We left Tongariro National Park for the 322 km journey to Wellington on a spectacularly scenic train.
We sped past the National Park’s volcanos before the land opened up into beautiful farmland, punctuated by remote frontier communities. As the rolling hills became more pronounced, we passed over a series of gorges with the help of a handful of viaducts. The weather was flawlessly sunny the whole way, although we did pass a rain storm in the distance, which contributed a spectacular rainbow to our view.
On top of the incredible scenery we saw on this journey, the train itself has got to be one of the most comfortable we’ve ever ridden. The carriages were large and incredibly light, owing to the huge (and clean!) windows stretching all the way up to the carriage roof. There was also a full bar, and we hit the jackpot with a comfortable four-seater and table on the best side of the train.
Having said all this, I still have slightly mixed feelings about this train route. It seems that the regular passenger services have gradually reduced over the years while the price of rail travel has increased, resulting in a mode of transport that is significantly more expensive and less convenient than a hire car, coach, or plane (even for shorter journeys). I’m sure this contributes somewhat to New Zealand’s car ownership rate, which ranks amongst the highest in the world. This seems like a surprising exception to New Zealand’s otherwise keen prioritisation of environmental issues, although I do appreciate the difficulties of using public transport to get around such a sparsely populated country.
The following day, we left our Airbnb in the sunshine of a quiet Sunday morning in Wellington. At least, it was quiet until we happened across the Riverfront Market, and it became immediately clear that this was the place to be. Even at 9.30am, there were long queues at the fresh produce market, and food trucks were setting up to serve full hot meals. In fact, the food looked so good that we returned later for lunch and purchased a Hungarian Lángos – a deep fried disc of dough topped with sour cream and cheese, which gave us a nice nostalgia hit back to our 2010 visit to Budapest. We also picked up a butter chicken roti wrap, but sadly Sara didn’t manage to take a photo before I devoured it.
Wellington’s picture-postcard sight is its vibrant red cable car, which shuttles passengers up and down the mountain between the city centre and the botanical garden, with a few residential stations along the way. Needless to say, we gave the cable car a go, and thoroughly enjoyed the ride despite its relatively modern replacement for the previous 1979 cars. At the top station, we explored the cable car museum, where we followed the precedent set at the National Park visitor centre and took a power nap in front an informative video on the history of the cable car. We also learned about the private cable cars that neighbourhoods had built to avoid the steep climb up to their hillside houses, including one household who had ostensibly built a cable car specifically for their elderly dog!
The botanical gardens weren’t bad either, and we had a lovely afternoon stroll amongst the fern and succulent gardens. Hidden within the formal garden though was a lovely grey cat. We only noticed him because a couple in front of us were giving him some fuss, but he still seemed happy to receive some attention from us too. That was, until it became too much for him and he suddenly took a swipe at me. Fortunately, I dodged his paw just in time, but then as we walked away I heard a father tell his son that there’s normally a cat around here somewhere. I hope we hadn’t used up the last of the cat’s patience! 😬
Wellington has something of a reputation for craft beer, and there seems to be a disproportionate number of pubs, restaurants and tap rooms around town selling great beer. We had one cheeky round in Panhead – a steam-punk/industrial themed bar (below left), and another in Little Beer Quarter – a delightfully familiar-feeling pub (below right). The latter definitely stole our hearts, as I don’t think we’d realised how much we’ve missed proper pubs since leaving London!
Wellington is also home to Te Papa – New Zealand’s national museum. Here we learned about the Māori’s journey to New Zealand from Polynesia roughly 800 years ago, followed by European settlement approximately 500 years later. The museum also covered NZ’s indigenous wildlife, and we were shocked to learn that NZ is almost completely devoid of indigenous mammals, short of a few bats. The mammals that have since spread across NZ (rats, possums, etc.) are gradually wiping out some of the unsuspecting and rather helpless flightless bird population, who are bizarrely trusting given their complete lack of natural predators.
We’ve since learned more about the national debate around how to manage the damage caused by feral cats in NZ. The annual North Canterbury Hunting Competition was recently extended to feral cats, which understandably caused a bit of an uproar. Clearly, none of the participants would be able to tell the difference between domestic and feral cats, and thankfully the local authority quickly rolled back on this plan. Still, we couldn’t help but wonder whether this botched competition was partly responsible for our low cat count so far, despite NZ boasting one of the highest rates of domestic cat ownership in the world.
All in all, Wellington was a delightfully comfortable place to spend a few days as a tourist. The cable car and mountains provided a picturesque backdrop to the beautiful quay, the museum and botanical gardens were both excellent and free, and the food, coffee and beer was consistently delicious.
The Lonely Planet had set our expectations suitably low by saying that we could expect good weather “at least several days a year”, so we really felt we’d lucked out with two warm and cloudless days. It’s not hard to see why the locals proudly remark that, “You can’t beat Wellington on a good day”. It really was a great city in the sunshine.