Summit, Sea and Middle-Earth
I found myself with a few spare days ahead of a couple of much anticipated trips. Still in blissful naivety of what was to come in the following months, I boarded a plane to New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland, in early February 2020. Being a Saturday morning, there was a small market on downtown in the city so after dumping my bag at my hostel, I headed to the Britomart and out the far side of it to take a nosy. I’ve visited Auckland many times in the 9 years that I’ve been living in the country. Like Sydney, another place I go back to time and time again, I have my favourite parts that I make a point of going to every time, and in addition I do my best to explore somewhere new or do something different. In the case of Auckland, my favourite thing to do is to head to the viaduct and wander around the waterfront.
Normally I take the direct route across the bridge that raises and lowers to let the boats in and out, but I decided to wander around the other side of the Viaduct Basin and meander below the apartment buildings that circle it. I grabbed a light lunch at a cafe before continuing round as the sun intermittently popped through the circulating clouds. At Karanga Plaza is one of my favourite spots to take a photo of the Sky Tower. Like Sydney and the Opera House, I can’t imagine Auckland without the distinctive spire of the Sky Tower. It’s strange to think it was only completed in 1997 when I was already a teenager. As I stood near the steps by the edge of the marina, my attention was suddenly pulled to a movement in the water. To my delight, a large eagle ray was gliding through the surface water. I was the only one to see it, and it was gone before I could get my camera out to get a picture, but I love those moments that are yours and yours alone, a sneaky moment with nature that nobody else spots.
Despite being a busy city, Auckland actually offers a lot for nature lovers. Straddling between two harbours, it is nestled into the perimeter of the Hauraki Gulf, a large harbour with a winding coastline made up of both the mainland itself and a series of volcanic islands. I decided to book myself onto a whale and dolphin watching cruise for the afternoon. I’d last done this trip in 2015 where I’d witnessed a Bryde’s whale out near the Coromandel Peninsula. This time around we sailed out into a sunnier Gulf and looked and looked and looked. I’ve been on a lot of whale-watching trips around the World and had had a 100% success rate until a trip from Picton a couple of years prior had failed to spot any humpback whales. As time went on, despite the glorious sunshine and harbour views, we failed to find any marine life. I’d just started to right off the trip as a run of bad luck when we eventually found a pod of common dolphins, my favourite species of dolphin as they chased down fish to the delight of the Australasian gannets that dive-bombed into the ocean around them.
Different dolphin species demonstrate very different behaviour traits. Whereas bottlenose dolphins are much more interactive and acrobatic, travelling in smaller social groups, common dolphins tend to keep their eye on the prize: locating food, and they also usually move in large groups. They’re also very fast to surface, making photography a challenge. I had at times to remind myself to just enjoy the view, as I sometimes get so wrapped up in trying to get a photo that I forget to actually be in the moment that is playing out in front of me. That being said, I got one amazing photo that I love, and otherwise I enjoyed watching the gannets shoot through the sky like arrows as the dolphins herded the fish below the surface. Every now and again I spied a petrel in the mix too. I’ve become a bit of a bird enthusiast since living in New Zealand. What we lack in native mammals here we make up for in birds, and I pay so much more attention to the fauna when I’m out and about.
Being summer, there was still a good few hours of daylight left when we returned to the marina. I’d spotted a place that had an interesting looking cocktail at Wynyard so I meandered back across the bridge and settled down at a Chinese restaurant for a delicious meal and a beautiful pink cocktail. The SARS-CoV-2 virus had been making its way around the World by this point, although it hadn’t yet reached our shores. February marks Chinese New Year, a time of year that normally sees an influx of tourists from China. There were still a lot of international tourists, but I noticed not just the reduction in number of Chinese tourists, but also how this particular restaurant was comparatively empty compared to those around it. In fact, everyone else at the restaurant conversed with staff in Mandarin, and I had wondered at the time if there was a bit of racist avoidance of the place. Sadly, even the normally welcoming and laid back country of New Zealand has its racist backbone.
I had an early rise the next morning to catch a bus out of the city to somewhere I’d wanted to go to for many years. A couple of hours south of the city is the unassuming town of Matamata. But it is what lies on its outskirts that is the lure to movie fans from around the World. Back in 2001, when I was at university, I, like many others, made a special trip to the cinema to see the first Lord of the Rings movie. If someone told me then I would end up living in New Zealand, I would never have believed them, but yet a decade later I left my home country of Scotland to emigrate there. Now I was on route to Hobbiton, the film set of the Hobbit village that was left intact after the Hobbit movies were filmed and is now a popular tourist attraction. Several of my friends had visited in the past, and I was quietly excited to finally make it there myself.
