Category Archives: World Tour

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.

AT SEA

New Zealand is the gift that just keeps on giving. Today, we’ve been sailing down the Eastern coastline of the North Island, and after all those weeks at sea, crossing the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, disappointed by the almost total lack of interesting wildlife, the waters down this stretch have been a veritable banquet of marine delights.

After a wet and windy start to the day, things soon brightened up. I had expected to have a class this morning, but it wasn’t in the programme. What was in the programme was our fortnightly Emergency Drill… yeeey!

There are lots of new faces on board, having taken on a load of new passengers in Auckland yesterday, and it would seem that the passenger drill that had been scheduled for yesterday afternoon, specifically for them, was postponed and lumped into a general all-passenger drill today.

Most of the rest of the day has been spent up on deck watching the wildlife. First, there was a massive pod of dolphins that came past, easily a hundred or more strong. Then, just after lunch, we spotted a hammerhead shark swimming just beneath the water’s surface right alongside the ship. Tracey was particularly happy with that one (as was I), as it was something that she’s never seen before, and has been hoping to spot.

Then there have been the Albatrosses; the great broad-winged birds of the southern oceans, of which we’ve seen a few… and we even saw a couple of whales, just to top things off.

It’s been a very pleasing day at sea, with lots to delight, and the dramatic coastline and mountain shapes off to our right throughout the day.

Tomorrow, we are due to arrive at our final stop in New Zealand, its capital city, Wellington.

AUKLAND, NEW ZEALAND

I feel like all my Christmases and Birthdays have come at once. Not only because of yesterday’s visit to the Hobbiton Film set, which was an extraordinary experience, but I also discovered that I can use my regular phone minutes and data on my EE phone contract when in New Zealand. So I have more access to the internet than I’ve had in weeks. Marvellous!!

After being blown away by Tauranga yesterday, we weren’t totally sure what to expect of Auckland, other than it being a big city – the largest in New Zealand, in fact.

No surprises, then, that it didn’t take us long to decide we like the place. It’s a big city, to be sure, with an impressive high-rise skyline. I always say that a city is a city, but you can’t help warming to some more than others. Auckland is modern and clearly very progressive. Because it has a large university, it also feels like it has a large population of young people, and many of the shops we saw as we walked through it certainly seemed to be aimed at those young folk. Auckland also seems to be a place for backpackers, with lots of backpackers hostels providing cheap accommodation; one of the ladies from the class is getting off in Wellington, and has hired a camper car to take herself around New Zealand for the next three weeks… now that seems like an interesting idea…

One building dominated the skyline as we looked out from the ship at breakfast; the Sky Tower, which is where we headed towards as soon as we’d disembarked. At 328 metres in height (over 1076 feet), it stands taller than the Eiffel Tower. It took two years and nine months to build at a cost of 85 million New Zealand Dollars (about 42 million pounds), and opened in 1997. It weighs a massive 21 million kilograms (or approximately 6000 elephants), apparently.

Entrance to the tower, which includes a lift to the Main Observation level, at 186 metres, and a further lift up to the Sky Deck at 220, cost us 64 NZDollars (roughly £16 each), and it was fabulous!

Bearing in mind we took a similar ride up to the top of the Euromast in Rotterdam and only saw the inside of a cloud, this more than made up for it, and then some.

Needless to say, the views were nothing less than spectacular, in all directions. Both the Main Observation Deck and the higher ‘Sky Deck’ were glass encased circular platforms. Some portions of the floor were also glass, allowing you to walk across. This was a little scary for some, but not half as scary as those people who had paid to walk on the Skywalk Platform outside (where they are attached by ropes to a metal pole that skirts the entire tower), at a cost of 150 NZDollars. For 225 NZDollars, though, the ultimate thrill ride is available; a controlled drop known as the SkyJump, allowing the thrill-seaker to plummet to the ground on wires, with cameras positioned all over the place streaming video to a large TV monitor inside. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t consider taking the plunge… maybe another time…

We had a drink and snacks in the Sky Cafe, while continuing to enjoy the spectacular views, before finally heading back down to ground level. We even spent a bit of money in the gift shop, and both agreed that the visit had been extremely worthwhile.

From the tower, we headed in the direction of a couple of parks we’d identified on Maps.Me.

The first was Albert Park, a small, restful area featuring fountains, colourful flowerbeds and a whole host of massive trees with huge exposed roots.

The second was Auckland Domain, a much larger, sprawling park that is home to the Auckland War Memorial Museum and Cenotaph, and a myriad of footpaths and smaller areas of interest, such as the Wintergardens, and a wooded path known as Lovers Walk.

We ate a beefburger and fries for lunch in the Wintergarden Cafe before heading back towards Downtown Auckland and back to the ship (we didn’t go in the museum).

Many people have disembarked, and a lot of new passengers have come aboard. It seems a little strange to see so many new faces, but the same thing will also happen in Sydney… when we’ll be two of those that are getting off…

TUARANGA – HOBBITON

Today, we arrived in Tauranga, New Zealand, and the world just got a little bit smaller.

I must confess to having been more than a bit excited about this stop, because we were booked to go on an excursion. Not as escorts, for a change, but as bona fide punters. It required us to be up at stupid o’clock (6am) in time for a quick breakfast (although I’m not big on eating at that time in the morning), and to be in the Show Lounge for 7am, ready to be taken to the coach at 7:15am.

Tauranga is in the Bay of Plenty, in the top end of the North Island, and our coach journey lasted just over an hour.

Finally, we arrived at our destination… Hobbiton.

