Wellington – on the Wild Side?

We’ve had lots of fun in Wellington, and I’ll tell you about the city itself later. Today I want to talk about two experiences with the more natural side of the city.

Europeans have been here for quite awhile. As we wander about the city we see brass lines in the payment indicating the shoreline of the city in 1840. Needless to say those markers are a long way from the current water line. There have been many earthquakes over the years – a really big one in 1850 something hurled the seabed up several metres, ensuring that the reclamation of land would get seriously underway.

And the earthquakes keep coming. As we walked around the city we saw what appeared to be perfectly serviceable buildings closed off and boarded up due to the quake in December 2016. Biggest casualty there was the Wellington Municipal Hall – a grand historical building that is going to need a huge retrofit. The discussion in the news papers about the cost of those repairs sounded awfully familiar to those of us who have lived through the Blue Bridge story in Victoria.

Anyhoo, back in the day the city was growing and more water was needed. One of the valleys behind the city was dammed, creating a reservoir. A second dam expanded the water for the city. All was good and the site made a lovely visiting spot ‘away’ from the city. Modern geology eventually noted that the reservoir complex sits, literally, on top of the major fault that runs through the city. Oops! Fortunately no seismic event happened to cause the dams to fail and inundate the community below. But alternate arrangements were made for the municipal water. Twenty years ago a group decided that this water shed should be protected, and they got to it. First up, a very serious fence to keep the unwanted critters out and the wanted ones in.

Every one who has come to New Zealand seems to have brought, either by accident or on purpose, critters. Which has caused all kinds of havoc to the native flora and fauna. (And by the way – WTF? What possessed someone to bring raccoons? Don’t know if they are still an issue but we saw them on a list of imported pests.)

The organization that started this project had a long descriptive name – the such and such preservation organization….. They eventually re-branded themselves as Zealandia. It is a remarkable place. They say that they figure that they have a 500 year project to return the valley to pre-contact conditions. And they are twenty years in.

I mentioned the fence. They can keep possums and rats and domestic animals out. And they can keep some of the animals in. But birds can come and go, and they could drop a pest in over the fence, so eternal vigilance is required. And there is a lot of work to on the vegetation – we could se that they have a Scotch broom problem like we do on the coast.

Say hello to a Takahe and her chick. Or his chick. Being a large tasty flightless bird usually means the introduction of non native predators is pretty hard on the population. They are doing well at Zealandia.

Next up – a form of parrot called a Kaka.

These ones have no problem sorting out how the feeding station works.

And then the Tui.

Complete with little white tufts on their chests.

You’ll notice that they are being fed. The Zealandia people are trying to keep them in the sanctuary, where they are safe from predation. The bird populations in Zealandia is increasing. The Kakas and Tuis are making their way out into the city and establishing small populations.If they don’t have to deal with cats.

There is also a population of Tuataras, which are reptiles, but not lizards. They are a very old species that has been around since the days of the dinosaurs.

When they are born they have a vestigial third eye in their forehead, which eventually goes away. Wonder what that was for?

Of course, being Wellington, even up in the hills it was windy. Wilf had a bit of a fight getting across the dam

Our second nature adventure was the Botanic Garden, situated above the city. A short cable car ride from downtown.

So much to see – so many beautiful trees! But what really caught my attention was a stunning collection of hydrangeas. Sorry Auckland. Wellington won on this one!


New Zealand’s National Museum is in Wellington. It is called Te Papa, which translates from the Maori as ‘Treasure Box’. It is quite a facility. To our amazement admission is free, which was a good thing because there was just too much to take in during one visit.

There is an exhibit of China’s Terracotta warriors currently happening, hence these dudes in the fore plaza:

A few of them were at the street market last night:

There are many wonderful exhibits in the museum, including a magnificent telling of the history of the Maori people, with truly wonderful carvings, totems and buildings. No pictures there though.

There was also an exhibit about the New Zealand experience at Gallipoli.

I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It was really shattering. The exhibit focussed on the story of a few New Zealand individuals to tell the story of the ANZAC forces at Gallipoli. It is an immersive and interactive exhibit, and even though story has often been told this drove home again the sheer bloody awfulness of the campaign and the courage of the men and women who lived and died there.

