Urban Tramping: A close-up of Wellington’s environmental recovery

As my friend Amanda writes, it is easy for Aotearoa to become a beautiful blur. I’ve done and experienced so many things in my short time in Wellington that it’s hard to keep everything straight. Today I’ll focus on one thing – a tramp through the city to see the Red Rocks and Sinclair Head fur seal colony. On the way, we’ll learn a bit about New Zealand’s history and a lot about its environmental struggle.

To get to the reserve, I had to either take a bus or walk two hours through a part of Wellington I’d never seen. With nothing but gorgeous green around every corner, I figured the extra miles couldn’t hurt. I was right – well, mostly. But we’ll get to that.


I started up in the hills of Kelburn, the central suburb where I’m staying for the first couple months of the fellowship. Much of Wellington outside the CBD is situated on hills like this. Steep inclines are just a fact of life here.



One of the neat things about Wellington is the Town Belt – a stretch of nature reserves set aside in 1840 which surrounds the city. Much of it – like this section – is undergoing work to ensure that native flora and fauna survive. This means removing invasive species like possums and ship rats by setting traps – like I saw two women doing in the woods at the top of these steps.


After a brief moment under the trees I found myself in Tanera Park – just another green space in a city that has so many.


After the park it was onward to Ōwhiro Road, a street which stretches onward to the ocean, ending in the suburb of Ōwhiro Bay. The name – pronounced OH-fear-oh – means a couple of different things in Te Reo Māori depending on where you look. Google Translate spits out “embedded” when you type in Ōwhiro. Not quite believing this, I headed to the online Māori Dictionary and its extensive list of sources. Its definition, “moon on the first night of the lunar month,” sounds much better.


About half way down Ōwhiro Road I started to see metal creations like this guy. I thought it was a little out of the blue at the time, but they made a lot more sense when I turned a corner and saw this:


Yup – that’s the Wellington City Council Southern Landfill. The trash sculptures and garbage trucks I’d seen with increasing frequency made a lot more sense now. It’s not something we think about much – where does all this garbage we produce go? Until a recent ban on the importation of foreign waste went into effect, New Zealand sent much of its garbage – over $15 million USD worth – to China for recycling. The country will have to figure out a new plan for its trash. For now, Wellington’s Southern Landfill accepts “green waste, household hazardous waste, and electrical waste,” and appears to have robust composting and “second treasures” programs. Will the change in Chinese policy require it to change what it accepts? The answer remains unclear at the moment. What is clear is that like other places, New Zealand must cut its production of non-biodegradable waste. There just isn’t much room for garbage in a country the size of the state of Michigan.


To deepen your sense of environmental despair, immediately opposite the landfill is the little Ōwhiro Stream, which – as a sign proclaims – is maintained by its friends. Unfortunately, despite their efforts, the stream has been contaminated by construction and demolition waste from the landfill. The landfill’s operators, T&T Landfills, were investigated for the contamination and have been fined, but locals continue to report problems with the stream. When I walked by, the area certainly smelled sweet and metallic – indicators of ammonia, magnesium, and iron in the water. The scent lingered as I continued down Ōwhiro Road (which changed its name to “Happy Valley Road” around the entrance to the landfill), passing beautiful houses built into the rolling hills. Rolling hills with what looked like white vents set at their peaks.


At the next intersection I received my first reminder that, no matter how similar the environmental issues I saw were to those back home, I was definitely not in Chicago. This was the first of many earthquake and tsunami safety markings I saw along my hike. The whole area lies right on the Wellington fault, just one of many fault lines in the region. The image below (produced by GNS Science for the website Te Ara) gives a good view of the fault:

Wellington Fault Line

The 1855 Wairarapa Earthquake struck along this fault. At 8.2 on the Richter Scale – the largest quake ever recorded in Aotearoa – it fundamentally altered Wellington’s  landscape. Nowadays, people mostly remember it for raising the city center, creating the perfect surface for a train route around the bay and, more importantly, a cricket ground. It’s true – with less than ten people killed, the Wairarapa quake sounds relatively benign in terms of lives lost. My midwestern brain, conditioned to expect land to be flat and stationary, found all these signs warning me to watch whether or not the WATER HAS RECEDED AN UNUSUAL DISTANCE FROM THE SHORE and if so to HEAD FOR HIGH GROUND to be relatively terrifying.


Luckily, the view of Ōwhiro Bay was worth it. The rocky beach is part of the Taputeranga Marine Reserve, which runs along the coast for something like 10 kilometers. On the reserve, all marine life in the sea and on the foreshore are protected. In Ōwhiro Bay, this mostly means gulls.


Yes – those gulls. But, as fellow Fulbrighter Abby McBride (a sketch biologist and Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow) reminds us, there’s more than just one kind of gull. I believe I saw all three of New Zealand’s species, including the black-backed gulls pictured above, just on the beach, along with a group of variable oystercatchers.


