Exploring Wellington's Heritage

Wellington Cable Car at sunrise 2021 v2 FillWzEyMDAsNjAwXQ

Aotearoa’s capital city is famous for many things – politics, food, and being just a little bit breezy. But did you know it’s also home to many spectacular heritage sites?

From island quarantine stations to a historic railway, there’s a wealth of history just waiting to be discovered. Whether you are looking for a short stroll, a bike ride, or a more challenging hike, Wellington has you covered.

Start your trip to Dominion Observatory with a ride up Wellington’s iconic (and historic) cable car. From Cable Car Lane just off Lamb-ton Quay, you can catch the cable car to the top of the Botanic Gardens.

Take a moment to enjoy the stunning view across Wellington, then consider popping into the Cable Car Museum (free entry). Since 1902, the cable car has been a much-loved feature of Wellington public transport. The museum building was the original winding house for the cable car and it is now home to several early cable cars.

The Dominion Observatory is only a short stroll from the top of the cable car. While you can’t go inside, the Edwardian baroque building’s exterior and the interpretation panels are well worth the visit.

The Dominion Observatory was built in 1907. It housed the Time Service, which used astronomical observations to establish New Zealand’s official time. The responsibility for maintaining New Zealand’s standard time officially rested with the observatory until as late as 1992.


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Accurate timekeeping was essential as most people in the early twentieth century didn’t carry accurate timepieces. They relied on public clocks and time pips on the radio to set their watches and clocks. These signals were created from this building. The observatory was also relied upon for accurate navigation in a world without GPS. During long maritime journeys, being just a couple of minutes out would result in your vessel being many nautical miles off course, often leading to tragic consequences.

In 1916, early seismic monitoring equipment was installed at the Dominion Observatory. Over the years, the equipment recorded many major earthquakes, including the 1931 Napier earthquake. Even today, there are still seismic instruments kept in the area and the site is important for earthquake observations.

The octagonal design of the building is an architectural feature often found in time-keeping observatories around the world. The design can also be seen in the Greenwich observatory, which in turn was copied from the Tower of the Winds, an octagonal clock tower built in Athens around 50 BCE that used water clocks for timekeeping.

After viewing the historic observatory, you may wish to pop into Space Place at Carter Observatory, located just metres away from the Dominion Observatory. There are interactive galleries, a historic telescope, and a planetarium (note: entry fees apply).

The Krupp Gun and Garden Battery are also found just beside the observatory. The Garden Battery was built in 1896, in response to fears of a Russian invasion. The Krupp Gun is a World War One German artillery field gun – it was captured in France in 1918 and brought back to New Zealand as a trophy.

To return to town, you can catch the cable car back to Lambton Quay. However, there is also a lovely downhill stroll through the botanic gardens, which will take you past the Lady Norwood rose garden and begonia house then through the historic Bolton Street cemetery. This picturesque cemetery dates from 1840 and has a small museum on site.


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Want to see Wellington from another angle? Then you can’t beat an afternoon on Matiu/Somes Island, in the middle of Te Whanganuia Tara/Wellington harbour.

The East by West ferry, which leaves from Queens Wharf in central Wellington, stops at the island several times a day. It’s a short sailing time out to the island and you’ll enjoy the beautiful views of Wellington and Oriental Bay. If you’re lucky, you might spot a little penguin/kororā swimming in the harbour. An adult return ticket is $25 and a child is $13.

Matiu/Somes is one of the most easily accessible pest-free islands in Aotearoa. The island has no rats, mice, cats or stoats – and as a result, the native species are flourishing. As you walk around the island, keep an eye out for kākāriki whero/red-crowned parakeet, wētā, tuatara, geckos, and skinks.

Despite its small size, Matiu/Somes Island played an important role in Wellington and New Zealand history. The island was named by Kupe 1000 years ago, in honour of his niece. Over the centuries, it has been used as a temporary refuge and as a stop-off point for migrating iwi.

The Port Nicholson Block Settlement Trust board is the mandated authority and landowners for the islands of Wellington harbour – Matiu, Mokopuna, and Makara. The day-to-day mahi of Matiu/Somes is managed by the Harbour Islands Kaitiaki Board, which is a partnership between Taranaki Whānui ki Te Upoko o Te Ika and the Crown.

Following European settlement, the island has been used for many purposes; human and animal quarantine, military defences, and maritime navigation. On the gentle walk around the island, you’ll pass by buildings bearing witness to all these past uses.

One of the most spectacular viewpoints on the round-the-island track is the lighthouse. There has been one on the island since 1866 and the present-day lighthouse (opened 1900) is still in use today.

Matiu/Somes acted as a quarantine station up until World War One, though it was busiest from 1872–1876. Many ships’ passengers were quarantined on the island to protect New Zealand against deadly diseases like smallpox – an early version of today’s MIQ facilities. As you walk up the hill from the wharf, you’ll come across a memorial to people who passed away on the island while in quarantine.


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Matiu/Somes was used as an internment camp for ‘enemy aliens’ during both world wars. Despite being associated with enemy nations, many of the people interned had strong connections to New Zealand and some had even been born here.

Towards the top of the island is a cluster of buildings with rich histories. You can explore a maximum-security animal quarantine facility that was built in the 1970s. There is also a small museum which is a must-see for any trip to the island.

