The Most Remote Capital City in the World

When we ask people on the North Island what their favorite city in New Zealand is, the universal answer is “Wellington,” the country’s capital. So we arrived with high hopes. We started our day with a trip on the Wellington Cable Car, a funicular railway that built at the end of the nineteenth century to connect the newly-built neighborhood of Kelburn with downtown (just about every house in Wellington is built up on a hill, so having a cable car is a great addition to the neighborhood). It’s a staple of most tourists’ visits to town. This was our car:

IMG_6506And this is the view from the top of the run:

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A shuttle runs from this lookout point to Zealandia, a protected conservation area that’s billed as an “eco-sanctuary.” Nineteen years ago, someone took Wellington’s old water catchment area, built 18 kilometers of fencing around it, and has preserved all of the natural life inside. The fence is specially designed to keep out predators; it goes deep underground and is angled to keep out rabbits, and it has a special rail at the top to repel invasive possums:

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All of this serves to make an incredible protected area for birds and reptiles. We saw a wide variety of birds, including pied shag, a North Island saddleback, a North Island robin, takahes, and my favorite of them all, the white-tufted tui. They feed a few of the endangered species, both to encourage a few of the rarer birds coming to the area and to give people a reason to keep visiting the park. So I was able to see this kaka, the only parrot native to New Zealand, up close:

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This is a popular nesting place for birds, so we were able to get close-up views of ground-dwelling birds like theseCalifornia quail …IMG_6525.jpgHere’s mom with her chicks:

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And here I am watching them cross the path:

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We also walked right up to these adorable Mallard ducklings:

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Zealandia also offers sightings of weta bugs, endangered insects that are some of the largest bugs out there, and tuataras, ancient reptiles that have been around since the dinosaur age. The tuataras were wiped off of New Zealand’s North Island many years ago, but they’re being successfully reintroduced here.

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Here’s a baby outside of its burrow:

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Zealandia is a great area for walking …

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… and for seeing cool plants:

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Here we are at the old dam:

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They have preserved the old valve station at the lower dam, which is an elegant structure:

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When we were done wandering, we took the shuttle into downtown Wellington. We found lunch (yummy avocado toast with poached eggs and watercress) at Floriditas Café on pedestrian-only Cuba Street and then made our way past some cool wall art …IMG_6572

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… en route to to Te Papa, the National Museum of New Zealand.

Te Papa is filled with all sorts of different exhibits, from marine mammal skeletons to areas about humans’ impact on the environment to a space dedicated to Lego Wonders of the World. We went to see a special exhibit on Gallipoli, a World War I battle fought on Turkish soil in the Dardanelles to preserve Allied control over the Suez Canal. Many New Zealand troops – alongside Australians, British, and French forces – fought in and around ANZAC Beach at Gallipoli.

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This exhibit is remarkable for the way in which it brings the war alive with sounds and displays. The most notable features are the enormous dioramas built by the designers at Weta Workshop, the brainchildren behind the props and special effects for the Lord of the Rings movies. They have created huge soldiers — based on real people — in dramatic positions:

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These creations are notable for their realism – the hair on the arms, the dirt under the fingernails, the sweat on the brows. Here is Lieutenant Colonel Percival Fenwick, one of the first doctors from New Zealand on the ground:

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It was a very moving exhibit.

Prescott and I also went to see the section of the museum dedicated to the Maori people, which covered subjects like sailing, housing, pounamu (green stone — usually jade or serpentine) carving, and tikis. We were not allowed to take many photos – they are barred “for cultural and copyright reasons” – but a few sections appeared to allow picture taking. Here’s Prescott in front of a traditional Maori house (note that the doorway is down at about half of the height of the roof — I have to hope that none of the Maori were tall):

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And this is the figurehead of an extremely long Maori boat built in the early 1800s:

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We had a tremendous New Year’s Eve dinner at Boulcott Street Bistro, just a block from our hotel. Definitely our best meal yet – I would happily eat there every night for the rest of our vacation (but I would gain twenty pounds on the sticky date pudding alone).

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We only spent one day in Wellington, but it was not as inspiring as we had thought it might be. The architecture downtown, where we stayed, is largely big, grey, and blocky. Wellington is New Zealand’s capital, and it has a bit of that government feel. We wonder if we would have been more inclined to like the city if we had based ourselves in one of the many hilly neighborhoods that surround the downtown area. Still, we enjoyed our time in Zealandia and along the waterfront.

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As a fun fact, Wellington is the most remote capital city in the world (it shares this dubious distinction with Canberra, Australia) — it is just that far away from any other land mass. That’s pretty amazing.

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