Wild, Weird, Windy Wellington: A capital city at 'the head of Māui’s fish'

August 14, 2020
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Wellington and its surroundings. Imagery ©2020 TerraMetrics, map data ©2020 Google. North at top.

IN my last post, I mentioned that some people say New Zealand’s the ‘Saudi Arabia of Wind’. The country extends across thirteen degrees of latitude from north to south: most of it south of the fortieth parallel where the Southern Hemisphere’s ‘roaring forties’ officially begin.

The roaring forties whip through wherever there is a gap in the mountains. One of these gaps is Te Āpiti, the Manawatū Gorge, the site of all those wind farms.

But the biggest gap is Cook Strait, between the North and South Islands of New Zealand. Where, as it happens, the nation’s capital city of Wellington is.

Back in the days when everyone wore hats, Wellington newspapers used to print photos of the local townsfolk hanging onto them.

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Man walking against strong wind, Wellington, 6 November 1967. Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP/1967/5183/12-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22739071. Very slightly trimmed and retouched, without compromising the integrity of the image, for this post.

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Policeman escorting two women across a street, Wellington, November 1959. Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP-Science-Meteorology-Wind and tornadoes-02. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22321097

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Woman blown against lamp post, Wellington, 1959. Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP/1959/3756-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22866312

Wellington’s gorgeous when the sun shines though, with the purest air anywhere, precisely because it was so windy the day before! It’s like a mini-San Francisco, complete with cable car. The best place to take a picture is at the upper cablecar terminus in the suburb of Kelburn, close to the university.

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‘Photo taken from Wellington Botanic Garden lookout in Kelburn, Wellington, New Zealand, looking East. Wellington Cable Car parked over the maintenance pit at Kelburn station. Doors are open. Kelburn Park is undergoing resurfacing in preparation for Cricket season.’ Photo by Donaldytong, 2 November 2007, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Here‘s a photo of mine from the same spot which includes a giant New Zealand tree fern, a type of plant which is 250 million years old and rare in other temperate regions of the world.

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It’s a really good spot for selfies or having your picture taken. Behind me, in the next photo, you can see some other weird-looking New Zealand plants. The native vegetation is quite jungly, even though the Wellington climate’s about the same as France (plus wind).

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Wellington’s actually a hidden gem. There’s even a chapter about it in a 1954 book called Great Cities of the World.

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Front and back covers of ‘Great Cities of the World’, from a South African website called The Heritage Portal. Fair use claimed.

In the 2000s, another book came out called Why Go to the Riviera: Images of Wellington. For Wellington’s also a city that’s been depicted surprisingly often by artists.

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Cover image from Goodreads. Fair use claimed.

And certainly Wellington does seem like a Mediterranean Riviera, as well as San Francisco. A few years after Great Cities of the World came out, the prominent urbanist Nikolaus Pevsner wrote, in a December 1958 New Zealand Listener article, that Wellington reminded him very much of the Italian city of Genoa.

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Oriental Bay, Wellington, New Zealand, 22 December 1959. Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1959/4347-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/30649458. Slightly retouched to improve image quality in the sky area.

This is partly because there is, in fact, a strong Continental-European influence in Wellington, a city to which refugees from Nazism and other European immigrants gravitated in the mid-twentieth-century: more so than to any other part of New Zealand. Immigrants brought café culture to Wellington in a 1940s/1950s era when most other New Zealanders were still drinking tea. If Auckland’s the Sydney of New Zealand, Wellington’s our Melbourne — not as big but a bit more classy.

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The Café du Boulevard, 20 Victoria Street, Wellington, 11 July 1959. Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1959/2346-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23505472’ Slightly cropped to remove writing below and shop awning above.

Wellington’s also the city where New Zealand’s most famous writer, Katherine Mansfield, lived.

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Katherine Mansfield. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

Nor is Wellington as enslaved to the car as some other New Zealand cities, either. It’s very ‘urban’, perhaps more so than any other city in New Zealand even though Auckland is much bigger. Its café culture remains strong, and there are several boutique cinemas including Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson’s new Roxy Cinema.

Wellington is shaped like the letter ‘Y’ and has very good public transport by New Zealand standards, each leg of the letter served by a public transport spine. The southern leg is served by local buses which run every few minutes, and the two northern legs are served by electric railways. There’s talk of extending light rail from the main railway station along the southern leg to Wellington Airport (though so far it’s just talk).

