It has been more than two weeks since our Qantas flight from Brisbane touched down at Auckland’s airport and our friend Pam met us and drove us to One Tree Hill, a city landmark from which we gazed at New Zealand’s largest city in every direction.
In the days that followed we began exploring one of nature’s most generously endowed countries. We had long heard and read that New Zealand was beautiful, yet it’s one thing to read descriptions and another to actually be here and be awed by the nation’s profusion of mountains and valleys, lakes and rivers, fjords and glaciers, and rainforests and sea coasts. Other countries may have these things singly or in pairs while here it is their endless profusion that is so amazing. It seems there is no part of NZ that does not have its share of beauty, at least on the South Island where we are traveling at the moment. As we drive, it is hard to keep our eyes on the road and not be distracted by the changing views constantly unrolling around us. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We met Pam and her husband Ian in Istanbul through our friends Tim and Jan, and it was Pam, who, upon learning we would be coming to Australia, invited us not to miss her country since we would be in the neighborhood, so to speak. We hadn’t done enough research about New Zealand before arriving and weren’t sure how we might go about exploring it. “No worries,” as they say here down under; Pam and Ian have been more than generous with their time and attention. They are a savvy couple. Ian, perhaps because he is a commercial pilot, has great skill at reading weather maps, and he knows his country. This island nation’s fickle weather can have such an impact on the success of one’s travel plans.
Pam suggested that after a couple days with her and Ian in Auckland, we take the scenic train down the West Coast of the North Island to the National Park where I did the Alpine Crossing I’ve previously written about and then down to the city of Wellington at the North Island’s southern tip.
It was Ian who urged us to fly from Wellington quickly to Queenstown in the South Island and then work our way back up along its lovely West Coast during what looked to be a good weather window. Following our friends’ suggestions, we’ve followed an itinerary that has worked surprisingly well. We feel very lucky.
Experiencing Australia and New Zealand in a single lengthy trip has been rewarding. Superficially, they are similar. Both were loyal British colonies that discovered their nationhood when their young men fought and died together in the bloodbath at Gallipoli in World War I. Since then, both countries remember those events both at home and in Turkey where hundreds of their citizens go each year for ANZAC Day, a very important national holiday later this month.
Both countries have similar lifestyles. Both are socialist with equal rights enshrined in law. We’ve been told that in Australia, everyone from corporate CEOs to janitors is entitled to four weeks paid holiday each year. We won’t be surprised to learn that the situation is similar here. The minimum hourly wage is high, so that even young and less skilled workers have enough to live on. Both countries have national health care. Poverty in New Zealand, if it exists, must have a different face than it does in many other countries, including the U.S. Both Australia and New Zealand are orderly, clean, and highly regulated.
As is our wont, Kay and I have visited several New Zealand museums. They have taught us some important facts about this country’s progressive history. For instance, it was the first country in the world to give women the vote in 1893, a fact of which the Kiwis are justifiably proud. It also introduced old-age pensions in 1898.
It is hard to spend even a few hours in New Zealand and not be aware of the importance of Maori culture. The Maoris are Polynesians that settled and ruled this
land centuries ago until the arrival of Europeans, mostly British explorers and American whalers, which happened in waves from the end of the 18th century onwards. However, the name Nieuw Zeeland or New Sealand is from the Dutch, who discovered the islands long before in the 17th century.
Maori tribes fought each other, and while the Europeans and Maoris fought, too, they also cooperated. The Europeans needed protection and labor while the Maoris had a growing need for European goods, especially muskets. The settlers continued to come, and as the Maoris felt more and more threatened and dispossessed, there were many European-Maori conflicts. The Maoris had strength and some able leaders, but little by little they couldn’t resist the greater European numbers and firepower. New Zealand became a British colony in 1840.
By the end of the 19th century, it seemed to some that the Maori people and their culture would become extinct. And yet, that didn’t happen. In the 20th century, Maori leaders fought to regain rights and recognition that had long been suppressed and denied, until today Maori culture is everywhere in evidence. Every official plaque and museum card is written in two languages. The Maori language is taught in school. We have watched and listened to a Maori news channel on television. And when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge arrived for a state visit a few days ago with baby George in tow, they were honored by a Maori ceremony.
Of course, Kay and I, not understanding any of the Maori language, were intrigued when on the scenic train down from Auckland, the spoken commentary referred to almost every natural feature we passed by its Maori name. Sometimes, the words sounded risible to our ears; the name of one river sounded to us like “fucka-youa.” The Maori name for New Zealand is Aotearoa, “The Land of the Long White Cloud.”
We include this description of the scenic train since, like us, some of you may be train lovers, and we’d never been on a train quite like this. First of all, its narrow-gauge design meant that its cars are not as wide as those we are used to in other countries. Yet, these were wonderfully clean and comfortable. The two passenger cars had assigned seating and were separated by a car containing a cafe. At the head of the train, directly behind the locomotive, was an observation car with no seats but with open sides for passengers to experience the scenery and take photos without shooting through glass. At the rear of the train was a luggage van that held our cases until we got off.
The passenger cars had double seating on each side of a narrow aisle. Besides the large, clean picture windows there were additional dead lights above them providing an extra measure of brightness. The toilets at the end of the cars were impeccably clean, something we’ve almost never seen on trains elsewhere. There was even warm water flowing from the tap. The café car sold sandwiches and drinks but also light meals that an attendant heated in a microwave. One could consume these items at one’s seat or at one of the tables in the café. At floor level next to my window seat was a electrical outlet into which I plugged my computer. Passengers were supplied with headphones enabling them to listen to an intermittent commentary about the passing countryside. It was an easy way to learn how early settlers and the feats of engineering that built this railroad opened up this rugged land. Our train journey was in two legs broken by our two-day visit to the Tongariro National Park. We’re very happy we chose this way to begin our travels and recommend it to any of you visiting New Zealand.
