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Absolutely Positively Wellington

The Waterfront should be the place to start our exploration of Wellington, Darci and Simon, our Couchsurfing hosts suggested. It was the center of all activities.

Under the guidance of our Couchsurfing hosts, we started exploring Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand

The Waterfront should be the place to start our exploration of Wellington, Darci and Simon, our Couchsurfing hosts suggested. It was the center of all activities. Luckily for us, their house was located very conveniently in the center of the city. The waterfront was just walking distance. Armed with their directions as well as the map Darci had given us the day before, we set off.

The Wellington waterfront, New Zealand

Wellington and a weekday morning

It was the morning of a working day. Black and grey dominated the scene. Brisk paced men and women, coffee in hand, dressed in sharp blazers, formal shoes and stilettos. You could just tell that this was the office going crowd in the country’s capital.

The New Zealand parliament was down this lane. On the same campus as the parliament were several other government offices. On the other side were several cafes, looking busy but fresh in what was a perfect weather day – the sun out, no winds or rains, clear blue skies (Wellington is famous for being one of the windiest cities in the world, so no winds meant a stroke of major good luck).

The bee-hive parliament building, wellington, new zealand

The parliament building is standout even from a distance. It is grey and shaped like a beehive coming up from the ground. There’s a black gate at the main entrance to the campus of the parliament. At this entrance, a board gives information about the buildings on this campus and the offices they house. Another one, mainly for the tourists has timings for the tours of the Parliament.

Yes, that’s another reason to visit Wellington. Throughout the day, they have tours in which you can not only have a look inside the building but if you would like to, also attend a parliament session. There is a tourist gallery here, and anybody is allowed to have a look at how this country is run.

At such an important campus, where clearly the most important decisions regarding New Zealand must be being made, there was, for us, a conspicuous absence of anything resembling security. Not even a guard’s office at the entrance! We kept looking for the security cameras but found nothing!

The beautiful weather meant this was no day to be indoors. We decided to check these tours on a later day and stuck to the original plans of walking by the Wellington waterfront.

In the midst of all this, we realised we were kind of lost. We had forgotten if Darci had asked us to take the left here or at the next block. Thankfully she had kept a map ready for our use the previous night itself. As we were looking down into it we heard a soft voice, “Excuse me, it appears that you are lost.” We looked up the map to say, no we are good, we have a map. But saw a man looking at us, with a look clearly saying he wanted to help. His stance showed nothing of the hurry he must have been in on that weekday morning. He had already asked us where we were headed.

“To the waterfront”, we told him.

“Oh, just keep walking straight till you get to the crossing. You will see it right there before your eyes.

“Okay, thank you so much!”, was all we said, not wanting to take up any more of his time.

Instead, he continued the conversation. “It’s a lovely day, isn’t it? Enjoy your day out there at our waterfront!”

“Thank you, you too have a good day”. Looks like in New Zealand, even in the capital city of Wellington, these exchanges made just in the passing, weren’t just a formality!

Westpac Stadium, All Blacks home venue; New Zeland

A surprising Indian connection in Wellington

On the way, we saw a railway station and decided to check it out. Once there, we realised this is also where the bus had dropped us the previous night. In the dark, we hadn’t realised. it had also been the railway station Besides, Darci had been waiting for us, so we hadn’t had to figure anything out by ourselves!

On the approach to the train station was a statue, of none other than Gandhi! The plaque said “Gifted to the city of Wellington by the people of India” with Gandhi’s famous quote “Be the change you want to see”. Next to it was the city’s tagline “Absolutely Positively Wellington”. How amazing that this was the official tagline of the city, that just, by the way, was the capital of New Zealand!

This is the biggest and the busiest railway station in New Zealand. The building is assigned the status of a historically important building. The crowd coming out of the station now was mostly students. The university was nearby, which is also where Darci worked. The train station connected the city centre of Wellington to the far off suburbs.

We left the station and reached the main road. We could see the waterfront right across this road. Because there aren’t many pedestrians in New Zealand, a set signal for pedestrian crossing isn’t warrantied. What you have instead is a button on the signal pole on each side. You press it when you want to cross. A beeper starts once the button is pressed, indicating that the lights will turn green. Once they turn green, the frequency of the beeper increases, indicating it is now time to cross, becoming slow again once the signal time nears turning red. Once the signal is red, the beep stops. At every kerb, there is a gentle slope with specific markings indicating the kerb coming to an end and the road beginning. Thus making it possible and easy for the blind, and people on a wheelchair to cross independently. Integration was easy, and designed into the infrastructure of Wellington!

