Our memories of Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, are so entwined with those of our friends, Pam and Ian that we have to write some words about this gracious couple right from the start. Not only did they drive us to and from the airport, they introduced us to their country, housed and fed us in style, rescued us from a wrong train station, and made excellent and accurate travel suggestions. Coming together each day in the kitchen at wine-o’clock, we would laugh, converse in lively fashion, and watch Pam prepare her scrumptious meals. Having the guidance and friendship of our New Zealand friends transformed ordinary travel experiences into ones much deeper and richer.
On our very first day, we walked with them a short distance from their home, down a steep flight of steps, across a timber causeway over an estuary, up another flight of steps and onto a train platform from where we took a local train two short stops into the city center. This brief transit introduced us to two salient features of Auckland, its hills and its water.
Looking at a map of New Zealand, you’ll notice right away that the city is located on a narrow part of the North Island bounded on the east by a large bay of smaller islands and on the west by a protected harbor, whose wide entrance is spanned by a long bridge. In addition to its watery character, Auckland is a city of volcanoes whose ancient craters, ridges and lava flows comprise the city’s topography. It is not a city to get to know quickly or on foot. Although we walked along its eastern harbor and around its center, we approached other points of interest, such as the wonderful Avondale Sunday Market, piecemeal, by car, bus, or taxi, as occasions arose. Nor did we see the city all at once. After an initial couple of days, we left to explore the other parts of the country we’ve already written about, only to return for the Easter and ANZAC Day holidays and then to leave and return twice more as we visited other significant north-island sights.
As is true also of Australia, New Zealand in not a country of apartment dwellers. Although flats do exist, most New Zealanders seem to prefer living in detached houses on lots surrounded by a bit of lawn or garden. This accounts for the fact that cities Down Under spread out in ways that we Americans are familiar and comfortable with.
Urban harbor fronts often offer clues to the qualities of cities that lie behind them. Auckland’s Wyngard section had been a seaside industrial site with tall grain elevators and petroleum storage tanks. No longer needed, these have been kept and worked into the design of what we can only describe as a large art park that is fun to walk around. On the day of our visit, commercial ships were docked nearby as was a vintage steam yacht registered in Glasgow. Built probably in the 1930s, it looked still in very good condition.
Another downtown monument saved from the wrecking ball is the Civic Theater, a lavishly built and decorated fantasy of a movie palace that opened in 1929. Lovingly restored, it is today a venue for stage productions and special events. We weren’t able to enter the auditorium, but the mock oriental décor of its foyer gave us a good idea of what the rest of the interior would be like. There aren’t many of these wonderful theaters left in the world. This one is a municipal treasure.
The Auckland Art Gallery is the city’s principal art museum. With its new, award-winning addition, the building is itself a work of art. It is such a delightful gallery that we went there twice. Some of its paintings and photographs have social and historical themes. Examples are the unsettling mural paintings by Maori artist Robyn Kahukiwa. The ways she depicts the misunderstandings and tensions between her ancestors and the whites that ruled them recalls the work of the great Mexican muralists.
As we find ourselves writing to you about yet another museum, we wonder what you must think. It’s true that we seek out museums wherever we go. They are a refuge from the noisy commerce of the streets. Their art collections lift and sooth our spirits. What’s more, through their depiction of local history and culture, they help to orient us in the many unfamiliar societies we encounter.
This brings us to one more Auckland monument. The approach to the War Memorial Museum is uphill through a pretty, wooded park and then up a wide flight of stairs to its giant neoclassical exterior. Within, its topmost gallery contains a rotunda whose marble walls are carved with the names of the thousands of young men from Auckland who lost their lives fighting in World War I. Additionally, there are two glass-topped cases containing large volumes on whose pages are written in the most exquisite penmanship not only the names of the dead but also their units, the honors they received, and their next of kin. These records are the work of a single man, a soldier who survived the war.
