Highlights of Wellington

Wellington is the southernmost national capital in the world, and it's also the only major city in New Zealand where I swore I'd never live (Hamilton would be a close second).   This decision was obviously a mistake, because the Fates took it as a clear signal that I should be forced to live there, which I did for six months, immediately before coming to the United States.   Wellington is a nice enough place scenically and culturally, but it combines all the worst features of San Francisco and Chicago.   Like San Francisco, it's very hilly which makes driving and parking a car a nightmare, and it's also very earthquake prone.   Like Chicago, it's very windy, which means that it's colder and less pleasant than New Zealand's other cities.   I still remember visiting as a teenager in mid-summer and going to a beach with my brother Robert.   He went up to his waist in the water, I went up to my knees, and we decided that the freezing water was not worth the effort!

Wellington is even hillier than San Francisco, and several of its suburbs are in steep-sided valleys with only one road in and out of the valley.   Worse yet, there are only two roads into and out of Wellington itself, both of which descend steeply down into the city and are very vulnerable to being wiped out by landslides caused by an earthquake.   The main road within the city goes through the long Victoria Tunnel, which has a fault passing right through the middle of it.   Wellington is also the only city in New Zealand where natural gas is the main energy for cooking and heating, and where rail is the main form of public transport - both things being particularly unsuited to the geography!   While I was living there, we had a swarm of earthquakes which lasted for several weeks.   I was already used to earthquakes from living in Christchurch for six years, but in Christchurch the quakes are centered in the Southern Alps, 40 or 50 kilometers away, whereas in Wellington there are numerous fault lines immediately underneath the city.   A good size earthquake struck while we were eating dinner at home, making the whole house creak and groan, and several hit while I was at work on the top floor of a three storey building.   The guys I worked with were all so accustomed to earthquakes that after a few seconds they would just say, "it's OK, it's a deep one" and everyone would just stand still until it stopped.   The deep earthquakes rock with a low frequency and are less destructive, the shallow ones shake things at a much higher frequency and are far more dangerous.

There's no doubt that The Big One will one day strike and cause mass destruction.   I figured that the odds of it happening in the short space I was there was very low, but I sure wouldn't want to live there longer term, and I certainly wouldn't want to own property there!

Just to put things into a proper perspective, I should say that I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Wellington.   The earthquakes were far more entertaining than frightening, and I had an extraordinary run of luck with the weather, which was sunny and balmy the entire time I was there, apart from just a few storms.   The harbour, entirely surrounded by hills, is far more attractive than San Francisco bay, and the beaches and coastline outside the harbour are very nice, too.   The hills provide good views for virtually everyone living here, and are a good vantage point to look down on the city and its surroundings.

Wellington is also a nice funky little place, with all of the main sights within walking distance of the downtown area, including Te Papa, which is the national museum under construction while I was living there.   The city has some pleasant architecture and even opportunities to walk through native New Zealand bush, which is the name given to low forest in these parts.   The zoo is not as conveniently located, but it's only a short bus ride away, and it's one of the few places where visitors can see native animals like kiwis, tuataras and wetas.   Actually, within a short drive of downtown Wellington, along the rocky shoreline facing Cook Strait, you can even see wild native animals like seals and little blue penguins.   Since Wellington is a major jumping off point for people taking the ferry to the South Island, it's definitely worthwhile for local and foreign tourists to spend one or two full days exploring its attractions.