Entering the nation’s capital in a largish vehicle was surely the biggest test of the agreeable navigation compact struck between the two adult participants of our trip. Carolyn had taken on the unrewarding task of providing road directions throughout our 5000km journey while I assumed the helm of our playfully named camper van. The Wheelie Bach, (pronounced batch) rather than being a celebration of Teutonic musical composition, is Kiwi speak for a small holiday home. Being a rolling residence, the Wheelie part of the name aptly summed up both my occasional struggles with the steering wheel and the huge number of roads we turned through over six weeks. Why our whimsically named vehicle put our marital union to the test in this particular municipality was a function of the place’s constantly changing elevations and the single direction and narrow nature of its many charming lanes. Thankfully the Mercedes engine was directed by an automatic transmission saving me from honing clutching skills on sharp long hills, thereby limiting potential harm to adjacent vehicles. Nonetheless, a few times we found ourselves careening down impossibly steep and cluttered roads, coming within inches of liberating side mirrors or decorating neighbouring vehicles with artful gouges. The navigational team sometimes lost its collective grace under this kind of pressure and the odd phrase of excitable language may have been audible to passers-by despite sealed windows. It is also possible that those skilled at reading mouthed words might be left with the puzzling impression that the driver of our vehicle believed his mother to be employed as a trucker.
In addition to the heart pumping action of its roadways, Wellington also offered the best urban freedom camping experiences of our trip. On our first night in town, after consulting our handy freedom camping app, we pulled into the TeKopahau Marine reserve on the fringe of town and bunked down for the night. The brief description of the spot in the app didn’t equip us for the grand views we received in the morning. We loved looking out over a wide channel leading to the open Southern ocean, spotting the purposeful and modern looking InterIslander ferry on its 3 hour voyage to the South island. This compact protected marine habitat is tucked up beside tall seaside hills, adorned with wild vegetation and steep, scree mounded sides. We decided to explore the rocky beach and scramble up narrow paths to enjoy the views afforded by the 200m ascent. After climbing down and spending some time in the quaint museum attached to the reserve, we headed back into the CBD to explore.
Wellington, like the best capital cities, is a great place to become educated on matters that really define a nation. In this case, the national museum in Wellington (Te Papa Tongarewa) was really first rate. Right off, we were touched by the civility of a nation that offers free admission to such an important place of learning. This is after all where science and storytelling combine to convey the history, current priorities and pride of the land and its people. This is a lesson I hope can be learned from the masters of our great public institutions in Canada, where penny pinching might one day be dropped in favour of freely promoting our national aspirations to ourselves and to visitors. Wellington’s Te Papa, features comprehensive examination of the biota of the nation, highlighting the precariousness state of endemic island species, threatened as they are by foreign pests, loss of habitat and a rapidly changing climate. The natural history and biodiversity displays, though more modest than counterparts in Washington D.C. or NYC, are more modern and interactive and keep squarely to the objective of highlighting the uniqueness and delicate natural endowments of the country.
Also of note for this institution is the balanced and self-aware way the damaging and disgraceful wrongs inflicted on the indigenous Maori by early European colonizers, and later, by the government of New Zealand, are communicated. This underlined for me the pride of place Maori enjoy in contemporary NZ which is refreshingly positive relative to Canada’s continuing challenge of having indigenous people represented in daily life with respect, dignity and normalcy.
Finally, the museum is host to a towering display examining the ANZAC invasion of the Ottoman empire at Gallipoli in the First World War. The exhibit features strikingly detailed figures of Kiwi forces in the midst of their ultimately failed attempt to smash the Ottoman defenders from their highland stronghold. What makes these figures truly arresting is their gigantic scale. The exhibit features six separate, twenty foot tall representations of hyper realistic and beautifully executed vignettes; from command tent to battle field, from wounded in the trenches to field hospital. Taken in succession, it is an incredibly effective way to communicate the sheer terror and misery of mechanized warfare. Literally the blood, sweat and tears of men and women in the grip of war are captured and presented in inescapably massive and disturbing detail.
Before we left Wellington we had time for one more attraction and we were so glad we chose Zealandia as it proved to be a real gem. This sprawling inland island of biodiversity, in the midst of the city, is a fully fenced off wilderness reserve. The measures taken to eliminate destructive predation of vulnerable avian, reptilian and amphibian eggs and young is impressive, and to date, highly effective. Efforts include a ten foot high perimeter fence made of fine but sturdy mesh buried three feet down and a single entry point into the reserve through double air locked doors. These isolation technologies have resulted in burgeoning blooms of biological density found nowhere else on the two main islands. It is a glimpse of what once was and what yet might be for the entire country with continued effort to eradicate the imported threats of feral cats, rats, stoats and possums. In Zealandia bird species wiped out in all other regions are flourishing and the audible difference to unprotected woodland areas was astounding. The clamorous bird songs, including screeching, honking and elaborate whistling, alerted us that we had arrived at a special place. We wove down the well marked trails for several kilometers taking huge pleasure in the abundant avian life. The large waterway through a steep sided wooded valley provide habitat for all manner of birds including small song birds, large waterfowl, flightless ground dwellers and several types of noisy parrots sporting splendid plumage.
Zealandia was a very satisfying and hopeful way to end our travels in the North Island, leaving us with the notion that the nation is fully aware of its precious biological inventory and is actively preserving its natural gifts for all to enjoy.