Monthly Archives: January 2010

“how little things have changed…”

It’s like we do nowadays, but slightly different.” – A ten-year old tour guide at the Colonial Cottage Museum.

Among the various new holidays I found on my calendar this year – ANZAC Day, Boxing Day, and the Queen’s Birthday, to name a few – I was perhaps most intrigued by the idea of regional anniversaries. Of course I was accustomed to the concept of celebrating a country’s anniversary – hello, Fourth of July – yet taking this one step further, remembering the day on which each region was founded, was new to me. From Auckland and Northland’s anniversary on the 22nd of January to Canterbury’s on the 16th of December, there are twelve such anniversaries throughout the year – and obviously each holiday applies only within the boundaries of the region it honors, otherwise the country might find the number of its public holidays more than doubled.

From the moment I arrived in Wellington, I knew I planned on using the city’s anniversary as an opportunity to discuss the history of the region as a whole, yet didn’t have any sort of coordinated event in mind to lead off with. I was thus pleased to come across a flyer in the library one day advertising an anniversary barbecue at the Colonial Cottage Museum – another place I assumed I’d get around to visiting eventually. So not only would I have an actual event to mark Wellington’s anniversary with, but I’d be killing those proverbial two birds with a single stone. Brilliant.

The house built in 1858 by a man named William Wallis, the Colonial Cottage Museum features Wellington’s oldest original colonial cottage, claimed to be “the best example of its type in New Zealand.” There were others before it, I learned, but this happened to be the one that survived. Its existence today is due largely to the fact that it remained in the family for 119 years until the 1970s, when the Colonial Cottage Museum Society came into being and started their search for a workers’ cottage to restore. The house is even spotlighted in Wellington, Wellington: A History, in which a former mayor of the city, Michael Fowler, discusses the most remarkable buildings existing from the first fifty years of the city: “Miss Turner’s cottage at 68 Nairn Street is a typical small, colonial cottage, now owned by the city and restored on its original site amongst a vast public rental housing settlement; the cottage is furnished and open for visiting” (18).

Indeed, walking away from the city up Nairn Street, you begin to wonder if the map in your hand is pointing you in the right direction at all. The “vast” housing settlement Fowler mentioned couldn’t be more unattractive or unhistoric – a peach-colored multistory apartment block of city council tenant flats. In the shadow of this modern monstrosity, however, sits the modest, unassuming house that has become the glorified Colonial Cottage. A white picket fence encircling the property fits in with every preconception of cottages and their “charm” you might’ve held before visiting. The wooden siding has been painted the color of buttermilk, a thin awning of brick red corrugated tin hangs over the verandah, and a single chimney protrudes from the grey shingles of the roof. The only thing ruining the picture is a bright yellow flag waving in the front yard, proclaiming “absolutely, positively, Wellington” in a very un-colonial manner. Oh, and the cars parked out front, a silver Honda and a small white pick-up truck. For the sake of photojournalists across the world, I’d love to petition the Wellington City Council if perhaps those two parking spots couldn’t be kept vacant.

Adjacent to the house is a visitors’ center, where I was shown upon arrival by a guy named Brent turning sausages on the barbecue. I paid my entry fee and quickly joined an Asian woman and one elderly Kiwi couple for a tour that had already started inside the house. Our guide was Andy, a young mum with two children hanging on her arm who spent most of the tour saying, “Josh, darling, look with your eyes, not with your hands please,” while trying her best to tell us what we’d come to hear. She was, however, a welcome change from the usual white-haired volunteer you come across in such a position and I found her interest in the house itself endearing.

We began in the parlor, just to the right of the front door. “The parlor was the colonists’ chance to show they were doing well,” Andy explained, “It was kept in pristine condition and rarely used.” She pointed out the upright piano and the oil paintings on the wall as signs of their wealth and I couldn’t help but notice the hymnbook on the piano was open to one titled, “There’s no one to welcome me home,” by a certain M. H. McChesney. It seemed a rather odd choice for such a situation. Colonists were also expected to have a wide range of skills and one of the Wallis’ daughters, Clara, was no exception, as a piece of cross-stitch embroidery framed on the wall was intended to demonstrate. William himself, as a carpenter, arrived in New Zealand with just the set of skills he would need to build the house, thus he was able to do most of the work himself, rather than hire out others. This enabled him to construct quite a “posh workers’ cottage,” as Andy described it. The brown velvet drapes, the oil lamps, even the portrait of Queen Victoria, were indicative of the period itself, not just the Wallis family, intending to give a general idea of how such a house might’ve been furnished.

Across the hall from the parlor was the parents’ bedroom, where William and his wife, Katherine, slept and bathed. The two had been married for only three weeks before they boarded a ship in Gravesend, England, and sailed for the new colony at the bottom of the world. If the conditions of the voyage weren’t enough of a honeymoon, Katherine then became pregnant with their first child in those four months at sea. The Wallis family would grow to include ten children, seven of whom would live in the cottage at 68 Nairn Street. While the house wasn’t their first in Wellington, he bought the land not long after arriving in September of 1857, choosing the site based on the spring that ran through the backyard. This source of fresh water was important to William, as there was a cholera outbreak in Te Aro Flats, not far down the hill. The green-striped wallpaper of the room wasn’t original, but both the bed and the dresser were, crafted by William’s own hands. The chest at the foot of the bed came with the family on the ship, most likely holding the few possessions they brought with them.

A door inside the bedroom connected it with a room at the back of the house that functioned as nursery and workroom. The wallpaper in this room was original but, as they do, was covered in panels of plexiglass that had been screwed to the walls. There was an early version of a crib in the room, as well as a rocking horse and blocks that were scattered on the floor. On top of a dresser sat children’s books, Beatrix Potter’s Miss Moppet and another with the unusual title of “The Princess Who Gave Away All.” A black, covered, three-wheeled pram, looking like the forerunner to those used today by active parents pushing their kids while on a jog or run, was apparently designed to avoid a wheel tax that existed on London roads for any four-wheeled vehicle. Sneaky business! A sewing machine by the window represented the other half of the room’s function. Those involved in the house’s restoration were able to identify this room as where the sewing was done from a rat’s nest they found in the floorboards with several bits of fabric in it. Andy informed us that a sewing machine was one of the first things you could get on hire-purchase in New Zealand – predecessor of lay-away?

In the far right corner of the house sat the kitchen, the last room on the first floor. There was a spinning wheel in a corner and a loaf of bread and bowl of apples on the thick wooden table. It had a homey feel about it, as all kitchens should. The stove, built from stones into the wall, was wood-burning to reflect the period – at the time, wood was more plentiful and accessible than coal – but Andy shared that this would have been converted to a gas stove by the turn of the century. Over the fire rested a device that was like a wide grill at the top, with a sort of flat bowl that funneled between the grill and a hollow handle. We learned that this was used to roast meat while at the same time saving the fat to be made into candles. But because rats and mice were just as interested in these animal-fat creations, a round candle holder had been mounted to the wall to keep them out of harm’s way.

In the kitchen pantry were rows and rows of jars and preserves and, just as with the candles, you were led to marvel at the ingenuity of these colonists, how nothing went to waste. Only things such as the family’s white sugar cone were imported. The shipping lists for these items were featured in the Evening Post, advertising what was coming in and when. I bought a copy of the first published edition, dated the 8th of February, 1865, and browsed the list of imports. A third of the items on sale from William Hickson & Son alone were alcohol – 10 quarter-casks of Martell’s brandy, 100 cases of Scotch whisky, 20 cases of superior sherry wine – with others including:

60 boxes Sydney soap

10 casks sugar-house treacle

40 bags Mauritius sugar

10 cases Harper-Twelvetrees’ washing powder

2 cases English cheese

It made the whole world of imports and exports seem much more real and tangible, not some invisible exchange dictated by secretaries of commerce in far-off capitals. The Wallis’ sugar cone sat on a side table and they had various tongs to use depending on the size of sugar chunk they wished to cut off. Tea itself was valuable and the family had a lockable tea chest to store it in. A kitchen towel hanging over a chair commemorating “The Royal Wedding” between Princess Victoria and the Duke of York in 1893 seemed to be a bit of an anachronism based on the house supposedly representing colonial Wellington in the 1850s, but I could tell what they were going for and didn’t question it. On the table, among other pieces of schoolwork, was a certificate for penmanship which read, “Writing is almost as important as speaking.” I should think so, I wanted to say. Andy pointed out an area by the stove which was the naughty corner, where the children were forced to stand on a stool in exchange for atonement. Just above the mantle were little stick men drawn on the wall, “perhaps when the children got bored of standing, with a bit of pencil they had in their pocket,” Andy said, and I thought to myself that these are the things you can’t recreate when you go about this kind of restoration.

We went upstairs via a steep, narrow staircase to the children’s rooms, the girls on the right, boys on the left. The girls’ room featured two beds, both wrought-iron, that would sleep three or four at a time. On the bed closest to the door was a quilt, of which the middle part was the oldest thing in the house, having come with the family on the ship. There was a small flowered design to the red-and-cream wallpaper, and hand-knit rugs on the floor had been made from bits of cloth of all colors.  A green-and-white checked dress, every stitch done by hand, hung on the wall and toys had been set out all over the room. “This is just to give you an idea,” Andy said, calling our attention to a candle that sat on a desk far too close to the sloping ceiling to actually burn safely, “But it does show you how little things have changed. Checkers, paper dolls, tea seats, they’re all things my children are still into.” Homework was displayed on the bed, familiar worksheets on multiplication and long division, and on the floor sat hot water bottles and old suitcases. “Nana had a case like that, with the straps,” the older woman said to her husband. They had been reminiscing and making similar comments throughout the tour, speaking often of “the war.”

The boys slept next door, the room having been identified as such from another simple clue, much like the rat’s nest from the sewing room. Bits of original wallpaper had been discovered above the door and the geometric pattern of the paper hinted that it was most likely chosen to suit a boy’s taste. On the windowsill of the room was a church built from blocks. Andy explained that it would have been one of the few toys the children could play with on Sundays, as verses from the Bible had been printed on the sides of the blocks. How very virtuous of them! Not quite so spiritually minded were several Punch and Judy puppets laying limply on the bed next to a sheet on which was printed:

Look here, the quarrel has begun

See how they wield their sticks,

And cruel Punch kills Judy dead,

Ah! Punch! what naughty tricks!

Thus far in the tour, there had been another group trailing never far behind, who always seemed to be waiting for us to exit a room before they could follow in behind and carry on with things. At this point in the boys’ room, the other guide, a woman named Beverley who was markedly much older and had short grey hair, came up to Andy and said,  “Make them shorter, dear, you’ll be exhausted at the end of the day.” My first thought was to laugh at this affront and ask Beverley, seriously? What was the rush? Your sausages getting cold downstairs? I, for one, was thoroughly appreciative of Andy’s attention to detail and hoped she’d pay the woman no mind.

And I was pleased to see she didn’t, for as we made our way back down the stairs, she stopped us in the hall to point out where William had numbered the wooden boards of the walls. He’d implemented a tongue-and-groove technique during construction and the right side of one board was marked “4” to line up with the left side of the next that also read “4,” and so on with 5, 6, 7, etc. She then showed us how restorers knew where the original kitchen walls had been, because of circle marks pots and pans had left when they were hung while still hot. I recalled the time my mother had – much to my father’s displeasure – branded an old countertop with a lovely black “O” for the same reason, setting down a hot pot, and thought again of how the same mistakes were made a century and a half ago. And a few feet down, you could just see where the children’s heights had been marked with initials penciled next to each line. Over and over, in so many ways, it seemed nothing has changed in the way families “do” life.

We moved out of the house into a scullery that had been added on in later years. Andy said she wasn’t sure if William had done so after his time in the Crimean War, when it was first thought best to keep the food preparation away from the dining area. Further out back was the washing house, completely separate from the cottage in order to minimize the risk of fire. It seemed more a shed to me, holding William’s original tool chest, its light green paint peeling, that had gone with him to the Crimean War, and a washing machine, which Andy confessed, was again slightly out-of-period, being produced in 1874. I’ve mentioned an Asian woman on the tour, and all along she seemed delighted to ask about rather self-evident objects. “What is that?” she’d exclaim, and Andy would inform her that it was indeed the washing machine or the wringer or several early variations of irons. But it was a childlike joy and you couldn’t help but share in her innocent curiosity.

Any ground on which the house and its outlying buildings hadn’t been built was cultivated land. In the garden as in the house, Andy explained that the museum society was working towards replicating what the Wallis family themselves would’ve seen from the windows of their cottage. The marks of ingenuity and independence inside could be found throughout the garden as well. In the early stages of the country, it was important for colonists to grow their own food source as much as possible, so the yard was shaded by fruit trees – plums, apples, quince – all of which were used in preserves. The family grew silverbeet, rhubarb, grapes, feijoas, strawberries, raspberries, currants, and mulberries, which after trying, I can say were much too sour for my liking. An herb garden had a two-fold purpose – obviously medicinal, but also to disguise the flavor of food that was off – and included myrtleberry (Queen Victoria’s favorite), wormwood, sage (antibacterial), and angelica. There was even a dye garden, with a bright spectrum of oranges, fuschias, and blues to choose from supplied by nasturtium, dahlias, roses, gladioli, and borage (to attract bees and fertilize the plants).

The flyer I’d seen for the event had mentioned a “Footnote Dance in an Alice in Wonderland themed performance,” and while I wasn’t entirely sure what this meant, I decided to stick around for it anyways after the tour ended. I had my share of what the barbecue had to offer before making my way to the garden, where a large group had begun to gather around a not-so-large space. A few minutes past two, the Queen of Hearts started walking down from the house and took her place under the apple tree, pink flamingo in hand. Not far behind her was the Cheshire Cat, who sat grinning stupidly while the queen took imaginary swings at imaginary croquet balls and walked determinedly from wicket to imaginary wicket.

The crowd – myself included – seemed to hold our breath wondering when it was all going to begin, when a woman suddenly stood to her feet and said, “I should tell you, there’s not going to be a ‘dance,’ per se. The characters are placed throughout the garden and house and will be interacting with you.” Well, then, what a weird turn of events. But the White Rabbit could be heard from the front yard exclaiming, “I’m late! I’m late!” whilst the Mad Hatter appeared giving devious looks and making sweeping gestures with his mad top hat. Soon enough, Alice herself wandered down to the garden, much to the delight of the children in the crowd, and began twirling in circles, dancing on the toes of her striped stockings and swirling the folds of her bright blue dress.

With the Footnote Dance not quite the “dance” I was expecting, I realized I’d spent most of the tour listening to Andy talk about details of the family and had failed to note actual physical details of each room. In between the tours that continued to flow through, I went back on my own and lingered throughout the house. As I made my way back into the girls’ room upstairs, there were three young girls already in there, no older than ten years of age. It took a second to listen to them and see that one girl was actually giving a tour. While my first thought was “like the blind leading the blind,” I soon corrected myself as I could tell this girl knew what she was talking about. “The windowsill was kind of like their dressing table, they kept bobby pins and hair brushes on it.” “What’s that circular thing for?” one of her friends asked and the young guide remarked that she didn’t know. “I thought you worked here.” “I do,” she replied, “But I haven’t been here for a year. I’m surprised I remembered this much.” She then talked about an item that worked like a curling iron; they’d let it grow warm on the stove before wrapping their hair around it. “It’s like we do nowadays, but slightly different,” she said in that nonchalant manner in which a child speaks volumes of truth without any idea of it.

For that truly seemed to be the theme of the day – like nowadays, but slightly different. And when I thought about it, it made sense. The house was built only a century and a half ago. The great differences between then and now lay mostly in the developments of electricity, automation, and technology. But the basic premise of things was the same. There hadn’t seemed to be any new revolutions in thought or design that had occurred over the years. Where the Wallis boys had used building blocks, modern children play with Legos. Where Katherine Wallis had pressed wet clothes through a wringer, modern mothers use a dryer. Where William Wallis had hung a cowbell and carriage lamp in the washroom, modern fathers store lawn mowers and weed-eaters in their two-car garage. The same, but different.

Because I suppose hearing “colonial” cottage, I had expected something older, something more remarkably different, but I soon realized the mistake was in my own perception – “colonial” doesn’t imply old, it simply implies the period in which a country is still a colony. For me, my immediate connotation of colonial is further back in time only because of the period in which my own country (and state, for that matter) was a colony. Even when I looked up “colonial” in the Encarta World English Dictionary, the definitions I got were (1) “possessing, ruling over, living in, or relating to a colony;” (2) “relating to the 13 original British colonies in North America before their independence in 1776;” (3) “relating to the colonies of the former British Empire, or to the Empire as a whole;” (4) “dating from or in a style typical of British North America from the late 17th through the early 19th centuries.” So I knew I wasn’t crazy in the way my mind heard “colonial” and automatically jumped to a certain period in time.

Thus when looking at Wellington in its colonial days, it was important to get a good grip around the time frame. I’ve written before of the New Zealand Company and its leader, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, when looking into the history of Christchurch, and again Mr. Wakefield popped up in Wellington’s past. Somehow, though, I’d gotten the idea that Christchurch was the first settlement in New Zealand, but it appears I’d gotten my wires crossed. As it turns out, the first immigrant ship of the New Zealand Company, appropriately named the Aurora – often associated with the dawn in classical literature – arrived in Wellington on the 22nd of January, 1840, almost ten years before settlement began in Canterbury. More accurately, the ship landed on the beach at Petone, across the harbor, before the settlement moved to its current location after several floods.

