Unlike Sydney, Auckland puts its best foot forward. In Sydney, customs
involves getting roughed up by grunting blokes who (in the local
parlance) have that slightly 'feral' look about them. Kiwi customs, by
contrast, have a mission statement - they want to give you the 'best
customs experience in the South Pacific' no less. To this end, you are
provided with free tea and coffee while you wait and even the sniffer
dogs are adorable. Interestingly, these snaffling puppies are not so
much after drugs, but things like packets of ham and fresh vegetables.
If the Syndeysiders are a little worried about 'biosecurity', the Kiwis
are practically freaking out over it. Arrive in an Osama Bin Laden
T-shirt with a suitcase plastered with radiation symbols and nobody
gives you a second glance, but try and secrete a lettuce in your luggage
and its the full cavity search for you.
Sadly Auckland's customs are something of a high point. Having found
Sydney - suburbs and all - to be a silver city set in a shining sea, I
was expecting something similar of Auckland. Or, given the more maritime
climate, at least a sort of Antipodean Seattle or San Francisco. Not a
bit of it. New Zealand is very much a rural nation and and they don't
really seem to 'do' towns. As a result much of central Auckland (which
is actually a pretty big city) seems to resemble a 1980s trading estate.
The one landmark building is the Sky Tower, built five years ago. It's
not actually that great but it fulfils the rule (BT Tower, London,
Transamerica Pyramid, SF, etc.) that all cities must have at least one
stupid building that looks like something from 'The Jetsons.'
What's more, if the Australians have a certain weakness for bungalows,
the Kiwis positively adorethem. Auckland goes straight from high-rise to
no-rise and second storeys are as hens' teeth. True, some of the older
bungalows are nice enough in a Cape Cod sort of way, but most of the
modern ones look a bit like the municipal toilet blocks found on
windswept recreation areas. Nor are these even well-built bungalows: for
the first week of my stay the news was dominated by the leaky homes
scandal (which should give you an idea of what the NZ media is like).
Tens of thousands of bungalows were poorly constructed with substandard
wood and are now rotting away. Bungalows built by bungling bungalists.
To be fair Auckland isn't exactly a terrible place and and it probably
didn't help that it was pissing down for most of my stay there. But
anywhere that manages to combine the world's largest concentration of
bungalows and LA-style Samoan gang violence (!) is definitely somewhere
you pass through on the way to other, better places.
I was staying with my old friend Jo McIntyre Brown, who lives in one of
the city's nicer suburbs in an old, rather pretty bungalow, which she
shares with four Kiwis. Meeting New Zealanders is a strange experience:
they all do something useful. For instance, two of them worked in stone
masonry. How many stone masons do you know? Other people I spoke to ran
plumbing businesses or farmed or, shock horror, actually made things for
a living. I felt a little taken aback by all this usefulness. I mean,
most of the people I know could advise you on a really great media
strategy or help you leverage the knowledge economy to your advantage,
but they couldn't actually make anything.
This said, there is a downside to all this utility and can-do. It has
bred a thoroughly pubbish blokey culture (or some might say lack of
culture). NZ is a beautiful country but it is probably not the place to
come if you are a luvvie. It is a nation that produced Jane Campion but
prefers Vin Diesel.
Are you Experienced?
While I was waiting for Jane, with Jo and mates, I went out to Great
Barrier Island, somewhere that advertises itself as a place to
experience the 'Old New Zealand.' I'm not so sure about this, but it was
certainly a cute little isle, covered in NZ's indigenous vegetation,
most of which looks like something out of Jurassic park. A couple of
days later, I took a bus (as my driving license was with Jane, back in
Devon) down to Rotorua, NZ's thermal capital.
Generally New Zealanders are pretty good on race relations - although
quite a few of them bandy the word 'faggot' about with a frequency that
would make Eminem blush - but the taxi driver I took to the bus terminal
was a highly vocal exception. He kicked off our journey saying something
or other about the blacks, which I more or less ignored until he asked
me: 'Do you have a lot of blacks in England.' I replied that our biggest
minority was probably Indian, adding (hoping change the subject) that
this was why England had such great Indian food. He replied, 'Well,
they're blacks too aren't they?' Silly me. Resisting the urge to call
him a racist prong and get out or ask him when his family came over from
China (which he definitely wouldn't have understood) I told myself that
the bus station was only five minutes away, he was bigger than me and
that meeting an irredeemably bigoted taxi driver was an essential part
of any urban experience.
Speaking of experiences, I presume everyone has heard of 'The Kiwi
Experience.' Naturally, knowing very little about transport in NZ, I
looked into this. What it offers you is the chance to travel around all
NZ's traveller hell-holes on a coach full of cretinous pissed-up 18-24
year olds. Sounds irresistible eh? Obviously it is irresistible to
certain types, but you really need the kind of mentality that you
sometimes find in sales teams to enjoy it; in fact, anyone who enjoys
playing organized drinking games with near strangers - that kind of
willed raucousness you sometimes get at company beanos - would probably
quite like it. Still, I figured there must be some redeeming feature -
perhaps it was incredibly cheap. But no - if you are by yourself it
works out at around NZ$40 a day and you can rent a car for NZ$32; if
there's two of you a car is half the price. Why anyone (or anyone who
can drive a car at least) would possibly use the 'Kiwi Experience' is
beyond me. Indeed, in my experience, any experience that uses the word
'Experience' in it is an experience best left inexperienced.
