Auckland again

For the second day in a row the weather blows a hole in our plans; once again we’re all dressed up with nowhere to go.  Although it’s stopped raining and the sun is out, today’s boat trip to Tiri Tiri Matangi island is cancelled due to strong winds.  It’s a particular disappointment for us as we’re keen birdwatchers, and the island is a bird reserve where we’d hoped to see some of New Zealand’s rarest native birds.

Our only hope for rescuing the day is a re-run of yesterday’s Plan B, so we head back to Hop-On-Hop-Off bus with the intention of hopping off at some different stops this time.   Our first destinations are the Church of St Mary, and Holy Trinity Cathedral which sits immediately next to it.

St Mary’s dates from the late nineteenth century. It’s a fine timber building, which also boasts a lectern made by the famous Yorkshire Mouseman furniture-maker, whose trademark is a small mouse carved on to every piece he makes.

St Mary’s started out as a parish church, albeit a somewhat grand one.  The first Bishop of Auckland was looking for somewhere to build his cathedral, and managed to acquire land opposite St Mary’s.  But due to shortage of funds it took nearly a century to complete the cathedral, and in the meantime St Mary’s acted as a stand-in.

From the outside Holy Trinity Cathedral looks modern and – to my eyes – rather uninviting, but inside it’s a bit of a stunner.  Interestingly it combines two starkly contrasting styles. The nave and the chancel are a massive stone affair, an attempt at replicating a grand English cathedral.  This, however, is where the project went bankrupt in the early twentieth century, and when work began again decades later ideas – as well as the budget – were very different. 

The main body of the cathedral is a thoroughly modern, cavernous, sweeping space, uninterrupted by pillars.  And the stained glass is to die for.

When the cathedral opened for business, St Mary’s began to fall into disrepair.  Fortunately this was recognised to be a mistake, and it was agreed to restore it.  But not before the church was relocated to stand immediately next to its feisty younger sister, the upstart cathedral.

So, the good burghers of Auckland jacked up St Mary’s until it was high enough to slip rollers underneath, and then towed it inch by painstaking inch across the road until it sat beneath the shadow of the cathedral.  Strange but true.

*

Although we lucked out on visiting the island bird reserve today, Auckland is not without its ornithological attractions.  We spot a variety of birds during the course of our day in the city, and although most are familiar to us as birds introduced to New Zealand from Britain, we are pleased to come across a couple of native species. 

One of them is the Tui, an attractive bird which is about the size of a magpie and looks as if it’s wearing an iridescent blue suit and a white bow tie.  However, it’s very skittish, forever hopping between branches and refusing to pose for photographs. In the circumstances Mrs P does well to get a shot of it, especially without her long lens.

*

Auckland is built on around 53 volcanoes.  None of them is still active, but they have been the major players in shaping the land upon which the city has grown up.  One of the most striking is Mount Eden, which is unmistakably a volcano when viewed from the rim into the remnants of the crater.  Close by is the Eden Park rugby union ground, where the All Blacks regularly strut their stuff.

*

The Auckland Wintergardens is another unexpected Auckland bonus.  It comprises a pair of large, period glasshouses set at either end of a sunken courtyard.  The flower displays within the glasshouses are good and help brighten up the day, but in a city that apparently lacks many structures of real architectural merit it’s the buildings themselves that are the biggest attraction.  Full of character and clearly throwbacks to another era, they are definitely worth a visit.

*

Once again the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus has shown us that there’s more to Auckland than meets the eye at first glance.  They say that it’s an ill wind that blows no good, so clearly the gales that prevented us visiting Tiri Tiri Matangi island today were not such an ill wind after all.

Plan B – see more of Auckland

Mrs P’s flamingo pink mobile rings at 7:30am.  She’s bought a new SIM for this trip and only one person has her number: the local agent for New Zealand in Depth, the specialist travel company that’s arranged our road trip.  

Nobody rings this early with good news, so we brace ourselves.  And yes, you’ve guessed it, today’s keenly anticipated boat trip to Rangitoto Island to get up close and personal with a volcano has been cancelled, thanks to the horrendous rainfall that’s plagued us ever since we landed in Auckland yesterday morning. 

