Travelogue New Zealand 2: Auckland

AUCKLAND
3-4 February 2016

We’d booked the short Wellington to Auckland hop on Jetstar for the plain and simple reason that it was a shedload cheaper than any of the other airlines. Aware that it was a ‘no frills’ carrier, we didn’t expect any bells and whistles, but started to doubt our choice when everyone we told had something negative to say about them – and mostly from firsthand experience!

Our morning had started rushed and on very little sleep after a spirited farewell to the lively city of Wellington, so we resigned ourselves to ‘what will be will be’ and looked forward to napping on the hour-long flight.

But it was not to be. In a bittersweet turn of events, the air hostess woke us shortly after take off to give us breakfast. It came as a surprise since the budget fare didn’t include hospitality and we hadn’t opted for it as an extra. Moreover, the hostess hadn’t offered to everyone and was still making her way toward the back of the plane, singling out the lucky recipients.

We can only presume that Jetstar must be aligned with Qantas, that has a partnership with Emirates, with whom we are Silver members of their Skywards loyalty programme, which (clearly) comes with all sorts of fringe benefits, like surprise chicken and bacon Caesar wraps.

Arriving in Auckland was uncomplicated with an unusually open plan set-up with no restricted access between the carousels and the Arrivals hall and – thanks in no small measures to NZ efficiency – it was mere minutes before we were united with Bron, my longest standing friend and the primary reason for this trip in the first place.

The drive from the airport was an education (of the fun kind). Bron and I had loads to catch up on, while she pointed out places of interest and explained the lay of the land intermittently as we went.

She has based herself in Mission Bay, which we were soon to find out was central and convenient. We did little more than drop off our bags and pack a togbag for our planned sleepover at other friends, and then head out again with Bron who dropped us off some 1km down the road at the beachfront.

In no hurry and with the entire day to see Auckland, we’d opted to walk into town, which we were told was as simple as “making sure you keep the sea on your right”. It turned out that it actually was that simple and, 6 or so kilometres later, we were at the Ferry Port in Auckland with the CBD rolling inland on our left.

By this point we were starving – and in no  state to dawdle with lunch – so trusty Burger King was essential. The aircon was welcome after the exposed walk along the beach path (about which I refuse to whine seeing as we were passed by countless runners and cyclists so it couldn’t have been that bad!) and the free wifi well timed for me to complete my online exam for the Digital Media course I’d done over January and that had to be completed by the weekend, which was going to prove tricky with our itinerary being what we’d made it!

Christian in the meantime Googled “what to do in Auckland” and where it was that we’d arranged to meet Danni (my long term friend – and outsourced right brain – who I’ve never met in person) to go to their place for the night, so as to fashion us a plan for the rest of the arvie.

The meeting point was an easy one, as Christian discovered that the road was up and to the left of our current homebase and very nearly in plain sight from where we were sitting! Thus, the pivot for the afternoon became to go up the Sky Tower to get aerial views of the city and surrounds and really to, well, see what we could see.

Auckland is a very complex animal to fathom from on the ground since its coastline (at least from our direction of approach) is all twisty and turny, with a series of bays that link towards the city skyline, and then a whole bunch of other stuff across the water and much talk about “The Bridge” which seems to be the grand divide between the city and outer suburbs on the Northern side. As always, it feels like info overload upfront…. but starts coming together as you move around the area. And the Sky Tower seemed like a genius way to accelerate getting our bearings.

SkyCity is an entertainment complex that houses restaurants, eventing facilities, gaming, Auckland’s only casino and the Sky Tower. At just under 400 metres high, the tower has glass elevators that shoot you up to the viewing deck where, at 200 odd metres up, you can see far and wide in all directions. There is also bungee jumping, which seemed to thrill the onlookers almost as much as it thrilled the jumper!

Winding our way back to the meeting point was simple enough and there were lots of shops windows to hold our attention as we walked, and went into one or two of interest. One such produced a Manly Sea Eagles training vest, which was too cool for Christian to resist (although he did remind me that the area was now to be called just “-ly” because he wasn’t there anymore).

Meeting Danni was a strange, awkward, surreal, meaningful, closing-one-chapter-and-opening-another awesome moment.

We had met through work when she had already emigrated to New Zealand and was introduced to me as a freelance designer who could help me put together a portfolio of sellsheets for the marketing materials I had been enlisted (also as a freelancer) to create. The content of the mailers was all travel related so an obvious and natural launchpad for peripheral and anecdotal conversation since it was a passion we already shared – and Danni made everything that was in my head look so much better in real life!  It was soon clear to me, no doubt thanks to our shared dedication to verbosity and over-investment, that Danni was the pictures to my words… but with plenty (articulate) words of her own!

That work stuff came to a close, but had entrenched a solid go-to relationship (on Skype and much later on Facebook Messenger) which is now mostly recreational, but I have found every possibly excuse to work with Danni since – and drawn on her generous nature to help me with things above and beyond, like ludicrously ambitious personal projects and my wedding invitations.

I’m assuming that the face-to-face meeting must’ve thrown her off too since her opening gambit was just that I am taller than she imagined. Not in a weird way, just a brainfart.

Danni’s husband Shawn was with her, catching a ride home after his day at work in town. I’d met him before, once or twice in SA just before they’d emigrated, where I’d just started the freelance job doing the marketing materials and he was also doing some work.

Introductions and salutions sorted, the 4 of us headed off to the car (in the extortionate inner city parking lot that is, if you can believe, even more expensive than Sandton City, at some $20 a day!) and the conversation was already flowing smoothly as we emerged from the lot back into the daylight and Danni and I had managed to get the “this is so weird” out of our systems.

