Auckland bulges under the pressure of housing 34% of our nation’s population, some 1.8 million people, glistening like a jewel on the banks of the Waitemata harbour. That’s what Aucklanders think anyway, the rest of us think that glisten is more akin to the wet pus oozing from the infected wound on the country. Either way, I hadn’t been a tourist in our ‘world city’ since I was about 10 so I made some time to visit without a business meeting. And I’m glad I did – once I wasn’t part of the bustle, I saw some of the beauty and appeal of the place. (But of course, everywhere is great when you’re a tourist and I saw barely anything).
With more than three times the population of Wellington, Auckland’s struggling motorways feel more England than most of ours – eight-lane monsters in places, with tangled webs of ramps. I was mildly concerned about my ability to navigate the city tired as I was, but aren’t satnavs wonderful things? Until they fall off the dash just before the harbour bridge, anyway.
The bridge is Auckland’s iconic landmark. Originally a mere two lane crossing, it’s had four lanes bolted to its sides courtesy of a clever Japanese engineering firm. They are affectionately called the ‘Nippon clipons’. Just recently an additional clip-on ‘skypath’ has been approved, which will allow pedestrians and cyclists to use this main artery connecting north and south. That should demonstrate how pedestrian friendly the city has been historically since the rise of the car, however they’re working on it these days and doing an OK job by most accounts. Though worried about Auckland’s notorious traffic, I ensured I moved outside rush hour and had no problems.
Auckland’s town planning has been a big topic here in the last few decades. The infrastructure is unable to cope with the population increases (about 45,000 more people a year at the moment). It’s a national calamity! The city was founded in 1841, as our new capital city. It held the title for 25 years before Wellington got the job due to the increasing interest in the South Island. The early British planners were excited about these blank canvasses for cities in New Zealand, and the designer of Auckland grew up in and loved Bath (who doesn’t?). So his plan included heaps of Circuses and all sorts of neat stuff, focussing the city against the harbour and inlets and so on. But for speed, selfish greed or some other creed, the plans were mocked and dumped. Years later, folks lamented the waste – a lament that continues to this day. The location is superb, the city could, should have been a jewel. Now it’s just ‘got its good bits’.
It might seem like a boring topic, but the Takapuna Beach Holiday Park is worth a mention. For $30 a night I was able to pitch my tent right by the beach, in the middle of Takapuna, one of Auckland’s swishest spots. The average rent in Takapuna is $630 a week, average house price 1.2mill, what a treat to be able to visit the area in the tent. Walking distance to all the trendy pubs, cinemas and amenities, and a 20 minute drive to Auckland central. I wondered how the place was still there, surely the owners would have knocked it down to throw up apartments and make a couple of bucks?! My cynical world view was rocked, here was something kept for its non-monetary value. What a forward-thinking council Auckland has, to protect this gem for us budget visitors both foreign and domestic, and keep this little ‘taste of summer NZ’ right in the heart of the sprawling city!
Obviously I was mistaken, cynicism is rarely without warrant. The council has been fighting long and hard to demolish the campsite (established 1930) and build some wankers yacht club on the site. ‘With a rooftop garden for the public’. Oh how generous. A few years ago the local residents fought tooth and nail to keep the campsite, yet still lost 10% of its land area to the yacht-club idea. The local councilors were not re-elected. It’s a bit ‘the castle‘ I feel – the story speaks to me anyway. Go stay there while it’s there, it’s magic, and I have my doubts they’ll be successful securing a new lease despite everybody around loving it, because local councils are a bit shit and yachties have money.
My neighbours while I was there were a couple of couples, a single mum with two teenage kids on holiday, an accountant with aspergers and a strange muttering man – standard campsite stuff.
Auckland is the shape it is as it’s on a field of extinct volcanoes – the eroded mounds of which serve as landmarks around the city. At Takapuna beach, the rockpools are formed from an old lava flow. Within the stones are weird bowl-shaped formations – they’re the rings of an old forests’ tree trunks which were scorched by the lava flows. The molten lava surrounded the trunks and cooled in place. The trees burned or rotted away, leaving these little bowls. It was quite lovely having that history right on the doorstep.
After setting up the tent I popped down to Devonport and the North Head WW1 defences perched upon Maungauika, one of Auckland’s extinct volcanoes. Devonport is great, a laid-back area accessible from the city by ferry. I had motives for visiting the old gun emplacements – when I was a kid we visited, and they weren’t so well lit back then. Everybody climbed up the ladder on the Armstrong disappearing gun and kept exploring, but I was too small. I couldn’t reach the rungs. I had no torch, and was left in the dark at it’s base for what I remember as an eternity. It was quite traumatic, so it was interesting to revisit the site of this (admittedly minor) childhood pain. These days it’s all painted white and lit up, and there were people everywhere when I was there. And I’m hard as now so I was totally fine.
