Thursday, February 7, 2008

Auckland and the Bloody Sky

[Editorial note from the last story: watching coverage of the U.S. presidential race on TV down here, I was reminded of something I saw at Big Day Out. All day a jumbo screen next to the big stages showed fun camera angles and whatnot of the live performances. Along the top ran small messages about upcoming performances, reminders to get water, and you could even text a message from your phone to go up there for all to see. I was pleasantly surprised to see a message about “Freedom for America...Vote Ron Paul 08”! This was followed by the less spectacular “Luv U Sunshine” but I was still surprised to see Ron Paul got all the way down here!]

The Kiwi International Airport Hotel was nothing special and it was time to get out of there. It was situated close to the airport and therefore not close to anything in Auckland, which is a sprawling city anyway because of both its population and geography. It’s a strip of land between two harbors that holds over a million people. So the city stretches out pretty far, but also has plenty of sail boats and beaches to balance out the disadvantageous sprawl. If I was going to walk to my first farm stay, I needed to start now to get there Monday. But I hadn’t even seen Auckland yet! I decided I should take it easy at first, see the city, and catch a bus to my first farm stay. Derick was also interested in heading into the city, so we talked about it over breakfast which was not free. I think it cost about $12, or half the price of the room, for continental breakfast that included yogurt, cereal, fruit, coffee, toast, etc. I made sure it was worth every penny and loaded up. As my old roommate Arash would say, at a buffet you’ve got to eat enough to make money. Since they didn’t have king crab legs, that was a little harder to do, but I did guiltlessly swipe two single serving sized boxes of muesli. I also was privileged to try Vegemite for the first time. This curious substance is condiment popular in Australia and New Zealand and is composed of yeast, barley and some other mysterious things. As I understand it, it is to be spread on bread products mostly. Vegemite is a savory thick brown paste, and after I put it on my continental toast I likened it to soy sauce, if only you could make soy sauce into a peanut butter-like consistency. Well that was fun, no more Vegemite for breakfast. Apparently Vegemite has a close cousin called Marmite, which is more popular in New Zealand and there is a heated ongoing debate about which is better. Considering my first experience, they can keep both.

After checking out, we walked out to the bus stop across the street and waited, not knowing anything about the bus system. Does the bus even come here on Saturdays? I also found out that my bag was already on the unwieldy side, and I couldn’t really fit everything in the one big bag, I had to use my smaller backpack too. This was not a good sign for the future of walking... There was a large strawberry field behind us, with people picking in massive strawberry picking hats. I envied their hats. A Chinese woman walked up to the bus stop. This is good, a bus is probably running. We talked to her and confirmed there should be a bus coming soon. In the mean time we awkwardly chatted. She moved here from China a year ago because of the work opportunities, and was working at the farm next door coordinating their shipments. She was not able to give suggestions on what to do in Auckland because she didn’t seem to do much herself, but nonetheless was very helpful. In fact, not only did she tell us where we could get a hostel in the city, she got off with us and walked us there!
A Eurotrip several years back was the last time I was at a hostel, so I tried to recall previous experiences to ready myself...international unemployed orphan patrons, F+ hygiene, bunk beds... Down in New Zealand, they are generally called “backpackers” not hostels, but all the conditions checked out. After paying the 20 New Zealand dollars for a night at the fabulous Top Floor Backpackers, I dropped my stuff in a room that, despite the fact it was almost noon, was dark, unventilated, and had several hibernating backpackers inside. Time for a walk around town. The hostel was conveniently close to the main drag in the downtown area, Queen Street. I needed sunscreen still, so I dropped into a pharmacy only to find average-sized bottles cost almost about $26! I preferred this price rather than more burn on top of my (only) slight burn from my big day out before. I continued to aimlessly wander down Queen Street, which dumps out onto Waitemata Harbor and looks something like this:
The harbor looked nice and I could see why they called it the City of Sails, there were sailboats docked everywhere [not pictured here]. Wandering around away from the water didn’t reveal anything too special about Auckland to me, especially because I was in a particularly touristy area. One can’t help but notice a prominent feature of the Auckland skyline called the Sky Tower. This huge needle holds restaurants, bars, gift shops, national communication network hardware, and they even let you jump off of it. Bungee jumping off the Sky Tower, let alone going up it, is not free. I didn’t know the prices, but not free sounded like too much on this first walk around. The jump isn’t even a free fall. They use fancy Hollywood stunt trick cables to slow you down. Maybe that makes it last longer like sipping a fine wine as opposed to chugging it, but I will have to ask someone who did tried it. After I had enough wandering, I headed back to the hostel for the Saturday night barbeque.

