Wellington Part 1- The Real Windy City

Wellington is a beautiful city on the waterfront, hence the title of a windy city. It is the country’s capital, housing it’s parliament buildings and is also the gateway to the South Island. It’s not as big as Auckland, which is the business capital of the country, but this to me was only a good thing. Auckland can feel a little stuffy and claustrophobic to someone like me who isn’t big on cities. Wellington, on the other hand, has the feel of a small, university town with the sea breeze flowing through it. Victoria University of Wellington is one of the biggest in the country and attracts not only students from New Zealand, but also a great number of international students, which helps give the Capital it’s multi-cultural feel. Massey University and The University of Otago also have campuses in the city, adding to the number of students. The city also has a great cafe culture, which I will talk about more in a future post.

Wellington is a very accessible city, with good transport links, such as the Wellington International Airport; Metlink buses; Wellington Railway Station and The Interislander and Bluebridge Ferries to the South Island. The main shopping streets of the city- Cuba Street; Courtenay Place; Lambton Quay; Manners Street and Willis Street- are all in very close proximity, making it easy to walk from street to street.

When I was planning my post about Wellington, I came up with such a large list of things to do and places to include, that I decided to split it into two separate posts. This one will cover Things To Do and Walking trails and around the city. So here goes nothing…

1. Te Papa Museum

Te Papa is a huge museum on the Wellington waterfront which is free to enter and a place to spend a nice hour or two learning more about New Zealand and its culture. The museum includes a canteen-style lunch area downstairs; a cafe on the upper levels and an art gallery as well as the various displays on offer. Te Papa means ‘Our Place’ in Maori, and that really is how the staff treat it. They are friendly and welcoming, always there to help or to point you in the right direction. It is clear they love their work and are all too keen to discuss the displays if you have any questions. The museum shops are also worth a visit, with many kiwi crafted items on sale. Again the staff here will help you with any questions you have about the objects on sale and, as I experienced myself, are also very good at helping you with postage ideas if you want to send gifts back home.

Te Papa Museum

While in Wellington, I spent many a rainy day here, looking around the exhibits, including the Gallopli exhibit which was created by WETA- the folks behind The Lord of The Rings; The Hobbit; Avatar and many more amazing film and game props. The exhibit takes you through a darkened series of rooms, which have plenty of interactive displays and lots to read. The most significant part of the display is the models- larger than life-sized human models, based on people who were actually involved in the events that took place. These models are incredible- the attention to detail when creating these can clearly be seen. The models have been made to look exactly like they are on the battlefields, from the clothing and cuts down to the very hairs on their arms.

One other huge display in the museum is the exhibition on the Waitangi Treaty. Now, this is a treaty between the British Crown and the Maori people with regards to laws and land rights. It is a topic which is still hotly contested today. The Treaty is celebrated each year in New Zealand, on Waitangi Day on 6th February. The museum has an enlarged version of the original Treaty, along with its translation. While in New Zealand you can visit the Treaty Grounds, where the signing supposedly took place, in the Bay of Islands. To find out more about the Waitangi Treaty before you visit the museum, you can visit the Te Ara website here.

The museum is an un-missable experience and opportunity to learn more about New Zealand; its settlers; military history; nature, earthquakes and people. There is an exhibit on the sea life and rainforest animals; there is another on earthquakes, with a simulation of what an earthquake would feel like as well as displays regarding the Maori culture and the countries history.

2. City Gallery and Wellington Library

If this still isn’t enough culture for you, there is also the City Gallery and the Wellington Library, which both can be found a short 5 minute walk from Te Papa. Both of these have a free entry policy, which is great for the budget minded backpacker. The City Gallery is a good place to go if you want a little peace and quiet and to get away from the bustling streets for a while. The gallery displays are always changing to present new artists to the world. The gallery has a no bags rule, but don’t fear, as this only means that you get to leave your bag with the staff at the reception desk while you wander around the gallery enjoying the freedom of no backpack for a while as well as the glorious art on display. The staff in the gallery are exceptionally helpful and friendly, as with the majority of places in New Zealand (they know how to do customer service). They can provide you with a map, which has details about the artists behind the artwork you will be viewing and if you have any questions, they are the ones to ask. The gallery also has a little store, with books on certain artists along with the usual touristy tidbits.