It was to the terrace in front of the War Memorial Museum that Kay and I went before dawn on ANZAC Day in the company of Pam, Ian, and their friend Allison, to stand with thousands of others and honor the memory of the fallen. We Americans have our Memorial Day, but for many of us it has become just one more holiday, a time to feast, relax, and perhaps enjoy the warmth and sunshine of spring. In New Zealand and Australia, however, April 25th is a solemn day of remembrance that is celebrated in cities and towns across the country.
Ian explained that ANZAC Day is more than a memorial to the soldiers lost at war. World War I was the first time that the armies of New Zealand and Australia fought under their own flags. Thus, it was the historical moment that these colonies first began to experience identities other than as British subjects, identities that would eventually lead to their independence. For this reason, April 25th is also celebrated as their national day.
To cap our month-long tour of New Zealand, Kay and I made two more trips on the North Island beyond Auckland. Our first was a road trip four hours north in a rented Nissan to a lovely district known as the Bay of Islands.
Nearing our destination, we made a stop in Kawakawa to see a famous public toilet building designed by the eccentric Austrian architect Frederich Hundertwasser, who spent much of his last twenty-five years in the neighborhood. Its playful, colorful design is typical of Hundertwasser; it uses stacked ceramic shapes to form columns and incorporates bottles as building elements in the walls.
Civic pride has kept the structure clean and in prime condition. Its radical design has inspired other buildings on Kawakawa’s main street.
It was in Kawakawa, also, that we paid $20.00 apiece to board a two-car vintage train pulled by Gabriel, a coal-burning steam engine in order to travel a few kilometers out and back along a narrow-gauge track to a long wooden bridge. The tracks run smack down the middle of Main Street. The dark smoke from the engine blew everywhere, filling the air with its smell. In that sense, our ride felt truly authentic. An enthusiastic lady volunteer kept up a running commentary during the ride, telling us the history of the railroad and the surrounding area that owed its prosperity to a coal deposit discovered in the 19th century.
Our ultimate destination — tiny, seaside Russell — is today the most halcyon of towns, a lovely place in which to stroll, eat excellent food, and relax. However, at the end of the 18th century and through half of the 19th, the local scene was very different. It was a port of call for whaling ships and others to provision and for their crews to be at liberty. Wide-open and dissolute, it was known as the “hell hole of the Pacific.” Charles Darwin stopped there and described those he saw as “the refuse of humanity.” This phase ended slowly as the British decided to make New Zealand a colony and began to impose law and order. The nearby town of Okiato served briefly as the colony’s first capital.
On our single whole day in the Bay of Islands we boarded a large excursion boat with a hundred others for a cruise among the islands to an enormous rock about twenty kilometers off shore that has a large hole at the water line. The name of our boat was the Dolphin Seeker, and one of the pleasures of the afternoon cruise was observing the pods of bottle-nosed dolphins that kept company with us part of the way. These creatures would surface briefly showing us their backs and dorsal fins before diving again.
Arriving at the rock the captain lined up his boat and wanted to know whether we thought he could drive it through the hole. We thought he was joking since the hole just didn’t look tall or wide enough to allow the Dolphin Seeker to pass through it. Thus, we were surprised and a little thrilled when the captain proceeded to do just that.
On our return to Russell we stopped at
, which with 520 acres is the largest of the archipelago. It has a small beach covered with tiny seashells. Of the island’s several hills one was quite tall. Along with many others from the boat, I climbed the steep path to the top for what was a truly spectacular view in every direction. The setting sun cast the shape and topography of the island and its inlets in strong relief. Beyond, were other islands, and the wide Pacific Ocean. Below me, the terrain was bright green dotted with fat, grazing sheep. The scene was thrilling.
As we parted from the Dolphin Seeker, our captain counseled us to try Sally’s Restaurant on the strand not far from the wharf. There, I ordered six oysters served with lemon and balsamic vinegar. They came on a long, white plate drizzled with a dark balsamic thread.
