Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The two best reasons to visit Windy Welly

Before going to New Zealand, I met up with my friend and former boss who grew up near Auckland. I wanted him to review my itinerary and tell me what I should add, delete or expand.  As he went down the list, his memories came flooding back. He gushed about the places I'd be visiting. I was going to love Queenstown. (Note: I did.) I shouldn't miss Rotorua and its hot springs.(I didn't) I had to make sure to do a boat trip around the Bay of Islands. (check) Wellington was ok. (Yeah..wait, come again?)

It wasn't like he was completely dismissive of New Zealand's capital. After all, it still is a vibrant city with a spectacular harbor. He just didn't seem particularly enthused. Except for when I asked "Is one day enough?" That "Oh, yes!" was mighty enthusiastic.

To counter his ennui, and to feel like I was doing adequate research on the topic, I watched What We Do in the Shadows , the hilarious vampire film set in Wellington. At least from the perspective of three undead room mates, the city looked pretty hip to me. That plus geographically speaking, located right at the southern end of the north island, it made sense for me to stop there on my way back to Auckland. Wellington was staying on the itinerary.
In order to get there, I first took a bus from Nelson to Picton a/k/a that friendly little city that you must go through if you are taking the ferry across the Cook Straits and/or a cruise ship.

Boasting a mix of mini-museums, souvenir shops and waterfront restaurants, it was a perfect place to kill a couple of hours waiting on the ferry. In that time, I managed to do most of my Xmas shopping, see a really old boat and sample some local brews.

The 3 1/2 hour ferry was as scenic as one would expect and I would have loved to have spent the entire time on the upper deck enjoying the sights. Only you know how every time there is a hurricane, they take some poor person who probably worked really hard to get through journalism school and make them stand outside just to show that, yup, hurricanes sure are windy and wet. Well, being outside on the ferry was kind of like that, except that the rain was a bit more intermittent. It was impossible to walk around the deck and not look like a possessed and/ or drunken rag doll. The wind was relentless, pushing everyone into walls, railings and primarily each other.

As it turns out, this getting tossed around business is merely preparation for what lays ahead. Wellington is the windiest city on Earth. Don't believe me? There are YouTube videos of people just trying to go about their days and getting their asses kicked by the wind. It is such a constant presence that the city is known as Windy Welly. There are laws regulating any new construction lest tall buildings create a wind tunnel and inadvertently take out the rest of the population.

But if you can manage to not get toppled over, it is a super cute little city.  One of the main bar areas is the pedestrian Cuba Street.  Why it is named thus is a mystery. There are countless pictures of Che, Cuban flags and the Fidel Cafe but based on my highly unscientific census, my being there brought the actual Cuban population up to a grand total of one.

From there, it was a short walk to the harbor front.

The sign that sent me running to the hostel to ask "Where be the penguins?" The answer: wherever they want to be. They just show up.
This is the area where you find the beyond spectacular Te Papa Museum. I have been to a lot of museums, all over the world, and have seen many war-related exhibitions. I can honestly say I have never seen anything as well done or as moving as their Gallipoli display. 

Since I only had one full day to explore Wellington, I counted on just spending around 3 hours in the museum. I spent that much time on this one exhibition alone. It covers the eight months during World War I when New Zealand troops were battling Ottoman soldiers in Gallipoli, Turkey.

Instead of a dry recitation of facts and figures, the stories are told from the point of view of eight New Zealanders who were there. We first meet each one via hyper-realistic gigantic sculptures.   Even if everything else had been terrible- which was definitely not the case- these representations alone would merit a visit.  Done by the Weta Workshop, the same people who do all the effects for the Lord of the Rings movies, they are truly works of art. The painstaking attention to detail is mind-blowing. It's like Ron Mueck's work but so much better. 

I met a visiting photographer who was there for the third day in a row, trying to do justice to these  works. That is how impressive they are.

As you walk through the exhibition, following a timeline that begins when they first land on Gallipoli, there is a constant cinematic score playing in the background, heightening the tension. The stories of these individuals, often accompanied by their own photos and belongings, are so compellingly told that when inevitably something bad happens, it is devastating.

One section recounts how there were so many deaths during one battle that the two sides called a temporary truce so they could give their men proper burials. During the truce, the two sides traded cigarettes and treated each others as people, not enemies. One of the many things that I really admired about this exhibition is that the same level of respect is used throughout. While there are many references to "Johnny Turk", they are quick to point out that the Turks were not monsters, these were young men whose country had been invaded and who were bravely fighting for their side, same as the New Zealanders.  

Towards the end of the exhibition, there are paper poppies where the visitor can write their thoughts and place them with the final sculpture.

I later saw videos of the Weta workshop staff talking about the importance of this project and how they wanted to properly honor those forgotten men and convey their humanity to the present generation. Judging by all the heartfelt notes and teary eyes as we exited, it is safe to say that they succeeded and then some.