[fullscreen]The Wellington waterfront, New Zealand[/fullscreen]

The Wellington waterfront

The waterfront is actually part of the Wellington harbour. Ferries to the South Island of New Zealand start from the port at Wellington. The ferry terminal for the Blue Ridge ferries that ply between the two islands was right there at the start of the Wellington waterfront. The Interislander terminal, another company that plies ferries between the two islands of New Zealand is further up the harbour from here. At the start of the waterfront were plaques informing tourists about the history of this harbour, how the Maori were the first settlers here. There’s a famous statue depicting the arrival of the first Maori explorer Kupe Raiatea, his wife, and their canoe. It’s built “as a tribute to all those who arrived at these shores” and occupies a place of prominence here at the Wellington waterfront.

Photograph by Chetan Karkhanis

In our first five minutes by the waterfront, it became clear that Wellington was a water city. There were white boats parked in the harbour. If you were a tourist, you could enjoy sailing in the harbour with the guided tours. If you were a more serious water person, there was the sailing and rowing club. We saw teams of young boys and girls, taking their boats out for some serious practice rounds. The boatshed that housed all the canoes and the equipment was a wooden building with board reminiscent of those in the 70’s movies.

The Wellington waterfront, New Zealand

If water was somehow not your thing, you could rent bicycles to roam around the waterfront. Tandem bikes were also available on rent. We saw some families, mainly with young kids do this – they were all laughing, having a good time. Such a simple activity, creating precious childhood memories.

If you believed in doing things in style (and had the money to afford it), you could also take off on a helicopter ride over the city of Wellington.

An interesting photography encounter at the Wellington waterfront

It was the school holiday week. Groups of kids had come to the waterfront. Many were heading to someplace inside the shed. We followed them in and were surprised to see the entire room made of climbing walls. Each wall with a different climbing angle. The climbing holds varied according to your level of expertise. You attached a harness to yourself and went climbing up the walls. It was a perfect starting point to learn rock climbing. Boys and girls, as young as 5-6 to pre-teens were all there. They were being supervised by older kids, who probably had been trained right. We were fascinated by this activity, with how bold the kids were, and what a big role physical activity played in the lives of the Kiwis right from a young age.

We watched them with amazement and clicked some pictures. As we stepped out, we were approached by one of the guys who worked there asking if we had clicked any pictures of the kids. We said yes, we had like we do everywhere where we travel. Told him a bit about us, what we do, about He replied back saying, he understood our interest in the local activities as travellers and bloggers, but the place was affiliated to the Wellington city council. And they were very particular photographing the kids. They had strict rules about children not being exposed like that.

Adventure school, Wellington, New Zealand

This came as a sharp contrast to all our previous interactions, in India as well as South America. Parents had been very receptive of this, in fact, the camera had often been a conversation starter. We had had many previous conversations starting with their kids, their play and activities to how things were back in India and life in their particular country/city/region. The guy asked us to delete all the pictures in which the kids could be identified. He said he was okay with long shots depicting the activity. We assured him none of these pictures would make it to the internet, deleted the pics he wanted to be deleted, gave him our card and told him he could keep a watch on the website, and if he found anything objectionable, he could get in touch and we would remove that content from the website. He said he was sorry about this, but he had to respect the rules. We too told him, we understood. This was unlike any response we had so far received. But we appreciate the fact that each culture is different, and has its own reasons for the rules they follow. We respected that.

Things to see at the Wellington waterfront

  • A unique piece of the exhibit here was Hikitia, the floating crane. A few of its kind are still functional. It was shipped here from Scotland, using its own steam. Back then it was used to lift heavy machinery, railway locomotives, even constructed houses. It originally worked on 30 tonnes of coal and took 2 days to get ready for use! It now stands on display on the Wellington waterfront, a shining example of the fine engineering skills of the old times.

Floating crane at the Wellington waterfront, New Zealand

  • A display kiosk honouring the lives of the New Zealand veterans who lost their lives during the First World War is displayed on one side of the waterfront. It tells a story of their journey from New Zealand, their training in Egypt and joining the Australians (giving rise to the term Anzacs) in the long, brutal and devastating war of Gallipoli. We would later learn about this war in depth at the Te Papa, the national museum at Wellington and the most prominent structure on the waterfront.
  • As a perfect commemoration, at the bottom of this kiosk, carved in metal is a leaf of the silver birch tree – the identifying symbol of New Zealand. When the sun is at the top, this leaf casts a perfect shadow on the ground, catching the attention of everyone who passes it – making sure they all stop to read and get to know about the veterans who lost their lives.
  • As a perfect antidote to this intense display is a statue of a man, standing on the edge of the waterfront, all set to dive in the water, taking in the wind that flows from the land across the harbour. The statue is rightly called “Solace in the wind”.