You’ll find World War Two gun emplacements on the top of the island, together with 360-degree views. On your way back to the wharf, a short walk along the coast leads to the remains of a World War Two degaussing station, which was staffed by the Women’s Royal Navy Service.

Feeling like an adventure? You can book space at the island’s campsite or book Education House for the night. Most of the island’s most precious wildlife comes out at night.

Matiu/Somes is a Toyota Kiwi Guardian adventure site – so if you’re headed to the island with kids, download the map before you go to help you explore. Then visit the Toyota Kiwi Guardian website to claim your medal.


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The Remutaka Rail Trail is a firm favourite for the whole family. Following the path of a former railway, this gently graded track is well suited to both walking and biking. Add in tunnels, historical relics, and that dogs are allowed, and you’ve got the perfect day out.

The railway line was built in 1878, to take people and goods between Wellington and the Wairarapa. The steep mountains of the Remutaka range were an engineering challenge and the solution chosen was the Fell engine system. It was developed in the Euro-pean Alps and the Remutaka Incline was the third and last Fell system to be built.

Although the technology was soon dated, the Fell engines continued to run at Remutaka until 1955, when the current railway tunnel through the Remutaka range opened. Today, the Remutaka Incline is among the top 10 most significant rail heritage sites worldwide. It was the steepest rail route in New Zealand and the sheer determination of the rail workers was the only thing that kept it operating for an incredible 77 years.


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The Remutaka Rail Trail starts at Kaitoke. The first tunnel you’ll reach is the Pakuratahi Tunnel (1876), the first structure in New Zealand made out of concrete blocks. Continue on up the gentle incline and you’ll eventually reach the summit, an ideal place for a picnic. Get out your torch, as you’ll then be heading through the impressive 584m Summit Tunnel.

Feel the temperature drop as you arrive at the aptly named Siberia Tunnel and the Siberia Curve. From the impressive swing bridge, you can visualise the height of the now washed-out Siberia embankment, the scene of one of New Zealand’s more infamous rail disasters. On September 11, 1880, a number of carriages were blown off the tracks and into the gully below, killing four children and seriously injuring 13 adults.

Continuing from there, you’ll pass through the S-shaped Price’s Tunnel before making your final descent to Cross Creek. This was the site of a legendary railway settlement – in its heyday, it boasted a hall, school, houses, and even a library.

The trail is complemented by interpretation panels that tell the remarkable story of the railway. To learn more and see one of the original trains, stop in at the Featherston Fell Locomotive Museum. It’s open on weekends and there is a small fee for admission ($6 adult, $2 child).

The walking time from Kaitoke to Cross Creek car park is 4 hours 30 minutes. The mountain bike trip is a 1 hour 30 minute Grade Two ride. Dogs are welcome, but they must be always kept under control.


Kapiti Island Sky Photograph


Kāpiti Island is one of the gems of the Wellington region. Stepping onto the island is like stepping back in time, into a land thick with forest and filled with birdsong.

Since 1997, Kāpiti Island has been free from introduced mammals. The visionary efforts of naturalist Richard Henry in the early twentieth century started the process of removing introduced predators. Henry was one of the pioneers of modern-day conservation practices, including carrying out the first translocations of vulnerable flightless native birds (to Resolution Island in Fiordland).

In 1928, goats were eradicated from Kāpiti Island, followed by cats, deer, sheep, cattle, pigs, and dogs. The eradication of possums and then rodents was a world first and has set the direction of conservation efforts around New Zealand.

Walking around Kāpiti gives a taste of what Wellington would have been like before the introduction of mammalian predators. Birds that were once extinct on the island have been reintroduced and are now thriving. Listen out for rare species like kākāriki whero/red-crowned parakeet, toutouwai/North Island robin, korimako/bellbird, tīeke/saddleback, hihi/stitchbird, and North Island kōkako. Kāpiti is also a great place to spot takahē.

Conservation history is just one part of the island’s story. The full Māori name for Kāpiti island is Ko te Waewae Kāpiti o Tara Rāua ko Rangitāne. This describes the island as the meeting place for the boundaries of Tara and Rangitāne. Over the years, many tribes have used Kāpiti and it was a military stronghold of Te Rauparaha.


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The stretch of sea between Kāpiti Island and the Kāpiti coast is called Rauoterangi Channel. The name commemorates the famous swim of Kahe Te Rauoterangi of Ngāti Toa. She swam with her daughter on her back from Kāpiti to the mainland, to warn of a threatened attack.

Much of the forest on Kāpiti was cleared during the 1840s. European whalers lived on the island – today, you can see their pots (trypots) which were used for boiling down blubber. The island was farmed from the 1850s. The oldest building on the island, The Whare, is likely from the early 1860s and was built as a homestead for the McLean family. It was later used by Richard Henry.

There are many different walking options to enjoy Kāpiti Island. If you’re feeling energetic, confident, and have good footwear, you can climb the 521 metres to Tuteremoana, the highest point of the island. There are also lots of gentler options – the Rangatira Loop is a lovely 1-hour 30-minute walk, which takes you past whaling trypots, the historic Whare, and on a boardwalk over the Ran-gatira wetland.

You can only get to Kāpiti Island through approved tour boat operators. It’s worth booking well in advance in summer, as places fill up quickly.


Story and images supplied by NZToday-RVLifestyle magazine. 
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