Think Wellington Of Me

Trip Start Jan 15, 2011
Trip End Mar 19, 2011

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Where I stayed
Fairview Apartment

Flag of New Zealand  , North Island,
Sunday, February 20, 2011

Picton didn't feel like a real town, it felt more like a place for passersby; a fueling point before continuing on to the north island. We only had time enough for some window shopping and fish and chips in the park before joining the ferry line. Suddenly, I felt like I was back in my home town again awaiting a trip to Whidbey Island. Sitting in a parked car, windows down, bare feet on the dash, listening for that first car to start its engine. And then, just like at home, a gentleman holding a clipboard appeared at our window. What was he selling? Candy bars? Raffle tickets? But I was forgetting that this was New Zealand, so I shouldn't have been surprised when I heard this: "Excuse me. Do you know about didymo?" At that very moment the rocks we’d collected on the south island were covering our laps. We were testing our memories of which rocks came from where just before the interruption. In that first second after his question all I could think about was how this man worked for the government. Oh no! Was this illegal? Was he going to see our rocks and confiscate them? My heartbeat tripled its pace.

He then smiled and commented on our rock collection. I returned his smile, relieved, and finally answered his question. I told him we were well aware of didymo and had in fact named our little kiwi mascot after it. He laughed and told a brief story about a woman he knew who’d named her cat Didymo, not knowing the undesirable algae was also known as "rock snot." We laughed and he carried on, not caring one bit about our rocks. Damn me and my paranoia. The car in front of us turned on its engine and we moved along like cattle.

The Interislander Ferry was very similar to ferries from home. It had the same snack bar, the same type of seating, the same old arcade games tucked into the back. However, the ride between islands is significantly longer, around three hours, so they spruced up the voyage a bit by adding a movie theater and full bar. There was also a sleeping area for babies and a playground for kids. You could say it was the “Vegas” ferry experience.

Almost immediately the slow rocking of the boat had me sitting on the edge of queasy. We grabbed some chairs in the eating area where a rugby game was filling a television screen. I plugged in my laptop. I’d promised myself I’d get some writing done as we crossed the Cook Straight, and even though I accomplished my goal, it was a slow and less productive process than I’d hoped. The ebb and flow of rolling waves did nothing to inspire my creativity. Quite the opposite.

I went out on the back deck for some fresh air and to enjoy one last view of the south island. Picton showed glorious under the midday sun. Sailboats were skimming the surf with backdrops of textured hills. The Marlborough Sound and its surrounding islands were lovely, to be sure. If we’d had more time we would’ve explored this area more thoroughly. Another day, perhaps.

While crossing the sea we ate snacks and watched some netball. Katie, having lived in Scotland, knew of the game. It seemed to be primarily a women’s sport with British roots. A concise description of it would be thus: Basketball without dribbling. The more we watched the more we felt that these women should just give up and play basketball already. Maybe I don’t understand the nuances of the game but I have a hunch that if these pro netballers met up with pro basketball players there’d be envious. Regardless, we enjoyed deciphering the rules as best we could. It was akin to putting pieces of a puzzle together. A fun way to pass the time.

When we reached Wellington it was early evening. Our roadmap didn’t exactly cover where we needed to go, so some extrapolation from various maps was necessary. This of course was done by Katie. Meanwhile, I drove through the city streets. Very quickly, the signs started not adding up. Nerves got frayed. Bickering ensued. Three point turns became the order of the day. Basically, we were lost. But it didn’t last long. We turned back the way we came, heading into the city center, and made our way from there. Wellington is by no means an easy city to navigate. Lots of one way roads, roundabouts, hills, curves, loopy turn lanes – all while keeping to the left side of the road. It felt like an obstacle course.

With our skills combined we reached our destination: Fairview Apartment. This was one of the perks we gave ourselves while planning the trip. After five weeks on the road we wanted to have our own space, so we splurged a bit and rented a flat in the hills of Wellington. Nothing fancy, mind you, just a one bedroom apartment. But this simple dwelling had the added perk of having a spectacular view of the city.

We had to work for that view, though. A long steep concrete stairway greeted us on arrival. Quite unexpectedly, we found ourselves doing our first hike on the north island! Cicadas were buzzing at near deafening levels while we hauled our bags up. The owner of the flat had given us excellent instructions on where to park and how to get in, and on entry we found that he’d even left fresh fruit waiting for us in a bowl! How hospitable! The flat was small, clean, and cozy with Ikea-esque styling. The sun lit up the main room, and when we saw the view for the first time we knew the hike up the stairs had been worth it.

A morning shower and a cup of tea in front of that view was a great way to start our second day in New Zealand’s capital. Our plans were simple: Visit Zealandia. Our apartment was only a short walk away from the famous bird sanctuary and we were hoping to spend some quality time viewing wildlife and exploring the many walking trails.