The Wellington waterfront, New Zealand

Te Papa Museum, the most prominent building at the Wellington waterfront

The main attraction at the Te Papa museum was the exhibition Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War created in collaboration with Peter Jackson’s Weta Cave. This war is a significant historical event for New Zealand. Over 2000 of their armed forces lost their lives, the highest casualty by any nation in this war. The exhibit first introduced us to where the battles actually occurred through a 3D model of the terrain. We could actually feel the steep rugged climbs from the choppy shorelines that these armies would have had to face.

  • It then tells us the story of the war through 8 mega sized statues of those involved in the war – from the squadron leader, to a young boy recently recruited, to a soldier who tried to run away from it all, the military doctor, the nurse who would be the first witness to the injuries.
  • A room is dedicated to each of these characters. It has a 2.4 times larger than real life model of each of these characters detailing such minute things like the beads of sweat to the lines of dried blood, the details of their uniforms – battered by the months of war to the flies infesting their foods. In the dark rooms, with only the spotlight on these models, their words running through the walls, and filling your ears, these model come to life as they narrate the gruesome times they lived in.
  • Recordings of the actual telephone conversations they had with their families back home can be heard.
  • You can enter a recreation of their barracks and read letters that they wrote to their families getting a real feel of how they would have done it.
  • Through a periscope, you can get a feel of what the soldier saw as he made a shot from his rifle.

Needless to say, it’s an intense exhibit even leaving you numb and heavy as you exit it. Everyone must echo the sentiments of the little girl who was telling her mom, “Mum, I want to get out of here”. When we got out of the exhibition, we were almost gasping for fresh air.

Te Papa has the usual natural history, geography and cultural exhibits. The most interesting for us was that of a colossal squid, who lives deep underwater, where only specialised divers are allowed to reach. We had only read wide-eyed about this creature we had, which probably only a handful of people on this planet have actually seen.

We heard stories of people from neighbouring Tonga, Samoa, Cook islands who left their homes for better opportunities in New Zealand, and now call it home. You need to visit New Zealand, which until we visited was just a far away country on the maps and in our minds, to understand what an all-encompassing, welcoming society it is. Listening to the stories of these islanders a different aspect of the NZ character came to the fore.

Apart from the Te Papa, there are other cultural centers here

  • There’s a centre for display and performance of arts and theatre.
  • There are parks around for kids to play. One of it has an interesting slide – you climb up into a lighthouse-like structure, then come sliding down through a tunnel!
  • One section of the harbour is cordoned off by a high moat, and this is a swimming pool in which you can dive from these high moat walls.
  • There are food caravans here, mainly reminiscent of the steampunk era, selling coffee. Very becoming to the old world feel everything else has. Everything blends in perfectly well with each other. The reconstruction and repairs that have been done, have kept this feel intact.
  • As you take a turn inside the Wellington waterfront, you come to a wooden planked walkway. The planks are carved with lines of novelists and poets talking of the Wellington harbour. Further ahead there’s a wooden bridge and atop it is a nice little sit-out. It was lunchtime by the time we reached this point. Many office goers had gathered on this sit-out, with their packed lunches. Most of it was sushi! With fresh fish in abundance in Wellington, this made perfect sense!
  • This sit-out had Maori symbols depicting harmony with the elements of nature. All the seatings – benches, chairs, tiny coves were wooden and were supposed to all blend in well with each other. We didn’t quite fathom the complexity of this idea. We were probably, a bit too hungry. We opened our lunch of rice crackers and tuna that we had bought at the supermarket. One thing was clear. All the harmonious design did make for a comfortable, free, outdoor seating with a lovely view of the Wellington Harbour and the suburbs of Wellington spread out far across the harbour. We were still a bit hungry, so we walked to the supermarket across the waterfront, and bought some bananas. Yes, it was easy to eat healthy in New Zealand!

All of this maintained by the Wellington City council, under the same tagline – Absolutely Positively Wellington.

Photograph by Chetan Karkhanis

Exit the Wellington waterfront, now on the Oriental Bay

Post lunch, we left turned further around the waterfront area. This part of the bay, exactly opposite from where we had started in the morning was known as Oriental Bay and the locality was known as Oriental Parade. Across the road from the Oriental Bay, is basically the hill. The houses here are atop the hill. Imagine the view from these houses – high up the city of Wellington, with the harbour spread out in front. This view doesn’t come cheap, Oriental Parade is among the most expensive real estates in Wellington.

Photograph by Chetan Karkhanis

We now started walking the Oriental Bay walkway. There was a small little beach here, artificially created. Some families were enjoying the warm afternoons of Wellington on this beach. As we walked further down Oriental Bay, the tourist attractions became lesser.

