A tribute to Wellington from a South Island boy returned home
Well, a long overdue blog. My excuse is a new job, a new city, a new home. Somewhere in all that, blogging fell through the gaps.
So, here I am back in Christchurch in the South Island of New Zealand. It was once known as the garden city, but some might claim it a ‘munted” city now, with the unhealed wounds of the recent earthquakes still scarily visible. Much of the city I knew from my previous residence here is devoid of the landmarks that made it familiar to me; they are razed to the ground. Ironically, for the most part, the gardens remain, it is the physical structures of man that have fallen to the forces of nature.
Recovery has barely begun and there is much to do before this city will again be the glorious, genteel “England of the South” it once was; if ever, because Christchurch has separated from “mother England” in the past decades and I suspect the new city will be much more Kiwi than English in its look, feel and structure (unless Gerry Brownlee gets his way, in which case it will look like a series of concrete bunkers – the ultimate no-frills city!)
But this blog is not about Christchurch, that’s for a future subject.
I’d like to talk about Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city and my home for the last four years.
What to say? It’s certainly been a blast. In many ways my favourite city though Christchurch, even in its scarred state, still has equal appeal, albeit for different reasons. The cities are different, and have different assets, faults, problems and benefits, so I will not compare. They are both great places to be.
But here’s to Wellington:
I said I would not compare, but if there is one thing to differentiate Wellington from Christchurch it is hills. The greater part of Christchurch is flat, built on a swampy alluvial plain, with labyrinthine rivers meandering haphazardly across the landscape. It is backed by the spectacular volcanic hills of Banks Peninsula, but these are a distinct and isolated feature; and the mountains of the Southern Alps are an eye-stretching look away in the blue haze.
But Wellington . . . ah the hills of Wellington! Flat land is as scarce as the proverbial hen’s teeth there. Wellington is a tossed up, rumble tumble city of folded hills, steep gullies, rushing waters and abrupt, cliff-encased coasts where the sea bites at the land in angry bursts that tear the land away in wave-sized pieces.
The hills dictate the city. You have to go north to travel south, down to go up, west to go east. Around and down and up around again! Golden, folded, pastured hills that are criss-crossed with walking and mountain bike trails; steep, bush clad, wild hills with moss-bedecked old forests; and bare tops fringed by wind-tortured shrub that leans away from the salt laden southerlies. Steep down-to-the-sea hills, with impossibly attached houses clinging limpet-like to the view; blistered weatherboard edifices that defy the wind, the rain and the rumblings of tectonic plates that shake Wellington so frequently that people simply do not notice.
Where there are steep hills running down to the sea, there are bays, beaches, coves, guts and caves. Wellington does not have a genteel coast. It is, for the most part, wild, rugged, rocky, rough, continuously wave abraded and wind blasted.
Great waves crash against the red rocks of the southern coast. The rock is rough, even after eons of sea erosion. It shreds the soles of feet and gumboots with equal ease. Kelp clings with the tenacity of a drowning man to a passing piece of polystyrene. Seals bark here, reef herons skulk from shadow to shadow, shags preen and gulls screech against the wind; penguins grump their way ashore and quarrel uphill to their scrubby burrows.
Surfers play here, catching the crashing waves into the southern shore; kite surfers skip across the crests at dizzying speeds, leaping wind-aided impossible heights into the sky, to fall tumbling and turning, back into the waves, glide and skip and fly again.
There are gentle bays too, little coves wrapped away from the wind with deep green water where light plays flickering games to the depth of visibility and kina stroll lazily across the sandy sea floor.
And the famous O Bay, man-enhanced with exotic sands from across the strait, barged there for the delight of the human population. It’s no Auckland, the sea is chill, but the beach is an oasis of pleasure on sunny days.
In New Zealand, the words Wellington and wind are synonymous. On my recent cruise it was the one thing all the tourists knew about our capital city . . . “windy Wellington”.
There’s an Eileen Duggan poem etched in concrete along the route of my waterfront walk to work:
“My quiet morning hill
Stands like an alter drawn
Whereon hushed hands shall lay
The shining pyx of dawn.
With penitence and stir
and drowsy flurry by
The wind, a shamefaced serving boy
Comes running up the sky!”
