I've never been in a city centre with the sole purpose of escaping it or at least making excursions into the surrounding hinterland. To do this in London or Manhattan would be hell on
Auckland is, of course a much smaller city in population - 1.4m (2014) - although its does sprawl outwards with its low density, often single story, housing. Auckland doesn't make it into the top 200 cities by size of population but it is 183rd by urban area - 531 square kilometres in 2010. In fact it is about a third of the urban area of London but only has about a seventh of London's population (using 2010 data here).
However, Auckland's population density is not outlandishly low: it is higher than Australia's big cities - perhaps because the lot sizes in Auckland are relatively small. (There are also
issues about how you measure urban areas and what you include and exclude.)
Luckily for me Auckland has a pretty good motorway network which passed within half a mile of our hotel. Once on that I could travel quickly north or south. East and west is more tricky but given the layout of Auckland and the bays and harbours surrounding it you are pretty much constrained to go north or south at the beginning of most journeys. In addition, I was always going against the flow of the rush hour traffic.
I did at times get caught up in it, particularly when the satnav screwed up and I missed a key junction that sent me south of the city centre only to have to u turn and come back with choked traffic. Still, it was pretty good.
Day Five found me heading north out of the city up State Highway 1. I didn't have a fixed plan and after two long days in the saddle I had a vague notion of taking it easy. The weather was again beautiful and it was not a day to traipse around museums and galleries.
So there I was pootling northwards without much of a care. The ridiculous faux familiarity of New Zealand makes it very easy for a Brit to feel at home on the road. People are generally friendly and welcoming and I felt that if I got into a scrape some hulking All Blacks types would emerge and simply lift my Bluebird back onto the road.
I never really got a chance to test how far that friendliness went. For there is a huge pride in New Zealand and a real touchiness about being seen as inferior or wanting with regard to the UK
and other big western and eastern nations.
Anyway, I had read in the Rough Guide that SH1 has a bit of toll road on it going north. There is some reason for this but having travelled it a few times it seemed about as ridiculous as making drivers pay to cross the Dartford Crossing on the M25.
The stinger with the little section of toll is that you can only pay for it at one lay-by with one or two ticket machines if you don't have an online account. Or something like that. Consequently a huge amount of traffic pulls off the motorway onto the suburban network. It madness. And that's what I did as I went north. It also seemed to be what half of Auckland was doing as I came back in the evening.
As a consequence I was shunted through the little beachfront suburbs of Orewa and Wairewa before rejoining the now single carriageway NH1. Not that I cared and it was interesting to see something
different. The sun was blazing and I felt tired and on a whim I turned right off down a road signposted to somewhere called Mahurangi.
It was delightful country with rolling hills where the dry paddocks of high summer were getting back a bit of their green and the blocks of planted pine again gave it a French/British rural feel.
I stopped and took some photos in bare feet (I'd started wearing flip flops - thongs - and slipping them off to drive).
It was really charming and about as chocolate box New Zealand as it could get. I slipped down some sideroads to see if I could get near the water but I came across houses discreetly tucked away
with their own waterfronts. I turned back and eventually arrived at the Mahurangi Regional Park.
What I was not noticing was the replacement of New Zealand's indigenous biota by a wholly imported landscape of European grasses, shrubs and trees. The 'bush' and timber here were long gone to
make way for sheep and cattle. The hills that seemed so unnaturally steep were so because they had been held in place by forest for thousands of years. Now planted with grasses and trampled by
sheep and cattle and pounded by the rain they were gradually marching to the valley bottoms.
The Park website gives this brief history of the area:
Māori lived here in large communities. The park was the ancestral domain of Ngäti Rongo and there are four fortified pa sites at Opahi, Cudlip and Te Muri Points and above Sullivan’s Bay.
A sea captain, John Sullivan, married Merehai Kaipuke and settled at Otarawao (Sullivan’s Bay) in the 1870s. Their descendents farmed the land for nearly a century and farming continues on the park today.
