Auckland is the first place I've seen that genuinely nestles. Looking at the city from a vantage point like Mt Eden, the way that the buildings crowd round the edges of the city's many green volcanoes reminds me of the way a cat rubs the back of his neck against your leg; Auckland positively embraces its peaks. Some of the cones even have cows grazing on them; there can't be too many western cities that have cows in their very midst.
How worrying, then, that the volcanic field on which Auckland sits is 'dormant' – for which read 'could wake up at any time'. The most recent addition to Auckland's igneous family is Rangitoto, a wide, forbidding peak that suddenly appeared in the middle of Auckland harbour some 600 years ago, and whose activities only stopped about 200 years ago; it's pretty untouched by humans, and its looming slopes – which always look dark, even in bright sunlight – dominate the view. My hostel was situated right at the bottom of the biggest cone in the city area – Mt Eden, a luscious, green hill with a big crater in the top – and although most sane people wouldn't consider living in a dormant volcanic field, it's water off Aucklanders' backs.
'It's no more dangerous than driving a car... actually, it's considerably safer,' a local friend told me. He's right, of course, but when you hear that the most likely spot for the next eruption is Takapuna, home to some of the most expensive houses in Auckland, it makes you wonder how bad the casualties will be when it finally happens. New Zealand is a time bomb waiting to go off, but you'd never know from looking at it.
My arrival in Auckland was made considerably easier by the wonderful hospitality of Doug, the director of the computer company Acorn New Zealand, his wife Raewyn and their two daughters, who put me up in their house and gave me a job at Acorn on the technical support team, starting straight away. This job would end up funding most of my Asian travels, but first I needed to sort myself out with a roof over my head.
Before long I'd settled into my own room at the Berlin Lodge in Mt Eden, a rather pleasant suburb only 20 minutes walk from Acorn's office. When I moved in it seemed that the hostel was full to the brim with lots of incredibly friendly people from Bangladesh, who appeared to have bulk-booked the place. It was rather refreshing; the place was being run by a German, it was full of strange accents, languages and smells, and it didn't seem to be full of the normal backpacker crowd. I instantly loved it.
I spent my first weekend exploring Auckland with a middle-aged American called Paul1, who proved delightful company and a source of top-notch travel advice. Auckland is a tiny place, with only a million inhabitants, and it's simplicity itself to explore. There are trees everywhere, the air is clear, the traffic problems are minimal, and you can walk almost everywhere with ease, like a lot of the cities in this part of the world.
One of my most enduring memories of these first few days was in an area where New Zealand excels and Australia fails, namely Indian cuisine. Although there isn't the proliferation of Indian curry houses here that you see in the UK, the ones here are of a very high quality, and the sight of blobs of meat and potato stewed in a thick, brown gravy with pools of dark, dank oil floating on the top was enough to make me go weak at the knees after an almost complete lack of Indian restaurants in Australia. A civilisation that knows what you mean when you say 'vindaloo' can't be all bad, and I was more than happy to slip into an easy life of regular income and luxury food while hunting for a suitable vehicle to take me round New Zealand.
Working in Auckland
It wasn't long before work threw out some exciting opportunities. Because the Acorn market is still relatively thriving in New Zealand, especially when compared to Australia, there are stories everywhere begging to be written down, and somehow I managed to get Acorn to employ me on my way round New Zealand. They commissioned me to write a portfolio of case studies of their prime school sites, as well as a collection of articles on their dealers, and they even promised to give me a job when I returned to Auckland to round off my stay.
I would end up working for Acorn for a whole month before heading off round the country to write a total of 59 articles, each netting me NZ$100. I couldn't believe my luck; travelling round New Zealand was going to mean loads of paid work, lots of hospitality, and lots of interesting stories. Each time the teachers would be different, the stories would be different, and the schools would be different; what a wonderful way to get a unique view on the culture of what the locals call Godzone (short for 'God's own country). I couldn't believe my luck – and all this from a chance meeting in Perth.
Working is also a guaranteed way to get a social life, perhaps because it's easier to be social if you have an income. The combination of the Berlin Lodge and Acorn would introduce me to some wonderful people, and while I was lounging round in New Zealand's biggest city, I spent most of my time following the usual city pursuits of eating, drinking, exploring and talking with friends I met on the way, like Greg2, Thomas, John, Anne-Marie, Sjouke, Ian and countless others. As I discovered in the Australian outback, when you're travelling alone, you're never on your own for long.
On the Labour Day long weekend I visited Centennial Park to the west of Auckland, at the southern tip of the Waitakere Ranges. The views were stunning, but this was where I learned why Aucklanders always carry umbrellas or raincoats around with them, even when there isn't a cloud in the sky. Auckland's weather is completely unreliable, and while Melbourne might be home to 'four seasons in one day', Auckland feels like it's managed to invent a few more of its own. As the locals say, 'If you can see the Waitakeres, it's going to rain; if you can't see the Waitakeres, it's already raining.' Too bloody right.