A few days after that visit we walked up to see the National War Memorial. The Art Deco carillon tower is visible from much of the city. The tower was completed in 1932, and the Hall of Memories finished in 1964. In 2015 he surrounding area was reworked and dedicated as the National War Memorial Park.

It is a lovely, solemn place.

In the new park in front of the monument memorials are being erected to mark relationships with New Zealand’s military partners. This is the United Kingdom Memorial, with a representation of intertwined oak and Pohutukawa trees.

There is also a Turkish monument, proving, I guess, that even after the horrors of a battle like Gallipoli there can be a way forward to healing and even friendship between former combatants.

Times for a train ride

It is time to move on from Auckland. We decided for this trip that we would not try to see the whole country in one go, and that we would confine our explorations to the North Island. Next stop – Wellington.

We could have flown, but chose the Northern Explorer train instead. It was a very pleasant journey. Since it is a special scenic train (kind of like the Rocky Mountaineer back home) the train has fewer seats and bigger windows – the better to skim along in comfort and admire the scenery.

Yes, that is the largest group of senior travellers that we have seen since we got here!

We passed through areas we had seen on our tour, then moved further south, crossing big bridges and a spiral tunnel system to manage elevation gains.

The train left Auckland at 7:45 and we arrived in Wellington at 6:30. A very pleasant way to go.

And now – onward to explore Windy Welly!

Up up and then some more up

Auckland sits on top of a selection of dormant volcanoes. Some are more obvious, some are little hills. The highest point is the Mt Eden domain. That area was up behind where we were staying in the suburb of Newmarket so we thought we’d give it a go.

Up turned out to be the operative word!

Our first stop was the Mt Eden botanical garden on the flank of the volcano. A shortish ramble through a well established neighbourhood brought us to the entrance. Once upon a time this was a quarry that supplied building rock for the city. Unlike the limestone quarry of the Butchart Garden back home this was all volcanic rock.

The bromeliad garden was full of all kinds of new to us species. And tucked up under the big trees was an abundance of hydrangeas.

We whiled away some hours and then decided it was time to move on. The docents told us that because we were on foot we didn’t have to go all the way around to the other side to access the summit. Back down the street we came up on, over one and we could get there from there.

Big trees in this neighbourhood. This one was growing on a wall built sometime in the 1920’s.

Big tree – I’ll back up a bit.

Hmm. Maybe if I stand in the road…

Once at the top of the road we were confronted with this:

At this point we were kind of wishing that we had figured Uber out. Up at the top of the stairs there’s a guy in an orange shirt. After he passed us several times I asked – he was doing 20 sets. Ugh. So, up we went.

A beautiful view over Auckland and across to Rangitoto. This wide meadow is not the summit, so we continue on up.

This is what we have come to see (in addition to the view) – the crater of the volcano.

There are signs asking people to keep out. Frankly I don’t know how you’d get back up – it is deeper and steeper than it looks.

Then begins the process of finding our way back down.

Over a stile and down through the forest.

This time the steps lead down.

And finally, at the end of it all, ordering a well earned beer at Brother’s Brewing – a different location then the one with the giant chicken wings.

Underground again

Our last tour day in included a visit to the glow worm caves at Waitomo. I hadn’t thought too much about what that meant, exactly. And sometimes not having any pre-conceived ideas leads to great surprises.

The rock in this area is limestone, and it has been carved away by water over the millennia, leaving a system of caves. First up – down a long flight of stairs:

The glow worms were not what I thought. In the utter darkness we realized that the ceiling was covered in tiny dots of blue lights. The worms are the larval form of a fly – they live in the dark, above water. Each worm spins down a silk like thread. When another bug stumbles into the filament the worm reels up its dinner. Eventually they spin a cocoon, emerge as a fly, mate and die. All in the dark.

Truly, nature is full of wonders.

Needless to say pictures of the glow worms are just a field of black. They’re not that bright! Or should I say brightly lit.

See, not super helpful. A few tiny dots…

There was low lighting throughout, so we could see to dine our way, especially once our eyes adjusted. From time to time the guide would turn off the lights so we could experience the dark, and the glow. She also demonstrated the magnesium lights used in the pre-electric days.

Being a limestone cave there are both stalactites and stalagmites.

