I’m not sure whether I will be able to post this before we reach LA; we are airborne at the moment, en route to Rarotonga for our final “decompression” stop (5 days in the Cook Islands) and I have absolutely no idea what kind of Internet access we will have, if any. (One likely possibility is that we will have access at some insanely exorbitant price. We’ll see.)
We left Rorotua by car and took a deliberately circuitous route to Auckland, choosing to swing by the eastern coast of North Island to see the Bay of Plenty, which really ought to be a geographical name in a sword-and-sorcery novel. Our destination was an hour away: the resort town of Tauranga, which has a long and beautiful beach that is overseen by a single low forested mountain, Mount Maunganui, that rises a mere 760′ out of the end of the peninsula on which the town sits. Its base hosts a nice park and playground as well as the trailhead for the walking oath to the summit. The town itself is a very pleasant resort town, with a main drag leading down to the beach, lined with restaurants and souvenir stores. Flanking that street are a bunch of low-rise rental condos like you might see in any American beach town. On the inland side of the peninsula is a cruise ship terminal, and the Something-Or-Other Princess was in port, causing the Tchotchke Factor of the souvenir stores to go through the roof.
There was a farmer’s market going on, through which we wandered happily for a little while without actually buying anything: a typical assortment of local produce, cheese, venison jerky (can’t possibly be as good as yours, Jon H), and honey. (Brief aside: honey is a very big deal in NZ. You see signs everywhere for farm stores selling it, and they are so sensitive about introducing pathogens that they specifically screen for honey in your luggage when arriving in the country; you cannot bring it in.)
We stopped for lunch along the street (venison burger! I ate Bambi! He was delicious!) then drove down the beach for a mile or so until we could find a parking place so that we could stroll along the surf for an hour so. The water was typically azure if rather chilly, and there were a couple of small treed islands a few hundred yards offshore. The weather was warm and sunny, there were a few swimmers and kayakers in the water and lots of little auger, limpet, and cone shells on the beach… an altogether pleasant scene and we have a ziplock bag full of shells to show for it. The beach is a good five miles long, curving around to make a scalloped bay, and at least 100 yards wide; in short, Tauranga would make a great little seashore destination. We considered trying to talk our family into coming here next year for our annual reunion beach vacation, but the ten thousand mile distance might be a tough sell.
For the next few hours we drove through rolling farmland that became gradually more populated as we approached Auckland, which is New Zealand’s largest city by far: at 1.5 million people, it contains one-third of the population of the entire country. It also has 400,000 boats distributed over a number of marinas, and for good reason calls itself “The City of Sails”. It has been the home of the America’s Cup, and it is also the temporary home to the biggest damn yacht we have ever seen, a futuristic behemoth the size of a cruise ship, owned (we were told) by some Russian oligarch. But mainly it is the City of the Tall Pointy Thing, a.k.a. the Sky Tower, that you see here.
The Sky Tower completely dominates the Auckland skyline for tens of miles in every direction. (It was only about 6 blocks from our hotel and somehow seemed to be visible regardless of what window in the building you looked out of.) It was built — the word “erected” seems particularly apt — in the mid-90’s and at 1,075 feet was at the time the tallest free-standing structure in the Southern Hemisphere. It is still in the top 10. There is a rotating restaurant, of course, and you can even pay to put on a harness and walk all the way around the outside of the observation deck on a catwalk that I expect seems way too narrow when you are actually on it. The observation deck, which we visited, is about 720′ up and includes a few places where the floor panels have been replaced by inch-thick glass, so you can stand on it and look straight down beneath your feet, which is kind of an interesting sensation. (Aside: I initially mistyped the word “interesting” in that sentence, and the iPad autocorrect changed it to “intestine”. I considered leaving it that way because it fit oddly well.)
But the big draw of the Sky Tower, among the universe of crazy people with $200 burning a hole in their pockets, is that you can bungee jump off it. Oh, yeah! The bungee platform is a little below the observation deck at about 650′ above the street. The mechanics are slightly different from a traditional bungee jump since you couldn’t use an elastic rope that long without bouncing around like a yoyo and smashing into the building. Instead, the harness is a cable on a high speed pulley that allows you to free-fall for something like 6 or 7 seconds before decelerating you towards the bottom. Think about that for a moment. Close your eyes and count off six seconds: “One one-thousandth, two one-thousandths, three one-thousandths…” Seems like a real long time to be falling like a stone, doesn’t it? Plenty of time to think about whether that cable is correctly attached, at least if you can hear yourself think over your own screams.
Of course, the 360 degree view from the observation deck is superb and gives a good sense of the topography of the city:
The volcano-looking object beyond the peninsula is a volcano, Rangitoto by name. It is dormant; the locals hope it is very dormant. We took a harbor cruise that went past it as well as one of the major yacht harbors and under the bridge that connects the peninsula to the downtown area on the mainland. Other than the setting itself, which as you can see is beautiful, there was not a whole lot that interested us though it was fun to be out on the water. We also took a city tour on a small bus, which was more interesting: we stopped for a while at a couple of the city’s better known parks (Victoria Park) and gardens (Winter Garden) as well as at the Auckland Museum, perched on a hill overlooking the city and featuring many Maori artifacts and a cenotaph commemorating the famous World War I debacle at Gallipoli. That slaughter (I had not known) included a large number of New Zealand troops.
