A Walk in the Botanical Gardens

On our first full day in Wellington, we went full-on tourist and headed downtown to ride the cable car. The red cable car, which shuttles people from the business district to the university on the hill, has been running for more than 100 years (in various forms) and is one of the must-dos for any Wellington itinerary. We got our one-way tickets at the bottom, then loaded into the car. The inside has old-timey wood paneling and all the seats are tilted to adjust for the slope of the hill. The journey up only took a few minutes, during which we went through a few tunnels and passed the opposite car going down the hill. I found the trip itself a little underwhelming, but it was far better than walking up the hill and the views from the top were quite nice.

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The classic cable car picture, with Wellington in the background.

At the top of the cable car is the cable car museum, naturally. It detailed the history of the system: it was initially built so that the land on the top of the hill could be developed into housing that people would actually want to live in, and though the city has tried to shut it down a few times, it has always had popular support. The cable car is part of the public transport system, though I suspect that on Saturday morning most of our fellow riders were tourists, too.

The museum also had an entertaining video about private cable cars. Since Wellington is so hilly, some houses can’t have driveways up to the door and so the residents must hike up and down flights of stairs to get to their home. Some people in this situation have installed their own private cable car, or rather cable pod, that carries them conveniently up the hill. Many of the people interviewed were older, but one couple got a cable car installed for their elderly dog. Dogs seem to love it, though: another learned to go sit in the pod whenever he wanted to go for a walk! The whole video was full of such amusing anecdotes and was a glimpse into life (for some) in Wellington.

On the hill below the cable car, Wellington’s Botanic Gardens began. The hilltop was the home of an old observatory, the space museum, and an interesting sundial:

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Not pictured: 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9.

This is called an analemmatic sundial and requires audience participation: a person stands on today’s date on the plaque on the ground, and their shadow becomes the “hand” of the clock, marking the current time. Of course, it works best when the sun is out. M and I waited for a break in the clouds to test it out and it did in fact work!

After playing around with the sundial, we continued down the hill into the proper botanic gardens. Paths branched out in every direction, but we stuck with the main trail, walking down through the Australian plants, hydrangeas, a rock garden, and a patch of specifically fragrant foliage. April is the beginning of autumn in New Zealand so none of the flowers were very impressive. However, many of the plants, such as the succulents, can be appreciated all year.

Around and between the imported plants was native New Zealand bush which held many birds, including kaka. Though we did see one parrot fly overhead, it was not the most unusual sight in the garden. As we reached the middle of the hill, we came across a lawn which was hosting a kid’s event for the Easter weekend. The show was about dinosaurs and included several large models. To our surprise, one started walking around, getting pets from the kids! I guess costume technology has advanced since I was a child, since dinosaur-obsessed me would have definitely remembered a walking T-Rex.

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Lucky kids! (And yes, the guy’s yellow vest says “dinosaur ranger”).

We left the dinosaurs to find their modern-day descendants at the duck pond. This too was not safe from dinosaurs as there was a large Loch Ness monster-esque head sticking out of the water; apparently it was the theme of the weekend. The ducks were not fazed by this intrusion and paddled around the gazebo as we watched them for a bit.

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Old and new dinosaurs.

The lawn and duck pond were a bit too busy for us, so we walked up the valley of camellias (not blooming) to Druid Hill. We never got a satisfactory explanation for the name of the hill, but it did have one of the more impressive sculptures of the many art pieces in the gardens. It consisted of a giant funnel formed with coiled copper that was precisely balanced in a structure holding it upright. The bottom of the funnel was off the ground and by standing in it, you could hear the noise of the city, in theory. M and I both went in the funnel and pushed it back and forth, but all we could hear was the wind (and noise from the dinosaur show below). Still, it looked cool!

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M’s legs in the sculpture, called the “Listening and Viewing Device.”

Down Druid Hill, past more sculptures, was the herb garden. This garden contained not only edible herbs used in cooking, but also medicinal and other useful plants. The usefulness of these herbs were clearly causing problems, as a sign warned us that CCTV was monitoring the area for plant theft. Just buy your own at the garden store, people!

The herb garden also had a nice overview of the rose garden, which is the most popular part of the botanic gardens, likely because the parking lot and cafe are next to it. Sadly the roses were out of season, so we headed inside to the greenhouses which were surprisingly not busy for the number of people around. The plants were interesting and exotic, and some of the flowers were even blooming!

Just outside the greenhouses and cafe was the peace garden. It had a nice waterfall with a small Japanese lantern in the pond housing a peace flame from Hiroshima. A block from the old city hall of Hiroshima was also in the garden; New Zealand is a very anti-nuclear country and Wellington, as the capital, is the home of many of those efforts.

We’d seen most of the attractions in the botanic gardens, but still had a short walk down the rest of the hill to the city. The path took us through an old cemetery, which was rudely divided in half when they built the motorway through Wellington. With all the hills, usable space for both cemeteries and highways are limited. As part of construction, they exhumed all the bodies that would be affected and moved them to a chapel on the city-side of the cemetery. Still, many old (for New Zealand) gravestones are visible and clearly well-maintained.

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Graves from the 1800s and offending motorway in the background.

Our adventure through the botanic gardens took most of the afternoon, so on our way back to the hostel we stopped for coffee. This day involved the most concentrated walking of our Wellington trip, but it was well worth it to see one of the best gardens we’ve been to in New Zealand.

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