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In Transit Auckland

1st December 2011

A Climb to the Top of the Tallest Structure in the Southern Hemisphere

Colourful Fire Escape
    I was awakened from a fitful sleep at 3am New Zealand time for breakfast. How on earth can the cabin crew be so cheery at this time of day? By 04:45 I was on the ground and in a border control queue. A young fellow stood next to me and we laughed simultaneously when a load of stragglers were led up by an official and placed on a level footing in the queue with us. I couldn't quite place his accent; it turned out he was from Gloucestershire. He was travelling on his own with a huge backpack strapped to his back. Having travelled across America, he was now going to spend a year in New Zealand. He had nothing lined up, but was certain he could pick up a job. Good for him. The first time I ever left Britain I was in my teens, and I went to work in Germany. All things are possible.
    Border control was a painless procedure, and soon I was speeding through endless suburbs a single-storey wooden chalets to my hotel. I arrived nine hours before check-in, but they kindly let me use their fitness centre to shower and freshen up. I contacted my family to let them know I had arrived safely at the opposite end of the planet in a country slightly larger than the UK. However, the total population is only 4.3 million people, 14% of which are Maori. A large portion of New Zealanders are absent or work abroad, indeed 450 thousand work in Australia alone. 3 million people live in the North Island, of which 1.3 million people live in Auckland. Most parts of the country are sparsely populated. Just as in the UK where many people living south of Watford Gap seem to be mystified about the northern hinterland, likewise in New Zealand the rest of the nation regards Auckland with a mixture of suspicion and fascination: the workings of the big city, its enormous sprawl, hustle, bustle and traffic jams. An animosity has arisen stemming from a resentment of the Aucklander's perceived wealth and status. A popular nickname for an Aucklander is JAFA, "just another f----ing Aucklander".
    Or perhaps the outsiders are just jealous. Auckland is one of the world's most uniquely placed cities. Two magnificent harbours with their attendant river estuaries almost sever the land to the north, and the city sits on the narrow S-shaped isthmus (1.3km at its narrowest point), separating the Tasman Sea from the Pacific Ocean. Thus the city is never far from water, with the shallow, silted, Manukau Harbour leading out to the rugged west coast surfing beaches, and the glistening Waitemata Harbour (Sparkling Waters in Maori) opening up to the myriad of islands in the Hauraki Gulf. It is not surprising that sailing is a popular activity here, and the 135,000 pleasure craft floating in the marinas quite rightly justify Auckland's claim to being the "City of Sails".
Santa Got to Queen Street Before the Rush Hour
    I needed to pop into downtown to find a mobile phone for my duration in this country, plus a power adaptor. I thought San Francisco was hilly, but this place is even hillier. I soon found myself walking up the main thoroughfare, Queen Street. The city's main drag extends from the Ferry Building up to Karangahape Road. This is the heart of downtown Auckland. Traditionally known as the "Golden Mile", it is largely sustained by corporate New Zealand's headquarters, banks and insurance companies. Similar to London's financial square mile, it is sparsely peopled outside business hours. Convenience stores cater for inner-city apartment dwellers, and cheap noodle bars and internet cafes serve the huge number of Asian students. One or two fashion stores and upmarket boutiques add a little glitter to the Golden Mile, with more designer shopping areas lurking in the side streets. 150 years ago, Queen Street was a bush-covered gully containing a canal that served as an open sewer, with the sea lapping up as far as Fore Street. A few commuters were scurrying to work, and the shop keepers hadn't even got out of bed yet. At Aotea Square, I came across a protestors' tent village outside the Town Hall; London and San Francisco are not alone. One of the residents, a huge Maori chap, asked me if I wanted a $1 breakfast. I declined saying that I have breakfast earlier; besides it didn't look appetising. We chatted a while regarding their protest efforts down under. Crunch time would be on 7th December, when the protestors would meet up with the authorities to review questions and answers that would determine if they would be evicted or not. I wished him luck, gave him a big slap on the shoulder; his huge bulk hardly noticed it.
Sky Tower
    The final stretch of Queen Street was quite steep, bringing me to the brow of a hill along which Karangahape Road ran, often referred to as K' Road. In the 19th century this would have been home to wealthy merchants, and during the 1970s the city's Polynesian community was based here, and subsequently gained a reputation for sleaze. Today, most of the strip joints have been eradicated, replaced by groovy cafes, bars, ethnic restaurants, music shops and colourful East and South Asian stores. At one of the thousands of road junctions, which seem to give 95% priority to vehicles and the remainder to pedestrians, I observed that one or two souls would jay-walk, while most folk would stand there patiently writing their memoirs. At the next crossing, I asked a guy, dressed in a smart suit complete with briefcase, if jay-walking was illegal in this country. "Na, mate," he laughed, "The police have better things to do. Your insurance company might have a different view on it though." We both chuckled, and he went about his business.
