Visiting Victorian Oamaru

Oamaru is one of those little towns that is easy to miss on the map but is definitely not to be missed on a journey through the south island of New Zealand. Andrew and I had intended to simply drive through Oamaru on our way south towards Dunedin. Not only did we end up stopping there for 2 nights, we have ended up returning to visit twice since arriving in Dunedin.

Brief History

Victorian Street in Oamaru
Victorian Street in Oamaru

Situated on the east coast of the south island of New Zealand, Oamaru saw Maori settlers around 1100AD. It was discovered in 1770 by James Cook on the Endeavour and settlers from Europe first arrived in 1814. They were mainly sealers and whalers, due to the abundance of wildlife in the area.

There was a fair bit of fighting between both the Maori and the settlers, and the Oamaru settlers and those further up the coast. The settlers eventually developed the town into the thriving center it is today, with much of the architecture based on the Victorian era of England. Today it is possible to feel like you have truly stepped back in time simply by walking down the streets of Oamaru.

Things to Do

Old bikes in the antique shop
Old bikes in the antique shop

Victorian Oamaru

More than 70 buildings in central Oamaru have been classified as historical Victorian buildings. The general ambience leads one to feel like they have really entered a different era. There are a number of different festivals that celebrate the unique culture here, including the annual steampunk festival and the annual Waitaki Victorian Fete.

Andrew playing in the tube
Andrew playing in the tube

On Sundays there is also a farmer’s market that is worth checking out. On fine days, locals can be seen strolling the streets in Victorian garb and sitting down to tea (or coffee) in the farmers market to enjoy some live music and add to the general ambience of the town.

Getting ready to try the zipline
Getting ready to try the zipline

Checking out some of the interesting shops, museums, and parks in the area is also a good way to spend the day. Andrew and I aren’t usually big on antique shops, but there were some truly interesting things like old carousel horses, wagons, and toys.

Playing on the zipline
Playing on the zipline

The playground at the harbour is also worth visiting with a truly intimidating zipline (seriously…this thing is for kids?!). Andrew and I spent about an hour playing in the playground and exploring the harbour. There was an amazing slide, neat sculptures, and a funky tube treadmill thing.

Ridiculously Tall Slide in Oamaru
Ridiculously Tall Slide in Oamaru

Rainbow Confectionary

The Rainbow Confectionary in Oamaru is seriously dangerous for anyone who likes candy…and who doesn’t? The confectionary is largely a seconds store, where they sell candy products from their manufacturing process for steep discounts.

One of the best things? All of their products are gluten free! Including the licorice, which I haven’t been able to have for quite awhile. Andrew and I were (somewhat) good and only spent about $20. Of course, this bought us about 5kg of candy. We are expecting it to last us for the next few months though and plan to share some with new friends during random board game nights. Nothing like candy and board games to start new friendships!

Penguins

Blue Penguin Statue
Blue Penguin Statue

Oamaru is home to New Zealand’s largest blue penguin colony. Unfortunately due to time and budget constraints, Andrew and I didn’t have the opportunity to visit the penguins on this pass through Oamaru.

The penguins are best viewed during the evening when they are returning home from a day at sea. Prices are $30-$45 per adult and photography is not permitted.

Oamaru Steampunk Museum

Steampunk HQ
Steampunk HQ

The steampunk museum will get its own post because it is seriously cool. In brief, though, go to the steampunk museum if you visit Oamaru! It is cool.

Steampunk is a melding of Victorian era architecture with science fiction steam technology. First introduced by writer Jules Verne, it has developed its own fan base and sub-culture; the hit show Firefly is a somewhat good example of steampunk. The museum showcases a number of different sculptures, displays, and experiences that make for an interesting visit.

Read more in my next post!

Christchurch: Under Construction

Most people have heard about Christchurch as the result of the numerous earthquakes that have wreaked havoc on the metropolitan centre. Christchurch is the largest city on the south island and is the third largest city in New Zealand. Situated by the pacific ocean in the Canterbury region, Christchurch sits on a large plain, making it a large agricultural hub on the South Island.

Andrew and I visited Christchurch on our drive down the coast shortly after arriving on the South Island. We were running low on finances and had read about Dunedin as a nice city to live in so we passed through on a road trip to the south. We did, however choose to stop an explore this iconic city.

Christchurch Cathedral
Christchurch Cathedral

History of Christchurch

Christchurch, like most of New Zealand, was first colonized by the Maori in around the 16th century.  European settlers arrived around 1840, following the whaling industry. The city was modelled after Christ Church in Oxford, with some of the first buildings constructed being the cathedral and the college.

Christchurch developed into a city through agriculture and manufacturing, with a good-sized port taking materials back to Europe and other parts of New Zealand. It has also been used as a gateway for Antarctic explorations. Although situated further from the Antarctic than Argentina, it is the closest major landmass in the eastern part of the world. Both Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton used Christchurch as a staging point for their Antarctic explorations.

