Reflections of the Wellington waterfront. © Bernd Hildebrandt

Wellington: the coolest capital


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Whichever way you come at it, Wellington is all about drama.

If you approach by land – whether driving State Highway 2 from Hawke's Bay and Wairarapa and over the Remutakas, or by State Highway 1 from Kāpiti and easing down the steep decline of Ngāuranga Gorge – you’ll take a sweeping right-hander and Wellington will unfurl in front of you like a banner.

Wellington this morning.. 😍😍😍 @jonathanushernz

A post shared by Wellington - LIVE (@wellingtonlive) on Mar 27, 2017 at 10:46pm PDT

It’s even more dramatic by rail, where you burst from a tunnel into the light and there are the harbour and the city, right there in front of you. If you come by sea, as cruise ship passengers do, and those cruising on the Interislander ferry service from Picton, you’ll find Wellington announces itself no less suddenly, the harbour entrance indistinct enough in the breakers gnawing at the iron-bound south coast that an explorer of the stature of James Cook himself completely overlooked it, first time round.

But if you want real drama, come here by air when Wellington’s on song. For our beloved capital city is synonymous for most Kiwis with wind, and there is good reason for this. Suffice to say that despite the fact we’re a sizeable city, we have very clean air down here, thanks to something town planners describe as ‘air shed’: Wellington’s air is getting shed most of the time, and if we do suffer from local air quality issues, they’re more likely to have an impact on residents of Akaroa or Palmerston North than on anyone goggling at the Beehive. This has obvious implications for aviation.

In most civilised parts of the world, air travel has become so mundane as to be positively boring. Wellington can help with that.

The airport is aligned north-south across the narrow isthmus of land between Lyall Bay on the south coast and Evans Bay in the harbour, and this creates a venturi through which the northerly or the southerly alternately rip with gusto or gust with rippo.

In these conditions, your captain will come on the intercom and explain that ‘there is some weather about’ and he is expecting you’ll experience ‘a few bumps’ on your final approach to Wellington, and instruct the cabin crew to prepare the cabin for landing. The hosties will quicken the pace at which they’re flinging used paper cups in a rubbish bag, smile reassuringly, then stampede to the front of the plane to strap in and grip their armrests, white-knuckled, muttering silent prayers.

Then it will be as though some titanic infant has mistaken your Airbus 380 for a rattle and is trying to get it to make some noise. Nor will s/he be disappointed: the airframe will creak and bang merrily, and there will be stifled sobs and moans from your fellow travellers. Those at the windows will be staring in horror at the fangs of the rocks and whitecaps of Lyall Bay just beneath the wings (approaching from the south), or at the amused expressions of Roseneath residents sipping chardonnay in their conservatories just beyond the starboard wingtip, as it seems (approaching from the north), before the plane suddenly will bang once, twice, sometimes three times onto the tarmac. Screams are common. And once the plane is outside the terminal, spontaneous applause is all but routine. Over it all, the captain will come on the intercom again and, in a voice that suggests this was all in a day’s work and he doesn’t have to go and change his pants, ‘Welcome to Wellington’.

Pretty bloody marginal

Whichever way you look at it, Wellington looks pretty bloody marginal. There’s a good reason for that. The landscape was created by seismic activity – that’s earthquakes, to you and me. The Pacific and the Australian plates meet passionately directly below the city. The resulting buckling and crumpling that went on – and is still going on, in its own sweet geological time – is what gave us the crumpled and buckled hills with which Wellington abounds.

There are thousands of little fault lines beneath the city, along with a couple of biggies under Wellington and several more in the wider region. There was a major earthquake on one of these faults in 1855 (at an estimated magnitude of 8.2, it was the most powerful New Zealand has ever recorded) which wrecked a whole lot of stuff (including the decorative ambitions of the town hall’s architect: all the frilly stone balustrading and a rather imposing clock tower he’d specified had to go), but which also gave us one the country’s iconic sports grounds, the Basin Reserve. The city fathers (cities didn’t have mothers back then) were happily planning on dredging Kumutoto Stream and the swampy basin at its headwaters so as to make it all navigable when, nek minnit, it wasn’t there anymore. Instead, there was a broad, swampy circular paddock just asking to be marked up and have wickets hammered into it.

Well, that goes down in the Great Big Book of Silver Linings.

