We all need a home. Even the wind. Nomadic westerlies migrate across the Tasman Sea, buffeting New Zealand’s coast and unfurling over her open fields. A slew of gusts squash themselves between the two main islands and find themselves funnelled up the Cook Strait, a cramped boatload of immigrants arriving on the North Island’s western shore by night. There’s a city there on the edge where these desperate, gale-force immigrants unload. The capital no less, hunkered down beneath the winds, a city Lonely Planet called “the coolest little capital in the world”.
Wellington’s famous breezes force its inhabitants indoors to fill out cafes and bars with live music and poetry slams (or at least to enjoy the city centre-wide free WiFi). So much of New Zealand is a story of people in solitude, but here the wind blows people together, to create and critique on a far denser scale. This is where the hipsters shelter from the endless farms and tourists shelter from the country’s endless wide roads of desolation. Wellington eschews those featureless avenues laid out in perfect waffle-like grids. Here the wind narrows roads and squeezes them closer. It ekes away at right-angles, compressing the street system into a mesmeric mess of criss-crossing tarmac and warren-like alleys that snake up hills. Travellers through New Zealand like this city best, because here the atmosphere has been wrung out of the air.
For an urban centre of fewer than 400,000 inhabitants, Wellington forges creativity on a level that’s almost as impressive as Iceland. Flight of the Conchords started here, as did Sir Peter Jackson. Jackson co-founded Weta Workshop, now one of the most influential effects companies in the world of cinema and still based a million miles from anywhere in a small eastern suburb of Welly. You get on a public bus that stops next to a convenience store on a bland street of houses, and round the corner is the workshop itself, barely noticeable except for the small museum and store jutting out from its side. Unpretentious in that manner that Kiwis hold so dear.
A Weta employee tells me a story about the actor Kevin Sorbo, who played Hercules in the cult television series that filmed in New Zealand with Weta’s assistance. Someone asked Mr. Sorbo on set: “What’s the difference between filming in Hollywood and in New Zealand?” Mr. Sorbo replied: “When the director yells cut in Hollywood, someone comes up to you with an umbrella for the sun and a glass of ice-cold water. When the director yells cut in New Zealand, someone comes up to you and says Hey Hercules, you’re the strongest guy on set, help us carry these boxes, will ya?” That’s New Zealand as.
You can bow your head in the face of the winds, of course, or you can stand your ground and watch them fly. They’re artists, you see, tracing the geography of this fine city, the southernmost capital in the world. Look as they trace the line of the harbour, animating yachts to bob in the autumn sun. At the limits of the harbour, watch as they cocoon around Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum. This multi-storey behemoth is a stunning exemplar for modern education, flooded with interactive exhibits that engage on a level that consigns almost all other museums to… um… museums?
Naturally the country’s parliament sits here. On an illuminating tour, I learn all about New Zealand’s voting system, changed in 1996 from a First Past the Post variant to a proportional representation system known as Mixed Member Proportional (MMP). As a keen advocate of electoral reform in the United Kingdom (and the United States), I love this system. It allows for proportional representation without losing constituent MPs, infusing the obvious fairness of the former with the major positive it’s criticised for lacking. Admittedly this has nothing to do with Wellington, but man do I love talking about voting systems.
On the tour of parliament, I meet a girl from Whitechapel in East London (small world). She claims it’s harder to bike in London than in Wellington. In London, the issue is whether you have a strong enough disposition to face death from beneath your polystyrene helmet. In Wellington, the issue is just whether you have strong enough calves. The city is hillier than Damon Hill and Harry Hill watching a documentary on hills, but make it to the top of Mt Victoria and you’re rewarded with panoramic views of the whole peninsula and its myriad inlets and bays. Alternatively, take the cable car up to the botanic gardens instead, take a moment to take in the view, and then take your time in the beautiful expanse of flora and lawns. And try not to get blown away.
The great thing about wind is that it’s a metaphor for everything. Life, most of all. Ask yourself what you do when wind barrels through the straits and sets your boat creaking. Do you complain that it’s blowing? Do you hope that it’ll stop? Or do you take the time to adjust your sails?
I’m still learning to adjust mine, and what better place to do it than the windiest city in the world. Not a bad spot to live for a while, especially after seven months of one-day stops and one-night friends, of pockets filled with bus timetables and poorly folded maps, of being a full-time peripatetic on an insubstantial wage. I’m looking for a job, even a home – for a while at least. We all need a home.
Snapshots of NZ