The nearby visitor’s center had some helpful, terrifying advice.


But led to more excellent views.


The entire Tuputeranga Marine Reserve is a former quarry, as you can see from the cuts along the hills visible in the photo above. The Tonks family first collected shale from the beach, then later started the quarry operation in the early 1900’s. The quarry ran for years, but eventually the public grew concerned about the operation’s impact on the environment. Perhaps more importantly, the government wanted to remove quarrying from such a visible spot along the coastline. They bought the land from the Swiss conglomerate that owned it in 2000.


The quarry’s impact on the area is clear. What is less visible is the human history of the bay. Signs at the park indicate that the Ngāti Mamoe iwi lived along the coast for 150 years, but left around 1460 CE, possibly in the aftermath of a powerful earthquake which caused what is now the Miramar Peninsula – then an island – to collide with the rest of Wellington.


Whatever the case, the Ngāti Mamoe and their successors planted karaka trees for their fruit. The berries of the karaka – seen above in this photo from the NZ news aggregator Stuff – produce a potent neurotoxin which can be fatal if ingested. The Ngāti Mamoe and other Māori iwi developed ways to prepare the berries to avoid the toxin, and the fruits look bright and smell sweet, a bit like dates. Still, it’s best to stay away from this beautiful tree.


Back to the walk – the waves along this portion of the coast really are quite violent. But still, there are some people who live out this way, at least seasonally.


At the foot of this hill is a bach house, the New Zealand answer to a holiday hideaway. Pronounced “batch,” three groups of these homes can be found throughout Tuputeranga. Though the origins of the name are obscure, their history is not. The ones in the reserve have been designated as “historic” by the NZ Historic Places Trust, and date back to 1910. One was even used as a supply depot during WWII.


Past the bachs was another of the landmarks on my hike, the Red Rocks, or Parwhero in Te Reo Māori. Science tells us that the coloration of these rocks is a result of the collision between the Pacific and the Australian Plate – the very forces which created New Zealand itself. Essentially, the land folded in upon itself, causing immense pressure on the basalt in the area. As the land eroded over time, these now-red rocks were exposed to the elements.


As is often the case, the Māori have a better story, and like so many this one involves Maui. In this story, Maui, “the greatest trickster hero of Polynesian mythology,” steals his grandmother’s jawbone in order to go fishing. He’d forgotten bait, so he punched himself in the nose, then smeared the resulting blood over the jawbone-hook. The red of the rocks, according to this story, is the red of Maui’s blood. The fish he caught? That’s the North Island of New Zealand, known in Te Reo Māori as Te Ika a Maui, the Fish of Maui.

Two other stories involve the hero Kupe. In one, Kupe cut his hand on a shell, staining the rocks red. In another, the red is the blood of Kupe’s neices, who mourned him so violently when he died that they cut themselves on the spot.


Despite the violence of the myths, this section of the tramp is peaceful and flat. That doesn’t mean the name’s aren’t dramatic, as the gap known as Devil’s Gate shows us. The name itself is far more hellish than the terrain around it.


The biggest danger, in fact, comes from the fact that people are allowed to take their vehicles through the rocky outcrop. As with everywhere in New Zealand, there’s a sign present reminding you that if you do something silly with a car not rated for this sort of environment, ther will be consequences.


On the other side of the Devil’s Gate I found what I’d come for – the Sinclair Head fur seal colony. I’d been warned that I’d smell the seals long before I saw them, but this definitely was not the case during my visit. A strong breeze kept me upwind of the seals, so when I emerged from the Devil’s Gate I was shaken to find this guy resting on a rock fifteen feet away from me. I’d been warned by signs at the visitor center to stay “twenty meters away from the fur seals, or FARTHER AWAY THAN THIS ROOM IS LONG.” This was clearly not going to work out.


The seals just lay there, however, sunning peacefully. It was serene, sitting with the sun on my face, watching these wholly alien creatures in this alien environment. I’d almost forgotten that I was in a tsunami-earthquake deathtrap.


I could have sat peacefully for a while longer, but the slanting sunlight and the passage of the Cook Strait Inter-Island Ferry reminded me that it was getting late, the tide would come in eventually, and I had a long ways to go. There is such a thing as enough history and hiking for one day.


By the time I got to a nearby brewpub for a much-needed burger and a pint, I’d gone around nineteen kilometers in six hours or so, counting stops to take photos and find the closest tsunami escape routes.

In all, you might just take the bus down and start from the trailhead, but I’ve always found there’s no better way to learn about a city than to walk it. By wearing out the soles of my shoes rather than a bus seat, I saw a truer picture of New Zealand’s environmentalism than I would have otherwise received. Plus – what’s a selfie in front of a big blue ocean if you haven’t got one of you sweating next to a parked car as well?


Walk on.



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