Bloody typical, we’ve been looking forward to this, Mrs P in particular as she has a thing about volcanoes in much the same way as I have a thing about chocolate cake, and now it’s all gone belly-up.  We are, as they say round our way, totally buggered. Don’t you just love it when the gods rain on your parade?

Time for Plan B.  If your travel plans in a big city fall apart the answer is – always – to buy yourself some time by getting the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus.  At least it will keep you dry while we come up with something more exciting.

 *

The Auckland War Memorial Museum’s official name does it no favours.  As well as covering New Zealand’s role in twentieth century wars, it boasts extensive collections covering the culture of the Maori people, and the country’s natural history.

We’re determined to leave New Zealand a lot more knowledgeable about Maori culture and history than when we arrived, and the Museum turns out to be a good place to start.  There are some fascinating artefacts here, including a marae (meeting house) and a storehouse.  Woodcarving is an important element of Maori material culture, and there are some good examples here.

As for the natural history collection, we have mixed feelings.  Mrs P and I both prefer our wildlife to be alive rather than stuffed.  However, it’s well done and instructional. For example, we learn that the relationship between the size of a kiwi and the size of its egg is eye-watering.  If we’re ever lucky enough to see one in the wild and it’s wearing a very pained expression, we’ll assume it’s a female who’s just laid her egg. Ouch!

*

Auckland is dominated by the sea.  Its harbours are major players in New Zealand’s trading relationship with the rest of the world, and in their spare time many of the locals enjoy nothing more than messing around in boats.  Our ticket for the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus includes a free ferry ride across the harbour to the suburb of Devonport, so we get the chance to see Auckland from a totally different perspective.

Devonport dates from the late 19th century, although many of its buildings appear to be in the art deco style of the early 20th century.  The suburb retains more of its period charm, and is less crowded, than the other parts of Auckland we’ve visited.  It’s a pleasure to spend an hour strolling up and down its main street, before diving into The Patriot bar for a meal. 

The food at The Patriot is good, but not so the company.  There are three old guys seated close to us – all Kiwis, by the sound of their accents – debating the Queen’s speech and Brexit.  Why, in heaven’s name, would any sane Kiwi talk about Brexit? For god sake, I flew halfway round the world to getaway from rubbish like that.

But you have to take the rough with the smooth, don’t you?  On the way back to the ferry we enjoy a couple more of Devonport’s highlights; an ancient Moreton Bay fig tree (known fondly to the locals as Arthur) and a magnificent new library. 

How come here in New Zealand they can build brand new, brilliant libraries, while all we can do in the UK is trash a once great library service?

First impressions of New Zealand

We’re sitting in the Tower Café, on the 50th floor of the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere, sipping mochas and admiring the view of the Auckland waterfront when a body plummets past the window.  He’s out of sight again in a flash and, horrified, we assume he’s hurtling toward a grisly death until we spot the wires that will arrest his descent just in the nick of time.  

So he’s a Sky Jumper, who’s paid $225 (NZD) for the dubious pleasure of plunging 53 floors in 11 seconds, at a speed of 85 kph. I make that $20 per second of sheer, unmitigated terror. 

New Zealanders have a bit of a reputation as adrenaline junkies, always on the lookout for a tall structure from which they can launch themselves into freefall.  If you ask me they’re completely out to lunch. 

But putting to one side this inexplicable obsession with dangerous sports, the Kiwis we’ve met so far seem like decent people.  Our onward flight from Singapore to Auckland was with Air New Zealand, so we got to know a bunch of them for a short while.  

The Kiwi cabin crew were great: welcoming, friendly and chatty.  One of them – Debs, her name was – even took time out to write some tips to help us make the most of our time here.  Such personalised service must be a long way above and beyond her job role, and appeared to be motivated simply by kindness.  If all New Zealanders are like this we’ll have a fine time over the next six weeks.

