Wellington, NZ

Christmas to the New Year

The day after Christmas, we took a walk to nearby Mount Victoria. There are steep hills all around Wellington, which keep the city compact from both a population-density perspective, and from a distance-to-nature perspective. It’s an easy walk from even the heart-of-downtown where we’re staying, to forest land so awe-inspiring that it was used for some of the iconic scenes of Middle Earth from the first Lord of the Rings film.

Here Rett is where the four hobbits were walking, when the forest gets freaky and Frodo yells “GET OFF THE ROAD!” just before they encounter a Nazgul for the first time. Every 10th hike we do, we’ll walk through some forest-tunnel that reminds us of that scene and one of us will say “I think we’re in that part in ‘Fellowship…’”. So it was pretty awesome to be walking through the actual place! (the fence must have been added sometime in the Fourth Age).
My attempt to make it look unsettling like how Frodo saw it. But I should have remembered it was a push-zoom rather than a twist!
The last place Frodo and Sam ever relaxed. I didn’t even really study the scene that closely before hopping into the tree (it’s only in the Extended Edition), so it’s pretty cool how my leg just naturally matched Elijah Wood’s. Also it’s kind of strange that I fit in the spot almost exactly the same way that a tiny hobbit does…? I guess the tree has had 20+ additional years to grow!
Here’s the hollow the hobbits jumped into to get off the road. Unfortunately the big tree was a prop so it’s no longer there, but on the other hand, we were also lucky that there weren’t actually any Nazgul looking for us.

We saw a handful of Lord of the Rings tourists like us, but the other 50% were just Wellingtonians enjoying their park. We continued on up the hill where there were considerably more tourists (most of whom had driven to the top) to take in the views of Wellington.

From the top of Mount Victoria, the Miramar peninsula (with it’s Wellington/Hollywood sign) becomes visible to the east.
And back to the west, downtown Wellington and its harbor.
We descended the northern nose of Mount Victoria, here taking a flower-filled pedestrian zig-zag that felt like San Francisco’s “World’s Curviest Street”.
Boats in the harbor and elegant roofs.
Back down at sea-level, there was beach filled with swimmers and tanners. Even though it’s the peak of summer here and plenty warm, it was still a surprise to see this the day after Christmas.
Some of the beachfront houses. Obviously these are nice houses, but we continue to find that there are far fewer “whoa, holy shit!!” houses in New Zealand than in the US (the big ones up on the hillside are rare examples of ones that come close).
Here is a much more Christmas-like scene than the beach!

A couple days later, to keep ourselves somewhat in-shape during this holiday off-the-bike time, we went for a run in the opposite (southwest) direction. This time we were out of downtown and into the cute old-western-town vibe of the Aro Valley neighborhood in less than half a mile, and then a half mile after that, into the forest on the Brooklyn Wind Turbine Trail. Two miles of switchbacks through the trees on a narrow dirt path brought us 800 feet above Wellington, and 200 feet above Mount Victoria. So yeah, a pretty good workout, and incredible that you could live and work in Wellington’s Central Business District and do this near-wilderness 6-mile loop run every morning starting right from your front door. I planned city streets and pedestrian stairways and paths-between-houses for the steep downhill for the return (where much of it felt incredibly similar to the innovations built to navigate the steep hill that makes up Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood, including the houses that would have entrances right off the zig-zagging pedestrian paths), but halfway through we got sucked into another forest park that dropped us deep into a river gorge with a half-dozen curvy wooden bridges that would cross back and forth over the stream every 20 steps!

Running up the hill along the “Transient Trail”.
Heading back down the hill, here on a stairway between houses.
A spot where pedestrians get the same view of Wellington Harbor as the people in this yellow house do.

Then on the day before New Year’s Eve, it was time to return to our Lord of the Rings tourism, this time visiting the Weta Workshop, the company that did all the practical effects and props for the films (and now for a load of other movies too, but they know where their bread is buttered, and the tour is 80% LotR-related). As someone who has watched all the bonus features and commentaries from the Extended Edition DVDs, it was cool to visit this what-still-feels-like-a-family-business run by Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger.

