An introduction to New Zealand for Americans and other geographically challenged peoples around the world:
So what, you may wonder was I doing in New Zealand? Credit my visit to two unrelated events. The first was the release of the extended edition DVD of Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring, the one with the four commentary tracks and five hours of documentaries. By the time I'd watched the film for the third time, my desire to see the country that passed for Middle Earth was well nigh irresistible.
The second event was my employer's decision that they could do without my services, a situation which I accepted with as much grace as I am capable of mustering. So, with time on my hands while I began the search for a new gig, I decided it was an excellent time for an adventure. And a little while later I was on my way to a month-long wander through the land of Xena and Hercules and Peter Jackson.
I arrived in Auckland in the dark, missing my first chance to see something of the country as I waited for the sun to catch up to my body's concept of daytime. I'd have all of a day here before heading north. So I started walking, trying to get whatever impressions my sleep-deprived brain could absorb. My first discovery was that Auckland is remarkably hilly, a result of its location on and around a series of volcanic cones. Extinct cones, I can only hope.
Centre city was all shops and office buildings, mostly deserted at
seven on a weekday morning. But after a while I found more
interesting architecture. Like the High Court building at left,
carefully set back from the street and the sidewalk as if in
anticipation of my photographic requirements. Or the house fronts
in the next street over, named Courtville I can only guess in honor
of its proximity to the halls of justice. The court looked clean
and bright and perfect; Courtville a little more worn and lived in.
Not sure which I like better.
I didn't see much of the city that first day. But not being one to let a lack of information intrude on a good assessment, I decided that Auckland was an uninteresting place, a poor second to harbour cities like Sydney and Rio and my own San Francisco. I was, as it turns out, full of it.
I wouldn't discover the folly of my snap judgment for three more weeks, when I returned to Auckland at the end of my trip. Now I would have the chance to explore properly. Even better, I now had at least some concept of what it was I'd be seeing. Context is a useful thing.
I began my day at the Sky Tower,
an observation platform that rises a thousand feet from the lobby of
my hotel. (How's that for convenience?) From the upper platform, I
got good views of the Harbour Bridge and the marina where two
Americas Cup challenges were fought, as well as the wedge-shaped
Town Hall, a graceful Victorian structure that stares contemptuously
at the globe of Planet Hollywood across the street. The Sky Tower
advertising announces proudly that it is the tallest structure in
the Southern Hemisphere. That's a phrase you hear a lot in New
Zealand: tallest/biggest/richest in the Southern Hemisphere. Really
what they mean is: "better than anything the Ozzies have".
Back at ground level, I went in search of the Auckland Explorer, one
of those tourist buses that stops at all the city's must-see spots.
First on the agenda was Kelly Tarlton's
Antarctic Encounter &
Underwater World. Underwater and underground; at street level
there's a fine view of the harbour and the city, a parking lot and
an entry to what were built as storage tanks for rainwater. But now
those tanks hold a replica of Scott's Antarctic base, a Snow Cat
ride through a penguin habitat and a moving sidewalk where you are
surrounded at left, right and above by sharks, stingrays and way too
many different species of fish. If only the lighting had been a
little better, I'd have a lot more pictures. For some reason,
fish and birds don't take kindly to having bright lights flashed
into their eyes.
My next stop on the tourist bus was the magnificent Greek revival
building that houses Auckland
Museum. Officially it's the Auckland War Memorial Museum, built
in 1929 to commemorate the end of the First World War and expanded
later to honor all the other Wars To End All Wars. In addition to the memorials to those New Zealanders lost in the wars, the museum has wonderful exhibits on local flora and fauna and artifacts from the country's Polynesian and European cultures. But the museum is worth seeing just for its architecture and its views over the Domain, Auckland's oldest and largest park. No grand estate
envisaged by Jane Austen
could be more happily situated than this.
Just up the road from the museum is the town of Parnell, reputed to
have good places to eat, interesting shops and some historic
buildings. The bus let me off in front of the
Höglund Glass shop
where I relieved myself of a few more dollars before checking out
the rest of the street. And up the street a little way I had a
little brush with Lord Of The Rings. A sign in front of a small
clothing shop advertised itself as weavers for the film. The
woman inside explained that the cloaks
given to the Fellowship by
Galadriel were woven on hand-operated looms. And no modern dyes
either; the wool for these garments came from a very special flock
of grey sheep. I was fascinated by the lengths the filmmakers went
to preserve the illusion; no cutting corners for these guys. But
much as I wanted a cloak like Frodo's, I just couldn't bring myself
to spend $1000 US on such a garment. I settled for a throw rug of
the same material, a memorable souvenir both of New Zealand and
From Parnell Village I wandered up the hill to get a closer look at
Church. I'm not normally interested in houses of worship, but
St. Mary's is kind of special. Built of native kauri and rimu,
it is reputedly the best wooden church in the country. Much warmer
and friendlier than the brick cathedral next door. Which wasn't
always next door; two decades ago St. Mary's was put on rollers and
moved across the street to its present location. Which raises an
interesting question: Why did the church cross the road?
Kiwis seem to have taken up recycling long before it became
fashionable in my corner of the planet. Kelly Tarlton's reuse of
those old water tanks for his
aquarium is just one example; here are two more.
Market at left is a tourist-oriented shopping mall that began
life as a rubbish incinerator. What was once a place to drop off
all the crap you have no use for is now a place to pick up all
kinds of new crap you have no use for. At right is the
former Customs House, now the city's biggest duty free shop. So
instead of paying duty, you go there to avoid paying it. Gee, talk
On my last day before heading home, I decided to wander over to the
Ferry Building. My destination was Devonport, across the harbour to
the north. Back before there was a Harbour Bridge, Devonport's car
ferry terminal was the main gateway between the northern suburbs and
town. These days it's quieter and more relaxed, just a nice suburb
full of handsome Victorian cottages and flowers and some splendid
views of Auckland from the tops of its volcanic cones. And all just
a pleasant boat trip from downtown.
Hotel greets you as you step off the ferry, a grand Victorian
that wouldn't look out of place at Brighton or any of those other
places where Brits go to get some sun. (Or more likely to rust,
English weather being what it is.) And around the corner are some
magnificent old trees, like the Moreton Bay fig tree at right, an
import from Australia that has the most impressively bizarre root
structure I've ever seen. The base looks more like a set of
channels for marble races than anything designed to support a tree.
Submitted for your approval: the bronze plaque at right, adorning an
ordinary looking wall on an ordinary Devonport street. Part of the
fun of wandering a new place is looking for something just the
tiniest bit interesting or peculiar, the kind of thing another, less
dedicated tourist might miss. Like this seemingly unassuming bit of
wall. But looks often deceive. This is a historic wall, one that
once served to house a bear. Don't you feel better for knowing
that? This is just the sort of history you just don't get from your
Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California