We arrived in Wellington at midnight local time, and headed straight for our latest Airbnb accommodation. We were staying in a kind of international student house headed by Steve and Anna, both mature students; a huge, rambling, comfortably shabby old house full of books that made me feel immediately at home. It had been used as an embassy by the Polish delegation in Wellington for many years, and the cupboard in our room was in fact their old steel-lined document safe, installed at the height of Cold War paranoia. The house had a semipermanent population of five, but up to eight travellers like ourselves were also in residence at any given time, and Steve cooked big communal dinners every night, whilst Anna plied me with coconut-milk ice cream and homemade vegan cake. I spent some happy hours on a dilapidated couch reading a James Herriott book that I think also lingers somewhere in the mustier corners of the house I grew up in.
Wellington feels more like a sizeable town than a capital city, and it is set on and around a harbour as stunning and complex as Sydney’s. The whole of Wellington, in fact, felt like a parochial British society had collided with a Pacific Islander one, somehow producing a two-headed chimera that walked and talked. Aspects of the culture feel inescapably British, but they’re combined with a widespread integration and pride in Maori heritage. Wellington’s beautiful harbour is subject to frequent earthquakes, whilst the hills surrounding it are rapidly becoming higher from the friction between the two colliding continental plates that sit below it. For me, it was a mildly weird combination of British cosiness with the exoticism of lively tectonic activity. If actually asked “what do you think of New Zealand?”, my honest answer would be something like, “It’s a bit like Surrey, but with volcanoes”.
We took it relatively easy while we were in the city, spending some time just wandering the centre and its famous Cuba Street. We also visited Te Papa, the national museum, where displays include the mighty stripped bones of a blue whale and a whole, preserved enormous squid, caught in Antarctic waters a few years ago. Displays explained New Zealand’s volcanoes and recreated, with video, a milder version of the devastating Christchurch earthquakes of 2010. The museum is huge, and there were many displays we didn’t get to, such as those on Maori culture and the Aztecs. We did, however, pick up some new Icebreaker layers cheaply to deal with New Zealand weather – Wellington is the southern hemisphere’s windiest city, with wind being funnelled through the Cook Strait between the North and South Islands, and even in summer with a fierce sun, the windchill factor could be significant.
Loz has long planned on some major Lord of the Rings geeking out, so the next day, we took the bus out to the Weta Cave, where Peter Jackson’s special effects production company is based. We arrived too late to book a tour for that day, so we were left to admire the lifesize figures of trolls and orcs. The next day, we did manage to get on the tour, where a cheerful South African walked us through the production studios, talking us through the intricacies of, say, prop weapon design, and sword and chainmail production. He demonstrated for us that Sauron’s armour would be totally impractical in battle, and would have a reasonable risk of taking its wearer’s eye out. Happily, Weta got round this problem by making the spiky ridges on the shoulders out of rubber. The tour is fun, hilarious, and very popular; book ahead while you’re in town. We also visited Victoria Peak, where you can get a 360º view of the harbour. On its wooded lower slopes, some of the Shortcut to Mushrooms scenes were filmed (“Get off the road!”). At Te Papa, Loz had also managed to acquire the LoTR location guidebook, so many further visits of this nature were being plotted. We fitted in a trip to the National Maritime Museum, which tracks the notable events that have affected Wellington every year from the city’s founding until the present.
After taking the cable car back to our loftily-positioned lodgings, we were ready to move on. Steve drove us to the ferry terminal for our trip to assault the South Island.