Walking through Auckland
I’ve not been to Paris, or New York, or London or Shanghai. Johannesburg, as much as it likes to crow about it, is not a world class city. So this week when the results of a “global survey” about the world’s best cities were released, I was a little bit smug about being in one of the current top three.
By all standards, Auckland is a small city with a population of only just over 1.4 million people. The population density is about the same as in Johannesburg, but Johannesburg is home 4.4 million. For context, the city of Johannesburg houses just about the same as New Zealand’s entire population.
So Auckland should feel pokey and small, but it doesn’t. Sure, the main CBD is tiny compared to other megacities, but the rest of it feels enormous and sprawling. There are many nooks and crannies and rivers and peaks and valleys, and only like two malls to be explored. I took a walk with Chris in a proper, functioning forest (with ferns and a stream) for the first time on Thursday. The trees are so straight and tall, and there’s no sound from the city, just the pulsing cicadas. When I remarked that it would be easy to get lost because I couldn’t see the sun, he picked a fern leaf, and placed it on the ground upside down, pointing in the direction we’d just walked. The white underside made it an effective pointer in the dim. He explained that is a Maori way finding technique and it’s how the term “silver fern” came about. It’s an elegant solution to a potentially devastating problem, which seems is a national theme in New Zealand.
People here don’t like complications, unless it’s a massive turbo clamped to the engine of a 1.4l Toyota Starlet. I’ve not seen as many zef opgewarmde karre since driving through Pretoria West, it’s just subarus, body kits, oversized rims and comical suspension lifts. And boats.
Holy heavens, the boats are everywhere. There’s not enough space on the water so there are boat parking lots with hundreds of them in neat rows.
Chris has a boat, Geisha. He, Nicole and I went for a ride through the harbour to Motuihe Island last Sunday. Seeing the city skyline sink into the haze from the aft deck looked like one of my teen sci-fi dreams. Ahead were lines of crisp little sails covering the horizon in the gulf, a zipping single-man hydrofoil, lumbering ferries, yachts with tanned balding men, other small cruisers like ours, and the superliner “Voyager of the Seas”. People crowded the foredeck, watching the boat’s passage through the harbour.
No matter how often I experience being on a boat on open water, I’m sure every time will feel like an adventure. There is nothing to be done to stop the waves doing what they please. It’s enthralling and terrifying, and a truckload of fun.
Chris moored the boat in the sheltered cove of the island, along with at least thirty other boats of various shapes and sizes. The wake of passing craft would roll Geisha around while I tried to make lunch, and it took all my concentration to not mess fried chicken and mushrooms around the cabin. Afterwards Chris rowed us to shore on the dingy, with Nicky sitting on the bow and me on the stern. Three adults cramped into a little dingy on the waist-deep water lagoon, bravely rowing ashore to conquer the Motuihe Island public toilets.
The Island seems typical of the landscape around Auckland: a jumble of tropical and alpine vegetation clinging to steep slopes, and grassy flat bits. And its volcano is dormant, which also just typical.
The opposite side of the island is blasted by the wind sweeping in across the Hauraki Gulf, and has eroded edges that contrast with the wind-shadowed cove. These two coasts are only 100m apart and are both clearly visible from the middle of the island. Lying on the sheltered beach, I could hear the crashing surf behind me, while in front of me the moored boats tugged gently at their anchors and the dads threw their laughing children overboard.
And then I felt very far away from home.
Not homesick. Not a longing. Just far removed; the islands and city in the distance, the volcanoes all around me, boats and sails, no black people, the giant pine trees where I would expect palms and coconuts, wrapped around me completely and I was alone. All the sounds rang a bit longer.
I’m quite comfortable with solitude, but this aloneness was complete (because my iPhone had run flat).
No amount of Google street view searches could prepare me for this, and Auckland has surpassed every expectation I held when I left South Africa. Being overwhelmed is par for the course, I’ve heard, but I’m not used to it. As things normalise and I start to feel more at home there’s one thing I’m pretty sure will stick: Auckland is amazing.