This was actually a really nice feature that I’ve never seen at a hostel before. Across the street I bought some white New Zealand wine to have during the barbeque social hour. I found it hard to tell who worked there and who just happened to be doing things in and around the kitchen. I sat with Derick and some other young people I saw. They were from a city on the South island called Dunedin (pronounced something like “dun-EEd'n”). They also went to Big Day Out and were of the hardcore variety: dark clothing, facial piercings, and tattoos. But they were inviting and easy to talk to. Smoking was popular with young people, except they didn’t have packs of Marlboros or whatever one would expect in the U.S. They instead had a don’t-leave-home-without-it survival pack comprised of a pouch of loose cut tobacco, papers, filters, and a lighter. By the way they were smoking, you would think they actually did need this to survive. When they finished smoking one, the rolling process for another started almost immediately. And so it went for hours, but we were outside so it wasn’t too smoky. For a small two dollar donation, we got a dinner of salad, noodles, sausage, potato salad, and more from the assorted staff and non-staff. After dinner, drinking continued with entertainment provided by various iPod wars being waged over the old stereo that had a few cones blown out. There were a mix of stories passed around about what people were doing there, discussions of what songs were being played, and a variety of old tales being told. When I told them I was spending a year traveling between farm stays, they said I should visit the South island. There I could work on large sheep farms and meet “Blokey blokes.” I asked what this meant, but they found it difficult to explain what exactly a bloke was (now after asking around more I have come to find that blokey bloke means something like manly man). I asked them about more local lingo, since Kiwi English not only sounds different, but also has different meanings for English words I know. I asked what a “tosser” is, because I heard that at the concert. They explained that a tosser is like a wanker, hand motion included. With unknown words described by unknown words, I wasn’t getting very far. Not everyone was young, and it was hard to figure out what some of the older people were doing there. There were Australians, Americans, Kiwis, Germans, Dutch, Canadians, and who knows what else. When it was getting late, a large group wanted to mobilize “out” but I was thinking of going on a hike the next day so I held back and crashed in the room.

The next day I got up relatively early compared to all the other lifeless bodies in my room. I went out for some breakfast and to get a few more supplies that I needed, such as a travel towel that I didn’t buy in the U.S. and that probably would have been a lot cheaper there. Ignoring a bum I saw sleeping nearby, I stopped in a well forested park on a hill to eat my brioche and drink my coffee:
It looked like they were filming a movie or TV show in the park, but nothing too exciting and I was not asked to be an extra (or a star). I came back to the hostel to find Derick and our Dunedin friends were just getting up from hangovers. The story is that they didn’t go out to bars, but instead got more drinks from a local shop and went to a park, maybe the same one I was at that morning. There were at least 15 of them drinking in the park, which did not go unnoticed by the local authorities. The police showed up and were telling them to move along, but after some warming up, the cops let the kids wear their hats and even took the group photos, which I saw. This evidence made me wish I had gone along, but I was reminded by the hangovers that I probably did the right thing to enjoy the day. Derick and I caught a ferry over to Rangitoto (meaning “bloody sky” in Maori), a small volcanic island across the harbor which has well-preserved plant and bird life. It was once the home of some sort of small penal colony, and then reborn as a summer vacation spot to have a bach (pronounced “batch”), which is a little beach cottage. A halt on building in the 30’s killed the bach colony, and the island is now a nature reserve that’s great to hike and explore.
The forty or so passengers scattered off the ferry, making way for new escapees of the island to catch the ferry’s return trip. There were several things I wanted to see on the island, including New Zealand’s largest black back gull colony, the rare kidney fern grove, and the old ship wreck at Boulder Bay on the North coast. But there was probably not enough time for all that if I was going to the summit and catching the last ferry back of the day. Derick was planning on not catching the last ferry because he was going to camp on the neighboring Motutapu Island. I was tempted to do so, but I had a bus to catch the next morning. The path to the summit was rocky, but was normal gravel unlike the surrounding landscape of lava rock. It was hot out and I wondered if the one liter of water I brought was enough. I asked Derick about his wilderness experience as we walked and it turned out he was a pro. Even though he was from Kentucky, he spent a fair amount of time being a wilderness guide in Alaska. I could learn a lot from this guy! The people who had it easy were those who paid extra for a tour a la Farmer John’s hay ride. While delivering what was surely riveting commentary about Rangitoto, the tractor driver pulled a small train of passengers on the dusty road up to the point where only walking was possible. A wooden path twisted up to the top, with views through the trees that improved with the altitude.

Being a volcano, Rangitoto had a crater, but the crater rim wasn’t the highest part. I didn’t really figure that one out, but then again, I’m not a volcanologist...yet. The top had a great 360 view of the harbor, including surrounding islands and Auckland. It felt like a much more rewarding way to see the view than going up the Sky Tower, which I could clearly see. On the way back down it was worth a stop at the lava caves. Not just caves, lava too! Well actually the caves were formed by flowing rivers of lava. Unfortunately for me, these flowing rivers weren’t there anymore, but the caves were still cool.

The hike back was downhill and easy. It had cooled off and foreboding skies threatened above. As I got onto the last ferry of the day it started raining. I was glad I wasn’t camping out. I had the privilege of a nice warm bed in the hostel, which probably had bed bugs, since Derick and I had bites that couldn’t be explained otherwise. Being bitten by bugs is bad enough, but somehow made worse if it’s while you’re sleeping. Oh well, just one more night here (this time on top of the sheets) then I am off to the first farm. Once back in the city, I spent some time in an internet cafe, eating my lamb kebab and calling my first host with my computer. She sounded very nice and I was all set to get on the 7:25 am bus. Not knowing when I would be back in the area, I felt like I had a good taste of Auckland. Then again, that was probably all I needed since every New Zealander and visitor told me to get away from there as soon as possible. Okay, I’ll do as I’m told! ...in the morning.

More pictures from this adventure available at: http://picasaweb.google.com/thkemp/AroundAuckland

1 comment:

moire oasis said...

what more could one ask for than to vicariously travel to such an amazing part of the world! Mom