Cathedral Square Sculptures
Cathedral Square Sculptures

In September 2010, Christchurch was hit by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake. The quake was deep and located outside of the city, causing widespread damage. Six months later, in February 2011, a second earthquake with a magnitude of 6.3 struck much closer to the city. The intensity of the ground shaking was determined to be one of the strongest ever recorded in an urban area. Several buildings collapsed, including the iconic Christchurch cathedral.

In June 2011, the city was hit by two more large aftershocks (magnitude 5.8 and 6.0) that halted reconstruction efforts and caused further damage to buildings. In January of 2012 the city was shaken by two more earthquakes. Overall, between September 2012 and September 2014, Christchurch was hit by over 4500 earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0 or higher, earning its reputation as the shaky city.

Shipping Container Mall in Christchurch
Re:Start Mall of Shipping Containers

Rebuilding Christchurch

Christchurch is a maze of construction. Closed streets, construction signs, and scaffolding abound, with a resilient and entrepreneurial mindset everywhere. While it is estimated that around 1500 buildings have been demolished, the Christchurch council has set out an expansive plan to rebuild the city with updated earthquake building codes, constructing around 50,000 new homes and restoring the central city by 2028.

Shipping containers have been the main building block while people find a way to move on with normal life while the city around them is in constant flux. The city is dotted with art projects and beautiful gardens, not to mention innovative spaces like the Re:Start Mall.

Shipping Container Bank in Christchurch
Need to stop at the bank?

One day is nowhere near sufficient to see all there is in Christchurch. Andrew and I look forward to revisiting the city on our future explorations of the south island, but we did enjoy our brief sampling of the area.

Tourist Activities in Christchurch

There are literally dozens of different tourist activities available in Christchurch. Andrew and I only had time to browse through a small selection of them located near cathedral square. Parking is a little bit of a nightmare, particularly for slightly larger vehicles like our campervan; next time we visit I think we might find somewhere further out to park or sleep and simply take either public transportation or our bikes into the madness that is the central city.

Re:Start Mall

The Re:Start Mall is iconic to the rebuilding and innovative spirit of Christchurch. Created as a central space to bring life and vitality back into the city center, it is a mall created entirely from shipping containers. When Andrew and I visited, it was a busy and bustling centre for commerce with multiple shops, restaurants, and services available. I never knew it was possible to do so much with shipping containers!

When I had first heard about the mall, I expected the area to have a garage sale sort of vibe with dark and dank shipping containers. What I found instead was a hip and modern mall with clean, bright, open stores! There was even a bank and the first lululemon store that I have seen in New Zealand. Andrew and I grabbed a hot chocolate and wandered around, checked out the shops, and relaxed in the fun little garden spaces that have been created to keep nature in the urban environment. There are also a lot of fun sculptures and modern art to check out in the area, not to mention a few geocaches!

Garden at the mall
Garden at the mall

Spark Bikes

Spark bikes are very similar to the bike-share programs that Andrew and I have used in other cities around the world including Dublin and New York. They are a great way to see a city from a local point of view. Particularly great is not needing to worry about where to park your vehicle if you see a neat little coffee shop that you want to check out!

It costs $4 to register for the program and the first 30 minutes is free each time you take the bike out. If you want to ride somewhere more than 30 minutes from a bike share location, it costs $4 for each additional hour. Bikes can be checked in and out as many times as desired during the day so Andrew and I would just ride near a station every 30 minutes, return our bikes, and check out new bikes a couple of minutes later to avoid paying extra fees.

Unique to Christchurch, the rental also includes a helmet. In other cities we had to find a different shop and rent the helmet separately. The infastructure of Christchurch is being developed to include extensive bike lanes, so the program will only get better as the Christchurch rebuild continues.

Spark Bike Rentals in Christchurch
Spark Bikes to Rent at the Mall

Cathedral Square

Cathedral square, which was once the bustling heart of the city, is now surrounded by construction and rebuilding. It is being re-imagined as a modern city centre, with new and innovative ideas to re-establish it as a destination. Located near the remains of the Christchurch cathedral, it is bustling with food carts and modern art.

It is a great place to visit, stroll around, and soak in the atmosphere of the city. It is also the perfect place to grab a coffee and a snack and chat with the locals.

While there have been no decisions yet about the demolishment or reconstruction of the church, it remains an iconic structure both to remind us of the origins of Christchurch the city and the destructive power of the earthquakes.

Earthquakes

Unfortunately the threat of further earthquakes in Christchurch and, indeed, most of New Zealand has not abated. It remains constantly in the back of my mind, but, like most natural disasters, is something you just have to prepare for and live with.

Thankfully, Andrew and I have yet to experience an earthquake while living in New Zealand, but we have talked to several people who survived the Christchurch earthquakes who have since moved to different cities. They have mentioned the surreal feel of having the ground seem to be almost liquid in nature and of feeling everything around you shift.

We have learned what to do in case of an earthquake. Similar to the fire safety you learned as a kid (Stop, Drop, and Roll), earthquake safety is Drop, Cover, and Hold. Drop to the ground, Cover yourself (either cover your head or, if nearby, crawl under a table), and Hold the position (hold the table over yourself if you are under one).

