On the map, the city of Auckland looks small. I suppose this is because maps are small. You fold them up and put them in your pocket. You reduce the size of the world to fit on a screen. The reality is a sprawl that stretches from coast to coast, smothering the edges of two natural harbours. Suburban Auckland feels familiar. The squat wood panelled houses with steel roofs. The high streets with art deco facades, awnings cable tied to the walls, shop signs hanging below. I even recognise some of the signs. The air is warm, my skin will burn here. Maybe not today, but I can guarantee I will let myself down at least once. The trees buzz with cicadas. 17 different shades of green. Trees I’ve never seen, trees I’ve only seen once before. What sets Auckland apart from Melbourne is the smell. My nose isn’t burning with the scent of eucalyptus. There is nothing distinctive about New Zealand’s aroma. Not yet anyway. The city tries to sit on a grid. Difficulties lie in planning around the dead cones of volcanoes. The Skytower, Auckland’s answer to Seattle’s Space Needle if the Space Needle was a question, dominates the skyline. Beyond the harbour the gently sloping symmetrical summit of Rangitoto, another volcano. Another prompt to ask why is there a city here? Perhaps everyone needs a little mild peril in their lives. On the back of my sixth floor hostel door is a sign advising of what to do in case of an earthquake. Get under a table. It’s a dormitory, there are no tables. The best thing I can hope for is not to be in the room if the tremors come.
In the days building up to departure and arrival I reached out to those I already knew in the country. I met Ranj in the Antarctic Hostel in Ushuaia. We spent no more than half an hour together, but kept in touch as I complained about how much fun she was having while some of us had gone back to work. Fortunately, she agreed to show me around but not the city, the city she said I could see for myself. Ranj was taking me out west to the black sand coast and rolling Waitakere Ranges. As we left the city I could feel my mood lifting. There’s nothing wrong with Auckland, as cities go it seems like a good one. The problem is, it’s a city. Busy and hot, surrounded by concrete. Blessed as it is with many parks and a well utilised waterfront, I’d rather be in the bush. How lucky am I to have someone taking me there? Only when I’m in the car do I appreciate how valuable a set of wheels is going to be. In my hostel room I’d been speaking to Charly (who does in fact surf) about his purchase of a converted 4×4, it was clear to me how little I know about what I’m doing. I was late to driving and blessed-cursed with company cars while I was at home. When I pursue the opportunity to buy my first vehicle I’m going to find myself on a fast moving, steep uphill learning curve.
Out of my head and back in the car I followed the road twist along the contours of the steadily rising hills. Lush green forests spread out to the coast. We arrived at Karekare where I was quick to learn Ranj’s idea of a hike was on par with mine and I was not prepared. Out in my civvies, I sweat through the cotton knowing these clothes were going directly to the washing bin on my return. We walked the coast and back, climbing and falling with the peaks. On the way out I had talked about the British coastline being dramatic. The towering cliffs, the rolling the surf, the black sand. New Zealand was already suggesting the UK has nothing on this. At the trail heads were boot scrubbers and disinfectant. The region is home to kauri trees that are slowly succumbing to the same plague that caused the potato famine in Ireland. I was fast developing the technique of scrub and spray. My footwear has been cleaned more times this week than they had been in months at home. A tourist here, the threats of globalisation are clear. We are all carrying things with us we should have left at home.
Ranj then drove us into Piha, a small surfing community on the west coast. We stopped at the local cafe for lunch where we continued to exchange facts about our different lives and similar opinions. Once upon a time somebody laughed at me when I suggested you could make a friend in a matter of minutes. Maybe you’re not friends, but I think you can readily gauge a person over the course of that first conversation. Following lunch, we headed out once more up to Kitekite falls. My memories of visiting New Zealand previously are littered with waterfalls. Something we don’t have very much of in the UK. We walked through the deepening forests, I was amazed at the depth of growth, the spread of green through all levels. Again I found myself thinking of home and how little we have left of our old growth forests. Things are being managed, maintained, looked after but out here, things appear to be doing ok on their own. Kauri dieback aside. Kitekite falls tumble down through two plunge pools before resting in another final swimming hole. We appeared to have disturbed a young girl’s photoshoot with her friend and made our way back into the forest to climb to the top of the falls.
By the time Ranj dropped me off in the city I knew what my next aim was. I had to get my own vehicle. I had talked about getting a van before I came over, I wasn’t expecting to be making the move quite so soon. Auckland seems like a decent place, certainly a city I would try living in for a while. If I had to, but I don’t have to. A significant part of why I came out here was to try doing things differently. I don’t need to settle down immediately. I already had a good idea of what New Zealand’s great outdoors had to offer and I was presented with yet further evidence within an hour’s drive of Auckland. I found myself feeling re-affirmed. The decision to leave my life behind in order to live out here for a while was the right one. The adventure can begin today, or at least as soon as I am able to drive myself towards it.