Monday, February 1, 2016

Day 7 (Boxing Day) - Weta Workshop and Zealandia

View of Wellington from the top of Wrights Hill, 400 meters above the Sea

I woke up at the crack of dawn and decided to go on a morning run before breakfast.  An hour later I had climbed to the top of one of the hills surrounding Wellington.

Final climb to the top of Wrights Hill.  It does not get much steeper than this.

The trail followed alongside a fence that surrounded the Zealandia Nature reserve and went more or less straight up the mountainside.  It was possibly one of the steepest trails I’ve even been on.  The top of the hill afforded great views across the city and the harbor of Wellington and the surrounding hills.  My heart was beating out of my chest but it was absolutely worth the effort.
Dense forests surrounding Zealandia

After breakfast we drove to the Miramar peninsula where we had tickets to attend a tour of the Weta Workshop.  Weta is the company that created the props and special effects for Lord of the Rings and many other films.  It is today one of the premier special effect companies in the world.
Visiting with trolls - in front of the Weta Workshop

The workshop tour exceeded our expectations.  Our guide was one of the artists and not only passionate and knowledgeable about her work at Weta, but also enjoying her duties as a guide.

I fondly remembered how Julian had - years ago - won a global contest hosted by Weta to design a ray gun.  We even found similar guns out on display.  Unfortunately copyright issues prevented us from taking pictures inside the workshop. 
Takahe is a flightless bird, which was thought to be extinct after the last four known specimens were taken in 1898. However, after a carefully planned search effort the bird was rediscovered 50 years later.  Only about 300 Takahe are alive today.

In the afternoon we drove back to where I had started my day: Zealandia Sanctuary and Nature Reserve.  Dirt trails meander through an entire valley where one can see some of New Zealand’s rarest birds, reptiles, and insects living wild in their natural environment.

The reserve is surrounded by a massive 8.6 kilometer, 2.2 meter fence that took 3 years to develop and 5 months to build.  The fence’s purpose is to keep out predators such as cats, rats, and other mammals (none of which were native to New Zealand) that have decimated New Zealand’s ecosystem since arriving with the first people 1280 years ago.

The Tuatara is a prehistoric reptile and the only surviving species of an order of animal that flourished 200 million years ago.  Tuatara share common ancestors with lizards and snakes. About 30 individuals live at Zealandia in a large enclosed area and we were particularly lucky to get to see this one.

Zealandia is not a zoo where one is guaranteed to see the fiercest animals safely stored away behind bars.  It is much better than that: it is a nature sanctuary with a 500-year vision.

Baby Tuatara.  Tuatara have changed little since the Mesozoic era and have some very unusual features such as teeth that are permanently integrated with their upper jaw, and a pronounced photoreceptive “third eye”, which is thought to be involved in setting circadian and seasonal cycles. They are able to hear, although no external ear is present, and they have a number of unique features in their skeleton, some of them evolutionarily retained from fish. 

The animals living here are all threatened, many of them almost extinct, and one can walk right through their natural habitat.   Visitors have to invest some time to spot them and are unlikely to see them all, but all this makes the experience more interesting and rewarding.

These Cave Weta belong to a group of about 70 Weta insect species endemic to New Zealand.  Weta are nocturnal.  These ones lived on the ceiling of an abandoned goldmine.

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