I should say more about the Maori; they are a very important part of NZ’s story and we have kind of neglected them in our focus on caves and thermal parks and the like. They are far more integrated socially and economically into Kiwi society than the Aborigines are into Australian. Part of the reason for this is anthropological: the Aborigines are actually very tribally and linguistically diverse — there are literally hundreds of Aborigine languages — which made the Europeans’ divide-and-conquer strategy very successful. To this day the Aborigines are very highly marginalized in much the same way that Native Americans are, with rampant alcoholism, nearly total unemployment, and a shattered family structure.
The Maori have fared much better, in part because they are a single people with a single language (the language, by the way, being in the Polynesian family and thus very close to Tahitian and Hawaiian, as I think I have mentioned). They were literally able to speak with a single voice and thus hold their ground politically. The culmination of their efforts was the Treaty of Waitangi in about 1840 in which the Maori were given property and citizenship rights and, in particular, were given back significant land holdings that had been confiscated. (These lands are not marginal locations like Indian reservations in the US but are often in key and potentially valuable places.) The treaty was far from perfect and a large fraction of Maori are still unhappy with it, but it is certainly a fact, confirmed by our own experiences in dealing with people here, that Maori are very much integrated into the scene. (As I type this while on the airplane, my seat mate is a Maori, complete with geometric tattoos on his arm.) There are still significant problems but the contrast with Australia is very striking.
During our bus tour we stopped at a coffee shop by a lake where, as it happens, a Maori children’s performing group in traditional dress was setting up in preparation for some kind of TV documentary. One of the guys overseeing it — a typical looking Maori, very big and very tattooed — asked where we were from (we hear the question a lot) and told me that he had attended high school for a year in Maine. (“I arrived in January. They told me the temperature was 21, and I thought they meant Celsius until I got out of the plane.”) We chatted for a while until the bus driver shooed me back onto the vehicle.
Tattoos are very, very common here, heavily influenced by the Maori. Most of the designs that you see are of Maori origin, swirling, barbed-looking geometrical patterns. A lot of white people sport them and of course all of the Maori. Seem of the older Maori have very elaborate designs over much of their bodies; we have seen a number of people of both sexes, some old, some not, with the tribal designs tattooed on their faces. One memorable sight was a very old woman in an airport with designs on her cheeks and chin.
Our touring complete, we returned our rental car. We have driven 772 miles according to the odometer (1245 km if you want to be picky about it) and filled the tank twice….at a little over $90 (US) a pop. Driving on the left side of the road was a piece of cake — you’ve pretty much got it after a few hours, and after a few days your brain has adjusted so completely that you don’t even notice it any more. But filling the tank at nearly $7 (US) per gallon… that, I did not get used to. Watching the dollar indicator on the pump roll over into three digits is sort of a religious experience, by which I mean crucifixion. (In case you were wondering, the NZ dollar is about $0.85 US.)
We got caught in a hellacious traffic jam en route to the rental car return, which highlighted another facet of Auckland: lousy traffic. Auckland is a very pedestrian-friendly city, which means that it is a car-hostile city, and jams can get messy. One of the contributing factors in the downtown area is the way pedestrian crosswalks are managed: at some major intersections, there is a pause between the red and green lights when traffic must come to a four-way stop and the pedestrians waiting on all four corners are allowed to cross in any direction, including diagonally. This is quite the sight — it makes traffic intersections look like a marching band display at the Rose Bowl — but is not conducive to driving across town. There is a public transportation system of buses only, with no light rail and no Metro, but it is not fully fleshed out. It used to be more extensive but the city fathers, in some poorly thought out spasm of America Envy, decided that they wanted the city to be more like Los Angeles (we were told that one of the city counsellors actually said this) and that people should travel by car. I am happy to report that the city fathers succeeded: Auckland is just like LA insofar as being very spread out and having standstill traffic. But all in all it actually seems like a very livable city.
We were picked up by cab this morning to go to the airport, and I was surprised that the car was rather more luxurious than the others we had been in. It was not until we got to the airport and the driver informed us that the fare was included as part of our tour — which it very definitely was not — that we realized that we had taken somebody else’s cab, more of a limo actually. Which means, unfortunately, that there was some pissed-off tourist back at our hotel that we could do nothing about. The karmic scales got slightly balanced a few minutes later, however, as we entered the airport to be greeted by total chaos at the check-in desk because the baggage conveyors behind the counters were on the fritz. A fair amount of baggage-schlepping ensued, but we nonetheless ended up in our flight. In about an hour (as I type this) we will learn whether our bags did too. If they didn’t, well, it’s a tropical island, and a very tiny one at that, so we probably are not going to need a lot of clothes.
Thus endeth our sojourn in New Zealand, and the running-around-like-lunatics part of our trip, which has now been underway for a bit over four weeks. It has been, as you know if you have been reading this journal, incredible. The next five days will determine whether we are even capable of lying on a beach for that long (word on the street is: no), but we’re gonna find out. I’ll have one more blog entry after this one, reporting on Rarotonga, though depending on the wifi situation may post them both at once from LA on the 10th.
We are now in Rarotonga and we do have wifi, after a fashion. So here is the view from our balcony. How’s the weather back home?