These days, the waterfront is totally pedestrianised. Here’s a photo from 2008 showing Te Papa Tongarewa (the Museum of New Zealand) from Whairepo Lagoon on the Wellington waterfront, with the Wellington Free Ambulance building to the right.

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Te Papa Tongarewa and the Wellington Free Ambulance Building from Whairepo Lagoon. Image by ‘Tākuta’, 18 January 2008. CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Here are a couple of more recent photos of the same general area that I’ve taken. The first one looks in the other direction, and the second one looks out into the harbour, across to Oriental Bay on the extreme right.

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Although downtown Wellington is very modernistic, Māori and early colonial heritage is also celebrated.

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There is an official heritage trail that you can follow around Wellington called Te Ara o ngā Tūpuna, ‘The Trail of the Ancestors’. Last updated in 2006, the brochure describes a tour that you can do around twenty-two Māori heritage sites in Wellington, and also gives the two traditional Māori names for the city and its region. I’ve updated its spelling to include macrons, the now-standard symbol of a flat line that indicates a long vowel:

"The earliest name for Wellington, one derived from Māori legend is “Te Upoko o te Ika a Māui”, or “the head of Māui’s fish”, ie the one pulled by the Polynesian navigator Māui — which became the North Island.

"The first Polynesian navigators were Kupe and Ngahue, who camped on the Southern end of the harbour at Seatoun in 925 AD.

"Later visitors were Tara and Tautoki, the sons of Whatonga from the Mahia peninsula. The encouraging reports led Whatonga to establish a settlement around Wellington Harbour, thus the area became known as “Te Whanganui-a-Tara” (the great harbour of Tara). This is still one of the Māori names for Wellington."

Down on the waterfront, a re-cast version of a statue first created for the 1940 centennial of the Treaty of Waitangi, called the ‘Kupe Group’ statue, depicts the original discoverers of New Zealand and the original colonisers of Te Upoko o te Ika in a heroic style.

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The Kupe Group Statue. Photo by Paul Lloyd, 21 December 2009, CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

By tradition the first to see New Zealand was the female figure Kuramārōtini, who was either Kupe’s wife or his daughter, and who by some accounts called attention to a white cloud indicating the new land. This is one of the stories by which New Zealand eventually gained the Māori name Aotearoa, meaning land of the long white cloud or long bright land, others being that Kupe’s oceangoing vessel was already named Aotearoa.

The 1940 representation of the Kupe Group as heroes was a big step up on a far more patronising 1889 image which depicted them as lost and starving, blundering into New Zealand by accident. In reality, the early navigators knew what they were doing and went back and forth quite a bit: though the New Zealand Māori eventually lost the capacity for ocean sailing because (as it’s thought) the pandanus plant, used by Polynesians to make salt-resistant sails, wouldn’t grow in New Zealand.

Though it depicts a more colonial sort of figure, the statue of John Plimmer and his dog Fritz near the Plimmer Steps is not, I think, of the sort that’s at any immediate risk of being pulled down.

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John Plimmer and his dog Fritz in front of the Plimmer Steps just off Lambton Quay, Wellington. Photo by Jamie McCaffrie, 14 April 2012, CC-BY-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Nor for that matter the memorial to Paddy the Wanderer, a local version of Greyfriars Bobby or Hachikō. Paddy belonged to a little girl who died of one of the endemic diseases that used to carry people away in a pre-antibiotic era, and went down to wait for her at the waterfront, apparently in the belief that she would re-appear by ship. He’s just about forgotten now, but the whole town nonetheless came to a halt when he finally died in 1939, his funeral procession led by twelve taxicabs and a police officer. A more sentimental era, perhaps.

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The Memorial Fountain for Paddy the Wanderer, Wellington. Photo by ‘Kiwichris’, 8 July 2016, CC-BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Wellington’s been the capital of New Zealand since 1865, so it abounds with the works of officialdom, as well as the more unofficial sorts of monuments like Paddy’s one. These include the Old Government Buildings from the 1870s that still dominate much of the downtown. It’s actually one building, and one of the largest wooden structures in the world.