When the three films were all originally released to tremendous success, I said (and still believe) that it was one of the biggest payoffs from one of the biggest risks in the history of entertainment. It seemed like insanity to me (if not full-on corporate malfeasance from New Line Cinema) to hand responsibility for the massive project of putting Tolkien’s deeply-beloved story on movie screens, to a barely-known New Zealand director, working with a tiny company like Weta (at the time), on these barely-populated islands. So the fact that these underdog New Zealanders not only succeeded in bringing something to the screen, but something that likely far outshone what any “safer” team would have produced, is in itself a story nearly as incredible as the actual story where hobbits, the smallest and least-regarded race of Middle-Earth, are the ones who save the world.

And the tour (and our excellent tour guide, who hadn’t even been alive when the movies were being made!) was kind enough to reinforce that view of a 20-something know-it-all living half-a-world away. Just the fact that the company still sits in the middle of a super-normal residential neighborhood illustrates how unpretentious the whole gang was, and continues to be. They knew the responsibility that had been put on them, but just had an “eh, we can do it, let’s just get to it!” attitude.

Rett going for a walk with her big brother.
Rett getting stomped by a less-nice troll.
An epic scene on a decidedly non-epic building in a non-epic neighborhood.

After the 90-minute tour it was lunchtime, so we walked a couple blocks over to Double Vision Brewing. Rett got their Harry Potter-themed beer cocktail of the month, I got a flight of beers, and somehow we stumbled into their once-a-month bar-trivia contest…and tied for third place! (vs. teams three times our size). With our take-home 1.5L prize of Cocowbell (a coconut milk stout) under my arm, we began the 6-mile walk home, but started with a roundabout path to the Miramar harborside (again on Seattle-like pedestrian stairs and ramps up and down the near-vertical hills). I surprised Rett when then hillside fores trail we were walking down turned into the “Miramar Fairy Village” (at least that’s how it’s labeled on Google Maps, so thanks Google for surfacing this rather unofficial but on-target destination for me!) It’s just a bunch of fairy doors and other whimsical things planted in the woods, but it had Rett cackling with delight and racing from tree to tree to see what she could discover next (the only other people we saw there were a similarly-adult and similarly-excited couple).

View down to the harbor from the Miramar side.
Is the fairy hitching a free ride, or poking the cyclist in the butt?
It’s not an explicitly-Hobbit forest, but how could such influences not work their way in here?
One of the more-natural fairy houses.
A whole scene was playing out on this tree.

Then we began the long walk home in earnest. Wellington is the windiest city in the world (part of the reason I wasn’t excited about riding our bikes all the way here!) and while the first few days were reasonably calm, there has now been strong winds blowing for at least three days straight. In our AirBNB apartment, the pattern is very strange, with the wind through the nearly-always-open window and patio door being barely-noticeable most of the time. But then about once every 15 minutes, a tremendous gust will barrel in, literally shaking the walls (it’s a concrete-block building, so I don’t think the building itself is shaking, I think the air pressure being blown in is strong enough to bow the interior walls).

Outside, on this now-clear afternoon, there were definitely still some higher gusts, but even the steady wind was enough to make it difficult to walk straight. When taking pictures with my phone, I needed to hand the beer jug over to Rett so that I could hold it with two hands to keep it from being ripped away. Some of the issue is that the north wind was sweeping right down the harbor separating the Miramar peninsula from the mainland (and piling up the heavy waves at the U-shaped southern end), so there were no hills to break it up for us. It would have sucked if it was rainy or cold, but the nice non-wind components of the weather allowed us to treat it as a fun adventure.

It turns out the New Zealand Christmas trees (which are quite popular in Wellington) leave quite a red carpet behind!
A nice Christmas scene on the edge of the Miramar peninsula.
A closer version of the Hollywood-ish sign, next to the cut in the hill that leads to the heart of New Zealand’s film industry (though it looks like the sign was maybe put up by a soccer team?)
An 800m tunnel sends SH1 under Mount Victoria, and luckily they include nice access for pedestrians/bikes to avoid going up and over the mountain too. Being elevated above the traffic was a nice touch.
Now back in a park in Central Wellington, we still can’t avoid things that evoke Lord of the Rings. Perhaps just because all of New Zealand is Middle Earth!


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