Kay ordered scallops that were served with their roe, a way we had never eaten them before. After a bowl of delicious seafood chowder, I ordered Afogato, a dessert I’d seen on a number of New Zealand menus but not tried until now. It consisted of vanilla ice cream accompanied, in this case, by a cup of espresso and a cordial glass of Cointreau. Kay drank the coffee. It was a perfect ending to the meal. We left the restaurant extremely satisfied. That was just how we’d felt the night before after our delicious dinner at the nearby Duke of Marlborough, the first licensed establishment in New Zealand.
We can’t leave Russell, without mentioning the brilliant night sky, a rare and beautiful sight for us city dwellers. The Milky Way surrounded by so many single stars put us in awe.
Near to Russell is one of New Zealand’s most historic spots. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds is where a British officer and 43 Maori chiefs signed a document that gave to Britain sovereignty over New Zealand and to the Maoris, a guarantee protecting their land, water, and fishing rights.
Well preserved is the house where the treaty was written and translated into Maori. The whole story is detailed in a short video that we watched in the visitors’ center before walking the grounds.
Our final adventure, before saying good-bye to our friends and to New Zealand, was a bus trip south of Auckland to Rotorua. Unlike quiet Russell, Rotorua is tourist central with dozens of motels and restaurants. Its major attractions are the thermal phenomena that exist in the surrounding district, including a spectacular geyser. If Yellowstone’s Old Faithful is the world’s largest, then Rotorua’s Lady Fox must be a close second. Along with a large number of others, we watched an eruption that sent steam and gases high into the blue sky.
This was part of an excursion that allowed us to walk for a couple of hours on catwalks and duckboards among various manifestations of thermal activity. We peered into craters whose bottoms were masses of bubbling mud. We walked across terraces whose surfaces had a glassy sheen and where various mineral colors blended into each other. In some spots the air had the sulfurous odor of rotten eggs. At others, the steam rising from a crater was so dense we couldn’t see inside.
The thing about Rotorua’s attractions is how organized they are. Buses collected and returned us from and to our lodging. Bus drivers were also tour guides with spiels designed to inform and entertain us. This was especially true of an evening package we bought to visit the Tamika Maori Village. This part of the island has for centuries been the heartland of the Arawa Tribe whose leaders have cleverly exploited tourist interest in their history, culture, and lifestyle by creating interactive programs that are exciting and informative. They are not inexpensive, but they deliver value for the money.
Passing en masse by a succession of huts or stations illuminated by firelight we learned how Maori women kept alive their traditional ways of dancing and weaving and how Maori men trained and practiced to be the fierce hand-to-hand warriors they were. Each of these physical demonstrations involved volunteers from our group. At the end, the ensemble of men and women wove together much of what we had seen individually into an explosive, on-stage performance. What might have seemed corny in less adept hands was kept from that by the ability and energy of these performers.
They were skillful actors dressed in authentic costumes with their faces painted to replicate the mokos or facial tattoos worn by their ancestors. Indeed, the men could be quite frightening when performing the haka or warrior’s dance designed to strike fear into the enemy and to summon up the fighting spirit among themselves. New Zealand’s national rugby team, the All Blacks, performs a version of the haka before each game.
Our evening at the village ended with a hangi or feast with the meat and vegetables cooked the traditional way in covered pits of hot stones.
On the bus ride back to our accommodation, our driver and guide encouraged each national group to sing one of their country’s traditional songs. As two of only three Americans on board, Kay and I launched into our rendition of America the Beautiful to which we fortunately remembered the tune and most of the words.
On our final full day in New Zealand, we joined Pam for our second visit to the marvelous Sunday Market in Auckland. We simply had to experience it again in all its exotic diversity. The range of fruits and vegetables on offer was amazing, as was the range of cultures represented in both sellers and buyers. Kay bought a small attractive cutting board there made from heartwood of the kauri tree; it will be a fond reminder of our time in this wonderful country spent with our friends.
Reflecting on our month’s adventures in New Zealand, we realize we packed a great deal of activity into a relatively short time. If we hadn’t recorded the details as we went along, we likely wouldn’t remember half of what we saw and did. Sharing these with you is our way of creating a record of our memories while they are still mostly fresh.