Wellington – The Middle of Middle Earth

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Please do not feed the trolls.

“Wellywood”

Ever since Director Peter Jackson chose his hometown of Wellington to be the production hub for six J.R.R. Tolkien-inspired films, the film industry became a major economic driver for New Zealand. As a result, Wellington has hosted several international film premieres, including ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” in 2012. At the Wellington airport hangs a giant version of Gollum suspended above the food court as a reminder that the things that are the most precious may be found in Wellington. Because of the great success over the past two decades including an industry that now generates over $2.78 billion annually in economic impact (NZ) and over 21,000 jobs, Wellington has unofficially earned the title of “Wellywood.

For anyone who has enjoyed the artistry of the creatures, costumes, weapons and digital effects in The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Avatar, King Kong, or the Chronicles of Narnia, a tour of the Weta Cave Workshop is a must-do on a visit to Wellington. Co-founded by Richard Taylor and Tania Roger in 1987 in the back of their flat (e.g. apartment), Weta has grown to become the largest creative studio of it’s kind outside of LA. Key to that growth was their introduction in their early years to a young director by the name of Peter Jackson, actively looking for a special effects team on a dark and satirical film called “Feebles.” And so it began.

A “weta” is a one of the world’s largest insects. Literally translated, wetapunga in Maori means “the god of ugly things.” An appropriate name for the gruesome and fantastical creatures created in the workshop.

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One ugly thing and one pretty thing

While no cameras were allowed on the tour due to copyright issues, I did have the good fortune to hold a bright orange and grey mining gun designed to fight aliens (I think?) in the upcoming film “District 9.” At a hefty weight of about 25 lbs, the workshop created a much lighter version for the actors when shooting long takes. Weta was hired only to create that one piece for the film. Over 500 designs were rejected before the filmmakers accepted the final design and the gun went into production using the expertise of five different teams at the Workshop.

Seeing the props encased in the workshop including Gandalf’s sword, Legolas’ bow, Sting, and getting a chance to feel the weight of chain mail used in the LOTR trilogy, my inner geek was alight with joy. What was surprising is that Alisa (who could barely manage to sit through the films with me) was having just as much fun.

It was indeed an unexpected journey and a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon.

In addition to film productions, the Weta Workshop has created extraordinary pieces for the National Museum Te Papa for Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War exhibit. The exhibit features six 20 foot models of historical figures from the campaign in Gallipoli in WWI. Gallipoli is known as one of the bloodiest battles for New Zealanders in their history. The models, quite literally larger-than-life, are made with such precise detail to convey the stress, pain and injuries (mental and physical) of the experience of the battle.

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Absolutely Positively

The official slogan of Wellington is “Absolutely Positively” – an apt saying for a city that boxes above its international weight class in public art, waterfront accessibility, walkability, and overall livability.

In just a few days, I observed several occasions in which government seemed to absolutely and positively work for people. When you walk into the Council Chambers (City Hall), on one side of the first floor is a reception desk for inquiries and on the other is a Service Center. A sign clearly indicates what services can be provided in the Service Center, including, of course, dog registration. Above each of the service desks was a sign that read, “How can we help?” Truly an astounding concept.

 

Next to the reception desk where a friendly greeter sits are three motorized chairs available at no cost for visitors who need assistance getting around the Wellington Waterfront or downtown areas. On the back of each chair is a sign that reads: “Hire me for free” with a phone number to call. There’s even a special motorized chair suitable for going to the beach. It was all too easy. As it should be.

The head of the City Council is the Mayor, a seat currently held by a Green party member (who ran as an Independent) and pedestrian advocate by the name of Celia Wade-Brown. Originally from England, Mayor Wade-Brown is serving her second of two three-year terms.

Because I have a thing for mayors and other elected officials (again, stories for another time), I paid an official visit to Her Worship, the Mayor. We had occasion to discuss her interest in forming stronger ties with the West Coast of the U.S. and potential collaborations in the areas of climate, seismic strengthening, and tourism over lunch with her staff.

