02/20/11 - Picton to Wellington
Picton doesn't feel like a real town, it feels more like a place for passersby; a fueling point before continuing on to the north island. We only had time for window shopping and fish and chips 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 appears 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: "Excuse me. Do you know about didymo?" At that very moment the rocks we’d collected around the south island were covering our laps. We'd been testing our memories of which rocks came from where. Sitting in his shadow, all I could think about was how this man worked for the government...
Were rocks protected in New Zealand? Was this illegal? Was he going to confiscate them and fine us? My heart thumped rapidly.
He smiled and commented on our rock collection. I breathed a sigh of relief. Then I finally answered his question and told him we were familiar with didymo and had in fact named our little kiwi mascot after it. He laughed and related a story about a woman he knew who’d named her cat Didymo. She didn't know that didymo, which is an unattractive algae, is more commonly known as “rock snot." Not a very nice name for a cat, to be sure. We all laughed and he carried on, not caring one bit about our rocks. The car in front of us abruptly 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 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” of ferry experiences.
Almost immediately the slow rocking of the boat had me teetering on the edge of queasy. We claimed some chairs in the eating area where a rugby game was being televised. I plugged in my laptop. I’d promised myself I’d get some writing done as we crossed the Cook Straight, but the ebb and flow of rolling waves did nothing to inspire my creativity. Quite the opposite.
I walked onto the aft deck for some fresh air and to enjoy one last view of the south island. Picton shown glorious under the midday sun. Sailboats skimmed the surf, engulfed by the backdrop of textured hills. The Marlborough Sound and its surrounding islands were beautiful. 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 netball on the tele. Katie, having lived in Scotland in her youth, knew the game. It seemed to be primarily a women’s sport with British roots. A concise description of it would be basketball without the dribbling. The more we watched the more we felt 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 they'd be envious. Netball looked like kids on a playground in comparison. Regardless, we enjoyed deciphering the rules as best we could. It was a fun way to pass the time.
We reached Wellington by early evening. Our road map didn’t exactly cover where we needed to go, so some extrapolation from various maps was necessary. This was performed by Katie while I drove the city streets. Soon, the signs were no longer adding up. Nerves began to fray. Bickering ensued. Three point turns on narrow streets became commonplace. Basically, we were lost. But it didn’t last long. We turned back the way we came, headed to 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 combined skills, however, we managed to reach 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 happened to have 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 as we hauled our bags up. The owner of the flat had given us excellent instructions on where to park, how to get in, and upon entering we found fresh fruit in a bowl! How hospitable! The flat was small, clean, and cozy with Ikea-style decor. Sun lit the main room, and when we saw the view for the first time we knew the hike up the stairs had been worth it.
Sipping on a cup of tea and soaking in that view was a great way to start our second day in New Zealand’s capital. Our plans were simple: a visit to 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 weren't harboring any fugitives, 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? Get it? Yeah, it's a good one.
The sanctuary itself was an impressive 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, sometimes resulting in extinction. I guess you could say New Zealand was strictly for the birds. Get it? Get it? Yep, I should be stand-up comedian. I think I missed my calling.
Inside the sanctuary we saw several native birds, such as the tui, the saddleback, and the kaka. The kaka were my favorite. Who couldn’t love these big, beautiful, colorful parrots with their energetic natures? We spotted them flying overhead throughout the sanctuary and got to see them up close in their feeding area. They were numerous and talkative when we arrived, drinking their sugar-water mixtures. The 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 aspects 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 fly away forever, never to return. It’s their prerogative. Outside birds can enter, and birds that were born in the sanctuary can 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 wetas 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. Inside the mine shaft 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 to me 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 year round. 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 major attraction. It covers all aspects of New Zealand history, 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 New Zealand and experienced a simulated earthquake. Then 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 large it used to attack and kill moas! That’s no small feat! Both of these creatures were still around when Europeans arrived in New Zealand. 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 in my home country. Everywhere we’ve traveled in New Zealand there’s a noticeable influence of Maori culture in design, jewelry, language, tradition – it permeates the nation. Most signs give European as well as Maori names for places, and Kiwis often know the meaning behind these Maori words and their proper pronounciation. 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 individual people and their special places in New Zealand. I could've 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 was a photographer for many world famous magazines and had a brilliant body of work. His pictures and life story was 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 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 by a pub with a large TV screen out front. People were gathered around, so we stopped to have a look. We learned an earthquake had hit Christchurch but couldn’t find out the magnitude or full extent of the damage. Our stomachs grumbled so we moved on, ending up at Thai House – yet another creatively named eating establishment. We weren’t disappointed, though. It was utterly delicious.
When we arrived back home we flipped on the news and finally found out how destructive the quake had been. We were crestfallen to hear the Christchurch Cathedral spire had crumbled, and were brokenhearted when we learned of the many deaths. Just a month earlier we’d been in Christchurch, exploring its cathedral, walking its streets and 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 this was a very dark day for the country.
Being far away on the north island, we hadn’t felt the earthquake. Strangely enough, though, we calculated that we’d been exploring the earthquake and volcano exhibit of Te Papa Museum when the quake 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 “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” premiered at! We were under the impression there was a screening at 10:15 A.M., but it turned out not to be so. We changed course and saw the film at another theater. It wasn't nearly as glamorous, but we enjoyed the movie nonetheless.
Next up was a long 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 immediately had to 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. I'm serious.
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. This place was budget, baby. And though there was a bottomless salad bar (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.
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.