The land on which Wellington International Airport stands hasn’t been around for very long. Until the 15th century, what is now known as the Rongotai Isthmus was a shallow channel separating Te Ika-a-Māui (or “fish of Māui” as the Indigenous Māori called the northern landmass of Aotearoa New Zealand) from an island known as Motukairangi. Then Haowhenua, literally ”the land-swallower,” happened—a great, megathrust-type earthquake that lifted the sea floor, turning Motukairangi into a peninsula.
Roughly five centuries later, the newly-formed isthmus was chosen as the site for Wellington’s only airport, although the risk of large earthquakes in the region remains very high. Before paying a rental bond or mortgage deposit, the prospective resident would be well advised to study geological hazard maps, which divide the risk into four categories: slope failure, ground shaking, liquefaction, and tsunami. There is a combined map where all of the hazards overlap, and it makes for grim reading. No-one is safe.
The airport is especially not safe. When the next Big One comes, geologists predict that the isthmus won’t be lifted, but will subside: while the land underneath the harbour is due to be pushed up again, as it did in 1855, the land on which the airport sits is not supposed to. Whether it will remain an isthmus is far from clear. In any case, since this entire low-lying area of the city is most at risk of tsunamis and permanent or semi-permanent flooding, the airport, the port, and the only road out of town could all become unusable, leaving the city isolated for several weeks.
For the moment, however, Wellington International is a small but attractive airport. Its single air strip runs north to south, with the sea at both ends, its length not sufficient to accommodate intercontinental long-haul flights. To travel further than Australia or Fiji requires a stop-over in Auckland or one of Australia’s major airports. Landing conditions can be treacherous due to the winds that lash the Cook Strait.
Upon landing, the visitor is informed in the official font of the Lord of the Rings movie franchise that they have reached “The Middle of Middle Earth.” In years past, this association was even more conspicuous, as a six-meter statue of the head and outstretched arm of Gollum reached above the terminal for the One Ring fixed atop one of the air bridges, while all subsequent large-scale Tolkien-themed displays have been installed inside the terminal.
Home to Peter Jackson, Wellington was the main base of operations for both the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, a fact that’s been heavily exploited by Tourism New Zealand in marketing the country (as one of Murray Hewitt’s posters reads, in Flight of the Conchords: “New Zealand: Like Lord of the Rings”). For instance, the “Ultimate Middle Earth Itinerary” will “guide you through all New Zealand has to offer in three weeks or more,” as the tour materials explain; “Experience otherworldly landscapes and fascinating fiords and get to know the real Middle‑earth.”
Though our national carrier added various Middle Earth-themed planes to its fleet to mark the release of the films, it’s the majority shareholder of Wellington Airport—Infratil, an infrastructure investment company—who might be the most enthusiastic promoter of the association between the city and this particular phase in the history of the national film industry: in 2010, the company announced that it would erect a Hollywood-style sign reading “Wellywood” on a hill near the northern end of the runway.
To their apparent surprise, the plan was met with a major backlash, largely expressed on social media. It may be that Wellingtonians simply objected to one more craven piece of branding being imposed on them, but making the movies involved significant financing and tax breaks from the New Zealand government, as well as—more contentiously—ad hoc legislation that limited the ability of film workers to unionize. The so-called Hobbit Law was passed after an anti-union march by some of the employees of Weta Digital, and after Jackson suggested that Warner Bros. was prepared to move the production elsewhere (this wasn’t in fact the case). The law is currently under review.
Infratil insisted that since they owned the hill, they could place whatever sign they wanted on it. But, faced with the backlash, they eventually relented and put the choice to a public poll; the winning entry was a design called “Wellington Blown Away,” a homage to its famously windy conditions. It’s not the most inspiring sight in the world but it’s no “Wellywood.”
In the airport proper, however, it’s as if the final instalment of The Hobbit was still in theaters, and Wellington was still proud to call itself the middle of Middle Earth. The pleasant, bright main hall—where you can have a snack, buy souvenirs or magazines, and watch the planes take off and land—is dominated by two giant eagles: Gwaihir the Windlord, with a wing span of 45 feet, and a second, unnamed eagle [likely Gwaihir’s brother, the kingly Landroval—Ed.], the latter bearing the wizard, Gandalf the Grey:
Some of the best seats in the hall are directly underneath Gwaihir. The nicest of the airport’s cafes, called Red Rocks, serves decent food and coffee at surprisingly reasonable prices, and you can just sit quietly by the main viewing window, right under the talons of the one-ton eagle.
In the afternoon of 20 January 2014, a 6.2 magnitude earthquake struck the rural town of Eketahuna, 80 miles north of Wellington. Though it was a severe event by global standards, it was not terribly unusual for New Zealand, and caused very little damage; two people were injured, and only one building was damaged beyond repair. But eighty miles south of the epicenter, Gwaihir shook violently and broke free of his cables, falling on a group of airport visitors who had found refuge under the tables. A teenager was grazed on the head as she tried to escape.
An investigation revealed that the installation had avoided undergoing a building consent process by being described as “artworks.” The engineer brought in to review the failings lamented that the council had been “far too relaxed about the concept of large suspended objects over public spaces,” while a spokesperson for Wellington’s council said that “the structure was installed via an exemption with the understanding it would be fully designed and supervised by engineers.” (Alas, it wasn’t.)
Suspending two giant eagles over the heads of visitors to our city is not only an artistic homage to deregulation but also an excellent reflection of the making of the two Tolkien trilogies, with their equally frightful suspension of the old labor laws.
Aotearoa New Zealand is not Middle Earth but its colonial past bleeds heavily into the present. In the final days of Great Britain’s vast empire of commerce and power, Tolkien imagined the Shire as an idealized, pastoral England, a forgotten bucolic land far from struggles of “bigger people.” The 19th Century settlers from the British Isles who seized the land and cleared it of its forests were also trying to reshape their new South Pacific home in the image of the Mother Country. The reproduction of these landscapes into Jackson’s films has uncomfortable echoes with the colonial project even if it no longer entails literal dispossession but rather symbolic erasure—not just of all signs of Māori history but also of the native fauna and flora.
When this sanitized and thoroughly white imagery is further employed to attract wealthy foreign tourists, it becomes an extension of the settler’s rule, something all the more troubling when it’s the nation’s capital that greets the visitor in this way. Auckland—whose much larger airport is our real international gateway—makes prominent use of Māori architecture and symbols. But Wellington markets itself as the product of the imagination of a dead English writer.
Inside the terminal, nowadays, the two eagles and their rider hang from far stronger cables. But in Wellington we know to expect far stronger earthquakes, up to and including another Haowhenua. When you come to visit, remember to keep an eye out for falling Gandalfs.