Travelling Teaches Life Lessons

Travelling is a great way to learn about yourself, the world around you, and life in general. It has taught me life skills, patience, perseverance, and social skills.

If you had told the shy nerd at school that as an adult I would feel comfortable walking up to a stranger and starting a board game night, I would have told you that you were crazy!

1. Everything in life is temporary

Nothing in life is permanent: unfortunately, this includes life itself. While this may seem harsh, it is also a reminder to live every day to the fullest. We lose loved ones, which is sad and reminds us that life is precious. It reminds us to take that opportunity.

Money is temporary and can be gained and spent. We can’t take anything to the grave – the only thing we leave behind are the memories we create with those we share life’s adventures with. So why not go sky diving, or take that trip you’ve dreamed about, or try that class you’ve looked at?

Remembering that everything is temporary can also help when facing a difficult situation: nothing lasts forever. Any problem, no matter how large it seems at the time, will likely resolve itself in the long run.

Learning how to put on snow tires
Learning how to put on snow tires

Being jobless, being suddenly laid off, finding yourself in an undesirable job, being in a poor hotel or house, bad weather, a streak of bad luck…everything is temporary and can be changed.

On the same note, nearly anything can be tolerated for a short period of time. Particularly while travelling, if you don’t like something, move on to the next location and try something new!

2. Things go wrong

Perhaps Robbie Burns said it best:

“The best-laid plans of mice and men, Go oft awry”

It doesn’t matter how hard you try, how long you plan, or how much research you do prior to travelling, things will go wrong.

A bout of rain might close all of the rollercoasters at a theme park. You might have thought you read the closing signs correctly and instead end up with your car locked into a parking garage overnight in a foreign country. You may have remembered locking your hotel room door only to come back and find your cash stolen. You may have thought you understood the local currency when you turned your laundry in only to find yourself paying $100 CAD for a small bag of washing. Yes…all of these are from experience.

Perhaps it is the transient and fast-paced environment that is travel, but I have yet to go on a trip without having something go awry. Like all of life, you can choose to fall apart or you can choose to handle it. Andrew and I have learned to budget an extra $100 per week for travel to cover accidents.

Travelling merely teaches us to handle it faster and more efficiently, improving our reactions to adverse reactions at home. There’s nothing like emphatic hand waving and charades to solve a situation to teach us that we need to always have patience and a sense of humour when we approach life.

3. You are responsible for your own happiness

Tying into the previous point a little bit, life throws you curve-balls. Things go wrong. Nobody ever has a life or a trip where things happen right all the time.

Sampling Mulled Wine for the first time
Sampling Mulled Wine for the first time

Travelling tends to exasperate these issues. Being unfamiliar with the local foods, flight delays, being tired and jet-lagged, being surrounded by unfamiliar customs, and occasionally just wishing for home and something familiar is enough to make anyone more than a little bit cranky at some point on an adventure.

Embrace the crazy. Choose to be that annoying person who is still smiling in the middle of a downpour and soon you will find other people smiling and dancing in the rain with you.

Happiness isn’t a condition; it is a choice and one that sometimes takes effort to make when your host has just handed you the local delicacy of roast guinea pig or barbecued grubs. Try to remember that you are experiencing something unique and smile!

4. Living in your comfort zone is over-rated

A comfort zone is a wonderful thing. Somewhere that we feel safe, secure, and comfortable. Situations where we know the rules and how we are supposed to act.

In order to thrive, humanity must be challenged

Taking a step outside of the comfort zone and trying something new will open you up to new experiences, new friends, and a new way of looking at life.

People change when they are travelling. Seeing the world and its people as the great big ball of humanity that it is has a way of opening people up to being a better version of themselves. While travelling I have found myself in several situations that I wasn’t comfortable with and had no idea how to handle.

Being pulled over on the side of the road with a new (to us) van that had suddenly started leaking fuel, Andrew and I had to improvise quickly. No cell service, no knowledgeable parents to call for help, and no clue what to do led to a creative fix, teamwork, and a new story to tell to our friends and family back home.

I have also found new hobbies and made new friends while trying crazy things like surfing, parkour, and skydiving. Some of these I hope to turn into a lifelong passion for sports and adventure (although I still suck at surfing!).

Feeding orphaned baby sheep
Feeding orphaned baby sheep

You never know what you will find at the edge of your comfort zone.

5. You are NEVER too old to learn new things

“You’re almost 30! When are you going to settle down and live a real life?”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked this, the answer would be never because I’d be a millionaire! Life is what you make of it. Travelling has shown me a variety of different cultures where people of all ages are doing things that they never would have tried at home.

While travelling I have seen a 70 year old try surfing for the first time. I have witnessed a woman who had never hiked before finishing the Inca Trail for her 50th birthday. I have seen a 30 year old throw caution to the wind and jump into a black abyss with an inner tube. I have seen an 18 year old being taught how to sew on a button by a supermarket cashier.

