LAST CLASS

This morning, I held my final class of this cruise, and distributed the remaining art materials amongst the recipients, since the plan was always for the materials to recede as the trip went along, leaving us with only the minimum amount of gear to take back home with us in the luggage – when you’re flying, every gram counts…

In the immortal words of Mary Poppins and Bart Simpson; my work here is done.

When we disembark from the ship in a couple of days time, we will be in Sydney, where we will be staying for a couple of nights before flying home. In preparation for that, we’ve changed the last of our US dollars at reception for Australian dollars. It isn’t a lot, but it’ll probably pay for a taxi to our hotel.

Tonight, the clocks went back again, so we are now 11 hours ahead of UK time.

After tonight, we also only have one final episode of Stargate Atlantis left to watch.

AT SEA

We’re back at sea, which has mostly been choppy, with a surprisingly noticeable swell, although it did seem to be calming down a little later on. It’s been windy out, resulting in the top deck being closed.

I ran my penultimate class this morning, and spent much of the rest of the day doing not very much at all.

In the evening, after dinner, we watched Mike Young, a guest act from Australia, who spends much of his time on an oyster farm, and plays the banjo in the evenings. He was billed as a multi-instrumentalist, playing several instruments in a medicocre fashion, but shone when he played the banjo, which was clealy his first love.

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…

Follow watercolour artist Peter Woolley's adventures as he runs art workshops on the high seas…