Wellington Once More

November 25, 2023
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ATOP the rather Dalek-like political offices called the Beehive,  lame-duck Prime Minister Chris Hipkins was awaiting his marching orders this November, following the defeat of his Labour coalition in the 14 October 2023 general election,

The Beehive

While we awaited the final results, I popped into an almost equally famous pub across the road called The Backbencher Gastropub, where images of figures in the incoming government, Winston Peters and PM-elect Christopher Luxon, had been hoisted aloft.

The word backbencher means a member of a parliament who is not in the cabinet or among the leadership of the opposition. It is a good name for a pub opposite the parliament buildings in Wellington.

Here’s a short pan and scan video of the interior.

The Beehive stands across the road from a massive structure which was the original set of offices of the New Zealand public service. This structure dates all the way back to 1876 and is famous for being made of wood, but designed to look as if it was made of stone. As far as I can tell it is just one building, though in the form of several modules joined together, and it is therefore more conventionally referred to in the plural, as the Old Government Buildings.

The Old Government Buildings
and the Faculty of

There is definitely a bit of a contrast of styles in this part of town!

The Old Government Buildings

The Old Government Buildings were quite run down when the last of the public servants to use them left in 1990, but they have since been done up. They house the law faculty of Victoria University of Wellington and are open to public tours.

Here’s a model of the buildings.

And a video from the buildings’ tourist information page at Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.

The Old Government Buildings were mostly made from New Zealand’s most famous rainforest timber, the exotic and valuable kauri.

An information panel describing the wooden construction of the Old Government Buildings

Not especially hard, but totally rotproof and easily carved, kauri has a lovely, honey-like appearance. Here’s a photo showing the lovely colour of the OGB’s carved kauri panels.

Kauri was the object of a great logging bonanza in the days when the Old Government Buildings were erected, and on into the twentieth century. According to the heritage video just above, “a small forest” north of Auckland was cut down for the purpose.

Living kauri trees are all protected these days as far as I am aware. But because kauri is so rotproof, fallen kauri logs thousands or even tens of thousands of years old continue to be dug out of the ground and made into wooden artifacts, the timber still as good as new.

For the same reason, kauri salvaged from demolition sites can be recycled almost endlessly. According to a government website, when the Old Government Buildings were refurbished in the 1990s, more than 500 cubic metres of recycled kauri timber were used for the project. The information panel above says that 900 cubic metres were “sourced,” but perhaps not all of it was used.

I saw a mockup of an 1880s mailroom, complete with a dolly being pushed along railway tracks.

Even the mailroom had railway tracks in those days, as soft rubber tyres hadn’t yet been invented and steel wheels would have marked the floor. Here’s the explanatory sign, completely with the Victorian-era coat of arms that also decorates the front of the building, above the clock.

There are displays that explain the colony's history in those days, which as you can imagine were mostly of boom and bust, of gold in them thar hills and the gold running out.

Here’s another photo I saw on the wall, which shows the future King George V and Queen Mary on a parade through the streets in front of the Old Government Buildings on the 18th of June 1901, under a triumphal arch bearing a welcome in English on one side and in Māori on the other.

Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York passing under Government Arch, Lambton Quay, Wellington. Wilson, Kenneth Adrian, 1924–2012: Photographs relating to Wellington. Ref: 1/2–136016-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22875675

One of the highlights of the tour is the Cabinet Room, where our politicians thrashed out some of New Zealand’s famous social legislation in the old days.

It has this lovely Persian-style carpet, which you see in other parts of the building as well.

The Cabinet Room, Old Government Buildings

In those days carpets never went from wall to wall either, as vacuum cleaners were another thing that hadn’t yet been invented. So, somebody had to gather up the carpet from time to time and beat out the dust. There were laws against doing this in public, so I imagine they had a courtyard out the back. It took lots of hard work to make things run in those days!

There’s plenty more that I haven’t photographed, including four beautiful kauri staircases.

In front of the entrance with the clock, there’s a modern statue of 1940s Prime Minister Peter Fraser, in office from 1940 until 1949, a man who attended all kinds of important conferences where the outcome of World War II and the design of postwar institutions such as the United Nations were decided. He was a bit shortsighted and hunched over, and the sculptor has captured that very well.

In Fraser’s day, more modern buildings were going up in downtown Wellington, such as the city’s grand railway station and the Hotel Waterloo, just opposite the railway station.

Atkins & Mitchell (Firm). Atkins & Mitchell (Architects) : Hotel Waterloo, on the corner of Customhouse Quay and Bunny Street, Wellington. The Press (Newspaper) :Negatives. Ref: 1/2–041043-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22763930

Here’s the Hotel Waterloo, now a backpackers’ lodge, in more recent times. It’s been overshadowed by taller buildings but the older photo shows how it was once very impressive in its own right.

The Hotel Waterloo on 24 December 2021. Photo by ‘johnragla’, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I wandered along the city’s scenic waterfront, past the old cranes and red brick goods sheds from ages ago, past Shed 11 and Shed 13, which are being used as galleries, to Shed 22, now a restaurant.

Wellington Harbour

Shed 22

I visited the museum, Te Papa, where there is a permanent exhibition called Manu Rere Moana, about the Polynesian navigation of the Pacific and discovery of Aotearoa.

An information panel, part of Manu Rere Moana, showing a modern-day recreator of Polynesian navigation feats, Sir Hekenumai (or Hector) Busby

The word rere means to be quick, to fly, or to sail. Manu means bird. Putting them together, manu rere means bird on the wing, as in the short song Manu Rere.

And moana means ocean. So, Manu Rere Moana means the same as the lines in the Skye Boat Song that go ‘Speed bonny boat, like a bird on the wing … Over the sea to Skye.’ Except that this exhibition is not about a short trip to Skye but an incredible journey of thousands of kilometres, following a star and a few other signs to Aotearoa.

