By Mike Ferrentino
Photography (unless noted) Caleb Smith/Spoke Magazine
For the record, I am not a city person. Not in any country of the world, and especially not here. In about eight visits back to New Zealand since I left a lifetime ago, I still have only made it into the center of Auckland, the largest city in the country, once. This goes for the rest of the world too. I get claustrophobic. And in New Zealand, I pine for the cool quiet of the deep bush, or the empty windswept grandeur of the Southern Alps. But then there's Wellington, a place that totally shoots my hatred of cities to bits. New Zealand's capital city sits in a craggy jumble of bays and hills at the foot of the country's North Island. According to Maori legend, this would be the mouth of the fish that Maui hauled out of the ocean to create the country's North Island. Doesn't necessarily look that way to me, but I'm a bit slow that way. Like when people tell me to stare really hard at those pictures that are supposed to reveal a sailboat or an abstract of the Mona Lisa, all I ever see is a jumble of dots and squiggles.
Anyway, as capital cities go, Wellington is compact, festooned with parks, and packs enough up and down within its geographic confines to make places like San Francisco look kind of flattish by comparison. It is a squally place, battered by winds howling through Cook Strait, with weather that can at times turn completely psychotic. As such, Wellington has a style all its own, a sort of disheveled post-hipster urban chic combined with a ruddy, strong-legged vibe that embraces everything this city offers–the food, the music, the hills and the four-seasons-every-hour weather.
On a previous visit, as I was getting soaked to the skin by torrential rain while riding through downtown to meet some people for a mountain bike ride that ultimately took place in brilliant sunshine, I saw something that summed up this city perfectly: A woman was walking down the sidewalk, her summer dress soaked to her skin, reddish hair whipped into a complete frenzy by the blasting wind, backlit by sunlight (since it wasn't raining at all half a block away), with a powerful stride and a resolute expression on her face that implied this was nothing, that this was business as usual, and what kind of weakling would cower at the weather anyway? As a gust of wind nearly took my wheels out from under me, I realized that umbrellas probably just come here to die so there wasn't much use her having one, and tried to harden up and not be such a sniveling coward about a little rain.
Meanwhile, the combination of vertical terrain and accessible greenery, as well as a culture that seems to embrace getting outside and enjoying it, have allowed Wellington to become a Candyland of mountain-bike trails. The Wellington region boasts somewhere near 200 square miles of parks and forests, and mountain bike development has been a permissive and ongoing project utilizing these open spaces for several years now. As such, the variety of tracks that can be accessed by bike, straight from downtown, is damn impressive. Also worth noting is that the trails run the gamut from kinda mellow to sphincter puckering, there isn't a whole lot of warning as to what's what, and that such easily accessible gnarl is a beautiful thing.
So I found myself there, in Wellington, with an afternoon to kill before catching a ferry across the strait at an obscenely late hour. We met at a park, a few hundred feet uphill from a bunch of good restaurants and cafés, and immediately went straight up the slopes of Mt Victoria. There was a former Olympian and Rhodes Scholar turned enduro racer, a magazine publisher and his wife, a transplanted American bike activist, the ranger in charge of much of this trail bounty and a male model who fixes postal delivery bicycles on the side (or something like that. He for sure fixes postal-delivery bikes. And, as an aside, how rad is a country that still gets a huge amount of its mail delivered by bicycle? Super rad). Each climb up was rewarded with a very sweet descent. One was sculpted hips and lips. Another was a cascading series of drops over off-camber tree roots. Another switchbacked through lush canopy on moist, smooth dirt. All on the same hill. All within coasting distance of a pub. After a couple hours of getting relentlessly dropped by the former Olympian Rhodes Scholar and the male model/postie bike repairman, I was comfortably and happily blown out, a few thousand feet of climbing rewarded with a few thousand feet of descending, the whole time within sight of the central business district. All on one 'little' hill.
A few minutes by bike away, there was another little hill, similarly full of trails. A few minutes beyond that, another. Then another, with a bigger and more expansive network of trails, still easily accessible by bike from downtown. A total of around 300 kilometers of trails (that's around 186 miles for the metric-impaired), all wedged into an insanely compact and very hilly landmass.
Magic. As a rule, I hate cities. But I f*#king love Wellington. Seriously. If I could learn to dress a bit better, and harden up about the weather, I'd move there right now.