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Finding Wellness in Wellington – Wellington, North Island, New Zealand

Finding Wellness in Wellington
Wellington, North Island, New Zealand

Just a taste of the general weirdness to be found on the waterfront
Just a taste of the general weirdness to be found on the waterfront
My first 36 hours in Wellington can be summed up in two words; Freakish exhaustion. I had avoided a literal train wreck back in Australia in favor of a mental one in New Zealand. I was sleepless, fantastically hungover from New Year’s celebrations and still ill at ease from the thought of nearly being party to a tsunami and a train derailment in less than a week. All I wanted was peace, quiet, a comfortable bed, good food and Jennifer Garner to wrap her naked body around me and tell me that everything would be all right (stupid Ben Affleck).

What I got instead was the unrelenting bedlam of Base Backpackers hostel, a top bunk in a rickety bed and some trash talking, charm-deficient, good ol’ boy specimens of my countrymen for roommates. You know kind, they constantly talk shit, all women fall into two categories, “bitches” and “ho’s” and are considered mindless sources of sexual gratification. Oh and of course, all these women want to bed the good ol’ boys in question. To hear these guys talk, they had been getting laid by every ho’ of consenting age (barely) in the hostel and the Wellington metropolitan area since they got off the plane. Indeed, at times they even had to fight off women, allegedly creating complex ruses and even running for their lives on one occasion to avoid situations such as three supple German girls wanting to strip them naked and take turns riding them like crazed donkeys, or so the story went. These guys were almost comically confident and arrogant until of course a female entered the room, at which point they would predictably revert to sniveling supplicants, quick to do the bidding of the females. It was quite a show.

Additionally, the good ol’ boys had raided the duty free shop on their way into New Zealand and had - for once I am not exaggerating at all - eight, one-liter bottles of various types of booze which they had set up in the corner of the room along with a variety of mixings like a professional wet bar. Although the promise of booze, scads of ho’s and a general good time was dangled in front of me, my condition was far beyond pulling myself together for a night out. I waited for them to leave and laid down for a long night of elusive, fitful sleep, interrupted by the comings and goings of the good ol’ boys and the ho’s that love them.

After a day and a half of sleep and desperately putting the finishing touches on two paying assignments, it finally came time to familiarize myself with Wellington. Not having a guidebook for NZ, I needed some kind of direction. I initially decided that I would just walk down to the tourist information office to collect a map and any eye-catching brochures, but as usually happens on these innocent walks, I was easily drawn off course over and over by gnarly looking buildings, big squares, tempting crowds of people staring at something and girls with short skirts. The last one wasn’t true at all actually. It was not short skirt weather in Wellington. Having just been in 100 degree heat in Perth days earlier, I was a bit shocked to find myself in 60 degrees at the height of the New Zealand summer. Yes, NZ was much further south on the globe, but I still naively thought that it would at least be beach weather. Far from it, actually, and to make matters worse, the wind was relentless. I had read that Wellington got a little more than the average amounts of wind, but I was not prepared to be nearly knocked off my feet twice in an hour in downtown Wellington.

These weather complaints aside, Wellington was ultimately quite nice. On the ride in from the airport I had noted that the suburban homes were of the quaint, single story, tin roofed, colonial affairs that I had become accustomed to in Oz. But instead of these modest homes being sprawled out across flat, dry desert plains, the houses in Wellington were scattered over green, lush mountainsides and valleys. They dotted the landscape with pleasing disarray, while the surrounding fertile greenery completely masked the presence of any roads leading to them, giving one the impression that the only way to access these homes was by foot, on thin, mud forest paths.

On the flipside, I saw now that downtown Wellington reverted to a familiar scene of steel and glass skyscrapers, but the area was so compact that it was an entirely forgivable urban jungle. Nearby Queen’s Wharf was alive with tourists and sailing fans. A competition sailboat, having clearly just returned from a very important race, was moored with a modest crowd standing by to cheer and snap pictures. The crew was standing around the deck of the boat, each with a giant beer or bottle of champagne in their hands, while they posed for TV and still photographers. Wellington’s waterfront is scrupulously packed with distractions. Museums, shops, playgrounds, strange, but pleasing sculptures, pedestrian bridges, comely walkways and random urban decorations are a jumbled constant. These enticements teased and lured me far beyond my intended turn for the tourism office. Every time I was ready to turn around and home in on the tourist office, something new would catch my eye off in the distance and draw my further afield.

Over an hour later, I finally found my way back to the tourist office, where I loaded myself down with pamphlets, maps and helpful suggestions from the staff. While going through my tourist booty, I had the sudden urge to hit just one or two nearby sights before going back to the hostel for more work, but my willpower failed me. Wellington’s sights are arranged in such a handy manner, barely a hundred meters from each other, one after the other in a deviously tempting path, that two hours later I snapped out of my tourist hypnosis only to find myself all the way across town. I visited the “Beehive” (an odd office building shaped, like guess what?), the old and stately Parliament buildings, the under-whelming Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, Old St Paul’s Church (much better), the National Archive - which I found after no shortage of confused wandering, only to learn that they were closed for a two week holiday break - and finally the Museum of Wellington City and Sea.

