Thursday, March 12, 2009

Wellington, NZ

Wellington, NZ is my kind of town. There are clean, public toilets all over town – so numerous that even I walk right past many of them rather than searching madly to find one.

We walked downtown taking a short cut through the old National Bank building which now houses shops and cafes on its marvelous tile floors. The cable car was our goal and we found it just after a tour bus whose 100 passengers were able to go to the front of the line. Timing is so important.

The ride was okay but the real reward was the cable car museum at the top. Cable car #1 was there in its glorious red paint and car #3 was refurbished in its original cream and green. It was a beauty and crowning it was an almost exact copy of the brass bell. The original bell was eliminated when the car was modernized but the city of San Francisco had an extra antique bell of the proper vintage so they donated it to the museum. Wasn’t that awfully good of them?

When the first cable car went into service the company built a tea room because people trekking up the hill would naturally want to have tea there. The tea room is gone but some lovely photos remain and there’s also a Campbell Stokes sunshine recorder. This is a sphere of clear glass the size of a grapefruit. Under the sphere is a strip of paper. The sphere focuses the sun’s rays on the paper and burns a hole in a strip across the paper as the day progresses. The paper strip was replaced daily, or nightly, and the old strips retained to show how much sunlight there was each day. Very cool.

The other reason to go up the hill is to walk through the botanical gardens which, like most of the museums, are free and manned by volunteers. The succulents were magnificent and everything was impeccably groomed.

The gardens end at an old cemetery, a historic and unusual burial ground. Instead of having a cemetery for each church, early Wellington had one cemetery divided into Anglican, Jewish and “public” sectors. Holding Wellington’s departed from 1840 till 1892, it was adorned with ornate cast iron fences around nearly every plot and the stones showed details of Wellington since they gave the name, birth date and place and death date and place for the first to be interred there along with the name of the ship that person sailed to Wellington if they were not born there.

A couple of things seemed odd to me. One is that subsequent deaths were listed as a name and then something like “beloved wife of the above” or “brother of the above”. Another is that there seemed to be some stones packed without room for a casket between. And the really odd thing is that this cemetery is split by an 8 lane highway. How could that happen?

In order to construct the highway, the remains of 3700 people were dug up and moved to a mass grave elsewhere. The highway went in, the disrupted stones were placed in their appropriate sectors (Anglican, Jewish and “public”) and the remaining parts of the cemetery were named a heritage site so it wouldn’t be disturbed. It’s all in the timing.

Civic square had a marvelous blend of sculptures including an actual drum circle that anyone could beat on at will and a floating ball rather like the Chalice at Christchurch square. Neil Dawson made both sculptures using aluminum and designing them both with ferns.

Te Papa is the museum of New Zealand. I won’t mention the admission cost or the volunteers but will say that it’s amazing. The whole building is a sculpture with huge open spaces and more interactive displays than we had time to mess around with. What we didn’t see is the only Giant Squid on display in any museum in the world. We didn’t see it because they are still building the special squid tank and it’s not scheduled to be finished till next week. Bummer. I find the Giant Squid fascinating. This isn’t the largest ever found and it’s not perfect since a lot of its skin was lost and it has only one of those soccer-ball-sized eyes left but it’s bound to draw the crowds.

Tomorrow – Napier.

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