Wednesday, July 29, 2009

City and Sea

We’ve been back from our trip for what seems like eons now, the subtle tides of reverse culture shock have long since ebbed, and a few weeks ago I got around to cleaning out the luggage. In my suitcase, in what I believed was an unused pocket, I found a sizeable plastic bag filled with dirt. How long the fine, powdery soil had been there, or where in the world I picked it up, or for what reason, I have no idea. I can only thank my lucky stars the LAX security forces didn’t throw me in a Homeland Security dungeon on charges of bioterrorism. They did take my bag of apples.

In any case, I’ll wrap up the narrative of our trip with some of the highlights of the last week of our stay. Our love of harbor cities demanded that we take a harbor tour, and it turned out that the Museum of Wellington City and Sea offered a particularly appealing program: the Ships and Chips tour.

The tour starts with a brief account of Maori creation myths, then dashes through a selection of the top 101 stories from the 20th century that are relevant to the day’s main attraction. At this point you are whisked outside to catch the vessel that will carry you across the Wellington Harbour to Matiu/Somes Island.

The island’s name reflects modern relations between Maori, the original settlers, and Europeans, or Pakeha: peaceful coexistence, mutual respect, and a prevailing "get it done" attitude. As Matiu, the island had been the site of an important fortified stronghold, or pa. In the 19th century, the island was renamed after Joseph Somes, deputy-governor of the New Zealand Company, and served as a sort of Ellis Island for the unwanted: the diseased, prisoners of war, and individuals guilty of belonging to races or political affiliations suspected of anti-nationalist agendas.

The journey to the island was magnificent. For winter especially, and considering the beginning of our trip, the skies were sunny and the water clear and steady. The white towers of the city’s Central Business District quickly fell away, and within 20 minutes we reached the green island.

We were greeted by Matt, one of the rangers who lives on the island. He escorted our party into a little outbuilding where we got the lay of the land and checked our bags for mice, which have been kept off the island as part of conservation efforts. After Matt’s talk we were free to range the island’s various loops, with the only significant rule being to return in time for the ferry. Before heading off, though, Matt taught us the Maori word for “hawk”: kahu.

After enjoying our boxed lunch of the Kiwi standby, fish and chips, we began a large circle around the perimeter of the island. Soon we were found the cemetery memorializing the quarantined who had perished, and just off the south coast the smaller Leper Island, so called for the Chinese businessman forced to live in a cave for a year until he died not of leprosy but kidney failure. The walk was far from grim, however, as the alien trees and the rocky shores, and the call of the red-crowned parakeets/kakariki provided plenty of satisfying wonderment, even if we didn’t spy the elusive tuatara, a contemporary of the dinosaurs. Atop the island are the conservationists’ buildings, and near the working lighthouse I found a tram track dated to 1866. From that point we could see, across the harbor, the narrow, winding road we’d taken around the Miramar peninsula a number of times, including just the day before.

Our aim was the Chocolate Fish, the popular café in Scorching Bay, Miramar, but we knew that was impossible since the establishment had closed recently under scandalous circumstances. Our friend Jack agreed to take us to its replacement, if only to enjoy the view, and then on a tour around the city’s extensive coastline.

Since New Zealand is so far away as to seem either exotic or an abstraction of time and place, one of the questions I’m asked most, not unreasonably, is “What’s it like?” The simplest answer I can offer, at least of Wellington, is San Francisco with Seattle weather. The domestic architecture is a mixture of Victorian and modern, and in the countryside or along the shores you are likely to find sprinklings of weather-beaten bachs (pronounced “batches”)—little huts that serve as summer homes and vacation getaways.

As we drove through these little seaside villages, we looked out for blue penguins and shags and took in Jack’s engaging commentary. At one point we reached the end of the road and the awesome slope of Red Rocks. The landscape was impressive as it was, but it didn’t hurt to learn that it had doubled as the site where Frodo and Sam hid from a troop of Haradrim in the shadow of the Black Gate. In every sense of the word, this place is fantastic.

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Blogger Eric D. Lehman said...

Alas for Chocolate Fish!

11:51 AM  
Blogger Jack M. said...

Great photo of the lighthouse, Ryan. Check out my version (bottom right on my photography page - ). I like yours better but it looks like we were standing in the same spot!

- Jack

PS - My company will be taking people to Somes Island as of next summer, we'll be the first tourcompany to have the license!

7:17 PM  
Blogger Ryan Rasmussen said...

Thanks, Jack! That was the second of seven attempts to get it just so, LOL.

And congrats on the license! That'll open up a whole new avenue of business/fun.

7:26 PM  

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