More than 100 Māori and European settlers are buried in the Te Muri urupā (cemetery) on the park. The urupā was established in the 1860s alongside two sacred (tapu) pōhutukawa trees.
Scott Homestead, at Scott Point, is a reminder of the Mahurangi Harbour’s busy past as a hub of timber milling, ship building, firewood cutting and trade. Thomas Scott Jr built the Georgian style house in 1877 on the site where his father,a shipbuilder, ran an inn until it was destroyed by fire. Volunteers have lovingly restored the house and its surrounds.
The scant park facilities and car park were set in a beautiful bowl of hills with a tree lined beach. Two huge trees stood on the hillside. I parked up amongst the few people there enjoying the sun and wading out into the crystal clear water of the bay.
Without really thinking on it a grabbed my camera, had a quick look at the track map, and started climbing a steep bare hill. Half way up I realised the sun was really hot and that I needed my shades and hat. I briefly thought about the southern hemisphere sun and skin cancer. But I was too far along and tried to make my way across the sheep nibbled paddocks to the nearest shade tree without breaking into a muck sweat.
I walked under glossy leaved trees which I now think were Puriri and past a shrub with orange and black berries that reminded me of the UK's Wayfaring Tree. This was a Kumarahou (Kumara = sweet potato) or Pomaderris kumaraho or 'Gum Digger's Soap'. The tree has creamy yellow flowers and the leaves when rubbed together produce a lather rather like a natural soap that was utilised by kauri gum diggers.
The plant was closely associated with the staple Maori crop of Kumara (Sweet Potato) and when it flowered this indicated the time to start chitting the seed sweet potato for planting.
On one of the park's headlands there was a corner of vestigial endemic bush. I climbed a fence into it. The difference between it and the sun blasted hill was remarkable. It was cool, airy and
full of diffused and dappled sunlight. It was composed of Nickau Palms and other endemic tress I was not in a position to identify.
It was getting hot by now and I took off my shoes and socks and paddled around on the foreshore before trudging back to the car. I stowed my things and got back on SH1 heading for Warkworth which sits on the creek of the Mahurangi River. I stopped for a walk around, got some food and had a nice chat with one of the women at the tourist information centre which was doing good business. I then headed on to the dusty settlement straddling the SH1, which was heavy with traffic, at Te Hana.
I'd gone here to see the 'Arts Factory', a big kauri carving studio set up by a bloke called Kerry Strongman. Unfortunately photography was prohibited in the impressive galleries filled with large to huge carved kauri pieces.
It really did look like a factory in a big dusty lot next to the highway. Mr Strongman was on the phone doing business when I arrived. To the right of the entrance was what looked like a kitchen-cum-bedroom and to the left was a dark passageway leading into the top-lit makeshift galleries.
A lot of kauri wood carving - very often done with machines - relies on getting a very high finish on the pale orange wood and it can look pretty naff. But here drawing on traditional Maori motifs there were some stunning pieces so big that they could only really go in the foyer of a corporate headquarters.
I wandered out into the yard at the back that was full of huge pieces of kauri. I got chatting to a couple of blokes working with a circular sander on a large carving. They told me that this was swamp kauri, that had been pulled out of local bogs, and could be 45,000 years old.
The wood is very rich in gum and this probably has helped preserve it. The disadvantage is that the gum quickly clogs sandpapers and other grinding materials.
I didn't really know what to make of the set up. On his website Strongman says,
Kerry has been embraced by many Shamans, Tohunga’s (Maori Shaman) and Medicine men from Aboriginal peoples throughout the world, Kerry draws on much inherent and learnt knowledge in creating these special pieces. The atmosphere and presence of Kerry’s work can only be fully appreciated when experienced first hand. Due to much needed healing and understanding throughout the world, Kerry is exhibiting these works in many of the worlds major cities.
I was, as they say, getting that kind of vibe that said maybe its time to be moving on and I slipped away.
I retraced my way to Wellsford and then struck left on a country road that eventually took me to the stunning beach at Pakiri (Pa-keer-i).
