I arrived in Auckland late in the evening on Monday, December 12th after a long, LOTR-themed day in the Waikato region. The drive into the city was particularly exhausting, since I got stuck in traffic for 2 hours (who goes into a city center at 7:00 on a Monday night?!) and was simultaneously attempting to read a map and avoid killing someone at the same time, but I eventually made it to my hostel in one piece. Ponsonby – a hipster-themed suburb on the city’s west side – didn’t really jive with me, but I did meet some people around the dinner table (including an American guy, where for once I didn’t get blank stares when I said I was from Indiana!). It’s the small things that count.
I left Ponsonby early Tuesday morning and moved myself closer to the center of the city, spending an hour and a half searching for semi-affordable parking in the process. Parking garages start at $4/hour (and up) – at one point I drove into a parking garage, left immediately, and got charged $4 for being there 7 minutes! – but I eventually found a open-air lot that charged $6 for an entire day. (Thanks, Lonely Planet!) I was a little wary of the bus system (and still being a scrooge with my money) so I walked half an hour into the center of town and took myself on a mini walking tour. Even though it was cold and misty outside I stopped inside St. Patricks Cathedral, walked along Viaduct Harbor, and eventually made it up Queen Street, where souvenir shops are interspersed among expensive designer boutiques. I also happened upon Aotea Square, where the Occupy Auckland protesters are camped out!
One of the most interesting things about Auckland is their crazy pedestrian traffic. At major intersections close to Britomart Station (Auckland’s main transport hub), so many people need to cross the street that traffic stops in all directions every few minutes to let them pass. In fact, so many people do this that they’ve taken to crossing the intersections diagonally, in numbers so great that you can barely tell where the pedestrian lanes are supposed to be! I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, despite the nonchalance of the crowds – it was just too freaky!
In my travels through the city, I also found a giant Whitcoulls Santa:
…and this little gem:
I could just imagine the internal dialogue going on inside the owner/operator’s head when they named it: “If ‘Love A Duck’ FULLY LICENSED Restaurant’ doesn’t inspire confidence in our food, I don’t know what will!”
I spent my second evening (and many of the evenings afterwards) sitting in an internet cafe updating my blog, since it was gray, rainy, and generally awful outside. Usually this was followed with a trip to the cinema, though I’m not going to tell you what movies I watched – they’re far too embarrassing to name. (I was alone – there was no one to judge me at the time!) I might have been in a big bustling city, but let’s be honest – rain makes me sad and self indulgent. Sugary treats and staring at screens for hours was the answer!
On my second full day in the city I left my car in Parnell (an eastern suburb, with free street parking outside of my hostel!), and walked the half hour to the immense Auckland Museum. A huge park called the Auckland Domain surrounds the museum grounds, and walking paths crisscross the entire area leading into the beautiful Winter Garden and Grafton Gate. (I didn’t actually make it to either of those this time around, but they’re on my list for next time!) Instead I took a winding path through the Domain and went straight to the museum, where a cry of “Hey, Indiana!” found me saying hello to the same American guy I’d met on my first night in the city. We attended the museum’s Maori cultural show together (which wasn’t very traditional, considering everything was sung with guitars), then spent a couple hours wandering through the exhibits. The Maori and natural history exhibits were particularly fascinating (they have a fully reconstructed marae and war canoe!), and the war memorials (to which the museum is dedicated) were extensive and sobering. I even got to hug a giant penguin!
Afterwards we grabbed a bus into the city and stopped at a Mexian restaurant (beware: their cheese dip is actually metled cheese, not queso!) before biting the bullet and spending a few dollars to ride an elevator to the observation deck(s) of the SkyTower. Designed as a “tourist, broadcasting, and telecommunications facility” and visited by more than 700,000 people each year, the SkyTower is one of Auckland’s most recognizable landmarks. It houses several television stations, 100+ radio stations, all the major NZ telecommunications companies, emergency services, and lots of space for conventions and renatls – it even has Sky Walk and Sky Jump, where you can circle the edge of the observation deck (192 meters off the ground!) without rails or a balcony (but in a safety harness), or base jump from the observation deckt 85km/h. There’s also the Sky Screamer, where you can strap yourself into a seat and reverse-bungy 60m into the air. Fun.