Edward Gibbon Wakefield.


I’ve also written on the degree to which the founding of New Zealand was a deliberate move on the planners’ part. Those involved in the settling and surveying of Christchurch had specific theories and ideas about colonization and, so it seems, did those in Wellington. In the introduction of The Making of Wellington: 1800-1914, David Hamer and Roberta Nicholls write, “The New Zealand Company represented one of the main applications to practical colonization of the theories of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, a figure now regarded as of major importance in the history of nineteenth-century political economy. Wellington was an outcome of a significant movement in British theorizing and practice in colonial development” (2). I find it no coincidence that this “significant movement” took place after the Revolutionary War left the United States a new independent nation, with all ties with Mother England severed. Perhaps Wakefield and his English associates were determined not to let the same thing happen twice? Perhaps they were ready to learn from their mistakes and make sure things didn’t go awry in yet another new colony?

That’s just my own musing, but there’s no doubt, as Fowler writes in Wellington, Wellington, “we were consciously founded, our town being earnestly planned as a new settlement of British stock, a mixture of tradesmen, a few professionally trained persons and some others with skills in farming. Each of these families forsook some security, at least of known environment, for the unknown Antipodes on the other side of the world, encouraged by that tremendous enthusiast, Edward Gibbon Wakefield” (9). The Wallis’s – William and Katherine and their ten children – were such a family who pushed comfort aside and struck out on the hope that what they found would be worth more than that which was left behind.

And so the Wallis cottage represents some of the key challenges young settlers faced when beginning their new lives in Wellington, especially a few particular ones not to be encountered by their Christchurch counterparts. As our guide Andy shared, the house is constructed almost entirely from native timber – only the stairs were built from pine partitions used in the ship on the voyage over. This wasn’t an architectural accident, a decision made due to a lack of stone or brick, however, but a response to the geological environment. As Chris Cochran explores in his essay “Styles of Sham and Genuine Simplicity: Timber Buildings in Wellington to 1880,” with Wellington being situated on a major intercontinental fault-line, the early occurrence of several large earthquakes meant builders had to reevaluate their choice of building materials. In October of 1848, a quake rocked the harbor, leaving three dead and the new town in shambles. The Independent reported on October 18, “The scene can never be described, the crashing of houses, the fall of bricks…wooden buildings are about the only class of habitations which can be deemed secure against such dreadful shocks.” Thus the colonists came to see that where bricks broke, wood merely bent.

Only seven years later, though, yet another earthquake struck. On the 23rd of February, 1855, the strongest shock in the country’s recent history took place, thankfully causing less damage only because new buildings had been built from timber. Brad Patterson addresses the issue in his essay, “A ‘half Australian, half American’ town: The economic foundations of Nineteenth Century Wellington.” He records the visit of a French political scientist named André Siegfried to Wellington in 1898. Of his time in the city, Siegfried writes, Wellington seemed a “completely colonial town, built of red roofed wooden houses… [There were] at most two or three stone buildings, and these were pointed out with undue admiration… [The town seemed] ‘half Australian, half American.’”

Of course I could choose to take offence at the American jab, but I won’t stray off-task. Patterson, though, goes on to defend the early Wellingtonians and their architectural decisions, explaining that the abundance of wooden buildings had more to do with the “proven vulnerability of masonry to earthquakes” (180) than it did with any aesthetic choice. What may have seemed like a  rough-and-tumble makeshift town was actually a deliberate response to the threat of earthquakes. The timber of the Wallis cottage merely demonstrates the colonists’ adaptation to their new environment.

In addition to – or perhaps because of – the geomorphic conditions of Wellington, families like the Wallis’s were faced with another challenge – the region’s physical and topographical makeup. The hills surrounding the harbor were something new that residents in the Canterbury Plains would’ve never had to overcome. But what made their adjustment to the new physical environment of Wellington all the more difficult was the fact that early surveys of the region failed to prepare them for it. The surveys failed to accurately portray the topography of the harbor, the hills that would present quite a different situation to the arriving English settlers who were used to farming and raising sheep on flat land.  

Painting of early Wellington by C.D. Barraud, 1860.


In another essay, “‘A Queer Cantankerous Lot’: The Human Factor in the Conduct of the New Zealand Company’s Wellington Surveys,” Patterson discusses the role of Captain William Mein Smith, the first Surveyor-General to the New Zealand Company from 1839 to 1842. Of the issues Smith encountered, Patterson writes, “When the laying out of farms commenced in earnest, it became readily apparent that the ‘running survey’ system advocated by Dawson was inappropriate to the conditions. Based on the creation of a regular ‘chessboard’ of rectangles, it had been most extensively used previously on relatively flat lands. Smith recommended that it be abandoned, and that triangulation, or some more simple system, be substituted. Wakefield would have none of it” (69).

The first Surveyor-General of New Zealand, Captain Smith.


By letting personal politics get in the way, Wakefield failed to prepare surveys that would be useful and accurate in their portrayal of Wellington. Was it a way of denying how different the actual land was from the way in which they desired to shape it? As Patterson writes, the town “was to be a sweeping and symmetrical montage of rectangularly aligned streets; of regularly spaced squares and public buildings; of well-defined retail, commercial, and residential sectors” (180-1). Was it the impossibility of molding the terrain of Wellington to fit this vision that left Wakefield unwilling to cooperate with Smith? In reality, the survey was little more than a sale plan, breaking the land into the required 1,100 one acre sections that “had been simply plastered on to the irregular topography” (181).  The plan made no allowance for the reality.

After my tour of the cottage was finished, Andy took me aside in the visitors’ center and showed me a replica of the original survey used by settlers to select their plot of land. Indeed, while the outline of the harbor was intact, there was no sign of the slopes I’d already gotten to know so well in the city. I could thus understand the frustration of a settler that Patterson describes, who “unable to locate his allotted section on the slopes, condemned the town as ‘fit only for goats and asses’” (181).

But having to choose between sink or swim – in the face of major earthquakes and unexpected terrain, challenges unique to the Wellington region – early settlers did surely rise above. As I walked through the garden of the Wallis cottage, an English woman came up to our group and remarked on how amazing it was that the family lost only one child to diphtheria. “Usually, you lost whole families to it back then.” The conversation turned to the resilience of the family, on how young William and Katherine’s marriage was when they set out on the ship and how she became pregnant on the voyage. “It doesn’t make any sense,” the woman continued. “I’m from Gravesend, England [where the Wallis’s came from] and there’s no pluck there. There’s nothing to say about it, it’s very industrial. So for them to go off into an unknown land is amazing. I’ve seen where they came from, and now I get to see where they came to.”

Wellington in 1875, with Nairn Street circled.


Indeed, in this age of the internet, where images can fly from continent to continent with a few clicks of a camera and mouse, it is remarkable to consider that families such as the Wallis’s came to New Zealand having absolutely no idea, no picture of what the country looked like. It was sold as “the great outdoors” and “the new world,” but that was all they had to go on – many of the settlers bought their plots of land before even arriving, only to find the brush-covered terrain unlike anything they’d experienced before. It was a risk to come, a risk they took, and there’s no denying the pluck of these early colonists in shaping a life for themselves in New Zealand. Fowler puts it perfectly: “In this ferment of expansion, the entrepreneurial skills of certain settlers came to the fore in this burgeoning town. This was not surprising for there was a wealth of talent amongst those well-above-average persons whose families or themselves had enjoyed the fortitude to leave complacency behind and travel to the unknown at the other side of the world” (19).

And so it makes sense that many of the settlers who arrived brought with them a particularly useful set of skills. It made sense that, as Cochran writes, many of the first settlers were carpenters and builders and farmers who arrived with the capability of putting their new world together – the ability to not only survive, but to thrive, was within their reach. Their previous occupations were of a practical nature that could easily be utilized in New Zealand: “William Wallis was a builder; William Spinks a storekeeper; Robert Bould, who owned Daisy Hill Farm, was a sheepfarmer; Chew was a timber merchant…The buildings that they built and occupied therefore represent the living conditions and lifestyle of skilled artisans in early Wellington. They show an economy of means, the maximum usefulness being squeezed out of the form of the building with tight staircases and small bedrooms in the roof spaces; they gain architecturally from their clear geometric forms, their lack of decoration, their style of ‘genuine simplicity’” (117).

In a way, even, this might explain the agriculturally-dominated perception of New Zealand – of sheep and hills and rolling farmland. It causes me to think for a moment about the lack of a strong literary or artistic tradition in the country and to connect it with the progression of such in my own homeland. The first settlers arrived in Virginia in the early 1600s, and one could say it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the American literary scene really took off. Thus if you place New Zealand against a similar historical timeline, it makes sense that authors and artists are still developing, because to found a country, to literally build cities from the barefoot earth, you couldn’t send artists. You have to send practical minds with the practical means of building and planning. Could you imagine a young Nathaniel Hawthorne or Emily Dickinson mucking around through rainy hills with a load of native timber on their shoulders?

And through it all – through a history of earthquakes and inaccurate surveys and a good dose of pluck – I thought of how such houses as the one at 68 Nairn Street become restored and commemorated. If, as Fowler wrote, it is a “typical” cottage of the era, there surely must have been scores of others. Yet it is the fact that this house has endured, that its walls still stand, that its identity is changed from something entirely ordinary to something entirely noteworthy.



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planes, trains, and automobiles: getting to know the north.

“In the past, what had mattered most in any long train journey through an interesting landscape was the motion, the privacy, the solitude, the grandeur. Food and comfort, I had discovered, are seldom available on the best trips: there is something about the most beautiful places having the most awful trains.” – Paul Theroux: “Gravy Train: A Private Railway Car”

There’s something about the prefix “trans-,” something about the myriad words it often precedes all carrying that same sense of wonder or fullness. From the Latin preposition of the same name, its original meaning of “across” and “over” has grown to include “beyond, through, on or to the other side of, into another state or form,” and definitions of words of which “trans” is a prefix span over nine pages alone in the Oxford English Dictionary. In words such as transatlantic, Trans-Siberian, and transcontinental, you get a sense of covering a piece of the earth in its entirety. In transition, transfer, or transcend, there is a sense of movement, yet also completion.  And words like transparent and translucent hold the idea of seeing through something, be it glass, plastic, or – worse yet – emotions. A word that begins with trans–  gives the impression of being thorough and complete, and that because of this breadth, obliqueness or misunderstanding is impossible.

So I find it no accident that “trans” and “trains” are so similar in spelling, that only one letter serves to distinguish the two. And again, no accident that trans- also happens to be in the name of the commercial rail company in New Zealand, the TranzScenic Railway. Offering three main routes across the country, the TranzAlpine and the TranzCoastal cover the South Island and the Overlander the North. Although I took the TranzAlpine in June of last year, I’d forgotten about the Wellington-Auckland route only until after I moved to the capital and started looking into things to do on the North Island. While the Overlander doesn’t have the allure of the trans- prefix, I booked my place on the twelve-hour excursion hoping it would still offer the same type of journey. I’d spend an entire Saturday traveling up the North Island, stay in Auckland for the night, and take an hour-long flight back to Wellington the following morning in time for my ten ‘o’clock start at the restaurant. It’d be a short-but-sweet stay in Auckland, but then again, the point of the trip was more to see the country in one sweeping motion than any particular city.

Departing Wellington at the unthinkable hour of half seven in the morning, I knew it’d be a painful start with or without good weather to see me off. But still half asleep as I walked to the train station in the early morning darkness, the rain fell and the wind blew just like always. I’d passed the train station before coming from the Parliament buildings, but never from the direction of my flat, so I popped into a petrol station to confirm the directions I’d been following in my head. A woman must’ve overheard my query inside, for as I walked back into the cold she asked me, “Going to the rail station?” I pulled the headphones of my iPod out in time to hear her motioning me inside her taxi. “I’m headed that way right now, hop on in.” I tried to offer her money at the station, but she wouldn’t hear of it. Nothing like a free taxi in the rain to get the trip off to a good start.

At check-in, a man handed me a boarding pass that seemed more excited about announcing what it was – in an oversized, curly-cue font found normally on the cover of a children’s book – than actually serving any real purpose. He scribbled my coach and seat number on the pass – no name, no date, no booking number – before saying cheerily, “That’s a window seat for you. See you onboard.” And while I had thought to ask, “Will you?” it turned out he was right. Once the train left the platform, a man named Allan announced himself over the speaker system as our “conductor” for the day. As Allan came through the coaches to collect our boarding passes, I recognized him as the same man who only moments before had given me that very pass at the check-in desk. Seemed TranzScenic was making poor Allan wear several hats in addition to the royal blue shirt of his uniform.

I certainly wasn’t heartbroken to be leaving the city behind. “Say goodbye to rainy, windy Wellington,” Allan said as the train made its way along the harbor and through the Hutt Valley, and I was delighted to do so. It’d been a long two months in Wellington – it’s funny how once you get settled in a flat and start putting in the hours at your job, you start to feel as if you’ve been there much longer than might actually be the case. But I wasn’t just looking forward to the chance to escape the city, if only for a night, but for my first look at the North Island as a whole.

In the pocket of the seat in front of me, I found a brochure for the Overlander describing the route as a “a journey through the interior.” While the poetry of such a statement invokes images of Conrad-like expeditions into Africa or Asia – of places shrouded in a cloak of darkness certainly not to be found in New Zealand – I liked to believe this trip still had that edge of a journey about it. It went on to speak of the train connecting the political and commercial capitals of the nation; there was a symmetry about it I could appreciate. As we left Wellington behind and grew ever closer to Auckland, I likened it to taking a train from Washington, D.C. to New York City. The statistics felt like a MasterCard commercial: 681 kilometeres. 352 bridges. 14 tunnels. 12 hours. Priceless.

What I’d enjoyed about the TranzAlpine was the set-up of the coaches, the tables in between each set of four chairs that reminded me so much of the trains I’d taken in Europe. There were no tables on the Overlander, but superbly comfortable chairs and an unthinkable amount of leg room more than made up for not being able to set my notebook out in front of me. Theroux has obviously never taken a train in New Zealand, for not only are the views generally beautiful, but there’s food and comfort to boot. A small café  in the car in front of mine delivered excellent coffees for only three dollars (even if they were from a machine) and had a wide selection of gourmet sandwiches and hot meals to choose from. I might’ve been tempted to partake if I hadn’t brought my flatmate Emily’s baking along – cheese scones and oatmeal cookies, anyone?

As you do when you travel alone, I wondered about those around me, especially the others on their own in the seats around me. Who were they? What had brought them there? One girl my age heaved a backpacker’s backpack around with badges of flags sewn on from such places as Scotland, Bulgaria, and Laos. A guy in the seat across from mine had the headphones of his iPhone in and kept laughing quietly to himself. I assumed he was listening to comedy…or just crazy. The woman behind me with a German accent was coloring. She had a set of small white cards on each of which was a circle, with a geometric design or pattern inside. I found by looking in the reflection of my window, I could watch as she took out a small tin of colored pencils the size of those you might use to keep score of a golf game, and filled in each rhombus or hexagon. I could hear the rhythmic sound of the pencils shuffling back and forth – not the dullness of a wax crayon – as it blended with the motion of the train.

When I went to buy a hot drink, a woman named Tina behind the counter asked, “Traveling all the way through today?” I told her I was indeed and asked if there would be good sights along the way. “Aah, should be,” she said after a moment’s hesitation. “Hard to say with the rain, though, might not even see the mountain,” referring to Mount Ruapehu, New Zealand’s biggest volcano. It was the same hesitance I’d gotten from the taxi driver that morning when I asked her the same question. I wasn’t discouraged though. Good sights or not, I was ready to make the best of the trip. Latte beside me, I pulled out Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel in case I lost interest in the view outside. It couldn’t have been a more fitting read:

Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship or train. There is an almost quaint correlation between what is in front of our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, new thoughts new places. Introspective reflections which are liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape. The mind may be reluctant to think properly when thinking is all it is supposed to do…Of all modes of transport, the train is perhaps the best aid to thought: the views have none of the potential monotony of those on a ship or plane, they move fast enough for us not to get exasperated but slowly enough to allow us to identify objects. They offer us brief, inspiring glimpses into private domains, letting us see a woman at the precise moment when she takes a cup from a shelf in her kitchen, then carrying us on to a patio where a man is sleeping and then to a park where a child is catching a ball thrown by a figure we cannot see” (57).

The initial path of the train traced along the coast, passing through Porirua and one of the few sheltered harbors on the western side of North Island. Because of this, the harbor was originally expected to play a much larger role than the one in Wellington, but the earthquake of 1855 rose the water level six meters and left it commercially inviable. The Tasman Sea was to our left, and while we should have been able to clearly see Kapiti Island, a thick layer of fog erased the horizon and left the outline of the island barely visible. We rode through a town and I heard the clanging of a bell at the crossing of the tracks and road. There was a queue of cars and cyclists and I thought that it’s not often I find myself on this side of the crossed white bars.