I wish you could all be here with me, far from home, overwhelmed, and happy to be here.
I went to the St. Lucia estuary when I was twelve years old on a school tour. From there the school bus turned toward Zululand before the return to Krugersdorp. Natal seemed so big, bright and wild. As a thirty year old man it was small and dim as I flew over the edge of night, away from Africa.
Not having travelled much, flying in a jet is still amazing. Even at my most exhausted, jammed into a little seat high above the Tasman Sea, looking down on the clouds fills me with joy. Maybe the novelty will wear off some day, but I doubt it.
I was lucky to not have anyone sitting in front of me on my flight to Sydney. Or next to me. Or behind me. It almost felt like a pyjama party, with droves of blonde Australian girls sprawled across up to three seats at a time. Like them, I made the most of the empty cabin and used as much space as I could.
When I woke up, flying into the sun, I could have sworn I saw icebergs in the ocean below. The white flecks on the water were too irregular to be white horses on the waves; some were enormous and did not move or dissolve like the waves. I’m sure they were icebergs. Damn sure.
And that tough old Qantas 747-400 was so loud inside. If the captain had to command us to brace ourselves for a plunge into the Southern Ocean, all we would have heard would be, “DING DONG… (Muffled sounds)”.
There was a flight attendant named Bruce. And there was a Nigel too (I’m really not joking). Maybe Qantas insists their cabin staff make up names for themselves like strippers do. Qantas: strippers in the sky.
Australia and New South Wales are bright yellow with dark green patches of trees and they’re all neatly contained in lovely geometric arrangements. Crop disks and haphazard boundaries dominate South African farms and veld, but what I saw of Australia was pixellated by right-angled corners.
On our approach into Sydney Airport I saw the Sydney harbour bridge and a glimpse of the opera house. From the air Sydney and its waterways look exquisite and I want to go in and explore on my next trip.
The biggest difference from flying over South Africa was not seeing the glint from tin shacks. Though I’m aware of the skeletons in Australia’s closet, it was a relief not seeing the grids of RDP houses and the poverty they embody.
The airport itself was pretty, but I assume it is small compared to other international airports. I walked from one end to the other within twenty minutes while wrestling with the wifi.
At the boarding gate waiting area I struck up a conversation with an older couple from Cape Town. I was able to steer the conversation away from “why South Africa sucks” without too much effort.
Near boarding time, the waiting area filled with young couples carrying small children. After they had sized each other up an almighty crying game commenced, and escalated in intensity from “look how much better I cry than all of you”, to “goddamit I’m losing, better up my game”, to “I hate my life, I hate all of you and I’m now crying because I really, really mean it”, all the way to Auckland. The crying eventually changed to a raspy “trudging over the finishing line” groaning by the time the plane rolled to a halt. The desperate, saggy parents disembarked and the cabin crew (and pretty much everyone else) were happy that it was all over.
I didn’t see much of Auckland on the approach to the airport. I went through border control with little difficulty (I had to “show and tell” my running shoes from the depths of my checked luggage), although the pop-up handle from my bag broke during transit (there was much swearing) so I had to drag it hunched over to the side, while trying to look smart, while carrying my beanbag airplane pillow on the other arm.
By the time I gave Nicky a hug it was 00:30. The drive home past the CBD was a blur, though I remember the city being clean as a movie set, well lit and just beautiful. The road signs here use the same DIN typeface used in South Africa, but the layout is tighter, bordering on “afraid of too much negative space”. We stopped at a Caltex shop manned by a white-haired Asian gentleman to get some orange juice and then went to the flat in Albany.
Auckland has a lovely smell. It’s a full, round smell, almost sweet like incense, but clear and crisp. It’s nothing like I’ve ever experienced.
I think I am going to like it here.
That’s all for now,