    I made my way down Nelson Street in the direction of the waterfront to visit a shopping mall where I could make my purchases. I had walked a pretty mile or two in hilly terrain by this time, and had built up an appetite, so I had a snack, content to munch away and people watch. The way people walked, dressed and conducted themselves could easily have led one to believe they were in Britain. The only give away was the more noticeable number of Asian faces, and the unmistakable features of the occasional Maori passing by. As well as being by far the largest, Auckland is the most multicultural of NZ's cities. Auckland's heart beats to a Polynesian rhythm, its people a melting pot of European, South Pacific and Asian cultures and a strong indigenous Maori heritage, and it boasts the biggest Polynesian population of any city in the world. The city's rich Pacific cultural mix is celebrated at festivals and sporting matches.
    Once I'd obtained my electricals, I returned to the hotel and caught up with my blog until I could gain access to my room. The room was spacious, more like a serviced apartment really. I had a fridge, cooker, microwave oven, dishwasher and all the utensils for self-catering. My mind momentarily connected my dirty socks and knickers with the dishwasher, but I thought no, that's not going to work. Looking around further, there was a big wardrobe with just four hangers. However, most of my on-the-move clothing is of the type where stowing on shelves or cupboard drawers is more appropriate. There was no such luxury here, so I would be living out of a suitcase. The table had an open lattice surface; fine for the neatly placed magazines laying on it, but useless for chucking my small change and watch on. It was a smart, modern hotel, but had strange design features. I can live with it though; it is luxury compared with my next three months.
    The lack of sleep was beginning to get to me, but I needed to knuckle down and attend to the vehicle acquisition business. I located on a map a couple of the places I had researched and went off to investigate them. One just acted as a trading post where folk could safely park up their vehicles indoors, and punters could inspect them during opening hours. The sellers named their own asking price, and negotiation over phone or whatever was between seller and buyer only. The business model for the company providing the premises was the charge they imposed on sellers for the use of the covered area; $95 for 3 days. A range of cars and vans were parked up in various stages of decomposition. My first thought was would I want to gamble on one of these beat up vehicles. I'll reserve judgement for another day. It served the purpose of giving me an insight into what the going rates were. The other place I wanted to visit was closed by the time I reached it; another day.
    With vehicle hunting over for the day, and the sun now making an appearance, I headed across to the Sky Tower to get a feel for the lay of the land. At a height of 328m, Sky Tower is the tallest structure in the Southern Hemisphere. Built in the mid-90s, this concrete structure has dominated the city centre skyline, its shape resembling a giant hypodermic syringe. Its majesty is somewhat eroded by the plastic 24-hour casino complex complete with bars, cafes and restaurants at its base; indeed critics had joked at how the giant syringe was appropriate for the gambling addiction being generated at its base. A lift whisked me to the main observation deck in a mere 40 seconds, the glass front allowing me to watch the world fall away below me. The view from the top was absolutely stunning, with views on a clear day extending to more than 80km.
    I was distracted by a large, "Ooh!" emanating from a group of people peering down one side of the tower. A base jumper had just plummeted by down to a bulls-eye far below. Yes, for those wishing a further adrenalin boost and wishing to shave more moments off their life spans, a tethered 192m base jump with a 16-second fall time was available. Another lift took me further up the tower to the Sky Deck; just more of the same stupendous views.
    Looking out from the tower, the city's connections with the sea became obvious. However, I also got an insight into the sprawl. Beyond the high rise Central Business District (CBD) a vast sprawling city satisfies the Kiwi aspiration for a free standing house on its own quarter-acre of land. As a result, the city that houses 1.3 million people, over a quarter of the country's population, occupies an area much larger than heavily populated cities such as London. Other New Zealand cities such as Christchurch, Dunedin and Wellington were planned settlements, but Auckland's lack of urban planning has allowed it to grow organically, like the moss on my lawn. Since the mid-1980s, the inner city area developed rapidly, with the building of characterless office towers and high-density apartment blocks, often sacrificing elegant Victorian buildings.
    Due to the fact that the city sits squarely on the Pacific Ring of Fire, volcanoes form another distinguishing feature, earning the city another title, the "City of Volcanoes". Much of its natural character comes from the fact that it is built on the Auckland Volcanic Field which consists of about 48 volcanoes. All of the volcanoes are individually extinct but the volcanic field as a whole is not. The youngest volcano is the 600-year-old Rangitoto Island in the mouth of Waitemata Harbour. Apart from the few that have been quarried, the volcanoes form green islands within the sea of sprawling suburbs. The largest, Mount Eden, is only 260m tall. The majority are merely 100m pimples, valued by early Maori settlers because of the fertility of the volcanic soils. They set up kumara gardens on the lower slopes, and were usually protected by fortified pa sites around the summits.
    Returning back to earth was via a different lift. No windows looking out on this one, just a glass floor so I could watch the hurtling descent down the lift shaft at my leisure. I experienced a ground-rush sensation as I reached the bottom; oh what fun!
    Later, I freshened myself up, felt I ought to eat though I didn't want to, and retired to an early bed.
Panoramic View from Sky Tower      (please use scroll bar)

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In Transit Auckland

Uploaded from Quadrant Hotel, Auckland on 2nd December at 10:55

Last updated 1.12.2011