We moved away from the coast until there was only land on either side of the train. I recognized the name of a town called Paraparaumu from the rail schedules on the MetLink website. There wasn’t much to see but a Coastlands Shopping Center, home to the Warehouse, a Countdown supermarket, and Briscoes homewares. Like so many others we would pass through, the town left something to be desired, it left you unchanged and unimpressed. I wondered if the attraction lies elsewhere for its residents, “in the hills” perhaps. But trees suddenly gave way to some kind of bocce club, a large complex of gravel lots with ten or so games going on at the same time. There were groups of people standing around, with silver balls in their hands, waiting for their turn. We then passed a large field where people seemed to be assembling some kind of dog agility course, setting up wooden ladders and brightly colored nylon tunnels and hoops. I remembered a colleague from my office in Christchurch, who, every weekend, would take her beloved dogs to these courses and take part in competitions and events. “So this is what they all do with themselves, then,” I said to myself.

There wasn’t much to see through the rain-spattered windows as we passed through small town after small town. Allan described Otaki as a shopping mecca filled with outlet stores for companies such as Pumpkin Patch and Kathmandu. The sign for a “knitwear factory shop” reminded me of the outlet complexes in such places as Williamsburg, Virginia, or Nags Head in North Carolina, with their special tags and “blowout” prices.

Levin, named after William Hort Levin, former director of the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company, featured a Pet World and a feedmill factory.

As we passed through Shannon, an old railway town which has recently undergone “revitalization,” Allan described how there “used to be a lot of notorious gangs here, but thankfully all, well not all but most, have gone and it’s turning into a nice wee town again.” I didn’t know whether to take him seriously or not.

Even Palmerston North, with its population of 75,000 and its status as a hub for science, research and education, was anything but memorable. What I wanted to know was why all the big stores were in the small towns. Those commercial behemoths found in every corner of the country seemed to trample any ounce of charm a town might’ve had a chance at having. A sign outside the Fielding railway station proclaimed, “Welcome to Friendly Fielding, New Zealand’s Most Beautiful Town,”  apparently drawing on its history of winning the award 14 out the past 15 years. “Fielding is known for its cleanliness,” Allan shared as I counted another Warehouse, a Super Cheep Auto, and a depot constructed from rusting, corrugated tin. “But there’s no scheduled stop here today, so we’ll pass straight on through.” I think that might be best, Allan, for I found Fielding took an impossible leap of faith in making the connection from clean to beautiful. All the rubbish bins and street cleaners in the world couldn’t change a dour town into something more, couldn’t make it what it’s not.

But then, I just happened to look out to the right as we passed another town, if that’s what you’d call it, as I couldn’t imagine more than a couple hundred people residing there. It was only a fleeting glimpse, but what I saw in those few moments were four streets merging into a grassy circle, in the center of which sat an obelisk, two meters high, no doubt a war memorial, and on each corner, old buildings – not dully old, drab, but with a bit of charm about them, like a place that forgot to grow up. The layout was perfect in its simplicity and I longed to explore it. I’ll never know the name of that little town, so it’s not as if I can go look it up and offer statistics of the awards it may or may not have won, but it had all the good aspects of a small town about it, all the loveliness. It spoke again of de Botton, this time writing from Madrid after attending a three-day conference in the city. He wrote of the feeling of waking in a new city with an “intense lethargy,” an utter lack of curiosity:

On the desk lay several magazines offered by the hotel with information on the city and two guidebooks that I had brought from home. In their different ways, they conspired to suggest that an exciting and multifarious phenomenon called Madrid was waiting to be discovered outside, made up of monuments, churches, museums, fountains, plazas, and shopping streets” (103-4).

What de Botton laments, however, is that at each of these sites and “can’t miss” locations, he will merely be reading the facts which every other tourist and visitor before him has. Getting to know Madrid, for him, will be no mission of discovery:

“…the explorers who had come before and discovered facts had at the same time laid down distinctions between what was significant and what was not, distinctions which had, over time, hardened into almost immutable truths about where value lay in Madrid. The Plaza de la Villa had one star, the Palacio Real two stars, the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales three stars and the Plaza de Oriente no stars at all. The distinctions were not false, but their effect was pernicious. Where guidebooks praised a site, they pressured a visitor to match their authoritative enthusiasm, where they were silent, pleasure or interest seemed unwarranted” (113-4).

Instead, he writes about what he would’ve placed importance on if “my compass of curiosity had been allowed to settle according to its own logic” (116). No statement could more aptly describe my own disillusionment with the culture of guide books and the likes of Lonely Planet and Rick Steves, who dictate the agendas and itineraries of so many travelers. And similarly, with the narration of guides such as Allan. Although I know this is simply his job, his script merely something he recites for the enjoyment of elderly tourists, I found myself often left with details on towns I wanted to know nothing about, yet without so much as a name for a town that did catch my attention. And there lay my one frustration with trains – the inability to stop the car and turn around. For if I could have done so, I would’ve driven back to my nameless town, walked onto that grassy circle, and read the names on the obelisk, noting the blessed absence of chain stores.

And so, like de Botton, I created my own ranks of importance and recorded my own details. While Allan shared that the town of Marton was named after one in Yorkshire, England, where Captain Cook was born – “Originally a crop and grazing area…pretty much still is” – what I will remember were two Indian women waving from the platform at someone in a coach in front of mine, smiles across their faces.  In Tiumarunui, a little old man with a curved back, wearing a neon vest, blew the whistle for the all-clear before sitting down on his burgundy motorized scooter.  And outside Ohangaiti, a 78-year-old man named Kevin stood outside his house in a bright yellow jacket waving a long red cloth wildly in the rain. “He used to work for the old telegraph office in the township,” Allan said as we flew past, “He’s a big supporter of the railway, out there every day.” A smile, a whistle, a wave – these are the moments that mark a journey, that stand out in one’s mind.

The hills outside the window rolled perfectly, dotted with cows and sheep who grazed unfazed by the rain. Much of what we passed through was farmland, with unassuming towns and telephone lines and anonymous figures all there was to break up the landscape. And while I was perfectly contented to curl up in my seat with my book and a coffee, I hoped at some point that the scenery would improve. Finally, though, the landscape did open up. The houses gave way to gorges over which a series of viaducts had been constructed in the early 1900s. A singular waterfall descended the steep grey cliffs, a steady stream of white that flowed through the vegetation and into the muddy waters of the river. Higher hills in the distance were again muted by mist, ethereal and soft. It was the only sight that neared the sublime, that left you feeling overwhelmed, a humbling beauty that wouldn’t be seen elsewhere on the trip.

In Taihape, Allan mentioned a gumboot throwing contest that takes place every March and I made a note to be there for it when I complete my road trip around the North Island that month.

Waiouru, home to an army base and training complex, was the highest railway station on the route and also furthest from the sea.

Ohakune, somehow the “carrot capital of New Zealand,” was our half-way mark for the day, where we disembarked for a forty or so minute lunch break to stretch our legs. A café built in the station seemed fully prepared to take advantage of the onslaught of tourists, a chalkboard outside its door reading, “Only place open this end of town, 10-2, Daily.” I bet you are, I thought. While I refrained from eating in the café – which announced halfway through that they had run out of both hot chocolate and fries, what a situation to find themselves in! – I happily picked up a free copy of Vonnegut’s Galapagos as I had just finished The Art of Travel and was glad for a switch back to fiction.

Established in 1892, Ohakune was also the site of where the Old Coach Road used to begin. From 1906 to 1908, only one section of the North Island’s Main Trunk Line remained to be completed, that which connected Ohakune to Raurimu. During the three-day journey from Wellington to Auckland, passengers would instead board horse-drawn coaches to carry them the 39 kilometers to Raurimu, where they would re-board the train. As a sign explained, one train with three carriages carried up to one hundred passengers. At Ohakune, they would then disembark in order to board ten coaches pulled by fifty horses in total. In this way, the Maori name given to the town, he Ohakune ki te ao, means “an opening to a new world,” speaking of its significant role in early transport across the country.

It was soon back on the train and at National Park Village, the crews switched and Bruce and Michelle, comprising the “Northern-based train crew,” took over as Allan and Tina made their way back down to Wellington. Not far past the village, we came upon one of the more memorable sections of the track, the Raurimu Spiral. Designed in the 1870s by John Rotchefort, the spiral covers one complete circle, three horseshoe curves, and two tunnels to manage the sharp descent, in fact spanning five kilometers of track to go one straight kilometer down. Bruce narrated our way down the spiral like an announcer at a horse race, his voice breathy and the words slightly slurred. “Now if you look just above to the left you’ll see the track where we’ve just come from…We’ve now covered the first half of the circle, and are currently passing under the track we just went over…” and on he went.

Past Ohakune and the Raurimu Spiral, the landscape had yet to change dramatically. There was no sky throughout much of the day, just a solid white background like in a photography studio. Later in the afternoon, however, I looked up to see a small patch of blue open among the clouds, and soon the sky took on some definition, shadows giving it some depth against the foreground of the hills. It had stopped raining, though dark clouds in the distance suggested the reprieve wouldn’t be a long one. The carriage quieted down as well, except for two small children up front with Barbie dolls, Uno cards, and math workbooks to keep themselves amused – and their parents awake.

In Te Kuiti, “sheep shearing capital of the world,” the town was most notable for a giant sculpture of a man shearing, you guessed it, a sheep.

On the platform of the station at Otoruhanga, a sign described it as “New Zealand’s Kiwana Town” and included images of the New Zealand flag, buzzy bee, pavlova, paua shell, and a kiwi bird.

Bruce announced Ngaruawahia as the official residence of the Maori King, and also our first crossing of the Waikato River, New Zealand’s longest. We passed a sacred Maori burial ground, Gallagher rodeo arena, the Hillside Hotel, “Cheep Liquor,” the Delta Tavern, and a skate park. I no longer tried to understand the towns outside my window.

A sign in Huntly that read, “Switch On To Huntly,” made no sense until I learned of the Huntly Power Station and could then appreciate the pun. In addition to the steam turbines of its power station, Huntly featured yet another array of outlet stores – Surf Skate Snow, wooden furniture, and pre-fabricated three-bedroom houses among its wares.

Known for its vegetables, fields outside Pukekute were filled with potatoes and onions, and burlap sacks sat upright, filled to the brim among rows that reminded me of hair that’d been braided into cornrows. There was a race track, a Harvey Norman’s, and a Briscoes.

Pulling away from the station in Papakura, I saw a Wendy’s, KFC, McDonald’s, and Blockbuster, and thought for a second I was back on American soil. 

As we passed through town after small town, each entirely unremarkable in its own right, repetitive and predictable when viewed in succession, I thought again of the nature of trains. How is it that they don’t induce that sense of stir-craziness often felt on planes? How is it that I didn’t give a second thought of boarding a train for twelve hours, but the thought of a flight of the same duration is often daunting? Is it the ever-changing landscape? The continual mental stimulation? When you’re in a plane, you mightn’t be moving at all, for all you know. Perhaps they should install screens not on the backs of seats in front of you, but in the place of your window, to give your brain a better illusion of movement. The towns we saw perhaps weren’t the most beautiful or charming of what New Zealand has to offer, you can surely tell that by now – and if anything, they were a combination of monstrous chain stores and obscure facts and titles – but there they were, nonetheless, and I was more than happy to be observing them.

Earlier that week at the restaurant, I had an older English couple as one of my last customers of the night. They told me they’d just come down from Auckland on the Overlander and I asked them excitedly how it was, telling them I’d be taking the same journey on Saturday. “Going with your boyfriend or husband?” the man asked. I waved my bare ring finger and declared I was going alone. “Well, you’re going to be lonely,” he responded. It was difficult to say that no, I didn’t think I would be. In fact, I was quite looking forward to the trip. On a walkabout through his neighborhood in Hammersmith, London, de Botton records the same feeling:

“It seemed an advantage to be traveling alone. Our responses to the world are crucially moulded by whom we are with, we temper our curiosity to fit in with the expectations of others. They may have a particular vision of who we are and hence subtly prevent certain sides of us from emerging: ‘I hadn’t thought of you as someone who was interested in flyovers,’ they might intimidatingly suggest. Being closely observed by a companion can inhibit us from observing others, we become taken up with adjusting ourselves to the companion’s questions and remarks, we have to make ourselves seem more normal than is good for our curiosity. But I had no such concerns, alone in Hammersmith in mid-afternoon. I had the freedom to act a little weirdly” (252).

It is this freedom I have come to love and appreciate over the past year. It wasn’t often that I traveled alone while living in London. Whether going on weekend trips with my flatmates or on more extended tours with the Kiwis, I was often aware of those around me – you feel the need to have something to say, comments like “Isn’t this beautiful?” or “You ready for dinner yet?” taking the place of more detailed observations. On my own, however, I’m free to sit and listen. To soak up the environment in which I’m fortunate enough to be, to eavesdrop, to investigate, and to learn. Movies like Into the Wild espouse the idea that “happiness is best when shared,” and I couldn’t agree more. But I’m starting to see that in a way, my notebook has become a new travel companion. My observations and thoughts aren’t wasted – they’re recorded and shared just as I might if I had someone in the seat beside me. Notebook and camera in tow, sir, I can promise you lonely is something I will not be. Nosy or overattentive, perhaps, but certainly not lonely.

We’d only just left the Middlemore station, about twenty kilometers outside Auckland, when it was clear we were coming to life on a different scale. Small towns gave way to a multistory Hoyts cinema complex, a five-level carpark and a massive Borders bookstore, and the Sky Tower appeared on the horizon above the Auckland skyline. The housing along the tracks was suddenly new and attractive, all identical, attached townhouses, and large cement buildings were covered in layers of colorful graffiti. The sun was just beginning to set on the basin of the Auckland harbor as our journey drew to a close.

The train pulled into the center of Auckland and I marveled at the futuristic design of the station, a row of silver steel domes built into the ceiling. There were escalators to carry you from the tracks to street level, where a large lobby held ticket windows and bus schedules. The Wellington station, with its columns, tiled floors and antique clock, was very much tied to its past, but Auckland was all flash and new designs. I’d made a booking at the Kiwi International Hostel at the airport, thinking their free shuttle would be helpful the next morning when I went to catch my early flight. But I soon discovered that in order to board the hostel’s shuttle, I’d need to catch a bus to the airport anyway, so it didn’t make sense to pay the higher room rate for the airport hostel when one in town would be cheaper and closer that night. I walked down Queen Street, a main shopping street in Auckland, reveling in the warm air – “So this is what summer feels like!” I texted a friend back in Wellington – and soon found a place called the Frienz Backpackers.

A curly-haired English guy at the reception desk informed me they did indeed have one bed free in the cheapest dorm. “Where’ve you come from?” he asked and I told him I’d taken the train up from Wellington. When I said I was only staying for one night, he asked again, “Why didn’t you give yourself more time to see the city?” I explained I’d been here before, had to work in the morning, etcetera, etcetera. “But God, twelve hours? And for one night? What a weird trip,” he said as he handed over my key and towel. I could do nothing but smile and shrug my shoulders. Like with the customer who thought I’d be lonely, some things just can’t be explained.

It wasn’t long after I’d checked into my hostel, though, that I received a phone call from the maître d’ at my restaurant. A few weeks ago, I had asked my boss for two days off at the beginning of February. While I didn’t expect to get them – on top of being a Friday and Saturday, it also happens to be Waitangi Day, the International Rugby Sevens tournament, and a big music festival called One Love – he looked at the calendar and said yes. A hospitality-oriented temp agent had asked if I would be interested in working those two days in a corporate box at Westpac Stadium where the Sevens are taking place. The allure of the Sevens is something I’ll write on later, but let it suffice to say that tickets sold out in something like seven minutes, so it is a huge deal. And here I was, with the chance to go…and get paid for it! I quickly called her back and told her to put my name down.

But last week, I walked into work only to hear my boss say that he’d changed his mind. He hadn’t realized what days they were and he needed me at the restaurant. It seemed he wasn’t able to understand he’d already given me them off and that I had made commitments, so after a few days of deliberation, I decided to hand in my two weeks’ notice. I did so on Thursday, but here the maître d’ was, only two nights later, calling to tell me that they wouldn’t need me to come in the next day for my shift and that she and my bosses “wished me all the best.”

I was shocked, for a number of reasons compounding on top of this actual dismissal, but overwhelmingly sad about all that was wrong about the situation. I boarded the plane Sunday morning with a heavy heart. I was glad, though, that this news had come after the train ride. Then, I had needed to be open, engaged with the environment, my curiosity in peak condition. On the plane however, I felt numb, in that state of disbelief that often follows a break-up or the death of a loved one. The state of being on a plane was the perfect reflection of how detached I felt from my environment – entirely opposite of my “eyes wide open” approach to the train ride. How fitting that our modes of transport can relate so well to our moods and emotions.

And is it not interesting that these various modes exist at all, and the various purposes they serve? I’ve clearly laid out an argument for trains here, but then again, they’re not always practical. My boss in Christchurch used to fly up to Wellington every so often for one meeting. Up in the morning, down in the afternoon. That kind of schedule requires the practicality of a plane, not the leisurely pace of a train. What had taken me twelve hours the day before, I now covered in a single hour – one hour, one packet of veggie crisps, and a cup of coffee later.