I next spent the public holiday on Monday wandering around Auckland Domain, the big park in the heart of the city (as in Australia, city parks are called 'domains'). I sat there watching the kite flyers, snap-happy tourists, panting joggers, lovebirds, touch rugby players, picnickers... all the classic park scenes, in fact, except this park has a completely rugged bush area, which to all intents and purposes is a wild forest, bang in the middle of the city. What a delight, even if the weather still wasn't playing ball.
Refuge came in the form of the Auckland War Memorial Museum, with its fascinating Maori exhibits and rather run-of-the-mill 'old' European displays. Although Captain Cook circumnavigated New Zealand just before Australia, England didn't colonise the country until well after Australia; Auckland, for example, wasn't settled by Europeans until the 1840s, by which stage Australia was well and truly colonised. This means that 'old' is even younger in New Zealand than 'old' in Australia, and this feeling even extends to Maori history.
Where the Aborigines have been around for at least 20,000 years – and recent discoveries in the Western Australian desert point to a much longer ancestry, possibly around 40,000 years – the Maoris only arrived in New Zealand in any numbers around 1350 AD. This was when they migrated from Polynesia, kicking out the existing inhabitants, the Morioris, who were themselves settlers from an earlier migration from Polynesia at least 1000 years ago. As a result Maori culture is not only considerably Polynesian in style, it has a much shorter history than the indigenous population of Australia. The Aborigines were nomadic, truly tribal, and had a unique culture; the Maoris built villages, fought each other, farmed, and their dances and rites feel – to an outsider like me – very like the ones in Polynesia. It's fascinating to explore the history of Maoris when compares to the Aborigines; they're like chalk and cheese, except for the devastating effect of colonialism, which they very much have in common...
Fireworks Over Auckland
The Kiwis celebrate Fireworks Night3 in style. It's a bit strange that a country on the opposite side of the world should celebrate an event that happened 12,000 miles away and hundreds of years ago; the Australians don't even know who Guy Fawkes is, let alone what he did, but New Zealand is much more like England than Australia, and as in the UK, the locals will use any excuse for a party.
Unfortunately the rather mollycoddling attitude that is responsible for the Draconian drinking laws in this land has also decreed that Joe Public cannot buy rockets – they're far too dangerous, apparently – so public displays are fast becoming the norm... but when Greg and I went up One Tree Hill on the night of the fifth, armed with a six-pack and an umbrella, we saw a city fizzing gently as hundreds of families let off their Roman Candles and the public displays spent thousands in seconds. It wasn't as impressive to look at as you would have thought – to see a firework you have to be looking at it when it goes off, and with a 360° view, you miss most of them – but the delayed sound of hundreds of bangs was completely bizarre. Greg, a veteran of the South African army, said it sounded just like a war zone; I had to take his word for it, but I could easily see his point.
Surf Casting in Whatipu
Me and fishing aren't exactly good bedfellows; while I love the sport, my catch rate is terrible, a fact that hasn't escaped my friend and fishing partner Bill, who said in his last letter that he'd discovered the secret to successful fishing – to go without me. Suffice to say that visiting Whatipu did little to change this, but at least I found a new method in which to expend heaps of energy while achieving nothing: surf casting.
Surf casting, as far as I can make out, involves standing on the beach, casting a line baited with pilchards as far out into the sea as possible, sticking the rod in the sand, and settling back with a vodka and coke. At least, that's how Greg, Thomas and I went surf casting, and between us we managed one tiny fish (courtesy of Thomas) and a crab (courtesy of me). Successful? No. Entertaining? You bet. The area we visited, Whatipu (pronounced 'Fatty-poo'), is at the northern tip of the western entrance to Auckland's harbour, and it's as rough as hell, with scary cliffs and a tide to make you think twice about even going ankle deep; this is no swimming beach. It is, however, ruggedly beautiful, and was a perfect setting for Three Men, No Fish, Lots of Vodka and a Beach.
It was almost impossible to imagine we were only a few miles from Auckland... but then again, that's New Zealand all over.
1 I'll never forget what happened when Paul asked me why Vegemite was not so much a spread as an Antipodean religion; my response was that if he wanted to find out why, he could help himself to my jar, but I forgot to tell him to only use a little bit, so he layered it on like thick jam. When I came back from work he declared that Aussies and Kiwis were obviously quite insane worshipping a spread that burned the roof of your mouth off; I didn't have the heart to tell him that not even the biggest fan of Vegemite would put it on toast that thickly.
2 I thoroughly liked Greg, and bizarrely all the photos I have of him show him either in jeans and camouflaged shirt, or camouflaged trousers and blue T-shirt. This isn't particularly noteworthy, but I mention it so I can gratuitously shoehorn in one of my favourite Kiwi advertising slogans, the one for Camouflaged Condoms. The sales pitch? 'Don't let them see you coming...' Pure genius!
3 I think – though I could be wrong – that Fireworks Night is only celebrated in the UK and New Zealand (Australians don't bother, that's for sure). The night of is given over to fireworks, bonfires and jacket potatoes, to celebrate the failed attempt by Guy Fawkes and his gang to blow up the Houses of Parliament with a cellar packed with gunpowder (hence the name of the attempted coup, the Gunpowder Plot). It's fun, unless you happen to work in an Accident and Emergency Department... alcohol and gunpowder can be a dangerously explosive mix.