Here’s a classic 1941 film of the departure of New Zealand troops for World War II for World War II, past the sheds and the Hotel Waterloo. Apart from the subsequent erection of some taller buildings including the Beehive, and the opening up of no-longer-working parts of the waterfront to pedestrians, this downtown area of Wellington has otherwise hardly changed a bit. Even the old cranes are still there on the waterfront, as industrial museum pieces.

Whenever I am in Wellington, I also make a point of visiting Sir Peter Jackson’s Roxy Cinema at 5 Park Road, Miramar. There’s a statue of Gandalf in the street outside, and Gollum inside, along with other artworks.

Inside the Roxy

Gandalf, just outside the Roxy

Fish flavoured icecreams, anyone? Gollum inside the Roxy

Park Road is where films like Country Lads were once made, in the studios of the former National Film Unit, now Park Road Post, part of Sir Peter’s wider modern-day film studio complex which also includes Wētā Workshop.

A still from ‘Exhibition Loop’, about the making of NFU films. Click here to go to the film itself

You can do tours of this whole area, nicknamed ‘Wellywood’, along with the Miramar Peninsula itself, which is quite interesting in its own right as it is part of Wellington yet somewhat isolated. Here’s a map, which shows the location both of Wellington Central, where the Beehive and other government buildings are, and Miramar, several kilometres to the southeast.

Central and south Wellington and its parklands. Map data ©2020 Google. North at top.

Miramar is Spanish for ‘sea view’, a name that lends a touch of San Francisco. It was bestowed by an early colonist named James Coutts Crawford, originally as the name of his house, which no doubt did command such a view.

Wellington and its harbour are gradually being uplifted by earthquakes. Several earthquakes ago the Miramar Peninsula was actually an island and is still known in Māori as Te Motu Kairangi, meaning the Esteemed or Precious Island.

The local film industry is an aspect of Wellington’s bright cultural life, with lots of tour posters everywhere.

I thought this was a good idea as well! Water for passing dogs.

Lastly, in this post, I revisited the Zealandia Te Māra a Tāne Ecosanctuary, a fenced-off wildlife reserve on the site of the former Wellington Reservoirs.

Zealandia is the female personification of New Zealand, the European woman in white who faces the young Māori rangatira or chief on the New Zealand coat of arms: a name also bestowed on the drowned continent of which New Zealand is the dividing range above the waves.

Te Māra a Tāne means The Garden of Tāne, the god of the forest.

Under either name, this reserve is an amazing piece of natural wilderness in the middle of the city. The fence excludes mice and anything bigger than a mouse, and this, in turn, allows the native plants, birds, and reptiles of New Zealand to thrive as they would have done in the days before people and the introduction of four-footed mammals.

The larger of the two reservoir lakes at Zealandia Te Māra a Tāne

New Zealand is the largest group of islands, with an otherwise hospitable climate, to have been free of four-footed mammals before the coming of humans. The only mammals already present in New Zealand when the first ancestors of the Māori arrived are a couple of species of native bats, not present in the ecosanctuary yet as far as I know.

Here’s a view of a kākā, the forest-dwelling relative of the better-known kea or mountain parrot, at one of the feeder stations in the reserve.

The large parrots of New Zealand — the kea, the kākā, and the flightless, critically endangered kākāpō — differ from most other parrots, in that they cannot be trained to talk. However, the fact that New Zealand’s large parrots can’t talk does not stop the kea from being very intelligent in the sense of being good at solving problems, curious, and fond of play.

Kākā haven’t had their intelligence studied as much as the kea. Some limited research suggests that while young kākā are good at solving problems, older kākā become more “set in their ways.”

The unfortunate kākāpō isn’t thought to be as clever as either the kea or the kākā, though kākāpō are still quite playful.

A Pāteke or Brown Teal, a small native species of duck

You can go on a boat tour on the lower and larger of the two lakes.

An old Victorian water-tower juts out into the lake.

I got this photo of some shags, or cormorants, and in the video I filmed, further below, they are feeding their young.

Amazingly, one of the early colonial gold rushes was in this very area. I  normally tend to think of goldfields as being in the middle of nowhere and not beneath a city, but in much the same way that Los Angeles is full of oil derricks, so the Wellington, or Karori, gold rush was an exception to the rule of goldfields being remote


You can still visit the Morning Star Gold Mine within the reserve.

The mine has long since been abandoned, and is totally infested these days with cave-dwelling varieties of wētā, their numbers swollen by an absence of furry predators. A fun fact is that the word wētā comes from Wētāpunga, meaning the God of Ugly Things, and which is also used as the proper name for the very largest of the 70 different species of wētā.

Male Auckland Tree Wētā (H. thoracica) on a leaf. Photo by James O’Hanlon, 5 November 2016, CC-BY-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

‘Giant weta, Deinacrida rugosa adult female from Mana Island, New Zealand (on hand for scale)’. Photo by Mary Morgan-Richards, 22 June 2012, CC-BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Such an abundance of ‘ugly things’ makes me think of an Indiana Jones movie, or The Mummy. It might put some people off venturing inside; although personally, I think wētā are rather cute.

Here is my video of scenes at the ecosanctuary. The thumbnail shows the dam that holds back the upper reservoir, now somewhat lowered from the days when it helped to supply Wellington’s water.

I have an earlier post, ‘Wild, Weird, Windy Wellington’, which is also very much worth checking out if you are interested — it also goes over some of the places I visited this time, with additional photos and comments.

I also talk about Wellington in my award-winning book The Neglected North Island: New Zealand’s other half.


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