Our final destination was Gulf Harbour, one of the most Northerly suburbs of Auckland. Both of our hosts are passionate about their new home town, which made for steady and vivid narration on our commute/tour out of the city, across The Bridge and along the through the suburbs. How very lucky for us that they lived diametrically across from Bron so we covered enormous ground on our first day’s sightseeing!

Auckland traffic – at 4.30pm anyway – is nowhere near as bad as Joburg’s. The inner city traffic seems to be more because of the amount of time allocated to pedestrian crossing rather than a crush of cars and, while a bit congested on either side of the bottlenecking at bridge, the traffic moves smoothly. I suspect the Kiwi drivers might be more conservative, with traffic violations actually being enforced and that, in turn, less accidents lead to less avoidable congestion.

Of course, the experience was completely biased by me not having to drive and with everything new and exciting and with 3 travelmates for company… so perhaps I should get a party car going for the work before I’m absolute in my judgement.

We were surprised and delighted with a sunset excursion at Shakespear Park, starting with a fun cheesy pic at a permanent giant photo frame with *the most* spectacular view as a backdrop.

We then stopped at a free park – where anyone can come and picnic/camp for free AND there are gas braais and all sorts of things provided – and walked down to the most divine little beach, where we could kick off shoes and dip toes in ocean.

This bay is a well-kept secret and there were only a handful of people sharing the beach with us. It was still light as day, although easily past 6pm by this point. How winning to be able to wash away the cares of the day with a frolick and a splash on your way home!

Danni and Shawn live in a Utopian suburb that has wide pavements and no fences and rolling lawns and views that make your eyes transfix. Their home is equally lovely and we had a comfy guestroom with luxurious thick soft carpets and it all felt like we were having a holiday within a holiday at some sort of leisure resort!

We’d pre-planned for dinner at their local pizza place so as soon as we’d dropped our things, we took a toddle down the street, along the path and across the field to the restaurant. Sunset was only now becoming dusk, approaching 8pm.

We settled on the terrace and ordered pizzas and Guinness (for the Index, logging the $9,60). When it got a bit chilly – the restaurant is beside a lake, so it’s inevitable – we moved inside to enjoy desserts and share a steady stream of funny stories about exploits and antics all over the globe!

Not sure if it was sadly or serendipitously (seeing as we all had an early start with respective work and play commitments), but Christian and I were wiped from the short night’s sleep the previous night and a long day travelling and adventuring, so we called it a relatively early night.

After the best night’s sleep since we’d left home, we were up according to plan and ready to leave just after 7 for Danni to drive us down to Gulf Harbour Marina to catch the ferry into town with Shawn.

It could just be novelty factor, but after the Manly and now Gulf Harbour experiences, it would appear that we are ferry fans and could envisage ourselves using them as work commute transport. Not a particularly useful self-discovery when you live in Jo’burg!

We’d pre-planned for Bron to meet us opposite the Botswana Butchery, right outside the ferry terminal and she was there like clockwork, with her mom and mom’s friend Di (referred to almost exclusively collectively as “The Mothers” over the duration of our stay) in tow.

We were driven to Hakapuna (on the other side of The Bridge) for a delicious brekkie in a scenic seaside café. We really were being treated to seeing Auckland from every possible angle!

Breakfast seems, from our small sample experience in Australia and New Zealand, to be a lot more expensive than at home. Not just in translating the exchange rate but also in price comparison with other mealtimes. Consistently $15 – $20 for a plate of food (at 12:1 in Aus and now 10:1 in NZ), it’s a far cry from the good ole Spur Unreal breakfast for R25!

We had a gap before we were due at our next engagement – drinks with Christian’s ex-colleagues in the afternoon – so we returned to Bron’s house to shower and relax while she went to a meeting and then came back to pick us up again. We were very lucky she was so accommodating with playing Taxi Driver for us!

Bron still had some things she needed to arrange for her party (decor items and whatnot), and her excursion to the mall was as good as any, so we tagged along, more providing moral support than anything of real value.

A shopping mall is a shopping mall so not much to report there… except that McDonald’s has pies. The fact is that everywhere has pies – NZ is as pie mad as SA – but somehow it was cooler to get a Georgie’s pie from McD’s. I got a mince and cheese and Christian got a butter chicken, which he said wasn’t as good as the one from Fix, and neither one was as good as Pieman’s Pantry pies at home.

While out and about, it made sense for us to go straight to our afternoon meeting so we got Bron to drop us just out of town so we could get a walk in en route to our designated meeting point, which was loosely arranged as being Wynyard Quarter, the quayside area just past the ferry terminal. This area is a collection of lots of vibrant eating and drinking options so we were bound to find somewhere to suit.

Even with the walk-in we’d requested, we were still early. It gave us an opportunity to peruse the stretch and we decided that Jack Tar was to be the bar du jour. It was a bit windy – the bane of being coastal – so we sat inside, relegated to enjoying the view through the (literal) bay windows.

Our company for the afternoon was 2 of Christian’s ex-colleagues, who both had relocated to Auckland (independently of each other), which was less than coincidental since both are Kiwis. They are festive chaps and order of the day was a nostaligic re-run of our beer o’clock shenanigans in SA. It was great to catch up, which we did over a few choice spots on the quayside.

Both are very happily settled in Auckland and echoed our other friends’ sentiments this city brings a very good work/life balance. The “life” feedback was that it was mostly outdoorsy stuff like beaches, kayaking and general quality time which is a bonus because drinking and snacking in Auckland is very expensive!

Although we’d planned to catch a bus back (how awesome to have safe and reliable public transport), we got an Uber back to Bron’s with one of the chaps since he lived close to her house.

We’d managed to meet Bron, James and The Mothers in by minutes, so still had time to swap stories on how we’d spent our respective days before it was time to turn in. What a lot we’d squeezed into our 2 short days in Auckland!