Life has lessons for us no matter what age we are, if only we are brave enough and open enough to see them. Travelling pushes us outside of our comfort zone and, by its very nature of being away from a familiar environment, forces us to adapt and learn new skills.

Try something new next time you travel, even if it is simply a new restaurant on your next road trip! Everyone has to start somewhere.

Crossing the Cook Strait to the South Island

Once Andrew and I had seen what we wanted to see in Wellington, the next logical step on our adventure was to make the journey across the Cook Strait from the North Island of New Zealand to the South island. For those who don’t know, New Zealand is divided up into two islands, separated by the Cook Strait.

Leaving Wellington
Leaving Wellington

The Cook strait is 22 kilometers wide at its narrowest point and is considered to be one of the most dangerous and unpredictable crossings in the world. The strong tidal flows, winds, and storms have been known to tip large ferries in rough weather.

Two ferry companies run ships from Wellington in the North to Picton in the South: Bluebridge and InterIslander. The journey covers about 70 kilometers, taking passengers across the Cook Strait and through the Marlborough sounds before reaching Picton. It takes about 3 hours in good weather, although delays and cancellations are common.

Looking across the Cook Strait
Looking across the Cook Strait

Andrew and I decided to book with Bluebridge. Although Interislander claims to offer a more ‘passenger-friendly’ experience, we did not find Bluebridge to be lacking. Being good amount cheaper, it was a good choice for us. Their normal price is already cheaper than Interislander, but for members of the NZMCA there is an additional discount that made Bluebridge far cheaper. Both companies have the same safety record, so it made very little difference.

Hanging out on Deck
Hanging out on Deck

The boarding process was quick and painless…for all that the boats were significantly larger, it seemed like we boarded a lot faster and more efficiently than the few times that I have taken a ferry out to Vancouver Island in Canada. We secured our campervan (turned off the LPG, opened the vents, put the park brake on, etc.) and then took the lift up to the passenger decks to enjoy crossing the Cook Strait.

Our van all snug in the lower deck
Our van all snug in the lower deck

It is possible to pay for private cabins, but Andrew and I opted to make use of the many public spaces available on the deck. There is free wifi, which was a huge plus for us. We brought our laptops out and found somewhere comfortable to sit.

The Marlborough Sounds
The Marlborough Sounds

It was nearly lunch time when we had finished boarding so we opted to enjoy some of the yummy food available at the onboard cafe. They offered an assortment of sandwiches, fruit, snacks, drinks, and a small selection of fast food options. The fries and sandwiches were quite tasty and fairly reasonably priced!

After lunch, Andrew stayed with our bags and laptops while I wandered around the ship and enjoyed the views from the top deck. It was extremely windy so I opted for locations to stand that were sheltered from the prevailing wind direction. The route through Tory Channel in the Marlborough sounds offers fantastic views of rolling hills covered in native New Zealand bush. It is also possible to see dolphins, whales, and other marine life, although I wasn’t fortunate enough to see those on this crossing.

Another Ferry!
Another Ferry!

Entering the Queen Charlotte sound approaching the small town of Picton offered beautiful views of remote beaches and the pretty little town. It was a slightly choppy crossing with some larger swells, but, according to a few of the crew and frequent crossers that I chatted with, it was a fairly calm day. Considering Andrew’s propensity for sea-sickness I’m glad we got lucky enough to have a calmer day!

Queen Charlotte Sounds
Queen Charlotte Sounds

We arrived in Picton just as the sun was setting and didn’t have much time to enjoy the area before the sun set. We drove through town and down main street, admiring the historical small-town feel of the area. We then drove along the coast to meet a local couple with their lifestyle block who offered to let us park on their property for $10/night, including showers and power! The shower was an outdoor shower though, so was quite chilly, despite the warm water flowing from the tap. The south island is certainly colder than Wellington was!

Entering Picton
Entering Picton

While only 1/5 of the North Island contains mountains, the south island is about 2/3rds mountains, with the eastern and western sides divided by the Southern Alps. Although the South island is larger than the north island, it contains only about 1/4 of the population of New Zealand. It feels a lot more remote, isolated, and, as a result, a lot more picturesque than the north island did.

Andrew and I look forward to the new adventures that a new island will bring!

Wellington Armageddon ComicCon

ComicCon!!! Words that every geek loves to hear. Andrew and I happened to end up in Wellington at just the right time to be able to attend Wellycon, one of the largest geek conventions in New Zealand.

It consists of a comic book festival, anime convention and screenings, a board game convention, zombie fest, and a standard comic convention with actors and guest speakers. It was a truly epic weekend.

Situated at the Westpac stadium, Wellycon had enough floor space for all events, stalls, and activities without anything being too crowded. Parking and transportation were also exceptionally easy considering it was at a sports stadium accustomed to handling large crowds!