But when you’ve got the time and the inclination, isn’t it good to know that trains still run? I thought back to the café in the Ohekune station. There was a wooden snowboard that was broken in half and mounted above the fireplace, painted every shade of the spectrum, with a design of puzzle pieces all over. A quote had been written on it: When the world erupts, the earth breaks into a different puzzle. This, I had no doubt, related to the volcanic activity of Mount Ruapehu not far from the town, but I liked to relate the trip itself to a puzzle. When you fly from point A to point B, you see only two pieces of the puzzle. As you soar above the landscape, you leave gaps behind you, empty spaces of what you didn’t see. Trains, however, give you the full landscape in one sweeping, comprehensive, transcontinental view that keeps you connected to the world around you at all times.

Back in Wellington, I caught my second bus of the day and thought of the tour de force I’d completed in a mere twenty-six hours of all the various transportation options there are available to the modern traveler: taxi, train, plane, bus. It’d been a mission but it’d been worth it. It didn’t matter to me that others thought of my trip as “weird.” It didn’t matter that I spent more time in transit than I did in one place. It didn’t matter if most of the towns I saw were small, insignificant or even boring.

What matters is that I went, for as I always say, you don’t know if you don’t go.


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hip, hip, huzzah!

“In whatever part of the world they may be, the first thing British colonists think of is to find a habitation for Justice.”  – Frederick Whitaker, superintendent of the Auckland Province, upon the laying of the foundation stone for the present Auckland Supreme Courthouse in 1865.

There’s nothing like a prince to draw a crowd.

And to think I was just after a public sighting of the Prime Minister. After a tour of the New Zealand Parliament buildings, I thought it might be a fitting task to add to the NZ to-do list – you know, get a couple shots, hear him speak – but after browsing John Key’s website, I was shocked, perhaps overwhelmingly awe-struck, to see his next public engagement was playing host to none other than Prince William on his visit to Wellington the following week. Excuse me? I asked in joy and disbelief. The Prince William…here…in New Zealand? It was as if I’d gone on a blind date only to find the person I’d been set up with for the evening was actually my long lost high-school sweetheart, looking better than ever. Brilliant!

Obviously, I was ecstatic. But the news sources were all frustratingly vague when it came to the specifics. The chief event highlighting the visit was to be the opening of the new Supreme Court building, and Prince William was here, on behalf of the Queen of England herself, to mark the occasion. I couldn’t help but note more than a twinge of irony in the situation. The New Zealand Supreme Court was officially established in 2004 as an alternative to the Privy Council in London, to which high appeals had been directed prior to the switch. Thus a British Royal’s attendance at the opening of the new building – itself representing a further step away from the monarchy – held a contradiction I didn’t fail to notice. But clearly, before any sort of deeper analytical discussion took place, there were more important matters at hand, such as when and where I would be able to stalk William, so I needed details, people! Finally, the night before, an online news article divulged the highly-coveted itinerary:


11am: Welcome by Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand, Prime Minister John Key and his wife, Bronagh, in Auckland.

3pm: Eden Park to view developments for Rugby World Cup 2011.

4.30pm: Viaduct Harbour and sail on NZL40.

7.15pm: Hangi at Government House.


9.50am: Wreathlaying at National War Memorial, Buckle St, Wellington.

10.30: Opens Supreme Court building, followed by walkabout in Whitmore St.

7.30pm: Premier House barbecue with Mr and Mrs Key.


9am: Visit Wellington Children’s Hospital.

10.20am: Departs from Wellington’s Military Terminal.

With a noon start at the restaurant on Monday, I had my window of opportunity: the Whitmore walkabout. Whilst I contemplated what items to bring with me – a rose, perhaps, to throw at his feet? – I settled on the more traditional camera and notebook…and maybe some lip gloss. It was the Prince, after all. I wouldn’t dare not look my best. There was an extra bit of pep in my step as I weaved through the crowds of Willis Street and down the long curve of Lambton Quay. The sidewalks were pulsing that morning, whether or not because of the royal visit, but I could tell I was getting close when around the bend, I could see the movement stopped. What awaited me was that mass of bodies that happens only when a crowd is gathering, when something’s a-brewing in a capital city. A man walking next to me talked into his cell phone, “Yeah, I’m just on my way now…Yeah, I can see them just ahead.” I sped up just a bit, as if by beating at least one person there, I would have that much better of a chance at getting a spot towards the front.

The Prince has supposedly been remembered for once saying, “I hope I’m not a tourist attraction – I’m sure that they come here really because St. Andrews is just amazing, a beautiful place.” And that morning, Prince William was so not a tourist attraction. It makes perfect sense that well over a thousand New Zealanders would take the morning off work, press together in crowds often eight bodies deep, paint cardboard signs proclaiming, “We love you, W I L L I A M,” all to commemorate the opening of a building decidedly not a “beautiful place,” in my humble architectural position…with or without the promised appearance of such a dashing foreign royal.

Yeah, definitely not.

But, hey, who am I to talk? I was right there with them, just as excited as the giddy preteens clutching their cardboard and the white-haired old women telling protestors to have some respect and leave him alone. And the protestors…they were out in true form, as is to be expected on such an occasion. I found no coincidence in the fact that only a day before, I had just written on the debate of monarchy versus republic in the country, on the current relationship between New Zealand and England and what shape their connection might take in the future. And here I was, approximately twenty-four hours later, with a republican in my ear shouting “Bye bye Wills, bye bye pomp, it’s time for a constitution in the republic of New Zealand,” a bullhorn in one hand, a stick in the other, on which the quasi-national silver fern flag had been tied next to the actual official New Zealand flag – Union Jack rubbed out, of course.

The republicans were by far the most agitated group in the crowd, several holding a long banner proclaiming, “It’s time for a republic.” Clearly William was merely a symbol of all they loathed about the current system of government, and unfortunately he bore the brunt of their blows. “William is a puppet,” they yelled, “Tell Granny and Dad Dad that, Wills.” A young guy helping to hold a banner – who knows how he got roped into the protest – turns to one of the older protesters with a bullhorn and says, “Tell them ‘a cup of tea and a scone ain’t gonna help the situation. A cup of tea and a scone’s not gonna help things.’”

Another sign they raised, parodying the well-known Tui beer ads, read, “New Zealand has transparent and fair courts…Yeah right.” They went on about the new Supreme Court building itself, on how the $80 million spent on it could’ve fed them instead. “How many of you know what it’s like to be hungry? To starve?” a guy yells out, wearing an oversized white t-shirt with the bones of a metallic gold skeleton sewn on it. “How many of you knows what eighty million dollars looks like? New Zealand needs hot dinners, not this steel cradle of injustice.” Someone’s phone rings and a protester answers. “Yes, it’s all happening now. We’re telling him to go home.” And William’s going to listen? I wanted to ask.

A skinny guy, maybe about mid-twenties, walked over and said meekly to the republicans, “Show some respect. It’s not his fault.” I couldn’t believe he’d try to hold a dialogue with them – it was like trying to converse with a three-year old as they pitched a tantrum – and I accordingly watched the anger rise in one of the protesters. “Go bury your head in the sand like the rest of New Zealand. You’re a damned fool. I’m not talking to you anymore.” His protesting, bullhorn-waving friends looked over, “Don’t waste your time with him, he’s a fool, Nick.”

Another woman, at least in her late sixties, looked to skeleton-man and asked, “I want to know what difference a republic will make.” But like the politicians that were the very target of his spitting outrage, he couldn’t answer her. “How do you think a republic will change things?” she asked again, in a quiet yet pressing tone of voice. I could’ve hugged her. Finally, he responded. “Well, I think we need a tribal democracy. I think the Maoris need more representation and we need a special type of government that’s both tribal-based and democratic.” He walked off, obviously having failed to fully address the question. “I feel sorry for the man,” the woman said, now talking about the prince, “What a sorry place to come to.”

It was almost as amusing listening to the crowd discuss the chanting as it was listening to the protesters themselves. “Are they even legally allowed to use bullhorns?” a woman asked, “Can’t we tell them to be quiet?” “Just shove that thing down his throat,” said a more violently-inclined sort of man. Finally, a policeman, catching wind of the growing complaints, yelled out to the republicans, “I think a lot of people are finding the bullhorn offensive to their ears. Do you mind not using it so close to everyone?” “Well, they haven’t complained to me,” said one protestor, barely getting the words out before the crowd let out whoops and cheers and a lively applause. Take the hint, buddy.

But what I most wanted to do was turn to them and say that this sort of controversy is not going to disappear with a change in status to a republic. $80 million dollar buildings will still be built. People will still go hungry. The level of accountability and transparency will still be questioned. But, then again, on the other side, the grass is always greener and the politicians always cleaner.

Just before tensions had a chance to grow any stronger, I could tell the prince wasn’t far off. I was on a street corner, itself a buzzing little hive of activity. The protesters were there, of course, but so were the police, whispering into radios, and, not far off, the press. I watched with envy as suited-up women and their notebooks, men with their cameras and tripods, flew up to the barricades, flashed a press badge, and barreled past towards the impromptu press box set up on the stairs of the new building. I overheard one man explaining to the police that he’d forgotten his badge and soon he, too, was through. I contemplated trying the same approach, though figured my Converse All-Stars and jeans might not be the best support to my claim.

Police cars, lights flashing silently, began to pull in front of the building, followed by several sleek and silver BMW 730 LDs (don’t be impressed, I had to crane my neck to note the make and model). Although I half expected Bond to step out of one of them, the first passengers to alight were the Prime Minister and the Governor-General. And then – waving from the backseat like they always do in the movies – the Prince. As embarrassing as it might sound to say, my heart actually did a little flip, butterflies in my stomach fluttering their wings if only for a second. There he was! Not in the photographs of People magazine, not on the TV, not the center of a news story on yet another royal misstep involving helicopters or pregnancy scares, but there, ten feet from me, as I stood on the very tip of my toes to get the very best view possible.

A view, of course, which I had horribly failed to set myself up for. As exciting as that first glimpse had been – even if only to see that he’s actually balding and walks with stooped shoulders – I couldn’t have picked a worse spot. The view through the backseat window of a BMW was but a fleeting glimpse and the car soon pulled up, as you might expect, directly in front of the stairs leading to the Supreme Court building. It was there – not in the throws of a republican protest – that I should’ve positioned myself, as William stepped out of the car and towards the crowd. There, three Maori women met him, draping the prince in a traditional flax-weave Maori cloak to wear before watching a haka and entering the building. Again, I could hear the unnerving yells of the haka but the dance itself was out of sight on the other side of the crowd.

As soon as the prince disappeared, the crowd stopped holding its breath and the press snapped into action. Laptops were set up on the steps of the building and reporters began filtering into the crowd for their on-street interviews. It was here that I myself took on the role of stealthy Journalist-in-Disguise, similar in nature to my “Of course my notes are for personal use only, officer,” response to the Parliament security guard. It would’ve been a little hard to convince a random passerby that I was indeed a member of the press and to thus open up to me and give a memorable quote or two, but I found that by positioning myself within earshot of such an interview, behind the back of either the interviewer or interviewee, I was thus privy to the conversation as if I myself were helping it along. I overheard one English woman, holding her three-year old son – that tells you how many details I was able to pick up – remark, “Either way, they [the British monarchy?] are going to be an important part. If it was the Queen, it would be more relevant. But here he is, acting for the Queen for the first time ever, so you feel even more removed.”

I then walked away from the republican faction and stumbled upon a bloc of quite another personality. It may have only included three men, but what the republicans had in numbers, Alf’s Imperial Army made up for in character. Wearing their brass-buttoned red coats, two in British pith hats and one in a colonial bicorn, they unsurprisingly caught everyone’s attention with their lively rendition of “God Save the Queen,” Union Jack and a sign reading “Republicans Smell” waving in their air. “Three cheers for the monarchy!” they yelled, raising their hats in the air with each cheer. “Hip, hip, huzzah! Long live the Queen!” It was like stepping back in time, or at least into a world so entirely different from my own.

Once again, I let a representative from Radio New Zealand do the dirty work. Turning my back discretely to hide my notebook, I freeloaded off the rep’s conversation with Anthony “The Duke” Catford, as he extolled the Queen, the Prince, and all things monarchical. “We want New Zealand just how the wizard wants it, we believe in more colorful monarchies and less kill-joys,” referring to the various groups of protesters gathered that day, republicans included.

“And what do you think of the killjoys?” the reporter asked, in between verses of another song that took jabs at the republicans.

“They’re a bit dull,” the Duke replied. “We’re fun-loving monarchists. Better a head of state who’s far away. These people are protesting things that aren’t relevant. It’s bourgeois resentment, if you ask me. I think it’s more about taste myself.” Spoken like a true English gentleman.

“And did you get to see the Prince?”

“I didn’t see him, but I’m here to support him. Royal visits should happen more often. I heard one young girl this morning say, ‘I’m off to see Prince Charming.’ This is all part of growing up and being a good monarchist.”

Another journalist from Radio Live approached the group and asked an onlooker, “Are you a part of them?” “Oh no, I was just interested in their costumes.” “Oh,” she said, turning away from him with that look of disgust on her face as if she’d just found out a potential love interest was taken or – worse yet – married.

As much as I wanted to keep listening, I didn’t want to overstay my lack of a welcome and so moved on to wait for the Prince to reemerge from the building. While I heard one policeman say the ceremony inside would take an hour – meaning I’d be at work by the time William took his walkabout along Whitmore Street – I held out hope it’d finish early and so I made sure to secure myself a better spot for the next time around. As I approached the barricades, I walked straight into an argument.

“If you wanna stay here, Pam…”

“Oh, I am.”

“Well, good on ya, love.”

“Don’t call me love…”

While the lines could have been straight from a soap opera dialogue or a feud between husband and wife, the duel I discovered apparently had to do with two different groups of protesters protesting…well, the same thing. Workers from the Ministry of Justice and PSA – Public Service Association – had decided the opening of the Supreme Court building was a fitting time to demand fair pay, more in line with the incomes of other public workers. It seemed Pam had taken the initiative to organize her own group, whilst a more formally-sanctioned protest was taking place around the corner. I, however unrelated to their cause, was determined for a better spot this time, whether or not it meant even more bullhorns in my ear, this time to the tune of, “What do we want? Fair pay. When do we want it? NOW!” But it seemed all schedules were being adhered to and I soon had to put my book away and head to work, with or without a second royal sighting.

Thus with the words of a thousand conversations and protests stirring in my head, later that week I headed to the library yet again to learn more about the institution that lay at the center of all these controversies in the first place: the New Zealand Supreme Court. What I hadn’t realized, though, was that considering its relative infant status, there actually weren’t any books written on the subject as of yet. Not too often that happens, now is it? But what I did find, tucked between such behemoths as the 2008 edition of Brookers Contract and Commercial Law Handbook and New Zealand Court of Appeal, 1958-1996: A History, was a slender, 80-page booklet containing the “Report of the Advisory Group: Replacing the Privy Council, A New Supreme Court,” a report to Hon. Margaret Wilson, Attorney-General and Associate Minister of Justice, written in April of 2002.

In the foreword, Hon. Wilson writes, “In particular, I note the Advisory Group’s conclusion that if recommendations of the type made in this report are implemented, the Advisory Group believes that replacing the Privy Council with the Supreme Court should:

 – Improve accessibility to New Zealand’s highest court;

 – Increase the range of matters considered by New Zealand’s highest court;

 – Improve understanding of local conditions by judges on New Zealand’s highest court.”

Prior to the establishment of the Supreme Court, the highest court of appeals in the country was actually the London-based Privy Council, which normally dealt with fewer than ten cases from New Zealand a year. In fact, from 1851 to 2002, the Council dealt with only 268 cases originating from the antipodes – that’s more or less 1.77483 cases per year. This was understandably an issue for those leading the inquiries of the report. As line 27.4 recorded, the new court should be “able to hear a larger number of appeals than those currently heard in the Privy Council,” preferably thirty to fifty.

Another issue was continuing to differentiate New Zealand as a nation independent from England. As the report presented in line 10.2.1, under “Judicial Skills,” the court, as a whole, “should better reflect the diversity of New Zealand society than the Privy Council.” In a similar manner, line 16.3 addresses the “Location of the Supreme Court” and suggests that “the layout should reflect that it is a New Zealand court.”

The advisory group also considered several options for which title to give New Zealand’s highest court: 35.1, The Court of Final Appeal, or 35.2, The Supreme Court of New Zealand. As section 37 records, “The title, ‘Supreme Court,’ is used by the United States of America and Canada for their highest courts. It was agreed by the Advisory Group that use of the title would aid international recognition of the status of the court.”

All in all, the recommendations of the advisory group were indeed taken and on the first of January of 2004, the Supreme Court of New Zealand was officially open for business, so to speak. The Supreme Court Act of 2003, formally passed by Parliament on October 14, 2003, replaced the Privy Council in London with an “in-house” court to deal with the highest of appeals, founded “to recognize New Zealand as an independent nation with its own history and traditions, and improve access to justice and enable important legal matters, including those relating to the Treaty of Waitangi, to be resolved with an understanding of New Zealand conditions, history, and traditions.” And so far, the five judges who sit on the court, including the Chief Justice, have been able to deal not only with more cases, but also to do so at an increased rate than before. 