It was a lovely drive through dry country with maize fields and dairy farms. At one point I stopped to let a herd of the peculiarly small Holsteins that abound in New Zealand cross the road on their way from the milking parlour back to their paddock for a feed of soya. I had a little chat with the farmer on his quad bike who reckoned I should get myself to the Kauri Museum further out west - a thing I said I would do.
I was mulling over in mind the days I spent in and around Auckland. I'm struggling to write up those days and I'm not sure what that is about.
Yes, it is just a huge and fiddly effort to make these web pages. To fit text and photos together. To identify and check on place names, plant types, geology, historical events and connections. The processing and editing of photos, including some and discarding others. The interminable waiting for things to load up, windows open, half spelt names that need rechecking, constant typos and miswritten words because I am thinking what to say, then how to say it, how it connects with the photos and not watching what I am typing. It's bum weary, my body frozen in front of the screen for long and tiresome hours.
And all the time at the back of my mind doubt knocking at the door saying, 'What is it all for? Isn't there a better way to spend your time? Why are you not writing a book instead of this ephemera, this collection of dots and dashes and digital impulses, this very temporary and vulnerable 'masterwork' that has consumed so many hours, days, weeks, months sometimes at the expense of nearly all else?'
But even taking all that into account the days in and around Auckland are harder than most. From a year's distance they seem to lack focus, they feel a bit long and a bit flat.
Yes. I spent them on my own and they could even be described as 'gruelling' - travel often is, isn't? But I feel there is more to it than that. In the South Island there was the magnificence of the natural world in all its immensity and confusing 'Ghost of Gondwanaland' complexity. It holds many of the top tourist drawcards after all - in particular the Southern Alps, the Glaciers and Milford/Doubtful Sound.
Also, The Principal and I were sharing it together and I didn't feel that sense of guilt that I was 'enjoying myself' whilst she was doing long, difficult hours of teaching (that of course also had its moments of enjoyment and enrichment and intense sociability for better and for worse).
The Auckland West Coast beaches had that sense of wild and scary grandeur, Coromandel could have been enchanting had I stayed longer but north of Auckland it began to feel a bit samey and in some ways a bit empty. Now clearly that was partly me. But maybe there was something lacking - what I've started to think of historical richness - a multilayering and accretion of human activity from the first humans onwards.
Driving around the UK there are constant reminders of those different epochs of history from the neolithic through the Roman Occupation, the Saxons, Normans, Middle Ages, Tudors, mercantile
empire, the industrial revolution, Empire, etc to post war decline and 21st century stabilisation.
In New Zealand 'history' and historical time is incredibly compressed. The establishment and transition from a pre-iron age culture to post-industrialism takes place in less than 1,000 years ( 50 generations at 20 years per generation).
And within that thousand years much of that was the gradual development of Maori society and culture from its Polynesian roots. As I poorly understand it this had its own dynamism and challenges - for example the extinction of the moa - and it is all too easy to miss its richness and complexity through the lens of Western racism and ethnocentricity.
But it left few marks on the landscape (I think) - no Stonehenge, barrows, massive hill forts. (It was largely a wooden culture rather than one of stone monuments.) However, it has continued to live on in a way almost unimaginable to Northern Hemisphere minds (if such things exist?) and informs and makes unique what it is to be a contemporary citizen of New Zealand. But as a traveller passing through it is much harder to get a grip on that, to see and feel that richness.
And New Zealand's 'European settler' to 'independent New Zealand' time span is remarkably short - a mere 300 years. Of course, those settlers carried their cultural and historical inheritances with them and made huge efforts to recreate them but shorn of their living roots and so far from their 'native shores' they quickly moved on and developed.
But there has been so little time for that to happen and further that has often taken place in through the dominance of primary industries - whaling, sealing and forest exploitation, gold, sheep farming and more recently the rise and dominance of the butterfat (dairy) industry.