Ted Raimi at his Wellington Panel
Ted Raimi at his Wellington Panel

There was a star-studded guest list at the Wellington ComicCon, with actors from Harry Potter, Xena: Warrior Princess, Doctor Who, and The Hobbit in attendance. It was difficult to pick which talks to go to. In between guest speakers, Andrew and I wandered and checked out all of the different shops and stalls.

I think it might be a good thing that we are living in a campervan with very limited space and a very limited budget since there were a large number of very cool things there. We did decide to splurge a little bit and decided to do our shopping for our fifth wedding anniversary at the ComicCon.

Jed Brophy, aka Nori from The Hobbit
Jed Brophy, aka Nori from The Hobbit

I got a necklace of Hermione’s Time turner from the Harry Potter movies and Andrew got a Gallifrean watch from Doctor Who. I also would have quite happily bought every single t-shirt from TeeTurtle (hint, hint…Christmas presents!!) but I limited myself to just one.

At lunchtime, Andrew and I went to sit in the stadium, which housed the anime convention part of ComicCon. We watched the original Sailor Moon in Japanese and a number of other anime that I can’t pronounce or spell the names of. The stadium was a surprisingly good place to watch anime! It was also a good place to see the actors in attendance just relaxing, for all that they were seated in a separate area.

Natalia Tena, aka Nymphadora Tonks from Harry Potter
Natalia Tena, aka Nymphadora Tonks from Harry Potter

It was here that we had a chance to see Samuel Anderson (who played Danny Pink in Doctor Who) playing his trumpet. We also attended his panel and he was a very kind and entertaining actor. He seemed like a normal human, without many of the airs that other actors sometimes put on.

We also had a chance to meet Natalia Tena, who played Nymphadora Tonks in Harry Potter. An extremely friendly actor who did a great job answering questions and having fun with her fans.

There were so many different possible sessions at ComicCon that it was impossible to see all of them. We decided to skip the star trek panels, which might seem an odd decision for a hardcore trekkie. The visiting actors were Robert Duncan McNeill (Tom Paris) and Robert Picardo (The Doctor). We had previously met Robert Picardo and found him to be one of those stuck up actors who expects fans to worship him.

Graham McTavish, aka Dwalin from the Hobbit
Graham McTavish, aka Dwalin from the Hobbit

Now, Jed Brophy and Graham McTavish, two of the actors who played dwarves in The Hobbit, are extremely kind, generous, and entertaining. They seem to genuinely care about their fans and recognize that comic conventions are mainly about the fan experience.  I thoroughly enjoyed their panels and had a great time listening to their stories and quips about filming on the movies.

Another great actor was Ted Raimi, who played Joxer in Xena: Warrior Princess. Of course, this involves me admitting that I was quite a fan of the show growing up, which puts me in an entirely different class of geekdom. Even back then those who considered Star Trek and Doctor Who to be cool and Trekkies and Whovians to be somewhat normal geeks did not consider Xena to be a worthwhile show. I had never realized that the show was filmed in New Zealand, which makes me like it even more. It is also the show that got me interested in history, mythology, and archaeology, for all that it was an extremely inaccurate representation of ancient Greece.

Ted Raimi talking to a fan
Ted Raimi talking to a fan

Anyways, back to Joxer. I have rarely had the opportunity to attend a more entertaining panel at ComicCon (with the exception of Marina Sirtis…go see her panel if you ever have the chance!!!). Ted was down to earth, friendly, and truly engaged with his fans. There was a minion present to run into the crowd with a microphone to take questions, keep the order, etc.  but Ted was more interested in going into the crowd himself with his own microphone, joking with the question asker, putting his arm around them, and just generally having fun.

When we left ComicCon, we walked past a demonstration of the hoverboards. They were offering people the chance to try them out. Andrew and I had always been curious just how difficult they were to use, so we splurged and gave it a go. I am surprised how easy they are to use! Of course, I nearly ran over a few small children who were whizzing around on the things, but I got the hang of it after a few minutes.

Although not a typical ‘tourist’ activity while visiting a foreign country, Andrew and I had a great time at the Armageddon ComicCon. For local residents or for geeks who happen to be in the area when it takes place next year, it is an extremely worthwhile event that is well put together.

Wellington Lord of the Rings Film Locations

While intentionally visiting film locations is the realm of uber-geekdom that I typically try to avoid to some degree, it has led us to some beautiful locations throughout New Zealand that we wouldn’t have found otherwise. Go figure: big name movies choose scenic areas as backdrops for expensive movies! In my previous post I covered our adventures at the Weta workshop.

Andrew and the Trolls
Andrew and the Trolls

We also went for a drive down to Cape Palliser and, along the way, stopped at most of the film spots that were used in the films. Some were less than impressive. Some were on private land without any parts used in filming visible from public property. Some were really fun and interesting to visit!

Putaringi Pinnacles Film Location

Andrew on the Dimholt Road
Andrew on the Dimholt Road

Created by a badlands style erosion of volcanic rock to create a different form of hoodos, the Putaringi Pinnacles forms the backdrop for the Dimholt road in “The Return of the King”. It is in the shadows of these rocky pillars that Legolas recounts the story of the dead king’s treachery.