But then again, it’s been barely six years since the Supreme Court came into being in New Zealand. Its American counterpart, on the other hand, is now into its third century of existence. Since Marbury v. Madison of 1803, which established the idea of judicial review – giving the high court the trump card over other branches of government and the ability to declare something “unconstitutional” – the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled on such landmark cases as Brown v. Board of Education, Miranda v. Arizona, and Roe v. Wade. In 2008 alone, the court’s docket held more than 10,000 petitions for writ of certiorari – requests to be reviewed – and it issued 83 full opinions. The numbers can be astounding, let alone the vast significance of the decisions they’re dealing with. Time will tell what the New Zealand Supreme Court has a chance to rule on.

A good friend who practices law in New Zealand – ever my source for humor and details when it comes to getting to know this country – has this to say about the Kiwis’ Supreme Court:

“My personal view on the Supreme Court is that NZ is not big enough. Our judges are not up to a high enough standard. I appreciate that the Privy Council is a long way away, but I liked their decisions. Our Court of Appeal are quite reckless. Not so out there as Canada, but not so reasoned either. And basically half the laws in NZ exist because of old ladies. The Court of Appeal see an old lady in distress, and overturn 200 years of settled law just to make sure she wins… cos she’s an elderly widow. THANKFULLY we have always had the Privy Council there to say “don’t be daft” and undo the COA’s stupid decision. There have been some shockers come from the COA. And the Supreme Court is simply made up of the Court of Appeal judges of old…

Anyway, for my part I can’t for the life of me see why you’d write about our system when yours is so much more fun. I mean… we only have 1 house, no congress, no senate, no central vs federal and no constitution. The judges do what parliament says, and majority in parliament is our government. BORING. Little light on the ‘checks and balances’ but still very boring.”

I suppose he has a point, but what fascinated me most about the entire day of the royal visit – the prince, the protestors, the posters – was that it was something that would have had absolutely no chance of taking place in my homeland. Here was a unique opportunity to view New Zealand in the full glory of its growing pains, clearly still connected to Mother England yet squirming and wriggling as it figures out how to relate to yet relegate her.

The next day at work, I walked up to a table of three women, most likely in their mid-sixties. One held out her flip-style cell phone while the other two ooh’ed and aah’ed. It was the sort of reaction I’d seen before, so when the phone was turned in my direction I fully expected to see a picture of a baby or perhaps a child. What I saw instead was the face of Prince William. I busted out in laughter. “Did you see him yesterday? I asked.

“Did I see him? I shook his hand twice!” she exclaimed. I found her enthusiasm the kind you might see featured on some hypothetical reality TV show titled Touched by a Royal.

“I bet you didn’t wash it all day, did you?” You would’ve thought we were sixteen and giggling in hushed whispers about the high school heartthrob.

Later that evening, another woman and her husband came to dine. I’d served her before, although her previous dining companions had been two of her colleagues. She was running late, and they had complained that though they were nearing ever closer to starvation and frustration, they wouldn’t be able to say anything to her when she arrived. “She’s a high court judge, you see.” Oh, of course. So when I saw her again, this time the day after the prince’s appearance, I decided to toe the line of privacy and respect and ask, “You’re a high court judge, I believe?” And before she could even nod her head and question a) how I knew and b) why it concerned me, I went on. “Were you inside the Supreme Court building for the ceremony yesterday?” Her face lit up, changing expressions immediately.

Phew…saved by the prince, yet again! “Why, yes I was. He gave a wonderful speech. He’s very smart, he takes after his mother.” I began to tell her about the woman I’d spoken with earlier, who’d shaken his hand twice. “Oh, well, he’s very charming,” she assured me, lowly citizen that I was, not fortunate enough to be privy to such information myself.

And so I thought, there in lies what we should take away from William’s visit. To the Ministry of Justice protestors, your cause was not a relevant one on that particular day. To the republican protestors, the prince’s visit was neither the time nor place to air your grievances. As many said that day, perhaps if the Queen herself had come, it would have been different; it would have been more of an appropriate venue given her status as the technical head of state of New Zealand. But it’s hard to imagine William wielding much control over the decisions of England. He may be second in line to the throne, but there’s a heck of a lot of ground to be covered between those two steps.


Instead, maybe we should look to the cardboard-waving preteens and fun-loving monarchists, whose simple excitement over such a rare visit is something we can all relate to. Perhaps Prince William’s visit to New Zealand was merely an excellent opportunity for Kiwis from Wellington and beyond to acknowledge their inescapable connection to England, to appreciate the heritage that such a connection lends to their young country, to celebrate further steps towards independence represented by the new Supreme Court building, and to reflect on where they see their country heading in the future.

And, if you’re lucky, you, too, could be touched by a royal…

Photo courtesy of The Hindu, India's national newspaper.


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a hybrid nation: where context meets content.

As a first-year university student, one of the first courses I enrolled in was PLCP 101, otherwise known as Intro to Comparative Politics. Over the course of the semester, Professor Schoppa took us through a study of countries such as Britain, Canada, Germany, and Japan, looking for what their governments had in common, what they didn’t, and what we could learn from these other systems. But as it is for many a university student, it’s too easy to memorize and forget, to cram for exams only to “rinse after using” in order to make room for the next day’s test. Sometimes, it takes something more to make such information stick, to make it relevant in a way that means you won’t forget it overnight.

For me, it often takes actually being in the place of which I’m learning. When my flatmates and I watched The Queen last year in London, I suddenly had a burning desire to understand the British monarchy. I walked home from the library heavy-laden with thick books, one a biography of Queen Elizabeth II, another describing the duties and positions of those working for the royal family at Buckingham Palace. What was the relationship between the Queen and the Prime Minister? Why, in these postmodern times, was the monarchy still such a critical component of British cultural and political traditions? These may or may not have been questions that were addressed in my politics class four years earlier, but it took walking by the Palace, hearing of the royal family every day in the news, for this information to take on a new meaning, to matter in a more meaningful way.

Thus after the tour of the Beehive and the New Zealand Parliamentary buildings, I had to know more. Why is New Zealand an independent nation, yet still considers the Queen of England as the Head of State? What is the relationship between the Prime Minister and the Governor-General, supposedly the Queen’s representative in New Zealand? Why are there Members of Parliament (MPs) from seven different parties in the House of Representatives? Sometimes, you need more than textbooks. You need context, you need to see it to believe it.

And so I bunkered down in the top floor of the Wellington Public Library, shelves and shelves of reserved material stretching out around me. With the internet a vast and comprehensive source of information, you barely need to even leave your room to find everything you need to know, but I find there’s still something vaguely romantic about the tangibility of a book in front of you, the flipping of pages reflecting your ever-continuing search for information. In a response to her article “Are We Losing Our Cathedrals of Knowledge to Web-based Information?” Kristen Sukalac writes, “We are losing…the ability to browse in quite the same way. Online searches tend to be very focused. At best, they may lead you onto an indirectly related line of inquiry. But gone is the opportunity to pick up the book with the intriguing cover simply because the author’s name alphabetically precedes the one whose book you were looking for.” Just as Sukalac describes, it was this ability to “browse” in the Wellington library that led me to the answers I needed.

At a desk to myself, with a view of the city before me, I opened up books, copied down notes, scoured the sources for understanding. I felt like a student again, a paper topic at hand, an assignment looming on the horizon. But – and here’s where the beauty of self-education lies – there was no grade to be earned. My search had that zeal that comes from the only motivation being my own curiosity, from being in the country of which I wanted to learn. Indeed, I could’ve been in school again, for all the books I came across. Politics in New Zealand, third edition, by Richard Mulgan. The Oxford-published New Zealand Government and Politics, fourth edition, by Raymond Miller. Democracy in New Zealand, by John Henderson and Paul Bellamy, co-published by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance  and the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies. It was a Kiwi crash course, if I’ve ever seen one.

Taking the lead from my humble beginnings in comparative politics, I thought the best way to understand New Zealand politics would be to dissect it in terms of its links to other countries. Clearly being such a young country, it would naturally be influenced by governments already in place across the world. Additionally, in its original status as a colonial outpost, it would be all the more influenced by its mother country, but would have assumably forged diverging paths and new customs like any maturing child does. And what I found was remarkable. A hybrid nation, New Zealand is a country neither easily defined nor simply explained.

[Unexpected] Links to America.

 I started, as you might, with New Zealand’s links to my home country, one with which whose practices and politics I was already most familiar. But this came about only because of a pamphlet I picked up from the Beehive titled, “Parliament Brief: What is Parliament?” As it began to describe various aspects of the New Zealand government, a certain line caught my attention: “A pure model of the ‘separation of powers’ can be found in the United States of America” (3). It might have been that line that got this whole comparative-thinking mentality going in the first place. It was the idea that there are general ways of doing government that look different in different countries. But then again, the ones we have in common might be all the more important.

The fundamental methodology shared by the United States and New Zealand is the importance of democracy. In the first chapters of Henderson and Bellamy’s Democracy in New Zealand, the authors answer the question of “What is democratic?” The two basic principles are “popular control over public decision making and decision makers” and “equality between citizens in the exercise of that control” (4). To see these principles in action, though, there are several “mediating values” they discuss that create a bridge between principal and practice. These include “participation, authorization, representativeness, accountability, transparency, responsiveness, and solidarity.” In this way, they write, “it is through their participation in the electoral process that the people authorize politicians to act on their behalf and that they choose a representative assembly that they can hold accountable through the sanction of future electoral dismissal. These values are what make elections democratic.”

With these principles and values at work, I realized democracy is perhaps an idea in itself, not any particular way of doing government. It’s the motive behind the government, the values any government extols – so whether a queen or a president is the head of state, two countries can both be considered democratic. That would explain the intense drive towards establishing democracy in such countries as Iraq. Perhaps it had less to do with what type of government was established post-Saddam Hussein, and more to do simply with the values behind the government. And with New Zealand the first country in the world to grant women’s suffrage in 1893, there’s a lot to be shared between Americans and Kiwis, perhaps more than either realize (or want to). There’s more in common between the two which is often eclipsed by such dividing issues as gun control and nuclear warfare.

But then again, the two governments are intensely different. Even with the underlying democratic principles close to the hearts of both nations, as I mentioned before, the separation of powers in New Zealand isn’t as clean-cut as it is in the States. As my Parliament pamphlet explained, Cabinet Ministers are chosen from those already elected to the House of Representatives, whereas members of the American Cabinet – the Secretaries of State, Defense, Education, and so on – are chosen independently by the President in a highly publicized decision-making process. Additionally, the New Zealand Parliament is unicameral, its only house that of the Representatives, whereas the American Congress features both an upper house, the Senate, and a lower house, the House of Representatives.

And ultimately, perhaps the chief distinction, the determinant of all other differences, is New Zealand’s form of government being a constitutional monarchy, rather than a republic. Although both systems may be democratic, the practical ways in which they are evidenced in the government couldn’t be more different. The definition of a republic, that being “a government having a chief of state who is not a monarch,” reads more like how you would define something by listing what it is not. What is night? Not day. What is land? Not water. Leave it to be that a republic is in fact directly opposite of a monarchy.

[Stronger] Links to Britain.

New Zealand’s history as a British colony has largely influenced the path its politics has taken over the years. Like its mother country, the form of government in New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy, whereby the head of state is either an elected or hereditary monarch, but whose powers and actions are limited by a constitution (unlike an absolute monarchy, in which the monarchs can very well do as they please, unchecked and unbound). Interestingly enough – and perhaps ironically – neither Britain nor New Zealand actually have a single, written constitution, unlike the United States, Canada, and Australia. While there are several documents that function as such, including the Constitution Act of 1986, the Bill of Rights Act of 1990, and even the Treaty of Waitangi, there is no single, aging, original document with faded handwriting on torn parchment paper promising life, liberty, and the pursuit of, well, you know how it goes.

Courtesy of Neville Coville and the New Zealand Cartoon Archive: "Prime Minister Sidney Holland and Maori representative rolling out the red carpet for the new Queen's post-coronation visit to New Zealand. The Auckland to Bluff tour was the first by a reigning monarch."


Moreover, this form of monarchy is evidenced in the everyday affairs of the government via the Westminster model of Parliament, based on British politics and named after the Palace of Westminster, seat of the British Parliament. The core players in this model include:

—A sovereign head of state who functions as more of a ceremonial figurehead, whose powers are more nominal than practical and may include several “reserve powers” to be used “in case of emergency.”

—A head of government, usually referred to as the prime minister, appointed by the head of state (Note: in New Zealand as in Britain, the public does not actually elect the Prime Minister. The PM is typically the leader of the largest elected party in Parliament).

—An executive branch known as the Cabinet, appointed by the Prime Minister from those MPs already elected to Parliament.

—An elected legislature, i.e. Parliament.

Because New Zealand still recognizes the Queen of England as the head of state, there is a fourth branch of government in addition to the separation of the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches: the Sovereign. This last branch is the function of the Governor-General, whose full title extends to “and Commander-in-Chief in and over New Zealand,” a role which developed from the country’s young colonial days. The current website of the Governor-General explains the evolution that has taken place:  “From an agent of a once global empire, the New Zealand Governor-General of the 21st Century is a New Zealander who represents the Head of State in New Zealand, and New Zealand to the rest of the world.”

Like the role of the head of state in a monarchy, many of the Governor-General’s duties are nominal, in a way, there “for show.” Like the Queen of England, Mullgan writes in Politics of New Zealand, “In all matters, by constitutional convention, the Governor-General normally acts on advice of elected ministers” (53). Similarly, though Parliament is technically comprised of two parts – the House of Representatives and the Sovereign – the Governor-General’s role “in law-making is reduced to a formality” (54), thus making Parliament and House of Representatives generally interchangeable terms.

For a look at this role at work, I turned to the words of a former Governor-General, the Honorable Dame Silvia Cartwright, who gave a speech in 2001 on “The Role of the Governor-General” to the New Zealand Centre for Public Law at Wellington’s Victoria University. In the speech, she discusses, among many things, the four generally accepted reserve powers that accompany her role:

—To appoint a Prime Minister.

—To dismiss a Prime Minister.

—To refuse to dissolve a Parliament.

—To force a dissolution of Parliament.

In addition to these, you might add other such traditions as reading the Speech from the Throne every three years after an election, a tradition I first learned of in the Debating Chamber of Parliament House. But as it turns out, the speech is anything but from the throne. The Cabinet Manual of 2008 explains that the speech is “the first formal opportunity for a government to outline its legislative intentions,” and is actually “prepared following a process determined by the Prime Minister, with officials assisting as required.” A more fitting title, it would seem to me, would be Speech from the Prime Minister’s Desk Chair. Or if not fitting, at least honest. Why insist on the traditional reading of it by the Governor-General? Why the reliance on rituals?

I came across a media release from the 21st of December, 1999, written by Dave Guerin, president at the time of the Republican Movement in New Zealand. His piece, titled “The Speech from the Throne is absurd,” followed the tracks of a similar train of thought: “The monarchy and all its trappings do not fit with our democratic society. With the millennium just around the corner, it is time to bring our state ceremonies into the 20th century at least. The speech is simply the incoming Government’s plan for the next three years, so why can’t we have the Prime Minister reading out her own plans?”

This questioning of the Sovereign’s role in an increasingly modern nation seems to echo similar rumblings in the foundation of other tried-and-true government practices in New Zealand, one being that of the relevance of the constitutional monarchy. The Australian republic referendum in 1999 put forth two questions to voters as they went to the polls, the first being whether or not the country should cease to operate as a monarchy and Parliament to begin to appoint a president to head a republic. Although the referendum failed to pass, the vote was a mere 54.87% to 45.13%, hardly what I would call a landslide or a crushing defeat. Instead, I would say it only suggests the number of conversations that remain to take place in the future.

A similar debate is currently taking place this side of the Tasman Sea. As former Prime Minister Helen Clark said herself in 2004, “I think it’s inevitable that New Zealand will become a republic and that would reflect the reality that New Zealand is a totally sovereign-independent 21st century nation 12,000 miles from the United Kingdom.” Several national polls have revealed that, like Australia, there is not majority support for the shift to a republic in New Zealand, yet the numbers are growing. Even though only about a third of New Zealanders would vote for that change, I believe it is important those questions are being asked in the first place, that these polls are even taking place. And even though the republic referendum in Australia in 1999 didn’t change its form of government, it still meant that the country went through – and continues to undergo – that time of debate and consideration, which is important and healthy. Like someone questioning their faith or set of beliefs, perhaps the most important thing is not that they eventually discard them, but that they came to a point where they no longer took those beliefs for granted, that they were not blindly accepted.

[New] Links to Germany.

So while New Zealand may still firmly be a constitutional monarchy and may still call Queen Elizabeth II the head of state, in 1995 the country came to a landmark decision in its government and broke with British traditions in an unprecedented way by changing electoral systems. The system previously in use in New Zealand was that of First-Past-the-Post, whereby a candidate is only successful if it wins a majority of the votes in its district. As Mullgan describes it, this system “tends to reduce the chances for smaller parties to win seats and thereby encourages the development of two-party systems” (234). For an example of FPTP, think of none other than the United States and its two clearly established political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats. Don’t worry about the theory; worry about the results.