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The front of the Old Government Buildings, Wellington. Photo by ‘Ballofstring’, 11 July 2007, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

On the grounds of the Old Government Buildings, wartime Prime Minister Peter Fraser looks as though he’s just forgotten something:

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Prime Minister Peter Fraser, in office 1940–1949, in the grounds of the Old Government Buildings, Wellington. Photo by ‘Midnighttonight’, 9 April 2006 (original upload date), CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

There’s also the houses of Parliament including the circular ‘Beehive’ executive building, imposing 1940s government buildings in Stout Street and a whole variety of assorted monuments, memorials and statues, of which the ones above are just a few.

New Zealand’s government is notable for being the first in the world to grant universal female suffrage in 1893, not to mention its distinctive anti-nuclear policy, enacted in the 1980s, which outlaws nuclear weapons in New Zealand and bans visits by nuclear-powered and actually or potentially nuclear-armed ships and planes.

Between the monuments and big buildings, little cottages of the kind that were probably inhabited by labourers a hundred years ago still abound.

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Wooden houses on hillsides also contribute to the Wellington look.

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Oriental Bay, Wellington. Photo by ‘Octagon’, 16 April 2012, CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s a couple more I’ve taken.

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There are also a lot of early-modern flats from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, like these ones in the Aro Valley, a hippyish area that’s the local equivalent of the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.

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Trees that bloom in summer shade the streets.

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Speaking of hippies, there’s a ‘Wellington School’ of more modern architecture which kicked off in the 1960s. The schemes of the Wellington School generally revolves around the idea of a sort of mutating cluster of rooms all joined together, usually on a hillside though not always.

A couple of Wellington-school classics that come to mind are Roger Walker’s Park Mews and Britten House: not to mention perhaps the original example, the late Ian Athfield’s own house, begun in the 1960s and progressively expanded into something resembling an entire village!

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Park Mews in 1973. New Zealand Government image, Ministry of Works Wellington Motorway Construction collection, reference 50006–37 4 via Wellington Recollect, CC BY-NC-NZ-3.0 NZ.

Part of the reason for all this crammed-in architecture is that most of Wellington consists of steep hills: most of which are actually parkland. In fact just about no other city has more parkland in proportion to the bits that the people actually live on. That’s another thing that makes Wellington a special place.

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

The parklands include the western side of Mount Victoria, part of what’s called the Town Belt of parklands, which encompasses the downtown area. This was an early experiment in town planning, very similar to what was done in the South Australian capital city of Adelaide. Here’s a billboard on the top of the mountain that explains everything.

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There’s a really handsome Māori pou whenua or ‘land pole’ there, similar to what Americans or Canadians would call a totem pole. This, too, is part of the Te Ara o ngā Tūpuna heritage trail.

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Pou Whenua or ‘land pole’ at the top of Mount Victoria with the city behind

On the top of ‘Mount Vic’ there’s also also a huge cannon and a triangular monument to the Antarctic explorer William Byrd. A cheerful 1960s pop video by local band the Fourmyula shows these along with the cablecar.

Some scenes from the Lord of the Rings films, notably the one in which Frodo and his companions are hiding from the ringwraiths, were filmed in the Wellington Town Belt: in the wilds of downtown Wellington in effect.

What’s perhaps most amazing is a Zealandia Ecosanctuary, also known as Te Māra o Tāne, the garden of the forest god Tāne. This is a ‘re-wilded’ nature reserve only one kilometre from the very centre of downtown Wellington, fenced off with pest-proof fence and full of exotic creatures like the flightless blue takahē and the reptile known as the tuatara.

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‘Takahē (also called the South Island Takahē) on Tiritiri Matangi Island, New Zealand‘. Photo by Ashleigh Thompson, 9 October 2009, CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The takahē is the world’s largest rail and a species famously thought extinct until 1947, when a few were discovered in the mountains of the South Island. As for the tuatara, it is far more exotic. It’s the last survivor of a group of Triassic reptiles 250 million years old, about the same as the giant tree ferns. Though it looks like an iguana, it’s not a lizard. It’s not a dinosaur either. Nor is it a sort of crocodile. It’s actually something closer to the common ancestor of all three.

It’s close-to-unbelievable that a reptile actually older than the dinosaurs and ancestral to them, still exists. And that you can go and see it sitting on a rock beside a walking path in Zealandia / Te Māra o Tāne.