The Pinnacles Film Location
The Pinnacles Film Location

Andrew and I did a hike through the area and it certainly had a bit of a spooky, otherworldly feel. Mazes of rock pillars surround a stream bed, creating an interesting picnic spot. There is also a campsite nearby that was a very scenic spot to enjoy a night.

Kaitoke Regional Park Film Location

Andrew and I in Rivendell
Andrew and I in Rivendell

Situated just east of Wellington in the Upper Hutt, the kaitoke regional park is home to Rivendell. The park is massive and makes a great overnight stop for those wanting to explore the area more. Andrew and I enjoyed a scenic walk through Rivendell, which is one of very few film locations that is actually well sign-posted.

Andrew standing where Legolas posed for filming
Andrew standing where Legolas posed for filming

Although the sets that were constructed here have been disassembled, there are signs with pictures showing where they stood within the natural backdrops. It is the area where the hobbits are first introduced to the other members of the fellowship and where Frodo recovers from his knife wound.

Welcome to Rivendell
Welcome to Rivendell

The park itself is a classic example of a sub-tropical rainforest, with many huge and interesting trees. Grassy fields are great for a game of football or rugby, and the camping area is extensive and beautiful.

About as tall as a dwarf!
About as tall as a dwarf!

Embassy Theatre

Entrance to the Embassy
Entrance to the Embassy

Across the street from the theatre is a large film camera tripod steampunk sculpture that was created by Weta workshops and is worth a visit.

Inside the Entryway
Inside the Entryway

The Embassy theatre was at one point a theatre for stage productions that has since been converted for the movie industry. Digital 7.1 surround sound, huge screens, and modern technology are contrasted by art deco pillars, crystal chandeliers, and fancy decorations.

Inside the Theater
Inside the Theater

It is a truly unique experience. The standard seats are also exceptionally comfortable. Of course, paying for the upgrade to take advantage of the super squishy leather recliners will make any movie experience extravagant.

Mount Victoria Film Location

Mount Victoria Summit, Wellington Harbour
Maori Totem on Mount Victoria

Mount Victoria is a huge green space in Wellington  that offers excellent views of the Cooke strait and the Wellington city centre. it is a great place to see the city and harbour. On windy days, the wind here is extreme!

Following the walking paths from the bottom leads to many of the film locations used in the first Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring while the hobbits are leaving the Shire and being chased by the Nazgul. “A shortcut to mushrooms”, “Get off the Road”, and the “Rohirrim arrive” were all filmed on Mount Victoria.

Harcourt Park Film Location

Maple Trees in the Park
Maple Trees in the Park

Harcourt Park was used as the filming location of Isengard gardens. It is where Gandalf and Saruman first meet after Gandalf discovers the ring in the Shire. The lawn of the gardens was partially removed for filming, replaced with a gravel road and fence that we see Gandalf riding up. Upon completion of filming, the road was removed and the lawn replanted. There is now no evidence of a movie ever having been created in the area.

It is also the location where the orcs are seen cutting down trees for Saruman’s lair. Two great trees were cut down in a different area and transported, roots and all, to Harcourt Park. They were then re-assembled with a hinge at the bottom so that they could be repeatedly cut down and stood up for filming. Since the trees lost many of their leaves in the process, the film crew spent nearly 2 weeks re-attaching plastic leaves by hand.

The Entrance to Isengard
The Entrance to Isengard

The gardens as they stand today are beautiful to walk through. Home to a large and exceptionally fun playground that also includes a zipline and spray park, the gardens are great for families. Andrew and I were surprised to see maple trees, particularly noticeable for their red colour in the autumn. We also enjoyed checking out the disc golf course that runs through the park and is available to everyone.

Hutt River Film Location

The Hutt river serves as both the River Anduin and Rohan River in the films. When we visited there were quite a few people there fishing. Walking along the river’s edge was absolutely beautiful, especially with the trees turning colour for autumn.

Hutt River where the Elvish boats launched
Hutt River where the Elvish boats launched

The portion of the river that was used for the filming of the Elven boats leaving Galadriel’s kingdom is particularly spectacular and is easily reached from the parking lot.

Where Aragorn washed up on shore
Where Aragorn washed up on shore

The part of the river where they filmed Aragorn washing up on shore after the Warg attack is a little bit more difficult to reach. It involves walking along a mountain bike track between a bunch of houses and the river.

Nice Ponies
Nice Ponies

The difficult part is making it past the attack alpacas! Seriously, there was one alpaca that took great exception to us walking along the path, hissing, growling, and jumping against the fence at us. The ponies in the next paddock were much cuter and friendlier.

Weta Cave and Workshop

The Weta workshop is a fun and fascinating film studio that is a must-see when visiting Wellington. Look for our journeys around Wellington film locations in the next blog post!

Andrew and I rode our bikes there along the harbour, which is a beautiful ride in its own right. It also gave us the chance to admire the numerous sound studios, post production workshops, and assorted other film industry support on the way to the Weta workshop.

