It’s true that we arrived in New Zealand with quite big expectations of this relatively small country. When we booked our flights, we had long had in mind various activities we could partake in, from the pedestrian wine-tasting to the adrenaline-pumping bungee. We set aside almost two months to see a country (roughly) the size of the UK, excited by how much time we had to circumnavigate the two islands while travellers we met in south-east Asia scoffed that we would have too long. We were also hoping the bus company we booked with to take us about would cater for our every need: good company, comfortably short journeys broken up with rest-stops and a friendly, approachable driver.
What we hadn’t quite thought about was our reception from New Zealand’s countrymen and women, and in this respect we stumbled unexpectedly across a first-hand generalisation. Whilst booking a return bus to Melbourne from Sydney’s YHA, a Kiwi living in Oz gave us some food for thought about the people we might encounter:
“Aussies are all front” he said. “They’re really friendly the first time you meet and they make things very comfortable. Kiwi’s on the other hand, might not say hello by giving you a hug, but if you’re really needing help, they’ll go out of their way to do so”
In the unlikely event that this particular gent is reading this, I am of course paraphrasing and for any Oz or NZ natives reading, this is of course a generalisation, however we found the stereotype to be fairly accurate in our experience.
Our first encounter with a Kiwi happened to be an immigration official as we tried to escape Auckland International Airport and whilst she asked questions like “have you been in NZ before?”, “where are you travelling to next?” and “who are you travelling with?” her tone lacked the conviction of somebody genuinely interested. Our second native (I use the term native to mean anyone born in NZ, regardless of colour/race/ancestry) changed some Australian dollars into their NZ cousins for us and again did so with the courtesies of a worker providing a service, but nothing more. Our third native was the driver of the shuttle bus from the airport into the city and once again she went about her job by doing the absolute minimum necessary, without sparing any extra niceties. In fact, when we tried to speak to her to ask her where a stranger in a strange city might need to get off to find their hostel, she responded with a heavy tone of annoyance.
Above: From Queen Street, Auckland Town Hall pretends to be as tall as the 328 metre high Sky Tower
Now, it’s quite possible these three people were coming to the end of a long shift and were concentrating on the clock instead of their customer service but I personally didn’t feel too welcomed by- admittedly- a minute portion of NZ’s 4 million strong population. Luckily the man opposite us on the bus was getting off near Turner Street where we were staying at YHA International, and let us follow him off the bus (apparently he had previously complained about the same driver, so we may have been on to something).
We checked in and immediately headed out to hunt down a supermarket. As we would be here for five nights we decided to grab a shelf and fill it with cheap and easy meal-stuffs (mainly pasta, sauces and porridge). We arrived into the city in the dark and I’m sure anyone who has done the same in an alien place finds it hard to feel settled right away. You’re unsure of your surroundings thanks to the lack of light and you are yet to explore. As such, we thought we’d combine our trip for food with brief orientation.
The combination of our tetchy welcome and the lack of familiarity didn’t yield a particularly positive feeling about our new city and we went to our separate dorms feeling a little bit disappointed. After all we were looking forward to our time in this country as much as any other on the whole trip and we felt mentally winded by our first couple of hours.
However tomorrow was a new day and we rose the next morning with a willingness to let Auckland show us what it was really about. We felt better for being able to wander the city streets (or city street rather; Queen Street accounts for much of the city centre) in daylight and we went in search of the Stray office on Fort Street. Stray is the bus operator we decided to use for our time in NZ, after much research and online comparisons. We had booked a 29-day minimum pass taking us all over the country but we had a few concerns about the logistics of using their online-passenger system of booking. We found the office to be closed for lunch so there was some waiting about, but once the friendly Brit came back and explained everything for us (a colleague had actually made a mistake with our booking, thus causing our confusion) we felt much more reassured about our decision to use Stray as well as our time here in Auckland.