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Tuatara photographed at Ngā Manu Reserve, Waikanae, near Wellington. Photo by Sid Mosdell, 13 November 2010, CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Fossiles of tuatara-like reptiles are found all over the world but usually in really ancient rocks either from the dinosaur age or before. New Zealand is the last place where these creatures hold out: partly because it’s been isolated from the rest of the world for so long, and at such a great distance.

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Well anyhow, at Zealandia / Te Māra o Tāne you can see takahē and tuatara up close and personal: the takahē just wandering about in the grass and the tuatara clambering about the rocks and dirt, just like in the photos above.

And also the big forest parrots known as kākā (Nestor meridionalis), a close relative of the more famous New Zealand mountain parrot called the kea (Nestor notabilis). Though nationally endangered, kākā are fairly common around the ecosanctuary now, almost to the point of being a bit of a nuisance to some homeowners who they wake up in the morning by squawking and playing on the roof.

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The ecosanctuary was established on site of an old town reservoir, so there’s a couple of lakes there, one of them with the old 1870s reservoir control building still.

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The area was originally known as the Rātā Valley, a valley of magnificent old rātā trees which were then burnt down as the town spread, though it was never built upon.

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The ‘bush’ look primordial though I suppose it’ll be a while before the very biggest trees fully grow back.

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Perhaps some of the rātā succumbed when a gold mine was also developed nearby. The site of the gold mine, now defunct, is also inside the modern ecosanctuary.

You can go for a walk through the tunnels of the mine, which for some people would take courage as they are infested with another exotic local creature called the wētā.

Like really monstrous wasps, complete with what looks like long stingers on the rear of many of them, the wētā exist in heaving masses in dark corners. It’s the sort of insect that inspired the monster in Alien.

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‘Tree wētā (Hemideina spp) form aggregations of adults in roost holes. These usually comprise just one adult male and several females.’ Photo by Steven Trewick, 16 January 2015, CC-BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Well of course the old-time miners braved worse perils. For the secret is that in spite of its appearance the wētā is just about completely harmless (though it can give you a bit of a nip). As for the long ‘stingers’, these are what the females lay eggs through. But only in rotten logs and things like that, don’t worry!

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

And yes, they are mostly pretty gigantic. So it’s a good thing they are harmless.

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‘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.

Film-maker Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop, of Lord of the Rings fame, is named after the wētā.

On the south coast of Wellington you can also see seals and penguins that have swum all the way up from Antarctica, more or less. There are signs on the winding coastal roads that tell people to beware of penguins crossing!

The west coast is the really wild one, pummelled by westerly winds and waves, with the mountains above extra-steep and plunging directly into the sea. This made it very difficult to build roads. The road along the coast out of Wellington is called the Centennial Highway because it was only completed as late as 1940, the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.

But they did a good job. It’s surely one of the great seaside drives of the world. Driving the Centennial Highway, it’s hard not to think of the old Quincy Jones track from the original Italian Job, ‘On Days like These’.

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The Centennial Highway with Kāpiti Island in the background, published in the ‘New Zealand Free Lance’, 13 July 1949. Official credit: Raine, William Hall, 1892–1955. Centennial Highway, Wellington region — Photograph taken by William Hall Raine. Ref: PAColl-8983–67. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22898322

The website lists New Zealand as having eight out of the fifty-two ‘best coastal drives in the world’. Oddly enough, the Centennial Highway isn’t listed among them. Instead, what does make the list in this locality is the older road through the hills above the Centennial Highway, a rather terrifying one called the Paekakariki Hill Road. It’s more like the road in The Italian Job and you can sing along while driving it, too, though you probably won’t be tempted to go as fast.

Don’t try and do these roads in the peak holiday season or commuter peaks though, as they get very congested. The lack of good roads in this area is one of the reason its commuter towns in this area rely heavily on rail.

There’s a really good walking track through these hills, too, from Paekakariki to the more distant commuter town of Paraparaumu. Both of these are railway stops and so you can catch the train from downtown Wellington to one end of the track, and then back to town from the other.

It’s called the Escarpment Track, escarpment being a polite word for ‘cliff’. Signs at the start warn you it might be a bit scary.