Before we headed back to the bus we stopped for a spot of kawakawa tea, made from one of the local shrubs. They have the cutest little tea house at the top of the very long stairs back up from the cave.

Just up the road was a bird sanctuary, where we stopped to see the national bird, the kiwi. Kiwis are nocturnal, so our viewing was under very low light conditions. But we did see a pair. Here’s a statue to give you an idea of what they are like.

Like a stone, skipping across the water.

Our north island adventure continued with some time in King Country. Settlers came late to this area, and not without conflict with the Maori. The land here was not easy and early access was via rivers, followed by train.

First, we did a little river exploration with something new to me – jet boating. Our captain was very skilled with the boat and we flew across the water.

It was like being a stone skipping across the water. Now, the river is full of rocks and rapids and shallow, but Cap’n Al knows that river and we wove back and forth.

All relaxed and happy in the sunshine. Every so often Al would really rev things up and send us spinning across the water in donuts. No time for pictures, then! Just hang on tight!

Part two of the day was about railroads. It took 32 years to build the rail line in this area, supporting both agriculture and coal mining. Tunnels and bridges – lots of them – had to be built. But – time passed and the line was eventually decommissioned. A local entrepreneur saw golf carts from America, thought of the rail line and voila!

We spent an entertaining afternoon riding the rails in a gas powered golf cart. Liv was in charge of things – the steering wheel is purely for show, but she did need to manage our speed. Hot, dry day so no need to worry about slipping, but we don’t want to follow too close.

Some of the tunnels were short – one was almost a kilometre long. All were a nice break from the heat.

The landscape reminds me a bit of parts of Montana, but sort of scrunched up. Lots of sheep in all those nooks and crannies!

Achievement unlocked

There is a very large lake in the central part of the North Island called Lake Taupo. I struggle a bit with the name because I have been quite firmly told that it is not pronounced the way it looks. Forget how it is spelled and say Toepaw and you’ll fit right in.

So, said lake is actually the caldera of a super volcano. 22,000 years ago it blew its top, ejecting around 750 cu km of ash and pumice. By comparison Krakatoa spit out a mere 8 cu km. Taupo last erupted in a big way in AD 180, causing red skies noted in Rome and China.

There ends the geology lesson provided by my resident geologist.

Nowadays the town is a vacation hot spot with water sports and bike trails and lots of ways to amuse.

We amused ourselves with a sailing yacht cruise in the late afternoon. Pizza, beer, sailing and sunset. All good.

Just enough clouds to make for a brilliant sunset.

Before the sun went down we sailed around to see carvings on a cliff face.

I like that picture with the shadow of the sails, but here is a better one of the face.

There was an opportunity to go swimming, but only one brave soul took the opportunity.

And the morning after – not a cloud in the sky and a perfect reveal of the mountains. Even at the height of summer Mt Ruapehu maintains some of its snowy cloak. It is one of the world’s most active volcanos.

After a long evening sail the stars began to come out. Since most of us were from the northern hemisphere Captain Dave decided to stay out a little later to ensure that we could see the Southern Cross hanging in the sky. I got that one checked off the bucket list finally!

Spa and Maori culture

So – Rotorua – geothermal activity. Day two was time to get up close and personal. After a walk around town to get our bearings we headed for the Polynesian spa. Two different springs feed the spa – one on the acid side of ph, the other on the alkaline. Jay from our group had gone zip-lining, but the rest of us met up at the spa. Wilf and the ladeees, taking the waters. It was very nice – we could drift from pool to pool and then have time outs on the heated loungers. By early afternoon the bus tours were beginning to arrive, which was a good time for us to move on. That and we were getting rather pruney.

Wilf enjoys the acid pool,

And over in the very hot alkaline bath…

The Maori iwi (tribes) in the Rotorua area have cultural events that are available to the public. We went to visit Te Puia, just outside the city in a valley filled with geothermal features. Our tour of the very impressive facility started with a walk through their school dedicated to traditional Maori arts beautiful work, both traditional and modern.

There is a spectacular geyser in the valley, that erupts very regularly.

When the little spout to the left starts to go that means the big one is imminent.

Like that!