The library is one of the most useful places for a backpacker in any new city. For a start, most, if not all, libraries across New Zealand have some form of free wi-fi. This can be totally free, or free but with a time limit, it just depends on the library. In Wellington, there is such as thing as city free wifi, which you will find on CBD Free. This means you can stay connect to maps and social media while out and about in the city. The wifi extends to the library, so you can bring along your devices and sit in the quiet surroundings of the library or the cafe for a couple of hours to update family and friends, or blogs. The library also allows the use of computers, printers and scanners, which are very handy if you are looking for work in the city as many employers will ask for a printed CV. So whether you need to look for work or simply want to update social media, so everyone knows where you are, the library is the perfect place to be.

3. The Cable Car & The Botanic Gardens

No doubt if you have done any kind of research or reading about New Zealand, you will have come across a picture of the famous red cable car carriages in Wellington. The Cable Car is an iconic attraction which takes you from the city centre on Lambton Quay to the hill tops and the Botanic Gardens in Kelburn. The Cable Car is a relatively cheap way to see a bit more of the city, as adult return tickets cost under $10.00. It is a gentle journey up to Kelburn, where you can get a lovely view of the city from above. From here you can walk around the Cable Car Museum and learn a little more about the history of the cable car and its use in the city for residents before it became a tourist attraction.

Photo: Jeff McEwan
Wellington Cable Car

The Botanic Gardens is a simple 2 minute stroll from the Cable Car and the Museum. Within the Gardens you can find the Wellington Observatory, where you can pay to take a tour. For those who want to remain outside though, the gardens are absolutely free and stretch back down towards the city centre. The flower beds and trees are well kept by the grounds staff and the gardens are a delight at any time of year. There is the Begonia House, Botanic Garden Shop and the Picnic Cafe all open for visitors. All of these are worth a visit and the shop has some brilliant gifts for any green fingers in the family.

4. Zealandia

Another attraction that can be accessed from the top of the Cable Car is Zealandia. Zealandia is a wildlife reservation which aims to preserve a patch of the native New Zealand rainforest and bush life. There are free buses that collect tourists from the Cable Car and take you to the entrance to Zealandia. The reservation looks after native birds and animals, along with the bush life, including the famous kiwi bird. There are special night time tours available in order to see these wonderful and secretive birds. The staff are very informative and are keen to share their knowledge and passion for the conservation projects that take place there. When you pay your entry to the park, you will receive a map that shows you the various walking tracks, some of which will take 2-3 hours, others taking only 30 minutes. The map also gives you information on the wildlife in the park. Once you have picked your route, you will notice signs and interactive elements to the park that will educate you on your surroundings, such as the sounds of different birds and the rather ugly, but harmless Weta bug.

Photo: Matt Duncan.
Reservoir in Zealandia, Karori Sanctuary.

Stepping into Zealandia is like going back in time, where you can see what the country used to be like. It allows you to imagine what the original settlers of New Zealand would have seen when they arrived to the country. Included in the reservation is also a cafe and shop, with all proceeds going back into the reservation projects. While I was there, there was also a wedding taking place, which apparently happens quite often according to some of the staff I happened to ask about it. It is definitely a very special place and makes an amazing backdrop for your travel photos as well as being educational and a truly fun experience.

5. Mount Victoria

For more walking adventures there is, of course, Mount Victoria. It will take you around 30 minutes to get to the top, at a reasonable pace up a sometimes steep climb. The views make it 100% worth it. I would advise taking the time to walk up the hill, rather than driving up, as there are some lovely little parks along the tracks up the hill. The path up consists of a dirt track and some steps, depending which side of the hill you climb. From the top you get a full view of Wellington, and I have spent many an hour sitting watching the planes going to and from the Airport, which is by the sea. On a clear day, the views are stunning.

For all those Lord of The Rings fans out there, there are some key spots which you won’t want to miss. The film locations come from the first film- The Fellowship of The Ring, when the Hobbits leave the Shire for the first time. The scenes are: A Shortcut to Mushrooms and Hobbit’s Leave the Shire (when the black riders are chasing the Hobbits to the Buckleberry Ferry). You will have to do a little walking around in the forest area to find these, and to anybody else they will look like just a bunch of trees, but to a real fan they are so much more. One way to explore the area and make sure you are getting the right spots, is to take one of the city LOTR tours. For more information on these, you can visit the i-site. The tours will generally provide video footage to remind you of the exact scene as well as some local knowledge about the filming process. Many tours will include a visit to the famed WETA Cave as well.