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The track is ten kilometres long and reminiscent of Himalayan hiking trails in places, especially the rickety-swing bridge-over-yawning chasm bits. A lot of people don’t do swing bridges over chasms, of course.

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Things get a bit easier toward the ends, where there are also signs pointing to revegetation projects and traditional Māori gardens.

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Pari Pari means ‘steep bluff’, the name for an old traditional hillside terrace garden (a bit like the ones in Bali) destroyed by colonial railway-builders

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Ngā Uruora means ‘The Groves of Life’

There are also signs and picnic areas at the top, from which the sea looks like blue concrete.

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Kāpiti island is a really important nature reserve, as is the smaller, flatter Mana Island a little further south. You can travel to Kāpiti Island from Paraparaumu and stay overnight as a part of a guided eco-tour by Kāpiti Island Nature Tours, an organisation partly controlled by local Māori iwi or tribes and the New Zealand Department of Conservation.

New Zealand Department of Conservation video about Kāpiti Island

Further north long the coast, Ōtaki is an important centre of Māori culture. Founded in 1886, the Ōtaki-Māori Racing Club is the only Māori-owned horse-racing club in New Zealand, and one of the few indigenous horse-racing clubs in the world. Te Wānanga o Raukawa is a Māori university based at Ōtaki.

The town is also the site of Rangiātea Church, the oldest Māori Anglican church in New Zealand, built between 1849 and 1851. The church was completely rebuilt after being burned down by an arsonist in 1995.

When it comes to walking, there are also plenty of tracks within the city itself.

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Between the inner city and the outer suburbs, you can also visit Ōtari / Wilton’s Bush, a ‘6-star garden of international significance’. Prize specimens including an 800-year-old giant Rimu tree.

Here’s a guide to walks in the Wellington City area (the Hutt Valley and points north along the coast are under their own local authorities).

Getting back to the issue on which this post began, Wellington’s windiness means that coming in by plane is often a bit of a white-knuckle ride. That’s one drawback of the place. Its single-runway airport with seas fore and aft looks like the flight deck of an aircraft carrier the first time you see it. You also get a real good view of all those hills as you get closer. And yes, sometimes the air crews take the view that discretion is the better part of valor and decide to go somewhere else.

Passenger video of missed approach to Wellington International Airport

Perhaps for that reason, Wellington Airport has not had an accident in the sixty years since it opened in October 1959, to the accompaniment of the biggest airshow there’s ever been in New Zealand.

Yet on the day of the airshow there were no less than three serious near misses due to strong winds and cloud, all caught dramatically on film.

HAFU Commemorative video, 2019

More tragically, Wellington’s rough weather has led to the sinking of two inter-island ferries over the years, the Penguin in 1909 — New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster of the twentieth century — and the Wahine in 1968.

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‘Ship Wahine sinking in Wellington Harbour . . .’ Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP/1968/1647/14-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22327912

Unlike the Penguin, which sank in Cook Strait, the Wahine made it into Wellington harbour before going down. But because the winds were so strong, an eventual total of 53 people still lost their lives, their lifeboats swamped and smashed.

The wind isn’t the only natural force that Wellingtonians have to worry about. The region is highly at risk of earthquakes and there’s a good chance that if a big one hit, the rather precarious roads in and out of town might be closed for a long time. There were a couple of huge earthquakes in colonial times, in 1848 and 1855, and they had the effect of raising the town out of the sea by a few metres, thus creating more flat land to build on. The effects were similar to the Napier Earthqake of 1931: but there was little damage or loss of life, as the town barely existed as yet in those days. The results would not be so serendipitous now. Indeed, Wellington’s airport is on a strip of land that was raised out of the sea by an earlier earthquake. The Miramar Peninsula was an island before that.

And so to sum up, I never get sick of visiting Wellington and you should go there too, when you can. But you might well experience an earth tremor or two, and you should check the weather forecast before doing anything too adventurous, such as the Escarpment Track!

Here’s a list of ten Wellington Must Do’s, from local tourism website There’s also a separate Wellington App.

And while Wellington’s an urban area, you don’t have to stay in a hotel or even in a building. NZ Pocket Guide lists fifteen free camping sites in the region. Just make sure, once more, that your tent doesn’t get blown away.

This post includes material that will appear in my forthcoming book A Maverick New Zealand Way: The North Island.


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