The next couple of hours in the museum (I was there a total of 5) were spent checking out the only colossal squid on display anywhere in the world, exploring a recreation of a Maori village, learning about New Zealand's flora and fauna (including the world's largest bird, the Moa, which sounds equal parts scary and cool), experiencing a mock earthquake and discovering the importance of the Treaty of Waitangi.

The price for admission to the wonderfully well-rounded museum. 0 dollars and 0 cents (Savings tip #999, I've stopped counting)

I wondered why my friend had not mentioned Te Papa when we were talking about Wellington. I mean surely this place alone would take a city from Meh to Yeah.  I later found out that it only opened in 1998, well after he had left, so he gets a pass on this one.

In the section of the museum concerning New Zealand's origins, they spoke of the supercontinent of Gondwana. Approximately 80 million years ago, a large land mass broke off, drifted across the ocean and formed what we now know as New Zealand or Zealandia, which some scientists are currently arguing should be classified as the 8th continent.  Up until the Maori's arrival in 1250 CE, this land was as uninhabited as it was isolated, meaning that many unique species were able to evolve undisturbed. For many birds, who had no predators to flee, this resulted in losing the ability to fly.  The mega Moa, which could reach up to 12 feet in height, did have one predator, the Haast's Eagle, which may have weighed up to 510 pounds.  Within 100 years of the Maori's arrival, both of these majestic creatures were hunted into extinction. 

Things only got worse when the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman arrived in 1642. The influx that followed brought with it rats, stoats and worst of all more humans. They hunted, cleared lands and acted with utter disregard of the native flora and fauna. As a result, many more species were lost or on the path to extinction.

My next stop was a place that is looking to turn back time. Zealandia is a fully-fenced in sanctuary that has devised a 500 year plan to return the land to how it was before the humans arrived. Less than 22 years in, they are already having tremendous success. 

The key is in keeping mammalian predators, such as rats, stoats, cats, possums, hares, etc, out of the sanctuary. The first line of defense is da fence. (Sorry, not sorry) This specially designed enclosure can not be crawled through, climbed over or burrowed under. The next step is in closely monitoring what gets into the park. It is perhaps the first time I have been asked to check my purse for rodents prior to entering.

In their short existence, they have managed to re-introduce 18 native species of wildlife into the park, 6 of which had not been seen on the mainland in over 100 years. Mind you, this is not a zoo, the birds- at least the ones that can fly- are free to come and go. But by creating a safe environment where the birds can thrive, they are drawn here and bird populations are beginning to restore themselves.  Tuis and Kakas are now being routinely spotted throughout the city.

There are a couple of ways of visiting the park. There are two guided tours you can do, one during the day and the other at night. The night one has the benefit of giving you a chance to see the country's superstar bird, the Kiwi. In my 18 days in the country, I saw zero Kiwis. They are nocturnal and do not frequent the same bars I do. Unfortunately, this tour was sold out and I had already missed the day version.

I did the self-guided version, which means I likely missed a good 98% of the birds and 100% of the pre-historic lizards.  But the 2% I saw was crazy impressive.

The Taheke, New Zealand's largest flightless bird

The Tui, New Zealand's answer to Mariah Carey 

The I Pity the Fool bird (*probably not the scientific name)
Although I was not able to get a good photo, I also spotted a kaka. In 2002, they were well on their way to extinction. Fourteen captive raised kakas were released into the sanctuary. By the end of 2015, 750 kakas had been banded inside the park and more non-banded kakas have started arriving, indicating that they are now also nesting outside of the park. It is truly a feel good story and a reason I was happy to do my small part in supporting this special project

It also gave me the opportunity to excitedly tell an oncoming group "Kaka! I just saw a kaka. It's over there by those trees."  Their blank stares led me to wonder whether they understood I was talking about a bird or just thought that I was a wildly outspoken fecophiliac.

I stayed in the park until it was time for the last shuttle, which drops visitors off in nearby Kelburn.  From there, you can simply ride the cable car back to downtown.

Is there a bad view in all of New Zealand? I think not.

Part cable car/ part time-travel light show
Back in town, I was making my way back to Courtenay Place, where my hostel was located, when I came across a familiar sight.

It was Boogie Wonderland, the favorite dance club of a certain happening vampire trio. It is now closed for good, I like to imagine because Vladislav, Viago and Deacon are now more into escape rooms and silent discos, but there it was.

The Beehive: New Zealand's Parliament Building

My bus to Rotorua was early the next morning.  This stay in Wellington had been much too brief (one day is not enough) but it had given me the chance to visit what would become two of my favorites attractions in all of New Zealand. The fact that neither one existed when my friend lived there partly explains his lukewarm reaction. Also, I suspect his social circle didn't involve vampires. Either way, if you are planning a New Zealand trip, unlike my friend, I can emphatically recommend Windy Welly and particularly Te Papa and Zealandia.  If you are lucky, you might even see a kaka.

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