When film director Peter Jackson set out to film Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings ‘ and subsequently ‘The Hobbit’, he sent a helicopter out scouting for good, appropriate locations. In particular, he was on the lookout for somewhere that would make a good Hobbiton, in The Shire. Our guide explained how it was that Peter Jackson came to knock on the door of a farm house, whose farmland had exactly the look and feel that he was looking for. When they were sat around a table and he explained to them that he would like to film part of The Lord of the Rings there, the owner was reputed to have said ‘Lord of the what?…’ he’d never heard of it. His son, who kicked his dad under the table had, though, and told him to say yes. Several years later, that son now manages the operation that we saw today, in conjunction with Wingnut Films, known simply as ‘Hobbition Film Set Experience’.

The area that was chosen had many things going for it. It had lots of rounded hills that would comfortably double as The Shire, but it was also a long way away from anywhere, and more importantly, away from prying eyes. Everyone involved, including the land owner and all the contracters who worked on transforming the area into Hobbiton, had to sign a non-disclosure agreement. The New Zealand government provided the film company with an army, to help build the access road into the area, and who were also subsequently employed to play orcs in the movies. The airspace above the site was even listed as out of bounds to all aircraft, to prevent the media from taking video or photographs of the operation. Any pilot flying over it would lose their pilot’s licence permanently – it was that serious.

I must admit, both Tracey and myself were a little apprehensive about what we were going to see. We’re both fans of the movies, and had taken the time to watch a few of the Hobbiton senes on the tablet in our cabin last night, in preparation. As we sat in the coach that took us along the dusty access road, and then an official guide led us down a little track through some trees, I don’t think were were quite prepared for what came next…

… First came the painted door and little garden of a hobbit hole, natural as can be, and then another… and as the trees opened out and we turned a corner… there we were… in Hobbiton itself.

As our guide – who was very good – led us along the path (all visitors are on guided tours – no-one is allowed to wander around freely by themselves), he pointed out particular locations and viewpoints that corresponded to specific moments in the movies. Looking across the village, we could just make out the pond and the watermill. There was the party field, and the party tree, where Bilbo slipped the ring on during his birthday party. There was Sam and Rosie’s house, where Sam returned at the very end of the final movie, and the door closed to the end credits. And, of course, there was Bag End; a grand hobbit hold to be sure, with a distinctive character all of its own. The sign ‘No Admittance except on party business’ is fixed to the front gate, and the bench where Bilbo and Gandalf sat blowing smoke rings is clearly visible, as is the window, where Gandalf drags Sam through when he’s been listening in on his conversation about the One Ring with Frodo.

The large tree above bag End is the only tree that is totally fake (but looks competely believable); all the other trees and shrubbery are totally genuine. The whole area is watered daily to keep it lush and green. Our guide explained that some doors are large and some small, to accommodate different shots required by the director; large ones for when hobbits are stood in front of them, and small ones for when Gandalf is stood in front of them.

Eventually, the pathway led us, winding through the village, down to the little stone bridge next to the mill with its waterwheel, and to the Green Dragon pub, where we were treated to a cheese scone and a tankard of ale.

We absolutely loved it!

The thing is; they don’t have small people dressed up as hobbits walking around, and there are no information boards or other overtly ‘touristy’ touches. It just is what it is; the hobbiton film set, exactly as it was, as built for the movies, and the whole experience is very respectful of that fact. We were blown away by the amount of detail; little tables outside the front of hobbit holes with pipes propped up, and washing lines with little hobbit clothes hanging on them.

There were, of course, lots of photo opportunities galore, and everyone got their chance to pose in front of hobbit houses, and Bag End. You can’t go in them because they don’t have any interiors to speak of; all of those were filmed in a studio set.

In the afternoon, after a quick lunch back at the ship, we went for a walk into Tauranga. There was lots to see, all within a very short walking distance of the quayside; we walked along its extensive beaches, and along the wooded pathway that went all the way around a headland with an interesting hill upon it. We saw lots of birds and a seal basking upon a rock by the waters edge.

We even finished our visit off with an ice cream before reboarding the Columbus.

This has been our first taste of New Zealand, and we’re quite in love with it already. The landscape is stunning, they speak English, and the cars drive on the left-hand side of the road. What’s not to like?

POETRY READING AND A BIT OF SHAKESPEARE

Today, I had the third class of the three sea-days on our way to our first port on New Zealand, Tauranga, where we are due to arrive tomorrow.

It was farewell to a few folks, for whom this mornings class was their last, who will be disembarking in Aukland in two days time. As we approach the end of first leg of the World Tour, it is marked by a few special performances, the result of much of the work that has gone on during various activities.

The first of those was two nights ago, with the Passenger Talent Show. This afternoon, after lunch, Tracey and I went down to the Atrium, where several of Christine’s proteges were performing their own poetry. It is a testament to Christine’s tuition that, for most, this was the first poetry they had ever written, the first time they had performed, and for some it was the first time they had used a microphone.

A little later, I went to watch ‘A Midsummer Nights Dream’ being performed by the drama group. I’m not quite sure why I went along to watch it; amateur dramatics isn’t something I’m particularly interested in these days, and I really struggle with Shakespeare. They all gave it their best shot, though, and fair play to everyone involved.

After all that culture, it was nice to finish the afternoon up on deck, watching the waves go by, hoping for a glimpse of wildlife, and watching the sunset.

Tomorrow, we have to be up early, because we’ll be arriving in Middle Earth, and we’re going on a trip to Hobbiton…