I’m not sure if this is always the case, but when one tours Wellington just before, during or after a Tolkien-related theatrical premiere, there are signs. Everywhere. Times Square-grade Bilbo Baggins posters cloak entire sides of buildings. Gandalf banners flutter from light posts. Elephant-sized fiberglass trolls glare at passersby. While it seems the entire Kiwi nation has proudly embraced Middle-earth, nowhere are the PDA’s more evident than the capital city, hometown of director Peter Jackson and Weta, his award-winning visual effects company. But more on that later…

We began our first day on the North Island, the day after our ferry crossed the Cook Strait in rough weather… learning about another ferry that sank in rough weather while crossing the strait. The Wahine Ferry Disaster of 1968 claimed 53 human lives and at least 200 albatrosses. (Interestingly enough, the number of Wahine victims has increased over the years). This timely information came to us via the Museum of Wellington City and Sea, offering free exhibits on local maritime and landlubber history. The museum introduced us to Pelorus Jack, a wild dolphin who “guided” vessels entering the Wellington harbor in the late 19th century, Mrs. Chippy, a male cat who sailed to Antarctica in 1914, and Paddy the Wanderer, an Airdale Terrier adopted by the entire town after his young owner died in the 1930s.


Various “tools” used to help endangered kakapo birds “make boom-boom.”

No visit to Wellington would be complete without a (free) visit to Te Papa. This museum is huge — six stories of New Zealand history, art and even politics. Over the course of two visits, we ogled at a fermented giant squid, absorbed a gallery of European art and read up on Maori spiritual beliefs. Te Papa also provided a primer on avian sex habits. Through the aptly titled, “Mission Kakapo Copulation” exhibit, we learned kakapo birds are incredibly slow breeders, mating only every few years depending on the bloom of some plant or other. In 1995, only 51 kakapos existed, and scientists launched a concerted effort to bring the goofy, flightless nocturnal birds back from the brink of extinction. A hilarious documentary on loop chronicles the creative techniques scientists have experimented with to persuade the birds to mate, including building a robotic female kakapo meant to excite the males into, um, doing their business.

“Sadly, this modern-day Mata Hari didn’t get any boom-boom from the males,” laments the film’s narrator.

I scoured YouTube to find a copy of the video, and this was the best version I could find. If you feel compelled to learn more, visit the New Zealand Kakapo Recovery Programme and meet Sirocco, the mission’s feathery mascot (he and I are Facebook and Twitter friends).

I have already noted our disappointment in the first of The Hobbit film franchise, but it didn’t stop us from thoroughly enjoying the experience of watching the movie in the Embassy Theatre, site of the world premiere just a few weeks before, and experiencing just a tad of unbridled joy after stumbling upon the filming location of the “Get off the road!” scene in The Fellowship (Hint: It’s in the Town Belt near the Mt. Victoria Lookout). And although we had heard the Weta Cave is merely a tiny gift shop disguised as a museum, we adopted a “why not?” attitude and hopped the bus to nearby Miramar in order to see it.

Get off the road

“Get off the road!”

The Weta Cave is a tiny gift shop disguised as a museum and chances are, it will be packed with other tourists when you visit. The cave and connected studio and offices are located at the end of a rather residential street, Camperdown Road. It’s free to shuffle around and eye the various (expensive!) movie figurines and books available for purchase. A 20-minute film detailing the company’s history is interesting, but it almost comes across as an employment film, the kind you show a new employee to get them jazzed up about your company’s mission before revealing your horrendous health benefit plan.

If, after the obligatory photo shoot with Gollum, Gandalf and Ringwraith, you too are Weta-ed out, bus back to the city and catch the cable car ($3.50) to the lush Botanic Gardens. Shaded paths wind down the hillside through designated gardens of hydrangeas, succulents and fragrant plants and flowers. The Lady Norwood Rose Garden, arranged in a circle around a fountain, is the showstopper. We wandered in circles there, pressing our sniffers to “Matawhero Magic,” “Playboy” and “Claude Monet” among more than a hundred other varieties of roses.

Continuing in the direction of the Wellington Parliament building known as “The Beehive,” we passed a curious graveyard, the Bolton Street Memorial Park, with its 19th century-era graves and tombs haphazardly planted on a steeply sloping hill overlooking the Wellington Urban Motorway. An estimated 3,700 burials in the park were exhumed between 1968 and 1971 to allow for the construction of the highway right through the middle of the graveyard. The bodies were subsequently relocated to a large communal vault. The whole affair has resonated as a blight on Wellington history, and today preservationists are working to preserve the cemetery and the stories of the people buried there. Be sure to grab a free park brochure on site or online here. The featured stories of the deceased may not read like Tolkien, but they’re fascinating nonetheless.

Additional (FREE) Wellington Sites:

Cuba Street – Bohemian meets boutique in this shopping district, part of which is blessedly closed to vehicle traffic


Mona Lisa Moko

Mokomuseum: National Tattoo Museum, 187 Vivian Street – Learn the historical and spiritual significance of the Tā Moko, Maori skin carving (typically of the face)

City Gallery, 101 Wakefield Street – New Zealand and international contemporary visual art. Through Feb. 17, be sure to see Ben Cauchi‘s eery black and white ambrotype and tintype images

The Town Belt – Hit the Town Belt for hiking trails and access to Mt. Victoria Lookout, offering panoramic views of the city and harbor

SSS Bob Barker, docked at Taranaki Street Wharf – Meet the SSS Bob Barker, a former Norwegian whaling vessel the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (of “Whale Wars” fame) purchased to fight whaling thanks to a gift from legendary T.V. personality Bob Barker