A Shortcut to Mushrooms

6. The Embassy Theatre

If finding the film locations make you feel like watching one, the best place to go, in my opinion is by far The Embassy Theatre. The Embassy can be found at the top end of Courtenay Place, tucked at the bottom of Mount Victoria. The theatre is the place where the premiere for The Lord of The Rings: The Return of The King took place and it is one of the oldest theatres in New Zealand, being built in 1924. When you walk into the main foyer area, you may notice the distinctive floor tiling, which is actually the original flooring from when the theatre was first opened. The theatre contains 3 screens; a bar, cafe and candy bar. By walking down the lavishly decorated corridor, you will find yourself at the Lounge Bar, where the smaller two screens are located. The main screen is up the marble staircase, behind the Candy Bar, where you will also find Blondini’s, the cafe and bar.

Seating in the Main Screen

It is an amazing theatre, with links to WETA. On the walls you will see the film posters from some of the biggest premiere’s that have taken place in the theatre. There are often events taking place in the theatre, and the main screen is definitely an experience not to be missed. If you can afford the slightly more expensive price, it is worth a visit. The main auditorium itself is a sight to see, with the original pit for the orchestra still visible. Having worked there during my visit to Wellington, I can safely say the staff are always keen to help and work hard to keep the theatre in good condition.

Finally…

So that’s the end of my list, or listicle, for Things To Do and Walking in New Zealand’s capital city. I greatly enjoyed my time there and found there were so many things to do and see. Sadly I couldn’t fit them all into my list, but I have instead picked out my favourites. It is a fun, vibrant city with a youthful feel and plenty to keep you busy during your stay.

Next: More on my favourite city.

A Snowy Crossing at Tongariro

By far one of the best hikes I did while in New Zealand was the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. I did the crossing in late May 2016. There was a group of 25 of us who travelled from our hostel in Napier to stay for a weekend in the lakeside town of Taupo in order to complete the crossing. We had all spent a few months at the same working hostel in Napier, where we had become a rather large, but good group of friends. We somehow managed to get a sunny weekend when the crossing was actually open, in between two rather cold and wet weeks. During the winter months the crossing is often closed due to bad weather conditions, for the safety of those wanting to do the hike. The DOC (Department of Conservation) also recommend hiring one of their guides during this time to ensure your safety. Luckily for us we were able to cross without the need of a guide, however we could not climb Mt Ngauruhoe (or Mt Doom for any Lord of the Rings fans) as it required proper winter hiking gear. It is always best to check the DOC website and the closest I-site before doing any hikes in New Zealand, as the weather in much of the country is very changeable. The staff at the I-site’s are kept as up-to-date as possible and will be your best source of advice in this area.

The Tongariro Crossing is estimated to take around 5 hours to 7 hours, depending on your fitness level and is categorised as an Advanced Tramping track. This means you must be prepared with sturdy walking boots as well as plenty of water and snacks. During the winter it is advised to walk with grampons, ice hacks and thermal wear. We had the thermal gear, but not the grampons. It was a risky move, as there were certain parts of the track which were covered in ice and so very difficult to cross, though we all managed it.

We arose early on a clear Saturday morning. It was still dark as we prepared water and snacks and put on extra layers, before leaving our hostel. We had decided to start the track at around 7 am that morning and we had just over an hour’s drive to the Tongariro Crossing. It was a quiet and sleepy drive, with most trying to fit in an extra few minutes of sleep. We got to the crossing as the sun was just coming up and it promised to be a bright, sunny day. Some of our group had decided to dress up for the occasion, namely one person in particular who wore a bright blue Unicorn onesie for the climb.

First sight of Mount Ngauruhoe

The first part of the trek is a gentle walk across the wooden pathway. It gives you a good view of the valley you are walking into as well as of Mount Ngauruhoe on a clear day. The mountain remains looming on your right-hand side for all of the Tongariro Crossing, though of course there is the option of an additional 3 hour hike to cross it as well. As the incline starts to increase there is a detour to the Soda Springs, which takes around 10 minutes. This is a little waterfall, which when I was there was partially frozen and had some tremendous icicle formations. This stretch of the walk gives you a little break to take in the stunning views all around you as you walk alongside a gently flowing stream. It was here that we met another group of backpackers, who were also doing the trek. We would see them on and off during the hike, as we all walked at different paces.

