David Whitley finds that he instantly loves Wellington – and there may be two good reasons why
I was knackered when I arrived in Wellington. I’d spent five hours driving to get there, and as beautiful as the last hour of that drive is (and, seriously, the scenery is sensational), I had no real enthusiasm for going out.
But I had to get something to eat, so go out I did. I found myself walking down Cuba Street. It was absolutely teeming with people; a hugely engaging swirl of buskers, street performers, night markets and youthful energy.

It was instant; I knew this was going to be my kind of city. It was an opinion that only grew by the time I left four days later. It has a gorgeous natural setting, excellent food, wine and craft beer scenes, some excellent cultural attractions and a remarkable green belt of parkland that surround the city centre.

But there were two aspects that struck me about Wellington that I’ve seen time and time again in cities that I really, really like. And I’ve seen them too many times for it to be a coincidence.

The first thing was that, when you speak to people, very few of them are actually from Wellington originally. The city’s population is somewhat transient – partly due to it being the capital. People move in, people move out. But those that are not moving in purely for work tend to be there because they want to be there. Cities full of people that have chosen to be there tend to be much more exciting and appealing than cities full of people who just happen to be there and have never got round to trying somewhere else.

Cities full of outsiders tend to be more receptive to new ideas too. There’s less of the parochial “this is the way we do things round here” mentality.

The other thing in Wellington’s favour is its geography. The city is sandwiched in somewhat by mountains and water. There are only so many places available for building in, making sprawling out over a large area and giving everyone their own bit of land to put a semi-detached house on impossible. That’s a good thing. It means people have to be closer to each other and mix.

It’s what makes Wellington’s city centre so alive and Auckland’s – a city that has fallen victim to urban sprawl – so miserable.

If cities are given room, they generally take it – leading to depressing, spread out, motorist-only horror shows like Orlando and Dallas. If they’ve only got a certain amount of space to fit everything into, they have to think carefully about what they do with that space. And these geographically limited cities – New York City and San Francisco are very obvious examples – tend to be much more engaging.

Outsiders and geography aren’t the only reasons why Wellington works, of course – but when you find the two ingredients together, it’s unusual to find a disappointing city.


Disclosure: David visited Wellington as a guest of Positively Wellington

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Taupo's volcano

David Whitley discovers that the usually placid waters of Lake Taupo are not what they seem 

On New Zealand’s North Island, you’re never far from an active volcano or two. In a country that regularly shakes, rattles and explodes, it pays to have a passing interest in what’s happening underground. New Zealand is a nation of amateur seismologists and volcanologists, all acutely aware that something deadly could kick off at any time.

New Zealand lies on the Pacific Ring of fire; the Pacific and the Australasian tectonic plates grind into each other just off the east coast of the North Island, before cutting through the South Island and forming the Southern Alps
On the North Island, the earth bears more than a passing resemblance to an upset stomach after a fiery curry. Geothermal activity is rampant, particularly in the centre around Taupo and Rotorua. Steam rises out of vents in the ground, geysers shoot upwards and towering volcanoes dominate the landscapes they oversee. Looking across Lake Taupo from the amiable city that shares the same name, the triple threat of Mt Tongariro, Ngauruhoe (its striking conical vent) and Mt Ruapehu loom. The ash and steam emerging from the side of Tongariro hint that the two minor eruptions of 2012 weren’t an end point.
But these aren’t the volcanoes to truly fear. The real monster is the serene lake in front. Lake Taupo is roughly the size of Singapore. But it’s not just a lake – it’s a caldera. If it goes up again, there’s a strong chance that most of the North Island will be destroyed.

A few kilometres north of Taupo is the Volcanic Activity Centre, a strong candidate for the North Island’s most underrated visitor attraction. It contains an earthquake simulator, shows videos of Ruapehu’s eruptions in 1995 and 1996, and has brilliantly lit-up 3D map dioramas showing where the pressure points are.

Computer screens linked to Geonet, the scientific body that monitors potential geological hazards in New Zealand, show the most recent earthquakes to strike the country. What’s alarming is how many there are – by my count, there had been at least three by midday on the morning I visited. Small ones, hardly felt, but still.

A rule of thumb chart on the wall is even more terrifying. It seems New Zealand can expect one earthquake between 4.0 and 4.9 on the Richter scale per day, two between 6.0 and 6.9 every year, and one between 7.0 and 7.9 every two-and-a-half years. Gulp.

But it’s the tale of Taupo’s eruption that really sends the shudders down the spine. An illustration of comparative ash clouds shows the extent of it. The biggest eruption in my lifetime was that of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, back in 1991. That sent out 10 cubic kilometres of material, changed weather patterns in Asia and had devastating consequences.

In 1883, Krakatoa in Indonesia went off, sending out 18 cubic kilometres of rock and ash from beneath the earth’s surface. It darkened the earth’s skies for years afterwards and global temperatures dropped by over a degree in the following twelve months.

The Taupo eruption sent out 100 cubic kilometres of gunk that now lines much of New Zealand’s North Island. ONE HUNDRED. That’s ten Pinatubos. Or five-and-a-half Krakatoas. Either way, it’s a phenomenal amount.

The scary thing is when it happened. This wasn’t a prehistoric event – Taupo is believed to have erupted in 186AD. Contemporary Chinese reports documented blood-red skies, not knowing where they came from. In a British context, that’s after Hadrian’s Wall was built. It was, simply put, the most violent volcanic eruption of the last 5,000 years.

And the forces that caused it lie, occasionally restless, under that gorgeous lake.
Fancy your chances, punk?


Disclosure: David stayed in Taupo as a guest of YHA Taupo.




by David Whitley



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