After a brief respite from breakfast somewhere along the way, we pulled up at the tourist centre to wait for our tour to begin. Whilst I would have loved to have just had free range of the place, you can only visit on a guided tour, meaning booking into a timed shuttle bus that drives you from the main centre, across the farm to the entrance into Hobbiton. There you are taken around a set route by a guide, to curl around past familiar Hobbit holes towards the Green Dragon Inn. The farm itself seems so quintessentially New Zealand, as across the road near the entrance was a load of sheep grazing some crops against a backdrop of rolling hills. As often happens in summer here, there was a bit of a drought going on, making a lot of the landscape quite yellow and brown. And yet, as we reached the film set itself, it was transformed into greenery, as the landscape was clearly being artificially hydrated to maintain the aesthetic.
Firstly, we stopped by the Hobbiton sign before descending through the trees and popping out at a vegetable patch. Looking up the hillside there were Hobbit holes a-plenty, a series of colourful round doorways under turf humps. Whilst not a die-hard fan, I liked the franchise enough to be enchanted by the place as we moved from residence to residence, past small rocking chairs and clothes-lines draped with Hobbit-sized clothing. While almost all of the Hobbit holes are purely a facade, there were a couple that we were able to get right up to or pose by, including one where the door opened into a small vestibule to allow photographs to be taken as if we were going inside. It was a gloriously hot day and I was so happy to be there.
Finally, after working our way up the hill at the back, we found ourselves outside Bilbo Baggins’ home, complete with ‘No Admittance, except on party business‘ sign outside. From there, it was a matter of wandering down the other side of the hill to come out at a pretty stone thatched building with a water wheel, and a gorgeous little stone arched bridge that led across to the Green Dragon Inn. Inside, I claimed my cider, part of my admission ticket, and enjoyed it as I wandered around looking at the gorgeous wooden beams and authentic signs on display. Outside the inn, a small lake provided some stunning reflections on such a sunny and still day. I could have sat here for hours just enjoying the weather and the view. The attention to detail everywhere I looked was incredible, and I’d happily come back another time and do the tour all over again.
To break up the two hour drive back to the City of Sails, we stopped at Hampton Downs motor park, just a little past half way. I’ve watched the odd bit of motor racing over the years here so recognised some of the cars and names that were displayed across the place. It was a non-race day but the display showroom was full of freshly waxed racing cars, and outside the building there were a few cars racing round the track. I had enough time to watch them do a few laps as well as spot a car doing doughnuts in the skid zone.
Back in Auckland, I jumped on the ferry across to Devonport on the opposite side of the harbour to the CBD. It’s only a 10 minute ferry ride, and it was a gorgeous evening as I headed over. I decided to have an early dinner, eating at a Greek restaurant on the main street, before heading up the hill, breathless on a full stomach, to reach the summit of Mount Victoria, one of the 53 volcanic cones that dot the greater city landscape. By now evening, the views over to Rangitoto Island and the city of Auckland were divine. I sat for a long time at the top watching the sun lower and the sky change colour. I made the decision to wait for sunset, and in doing so, the colours in front of me glowed through shades of yellow, and orange before the sun dipped below the cloud line at the horizon. Then the pinks and purples burst out, and the city turned into a sparkling electric light show as the various skyscrapers illuminated against the darkening sky.
The purple hung around in the air for quite some time, and below me a constant flow of boat traffic moved in and out of the harbour, they too glowing against the dark water as they zoomed across the surface. Ever aware of the need to get back for the last boat, I eventually had to haul myself away from the view and head back down the hillside to the wharf. As the boat left Devonport, I noticed the Sky Tower was putting on a light show, changing through a series of bright colours, switching from blues and purples, to reds and greens. I wandered through the city streets catching glimpses of the light show as I headed back to my hostel.
The next morning after grabbing breakfast at a popular and crammed cafe near to my hostel, I took a wander into Albert Park, passing a myriad of sculptures and finding an alternative viewpoint for the Sky Tower. Down from here, I cut towards Chancery Square where I was amused for a while by a gull that kept challenging its own reflection, thinking it was another gull. Then, because I love it there so much, I headed back to the Viaduct, at first watching the boat life come and go, before parking up on one of the giant wooden loungers on the plaza to just enjoy the sunshine. When at last it was time to head back to the airport, I found myself with a window view for the flight back to Christchurch, flying over Taranaki which looked bizarre without any snow on it. Landing at Christchurch airport, I headed home, excited about my return to the airport the next day for the start of a week long adventure far out in the Pacific Ocean.