Park Road Post Production Studio
Park Road Post Production Studio

Weta consists of Weta Workshop and Weta digital. Weta workshop handles prop production, miniatures, bigatures, and other physical components that are used in films. Weta digital handles all of the digital aspects of film production, particularly CGI.

Kinda scared of the guy behind me in the shop!
Kinda scared of the guy behind me in the shop!

Weta also created the 1.5 scale human models for the Gallipoli: Scale of War exhibit at the Te Papa museum. The exhibit was incredibly powerful, sobering, and life-like. The sculptures looked like they could have simply walked in there and sat down. Apart from their size, it would have been hard to tell them from a living person.

Andrew and I with Bert, Tom, and Bill
Andrew and I with Bert, Tom, and Bill

Having seen some of the movies that Weta has had a large part in producing and the Gallipoli exhibit, I was already familiar with the quality of their work. Needless to say, my expectations of visiting the Weta workshop were already fairly high and I’m pleased to say that I wasn’t disappointed in the experience.

Weta Cave

The Weta cave is, in essence, a gift shop. It is so much more than that though! It is free to enter the Weta cave. The entrance is guarded by Bert, Tom, and Bill, the trolls from The Hobbit. It was fun posing with them and taking pictures. They looked like they were ready to jump at us at any moment!

One of the Trolls
One of the Trolls

Entering the shop was like a geeks paradise. In my mind I probably easily spent a few thousand dollars of materialistic things that I really don’t have any use for. There was a life sized statue of Gollum that I almost expected to talk to us as we entered.

Gollum and his Fisj
Gollum and his Fish

There is a free 20 minute film that describes the history of Weta and some of the work that they do. It also included a chance to see and handle props from Narnia: Prince Caspian. Unfortunately since they were used in the actual films we were unable to take pictures of them.

Very Detailed Troll
Very Detailed Troll

The workshop also includes a display of a variety of different props that were used in some of the different films that Weta has worked on. There were the prosthetic feet that were worn by the hobbits, Bilbo Baggins in particular. They had props from District 9, Narnia, The Hobbit trilogy, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy as well. It was really neat to see.

Weta Workshops Tour

I had never realized just how many movies are produced, at least in part, in New Zealand. The cars from Mad Max, all of the props for Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit, and Narnia, most of the guns from District 9, and the animatronics from King Kong, as well as parts in Cleverman, Avatar, The Expanse, Warcraft, Furious 7, Thunderbirds, Spiderman, Superman, Hercules, and many others.  Their projects gallery is quite extensive!

Workshop Entrance
Workshop Entrance

The Weta workshop tour can be booked either online or from the Weta Cave itself. Since we were in off season Andrew and I decided to just show up at the shop and see when we could get into a tour. We got the very next tour, although in the summer it is apparently a lot busier.

There is unfortunately no photography allowed on the tour since it is an active studio with props being created for in-production films. With everything there is to look at though, it would probably be possible to do the tour 10 times and still not see everything. There are weapons and props on the walls, hanging from the ceiling, in display cases, and basically everywhere.

District 9 Weapons
District 9 Weapons

They started off with an explanation of how the props are created. They start with designing them on the computer in 3D using Rhinoceros (a drafting software like AutoCAD). From there, a mold is carved into plastic, then it is cast, and a production mold is created that will stand up to the rigors of filming. This lets them create hundreds of props, such as swords, for movies.

Lord of the Rings Props
Lord of the Rings Props

The props are then transferred to the paint department, where they are given an artistic treatment to make them look right. A lot of the time, this means making plastic look like metal, or making something new look like it has existed for generations.

Our guide told us that when he first started in the studio he was put on blood. Just mixing gallons and gallons of blood every day for use in the movies. Then he was promoted to making grass and trees for the bigatures. Weta workshop creates miniatures and what they call bigatures for movies. They had a miniature of the castle used in Narnia: Prince Caspian that was about 1 meter by 1 meter. They also showed us pictures of a ‘miniature’ that they had created of the city of Gondor that took up almost an entire room!

Theoden's Armour
Theoden’s Armour

There were several other interesting props and things to see there, including a fully functional vehicle that was created for a Halo short and never really got used. The downside to many movies is that a lot of work that is done never ends up in the final movie due to editing.

It was also fun seeing the animatronics that they have created. Our guide introduced us to King Kong. Or, his head at least. They created one of the animatronics for the film. The head was controlled through three different airplane remote controls operated by three different actors.

Bilbo's Feet
Bilbo’s Feet

It was also interesting to learn just how much Weta has worked on. Apparently it is a fairly common occurrence that they will get a call from a big studio in California that has over-committed itself on their production so they will subcontract to Weta. When that happens, Weta doesn’t even get a mention in the credits, even if they created several thousand swords and props for the film.

Thunderbirds Are Go! Tour

Thunderbirds Display
Thunderbirds Display

Thunderbirds was a popular stop-motion clay model TV show from when my dad was a kid. Like many popular shows and movies, it has recently received a reboot. Surprisingly, it is completely produced in New Zealand!

