(^ to the tune of “Maryland, My Maryland”, the national anthem of a certain mid-Atlantic state…)
All of my time in New Zealand, save about 18 hours, was spent in Wellington, the capital city and located at the nearly southernmost point of the North Island. Since this is ostensibly a history blog, here’s a link to a detailed history of the city, but to sum up: in 1773, Captain James Cook landed at this harbor, it was named Port Nicholson after Sydney harbormaster John Nicholson. Later in 1860 it was renamed Wellington in honor of the Duke of Wellington, then in 1865 the seat of government moved there from Auckland, the largest city at the top of North Island. Wellington is more centrally located in the country, making a more appealing location for the nation’s capital.
Day 1: I broke my fast at this cafe called Fidel’s, which was recommended by my hostel concierge – the nice kid who wants people to know there is more to New Zealand than Lord of the Rings. The cafe had a great vibe and – surprisingly – no wifi, so I had to read the local paper instead. I got to read all about the Sydney terrorist attack, and local Wellington news. It was an interesting, primary-source-document way to get to know the people.
First stop of the day: a video shop in the Te Aro district which was owned by the son of the nice couple who gave me a ride to my hostel. It was a fantastic collection of movies, well categorized and contained obscure titles. What is the movie version of a Foodie? This shop was a movie-foodie’s dream.
Next stop: The War Memorial. The whole area was closed off for some serious cosmetic work in preparation for New Zealand’s big war anniversary in 2015. During World War I, the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) forces were pretty much annihilated at the Battle of Gallipoli. It was a terrible loss, but it also put AU and NZ on the world map. 2015 was the centennial of the Gallipoli campaign and a pretty Big Deal. I wished I could hang around a couple of months to see the events.
Around noon, it was time to go chill at the Harbor and watch a young man sing on the pier. I love this photo and the colors are a pale comparison to what they really are. To my back were shops, plaques to history, a field perfect for frisbees and dogs. It was a great outdoor public space. 10/10 would recommend.
After this was a trek to the other side of town to see Parliament, more commonly known as “The Beehive” because of its homage to modern art. There was a story behind it and I don’t remember what it was.
New Zealand has a fascinating government. It had a two house parliament but I think one of the houses voted itself out of existence. This site has information about how the government works and this site is live direct from the Beehive itself. It is especially interesting to note that there are a number of smaller political parties and if one wants to retain power, it has to form some sort of Survivor-style alliance with another party. I mention this in an election year where the American two-party system looks more like the Hindenburg than an actual government. Last note: New Zealand was the first country to adopt women suffrage in 1898, at least a generation before America, and there is a huge roll of signatures in a glass case in the lobby.
Right outside the Parliament building were these trees that are native to New Zealand called pohutukawa or colloquially as New Zealand Christmas Trees. They only bloom around December, hence the name.
It was still relatively early but I was hungry because I hadn’t eaten anything since Fidel’s. On my from the Beehive to the Embassy Theater, I stopped in several more shops, including a Subway, where I got to eat fresh. Interesting to note they did not have pepperjack cheese but did have slices of cheddar.
And then -oh boy oh boy! – it was time to go watch The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies in the Embassy Theatre. On the second floor were two separate concessions stands so I ordered a box of Jaffas, which is candy coated chocolate about the size of a Whopper. The couple from the plane told me it was Kiwi tradition to drop Jaffas on the floor during a film and hear them roll to the front. I made sure to drop a few during the film. The movie itself was, well, interesting to say the least, but I can say I saw it a whole 24 hours before it premiered in the United States.
Day Two of my Wellington trip dawned bright and sunny. Breakfast was at a little cafe down the street, then off to Mount Victoria for half a day of wandering, sketching and humming LOTR music to myself. Because I am a huge dork.
The afternoon was spent in the museum Te Papa Tongarewa. There were far too many displays to get done in one afternoon: one on the geographic uniqueness of New Zealand (volcanoes, subtropical climate, near-Arctic location), a giant squid that looked just like an alien from the original Independence Day movie, an entire floor dedicated to the Maori (culture, myths, modern day), a corner on both World Wars and the Kiwi contribution to both. One thing I noticed was that, since New Zealand is a bilingual nation, the signs were in both English and Maori, but the order of the languages was inconsistent. Everything here had high production quality and I would love to go back and catch all the exhibits I missed. It might be one of my favorite museums I’ve ever visited.
Day 3 was the soggiest day yet. On this day was time to catch ’em all! Wellington had really cashed in on the whole LOTR thing and had actual costumes spread throughout the city. The map at the top of this post shows where they’re all located so I spent all morning running around to get them all. The hotel busboy at the Gandalf site was pretty cool with the LOTR-as-tourism thing, but then, he got to look at Gandalf’s costume every day. Interesting to have one’s national identity suddenly wrapped up in a cultural phenomenon..
At the same time, I went and took a tour of Weta Workshop and actually got to hold Sting, Frodo’s sword. It looked like the real thing and it felt like rubber. So weird. I had a crocheted bracelet and the tour guide, Daisy, complimented me on it. I didn’t know how to turn that into a job offer, but I’m still trying. I do not have adequate space to express the total thrill this was. Also, while I was there, I recognized someone from the original Making-Of dvds, but 10 years older. If you’re intimately familiar with the extra features (and if you’re not, what’s wrong with you?), it’s the fellow who almost single-handedly animated Sauron’s tower collapsing when the Ring was thrown into the fires. He gave me a bit of a funny look. I was probably staring. But it was definitely the same guy.
Walking back into town I took a detour to pass Stone Street Studios, the lot where these films were made. Nobody was around because anyone cool was in America for the American premiere of the LOTR films. (I didn’t do a good job with the timing of this..) I thought about scaling the fence but didn’t want to get arrested. So I did a little dance on the street and the, like, two people left on premises probably thought I was a total psycho. I am. But in the good way.
Then it was time to head back to the hostel. Dinner was a burrito from the “New Zealand equivalent of Chipotle” on Courtenay Place, or so the girl behind the counter told me. Sorry, wasn’t even close. But Courtenay Place would be worth exploring if I’m ever back there. In addition to being the main street through which the LOTR red carpet ran, it looks like the main drag in town, the Place Where Things Happen. 10/10 would recommend.
Back at the hostel, it was time to pack and get ready for the next day, which included an almost obscenely early flight to Rotorua for more adventures and shenanigans.