Ten minutes along the curving hillside streets took us to the gates of Zealandia, also known as The Karori Wildlife Sanctuary. After buying our tickets we entered a secured zone where we had to check our bag for unwanted pests such as rats, mice, ferrets, and cats. I was certain we were in the clear but we went through the motions anyway. But I have to say that in this situation, if I happened to be secretly toting a cat, why would I want to let the cat out of the bag? Get it? Hardy, har, har!

The sanctuary itself is impressive, with 253 hectares (635 acres) of land and 35km (21 miles) of trails tucked into the hills of Wellington. Surrounded by a 8.6km predator-proof fence, the sanctuary’s sole purpose is to recreate New Zealand as it once was. They’ve reintroduced native bush and endangered bird and reptile species. The fence is designed to keep all mammals out since New Zealand’s original ecosystem only included birds, insects, and reptiles. Not until men arrived on the islands were mammals introduced, thus greatly diminishing the bird life which sometimes resulted in extinction. I guess you could say New Zealand was strictly for the birds. Get it? Hardy, har, har! I should be stand-up comedian! I think I missed my calling…

Inside the sanctuary we saw many native birds such as the tui, the saddleback, and the kaka. The kaka were my favorite for obvious reasons. Who couldn’t love these big, beautiful, colorful parrots with their energetic natures? We saw them flying overhead throughout the sanctuary and we also got a chance to see them up close in their feeding area. They were numerous and talkative when we arrived, drinking their sugar water mixtures. This feeding area wasn’t there to tame them but to keep the birds coming back to the sanctuary night after night. Which brings me to one of the best parts of the sanctuary – it’s a place of freedom! Yes, the area is enclosed by a fence to keep pests out, but there aren’t any cages. The birds come and go as they please. If they wanted to they could up and fly away forever, never to return. It’s their prerogative. Outside birds can come in too, and birds that were born in the sanctuary have been known to breed in the wild. The sanctuary is there to simply give birds a fair chance at increasing their numbers. It felt so nice walking through the forest seeing them flit about. They didn’t have to be in cages for us to view them. We saw many on our long walk and took pleasure in their freedom.

Along the trail we were lucky enough to observe several tuataras out in the open. Tuataras are known as New Zealand’s living dinosaurs. They have more in common with extinct dinosaurs than current living reptiles. They weren’t very large, probably around a foot and a half long, but they can live for over a hundred years. Near the tuataras was a display on wetas. Wetas are big grasshopper-like insects and New Zealand has many species, all of which are creepy. The largest weta (aptly named the giant weta) is the heaviest insect in the world! They had some weta on display inside a wooden box. We took a picture of one beside my hand to show the relative size. Believe me, you don’t want to meet these things in the wild. Funny enough, the display said that wetas make great pets! I think I’d prefer something fluffier, thanks.

Speaking of wetas, I should mention that there is an old gold mine on the sanctuary grounds that we visited. Inside the mine shaft there allegedly live cave wetas. These large insects have antennae three times the length of their bodies and can jump up to 3 meters! While outside the cave Katie read about these creatures, and just as she was saying “they can jump 3 meters” a leaf suddenly fell on my hand. I screamed in terror.

That moment aside, strolling through the forests of the sanctuary was extremely peaceful. Birdsong trilled around us. Ducks swam and shags fished in the secluded lake. I thought that if I lived in Wellington I could easily see myself becoming a member so that I could visit all the time. It was a special place.

Our good weather streak finally broke on the third day. Overcast and rainy, we drove down to the city center and spent the day at New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa. This is a relatively new addition to Wellington and has quickly become a main attraction. It covers all aspects of New Zealand, from how the islands were formed to current political conflicts. It’s a start to finish description of the land and its people. Katie and I spent six hours there!

First, we learned about the volcanic activity under the New Zealand ground and experienced a simulated earthquake. We saw replicas of the extinct moa, a gigantic flightless bird that reached 12 feet in height and weighed over 500 lbs! There was also the extinct Haast eagle, an enormous bird of prey that was so big it used to take down moas – that’s no small feat! Both of these creatures were still around when Europeans arrived on New Zealand’s shores. Deforestation, dwindling food sources, and hunting drove them both to extinction.

After the natural history portion of the museum we learned about the Maori people, the European settlers, and how each affected the other. Being American, I can’t say the story was unfamiliar or surprising. The land was stolen from the Maori. Reparations have been made in recent times. Though struggles still ensue, it seems that the relationship between whites and Maoris is far better than those between whites and Native Americans in the states. There isn’t that same divide. Instead, there’s an acknowledgement that I don’t see at home. Everywhere we’ve traveled in New Zealand there’s noticeable influences of Maori culture in design, jewelry, language, tradition – it permeates the nation. Most signs give European names as well as Maori names for places, and Kiwis often know the meaning behind these Maori words and pronounce them properly. I find it to be a welcome change. There’s pride in the history and natural beauty of the country from all its people, not just the natives, and a unified desire to see it flourish. This is all from an outsider’s perspective, of course, but both Katie and I have noticed this symbiosis and appreciate it.