While Andrew and I haven’t been on the Thunderbirds tour yet (we are saving it for if/when family visits!) it sounded really neat. The staff at the Weta Cave described it to us.

Visitors go behind-the-scenes to an genuine shooting stage, where they see props, models, and miniatures that are used in production. They then describe how the miniatures work and how the TV show is made.

Cape Palliser and Putangirua Pinnacles

While in the area, Andrew and I decided that we ought to take a drive out to the Southernmost tip of the North Island. Especially considering that we went to Cape Reinga in the far north and the East Cape lighthouse, it seemed to make sense to visit the southern lighthouse at Cape Palliser.

The drive was a little bit hairy since we didn’t realize that there was a mountain pass between Wellington and the East Cape peninsula. We weren’t overly pleased when it started to snow either! Thankfully nothing in New Zealand is very far away and we reached our campsite for the night within a couple of hours.

Putangirua Pinnacles Trailhead
Putangirua Pinnacles Trailhead

Pinnacles Track

The geological formation that creates impressive pinnacles is apparently fairly common in New Zealand. Earlier in our adventures Andrew and I hiked the pinnacles in the Coromandel Peninsula, which was a stunning overnight hike.

Down at the Cape, we chose to hike the Pinnacles there, which were completely different from the ones in the Coromandel Peninsula, for all that they are created by the same geological processes. Volcanic formations are created and are then eroded over time by wind and water, leaving the hardest stone as pinnacle peaks.

Putangirua Pinnacles
Putangirua Pinnacles

Andrew and I chose to walk up the stream bed to the pinnacles, which was a fairly easy 1 hour walk each way. There is a DOC campsite at the start of the hike that looked fairly nice, although Andrew and I opted to stay for free a little bit closer to the Cape itself. We did have a beautiful picnic by the stream with nice views of the pinnacles. It was really neat walking amongst the maze-like great stone pillars. We had a really enjoyable afternoon walk

The trailhead starts in the Putangirua Pinnacles scenic reserve and travels up the stream bed. There is also a second, longer, track that takes visitors up to the top of the ridge in order to look down on the pinnacles, but Andrew and I wanted to walk amongst the pinnacles themselves. There is a slight danger of rocks falling from above, so it is important to remain aware at all times and to avoid walking beneath arches or too close to cliff edges.

Putangirua Pinnacles Film Location
Putangirua Pinnacles Film Location

This area was also used as a Lord of the Rings filming location. It is where Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli follow the Dimhalt road to speak to the King under the mountain/ghost king. It was fairly easy to see how they could have filmed those scenes here! It was really interesting to walk the area.

Cape Palliser

Watch for Penguins!
Watch for Penguins!

From the Putangirua Pinnacles, we drove further south to visit Cape Palliser itself. Past the town of Ngawi the road was quite narrow. It was also close enough to the ocean that it was soaked from sea spray with the waves rolling in. There were signs to watch for penguins crossing, but they really should have had signs warning about seals!

Seals on the Rocks at the Cape
Seals on the Rocks at the Cape

It took us a little bit to realize that all of the round boulders were seals. It became particularly obvious when one of them moved and almost tried to cross the road. We slowed down and enjoyed watching them for awhile before continuing to the Cape.

Seal Pup!
Seal Pup!

There was a fairly large parking lot at the trailhead to walk up to the lighthouse. The stairs were also nice, straight, well maintained, and not too long. It was still a fair climb up to the lighthouse, for all that it was the shortest walk to a lighthouse that we’ve had so far. The views from the top were absolutely amazing.

Top of the Lighthouse
Top of the Lighthouse

I could sit and look at the ocean for ages. We were fortunate enough to arrive just as the sun was setting and got some beautiful views of the sunset. We could also see just how large the seal colony was from up there. There were probably close to 300 seals all told, spread across a few different rocks and small islands.

Cape Palliser Lighthouse
Cape Palliser Lighthouse

After admiring the lighthouse views, we went for a walk along the coast to see the seals a little bit closer. I am accustomed to having to worry about things like bears and coyotes on a hike. I have to say worrying about seals was a new one for me.

Ngawi Campsite
Ngawi Campsite

We spent about an hour watching the seals and then drove to Ngawi for the night, which had a great freedom camping spot situated right on the ocean. Ngawi is a tiny fishing town that relies upon the fishing and sale of crayfish. There were about 30 boats on the shore, each with its own independent bulldozer to push it into the ocean. It was a fun town to spend the evening in and the locals were quite friendly.

Seal Safety

Seal Beside the Road
Seal Beside the Road

It is relatively safe to get fairly close to seals, except in pupping season. The main guidelines that are given are:

  • Stay a minimum of 10 meters from seals. Preferably give them up to 100m of space
  • Never get between a mom and her pups
  • Never get between a seal and the ocean
  • Always give the seal an escape route
  • If the seal acts aggressively or starts grunting, it is feeling threatened and you should give it space

Fairly easy overall!