The CBD is sort of crammed apologetically at the feet of the frowning hills, as though it accepts that the next decent shake will tip it into the sea. To be fair, it probably will. Meanwhile, roads snake off up into the hills, and concealed up there is a bewildering array of suburbs nestled in valleys connected by viaducts and tunnels. Many of them look much the same, and visitors to Wellington can easily become disorientated. Don’t feel bad: so can long-term residents who stray off their own stamping ground. The general pattern of suburban settlement in Wellington was that the well-to-do built on the sunny ridges or on the (scarce) flats, while the poorer folk built in the dank valleys. And since those pioneering days, Wellingtonians have dramatically broadened the definition of real estate to include cliff faces: some more modern housing seems literally suspended from the hillsides.

And amongst it all, there are the hills themselves. Many of these are bare of development, and it is these high, windswept summits – Mount Victoria, Northland Hill, Wrights Hill, Johnsons Hill, Makara Peak, Mount Kaukau – looming from the urban ruck that gives Wellington its rugged charm. The visionary town fathers reserved a broad swathe of the hillsides directly adjacent to the CBD and planted it in pine forest: this is known as the Town Belt, and it is a boon to the city, both for the relief it gives from the urban aspect (all you have to do is lift your eyes to the hills), and for the opportunities it gives for recreation.

He tangata

Before Wellington was ‘discovered’ by Europeans and named after one of Great Britain’s more irascible celebrities, it was home to Māori, who knew it as Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Tara’s Big Cloak, or harbour). It’s also known as Te Upoko-o-te-Ika-a-Māui, designating it as the head of the great fish of Māui that the North Island is held to be, which has interesting anatomical implications for Auckland. We digress. The first person supposed to have visited the future site of Wellington was the legendary Polynesian explorer, Kupe, who dropped by in around the 10th century. The similarly legendary Tara, and the tribe that bears his name, Ngāti Tara, date their occupation to the thirteenth century, but by the time of first European contact, the shores of Te Whanganui-a-Tara were sparsely populated.

The European history of Wellington began in earnest when the land around the harbour was selected for settlement by the New Zealand Company, an enterprise founded by the brilliant and decidedly shady Englishman, Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Wakefield divided the block up and sold it to would-be colonists, who were the first (but not the last) New Zealanders to learn a hard lesson in reading between the lines of the blandishments of real estate agents.

When the first shipload of settlers arrived in early 1840, they found that the flat town site and the endless rolling downs of the hinterland were figments of Wakefield’s imagination. What they saw instead was Wellington. There was flat land, OK – the swampy floodplain of the Hutt River, where the original settlement was attempted – but the sweet pastureland they imagined they’d be tilling and grazing was nowhere to be seen.

The only happy people aboard were Scotsmen, who looked at the mist-covered, frowning, stony hills crowding the harbour and were thrilled.

Worse still was the spectacle of the surveyors, consulting the plan of ‘Britannia’ (as Wakefield had named it) and trying to fit its neatly laid-out grid to the unconducive landscape. And worst of all was the news that the New Zealand Company’s principals were, even now, as everyone rowed ashore with their tents and toothbrushes, still negotiating with the local Māori to hammer out the details of the purchase.

Anyway. After this unpromising start, Britannia got underway. After being flooded out once or twice, the whole outfit was moved around the harbour from Pito-one (Petone, on the Lower Hutt foreshore) to Port Nicholson, the city’s present-day site. It was soon re-named Wellington (and Māori came to refer to it as ‘Poneke’, a transliteration of ‘Port Nick’), and everyone more or less got on with.

After Wellington was made the nation’s capital city in 1865, it became the home of New Zealand’s public service. That development, in many ways, set the tone of the populace. For much of last century, Wellington was regarded as a rather dreary and conservative place, populated by rather dreary and conservative people, all dressing identically and working monotonous office jobs. Office hours were strictly observed, and after 5:30 pm, the place was basically shut. This state of affairs persisted until well into the 1970s.

The Beehive and parliament buildings

Parliament buildings and the Beehive today. © Russell Street Creative Commons

But after the shake-up of the civil service in the 1980s, everything changed. The public service was no longer dominated by dreary, middle-aged people who favoured walk shorts and cardigans: public servants then and since are more typically young and idealistic, drawn to the word ‘service’ in the description to government jobs when they could be earning more money in the private sector. Your contemporary civil servant is far more likely to be young, these days, favouring unconventional clothes and hairstyles and sporting the large calf muscles you get from commuting from your home high in the hills by bike. And of course, it is this demographic that has made Wellington the vibrant place that it is, in 2011 voted by Lonely Planet (not without justification) as the ‘world’s coolest little capital in the world.’

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