But the FPTP system left many New Zealanders dissatisfied, mainly in the way that it excludes minor voices and secondary opinions. So it turned from its British ways and looked to Germany and the Mixed-Member Proportional voting system. Rather than the “winner takes all” methodology behind FPTP, MMP makes room for multiple party representatives from each district, based on the proportion of votes they receive. Mullgan writes that it further “enables smaller parties to win seats and encourages multi-party systems” (234). Think of the five or so parties on the American ballot that so often seem swallowed up in the shadow of the Democratic and Republican candidates: the Constitution Party, the Libertarians, the peace-keeping Greens.  Under MMP, maybe the likes of Nader would finally have a say.

And suddenly, all that I’d learned in Comparative Politics 101 came flooding back into my memory. With each new Canadian friend I’ve met traveling, I think often of a paper I wrote for that class first year, a paper that addressed some anomaly in the Canadian government (mainly because, ashamedly, it’s almost all that I know of my northern neighbor. Well, that and maple leaves). Of course, as the years went by, the details grew murkier and murkier, but with this sudden resurfacing of FPTP vs. MMP, I suddenly remembered. I recalled specifically discussing in class Germany, MMP, and the fact that they had several parties represented in their government. The use of FPTP in the United States, though, has clearly and predictably resulted in two. For the term paper, our assignment was to look at a country using one system yet getting a different-than-expected result. Canada, for instance, uses FPTP, but has four main parties. My task? Explain why.

So as I stood in the Debating Chamber of the New Zealand Parliament House, it all came together, it all began to make sense. The seven parties represented in the House of Representatives would of course be a direct result of the switch to MMP. After the override of FPTP in 1995, the two main parties, Labour and National, had to make room for others like two older siblings whose parents had just given birth to quintuplets: the Green Party, the Maori Party, ACT, United Future, and the Progressive Party. As Henderson and Bellamy write in Democracy in New Zealand, MMP “led to an increase in the number of parties and a more diverse Parliament” (13). And they’re right: as of today, the 122 members of Parliament include 39 women, 22 Maori, five Asians, and four Polynesians. I’d say diverse is a good word for it, wouldn’t you?

But now, where my head began to hurt was understanding the “mixed-member” of MMP, namely that there are two kinds of MPs – electorate and list MPs. Bear with me as I explain, I promise it’ll make sense. When voters go to the polls, they essentially cast two types of votes. One is for specific members, one is for the party itself. Electorate votes determine who they want representing a chosen party from their district. Party votes determine party strength in the 120-seat Parliament. To put it in American terms, it’s as if we would cast a vote not only for Polly Tishin from Buffalo, NY, but also one for the party as a whole – be it Republican, Democrat, Green, whatever.

Get it?

Yeah, me neither. For an example, I turned to yet another college textbook, New Zealand Under MMP by Jonathan Boston, Stephen Levine, Elizabeth McLeay, and Nigel Roberts. The scenario they give is that if the Labour Party happens to win 25% of party votes, they will qualify for 30 of the 120 seats available in Parliament. On the other hand, if it won 23 constituency seats (region-specific representatives), it would need to fill an additional seven seats. In this instance, the Labour Party would keep a rank-ordered list of candidates from which it would begin to pull members to fill those seven seats. As you can imagine, there’s been a bit of controversy around this area and the legitimacy of those “list members” who weren’t actually elected by the public.

But what about the philosophy behind the change to MMP in the first place? As fascinating as I found the details of the system itself (okay, not that fascinating), I found I was even more interested in what brought about a change in system in the first place. In a way, it’s not so much the system that matters, but the mindset behind it.

A Hybrid Nation.

A number of sources agree that the change in electoral system in 1995 was linked to changes towards a new national identity in New Zealand, to the beginning of an overhaul in the way in which not only New Zealanders see themselves, but in the way the world sees them. The authors of New Zealand under MMP explain that like the ‘anti-nuclear stance’ the country adopted not long ago, the adoption of this new electoral system was designed as a way of “ending the dependence on an inherited outlook, policies and institutional arrangements, and marking a move towards an indigenously crafted style of governance appropriate to a more mature New Zealand identity” (2-3). I myself had a glimpse of this change while doing basic data-entry at Statistics New Zealand. Under the ethnicity category, many chose to tick “Other” and write in “New Zealander,” rejecting the limitations of the Maori term “Pakeha” often used for those with European roots.

Thus a break from Britain and its political traditions is a first key separation in this drive for a new identity, in establishing New Zealand in its own right. The same authors write that the desire for a new electoral system or a new form of government is a change “compatible with a different national identity and would help to promote values and outlooks distinct from those inherited from the British colonial era” (2).

But with its long history with Britain, many feel that New Zealand must break away not only from its British associations, but from the Western associations that so often come with the territory. One of the first things Richard Mullgan discusses in Politics in New Zealand is the nature of New Zealand society itself:

“[O]ne of the familiar beliefs that New Zealanders have about themselves is that they live in a ‘small’ country of ‘only’ three million people or thereabouts…Yet if one lists the nations recognized by the United Nations in order of population, New Zealand is only about half way down the list. From this perspective New Zealand is more of a ‘middle-sized’ country. The perception that it is small makes sense only if the view is restricted to larger countries” (20).

Even I myself am guilty of this misperception, as the population of New Zealand is perhaps a mere 1.5% of my home country. And when you look at the numbers of the OECD, the Europe-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, New Zealand does indeed rank 27 out of 30 in population, ahead only of Ireland, Luxembourg, and Iceland. However, another chart Mullgan gives features the populations of selected Pacific Nations, including Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga, the Cook Islands, Western Samoa, and Niue, in which New Zealand ranks third out of 15. Mullgan put it this way:

“To someone arriving for the first time in New Zealand from one of the neighboring South Pacific countries, such as Tonga or the Cook Islands, New Zealand may seem overwhelmingly large in population. Similarly, though New Zealand often represents itself as a relatively agricultural country, which it may be from an OECD perspective, that is not how it appears to Pacific Islanders. New Zealand is much more industralised and urbanized than the island societies of the Pacific. Indeed, in the South Pacific region, New Zealand, together with its larger neighbor Australia, plays the role of a major metropolitan power, looming as large in the political and economic lives of the island states as the US, Germany or Japan do in the OECD” (22).

As New Zealand continues to sever ties with Britain, it seems it should also consider redefining the scales on which it compares itself. Perhaps it is a variation on the classic fish-and-pond scenario. When viewed from one perspective, New Zealand is a little fish in a big pond, but in a different light and sea, it is quite the big fish. As Raymond Miller writes in New Zealand Government and Politics, “By the beginning of the twenty-first century the only remaining links with Britain of particular consequence were politico-cultural and historic. By this time, it would be argued, New Zealand had largely shed its British identity in favour of that of a South Pacific nation, with a trade, foreign and defence policy focus on the region of Asia-Pacific” (136).

Courtesy of Al Nisbet and the New Zealand Cartoon Archive: "In 1992, it was headline news when New Zealand was elected to join the 'big boys' around the Security Council table in 1993-1994."


But all of this – the debates and the decisions – is it not simply part of the natural process of a young nation’s maturity? A natural part of growing up? It seems to me just another step in New Zealand’s ever-burgeoning independence, as it makes its way into adulthood. The website of the Governor-General, in seeking to define its role in contemporary politics, explains the natural route New Zealand has taken towards independence:

“New Zealand ceased to be a colony in 1907 when it became a Dominion within the British Empire. Dominion status, however, was more a change of name and did not make New Zealand any more independent from Britain. In 1931, the British Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster which declared that the British Parliament could not make laws for the Dominions of Australia, Canada, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland, New Zealand and South Africa, without their request and consent.  The Statute was the result of the Balfour Declaration from the 1926 Imperial Conference. The Declaration said each of the Dominions of the British Empire, while joined by their common allegiance to the British Crown, were equal in status.”

Even still, it wasn’t until 1947 that the New Zealand Parliament finally adopted the Statute of Westminster and officially became independent. The United States, on the other hand, seemed to cut the process short and declare itself an emancipated minor from Mother Britain. As  Miller writes:

“New Zealand’s political history has been experimental but, very importantly, not revolutionary. Civil government in New Zealand readily adopted the democratic principal of popular sovereignty—the people ruled. For older British settler colonies, like those of America, separation from the mother country had only been achieved by a war of independence. That break had in turn precipitated the establishment of republic institutions and in the USA the democratic principle was extended to include the direct election of political officials, from the country sheriff to, eventually, the federal president. By contrast, the Australasian colonies secured the right to manage their own affairs without a fight, without the abandonment of constitutional monarchy, the dissolution of imperial ties, nor major amendment to the Westminster parliamentary system. Given the timing of the foundation of the settler colony, the concession of self-government was inevitable” (38).

I find New Zealand an interesting picture of what my home country could be like today had it not decided to turn against the Red Coats, throw a few crates of tea in the harbor, and revolt like a screaming, kicking teenager. Would we, too, still take a day off in June in honor (honour?) of the Queen’s birthday? Would we, too, have morning tea and take the “lift” to the fifth floor and rent a “flat” over the summer? Would we, too, have u’s between our o’s and r’s and reverse our r’s and e’s when writing about our night at the theatre or the cultural centre? It’s hard to say, but it’s certainly food for thought. If anything, New Zealand is a hybrid nation, one still very much in the process of self-definition. Even as it still recognizes the British monarchy and employs the Westminster model of Parliament, it has begun to look to other influences, experimenting with the idea of a democratic republic, as found in the United States, and embracing new systems of voting from Germany.

And, of course, through this process of discovery I couldn’t help but regret not hanging onto more of the details from my one and only politics class at university. But as a first-year student, with a full course load and textbook after textbook requiring my dutiful attention, the classic study sequence usually went cram-for-the-exam, memorize-then-forget. Sitting in a library, reading the black-and-white script of a politics textbook over 300 pages long, you fail to achieve any true understanding, any real impression of how differently another country may operate. But residence – however temporary it may be – in New Zealand means all of this matters, all of this is real. My walk down the halls of the Beehive meant I now had a visual for any books I might read. I had content and context, and I thought of how well they go together, of the new horizons of understanding that open when the two go hand-in-hand.

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catching the buzz.

The famous cities of the world all have their famous buildings, those landmarks so often reproduced on coffee mugs, keychains, and countless other kitsch. Chicago has the Sears Tower, London has Big Ben, and any image of the Eiffel Tower is without a doubt from Paris. And so coming to Wellington, New Zealand, I was introduced to the Beehive, that unmistakable government building whose architectural decisions are often questioned but nonetheless standing for Parliament and the city as a whole. As I walked by it on my first few exploratory walkabouts of Wellington, I, too, grew amused by its peculiar, circular design, the way in which each level grew slightly smaller, like the ever-shrinking layers of a ten-story wedding cake. Practically the entire exterior was glass, and between each window were narrow concrete partitions that jutted out in parallel perfection, giving the appearance of several old slide projectors stacked together.

But what was perhaps most perplexing was not the unique architecture of the Beehive itself, but its proximity to the Parliament House building next to it, whose neo-classical design, whose length and rows of Roman columns – or were they Greek? – gave off such an air of class and elegance, whose marble stone exterior and wide, sweeping stairs – forever the site of wedding photo shoots – were of another era in time. Supposedly the plans had been to continue with this original Edwardian building, first constructed in the early 1900s, extending its classical marble even further. But apparently constrained by both space – there was a major roadway, after all, not far to the right – and money – they ran out, of course – the plans changed and the Beehive came into existence between 1969 and 1979. And as if the juxtaposition of these two buildings weren’t remarkable enough, the Parliamentary Library completes the triad, its cathedral-like cornice work and rose windows standing to the left of Parliament House, a very visible testament to the evolution of architectural design in New Zealand.

I wasn’t content with an exterior view, though – I wanted to see things from the inside out, so I arrived early one Tuesday morning in time for the first free Parliament tour of the day. Passing through a metal detector as if going through airport security, I sent my bag first through an x-ray scan before having to check it behind a counter for the duration of the tour. Thankfully, however, I was allowed to hang onto a notebook and pen, although I felt quite lost without my camera strung around my neck, bumping against my side as I walked. Before the tour began, a security guard asked, “Excuse me, are you just taking notes for yourself?” Although curious to see what he would’ve said if I’d said no, I shook my head enthusiastically in the affirmative. “Of course, Sir, of course.” White lie? Perhaps…

Indeed, I was rather bemused by the reactions the presence of my notebook seemed to engender on the tour. Several fellow participants would remark, “Ah, taking notes, eh?” but I was given no special treatment, no deference, from the tour guide, privy only to the behind-the-scenes information everyone else was. What, then, could I possibly be taking down that was so troublesome, such a cause for concern? It was as if the possibility of permanence was a threat, the chance that what was said wouldn’t be lost on this set of ears; as if ears should be bored, not boring in the sense of “to bore” meaning “to penetrate into the inner or hidden parts of something.” Never trust a notebook, they seemed to say.

So I kept the note-taking to a discrete minimum, foregoing my usual “go-get-‘em” place at front by the guide to lurk in the shadows of the crowd and write. While waiting for the tour to start, I walked around the ground floor of the Beehive, taking in the many items on display. There was a sample of merino wool in one glass case – fitting, I thought – and in another, replicas of wooden canoes and boats from several Pacific Islands, gifts to the Prime Minister to mark a visit to such places as Samoa, Niue, the Cook and Solomon Islands, and then, a model of the world’s oldest ship in the Cairo Museum, the Royal Ship of Cheops, gifted from an Egyptian visitor in 2007. The display seemed to ask “Which one doesn’t belong?” like a children’s quiz you might find on the back of a cereal box.

When the clock struck ten, the group was called together. After the viewing of a ten-minute DVD titled “The Parliament Experience,” our tour guide did a quick survey of the group’s makeup. Well over two-thirds were Kiwis themselves, which was a good thing to see, of course. Other international visitors, although we were clearly in the minority, hailed from such diverse locales as Wales, China, Fiji and Switzerland. The guide, Bob, was an older, bearded man with a distinct American accent, whom I later learned had moved to New Zealand from California in 1971. The Australian couple behind me remarked, “I daresay he’s not a Kiwi,” almost as aghast as I was that the guide of such a distinctive New Zealand institution as their Parliament was led by someone distinctly not a native. It led you to question the credibility of such statements as, “Here in New Zealand, we elect our Parliament based on…” We? Really?

First stop on the tour was the Beehive, which, in all its layered height of 72 meters, is home to the Executive branch of the government. Bob, clearly reaching for humor, found it fitting to say, “Yes, there is someone in charge, not everyone’s on holiday.” Of its ten floors above ground and its four underground floors – which happens to include the National Crisis Management Center, in case of dire national emergencies – the Prime Minister’s office is on the ninth floor and the Cabinet meets on the top. There are seven restaurants spread over three floors in the Beehive, which serve anywhere from 1,200 to 1,500 people a day – 800 on a slow day. Those numbers suddenly put busy days at Vercelli’s in perspective.

As we walked through the Beehive, its circular walls lent the building an elegance not immediately perceived when viewed from the outside. The glass wall of windows on one side complemented the marble on the other, the two curves converging at a point in the distance, with a feel about it that was the product of a sleek design of multi-story ceilings and an open floor plan. An art installation by John Drawbridge featured sets of ten panels each, panels that wrapped around the inner wall of the Banquet Hall and whose designs changed depending on the angle from which you viewed it. It reminded me of the art project in primary school wherein you fold a piece of paper like you might a fan, and draw a different image on either side of the folds. When viewed from the left, you might see a house, and from the right a car.

The idea behind Drawbridge’s work was to imagine the way in which the country might look from the air if you flew from Cape Reinga in the north to Invercargill in the south. He envisioned the changes in shape and color that would occur in the landscape and atmosphere of the country. With this symbolism in mind, no doubt, the Australian man asked Bob about three metal butterflies hanging above another doorway. “Are they symbolic?” he asked as we passed through. “That’s called art,” Bob replied. “There’s lots of art in Parliament.” Well, then…

But from the many-windowed walls of the Beehive I got my first sense of being in the true heart of the country. There was no doubt this was the capital. In one sweeping panoramic view I took in Parliament House, the Parliamentary Library, the National Cathedral, the National Library, Bowen House (home to the MPs’ offices), the Supreme Court, the High Court, the Court of Appeals, the Defense Building – all within a stone’s throw of each other. Wellington is quite the compressed capital city, all the buildings home to the top tiers of its government nestling together as if in a team huddle during a big game, awaiting the next play. And thus the likening of this building, this particular branch of the government, to a beehive made perfect sense. Home to the Queen Bee, in this case, the Prime Minister, it is from the halls of this hive that the nation’s ministers move out to do the nation’s work.

