Friday 31 August 2018

Walkways of Wellington, New Zealand

This article was the very first I had published as a full-time freelance writer, and appeared in the Christchurch newspaper The Press in early 2004. As it never went online and is still relevant, here's a lightly rewritten version. The trip was taken at my own expense.

If you want to let yourself go and expose your inner tramp, you ought to head for Wellington. But it’s not what you think – 'tramping' is the Kiwis' term for hiking.

Walking is one of the great attractions of New Zealand: including treks through stunning landscape, sleeping in huts or tents, living rough in the company of nature.

But if you’re an urban kind of person and the great outdoors doesn’t appeal, you can still get in some walking and be at a restaurant or theatre by sunset, if you’re visiting Wellington. This hilly city has a series of walking tracks, or walkways, running through its green spaces.

Upon the founding of the city in 1839, extensive swathes of land were set aside for the recreation of the inhabitants. Although areas of this 'Town Belt' have been chipped away since then, it’s still an impressive amount of greenery.

The three major Town Belt trails are the City to Sea Walkway, the Northern Walkway and the Southern Walkway. All of them have their attractions, running variously past botanic gardens, historic sites and scenic highlights.

The Southern Walkway is the most varied and interesting. Starting at Island Bay, it meanders north through hilly green space above the city, then descends to the attractive harbourside beach at Oriental Bay.

Along the way, there are impressive views of both the city and the south coast. The walk is tranquil in parts like Mount Victoria, where several Lord of the Rings scenes were shot, then becomes wild along the coastline.

Since the walkway is so close to civilisation, it’s easy to break it down into smaller sections, using public transport to get there and back.

I set out on a good five kilometre tramp from Island Bay. The sea is stunning here, a stretch of pale blue-green dotted with islands. The most significant of these is Tapu Te Ranga, known in local Maori legends as a place of refuge.

Its name means 'Isle of Hallowed Ways', distinctly classier than the names given to it by European settlers: Goat Island, then Rat Island.

From here, the walkway hugs the coast to the treacherous waters of Houghton Bay. Along the way, I saw an unusual selection of houses hugging the hillside just back from the coast. Wellington is hilly almost everywhere, so local architects have been inventive. Triangular buildings, thin tall buildings, and steep steps slot into the landscape.

Then the walkway climbed through Sinclair Park. To my mind, 'park' means a stretch of lawn framed by cultivated plants. But this was bushland, thick with trees and often steep. The payback was the impressive set of views on the ascent, with Cook Strait stretching out below.

I eventually reached the top of Mt Albert, 178 metres above sea level. From here, the city stretches away in all directions. To the east is Wellington Airport, with its regular flow of aircraft, looking ridiculously small from this distance.

On either side are the waters of Wellington Harbour and Cook Strait, and northward lies the city centre, sprawled across the flat land known as Te Aro. On a clear day, the walker can see the mountains of the South Island from here.

From Mt Albert, the trail descends, eventually squeezing between the mountain and a solid-looking fence. I was surprised to see apes wandering about on the opposite side. Then I realised this was Wellington Zoo.

It’s also the halfway point of the Southern Walkway. Feeling that five kilometres of occasionally steep walking was enough, I called a halt and checked out the wildlife. The zoo houses some distinctive New Zealand creatures, including the tuatara, kiwi, mopoke and weta.

I'd had enough walking, and caught a bus back to the city centre.

Installed in one of Wellington’s many cool cafes, the tired tramper composed a postcard home, recounting the perils and ordeals of hiking in New Zealand. While enjoying that cafe latte I’d so richly earned.

Maps and other details of the Wellington Walkways are available at this link.

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