris, and since most cultural sites revolving around Maori culture are located in the North Island, in places we weren’t going, I was keen to see what I could, especially if I could glimpse it in the mind’s eye of the “average” New Zealand citizen (or even want they wanted to project to the world). Te Papa does a great job of not only bringing Maori history and culture alive but also showcasing current and relevant Maori struggles in the perspective of the various participants, Maori and non-Maori alike. Te Papa is not scared to address issues that are not really settled yet and are still heavily contended. I learned a lot from the museum that I would have never picked up from books, and I guess that might as well be the definition of an important museum.
Today, Kath and I took the bus to the top of Mount Victoria, on the opposite hill from the cable-car, and wandered back to the city through a more residential neighborhood, which glorious views of the harbor, downtown, and the peninsula containing the airport. Most of the day was simply spent wandering around and soaking it all in; Wellington provides an endless string of interesting things to look at as you move from street-to-street, including artwork installations, innovative architecture infused with solidly classical themes, and rippingly wild weather that swoops over the surrounding hills and invades like an army of cloud ghosts.
Tonight, we took some time to provision for the road ahead. As soon as we get off of the ferry, life will probably get a little bit harder and, hopefully, even more rewarding. We have a car rental reserved in Picton, the town where the ferry lands, but we haven’t been able to reserve a room for that night. As it is the high-season, there is a question as to whether we will be able to find an affordable room at all in the surrounding area. Regardless, we are now prepared, with a cooking stove and enough food for a few days, not to mention a tent smuggled through customs and sleeping bags for the cool late-spring nights. Wish us luck as we float away from a jewel of a city, one that I wish we could spend a few more days exploring.