WINDY WELLINGTON

Today, we arrived at our final New Zealand port – the Capital City – Wellington.

It’s sometimes known as Windy Wellington for good reason. Today, it was blowing quite a hoolie.

Wellington wasn’t quite what I expected. For starters, it’s quite a compact city; I learnt later that this is largely due to the shape of the land here, and its location. Its very hilly, and most of its flatter areas, reaching out from the hills to the sea in the bay, is reclaimed land.

It’s also a very green city. There are high-rise buildings in the central area, naturally, but nothing excessively high, and the rest of the buildings punctuate a series of modestly-sized hills.

We were up early, in preparation for what we expected to be a rather packed day. Soon after breakfast we were on the quayside, catching the free shuttle bus into town (no pedestrian access is permitted in the port area).

The shuttle bus had two stops; the first one being by the old government buildings, but we stayed on for the second stop, which was the Te Papa museum, a large modern building located on the waterfront, housing a series of different exhibitions and galleries on five floors. It was one of those huge, airy sort of places that when you walked it, it just slightly took your breath away…

One particular exhibition was of interest to us, and had been highly recommended by Paul, one of the lecturers. The exhibition is simply entitled ‘Gallipoli’, and is the brainchild of none other than film director, Peter Jackson – of whom much more later – in conjunction with Weta Workshop. It is a walkthrough exhibition taking the visitor through the horrors of war, specifically the invasion of Gallipoli, in which many thousands of New Zealand soldiers lost their lives fighting against the Turks.

There are animated models showing the topograhy of the terrain and the movements of soldiers, accompanied by voiced explanations and occasional music. In one section, visitors are encouraged to don 3D glasses in order to watch a series of slides that were filmed with an early 3D camera.

All of this was eclipsed, however, by about half a dozen standalone exhibits housed in their own individual sections. Each one featured a tablaux of between one and three figures, all of whom were three-times normal size… and they were jaw-droppingly amazing. The lighting was subtle and the scenes were harrowing and thought-provoking, but what was most amazing was just how hyper-realistic they were, right down to the open wounds and the hairs on their arms and faces.

After the Gallipoli exhibit, we wandered into the Nature exhibit. Birds, animals, plants trees, geology and other natural phenomenom were featured, as one would expect, but what made it all refreshing was the way that technology has been employed to convey the information. Hardly anything was static; information boards were animated and interactive, and even the shadows of dinosaur skeletons, if you stood looking at them long enough, suddenly moved all by themselves… a nice touch!

We could easily have spent all day there, just in the Gallipoli and Nature exhibits. We made a brief visit to the art galleries on floor five, but then, as time was getting on, we made our way back to the shuttle bus to return us to the ship for lunch. Lunch wasn’t necessarily the reason we headed back – we could just as easily have eaten out, but we had to be on the quayside for 1:15pm for an excursion…

Once again, we weren’t on escorting duties; this was another tour that we’d bought tickets for as punters. This time, we were heading to ‘Wellywood’… Wellington’s movie industry district packed full of film studios and associated businesses. Specifically, our tour was to the Weta Workshop, home of digital and physical special effects for more big movies than you could shake a stick at – The Lord of The Rings, The Hobbit, Avatar, Avengers, District 9… to name but a few.

On our way to Wellywood, in two small minivans, each endowed with Lord of the Rings logos, our guide told us all about how Wellington is in a process of huge change at the moment, due to the fact that all buildings are being inspected and assessed for their resistance to earthquakes. Those that are given a yellow sticker must be upgraded within twelve years, after which they will be given a red sticker, demanding that they be demolished.

She also pointed out the many personal cable cars that many of the houses along the bay have installed. It is a fact that Wellington has the highest ratio of cable cars to local inhabitants in the world. The traffic was busy as we skirted the large bay, past the airport, and finally to Miramar… and Wellywood.

We came to a halt and were ushered into a building that had nothing on the outside to advertise its purpose. We were told that this is a purpose-built visitor centre for cruise passengers and VIPs. As we walked into the lobby-cum-gift shop, we were greeted by none other than a life-sized model of Gollum.

Before being allowed through the doors into the presentation area, we were told that no photography or video woud be permitted…

Beyond the door was a room packed to the rafters with all sorts of movie goodies. Gory heads, orc spears, armour and futuristic weaponry dominated. Our host gave us the opportunity to handle a sword or two and to feel the weight of one of the arms designed for Gimli and other dwarfs. Here, there were miniatures and costumes, and we were given a talk on how things were made, along with a few behind-the-scenes tidbits.

Halfway through, we were sat down in front of a large video screen to watch a sort of a trailer showcasing some of the stuff they’d done, in context, interspersed with key figures, including Peter Jackson, involved in the production and running of Weta.

Alongside all this, we were told that only a few doors down, work was currently in process on James Cameron’s continuation of the Avatar series of movies. Once back on the minibus, our guide drove us through the area, pointing out where different departments were. We paused to see a giant green screen in the back lot of one of the buildings, but were told that we couldn’t go in, or get any closer because of secrecy.

This was a little frustrating. I must confess that I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect with the tour, and rather guessed that we weren’t going to see anything particularly significant, other than what we saw in the presentation. Our guide reeled off information about Peter Jackson, and just how much money he’s put into the area; she told us stories of the time Lord of the Rings was in production, and of the actors, where they stayed and the antics they got up to, and up to a point, it was simply great to be there, and feeling that we were right in the heart of New Zealand’s bustling film industry. It was just a tad frustrating that it was all going on behind closed doors.

Things became a little more hands-on and interesting as we were driven out of town, and up onto Victoria Park, a large, natural area of high land overlooking the city. Here, we were led down into the trees, and shown were several key moments from The Fellowship of the Ring were filmed. Remember the ‘Shortcut to Mushrooms’, and the hobbits rolling down a hill between the trees, landing in a heap? Right here…

When Frodo senses that something is wrong, and they must get off the road? That happened just there… And when the black rider comes into shot as the four hobbits huddled under a small cutting beneath a tree? Yep… that’ll be just here. The tree roots were made and brought in, and Peter Jackson had several smoke machines pumping out the eerie mist hanging in the surrounding trees, but the cutting is there, and with the aid of large laminated screenshots from the film, we were able to stand in the exact spot where these things were conceived back in the day. I love all that kind of stuff.

At the end of the tour, we were dropped off back in town, near the public cable car.

We bought return tickets and took the ride up to the top, were we had planned to enjoy a cup of something nice and a cake in the cafe there. Unfortunately, it was late afternoon by this time and the cafe was closed. Not only that, it was raining and the wind was blowing quite hard, so we snapped a few photos as best we could, and took a bit of a walk around to see what there was to see, before heading back down on the cable car. This is definitely a place to visit, and spend more time, should we be fortunate to come back here again some time.

Finally, back at ground level, we walked to the old government buildings, took a few photos and joined the growing queue for the shuttle bus. It took a while, and one or two passengers were starting to get a little agitated; the controller who was stood there told them that they’d been instructed to reduce the number of buses down to one after 5pm… which, in hindsight, was probably a bad idea…

Eventually, we were back on board the Columbus, reflecting on what a satisfying, and full day it had been. We left port at around 9pm, and are now on our way towards Sydney, in Australia.

There are now three sea-days before reaching Sydney. I have two more classes to run during that time, and when we hit land again, we will be disembarking the Columbus for the last time.

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