Arriving at the huge and barren Wellington YHA Hostel, the instructions for late check-in ask me to ‘press the big red button’. I spend a long time looking for the ‘big red button’. Others also join in. Defeated, I set up camp on a sofa in the TV room.
They had forgotten to put out the big red button. Since travelling, I’ve become quite expert at complaining. They offer up a free nights accommodation, free wifi and free breakfast. After sucking them dry, I check out and stay somewhere with more soul (namely, The Dwellington, great place).
As usual, I spend the first day in a new city orientating myself (wondering aimlessly for miles until my feet are bleeding). The city is full of gowns and hats as Victoria University students are graduating. Old St Paul’s Cathedral offers a calming refuge of dark wood and stained glass windows.
Listlessly wondering into the Houses of Parliament, I find myself in the public viewing gallery for Prime Ministers Questions. Over the braying and playground snipes, I gather expense related scandals are also rife here. There are strange parallels to the UK. The conservative National party are in power (John Key the PM. I was sat just above his thinning hair), but New Zealand First are gaining representation, headed by their own provocative version of Nigel Farage, Winston Peters. He is booted out the chamber by the Speaker (hardest job of them all) for his incessant accusations.
A staggeringly ugly circular building nicknamed The Beehive, houses the PM and a number of his Ministers. Though when the architects name has the gravitas of ‘Sir Basil Spence’, I’m obliged to forgive his misjudgements.
Far more appealing are the former Government Buildings which are now Victoria University Law School. Pillared, stately, and looking very much like stone, it’s surprising to discover the slabs of construction are carved timbers.
And then, IT happens. At last! Casually, I bump into someone I know somewhere I don’t. Georgia went to the same secondary school as me and moved over to New Zealand years back. We drink too much and give up on the most impossible of pub quizzes.
The next day I haul myself up Mt Victoria for views across the harbour. There is a memorial for Richard Byrd and Paul Siple who conducted research on ‘Wind Chill’ in the Antarctic from 1928 onwards. They were also involved in establishing The Antarctic Treaty which declares the area beyond 60 degrees south as a region of peace and science with no territories or borders.
I head to Wellington Portrait Gallery (portraits, no surprises) via a Dr. Seuss exhibition. Prior to The Cat in the Hat / The Grinch etc, he had drawn political cartoons during World War II. With wit and wisdom such as…you have brains in your head, and feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose…what’s not to like?
The Museum of Wellington City & Sea is heralded as one of the Top 50 Museums in the World!!! And not wrongly so. A slick orgy of facts, buttons to jab at and a gift shop selling cheese make for a thoroughly contended museum goer.
The first car came to New Zealand in 1898 and was named Lightening. Anti climatically, she was crashed on her inaugural drive. Between 1880 and 1912 a dolphin named Pelorus Jack would swim and leap alongside incoming boats, attracting tourists for many years. Nineteen forty-three saw the battle of Manners Street – clashes between US military and local lads agitated by the pillaging of their women. The sentiment was of Yanks being ‘overpaid, oversexed and over here’. A storm in 1968 sunk the Wahine passenger ship with the loss of several human lives. Two hundred albatrosses also died from being blown against rocks. In 1977 a transvestite called Carmen stood for major. Wellington!
I watch an angst ridden play called Other Dessert Cities, play cards, bed. Life. Is. Tough.
The following day I adopt a self confessed grumpy person from Bolton (Ryan) for a series of failures. We decide $8 would be pushing the boat out for a tour of Katherine Mansfield’s childhood home. This isn’t helped by the fact we are both ignorant as to who Katherine Mansfield is. The lady on reception takes pity and provides a potted history of New Zealand’s most famous author…bohemian character, multiple lovers of both genders, moved to London and Paris, wrote astute and well received short stories such as ‘The Garden Party’, died of tuberculosis aged thirty-six.
We go to the city cable car but as it’s undergoing maintenance work there is a replacement bus which is 100% less exciting. We go to the Adam Art Gallery which is closed for refurbishment. We go to the Wellington Cricket Museum which is closed for NO APPARENT REASON.