A beach at Oriental Bay, Wellington, New Zealand

Now it was just the water, the road and the hills with their expensive houses – many made of glass! This section was more like a walking promenade. Many were walking/jogging/cycling here. There were boards asking the cyclists to share their space with the walkers. “This is a shared space” they would all say. People here were no longer tourists. They were the people of Wellington and this walk/cycle must be part of their daily routine.

Further down this road, on a bench facing the water, was a small bouquet of flowers attached to the back of the bench. We couldn’t understand why would this bouquet be attached here. We were looking at it curiously when a passerby pointed us to a plaque on the other side. The bouquet was placed here by a family, as a tribute to their little daughter who was no more. It was their sombre way of making a mark for herself in this city that must’ve been her home.

Photograph by Chetan Karkhanis

We had come quite far off, but the end of Oriental bay was a little over 5 km away. At this point, the road curved in a U around the hill, and we were curious to see what was the view beyond the hills. Further ahead the Orient Parade, the fishing nature of the bay came to the fore. There were a few seafood restaurants. One of them was quite striking with a scene, very much like the fish restaurant in coastal India, drawn on its front wall. What a common resemblance seafood places across the world had! Photograph by Chetan Karkhanis Towards the end of this road, we saw a car coming to a halt. The man parked it on the side shoulder. He and his young son got off the car. Went to the boot, got out their fishing gear. And set up their fishing camp, right there. Imagine, living in a capital city, and driving a few kilometres to a quiet lonely stretch of water, next to a hill and – fishing!

Photograph by Chetan Karkhanis

Wellington waterfront in the evening

The same waterfront had a totally different vibe in the evening when we returning back to Darci and Simon’s place. We now met the returning office crowd. Many were on bicycles. The bars that had a typical tourist crowd in the morning, were now filled with the office goers gathered here for an after-hours drink.

The same people who in the morning were walking by hurriedly, were now talking, laughing, relaxing – having a good time. The restaurants, most of which were closed in the morning, were now open in full flow. Colourful lights, warm fires outside many – smells of grilled steaks were everywhere. Some were advertising the trademark New Zealand mussels with beer.

Photograph by Chetan Karkhanis

The smells were making us all very hungry. Simon had said he was going to make an Indian curry dinner for us. We resisted the temptation of the grilled steaks and returned back home. We had walked almost 20 km and were famished.

First of all – you have a home in Wellington!

When we reached home, the house was filled with all kinds of aroma, and Simon was in full flow. Madras chicken was slow cooking on one burner. The dal was getting cooked on another. Simon was busy making the spices for paneer butter masala. He had already got the naans from an Indian restaurant.

Photograph by Chetan Karkhanis

Over a lavish “Indian curry dinner”, we exchanged stories of our outings in Wellington and of our lives. The first thing we wanted to know was how in the world, could Simon cook such authentic Indian food. His was the most genuine Indian kitchen we had seen – not a single ready packet of masala. He would roast and grind everything by himself, right there in his Kiwi kitchen! Turns out, in his younger days, Simon had been visiting Goa every summer for almost 9 years. He would spend months in Goa, travelling to places in Karnataka and Maharashtra. He would take the cook at the shacks on the beaches of Goa, out for beers. In exchange, the cook would teach him a thing or two about Indian cooking. Back home in Britain where he lived back then, he would then experiment all that he had learnt. And no, he wasn’t a professional chef. But out of his love for cooking, he would treat all their couchsurfing guests with these Indian dinners! Beers were his area of expertise, he worked in a Kiwi brewery. He was also a professionally trained acupuncturist, and gave treatments at his clinic.

Darci was a photographer and headed the photography division at the University in Wellington. Clearly, there was a lot in common, and bonding with Simon and Darci was just obvious. Darci gave us some first-hand tips for photography in New Zealand, suggestions of places we should definitely go to particularly from a photography point of view.

Our initial Couchsurfing request was for two nights. FrWellingtonton, we would be taking the ferry for the south island. But the ferry tickets weren’t available for the next morning. Wondering where to stay for an extra night and what to do, we asked Darci what could we do. Her first reply was, “first of all, you have a home. Don’t worry about moving out at all.”

That night, we made my favourite comfort food, “ambat waran” (a sweet and sour dal) for them. Simon was delighted to get a new recipe. He had made alumatar. And believe it or not, Simon and Darci experimented with jowar bhakris – a rustic Indian flatbread made of millets! While having dinner, we commented on how the previous night’s dinner was something you make for guests. Tonight’s dinner of alumatar, ambat waran and jowar bhakris was what family members ate!

With a family, a home and an extra day in Wellington, we now had a chance to see Wellington beyond the tourist highlights.

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