Wellington by Foot

Writer and photographer Chris van Ryn takes a walking tour of NZ's Capital taking in 

swirling sculptures, nude models and extremely good cake. 

First published Life and Leisure Magazine 

I walk Wellington. The city centre has come into my life at walking pace. I walk without a destination. Just for the sake of walking. A kind of aimless wandering. Aimless, but a portal, too. To something else. Something yet unknown.

I walk to Pravda for a straight-from-the-kitchen cheese scone. And  The Lab, for a long black with hot milk, which arrives in a small glass chemistry beaker. I walk to the Higher Taste for a vegetarian meal or La Cloche for a 250-year-old indulgence of the palate. Or hot yoga, to stretch for the next day’s walk. 

I live smack bang in the city centre. Around me is a ribbon of reclaimed land that tracks the waterfront. Pancake flat. Behind this 1840 reclamation, the landscape tilts upward. A stroll along Lambton Quay alters abruptly, up alleys, up steps to The Terrace, from where I wend my way further up through the city cemetery, rudely bisected by the motorway, assaulted by speeding cars, across an arching bridge, then upward again to the Botanic Gardens. And then I catch a glimpse of scarlet and I'm greeted with the chatter and cartoon antics of kākā, who are returning to the city.

In front of my apartment are the bright yellow orbs of Protoplasm, Phil Price's 2001 kinetic sculpture. In a quintessential Wellington wind, they spin in odd, eccentric orbits. Art sculpted by the wind's whim, ever changing. It's like a metaphor. I feel the shape of my own thoughts shifting. I'm bumped out of my orbit. Invited to see life in different ways. To walk Wellington is to bump into art. 

An evening walk takes me from Len Lye's posthumous Water Whirler, that long slender rod, a joyful, twirling homage to wind and water perched on the end of a concrete pier, along the water's edge where gulls emit discordant screeches and hover in wind gusts with trembling wings, past a naked man standing on the edge of the walkway, arms outstretched, rusting torso tilting towards the water several metres below - Max Patte's Solace in the Wind - all the way to the angular architecture of Te Papa.  

Walking Cuba Street one evening, I stroll past bustling cafés, past a man sleeping rough, past a busker who grins hopefully, when suddenly the sky shadows and rain sweeps down, hitting the pavement with small bullets. I retreat into a doorway. Taped to the door is a sign: Life Drawing classes. Wellington School of Drawings.

Two days later, I’m behind an easel, staring at a model, charcoal in hand, poised for my first life drawing class in 30 years. 

I have no idea where to start. 

"Move your arm from the shoulder," the tutor tells me. "The wrist makes small movements and gets stuck in detail."

"Right," I say, rotating my shoulder. 

"Keep the charcoal light and loose. Draw quickly."

The model holds a pose. Using a single line, I circle the head, and draw the neck, protruding shoulder, breast, pelvis, hip thrust forward, hand on hip, thigh curve, knee bump, heel-arch-toe. I return, briefly, for a pouting lip. I'm so focused, my mind frees itself from clutter, and, when I’m finished, two hours have passed and I've no sense of the passage of time. The drawing surprises me. The line feels unselfconscious and captures the spirit and movement of the pose. 

I wake one morning and discover my walking has been taken from me. I have an inflamed lower back. Getting out of bed is hell. Creeping down the stairs, gripping the bannister, is agonising. I take two anti-inflammatories, rub in Deep Heat and Voltaren simultaneously, drink black coffee, curse getting older, tell myself I'm still young, zip my coat tightly and hobble down Lambton Quay to see Stella. Stella, who just reaches my shoulder, works at the 30-year-old CBD Natural Therapy Studio. 

I roll, plank-like, onto the massage table. Stella tells me she comes from an ancient line of practitioners of traditional herbal medicine. She began massage at 13 (my guess is that's about 40 years ago), working in the family clinic in China.

I'm hoping she might impart ancient wisdom on my back. She presses her tiny thumbs deep into my tissue, and, for a while, I lie with hot stones warming my lower back, and then I know where I'm headed next: a 40-year-old sauna a twenty minute hobble away.

I push the door and step inside. A wall of heat envelops me. Left and right are benches made of cedar. The humidity triggers the timber’s natural fragrance and a woody scent rides the air, mingled with eucalyptus. 

In the twilight emerge the reclining shapes of others. I limp over to a bench, roll onto my back and release a long sigh. The heat seeps in, my muscles uncoil, my mind unlocks. 

I'm at the Tory Urban Spa, Wellington's unisex sauna, first set up by an Austrian athletic coach in the early 60's. There are regulars who have been coming for over 40 years. It's a place for heat therapy, but also for rambling conversation with anyone present: an academic with a large skull tattoo on his back, a former estate lawyer who says he'll never go back, a farmer whose teenage daughters are running rampant, a man whose wife passed away. Twice. The last time a few months ago. The first ten years ago. Alheimers. 'When it happened' he said, 'it was like she passed away'.  And with each conversation, there's an aspect of their life that connects with mine. I can't help thinking conversations with strangers bring out the best in me.