This was so often my morning. Walking to work alongside a glassy harbour, it’s mirror dimpled by the gentle wake of rowing crews at morning
training. But then, with the sun, up leaps the wind; a flurry, a swirl, and then a full-throated rush into the gap of the day; white horses dancing, gulls wheeling, the shoreline pohutukawa rattling their dry leaves in ill-tempered admonishment.
Wellington is an oddly isolated capital city. There is no great stretched out hinterland of urbanization and satellite towns slowly fading into intensively developed rural land where the food of the city is grown. Instead, the capital’s hills, rugged and forested, ring it like a fortress. The vegetable garden of the city is over the hill in the Wairarapa, and across the strait in the fertile fields of Nelson and Blenheim. There are a few farms but the steepness and wildness of most of the country means these are not intensively stocked.
And so, just as the forest and the sea intrude into the heart of the city, so does the wildlife. Sea birds, of course, are abundant, especially the ubiquitous black-backed gull and the plague of café’s, the red-billed gull. Shags are also common, variable oyster catcher ply the rocky shores, and the lakes, wetlands and estuaries host spoonbill and pied stilt, plus seasonal visitors such as godwit and white heron; shingle and sand banks play host to flocks of little dotterel and Plimmerton makes a claim to fame with occasional visits of the extremely rare shore plover from Mana Island. Terns crowd the rocks and jetties, Karearea and harrier hunt the hills and valleys and small birds, native and introduced, are abundant, boosted in recent years by extensive pest control and the ark that is Zealandia, so that now tui seem as common as sparrows and kaka wheel above the city’s gardens.
Zealandia is the treasured heart of this, a sanctuary that has brought rare birds , insects – the giant weta – and reptiles – tuatara – back to the mainland and into the city.
Off-shore is the internationally acclaimed Kapiti Island, at one stage the largest island in the world to be successfully cleansed of rats. Here, very rare species are making a comeback and their progeny are being used to re-populate protected forests on the mainland. Mana and Matiu/Somes islands are increasingly fulfilling a similar function.
The scrubby hills support a surprising population of indigenous skinks and geckos and nomadic populations of native bat.
Flocks of gannets, shearwater and other pelagic birds sometimes arrive in the harbour in huge numbers, to rest or because their prey has sought the harbour refuge, and they have followed.
Orca and dolphins come into the harbour, whales cruise past in Cook Strait, and New Zealand fur seals haul out on the coast, sometimes right in the inner harbour beside the skyscrapers and the passing citizens; little blue penguins dice with the traffic where roads cut between their haul-out beaches and their in-shore burrows.
Café scene and the waterfront
I heard somewhere that Wellington has more cafes, restaurants and bars per head of population than New York. I don’t know if it’s true, but it certainly could be. Our capital is dining out heaven. Even when I lived in Auckland the downtown bars seemed depressingly deserted until about Wednesday. But Wellington hums every night of the week, especially along the waterfront, Courtenay Place and Cuba Mall.
It’s a glorious eclectic mix – a city-wide tower of Babel where dark-suited civil servants and politicians mingle with funky students, ladies who lunch, diplomats, actors, business people and lobbyists; where black, brown, yellow and white mix at the same table more than I’ve seen in any other city in New Zealand “doing coffee” (or wine) in the outdoor corridors of power, defying the wind and chill to be seen at the outside tables of Shed Five, St Johns, Foxglove, or Dockside – to name a few.
Street entertainers and street people ply their trade here, mothers walk with prams, and teenage boys dive off the wharf in their underwear, their school uniforms tossed aside, while tourists watch in mild bemusement, as this show is not for them, but they photograph it anyway.
As night draws in, the mood changes, it gets louder, more frenetic, younger,; bouncers bloom on pub doorsteps like dark muscled day-lilies of the night – faded, frazzled and disappeared by morning.
Classy theatres spill dolled-up patrons onto the street beside the downtown brothel with its prime street frontage; the wind herds Mackers, KFC, kebab and Burger King packets into the gutters, to keep company with drunks, sleepless pigeons and Juggling Man’s lost balls.
I could wax on about the funky arty corners, galleries, theatres and the infamous Te Papa, born in controversy and no stranger to it since; or the food; or the architecture and the history . . . there is more, much more, to this city – the coolest little capital in the world!