Leaving the Beehive and its executive functions behind, we walked through a connecting hallway to Parliament House, home to the nation’s Legislative branch. The transition between the buildings was easily felt, visibly evident in the change in architecture and interior design which occurred as if moving back in time. The smooth curves of the Beehive gave way to a black-and-white marble checkerboard floor, to a gilded ceiling, detailed plasterwork, stained glass windows, and even the original lift of the building, first installed in 1918, looking more like a suspended iron cage. Bob seemed to be most impressed with how quiet the lift was, telling us “you could even hear pin drop while riding in it.” Another tour member, whose sense of humor was one I could more appreciate, said cheekily, “I think it’s well broken in.”

Parliament House was built to replace the original building, which, having been built first in 1871, was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1907. Although Parliament first met in Auckland in 1854, it soon became clear that the city’s particularly northern location proved too difficult to reach for many of the MPs. Other locations such as Nelson, Picton and Dunedin (which to me would seem to present the polar opposite of the problem, being such a southerly city) were considered, but a set of external commissioners finally settled on Wellington and it was there that the first Parliament Buildings and the Parliamentary Library were built, the latter being opened in 1899. The fire in 1907, however, completely destroyed the Parliament Buildings, and it wasn’t until 1918 that MPs began moving into the new, existing structure. In some twist of history I don’t entirely understand, almost eight decades passed before the building was officially opened by the Queen in 1995,  after the refurbishment was complete.

A chief aim of the refurbishment, which took three years, involved 450 people, 3.5 million man hours, and saw fifteen kilometers of sprinkler pipes installed (aren’t you glad to see they learned their lesson?), was to make the building better suited to handle the threat of a potentially massive earthquake. New Zealand experiences 10,000 to 15,000 earthquakes a year, and Wellington in particular lies only 400 meters from the region’s major fault line. In the basement of Parliament House we viewed an exhibit clearly set up for such tours as ours, one that explained the base isolation system set in place in 1992.

Invented by Dr. Bill Robinson – who went on to win awards and an honorary degree from Victoria University for the design – the goal of the system is seismic strengthening, whereby 400 base isolators, built from rubber, steel, and a lead core, keep the upper building relatively secure whilst an earthquake rocks below the surface, similar to the role of a spring between a car and a tire. With the isolators in place, the remaining sections of the foundation that connected the upper building to the basement were sawed away, creating a 20mm gap between the two parts. Thus prepared for an earthquake registering even 7 or 7.5 on the Richter scale, Parliament House was able to retain its original character while being preserved for the future generations.

Up a staircase, we came to the Maui Tikitiki-a-Taranga…otherwise known as the Maori Affairs Committee Room. In the carvings and weavings on the wall, every Maori tribe and iwi is supposedly represented in the room, the only such place in New Zealand other than at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. Woven into the designs at the front of the room were the three baskets of Maori knowledge, representing peace, prayer, and art. Although important in its own right, it is only one of many committee rooms in Parliament House, the place in which the laws are made and the details hammered out, in which oral hearings take place and your right to freedom of speech couldn’t be more absolute. “And I mean that in the German sense of the word ‘absolute,’” Bob said, although I think only the German-speaking Swiss on the tour might’ve understood what he meant by that.

We wound our way through the building, coming finally to the very heart and soul of Parliament. “Here’s the room,” I overheard many a hushed tone proclaiming in reverence. “Is this it?” they’d ask, their wife replying, “It must be.” A set of heavy wooden doors opened to the Debating Chamber, a two-storied, U-shaped room whose balcony swept over the rows of seats on the first level.  Green carpet with a pattern of golden fleur-de-lis’s stretched out towards the rich wood panels of the walls, original yet refurbished, and your eye was drawn upwards to an arched, stained glass ceiling. Bob explained that the carved wreaths in the paneling commemorating battles from WWI – Samoa, Egypt, Gallipoli, to name a few – and  ferns those from WWII – bearing such names as South Africa, Atlantic, and Pacific – were an unofficial war memorial…but then again, what isn’t it in New Zealand?

Each Member of Parliament has their own green leather seat and locked desk, labeled with their name and party affiliation. As any Kiwi might, several had wool seat covers like you might see in a BMW from the 1980s, even the Speaker of the House. Supposedly, according to the NZ History website, an earthquake in 1990 caused many to follow the emergency instructions you might learn as a child and dive under their desks. One MP, however, apparently hid under a sheepskin rug and another under a pillow. (Several questions arise upon hearing this information. The first being, what protection did they expect to gain? The next, of course, asking why such items were in the chamber to begin with. Never mind, though.) Bob pointed out the Prime Minister’s position, sitting traditionally four seats to the right of the Speaker, and that of the Leader of the Opposition, a balanced four seats to the left. “So this is where the magic happens,” I found myself saying…

No member of the royal family nor the Governor-General, representative of the Sovereign herself, can enter the Debating Chamber. Instead, when duty calls every three years, the Governor-General, brandishing a hefty rod, will bang on the door three times – the notches actually visible in the wood. As it usually goes with these sort of traditions, MPs will feign ignorance as to who’s at the door, as if going along with the joke. When the door is opened, the Governor-General announces, “You are commanded to come and hear the Speech from the Throne,” and so the entire Parliament ups and relocates to an identically shaped room down the hall known as the Legislative Council Chamber, perhaps the only difference being the change from green to red in the color of the carpet. Only one law was passed in this chamber, which was home to the Upper House before it was closed in 1950. Now it is more the stage for Maori-related treaty signings, the meeting of Commonwealth head of states, and even musical performances. Ever the observant one, the Australian man remarked, “I presume there’s a throne hidden somewhere,” which, Bob informed us, there is, on display for public view downstairs.

From Parliament House the tour continued into the Parliamentary Library, the trip back in time stretching even further into the past. The tile floors, made from 13th and 14th century Italian marble, were cut in Stoke-on-Trent in England. The plasterwork was done in Italy and the stained glass, all original from 1899, was designed and installed by Smith and Smith, a New Zealand company founded in 1870. The building was even one of the first in the country to be electrically lit. From the ceiling struts to the stained glass  rose windows, from the mauve walls to the gilded details of the intricate, ivory molding, I couldn’t place just why it all seemed so familiar. I couldn’t, that is, until Bob explained this was the stuff of church architecture, done in the style of Victorian Gothic revival. It then became apparent why I felt as if I’d seen it before. I had, in the churches of England and Europe and even the Christchurch Cathedral on the South Island. Queen Victoria, in a phrase I immediately liked, viewed libraries as cathedrals of knowledge and wanted them constructed accordingly so.

Much like the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., the Parliamentary Library is a research and information library, thus offering limited public access. It’s a resource for the politicians next door and we were thus cautioned to stand away from the doorway, in case of any politician who might come barreling through in desperate need for a quick answer. With thirty kilometers of shelf space and three floors of basement storage, the library can also boast of being the only one in the world to store every newspaper published in the country every day, right down to its smallest regional and local publications. Of course, Bob expressed his theory on the reasoning behind this: “This way, politicians can keep up on the political cartoons parodying them and stay ahead of the jokes.”

Despite its current function, the library is where the first Provincial Chambers were located in 1899. But like its neighbor, Parliament House, the building has unfortunately fallen victim to a number of fires over the years. A series of fires as recent as 1992 have plagued the complex, when in October, one fire wrought serious damage to the library’s main staircase, plasterwork, stained glass and roof. Restorers turned to photographs as a source for original architectural details to recreate after the fire. But another blaze not too long after destroyed several original toilets in the library’s basement. While I wouldn’t think this to be counted too tragic of a loss on the library’s part, I can imagine the ordeal would still exacerbate the government’s struggle to overcome the effects of the first fire.

With the viewing of the library complete, our tour officially came to an end, the last stop being to explore the gift shop from which we could purchase bags of “governmints,” “parliamints,” and “argumints.” “Try not to run out of argumints,” Bob said, leaving us with a final pun to enjoy in pathetic laughter. As I left the building, a bag of parliamints in tow, of course, I looked back on these three emblems of the New Zealand government – the Beehive, Parliament House, and the Parliamentary Library. As disjointed as their architecture appeared to be, it seemed also to serve as a visual reminder of the changes that have taken place over the past century or so. It’s not often architects don’t choose designs that enhance the relation of such buildings to each other, so as awkward as the flow between these three might have been, I found it a welcome symbol of the way in which certain characteristics of the nation’s government work together.

Photo courtesy of


It’s safe to say I caught the buzz that Tuesday morning, getting a taste of the spirit of official matters, of bureaucratic affairs of the nation and the state, and I knew it wouldn’t be long until I had to know more.

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a pearl of protection.

You’re Wellington’s bit of rough, Somes

Home to countless, do you feel used?

A shelter, confinement, protector,

Story keeper of those who walked your back

Trod your surface, changed your skin

Ruffled your hair

– Robin Naylor, “Somes,” 1999

Ever since starting work at the restaurant, I watched through the windows of Vercelli’s as crowds of people embarked and disembarked small, bright blue and white passenger ferries that landed on Queen’s Wharf. In the morning and evening hours, there was a mass of office workers, men and women in suits, bearing briefcases and Blackberries. There were a few known to frequent the restaurant just before the ferry arrived, having a quick beer at the end of the work day before heading home. During more off-peak commuting hours, scores of uniformed schoolchildren and their teachers or Boy Scouts troops ran along the dock, tossing rugby balls to each other before beginning their field trip. As I counted the crowds day in and day out, I finally asked a colleague – just where were they going?

Eastbourne, it turned out – hailed as a quaint village with a bay and a few cafés, almost directly across the harbor from Wellington. The ferries – clearly labeled with the Dominion Post in a not-so-subtle marketing scheme – are run by a company called East by West and I thought it the perfect option for my next day off. As I looked into the company’s website, though, I noticed another stop on the ferry’s route around the harbor – Matiu/Somes Island. Now we’re talking, I said to myself.

But of course, I awoke that Saturday, my sole day off of the week, to a grey and overcast sky, rain only minutes away. Disappointed, feeling let down by the weather yet again, I resigned myself to a quiet day in a coffee shop. The next Saturday I pulled back my curtains, breath held, fingers crossed. My hopes didn’t drop immediately as I had half-expected they would – they sort of wavered, hovering for a moment as I assessed the situation. The sky wasn’t necessarily the clear, unclouded shade of robin’s egg blue I’d envisioned, but it wasn’t raining either. There were heavy clouds, but they weren’t grey. It’ll have to do, I said in the way in which one accepts the unchangeable.

And so I walked briskly along the harbor, glad the day off wouldn’t be wasted, but as the ferry office just happens to be located immediately next door to Vercelli’s, it was a bit of an odd feeling, walking the exact route I take every day and not quite feeling like the adventure had yet begun. I rounded the last corner only to be greeted by a queue as if at the box office before a long-awaited midnight showing of an expected summer blockbuster. Figures, I grumbled, taking my place at the end.

The line was comprised of a throng of white-haired men and women bustling around the office bearing white name tags that read “Historic Places Trust.” Clearly they were volunteers, having found the perfect means by which to busy themselves in their days of retirement, so why, I begged of them, could they have not chosen some less-trafficked window of time for this organized group trip. Couldn’t they have left Saturday morning for the less fortunate of the working class? Leaders of the tour walked around announcing, “All those with the H.P.T. please proceed to the ferry to board. Anyone with H.P.T…” What I wouldn’t have done for one of those white tags…

But such is life, isn’t it? And there’s nothing quite like standing in front of a family in a long line to hear your every worry and thought vocalized…again and again. “I thought there’d be about ten people,” said a dad to his family. His especially insightful wife replied, “Well, if we get on it, we get on it. If we don’t, we don’t.” She then proceeded to entertain their toddler-aged son. “Did you send in your sun request today, Dominic? “Sun, sun, Mr. Golden Sun,” she sang before extending the medley: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…that’s a silly song isn’t it, Dominic?” And always when an unexpected delay occurs, you begin to dream of the ten other things you could’ve accomplished in the time you’ve now lost, as one woman lamented, “I would’ve had time to do my hair if I’d known.”

Despite the later start than expected, though, I was on the ferry soon enough and joined several families on the top deck, where the wind whipped my hair as the ferry sped first from Seatoun to Eastbourne and finally to Matiu/Somes Island. From a distance the island was as dark as the secrets it is purported to hold, and small, such a seemingly unlikely place for all that is said to have taken place there. A sign on the ferry from the Department of Conservation instructed all passengers to “please proceed to the Whare Kiore (RAT HOUSE) on arrival.” I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into.

*     *     *

Wildlife first, then Ngai Tara, Ngati Ira,

Pa builders spiked your ridges like old tuatara

Followed by village builders Te Atiawa,

You’ve been bartered and sold, all water off your back

Prison for innocents among the wartime suspect

Debugging, delousing, degaussing station

Set you apart, you quarantine rock

Time now takes care to cover your bald patches

New seedlings take root, fingering down,

Stretching up, island hair-restorer

As we walked down the gangplank – not dissimilar, I imagined, to the one early settlers might’ve been forced to use as well – each passenger was led from the ferry straight into the infamous Rat House. Once we’d all been gathered, a volunteer forest ranger named Janet locked both doors of the building before briefing us – as if on the brink of some high-security, classified mission – on the rules of the island. “Now if you could all please check your bags for any rats, mice, ants, or seeds,” she instructed like a schoolteacher. I’d read  before arrival that we would have to check our bags, but perhaps a little too much air travel over the past few years led me to assume we’d be checking our bags, as in, turning them over during the time we spent on the island. However, once in the Rat House I realized the volunteer meant for us to literally check our bags, as in, rummage through them.

I found this situation comical for a number of reasons. How on earth, I wondered, could we have just spent fifty minutes on the ferry and yet somehow been able to miss the fact that there was a rat in our bag? I didn’t quite know whether or not to take this “checking” process seriously. The man sitting across from me, however – adorable, white-haired gentleman that he was – dutifully unfurled an entire lined blanket that had been tied into a roll, gave it a good shake and rolled it back up. Young Dominic and his parents were quite enthusiastic in their search, digging through bananas and juice boxes for any stray rodents. Call me a poor sport, but I feigned any effort, half-heartedly shoving my hand in my oversized purse all for the sake of show, really. But as we ourselves were responsible for this investigation and Janet never once checked up on us – which I suppose makes her more like a substitute teacher in that respect – do you not wonder, as I did, that if some especially malicious soul did intend to release rats on the island, he or she could have easily kept them concealed?

But if anything, the time spent hunting for these pesty predators certainly lent a good deal of gravity to the situation. As much humor as I may have found in the Rat House, Janet wasn’t laughing. This was something she – and myriad other people – care deeply about. Since the late 1980s, Somes Island has been pest-free – no ferrets, no weasels, no dogs, and certainly no rats. As a sort of recreated Eden, it means that the world’s smallest penguins, the little blue penguin, can raise their young in safety. It means that the tuatara, New Zealand’s famed ancient reptile, can once again inhabit the island, the original population there having been eradicated in the mid-1800s. It means that such native birds as the kakariki, the red-crowned parakeet, can spread their wings over a wildlife sanctuary designed specifically to see them not only survive, but to thrive. Standing in front of her class, Janet held up 8”x11” photographs of some of the creatures we could hope to see during the day – common geckos, copper skinks, and the Cook Strait giant weta were among the ones I more hoped I wouldn’t run into. “This is the North Island robin, which isn’t doing as well as we’d hoped at the moment,” Janet said, her voice growing softer.

Additionally, conservation efforts have focused on the flora of the island, not only the fauna. With their work having begun in 1981, Forest and Bird and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries lead a vision to restore the island to its native vegetation, all of which was destroyed to make room for livestock paddocks once European ships arrived in the 1800s. As I walked along the first paths of the island, I noticed little pink ties on tree branches, numbered, only increasing the feeling that this is an island under observation. This is an island on which no species goes unmarked, or their changes and growth unrecorded. But every five steps or so, I heard a shuffling, a rustling among the leaves. It caught my attention, not only for the noise, but at how systematic it seemed to be. I slowed, treading softly and came upon what a brochure told me was a common skink, its slinking body glistening in the sun like a twisted piece of metal. As I stared at one, I could see more stretching out in front of me, each right on the border between path and brush. They were spaced so evenly, so diligently, as if sentinel on guard. But just what were they hiding?

And while the present conservation work taking place on the island would be remarkable enough, meriting a visit in and of its own right, that’s not where the island’s story begins or ends; it’s merely the current chapter of a long and complicated narrative. If that was the case, Somes Island might be just another Kapiti Island, the renowned nature reserve and bird sanctuary just north of Wellington. Kapiti takes the security ordeal of Somes’ Rat House two steps further, requiring any potential visitors to actually book a permit before even thinking of arriving. But Matiu/Somes is both scientific and historic reserve, its bilingual name – restored in 1997 – attesting to both Maori and European historical involvement in a way that makes sense with the diversity of its past and present roles. Its pest-free existence is only one part of its story. Indeed, the island’s true intrigue is found further back; its mystery – like so many – lies in the past.

*     *     *

You define that pond space.

Like an iceberg in temperate camouflage

There’s more to you than meets the eye

Stage set for all our dreaming

An eye magnet, a drawing in

Point for our



I’d begun reading a book from the central library on Matiu/Somes Island, appropriately titled Island of Secrets by David McGill. McGill took a logical approach to discussing the island’s history, proceeding chronologically from its first Maori explorers over a thousand years ago to its ultimate reopening to the public in 1995. But when I arrived on the island, I found there was a circuit walk that rearranged what I considered to be the chief aspects of its history – high Maori and European significance, key to WWII defense strategy, and home to human and animal quarantine stations. Although said to take forty-five minutes to complete, I myself took nearly my entire four hours on the island to circle around, letting each rest along the way illuminate yet another piece of the island’s past. I appreciated the logic of McGill’s work, but I let the island tell its own story.