At the end of Lambton Quay, past the Katherine Mansfield sculpture with her alphabet-laser-cut stainless steel dress, up an alley, up a stairway, across the road, and there it is: La Cloche French café.

"What's that?" I ask, pointing to a cake with three layers of pastry with custard between. 

"It’s called a mille-feuille." She speaks English but for a minute I think it's French. 

The earliest mention of a mille-feuille (a cake with a thousand layers) was in 1733 in an English-language cookbook. 

It's impossible to eat with decorum. I press down on the pastry. Custard oozes out the sides. The taste is delicious. I see myself as a mille-feuille aficionado, intending to mille-feuille my way across the globe. The cake collapses. A design fault, I think. Later, I discover a pâtissier has solved the problem by flipping the cake on its side and making the edge the top with a wiggle of icing. 

A hint of winter is in the air one pre-dawn morning as I cross Civic Square. Something jeers at me. Perched on the rooftop of the Wellington Art Gallery is the giant hybrid face-hand sculpture by Ronnie van Hout. The anatomy is based on scans of the artist's own body. Two 'V' fingers point down. With the fog of sleep lingering, it feels like van Hout is giving me the fingers. Sod you, I laugh. I return the gesture with a 'Winston Churchill’ and stride towards the waterfront. 

At the end of the square is the City to Sea Bridge. Its weather-worn timber balustrades are decorated with contemporary Māori carvings by Paratene Matchitt. I pause and feel the wind on my skin. Face. Hands.  I watch it whip the harbour into a white-tipped frenzy. Lights at the base of the Eastbourne hills flicker in the uncertain dawn. A ferry edges out of the harbour on its 3-hour cruise to Picton.  

The waterfront has a scattering of runners. The air smells salty. A large iron crane, mounted on a tug, creaks, bending to the wrench of wind and water. Sunlight, like a sword-strike, breaks through the dawn and ripples across the harbour. 

Light dances on hills and office windows

and shakes its skirts over the harbour

in a wild fandango that attracts 

the pale moths of yachts in droves.

Below the walkway on a wooden pier is a poem by Joy Cowley made from small aluminium letters embedded in weathered timber.  

I look along the curve of the harbour. I hear the lapping of water. It's like I'm standing inside the poem. Sunlight tickles the angular glass facets of the BP House building. On the other side of Te Papa, a myriad of yacht masts bob up and down in some kind of...well...wild fandango. 

Poems run intermittently along the length of the waterfront, linking it from end to end. Twenty-six letters arranged and rearranged, meaningful and metaphorical, planned for our accidental discovery. Pleasure to anonymous passers by. 

At the base of an unglamorous carpark is Lamason Brew Bar. Inside, espresso machines hiss, levers clack, grinders whirr, patrons chatter, and the nutty aroma of brews and grinds wafts on unseen currents. 

Perched on a stool, I sip coffee brewed in a manner invented by Loeff of Berlin in the 1830s. On the bar sit four bulbous glass chambers, a mini chemistry lab complete with Bunsen-like burners. Siphon coffee. Heated water creates a vacuum, rises up a chamber, then, on cooling, flushes through coffee grounds on its descent.

"I had my first siphon coffee," I tell Jaya the barista, "in this dingy, elbow-wide coffee bar, in a corner of a Tokyo subway." 

"When was that?" he asks, regulating the flame.

"Umm   …ohhh   …40 years ago..."

It's my first trip abroad. On the subway I overshoot my destination. I disembark at another station. Somewhere. The signs are not in English. No one speaks English. The skin on my face begins to heat up.

I take refuge in a coffee bar, squeeze in between locals and place my crumpled map on the bar. Someone looks at me. Other eyes turn. Someone slurps. I'm not sure where to look. The guy on my left places a hand on my shoulder. It feels warm through my shirt. He points to the burners and says: "gud." I feel a gush of gratitude. 

In his corner, the barista wields a blade with which he carves club sandwiches as if he's doing mathematics. Cucumber club sandwiches. In Tokyo. Alongside, he conducts his symphony of siphons. 

Lost in the subway, chance had led me to this small coffee bar to which I was unlikely to ever return. The ordinary, everyday people around me, unguarded in their morning coffee, the barista juggling his sandwiches and siphons - all became illuminated under my gaze, imbued with significance.


I catch the barista's eye and give him a thumbs up. He looks nonplussed. Eyebrows drawn together. But then he grins and nods and his smile conveys contentedness.

For a moment, I'm back in that low-lit bar, the intervening decades slipped from my timeline….

How fleeting it all is. Everything over in a blink. 

I turned 60 in the year of COVID. Sitting sipping coffee at Lamason, lost in reverie, I think: It's the ordinary who are extra-ordinary. They'll reach out and put a hand on your shoulder. And every now and then, it pays to get off at the wrong subway station. 

The Lamason burners flicker beside me. I stand up and head off.

In no particular direction.