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With Mayor Wade-Brown (in purple) and her team exchange gifts between Portland and Wellington

At the conclusion of our meeting, I offered a suggestion to the tourism head of the Wellington region that their next slogan could be “You’re Welcome.” A feeling I had each and every moment of our visit.

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The Wellington Waterfront offers opportunities to be active – running, kayaking, swimming and cycling – and well as opportunities to relax at one of the many bars and restaurants that run the 2 mile stretch. One such bar, the Karaka Café  shares space with the “Waka” (traditional Maori canoe) in a stunning architectural display by the harbor. The café displays it’s rules on the front of the bar in Maori and English: Live, Laugh, Eat; Be kind to others; Ring a friend to join you; Three warm welcomes; and other such sayings that absolutely and positively make you want to settle in and enjoy yourself. The tables by the waterfront with bean-bag seats mean that you can start in regular seats at the outdoor bar and then gradually slide closer to the water and recline as the afternoon sun drops in the sky and the local microbrews continue to flow. I’m just saying.

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My favorite piece of art on the Waterfront is the City to Sea bridge. The bridge exhibits European and Maori art pieces, starkly different in design, but seamlessly woven together by walking paths over the winding bridge. There are many places on the bridge to sit, stop, reflect and move in different directions. It is anything but linear.

A quote on the bridge leaves visitors with a strong impression of this place:

It’s true you can’t live here by chance, you have to do and be, not simply watch or even describe.  This is the City of Action, the World Headquarters of the Verb.

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Beehive

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Walking up the steps toward the “Beehive” (www.parliament.nz), the Executive Wing of the NZ Parliament, I had an ominous feeling that I was arriving at the Quarter Quell without my bow and arrow.

The Beehive is connected to other parliamentary buildings with a more traditional aesthetic. It is used primarily for executive offices of the Prime Minister and to host state dinners.  We managed to catch an hour-long tour that had just begun, and again, phones were prohibited. Imagine, experiencing a full hour of information without the ubiquitous glow of i-phones and selfie-sticks. Radical.

A bit of history for you political buffs (you know who you are): The NZ Parliament moved to Wellington from Auckland in 1865. Apparently some members from the South complained of the dangers of sailing up to Auckland.   That plus some strategic building of a large library designed to house the Parliament won the move of the Capital to Wellington.

Parliamentary elections happen every three years and the electoral system is known as MMP (Mixed Member Proportional). As a member of parliament, you are either an “electorate member” who represents a geographical region or a member elected by their party. Of the 121 members in all, 7 are designated for Maori representation.

There was once both a lower chamber (where bills were introduced) and an upper chamber (where bills went to die), but the upper chamber –an extension of the British Crown—was abolished in 1951. What remains of the legislative branch is the House of Representatives. A Speaker, elected by the membership, presides over the three-day-per-week proceedings, 30-33 weeks each year.   Each bill that is introduced must have three readings, including an initial floor vote after the first reading even before the bill is assigned to a committee. If the bill doesn’t survive the initial floor vote, it’s toast for the remainder of the parliamentary term (up to 3 years).

Talk about needing the odds ever in one’s favour….

The Prime Minister is the top appointed official in NZ and the seat is currently occupied by John Key of the National Party (center-right).

The Governor-General is a member of the Executive and serves as the Queen’s Representative in NZ. During our visit to Wellington, a new Governor General was announced, Dame Patsy Reddy. She is only the third woman to hold the post in NZ and will be sworn in on Sept 14, 2016. Interesting fact: The Governor-General has never vetoed a bill in the history of Parliament. (Cue sound of crickets.)

Overall, hands down, the Middle of Middle Earth is one of the Absolutely Positively most welcoming cities in the world. I only can hope for an opportunity to return again someday to the City of Action, the World Headquarters of the Verb.  We have work to do.

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