Within Te Papa’s walls we saw a series of short films about people’s special places in New Zealand. I could have watched those films for hours. We also saw a giant replica of the Treaty of Waitangi and walked into a beautiful and elaborately carved marae, which is a sacred Maori meeting house. Finally, we meandered through an absorbing exhibit showcasing the photographs of a Kiwi photographer named Brian Brake. He took photographs for many world famous magazines and had brilliant body of work. We both found his pictures and life story fascinating.

After the museum we were (as usual) dying of hunger. It was also (as usual) an odd time of day to eat. 4:30 isn’t a typical dinner time in New Zealand, nor I guess anywhere else in the world for that matter. And, as we’ve experienced before, most restaurants here are closed until between 3 and 5 P.M. We roamed and roamed, trying to decide what to eat but more importantly where to eat. That was when we found out about the earthquake in Christchurch. We were passing in front of a pub with a large HD TV screen out in front. People were gathering around it so we stopped and had a look. We learned that there’d been an earthquake in Christchurch but couldn’t find out the magnitude or full extent of the damage yet as there was a press conference being telecast. Our stomachs grumbled so we moved on, ending up at Thai House – yet another creatively named eating establishment. We weren’t disappointed, though, as it was utterly delicious.

When we arrived back home we flipped on the tele and finally found out how destructive the quake had been. We were crestfallen to learn that the Christchurch Cathedral spire had crumbled, and were broken hearted to hear of the many deaths. Just a month before we’d been in Christchurch, exploring its cathedral, walking through its parks, thoroughly enjoying everything the city had to offer. It was easily one of my favorite days in New Zealand. It was a sad evening, watching stories unfold in the wake of the disaster. Catastrophes of this magnitude aren’t commonplace in New Zealand, and you could see from the reporters and faces of the people that it was a very dark day for the country.

Being far away on the north island we hadn’t felt the earthquake, but strangely enough we calculated that we’d been exploring the earthquake and volcano exhibit of Te Papa Museum when the quake had hit. It was an eerie realization.

The cable car brought us down to the city center on our fourth and final full day in Wellington. Our schedule was very low key. It simply involved a movie and a walk. That’s it. Nothing mind-blowing, and we were happy about that. Our plan was to see “The King’s Speech” at The Embassy Theater, which was (Warning: Geek Alert) the same theater that “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” premiered at! We were under the impression that there was a screening at 10:15 A.M. but there was conflicting information online, and it turned out not to be in our favor. So we changed course and went to another theater instead. We both enjoyed the movie, though I have to say that (Warning: Film Snob Alert) the theater, which was the biggest in Wellington, was no Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood. I’m not convinced that (Warning: Audiophile Alert) we were listening to the 5.1 digital soundtrack, as the stereo imaging was very narrow with little to no surround activity and levels were very low, though I should take into consideration that it was a period piece… OK, I think I’m going off track here.

Next up was a walk along Oriental Parade which is a road and walkway along the Lambton Harbor, the central bay of Wellington. Allegedly it is idyllic to enjoy an ice cream cone while doing this promenade, but nary an ice cream shop could be found! I was dreadfully disappointed. I wasn’t disappointed, however, with the super spectacular children’s climbing toy we found! A pyramid made of rope! It was love at first sight and I had to immediately conquer it. I could hardly believe this was out in the open for anyone to climb. It was high! Looking down from the top, I wouldn’t be shocked if a fall would’ve sent me straight to the hospital with a broken arm or worse. But why worry about such things? I called Katie up to join me and we swung around with youthful vigor. I want one in my backyard someday.

We ate at a restaurant on the bay called Fisherman’s Table. You’d think the location alone would guarantee some amount of quality, but you’d be wrong. It was budget, baby. And though there was a bottomless salad bar to partake of (or as they call it, “salad boat”) it wasn’t fulfilling my salad-lover’s heart, to say the least. Suffice to say, lunch was nothing to write home about, or should I say “nothing to write a blog about?” Hardy, har, har. I should be on Letterman!

Aside from a load of laundry that spun and cycled for hours on end (those clothes should’ve had a wax coating it took so long!), all we did that night was cozy up on the couch. The nighttime view from the apartment was just as beautiful as the day. The moon glowed high above the skyline, reflecting off the bay. The city lights twinkled below. We’d enjoyed our stay in Wellington, exploring the city as well as our neighborhood, with its nearby corner store and butcher shop. It felt like home and we didn’t want to leave.

UPDATE! Alice and Katie are now embarking on a Round the World trip!
Visit to follow along on their continuing

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mommy on

As usual the best entertainment ever! Reading your blog is the best!

mark parker on

wonderful pics and well written story for the pics!

Jen Walter on

I'm glad you got to experience the excitement of netball. When I was at Cambridge I was asked to try out for my college's netball team. I went to one practice because "it's the same as basketball!", it's not. Also, their uniforms were dresses.

Tricia T on

Alice, when you need someone who can eat lots of ice cream and still go back for more...I'll be there! The Weta Workshop museum looks cool.

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