As for Auckland itself, the jury’s out. Although the waterfront area looks impressive from our vantage point in the Sky Tower café and the city is dotted with parks and other areas of greenery, the built environment appears unremarkable and perhaps even a little dull.  

OK, I’m probably doing it a dis-service.  How can I possibly come to any conclusions based on a short walk through a small area of Downtown and the view from several hundred feet up a communications tower?  And to put the contrary view, Auckland’s been ranked third in a list of the world’s most liveable cities, so there must be an up-side somewhere. 

I’m obviously missing something, but I’m going to struggle to find out what it is  We have two more days here before we start our road trip, but both of them will be taken up with visits to nearby islands. We’re not going to have time to get to know the city itself any better than we do now

What is already obvious is that some things here are very familiar.  Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Starbucks, Denny’s and Nando’s to name just a few.  

And then there are Eurasian sparrows (aka “cockney sparras”), which are all over the place and apparently much more common than in the UK, from where their ancestors hailed.  It’s strangely comforting to know that if sparrows are ever in danger of becoming extinct in the UK we can always ask the New Zealanders to repatriate a few to their mother country.

Auckland’s sparrows may be a welcome sight, but the rough sleepers are not.  Perhaps I’m just hopelessly naive, but I’d not expected this. Or maybe the area we walk through is untypical of the rest of the city?  The massage parlour and the striptease joint suggest as much.

And finally, another depressingly familiar feature of  Auckland today is the rain, which is slashing down in torrents. It makes me feel nostalgic for the UK, though not in a good way.  Let’s hope it dries up before tomorrow, when we’re off to visit the nearby island of Rangitoto, which we can see through the rain from our vantage point in the Sky Tower. Rangitoto is a volcano that emerged from the sea in an explosion of fire and fury just 600 years ago, and sounds like it’s well worth a visit.

Walking on the wild side

We’re beginning to get our heads around the itinerary for our New Zealand adventure. And what a big, impressive beast it is!

We’ll drive down to Heathrow, where our first novel experience awaits us: the priority check-in and all-round pampering that is – I sincerely hope – the lot of the business class traveller.

PHOTO CREDIT: From Pixabay via Pexels

We’ve never flown business before, and probably never will again, so we plan to make the most of it. I hope they load plenty of champagne to keep us suitably mellow during the flight to Singapore, where we’ll spend a couple of nights before flying on to Auckland.

Sultan Mosque, Singapore (2016)

Auckland is New Zealand’s biggest metropolitan centre, being home to around a third of the country’s entire population of a little under five million. After spending four nights in and around the city, acclimatizing and recovering from the inevitable jet lag, we’ll pick up a rental car and spend a further ten nights visiting some of the highlights of North Island.

Then it’s a short internal flight from Palmerston North, across the Cook Strait to Christchurch where a second rental car awaits us. We’ll spend the next 32 nights touring the length and breadth of South Island, before returning to Christchurch for the flight back to the UK.

Embed from Getty Images

That’s if we make it to South Island, of course. Before we get there, we’re due to visit White Island on the east coast of the North Island, in the Bay of Plenty. It’s New Zealand’s most active cone volcano, and has been built up by continuous volcanic activity over the past 150,000 years. Active it surely is, as our itinerary advises us that we’ll be issued with hard hats and gas masks before we arrive.

White Island, New Zealand - 2 of 16

PHOTO CREDIT: “White Island, New Zealand – 2 of 16” by Phillip Wong – http://phw.co.nz is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

GAS MASKS! For heaven’s sake, what sort of trip is this going to be? I’m feeling my age a bit these days and was rather hoping New Zealand would be a walk in the park. But instead it looks like we’ll be walking on the wild side.

White Island, New Zealand - 4 of 16

PHOTO CREDIT: “White Island, New Zealand – 4 of 16” by Phillip Wong – http://phw.co.nz is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

On the other hand, why not? After all, you only live once. It could even be fun, and if the volcano blows its top while we’re there at least I’ll leave this life with an impressive bang.

Hard hats, gas masks, random unpredictable volcanic eruptions and accompanying earth tremors? Bring ’em on I say, bring ’em on!