After our train ride across the South Island, we opted to fly from Christchurch up to Wellington rather than renting a car and retracing that part of our route.
The world has drastically changed since our last flight 4 months ago, and we weren’t quite sure what to expect. The Christchurch airport was quiet, and some shops were closed, but there were travelers. The short flight turned out to be perfectly normal. We arrived at a busy Wellington airport and made our way to our downtown apartment. My first impression: we’re in a big city, with tall buildings and traffic!
Wellington, which sits at the southern end of the North Island, is the nation’s capital. Downtown Wellington is bustling, with businesspeople and bureaucrats running to and fro. It was the middle of the winter break for schools, and there were plenty of tourists around too. Most were local, but there are also thousands of foreigners still in the country on either tourist or work visas. We’ve heard many different languages in our time in New Zealand.
Wellington offers an abundance of activities. One morning we rode the cable car up to the botanical gardens and enjoyed a lovely stroll through the gardens back to the city center. On another day Nate and I hiked Mount Victoria. Kiwis are a rather outdoorsy bunch, and it’s been wonderful to have so many well-maintained walking and hiking trails throughout the country.
We signed up for a special kids’ tour of parliament, which was quite informative. For us the highlight of the tour was a visit to the press briefing room. We were already quite familiar with the room: during lockdown, the Prime Minister and Director-General of Health gave their daily televised update in the room. It was a bit surreal to stand on the same stage that the PM used to address the nation during a national crisis.
We made sure to visit the Weta Cave, home of the special effects company known for their work in movies like the Lord of the Rings trilogy. We saw actual props from some of those movies, and others. While many props are made of foam or rubber, so-called “hero” props used in closeups have to be real. There is enough work creating these that Weta has a swordsmith on staff!
Weta’s work isn’t only found in the movies. Te Papa, the excellent National Museum, has an exhibit on the Battle of Gallipoli. Nearly 3000 NZ soldiers were killed in this WWI campaign, and the battle seems to form a major part of New Zealand’s military identity. The exhibit features larger-than-life reproductions of several kiwis in various scenes from the battle. These statues (sculptures? mannequins?) were created by Weta, and they are absolutely perfect. They look exactly like real humans, down to details like pores and nose hairs. Each one is about 12 feet tall, but they are so realistic that your brain sort of overlooks that fact and says “yep, that’s a real person.” It’s unsettling and compelling.
Te Papa also features exhibits about the Maori, who were excellent navigators. I was amazed at the techniques they used to sail their waka (canoes) all over the Pacific. They could tell where they were in the ocean from the currents and the patterns in the waves.
On our last day in Wellington we attended our first rugby game. Thanks to New Zealand’s handling of COVID, large gatherings are perfectly safe and we enjoyed watching the home team (the Hurricanes) beat the visiting Dunedin Highlanders. The game was fast-paced and refreshingly free of the TV timeouts and other inane delays that have just about ruined American football and major league baseball. I’m now a rugby fan, and hope it makes inroads. Rugby has everything it needs to gain popularity in the US: action, scoring, passing, fast breaks, turnovers, and large sweaty men* wrestling each other.
*or women. NZ’s women’s rugby team consistently dominates at the international level. However rugby is not as popular for women to play as the possibly made-up “netball.” Women’s netball is so popular there is a professional league that makes the sports round up on the nightly news.