We also enjoyed a traditional welcome ceremony in the long house, followed by a delicious dinner. Part of our diner was cooked in a covered pit, using steam from the ground. After dinner we returned to the geyser to drink hot chocolate while sitting on the heated rocks. They geyser was lit up, making the night time eruption even more spectacular.

I can’t find a decent night time picture, so here’s the long view of the valley.

Everything about the visit was first rate. And everyone we met was effusive in their thanks for our visiting. ‘Your visit to our land makes it possible for our culture to survive. Your admission makes jobs in this facility, and allows us to fund our school. This would not happen without you.’ The story of the first peoples here and their interaction with colonial forces is different than how it played out in Australia, Canada and the US, thought here are many common themes. And not all Maori are prospering. But this seemed to be an example of an iwi who had taken control of their situation and who are determining their path forward.

So much to learn…

Roto Vegas

After a few days on our own in Auckland we have joined an overland tour with Intrepid Travel, which will take us around the north island. It is a small tour – just six of us with our guide/driver. Two Brits, two Americans, and us.

Our first stop is in Rotorua. In a country of just under 5 million people, Rotorua sees about 3 million visitors a year, hence the nickname Roto Vegas. No bright lights or high rises, though. Seated beside a lake, the city is in a geothermally active area, which is part of what makes it so interesting,.

Okay – true confessions time. Our inner eight year olds got a bit of a work out on this trip. As we drove into the city there were surreptitious glances going round our little bus, until Lizzie spoke up. ‘That smell?’, she said. ‘That’s the smell of the gasses produced from the geothermal activity. The locals call it the smell of jobs and don’t really like it if you mention it.’ Okay then. Someone hadn’t farted on the bus. Good to know.

Blurs blurp bubbling mud pools by the lake shore.

After dinner at the local street market we went out to walk amongst the Redwood trees. Once upon a time a bright light got the idea that growing California Redwoods in New Zealand would be a great forestry idea. Latitude south matched well to their latitude north – what could go wrong? We’ll just plant them, and then our grandchildren can harvest huge trees.

Well, best laid plans. Turns out there’s way more rain in this part of the world. Which means the redwoods grow really fast. So fast that instead of producing the dense hardwood as they do in California, they produce a softwood – not what they were looking for.

Outside Rotorua the demonstration forest has been converted to park with hiking and biking trails. But in the centre is the Redwood walk, which is up in the trees. We went at dusk so we could enjoy the walk and the lighting installation.

Up the ramp we went, to walk between the trees.

Amongst the trees are huge lanterns, created by David Trubridge.

And here we all are

It was quite wonderful, walking high up in the trees. The engineering of the whole thing was pretty cool, too. The bridges moved but the viewing platforms were stable. Everything was rigged so as not to damage the trees – I would have loved to how they did it.

Things seem bigger here

Food wise, at least. We set off on a trek across the Central Business District of Auckland to find Brothers Brewing. Which we did. And it was wing night. $1.00 per wing. We ordered a dozen – seemed like a logical decision.

We got to talking to our table mates and time passed. And then the proprietor came out with two huge platters. Turns out when they say wings they mean the whole dang thing. We were rather taken aback, but tucked in. It felt like we each ate the equivalent an entire chicken. And it was rather a wrestling match top get them apart. When we left we mentioned to the bar man that in North America a chicken wing is just part of the wing – the tip gets discarded and the two segments are each sold separately. He got a far away look in his eyes and he said ‘Good to know..’ So – we apologize to folks if the wings just got more expensive.

In all the chicken and beer mayhem I forgot to take a picture, though.

Next day we stopped at another brew pub and they had New Zealand green lipped mussels on the menu. Let’s share a plate as a little snack of a local delicacy. This is what showed up:

They were good but OMG – huge. First huge chickens, now huge mussels. Seems to be a theme. Don’t get me started on the toast at breakfast! And we have been scarfing down the giant toasts at breakfast because the butter here is the best we’ve ever had.

Nice eggs, eh? Folks down here like to put an egg on almost everything.

Why yes, that is a chicken Caesar salad. With a poached egg on top.

I’m sure you’ll all be comforted to know that we aren’t going hungry – we’re working our way through as much of the local specialities as we can. I’ll report back later on adventures in pie land.

And to finish for now – Auckland past and present…