We turn to the assured labyrinth of Te Papa on the harbours edge. Te Papa houses a preserved Colossal Squid with eyeballs the size of footballs and the potential for calamari the size of tractor tyres. But what caught me most off guard was the Kakapo Ejaculation Helmet. The Kakapo is an endangered bird which resembles a morbidly overweight parrot. It’s also quite close to blind. Research teams trying to harvest sperm found the male in question turned his nose up at the rather beautiful robotic female they had lovingly crafted. Instead, he would try to mate with researchers heads. As a result, they designed a helmet with coils of dried glue to catch the you know what. Unfortunately, he refused to mate with heads wearing the helmet. I think they gave up after that.
After a group evening at Genghis Khan Mongolian Grill and stand up comedy at Hannah Playhouse, Ryan and I escape the big smoke…of Wellington…population 200,100…London: 7 million.
After crossing the Cook Strait we arrive in Picton. Exploring the small town we find the only Friday night action, more stand up comedy. It’s the free food which ropes us in. To circumnavigate licensing laws, they have to provide food to sell alcohol. Testimony to the size of Picton, we find most of the hostel guests (and staff) huddled round the sandwiches.
Then cookies come out! Grabbing a round of chocolate chip cookies for 4 of us, the lady serving drinks casts me a disapproving look. I want to explain that they’re not all for me, but my mouth is full of sandwiches…
Before heading on to Nelson, we walk from Picton to Bob’s Bay. We pass the Picton Men’s Community Shed and a boat pub promoting a gig that evening by ‘The Thieving Gypsy Bastards’. We return via the Harbour Viewpoint with vistas across fjords and mountains. Ryan puts his hands on his hips and grumbles “well…it’s better than Bolton”. It is.
Driving through the Marlborough’s 349 million vines to Nelson, the bus driver commentates on the traffic between his broader musings on life.
The main cause to visit Nelson, aside from a hostel with a jacuzzi, is Abel Tasman National Park. A water taxi drops me at Torrent Bay for the 5 hour trek back. Heading up the coast, the skipper points out blue penguins and seals. The seal pups make me almost as wibbley as kittens do. As I’m informed there are 800,000 of them I wonder whether they would miss just one…
Abel Tasman is confusingly beautiful. Neat tracks wind through topaz seas, towering ferns and perfectly placed plants. Even the mosses looked mindful.
After an evening of poorly played pool, I head across to Kaikora. Stopping in Blenheim to spend money I don’t have on things I don’t need.*
Kaikora is famous for its whales, seals and dolphins. After 3 hours cycling, I arrive at Ohau stream. A short ramble upstream, I discover a wriggling mess of seal pups under a waterfall. Big fan.
On the slog back I pull up at ‘Nin’s Bin’, a dilapidated caravan selling crayfish. A pin board of faded photos commemorates Ronald Clark (and his very obvious toupee). There is no explanation, but I assume he was the old owner. Seeking a high protein and low carb lunch, crayfish is bang on the mark. And only $8, warm with garlic. I place my order. The lady behind the counter lifts up the lid of her cool box for me to select my own crayfish. On their shells, in black marker, are numbers upwards from 67. This turns out to be the price of the crayfish itself, then you add on the $8 to make it edible. All good intentions dashed, I change my order to $6 chips. The portion size is suitable to feed a small zoo. That evening, I use the leftovers and 3 stray eggs to create ‘egg fried chips’. Not my proudest work.
In the hot tub at my alpine lodge accommodation, I meet Tamsin, a South African Swiss. The following day we walk through a park with arches made from whale jaws and visit the local aquarium, which was started in an old shipping container. The main appeal is ‘touch tanks’ where you can molest small fish and sea anemones.
Other titbits of information include the use of coral for bone grafts due to the similar architecture and chemical composition… That the meditative songs of the humpback whale are unique to each male, often last around 35 minutes and perfectly recited throughout their mating lifespan…. And, as a fish grows it doesn’t grow new scales, rather, the existing scales become larger. Therefore, like the growth rings of a tree, a fish can be aged by inspection of its scales.
To celebrate these wonderful creatures, we decide to eat one. The chippy in town has billboards boasting various accolades. It sucks us in and spits us out, abusing us with the cost of their tomato ketchup and mysterious (not) mayonnaise.
This feast is now coagulating as I’m exported to Christchurch. I have been warned, by many, that the city is still in tatters following the 2011 earthquakes.
Guess I’ll be finding out…
*not factually correct. It was really cold so I needed a fur coat**
**don’t be ridiculous! A hoody.