Above: Auckland Art Gallery. One of the many cool buildings in the city
Further orientation brought us to the pier as well as the Britomart transport centre where we got the necessary information regarding ferry trips and buses we could get to different parts of Auckland. I had read the day before that today Venus was visibly in transit across the sun, from 10am to about 4.15pm. The observatory/planetarium on One Tree Hill (no I don’t think it inspired the US tv-drama and yes it did actually have more than one tree) was holding an event and was apparently the best place to view the once in a hundred-or so year eclipse. However our orientation took a bit longer than expected so we were racing the clock in a bid to get to the suburbs by bus. Despite the $4 glasses we bought, there was very little to see thanks to the storm of clouds blocking the sun but we did get a glimpse right towards the end as the tiny black dot of Venus appeared to fall from the sun’s surface.
Above: Auckland Observatory, One Tree Hill
In summary, our first two days had been tinged with disappointment having expected so much but any doubts we were starting to have about NZ and in particular Auckland had firmly disappeared by the end of the following day. We rose fairly early to take the ferry to Rangitoto Island- a volcanic island a half hour trip away which ‘only’ erupted about 700 years ago- but were told as we got to the pier that the early crossing had been cancelled; bad weather or a drunken captain or something. We never found out why, but rather than waste a gloriously bright morning, we took advantage of the clear skies and took the semi-glass elevator to the top of the Sky Tower: the iconic, futuristic sky-scraper which resembles a giant needle (I read somewhere that the design was mocked at first due to the tower housing a casino at ground level; apparently symbolising a ‘drug-like’ gambling addiction in the city).
Above: View from the Sky Tower looking out to the harbour with Rangitoto Island in the distance (top right)
We had only been to the top of Melbourne’s tallest building a few days ago, but we had a much more spectacular experience in Auckland thanks to the stunning blue skies that afforded us 360 degree views of the city and surrounding islands. Having taken enough photos, including a video of a ‘jumper’ who was suspended right in front of us for a couple of seconds before continuing his descent, we made for the pier to get the 12.15 ferry to Rangitoto. The last ferry from the island back to Auckland was at 3.15 so by the time we set foot on the (hopefully) dormant volcano, we only had about two and a half hours to explore. The walk to the summit would take us an hour and a half one way according to signs so we set off eager to reach the top for the sweet reward of a more natural 360 degree lookout. And it was well worth it, with open water stretching far out to the horizon as the sun began its slow descent on one side of the island and a bustling city dominating the skyline on the other. Both views were flanked by lush, green hillsides and rocky yellow cliff faces and the 10 minutes spent taking in this natural beauty served to re-establish our excitement at the prospect of touring this spectacular country.
Above: View from the summit of Rangitoto Island
From then on in, with a much more positive attitude towards the city and one or two recommendations from a cousin (cheers for the Burger Fuel tip Ruari; neither of us could move after the burger and kumara fries!), Auckland became a place where we felt relaxed, at home and up for anything. As such, before leaving for the Northlands on Sunday we took in the night time delights of K’rd (Karangahape Road for anyone asking), went to watch The Hunger Games as Jo and I had very recently finished the first book, witnessed the All Blacks hand the Irish a proverbial spanking at Eden Park (our first ever rugby match was a brilliant experience) and mixed with some natives in a downtown bar.
Above: Me at Eden Park before KO
I’d like to finish with mention of the 18-21 year old Kiwi’s who shared our company on Saturday night. We came straight from the rugby in Kingsland, into town courtesy of a free bus put on for match ticket holders, sharing it with about 50 Irish supporters with whom we also shared (rather intimately) Father Ted’s Irish pub, just off Queen Street. Despite the ratio of Irish to non-Irish, we managed to get talking to a group of out-of-towners from the Northlands who had come into the city to watch the game. Their friendliness and willingness to embrace two English Jo(e)’s, as well as the two whisky’s they kindly bought us, helped to dispel any reservations we may have conceived from our first 24 hours in Auckland.
I suppose the Kiwi we met in Sydney was right. We didn’t get the dynamic, in-your-face welcome we did from Australia, but given a chance, NZ came through with some warm and enjoyable company. If just half the amount of people we happen across during our month and a half in NZ are as easy to talk to and as helpful as the lads we drank too much Heineken with, then there’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll end up having the trip we expected we would. With the sore head to go with it.