From the Rat House, the circuit began on the north end of the island, taking you along a path that, while easy-going physically, was lined by thick brush on either side. It gave no indication as to what lay beyond it, feeling more like the way had been cut through the vegetation than as if you were passing through it naturally. Immediately upon starting the circuit, I came to a monument to those who had died on the island. It was the 1872 arrival of the immigrant ship England, which sailed into the Wellington Harbor with sixteen passengers dead from disease, that sparked the practice of human quarantine on Somes Island. For forty-seven years, a quarantine station built on the island seemed to function as New Zealand’s own Ellis Island, the receiving point for many of the settlers and immigrants. From whooping cough to smallpox, from measles to mumps, from scarlet fever to typhoid fever, a range of diseases were all at one time or another reasons for a ship’s captain to wave the yellow quarantine flag and call into Somes Island. As websites and writers alike say, the island was the first and last many new arrivals saw of New Zealand. In the 1970s, the island’s cemetery was removed and the stone memorial cairn I viewed was constructed to remember those who never made it to the country for which they’d sailed so far. The cairn and a single white marble cross, in memory of George Stanley, twenty-six years of age, are all that remain of this time.

But the history of containment on the island grows darker. Although the influenza epidemic in 1919 marked the last time the barracks would be used for human quarantine, the new era of world wars brought yet another evolution in the island’s story: internment camp. Many  of the 300 or so men held on the island in the first World War were thought of as prisoners of war, but during World War Two international authorities made clear these men were internees, not POWs, and so in 1940 the Prime Minister accordingly promised them “kind treatment.” The group of “enemy aliens” on Somes, which McGill describes as an “eclectic, volatile mix,” included Italians, Japanese, Nazi Germans and German Jaws…the only place in the world reputed to imprison Nazis and Jews in the same place. While the complexities behind New Zealand’s containment of nationals from places it happened to be at war against reach beyond the breadth and scope of my writing at this time, it’s still one worth mentioning. As I walked the paths of the island and looked through the windows of the only barracks that remain, I thought of the Japanese internment camps set up in the States of which I’d read, piling thousands into old racetracks and stadiums. Somes Island certainly didn’t rival those living conditions, but a prison’s a prison, no?

 The circuit then wound along the western side of the island, passing a lookout to Shag Rock, to the Somes Island lighthouse. Between the trees of the path, all I could discern was a white building. It wasn’t until I’d come closer that I realized what I stood before. It was shorter than I’d expected, but I didn’t let its size diminish its impressiveness as the nation’s first inner harbor lighthouse. Its forerunner had been built in 1865, but by 1895, the light needed to be stronger. The beam of the new house, letting its light shine since the 21st of February, 1900, is visible for sixteen miles in the Cook Strait. Having been automated in 1924, today the whitewashed walls have long since cracked and grayed, rust has taken over curved ironwork, a clump of sea grass grows in the gutter, and a singular seagull sat atop a metal gate – yet still the light shines.

Just past the southern lookout point, a path veered off from the circuit up a steep slope on which wooden stairs were in the process of being constructed. The land leveled off at the top of the climb and gave way to the island’s summit, where five concrete gun emplacements sat built into the hills. This military defense station was home to anti-aircraft artillery installed during World War II when the war in the Pacific was yet undetermined. One bunker had functioned as a command center and the rest each held one 3.7 inch anti-aircraft gun, capable of sending a shell up to 10,000 feet in fourteen seconds. Although built and installed in 1942, after the bombings of both Pearl Harbor and Darwin, Australia, the guns were never fired. Nowadays, a different kind of guard stands to attention on the summit – seagulls, on every fence post and flying overhead. I, too, found my own use for the flat roofs of the emplacements which leveled nicely into the grass. Legs swinging over the ledge, I spread a sweater beneath me and laid out beneath a marvelously warm sun to work on getting a bit of summer color.

Down the other side of the summit lay a collection of empty, unused buildings, site of what used to be an animal quarantine station. I’d only ever heard the words “maximum security” applied to the likes of  federal prisons and high-profile criminals before, but here it was being used to describe a place to keep such seemingly innocent animals as dogs, cattle, sheep and deer. Since the early days, the agricultural industry has clearly been vital to the nation’s economy, but what grew equally as important to such a small country was importing “exotic” breeds from places other than Australia, Britain and Canada to diversify existing stocks. Any new arrivals were held on Somes Island, all in the name of protecting the agricultural economy from any potential health issues. As I walked through the deserted buildings, looking through the bars of holding pens and the criss-crossing of wire fences, I couldn’t help but feel for the llamas and alpacas and elk forced to call these enclosures home until getting the green light from health officials. The station was eventually closed in 1995 due to the development of in-vitro fertilization technology, but it seemed to be just a forerunner to the intense biosecurity checks that take place today in the country’s airports and ferry terminals.

But the buildings had long ago been emptied of their former inhabitants, much like the lighthouse and the military emplacements and the internment barracks. It seemed to be a recurring theme on the island and I wondered how many ghosts I had walked among that sunny Saturday afternoon. For as fervent as the present efforts may be to restore the island’s native vegetation and inhabitants, it seemed almost as if DoC volunteers and conservationists have kept themselves busy trying to fill an insatiable void. But dark history aside, could you imagine any other plot of sixty-odd acres filling so many roles, wearing so many hats?

*     *     *

Your number two lighthouse is pushing a hundred

It’s a millennium birthday baby

Guzzling paraffin oil, gas, electricity

A very bright switched on birthday baby

Warning ship shapes shore and city

With its one-hundred year old lighthouse viewed, the animal quarantine quarters investigated, and sun-bathing on the roof of an old military bunker complete, there wasn’t much left on the island to see except the visitors center, which was essentially just a room with several DoC boards and a few odds and ends on display. A newspaper article titled “Mini Planet Earth” had been clipped out and tacked to the wall. It featured the work of Matt Sidaway and Jo Greenman, two DoC rangers who live permanently on Matiu/Somes Island and are responsible not only for its biosecurity, but simply for the day-to-day needs of the island, whether it be a blocked toilet or runaway sheep. The schedule they keep throughout the year is ten days on duty, four days off. Of their visits back to “civilization,” Greenman remarked, “It is crazy if you’ve been on here for a week in the winter and no visitors have come, and even sometimes the boats don’t come and you get off and you walk into town and you think, ‘they haven’t got a clue what I’ve been up to’. And yet they’re so close. It’s 20 minutes from here and it’s just a completely different world.”

I could sense what she was saying within minutes of being on the island. As I walked along the first paths, I could look out from the island across the harbor to the skyline of Wellington, which now seemed remarkably insignificant. It was exactly what I had felt years ago during a summer spent in Boston while in university. As much as I loved the new taste of city life, the small room I rented on the third floor of a brownstone on Newbury Street, the walk to work each morning through the skyscraper-lined streets, a few weeks into the summer I went with some friends to a park called Ocean Lawn about forty-five minutes north of the city. It was exactly what it sounds like, a wide expanse of the greenest lawn stretching down to the rocky coast of the sea. As we climbed over rocks and kicked a soccer ball around, I looked across the water to the city in which I lived. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, that moment of distance from the city was what I needed to carry me through the rest of my time there.

In a similar way, seated on a bench on Somes Island, basking in the glory of warm sunlight, I looked out to Wellington, thankful for the reprieve, for the moment of remoteness. I could discern three sounds only in the stillness of the air – that of the water lapping against the shore, birds whistling and calling to each other, and leaves rustling as skinks and geckos disappeared into the bush. From my seat in the sun, I pulled out a book to read and watched as a group of Historic Places Trust volunteers went marching by, followed by a DoC ranger. She smiled down at me and said, “Got a good spot, eh?”

A good spot indeed, but little did I realize at the start of the day that my step back from the city would be such a step back into the history of New Zealand; little did I know that a seemingly carefree day in the sun would lead to the discovery of an island with a history as varied and complex as the country itself. When the ferry docked at Queen’s Wharf at the end of the day, I walked past Vercelli’s only to see Aimee and another friend sitting outside. “How was the island?” they asked when I joined them, “What did you do?” I tried to explain that it wasn’t so much that I “did” anything, but rather that I experienced Matiu/Somes, experienced the history and the environment and the mystery. As a Mr. Blumsky from Upper Hutt had written in the guestbook, “We seem to have stepped back in time,” or another who wrote, “This is the real NZ.”

And again I grew grateful for the size of this small country, that while the treasures it holds may be many, their close proximity means they’re never far apart; that as different as the cities and the islands may be, they’re never too distant to explore. It took just twenty minutes for a ferry to transport me from the city streets of Wellington to an island whose history took a while to crack. I struggled to piece together the threads of its past, until it occurred to me there was a common theme. In each episode of its history, the role Somes has played has been one of keeping New Zealand at large safe – from disease, from enemy aircraft and aliens, even from common yet potentially dangerous livestock animals. If, as many say, Somes is a pearl in the Wellington harbor, perhaps that is the case…

A pearl of protection.


Wellington-watcher, your grandstand view

Is a world-beater under this old sun

And when you hide in the mists over there

Nothing’s really changed. Whether you’re

Sitting on a rock and roll sea

Or on a shining mirror, the city lights

Wink at you seductively

You old bit of rough, you


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leave no word unread.

“I love this city, the hills, the harbour, the wind that blasts through it. I love the life and pulse and activity, and the warm decrepitude… there’s always an edge here that one must walk which is sharp and precarious, requiring vigilance.” – Patricia Grace, on Wellington


When you start a new job, it always takes a few days to work out which way you’ll walk to get there every day. Like a dog turning in circles before finally settling down, you work and re-work circuits, looking for not only the shortest distance but perhaps the one with the most aesthetic pleasure or convenience. Do you pass a supermarket or dairy? Is the view nice? So as I began work at the restaurant, I experimented, trying out various routes through the central downtown section. My friend Aimee, though, walking home together one night, took me along the waterfront, bypassing the crosswalks and crowds. Taking this way again the next morning, I noticed in the daylight a large stone slab that was attached to the side of a pedestrian walkway that bridges over a busy roadway. On the concrete was inscribed a quote:

“Then it’s Wellington we’re coming to! It’s time, she says, it’s time surely for us to change lanes, change tongues, they speak so differently down here.” – Vincent O’Sullivan

It was the oddest of locations, if you’d asked me, for such a literary memorial. But then there was another, on the Queen’s Wharf, just where you board the Dominion Post ferry. Clearly there was some connection between the two, but still, I had no direction. It wasn’t until I began planning a visit to the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace that I came across a photograph online of yet another stone slab bearing a line from Mansfield’s story, The Wind Blows. A caption – finally! – gave me the information I long desired, pointing me to a Wellington Writers Walk that exists all along the waterfront, these concrete blocks bearing witness to the city’s influence on its literary-minded residents.

The walk supposedly came into being in 2000 after the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Society of Authors brainstormed over potential ways to create a memorial to the writers of their community. What resulted was a series of so-called “text sculptures,” designed by typographer and graphic designer Catherine Griffiths and unveiled in 2002 as part of the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts. If the stones I’d found already were anything to go by, the websites weren’t far off when they described the stones being located in surprising nooks and crannies.

More research led me to different sites which gave me different numbers – some said eleven such stones existed, some said fifteen, and the only links to a map of the walk wouldn’t open in my browser. This matter of a map seemed important if I was to partake in such a walk. Although I’d seen two of the stones myself, just where were the others hiding? The next day, having visited the Katherine Mansfield House that morning, I decided to continue with the literary theme of the day and complete the walk on my afternoon break. Sunny skies and not too breezy of a wind promised good conditions for tracking down these elusive stones. But preparatory visits to the Central Library, Te Papa Museum, and the I-Site all failed to yield any map or guide. A blind search it would be. All I had to go on was a tip from a Te Papa volunteer that the first stone was “just around the back to the left” and to “just follow the waterfront” to find them all. Nothing like vague directions to get the journey going.

It was at the end of a long, wide sidewalk behind the museum that I came to my first stone, featuring the words of none other than Katherine Mansfield. It seemed a fitting beginning, starting off with one of the country’s most recognized and renowned writers, before delving into the works of perhaps lesser-known souls. I found the imagination of whoever chose where to place each stone nearly rivaled that of the writers themselves. Tucked along stairways, on rocks, against walls, the obscurity of each location only increased the satisfaction gained from each discovery. I often approached them as if coming onto a desert oasis – in the distance, I could almost detect the block of stone, looking only ever so slightly different from its surroundings, yet could never be entirely sure until directly in front of it. And although most plaques were obviously concrete slabs, a few of the markers were instead metal letters adhered to benches – “Benchmarks,” as I later discovered they were named. One such read:

“From Brooklyn Hill, ours is a doll-sized city; / A formal structure of handpicked squares and bricks / Apprehensible as a child’s construction/  Signifying community…” – Louis Johnson

In the first run along the waterfront, I came across only seven of the markers and ran into a colleague around the corner from the restaurant, filling her break with reading and sunbathing. I could tell she was a bit annoyed at having her little spot found out but I assured her, “Don’t worry, I won’t be long. I’m on a treasure hunt,” and carried on, determined. As if lost in a city, at which point you turn the car around and make yet another loop of the same block, certain to spot the street number or store name that second time around, I did the same. I retraced my steps and found myself back at Te Papa, ready for round two.

Many of the sculptures were located just slightly out of the everyday view from a sidewalk. You had to walk just this way, lean your head only slightly to the right, or walk just ever-so-much-closer to the edge of the wharf to stumble upon each marker. I began to take pictures not only of the stones themselves but a wide-angle shot as well, placing the stones in the context of their surroundings, noting how far they fell below or outside normal eye-level. And with each new stone, it was a quiet moment, this journey of discovery being quite the personal affair. At the moment I found Bill Manhire’s quote by the water, I was surrounded by loud teenage boys diving into the water, climbing out on ladders, and a large, cheering crowd ahead of me, gathered for a final day of competition in the world unicycling championships. 


I kept track of the stones I found on my hand, ticking off little hashmarks as I went along. Slowly the count grew, almost doubling. As if finding your keys at the end of a long search in the place you first looked, I was surprised I’d missed several of them the first time along the waterfront. In all, I found thirteen.

I read the words of Maurice Gee, whose short stories and novels led him to be named one of ten Arts Foundation of New Zealand Art Icons in 2003. I read the words of Michael King, the historian and biographer awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for literary achievement in 2003. One of King’s seminal works, the Penguin History of New Zealand, was published just before his death and I’ve yet to walk in a New Zealand bookstore without seeing this title on the first shelf to greet me. And then those of James Baxter, who seems to be as well known for his poetry as for the controversy surrounding his poems. As such, the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature records that Baxter was often “at odds with a society unable to stomach its disturbing reflection in his work.” Towards the end of his life, he even founded a spiritual commune called Jerusalem near Wanganui, with a straggly beard and barefeet to match his eccentric beliefs.

And so the more I learnt of these figures, the more I began to think of the literary traditions of New Zealand as a whole. The writing I came across on the walk was as brilliant and well-crafted as anything I’ve met along the way of being an English major and long-time literature-lover, so why isn’t it seen more often on the international stage?

While looking into a book on Somes Island, where I hoped to journey via ferry the next sunny Saturday off, I came across another Kiwi author, David McGill. In an interview with the New Zealand Book Council for their Writers in Schools program, he addresses the question of whether it’s difficult to earn a living as a writer in New Zealand: “Yes, writing cannot pay well in New Zealand because there are not enough people to buy books.” Was that it?, I began to wonder, feeling myself caught in a chicken-egg conundrum, of sorts, curious as to why New Zealand writers aren’t more often featured on New York Times lists or The Guardian book reviews. Is it truly because the market is so small? Does a limited market in turn limit potential universal influence? Or rather, have writers of a questionable caliber influenced the size of the market?

I remember conversations with my Christchurch-born friend in London, telling me, “I came here to write,” hoping to find the connections and opportunities there greater and more fruitful in a city whose population is three times that of his entire home country. As the plaque for Bill Manhire reads, “I live at the edge of the universe, like everybody else.” Is it really the fault of a poet that he was born in a location as obscure as Invercargill, New Zealand, and thus his chances of publication and recognition on a global scale diminished? Either way, the walk – in all of its wild-goose-chase-tendencies – succeeded in its task of leading me further into the depths of a nation’s literary history. It’s perhaps not as easy to get to know as it was in England, not quite so recognizable on the surface as say, Dickens or Shakespeare or Austen, but one equally rewarding.

That night, of course, the online maps loaded instantly, and I came across information I had somehow missed before. Apparently fifteen plaques exist and four benchmarks, having been installed later in 2006. But in the end, as annoyed as I was that I hadn’t been able to find them all in the first go, it made sense, too. I liked the way it worked out, the idea that there were still plaques awaiting my discovery, literal stones left to turn, words left to read.


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