Wellington beyond the tourist attractions

An extra day in Wellington meant we could see parts of the city beyond the Wellington waterfront. We started our exploration with the Botanical garden. It was at a walking distance from Darci’s house through the Tinakori road.

Heritage homes on the Tinakori Road

Many homes had the board “Thorndon Notable Home” on their front walls. The old world feel of these homes was quite like the Khotachi Wadi homes in Mumbai, or the havelis of Ahmedabad. It was a little early for the shops to open, but from what we could see from the outside, they too had the old world charm – pots of plants hanging from the roof, colourful doors with golden handles. We could imagine hearing “ting-tong as you walked in. No impersonal air-conditioned malls with loud glass facades here.

One house caught our attention. It was relatively bigger than the others which had a cosier feel. While most houses didn’t even have grills on their windows, this one had a solid black fence in front. It was painted dark grey on the outside. We commented on how the residents seemed really patriotic to paint their house in the national colour. (The colour for Blackcaps – the team of the most popular sport, rugby is black. The cricket team of New Zealand also gets its black colours from the rugby team).

We walked a little further and saw a small board put up on the fence. Non-chalantly, it said, “Premier House”. Just like that, walking down the road to the botanical garden, we had come across the Prime Minister’s house. Other than the board saying so, and the standout black colour, there wasn’t anything giving it away. We, in fact, tried to look through the gaps in the fence and by trying to jump higher than the fence – just to see if some security people would come question us. But there wasn’t anything of that sort happening inside.

The Wellington Botanical garden

The Botanical garden was the usual collection of the different plants and flowers showcasing the ecosystem of New Zealand. We could observe the giant fern trees here, which are a characteristic of New Zealand. We spent time looking at the late summer, early fall flowers and trees, practising some macro photography.

There were multiple ways we could take to reach the top of the Botanical garden, each passing through a different type of forest. The walks there had a feel of a safe trek. The garden was as dense as a forest, but you knew there was no way you could get lost. At the top was a planetarium, with shows focussing on the southern hemisphere sky.

From the vantage point at the top, we could get a view of the entire central Wellington. We could see the waterfront we had walked through the previous day. There was a funicular cable car here which took you down to the centre of Wellington, to Lambton Quay. People would come up to the Botanical garden by the cable car, roam around in the garden and walk out to the Tinakori road.

Commuting in Wellington by steps

If you didn’t want to take the cable car or the bus which went down the winding road, you could walk down the steps. These weren’t steps that take you straight down to the road. These steps went down to the centre of the city, through lanes of houses. You would climb down 10 steps, look to your left and right to cross the road, and then climb down another 15 steps. Right next to the steps were houses. If someone was barbecuing in the lawns of these houses, you could have identified the meat on the grill – the houses were that close. At one point, we wondered if we were trespassing and the steps were actually a part of the house. For the people of Wellington, mostly the students (the university was nearby) these steps were their regular commute route.

Wellington was revealing its new faces every day. First, it was life around the waterfront when we had seen people cycle to work. That sight of these people having their sushi lunches by the waterfront had filled us up with a little envy. And now, these steps. Leave home, walk up these leafy steps, exchange a few greeting with people whose houses you almost walk through (whom you would have invariably befriended) and reach college. No other workout needed in the day, either!

Visiting the Weta Cave in Wellington

Since we were in Wellington, we took the opportunity to take a closer look at Peter Jackson’s work at the Weta Cave and workshop. It is located away from the city centre. This gave us a chance to use the public transport of Wellington.

Peter Jackson can be singularly credited for the overnight fancy caught for New Zealand by people all over the world. No promotions could have done what the Lord of the Rings did for tourism in New Zealand. And because Peter Jackson’s work was so revolutionary, it also had the side effect of getting New Zealand on the movie-making map. In fact, it started a new movie making and design industry in New Zealand.

Weta Cave is the design studio of Peter Jackson’s company. You can buy the merchandise from their movies here, including collector’s items like the detailed replica of the popular characters like Gandalf and Bilbo. Some of these have played a part in the movie making process.

Miniature sets have been replicated. The swords, especially the ones used in LOTR and The Hobbit have a detailed description of how they were made. These swords – made in the design labs with fibre and other advanced materials, were nothing less than the historic swords we had seen earlier in the Te Papa museum. These Weta Caves were a treasure house for a Tolkien fan. We saw many visitors browsing through the displays with the same expressions as devotees do in temples.

Exploring the Wellington suburbs

From the Weta caves, on Simon’s suggestion, we went on to explore the other bays of Wellington. This was the suburban part of the city. The houses here were a little different than their plush counterparts on the Orient Bay. These weren’t multi-storeyed bungalows with sprawling lawns. They were much closer to each other, painted mostly in pastel shades. But they had the views of rugged coastline and hills. Right within the city!

