Exploring Auckland – A reminder of what a real city is like

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CouchSurfing:

Instead of booking hostels or anything, my plan for Auckland revolved around a pair of CouchSurfers that I had contacted earlier on. Anais was a French girl currently living in New Zealand with her boyfriend Andre, and they had offered to host me for the first half of my eight days in the city, a deal that I couldn’t pass up. They were both quite cool, and much more of a “high class” than one would expect of couch surfers.

To be completely honest, both Anais and Andre would have fit into a New York sitcom almost perfectly – Andre ran a series of companies that he had started a few years back, primarily set on import/export (no, not Mafia stuff) while Anais was a professional photographer for the rich and famous of Auckland. Between the two of them they must have made quite a nice living, because their apartment was a place that I am still jealous of; a flat straight out of a bachelors dreams.

Everything in it was sized to fit a small group of people, but also to work when hosting friends. Instead of a TV they had a projector aiming out of the kitchen and onto the balcony, but the screen could retract back into the ceiling when it wasn’t in use, thus turning the area from a TV lounge into a small sitting area. This was where I stayed, sharing the living room with a French brother and sister team named Heloise and Adrian who had been traveling around the world nearly as long as I had.

 

Sleeping:

This city is actually quite cool, temperature-wise, but its rather humid and whoever designed the apartment that I was staying at really didn’t have a strong knowledge of air circulation. Thanks to this, the one night that I did sleep inside on the couch (as befitting a couch surfer) I barely got any sleep, instead spending the entire night tossing and turning, trying to find the one cool spot on the couch.

So, the next day I took advantage of what I think was my favorite part of their flat: the deck. It was right on the main street, unfortunately, but while being on the street meant that there was a constant stream of cars it also meant that there was an amazing breeze blowing across the deck. And so I huffed and I puffed and I inflated my air-mattress, rolled out my sleeping bag, and slept the night away to the sounds of a living city for the first time since I left Boston.

 

Returning the car:

Honestly, I walked into the rental office expecting a fight. Not a knuckle-bloodying fight, but instead a “well, we have to charge you for… and you won’t get your security deposit back because…” style fight – the ones that career lawyers love. And the fact that I needed to be awake at 6:30 in order to get to the airport in time didn’t help the situation much, I’ll admit.

Fortunately, I was once again impressed with Kiwi logic and honesty; the return itself took no more than 10minutes. I brought the keys in, we walked the car down quickly, and he helped me check to make sure that I hadn’t left anything in the back seat. Then I was handed a receipt showing that my security deposit was refunded, and the rental guy walked me over to the bus stop, to make sure I was able to get onto the next bus to the main airport terminal. Simple, efficient, and clean. I’ll miss this country.

And just to reinforce how much I’ll miss New Zealand, I didn’t even have to catch a bus back to the main city from the airport. Instead of paying for the $16 bus fare, I simply flagged down a car driving towards the city as it left the main parking lot. The guy who ended up stopping (and I only had to wait about 10min for someone to stop to pick me up) was a guy about my age who had just finished dropping his friend off, to fly out to Bali. He was driving one of the super-tiny British cars that you see every so often… your stereotypical clown-car. We joked about it for a few minutes, and then proceeded to shoot the breeze about parkour for the entire ride back to the main city. I’m really going to miss New Zealand when I leave.

 

Eating and exploring Kingsland:

After returning the car, I really didn’t have too much to do for the rest of the day. So I went with my fallback plan for when I’m bored in any city – put on my headphones, crank the tunes, and start walking in a random direction.

Auckland’s much more hilly than Christchurch was, but it’s much much less so than San Francisco; to be honest, its quite like Boston in that regards. The main city itself is on a large hill, crowned by Victoria Park, but out in the Kingsland district the hills were much smaller and easier to navigate, and so I made quite good time on my little wander. The street-art of the city was amazing, and I saw a mural down by the train tracks that takes the price for the most impressive work of urban-art that I’ve seen to date. It was massive, made up of dozens of smaller pieces that all flowed together like a lucid dream that you can’t quite control. I spent nearly 15min just following the trails of thought that spread through the wall, examining each small piece which in turn lead to another small piece…

 

While I was wandering I stopped in for a few bites to eat as I saw fit – the upside of wandering around for hours is that you get to explore a city far more in-depth than you would on a tour, but the downside is that you work up a serious hunger, especially if the area is as hilly as Kingsland was. Thankfully there were some amazing small cafes scattered around for me to sample.

I stopped in for Lunch at a burger place that called itself “the best home-made burger in Auckland”… and actually had the facts to back it up – if their signage and honor-wall was to be believed they had won the “Best burger in Auckland” award nearly 8 years running… though I did notice a conspicuous absence of a 2008 award in that roll… With or without 2008 though, the burger was unbelievable. Thick, juicy, and with sauces dripping all over the plate, it was actually quite a challenge to eat without coating my clothes in burger. But ohh was it worth the effort, I can definitely see why they won so many awards.