As principal cities go, Wellington with a population of less than half a million is small, yet it was judged to be the “coolest little capital in the world” in Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel (2011). We didn’t immediately see why. The weather was a factor. During our two-day visit it rained, at first intermittently and then steadily. The low clouds kept us from taking the cable car to a hilltop lookout and getting an overall view. Then, there was the wind, so common that the city has been nicknamed Windy Welly.
We did observe that Wellington’s center and deep-water harbor is ringed by hills. On our first day it was the harbor front that occupied us most. There, we came upon an interesting sight: a long Maori canoe filled with fifteen or twenty white paddlers who were executing moves in unison to the command of a single Maori woman standing amidships. She would bark something in Maori and the paddlers would respond either with a shout or an action, sometimes both. Unfortunately, we didn’t learn what this exercise was about.
Te Papa is the Maori name for the Museum of New Zealand, praised often as a “must-see” for visitors. It is housed in an enormous, modern structure. On our half-day visit, Kay and I were able to see only a small part of it.
There is a populist quality to Te Papa. It’s a family place with interactive exhibits designed for children. All the permanent installations deal with aspects of New Zealand’s art, crafts, history, and culture. Upon entering, we were immediately struck by wall-size graphics announcing, Gay is Proud for God for Family For Country, and All Women Are Working Women, and But Our Blood Is the Same Colour. The associated exhibits used photos, film footage, and interview clips to document the struggles of the country’s minorities for rights and respect.
We spent time in the upper galleries devoted to painting and sculpture. The work installed there is by New Zealand artists. There are some wonderful portraits of Maori subjects done in the late 19th century by painters trained in Europe who had immigrated to this country.
Another exhibit below arrested us. It is a motorcycle, one of only ten that engineering genius, John Britten, made before his early death at 45. To create it, Britten reimagined how a motorcycle might be made and used unorthodox approaches with carbon fiber and other lightweight materials to create the body and even the engine. In competition, the motorcycle took prizes and set a speed record at Daytona that remains unbeaten. For you who are motor sports enthusiasts, Britten’s name may be well known. We had not heard of him, and his Google bio amazed us. He suffered such serious dyslexia that at school someone had to read exam questions to him and then write the answers as he dictated them. Talk about overcoming a handicap! He went on to a brilliant career as a creative engineer, working in several fields for several companies before going on his own.
The inclement weather shaped our Wellington visit. We took refuge in the city’s museums. One that we came upon accidentally and entered to get out of the rain turned out to be a real find. The City Gallery’s mission is to exhibit contemporary artists. At the time of our visit one entire floor was accorded to the work of British artist, Simon Starling. Starling works in film not video, and his film technique reminded me happily of my former work life. I made films before the age of video, and film technology remained my first love.
We were not sure what Starling had to do with a work entitled Wilhelm Noack oHC. This odd little black-and-white film had been made years earlier in a Berlin metal fabricating shop. It consisted mostly of close-ups of materials and machinery: slow, tight camera dollies along racks of pipe, channeling, and angle iron; intricate movements of machine tools; anvils being struck, etc. The footage was accompanied by unsynchronized sounds of metal being worked. It was interesting because of its familiar content and unfamiliar treatment
The projector stood on a stand in the center of a darkened room. The 35mm film’s continuous loop ran on an ingenious film tree that must have been of the artist’s devising. The strangeness of the film combined with the curious projection set-up produced an eerie, slightly surreal effect that we liked very much.
A different film in the City Gallery was a complete and delightful surprise. We have to mention it, even though it probably won’t mean much to most of you who are not students of cinema history. Les statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die) is an early, collaborative work in black-and-white by two greats of French Cinema, Chris Marker and Alain Resnais. (Resnais, in his 90s, recently passed away.)
The film, made in 1953, begins by showing examples of African masks and carvings that had been a living part of African culture until they were taken out of that context and placed in museums where figuratively speaking they “die.” The film goes on to deplore what colonization has done to African societies by westernizing them. Craftspeople that once made one-of-a-kind, sacred objects now make soulless mass-produced items for sale to tourists. Statues Also Die is quite savage in its denunciations and was banned by censors in France for a long time. We felt lucky to have seen it.
That rainy morning the surprises continued. It was lunchtime. We were hungry and since the gallery had a restaurant attached, we stepped in and were given a table. Unbeknownst to us the Nikau Gallery Café, into which we had just stumbled, is one of the city’s best. We ordered a deviled egg apiece and shared a second starter of smoked eel blended with other ingredients that was mouth-wateringly good. Kay’s main dish was a chicken soup that in a creative take on traditional matzo ball, contained some very light ricotta-and-herb gnocchi. My choice was kedgeree, a dish of smoked fish and rice flavored with curry and cumin. For the first time ever in this country and in Australia we were served a plate of bread and butter as an unasked for accompaniment.
We could say much more about our hours in Wellington. The city has a beautiful 19th-century church known as Old St Paul’s made entirely of New Zealand timber but in the English manner with a hammer-beam roof and highly polished floor.
Late on our second day we also discovered funky Cuba Street with its cafes and dive bars. We were beginning to understand what Best in Travel meant by “the coolest little capital.”
Most of our Wellington visit was unplanned, yet it had some happy accidents. Serendipity rewards the efforts of the independent traveler. The happy accidents and encounters are what we remember most fondly.