At the top of the 328m Tower (New Zealand’s tallest structure!) there are two levels of observations decks – the first gives you stunning 360-degree views (plus a first-hand look at the crazies jumping off the edge of the building), and the second ($4 extra) takes you even higher nto the stratosphere. The glass-bottomed lifts travel at 18km/h and take you from the ground to the top in 40 seconds, which adds a little extra adrenaline to your experience. It was pretty disconcerting being that high up in an earthquake-prone country, but apparently analysis shows that even in the event of a 8.0 earthquake the Tower would remain standing, so that was encouraging! I hope they were telling the truth.
The second deck of the SkyTower isn’t really worth it (oh look, you’re just a few meters higher over the exact same place!), but they did have bowls of WeetBix set out for Santa’s reindeer, so I was hopeful he’d make an appearance. Sadly our visit was Santa-less, but at least we got to say we did one of Auckland’s Top 10 attractions!
After the SkyTower was a quick trip to Viaduct Harbor, where the many sources of Auckland’s nickname – the City of Sails – come to rest. Sailboats come from all over the world to dock in the harbor and Team New Zealand even has their official workshop there, where they work on their top-secret yacht designs and plot their next victory over the nefarious competitors in the annual America’s Cup Yacht Race. Towards the end of the wharf is the Auckland Fish Market, where you can buy a big cone of fish and chips and stroll the pungent marketplace full of shelled sea insects and gasping fish. I came back to tour it on a later date since it was closing when Will and I arrived, but we did sit down to eat dessert at one of the many shipping-containers-turned-industrial-chic-resataurant-cafes dotting the wharf… it was fantastic to get out of the ever-increasing wind and rain, and such an indulgent treat! I can still taste those desserts. YUM.
While the rest of my stay in Auckland over the next few days was characterized by lots of indoor activities (read: more movies and internet time, and a trip to the Auckland Art Museum, which I’ll dedicate another post to because it was so awesome), the gods did gift me one cloud-free morning where I grabbed the chance to drive east of the city and see Mount Eden and One Tree Hill.
Mount Eden, or Maungawhau, is what’s left of the highest of the Auckland area’s many dormant and extinct volcanoes. The Mt itself is a huge hill of green sitting in the center of the gray, industrial city, and a winding drive allows you to drive almost to the top of the cone (196m). A deep, symmetrical crater sits at the top, which is known as Te Ipu kai a Mataaho (‘the Food Bowl of Mataaho, the god of things hidden in the ground’) and is highly sacred to the Maoris. You’re not allowed to enter the crater, but a path has been cleared along the edge where you can look down into the remains of pa terraces (fortified village remains) and Maori storage pits. There’s also a monument at the top, and some spectacular views back over the city and the harbor (which are even better on a clear day!).
From Mt Eden I quickly hopped my way over to One Tree Hill, desperate to at least see a little greenery in the quickly-dwindling sunlight, and made my way through the expansive park grounds to the deceptively similar monument-topped green hill. The gardens and parkland around the volcanic cone are entered throught the aptly-named Pohutukawa Lane, a long, wide boulevard framed on either side by tall, flowering crimson pohutukawa trees. The road travels through the grounds and slowly makes its way up to the monument, but the park is oddly filled with sheep, so you constantly have to stop your car to avoid causing carnage in front of the old little Asian ladies and little Kiwi babies being pushed in strollers along the roadside. So odd to see huge herds of white woolly creatures in the middle of a massive cosmopolitan city!
At the very center of the park is Maungakiekie, where the isthmus’ key pa and greatest fortress in the country once stood. Up until 2000 a Monterey pine stood at the top of the hill as a replacement for a sacred totara tree that was chopped down by British settlers in 1852, but even that tree has since ceased to exist. The area is perhaps now most popular for being the namesake of a song from U2’s album The Joshua Tree, written in memory of a Maori roadie they met during their The Unforgettable Fire Tour in 1984. I didn’t exactly spend much time looking at the hill or the monument (maybe I should have), but it’s a very beautiful place which I will have to return to some day – hopefully this time in the sunshine!
*JAFA: Just Another Fucking Aucklander