There has been industrialisation but it came late - the Glenbrook Steel plant was finally established in 1962 and the giant Bluff aluminium smelter in the 1970s?. There was shipbuilding and engineering, the brilliant bush steam engines and a host of agricultural and mining spinoffs (I would imagine), and the giant meat processing plants.
But there were never the textile mills, the car plants, the 17th and 18th century steel and engineering trade, the mercantile enterprises - spices, tobacco, tea and coffee - and all the infrastructure of the industrial revolution - its railways, canals and countless institutions. And within the this there was not the great merchant and industrial class that built the huge houses, the follies and universities, concert halls etc.
So even 50 kilometres north of Auckland there is little sense of Auckland (whereas the 'London effect' stretches for 70-100 miles in the UK) but rather the matey, apparently egalitarian (if you don't look too hard) small town and farming communities with a Moari population that (at least to the outsider) seems entirely absent but for symbolic carvings that commemorate a people beaten into submission by disease and military and commercial might and supplanted by farmers and small businesses. Although of course it is not as simple as that.
In South Africa the indigenous people (apart from the Koi Koi/San who were all but exterminated) remained and grew in part due to the hugeness and fecundity of the landmass. You cannot leave a
South African town large or small without having to confront the evil legacy of apartheid and the compelling presence of the majority population coralled in their townships and oppressed in their
dreadful inequality. It may not be nice but it makes it interesting and it gives everything a tingling edge of danger and dread unless you're in a gated, super-secured whites only
In the boondocks north of Auckland it feels like there is just not much history to be had - it is compressed and hidden. It emerges in key moments of forest exploitation and early settlement. It is a secure, pleasant, bucolic, hardworking, well-ordered and apparently well-off (in a 'No-tall-poppies-please' way) part of the world. A little paradise in many ways. But maybe it was just a little boring too.
But then arriving at almost deserted Pakiri Beach in stunning afternoon sunshine was spectacular. The miles of white sand, the deep blue sea, the dashing waves, the distant islands, the beachside bachs and the beach belles I briefly met were enough to take your breath away.
Pakiri is a 14km long white sand beach that runs from the south east to the north west and is enclosed by two headlands, Cape Rodney at the south end and Paepae-O-Tu/Bream Head in the north. It is offered some protection from the full force of the Pacific by the Barrier Islands and the Coromandel Peninsula to the south and smaller islands to the north.
The surf at Pakiri is described as,
'an exposed beach break that has reliable surf. Offshore winds blow from the west southwest. Clean groundswells prevail and the best swell direction is from the northeast. The beach breaks offer lefts and rights. Best around high tide. Rarely crowded here.'
Pakiri is a popular beach in the summer and Auckland District has recently bought two blocks of land to improve access to the privately-owned beach.
Auckland Mayor, Len Brown said securing parkland and providing access to coastal areas was vital as Auckland grows.
Nearby Warkworth is identified in the Auckland Plan as a satellite town which will experience significant population growth as an employment and service hub for the north. It is therefore vital that we plan for future growth with the provision of public open space and also ensure the protection of our natural environment.
The land may be used as back-to-basics camping, car parking and vehicle access (see NZ Stuff).
The name 'Pakiri' is derived from a local Maori Ngati Wai, chief, Te Kiri, and is home to one of the few remaining pairs of the critically endangered Tara-iti/New Zealand Fairy Tern (Sternula nereis davisae) colonies. The Fairy Terns numbered about 40 in 2012 and weigh only 70 grammes.
I took my photos and enjoyed a bit of the sun before heading the 90km back to Auckland via Cape Rodney that gave a great view down the coast over the coastal developments of Leigh, Omaha and Snells Beach. I drove back through their unremarkableness and got stuck behind a big logging lorry before getting back on SH1 at Warkworth.
I spotted and stopped at the layby where you can buy tickets for the wee bit of toll road and enjoyed its traffic- freeness. I was soon into the pell mell of the Auckland rush hour which gave great views, at one point, to the downtown skyline across Waitemata Harbour.