Days in Auckland, the most populous city in New Zealand, remind me of a Sunday afternoon. Maybe it’s the sunshine or the waterfront or the laid-back lifestyle, where there’s an easy fusion of Polynesian, Asian and European cultures. Many of the travellers I meet are at the end of their Kiwi trips. When I say that Auckland’s serene, they laugh.
‘If you think it’s quiet here, wait till you see the rest of the country.’
And so it is, New Zealand backpackers seem a little different to Australian ones. It’s more about nature, hiking and health than booze, sunbathing and regret.
The Skytower is impossible to miss and a great guide for knowing how far from the city centre you are. I amble coastal roads to see all the bays; the University of Auckland campus and the suburbs. I especially like Auckland’s green areas and gardens. The Domain is akin to the Phoenix Park, with forest trails to trek as the city slowly wakes.
The pretty Wharf area bustles with bars and restaurants. The harbour hosts cruise ships (the size of skyscrapers), fishing vessels, oil tankers, yachts. In 1985, the Greenpeace ‘Rainbow Warrior’ ship, which interfered with French nuclear testing in the Pacific was sunk here by French special agents. A mural commemorates this on the self-guided Peace Heritage Walk. Here you can also check out The Women’s Suffrage Mural, honouring the suffrage movement in New Zealand, the first country in the world to grant women the vote, in 1893.
On Auckland Anniversary Day, the Wharf is the venue for Laneway Music Festival. My US soldier roommate Conor and I see sets by Haim and Chrvches on the hill overlooking the stage. Kiwi music sensation Lorde was headliner but had to postpone. She’s in L.A. picking up Grammys. The music fans buzz with pride as they discuss her win.
Conor’s moving to Thailand next.
‘You been in Asia before?’ I ask.
‘Well yeah, I guess. I served in Afghanistan.’
‘How was that?’
‘It’s a pretty country. Most people were nice. I did find sometimes if we were in a group with the locals, I’d look around the table and one of them would intensely stare at me. Full of hatred,’ he says and shrugs. ‘I’d know he’d be the one to watch, the one that might try kill me.’
I ask my various roommates for ideas on what mode of travel to take around the country. Jana from Utah recommends the Naked Bus, a no frills (but a fully clothed) option. 17 bus trips to anywhere for $299.
Jonas, our German roommate promotes the Kiwi Experience- the party bus. Though he often spends time sitting on his bed, looking on vacantly, sighing, he’s animated when discussing the bus tour, showing me videos of his skydive (fun) and bunjy jump (terrifying).
I’ve met so many Germans here it might be a good place to improve my German. One guy I meet is a journeyman, a carpenter in traditional dress. I think he’s a magician at first with the top hat, big pockets on his flared pants and huge white buttons on his waistcoat. He tells me he’s to go around the world for 3 years dressed this way. But what has wearing that got to do with being a carpenter?
‘Everything,’ he says.
He’s travelling on foot.
Brash Brit Eunice stomps into the common area. ‘I tried to nap but the Germans are having a bloody packathon in there.’
She’s en route to Christchurch once she purchases an adequate motor. She recommends driving around the islands.
Jerome, a French guy also drove it. He’s hippieish with short dreads, hemp threads, smoking rollies and telling me about life in his campervan. He came with no English but learnt it on the road. He stayed with Maoris, picked fruit and drifted.
He warns against the bus tours and suggests I hitchhike for a more authentic experience.
‘It’s easy. My friend, she hitchhiked from France to here,’ he says. ‘She’s going to Venezuela on a ship now.’
It is an option but I doubt it’s the one for me. The ship to Venezuela, however, might make a good setting for a story…
Hoping to make connections within NZ’s literary scene, I email literary journals to find out what’s happening. Last year’s Booker Prize winner is New Zealander Eleanor Catton (‘The Luminaries’). I hope I might bump into her somewhere along the way. The responses are generous, directing me to a regular poetry night on K-Road and annual Arts Festivals. I’m even offered a feature in Blackmail Press’ October issue.
I sign up to the K-Road poetry night even though I’m reading a story and I don’t know if the Irishness of it’ll translate. First on is a musician playing his own Pacific-inspired, guitar-strumming, surfer-dude versions of popular songs. Next is Dietrich Soakai – performing impressive spoken word. The standard’s good at the open mic and there’s a real sense of community. My reading goes grand. Afterwards Dietrich offers me writing contacts for Wellington.
I spend time in Auckland Central Library with its free wifi, air-con and comfortable seats. A poster for a writing workshop with Maori poet Robert Sullivan attracts me and I send an email, luckily getting a place. At the workshop, there’s 29 other participants. Robert explains we’ll be divided in three and rotate around the tutors. He introduces the other tutors: Anne Kennedy, screenwriter and Eleanor Catton, Booker Prize winning novelist! We spend time with each of them and I get many useful ideas on writing.
I’ve been really happy during my stay Auckland but know it’s time to go, now that I’ve formed a loose plan – Naked Bus to Wellington Arts Festival with stopovers on the way.