If the burger-joint was the beginning of my wander, then a small coffee was the end of it. A bit before heading back to my hosts apartment to help them prepare dinner I stopped in at a little cafe that caught my eye, thanks to a small little gremlin painting outside on the wall. While it did make me feel a bit too much like a New York hipster, I took the chance to enjoy a nice cup of mocha while doing some writing for this story… definitely a good way to relax after a day of exploring.

 

Exploring the Beach:

On the 24th all of us got up together and headed out early to explore one of the nearby beaches that Anais goes to for her daily run. Our trip started out with a quick visit over to Andre’s office for Anais to upload some photos to her website, after which we all piled back into Anais’s van and trucked out to the main beach itself.

Heloise, Adrian and I headed out towards the main beach to explore while Anais went for her run, and so we found ourselves blazing a path over the sand dunes and through the scrub grass, trying to find the actual beach. It wasn’t an easy task, but after a few minutes we did finally find the sandy section of the waterfront. It was an amazingly wide beach, not unlike the horizon-to-horizon ones that I saw in Aruba or San Francisco, and the sand had this strange quality to it where the first few inches were very soft and giving, but underneath the sand was hard-packed… meaning that our feet sunk down an inch or two into the soft grain sand with every step, leaving deep footprints behind us.

In the few hours that we had, we explored all the way down the beach to the far rocks, where we found a series of amazing sea caves! Adrien and I explored fairly deep into these cracks in the seawall, though the fact that our only flashlight was my iPod really limited how far into the caves we could actually go. It was honestly some of the most beautiful rock that I’ve seen to date, with the water dripping down and making some amazing formations that I’d never seen anywhere else. We did have to cut our adventure a bit short though, since the tide had started coming in about half an hour after we arrived, and the sea was slowly creeping into the cave mouths, blocking off any exit, save by swimming.

Thankfully we didn’t end up having to swim, although I did get another chance to do a bit of rock climbing, in order to keep my shorts dry. Since the tide had cut off most of the more interesting areas of the beach Adrien and I met back up with Heloise, and started walking back to the car park to meet Anais for some lunch, before heading back into the city again.

 

A dinner party with the Dutch:

One evening I got to attend a dinner party with Anais and Andre; Heloise and Adrien had invited a few of their friends over to Anais and Andre’s flat (Ed Note: See Ben’s post on differences between Europeans and People from the States, it ties into the “they invited people to someone else’s house”), and so we were all going to cook something up and make a fun and fancy evening out of it.

The party was set to start around 7:00, but unfortunately Heloise and Adrien’s friends got a bit stuck on the train and didn’t arrive until more like 8:30 or so. But once they did arrive they started passing out the beers, Anais and I served up the salad and chicken dish that we had prepped up earlier in the day, and we all got down to the business at hand – partying and telling random travel stories. The night was full of rather amazing cultural quips, stories, and random tidbits of information about life far across the seas – I learned a lot about the Netherlands, and thanks to these guys a lot of the stories about mythological Amsterdam were debunked, either fortunately or unfortunately, depending on who’s opinion you ask.

The party actually ended on a slightly awkward note, since Andre crashed pretty early, and Anais followed him about half an hour later, around 10:30 or so, but people didn’t start leaving until nearly two in the morning. I felt a little bad about this, but I didn’t really feel like it was my place to say anything, since Adrien and Heloise had been staying at the flat for a bit longer than I had, and if they felt it was ok then they probably knew Anais better.

 

Exploring Auckland itself:

The day after the dinner party I headed into the city again, this time to meet up with the Danes from the night before. We all met up at one of the main train stations, and headed into the pouring rain to do a bit of exploring of the city.

Off all of the cities that I’ve been to in the world, Auckland most reminds me of central New York – it has a vibrancy to it, but it’s dulled by the knowledge that this city is huge… at least relative to other New Zealand cities. Everyone that we walked past seemed to either be a tourist, lost and dazed by the tall buildings, or a resident rushing to or from work. The art and sculptures around the city were amazing, but they were tempered by the fact that nearly no one was paying attention to them – instead people were focusing on the shops and each other. It was a strange feel, and I have a feeling that I would start to find it off-putting after a fairly short amount of time. For now though, I was able to sort of ignore it, and keep myself entertained by talking to the folks traveling around with me.

The day went by pretty quickly, even with the insane amount of rain falling on the city. We ate some sushi for lunch, wandered through what seemed to be a grade-school field day, and even played a few games of pool in a small bar that we found in one of the main malls. It was enjoyable, but somewhat strange for me – I’d been in Christchurch for nearly five months at this point, and so the tallest building I had seen was maybe four or five stories at the University of Canterbury. Being in the Concrete Jungle again was a new experience… akin to coming home to a place that you’ve missed, only to find out that its not 100% to your liking any more.

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