Old St Paul's Church
Old St Paul’s Church
The Museum of Wellington City and Sea is superb. The displays are interesting and concise, being just long and detailed enough to be informative without unduly boring fatigued, short attention-spanned travel writers. The open, central staircase has a two story screen hanging through it which periodically displays a slideshow of historical scenes set to music. The highlight was on the third floor where a small theater was running a nine minute, live-action hologram short that told the story of two Wellington-area Maori legends. (I should mention here that the Maori are the native people of New Zealand who have managed, through luck and better colonial attitudes and intentions, to find themselves in a comparatively equal and comfortable position in society, unlike their counterparts in innumerable other countries.) The hologram actors in the short were moving around and sometimes interacting with real-life solid set pieces. I imagined that filming the hologram parts must have been a real bitch for the actors, having to hit those imaginary cues. The whole thing was very impressive and I would have stayed to watch it again, but I had rolled into the museum at 4:30 p.m. and they closed at 5:00, so I dashed around, speed-reading as much as possible in the remaining 21 minutes before closing.

The next day, I resolved to get out and do a little walking. Between my three days on the Indian Pacific, the full day of homeless travel to NZ and then the brunt of my first two days in Wellington being conducted behind my laptop, I was in dire need of exercise and fresh air. I resolved to hike the Southern Walkway, an eleven kilometer (almost seven miles) meandering path that winds up and around the perimeter hills of Wellington. I got started by getting breakfast at the nearby New World grocery store. I loved going to this place. It was as big as a Rainbow Foods (gigantic, US supermarket chain), but unlike the neglected, half-trashed shelves at Rainbow, everything in New World was orderly, lovingly displayed and clean. I would have given anything to do some real, substantial shopping there, instead of just breezing through to pick up fruit and muffins.

On that note, the fruit was the most flawless, perfectly colored and juicy produce I have ever had the pleasure of buying. It looked like the immaculate, fake fruit that you find on movie sets, yet this was clearly naturally grown, god blessed New Zealand fruit. There was no picking around the shelves, looking for the one or two pieces that weren’t either bruised, rotting or housing a family of worms. You could just reach in, grab the first piece you touched and have it be pristine. Finally, as if this shopping weren’t enough of a joy, New World had this madcap approach to check-out. It was set up just like in the U.S., a line of 23 or so check-out isles stretching down to the end of the building, but unlike the U.S. - I still can’t believe this - New World had all of their registers opened and manned by competent, friendly, courteous people! It was a stunning sight to behold. I went shopping twice during perennial grocery store rush hour times and on both occasions the check out lines were only one or two people deep and the wait was less than a minute.

After another gratifying visit to New World and a delicious feast of fruit, muffins and juice, I was off. The walk to the start of the Southern Walkway took me around Oriental Bay, which provided a nice panoramic view of central Wellington across the harbor. I quickly found the entrance to the Walkway and started climbing the zig-zagging path up the hill. Other than a few choice viewing spots, the Southern Walkway was not a particularly scenic hike. Usually the path was completely enshrouded in a cave of foliage. I was nonetheless content with this. Just being able to breathe fresh air and get the blood flowing was all I needed. It was nice to just let my mind deflate and roll through the crazed events of the previous week and preview my plans for the weeks to come.

View from Mount Victoria
View from Mount Victoria
The path finally opened up at the top of Mount Victoria, allowing for a 360 degree view of Wellington, the harbor, the surrounding suburbs and hills. It began to mist at this point, but it was so light that it wasn’t even beading up on my skin. I lingered here for a long interval before continuing down the other side of the mountain. Some distance down the path the signage began to get lazy at the worst possible points. Up until that point, helpful signs had been stuck in no-brainer spots where your choices were to either continue down the well trodden path or jump off a cliff. At these junctures, the signs would clearly and thoughtfully indicate that one should go down the path. However, now I was arriving at junctions where four inviting paths intersected with absolutely no indication as to which direction to continue. I ended up taking numerous wrong turns that cumulatively added several miles onto my entire journey. At one point the path skirted the back end of Wellington Zoo’s Hamadryas baboon habitat. The baboons totally ignored me, even after I half climbed the fence and made my best come-hither baboon-like noises in an attempt to interrupt their stately sitting around eating grass and picking various things out of their assholes.

Soon after I gave up on those killjoy baboons the mist turned to rain. It wasn’t a full-on rain, but it was more than enough for me to encase my digital camera under four layers of protection and don my raincoat. After another extended, unintentional foray off the path, I looked at my watch and noted that I had been walking for about three hours. By my basic calculations at the beginning of the hike, if I did the seven miles at a good clip (three miles an hour), I should have been nearing the end of the Walkway. The next path marker showed that I was in fact still far short of the finish and that it was not going to be an easy finish. All the up and downhill walking had worn me down faster that I expected. I was starting to feel fatigued, sore, hungry and being progressively more wet wasn’t making things any better. Additionally, completing the walk meant going even further away from the city center, into a valley suburb called Island Bay, where I would only have to turn around and catch the bus back to Wellington. I made the executive decision to screw the rest of the path and get back into the city. As if on cue, a bus heading back to the city pulled up and I was headed for home.