I wandered into Takapuna, had a couple of pints at the pub and a pub dinner. It’s a weird feeling when you see your food bill cost twice as much as your evenings’ accommodations.
In the morning I hit the road by 7am, worried about Auckland traffic. My destination was Parnell/Newmarket on the south-east, and the Auckland Museum. I had heard good things.
Arriving obscenely early, I wandered the surrounding domain. It felt a bit like a London park, so open but with a hint of danger. No squirrels though. I eventually found a cafe that was open, read the local paper and generally farted about until 10am. Getting there early was a blessing though – the museum was built in the 40s/50s as a war memorial, and it was nice to be encouraged to spend some time considering those who died because people are dicks.
The Auckland Museum – wow. I keep comparing things to Britain, but this really reminded me of the British museum. It has that old formal layout, boxed galleries, and a big new well-lit area that’s inspiring and neat. It was smashing, I spent a good 3 hours. There’s a great section on volcanoes – that’s Auckland’s natural disaster of choice, down here we’re all about earthquakes! They have a grand and fine collection of pacific cultural artifacts and history, and a few roman vases and such. Enough to tell a story, but nowhere near the same level of cultural pilferry of the great European museums.
The Maori section is superb, with amazing carvings, well-written stories, a huge war canoe and some structures. They have a nice collection of Goldie and Lindauer paintings (early Maori portrait painters).
What I do find slightly annoying with museums is when they just avoid some topics because they’re a bit tricky when viewed by the standards of our day. For instance, this is a bit edgy, but there’s no denying at least some cannibalism went on in New Zealand. And somewhat related, heads were shrunken and kept for reasons both kinda nice and not so, then a small industry started where prisoners’ heads were shrunk to order for trade with Europeans to get muskets. That’s some pretty metal stuff, and it’s quite interesting isn’t it? Yet you never see anything about that side of the culture historically in any museum. ‘That’s not very nice, let’s not cover that’. Omission creates a skewed view, and it certainly doesn’t dispel any erroneous understandings, and I’m not a fan. How are you supposed to understand if you aren’t even given the opportunity? No museums on this trip touched any of that stuff, as expected, it’s just a little peeve of mine. And I don’t mean to beat up on Maori culture by bringing those examples up, it’s not like slavery, burning ‘witches’, popping heads on pikes and systematically trying to wipe out other cultures is great either, but … well, you see stuff about the witches. I think it’s important we don’t avoid the unpleasantness and see the whole view. It wasn’t a complete whitewash at the museum though – I think it was here that had a tiny bit of the New Zealand army’s not-always-stellar activities. I didn’t know about the Surafend affair in 1918. Our soldiers killed at least 40 probably entirely innocent villagers due to where they happened to be, after one guy’s botched robbery killed a kiwi soldier the night before. That sucked to read, sure – but it’s so much better than pretending it didn’t happen and thinking we’re moral paragons who never do wrong.
They had what looked like a good WW1 section for the centenary – but I’m a bit done with guns and gas masks, I just had a quick blitz through (sorry).
The top floor of the museum is the memorial, with plaques throughout all, with all the names of Aucklander’s who died in war. I found a couple of Blair’s on the wall, but didn’t spot any other family names. It’s nice that they’re remembered in this lively building, it’s a fine place to sit and reflect on all that wasted potential, those robbed lives. I also reflected on the Dominion Museum in Wellington – built around the same time, for the same purpose. Now it’s just part of Massey University, largely untrafficed – and the National Museum in Wellington, Te Papa, totally sucks in comparison I think.
Auckland museum is brilliant, go visit it.
Over the road is Kinder house (1857), an old schoolmasters home. I popped by due to proximity, and I would suggest that’s the only reason you’d pop by. The house itself is pretty tired inside. The only interesting thing for me was seeing a little about John Kinder, this early teacher/church chap. As hobbies he traveled the entire country 1860-1888, taking photos. In his later years he painted watercolours off his photos. What a life! And his early photography efforts are some of the oldest captures of the Maori way of life before Europeans rolled everything, and the pioneering villages and so on.
Also close by were two of Auckland’s grand buildings – St Mary’s Church and Holy Trinity Cathedral. It being summer holidays, both were closed despite their signs saying open – a pity for me, but I am sure they’re worth popping in to. One of the other buggers about New Zealand is that the churches generally don’t have the sweet grounds they have overseas. You’re hard-pressed to get a nice ‘whole cathedral’ photo because there’re houses and shops all over the show, and the angles you can get are functional and boring.