Icicle Formations at Soda Springs

The next part of the walk is the climb. The path does get very steep and sometimes quite thin in width, meaning you have to walk along as one long line of people, one by one. This part of the walk sometimes includes steps, while at other times you have to find your own footholds in the snow. After an hour or two of climbing, you will come to a plateau of sorts. For us, this was a beautiful, untouched, snow covered landscape stretching to the base of the surrounding mountains. Here we took a short break for some water and snacks, before beginning the next part of the climb. In this section you are closed in by all the mountains around you, but it gives some amazing views.

Now for the real climb, which will take us to the summit of Mount Tongariro, where we would stop for some lunch and to enjoy the peace of the snowy mountains. At the top you get a terrific view of the sulphur lakes and the burning red rock that was uncovered by the snow. During our lunch break here, we met with the group of backpackers we had met before at the Soda Springs. We also met another group, one of which had also dressed up in a Unicorn onesie and another who was in a dinosaur onesie. Just goes to prove there are plenty of mad people out there, probably especially among backpackers. There is a lot of tectonic activity in this area, due to Mount Ngauruhoe being a dormant volcano. There are a number of sulphur lakes and you can quite often see clouds of steam rising from the ground in different areas of the mountain range. The sulphur lakes were frozen when we visited, but you could still clearly see their distinct colour. From the summit, was watched the long lines of our fellow walkers, who looked alot like an army of ants against the snow. The climb up is hard work at times, especially in the snow, but it is, as they always say, well worth it. The climb back down again can be just as difficult however, as we were about to find out.

Sulphur Lake

From the summit, there is a steep drop down the other side towards some of the sulphur lakes. At this time of year it was not only covered in snow, but also in layers of ice, making it particularly difficult to climb back down. Most of us managed it by climbing slowly and at times having to slide down on our butts. It may not be the most graceful way to do it, but it was definitely the easiest and possibly the safest. With so many people climbing the Crossing that day, we did have to be careful not to slide into anyone else, or even one of our own group. There were a few tumbles, but everyone managed to get down in on piece eventually, after a lot of laughs as we slid into each other or someone went racing past, faster than they meant to.

From here you can enjoy the sites of the Sulphur Lakes, as there are a couple which can be easily accessed from the main path. When we were there, the lakes were mostly frozen, as I have mentioned before. Some walkers decided to make the most of the frozen lakes by throwing stones at the ice, as it made an interesting sound, unlike that of a normal iced-over lake. The sound echoed and bounced off the surrounding mountains making it sound even more unnatural. We stood and enjoyed the sound, with some of the group joining in and throwing stones. From here, there is another short incline and then you are out from the middle of the mountain range.

The girls and I on the Tongariro Summit

Once over this last hill, the walk became much less snowy, as we were dropping down into the forest part of the national park. The pathway spirals down the side of the mountain and eventually reaches the forest, giving you some brilliant views of the jungle-like forest which is native to New Zealand. This last section of the hike can seem like it goes on forever, as you are now over the majority of the climb. For us, the walk had been difficult and most people were starting to feel tired, as the sun was beginning to go down on a rather long day. The forest walk takes around an hour and ends in one of the carparks. There are warning signs in this part of the walk, as there is constant conservation work going on to protect wild animals from predators and to protect the native bush from the ice melt coming down from the mountains.

Once down from the mountains, it was a mission to get back to our cars. We had one car in the end carpark, to take the drivers back to the start to collect the rest of the cars. This would have worked well, if all of our cars had decided to work properly. After a couple of jumpstarts and one burst tire, we managed to get back on the road. It took a couple more hours than we expected, but we were extremely glad to get back to the hostel when we did that evening.

This was, as I have said, my favourite hike in New Zealand. The company was great and we had a lot of laughs while struggling up hill, or sliding back down the ice. We were a big group, which meant, no matter what paced you walked at, there was someone around to chat to. The walk was difficult, but afforded some amazing views, especially because of the snow. I have seen pictures of the hike during the summer months, when you can see the brown, reds and greens of the dirt, rock and native bush; but I think I prefer the snowy walk we did. It felt much more magical and like we were in a different world completely. I would definitely recommend the hike to anyone visiting New Zealand, as it is like nothing else you will do.

Next Stop- My favourite city in New Zealand.