Wellington: A kid's view of the capital

By Jesse Mulligan

Jesse Mulligan gets a child's eye view of one of his favourite places.

Youngsters get up close and personal  with the creepy crawlies at Te Papa's fabulous Bug Lab exhibit.  Photo /  Kate Whitley, Te Papa
Youngsters get up close and personal with the creepy crawlies at Te Papa's fabulous Bug Lab exhibit. Photo / Kate Whitley, Te Papa

I'm deeply in love with Wellington, but for me it's always been a sexy city — the place I met my wife, the capital has remained in the category of "romantic escape" for us, even three children later.

But now my eldest girl is 6, and a couple of weekends ago I took her down south for a day trip instead. Wellington For Kids is a different sort of Wellington indeed, and for me it opened up a side of the city I'd never fully appreciated.

A booster seat is useful if you're taxiing from the airport but once you've arrived at your hotel Wellington is ridiculously walkable, a novelty for Auckland kids accustomed to making the school trip in a Porsche Cayenne.

Youngsters get up close and personal  with the creepy crawlies at Te Papa's fabulous Bug Lab exhibit.  Photo /  Kate Whitley, Te Papa
Youngsters get up close and personal with the creepy crawlies at Te Papa's fabulous Bug Lab exhibit. Photo / Kate Whitley, Te Papa

For adults and children alike, the getting there is half the fun — I'd be surprised if the walk down Cuba Mall is any less memorable than the various formal entertainment options the city has to offer.

Te Papa's "Bug Lab" exhibition is an absolute cracker, the sort of interactive art/science mash up that has defined the world's best museums over the past 20 years.

It combines numerous hands-on learning stations with half a dozen full-noise experiential pods, with room for 20 or so visitors in each to take a closer look at particularly interesting or horrifying invertebrates. The best of these is the dragonfly exhibit, which combines strobe lighting and pinpoint mechanics to create a sort of stop-motion pond vignette.

Youngsters get up close and personal  with the creepy crawlies at Te Papa's fabulous Bug Lab exhibit.  Pictures / Kate Whitley, Te Papa
Youngsters get up close and personal with the creepy crawlies at Te Papa's fabulous Bug Lab exhibit. Pictures / Kate Whitley, Te Papa

The technology is clever yet accessible — I could work out how they'd done it but had no chance of explaining it to my daughter.

In less hectic corners of the Bug wing, keen 8-year-olds fold paper squares into aerodynamic shapes to see whether they'll fly in a specially-created updraft, while others post letters on the wall explaining whether or not we should genetically modify mosquitoes out of existence.

When they're ready to amp things up again they head to a series of buttons spread out on the wall to test whether they have insect-like reaction speeds on a 21st century whack-a-mole.

The Bug Lab has mere days left before closing down but Hinatore Learning Lab is another kid-friendly highlight, where primary school children can experiment with 3D printing, coding and other modern tech topics we parents feel we ought to know about but can't really get our heads around.

Turns out there is plenty of tech in classrooms but many teachers aren't quite sure how to make the most of it — the Learning Lab offers small-group tutelage that will hopefully kickstart further progress once the kids return home.

Te Papa's 'Bug Lab' exhibition. Photo / Kate Whitley
Te Papa's 'Bug Lab' exhibition. Photo / Kate Whitley

Don't assume Wellington Zoo is a poor man's version of Auckland Zoo.

In fact it's a different-but-no-less proposition, with The Nest Te Kohanga allowing kids to get metres away from live animal surgery and perhaps think harder about the role modern zoos play in repairing and nursing animals, rather than just displaying them.

Well fed and well slept, we travelled the next morning to Zealandia, Wellington's inner city wildlife sanctuary.

A conservation curiosity when it opened, Zealandia is now a symbol of this city's fightback against the mammalian predators who have nailed our native birds, insects and lizards unopposed since they arrived, mostly on European ships. When I lived in Wellington a few years ago, the thriving bird life was contained within the predator-proof fence that surrounds this 225-hectare site, but since then residents living nearby have started doing their own trapping, creating a halo effect most visible in the increasing numbers of kaka spotted messing around on people's back decks.

Inside the fence is other-worldly.

Te Papa's 'Bug Lab' exhibition. Photo / Kate Whitley
Te Papa's 'Bug Lab' exhibition. Photo / Kate Whitley

The idea is to transport you back 1000 years and it really feels that way — no moa, sure, but tui and saddlebacks hopping around in the branches next to you, tuatara sitting on the banks as clear as a 5 cent coin, and dozens of big kaka flapping about within a couple of metres of you.

Full appreciation of the sanctuary's conservation aspects might depend on your child's age, but my 6-year-old intuitively knew when a takahe wandered up to her that this was as close to a dinosaur as anything she'd ever see.

We had just over a day in the city, but Wellington makes you feel as though every hour counts. As we sped back to the airport in a cab, Hazel and I listened to the cars tooting to each other through Mt Victoria tunnel, a childish yet compelling tradition in this excellently peculiar city.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily from Auckland to Wellington.

Accomodation: The CQ Hotel is on Dunlop Terrace, just around the corner from Cuba St.

Further information: See tepapa.govt.nz and
wellingtonzoo.com.

- NZ Herald

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