It was past noon. School time was probably over. Kids were out with their bicycles, cycling on the main road. There were no adults around. Even in this suburban part of the city, parents didn’t have to worry about keeping a watch on the kids. They could cycle freely, without needing an adult to watch out for the traffic. The danger of a speeding car dashing the children was non-existent. These thoughts are probably not part of the mindset when you live in New Zealand. Peaceful mind, happy lives.

We were now at Lyall Bay. The beach was deserted except for some seagulls and albatrosses. We could see a hill across the bay. A look at Google Maps told us that we were just opposite the Orient Bay, where we had been on our first day in Wellington. So essentially, we were seeing the other side of the same hill. We were now walking down the beach. The road along had a fair bit of traffic movement. The airport must have been somewhere close. We were seeing a lot of planes take off over the beach.

Walking through the bays of Wellington

We kept walking further down the Lyall Parade. It got more rugged here. Pointed stones had almost replaced the sand.

Two young kids and their dog were playing on a large rock a little into the water. It wasn’t the smooth black rocks. These rocks had jagged edges, from the erosion by the sea water with some shells embedded within them as well.

The kids would throw a treat in the air and the dog would then run to catch it. The kids, a brother-sister duo would then go running after the dog. They would then clamber up the rock. When the little girl could manage some steps, the big brother would hold her hand and help her climb up. They were deftly managing to run up and down the pointy rock, without falling off/getting cut and breaking their head. Their mom, book in hand, was sitting on the dry ground under a tree, at a safe distance. She kept a watchful eye on the kids and their dog as she enjoyed her afternoon read. Warnings of “watch out”, “be careful”, “get right here” were conspicuously absent. Clearly, since such a young age, “outdoors” was an integral part of life in New Zealand. Spending time in the open air and interacting with the natural elements while learning to take care of themselves outside of the closed shelter of homes was a part of the Kiwi upbringing. For this, you need need to go away on a holiday. Remember, we were still very much in Wellington!

We were now walking on a walkway next to the beach, on Queens Drive. It became desolate as we walked further down this coast. An odd camper van was parked here and there. Once in a while, we crossed people jogging or running. There were oddly shaped houses on the steep slopes of the hills. We couldn’t figure out the entrance to these houses. There was no road visibly leading to it. Just a flimsy ladder that reached the road.

A little distance ahead, now along the Houghton Bay was a path leading up to a nature reserve, South Headland Reserve, the board said. The sea, the beach with a lonely gull, a steep hill, waves and wind, and the quiet – not in our wildest dreams, we would have associated this scenario with a city.

Further ahead on this walkway, now called the Esplanade, was a “memorial” to the F69 propeller. This is also the route that the ferries crossing over the South Island take. So, if you are timing is right, you can spot a ferry crossing here.

Another Indian connection to Wellington

We got off the coastal road at Island Bay. We had walked the 3 bays on the other side of Wellington – Lyall Bay, Houghton Bay and the Island Bay. We now got to the bus stop to take a bus back to Darci’s house. This was the starting point of the bus route, so the bus waited for a while here.

The driver looked Indian and we wondered if we should ask him if he was. He also was probably wondering the same, because he asked us if we were staying in Wellington or visiting from India. When we said we lived in Mumbai, he started talking to us in Marathi! It was amusing that we were chatting with the driver of the Wellington city bus service in Marathi. We exchanged our stories, about how each of us had gotten here. He hadn’t visited Mumbai for a few years, so he asked us if the traffic was just as bad! We asked him how come he drove the bus. He said he was trained in the hospitality industry, but the long tiring hours had gotten to him. He preferred this job. He worked fixed hours. The Wellington roads were smooth. He had recently become a father, and found time to spend with his daughter everyday. “There is respect for all kinds of jobs here. I do not at all mind doing the job of a driver. I have a good life.”

A sunrise to remember – our lasting memory of Wellington

The next morning, Simon took us up the Tinakori hill to get pictures of the sun rising over the Wellington bay. It was dark and windy when we got here. The Tinakori hill was part of the Southern Walkway. Wellington, surrounded by hills on all sides, had two hilltop walkways connecting the entire city – the Southern and the Northern Walkway.

In the cold dark morning, people had already begun their day, running up the hill, taking their dogs out for a run in the fresh morning air. As the sun rose over the harbour in front, fading the glittering lights of the waterfront below, a colourful sky greeted us on our last day in Wellington.

It was now time to continue our journey southwards. That morning Simon and Darci packed the previous night’s food for us – we left with dabbas (boxes) full of food – just like you do when you leave on a journey from home. Simon had given us some travel tips for the South Island, including places we hadn’t found on the tourism websites earlier. “This is the best part of New Zealand” he had said. That was enough reason to visit!

Just like she had on our first day, Darci came over to drop us at the ferry terminal. That day, she had said she had fallen in love with Wellington and decided to stay here. We now knew what she had meant!

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