Walking south I passed through Newmarket and headed to Highwic house, a Heritage New Zealand property and gardens tucked away on a hill now flanked by a motorway overpass. Built in 1862, it’s a creaky wooden gothic mansion, with additions tacked on constantly during its lifetime, as the guy’s family swelled to 21 children!
There was a nice little museum there on the history of the place, and a little christmas shop. It’s a great little oasis and reminder of what Auckland was like early on. It’s bloody hard for Heritage New Zealand to keep these wooden houses upright, but I’m really glad they’re doing their thing. It looks like they do community events like teddy bear picnics and all that stuff there too which is cool – it’s not just a place to attack women (which I overheard happened the day before in the grounds!)
Back in Takapuna, I kicked my feet through the waves up and down the beach before trying another Takapuna pub for beer, book and pizza.
In the morning while I ate breakfast, the single-mum family packed up to continue on their adventure. As they packed the aspergers accountant drummed up an inane conversation with her about tents.
I headed south again, to MOTAT, the Museum of Technology and Transport – a key location in our childhood visits. The complex is around Western Springs, a big open area of Auckland used for music festivals, car racing and sports. MOTAT and the zoo also reside. Visiting their air hangar, I got to see a Lancaster bomber and others – they’re restoring a Sunderland too. It was OK, but England’s got them beat in terms of having actual planes. There was a good little section on the Lancasters and the dambusters bouncing bomb raid, as one pilot, Munroe, was a kiwi.
An old documentary on loop had the old men talking about the war, and how good the RSA was for them. ‘No matter how much you talk about it, you can never really understand what it was like. That’s why it was so important that those who were there could talk together’. I wondered if that’s why history always repeats – we can’t adequately convey experience with language. I doubt virtual reality will help much with that little problem.
The most interesting bit for me was an old video on Jean Batten, the New Zealand born aviatrix of the 1930’s. There is an interesting and mysterious tale with this reclusive lady. After being world famous for breaking flying records she disappeared for decades, and died unknown in Majorca (Spain) from a dog bite, buried in a paupers grave. Her family wasn’t notified. The gallery made mention of some controversy regarding her opportunities, that early planes were supplied by aviation enthusiasts hoping for marriage and such. Her story would probably make an interesting film, a study on eccentric characters, driven women’s struggles mid-century and the double-edged sword of celebrity.
Riding a historic tram to the main MOTAT complex, I arrived to see it a bit more ‘locked down’ than I remembered in my youth. A lot of it was out of bounds, and instead of old cars and tractors there were modern ‘innovation centres’ and all this. One section had a display on Xero, a New Zealand-founded DIY accounting software package. I am sure the kids will find that super-interesting.
There was a good bit on Edmund Hillary’s 1958 trip to the South Pole with three Massey Fergusson tractors – I had forgotten about that, but I recognised the Trans-Antactic snow cat photos from the one I’d seen in the UK. He and the tractors were just supposed to drop a supply drop for the UK contingent doing the trans-antarctic crossing – but being so close, they decided to go to the pole. Must read more about the polar explorers.
I headed back to camp after this, a bit pooped. I finished my book, enjoyed some sand, sun and doing nothing, then went to see Moana at the local theatre. I really liked it. Sometimes you need a holiday from your holiday.
On my final morning in Auckland I popped down to Devonport again, having breakfast then visiting the Navy museum. It’s a pretty small affair, but very well done. I think this is where I learnt of Black Saturday, where New Zealand military police shot peaceful Mau protestors in Samoa in 1929 – another little ‘under the rug’ I wasn’t aware of but glad to know about now.
The museum tells stories of our Navy’s involvement in Jutland and some other spots, in an exciting and clear way – respectfully of all parties to the conflicts. I was interested to read about the Naval involvement in British nuclear testing in the pacific in 1956 which left a bunch of the personnel a ‘bit cancery’ in later life.
After that I toddled out of the city, north this time!
So that was my trip to Auckland. I only visited a bunch of the more remote sites directly. I didn’t travel on the Auckland ferries or visit the CBD. I missed the Maritime museum and their by all accounts stunning art gallery. I missed the wharves, Queen street, the casino, any historic buildings that’re left and so on. That giant rugby ball if it’s still there. Plenty more to see and do – another time, maybe on a weekend via a plane.
It was lovely to visit as a tourist and I have a slightly higher appreciation of the place for having visited. And as much as I might think the city of Auckland doesn’t appeal to me to live, the Waikato, Coromandel and Bay of Plenty are just down the road, and the brilliance of Northland is right there – it’s in a good location, I’ll give it that!