Anyway, I got on my experience free coach to find a mixture of New
Zealanders and traveling types: eager young Germans, a few Kiwis, a
couple of younger Brits and a pair of older, common-as-muck Brits, one
of whom was on a mobile phone, loudly telling a UK relative (and the
rest of the coach) about her strikingly pedestrian experiences. She
really should have been on a bus with the word 'Experience' on it.
Laid over this self-regarding monologue, we had another: a touristastic
bus driver who felt obliged to describe everything from the mildly
interesting - we were heading towards the most geothermally active area
in the world - to the exoricatingly dull. Did you know that, in addition
to the four coal fired power stations on NZ's biggest river, there are
also 12 hydroelectric plants? Neither did I. After sharing this nugget
with his passengers, he added with a note of genuine regret that we
would be unable to visit any of the hydroelectric plants as they were
much further upriver. Then he lapsed into a description of the local
vineyards, which he personalised by telling us how he started drinking
wine as an altar boy. Fascinating as this anecdote may sound, he still
managed to make it tedious.
Getting out of Auckland, which makes up for in sprawl what it lacks in
charm, you quickly realize what the real NZ is about. And it's about
there being absolutely nobody there. NZ is a country a little bigger
than the UK with about 1/15 of the population or about 4 million people.
What's more, of this 4 million about three million live on the smaller
north Island. Even that feels like there's no-one there. Once I'd
cleared the 'Big City', I'd been expecting the NZ of postcards and the
Lord of the Rings. But almost all of this is all on the South Island.
Much of the North Island is one big farm and looks like Perthshire - and
when was the last time you visited Perthshire?
Rotorua itself is famed as a spa town. Which immediately made me think
of something cute like Badgastein in Austria. But this is NZ and, as I
said earlier, they don't really do urban so most of it resembles a
suburban strip mall - that ubiquitous, US style commercial squalor.
However, the architecture isn't really the point; it's the smell.
Rotorua is known as 'Sulphur City' and my God, does it honk. Indeed, it
is renowned as a place you can let rip with impunity as the whole town
smells pretty much like a fart anyway. Whiffiness aside, it is actually
quite interesting. As you drive into the town, you can see huge clouds
of steam drifting up from the various fumaroles and mud pools, while
down at the lakeshore boiling water bubbles out of the ground and huge
sulphur mounds dot the beach.
Best of all is the park. This is the one bit that doesn't look American.
Rather, with its oh-so-twee flower borders and playing fields it has a
kind of Frinton Upon Sea feel about it. Except every fifty metres or so
there's a sulphur streaked geothermal vent or a huge pool full of
bubbling, chocolaty mud. I guess what really surprised me is that all
the other geothermal activity I've seen has been in appropriately
dramatic settings - i.e. on the sides of volcanoes, etc. There is
something pleasingly incongruous about finding a scatological smelling
steam vent at the side of a cricket pitch or a plopping pool of steaming
mud which has been lovingly landscaped with grandmotherly flowers.
There really isn't that much to do in Rotorua other than hang around in
thermal spas, so that's what I did, down at 'The Polynesian Spa' which
offers a selection of natural pools of varying temperatures and aromas.
It's interesting to note that only in Britain and the US is it
considered a poofy activity to lounge around in steaming pools.
Everywhere else, everyone does it. So, rather than just women with the
odd GBF, the Polynesian spa's customers were a mixed bunch. Indeed, as I
slouched in the steam a cross-section of NZ society, including a
frightening male Maori rugby team paraded through the pungent pools. And
(again this is very un-British) spas are highly social places.
While in the hottest and most sulphuric pool, I started chatting to a
67-year-old woman, who was interested in trying Zorbing - the bizarre
and perhaps rather silly Rotoruan sport where you roll down hills in
giant inflatable spheres. In the UK, this would be an odd conversation
to have with a sexagenarian, but this is something you notice about most
NZ grannies - they're all terribly knowledgeable about adrenaline
sports. You'll say, 'I'm going to Queenstown' and the granny will say:
'Oooh, now you must try a bungy. I recommend the 150 metre death-dive,
you break the sound barrier going down, you know.' Anyhow, the extreme
oldster and I got on so well that I was in my sulphur pool for 45
minutes, not the recommended 15 and effectively gave myself an acid-peel
from the neck down. The granny, however, seemed to have no such
problems, her skin doubtless toughened by years of shark-wrestling.
The day I returned from Rotorua, Jane arrived. She was understandably
tired having just flown from London to NZ direct, mostly on Garuda
Indonesia. Domestically we had found this to be a fine airline, but on
international routes, she said, the combination of low, low prices and
the freedom to smoke makes it the sex tourists' airline of choice. Once
she' got over 12 hours in the company of these fine fellows we hired a
car. This seemed like a nice enough car, although its squeakings and out
of line bonnet suggested that it may once have been two cars - still
what do you expect for a tenner a day. We then drove beyond Rotorua to
Taupo, New Zealand's great lake and itself a massive volcanic crater
(600 sq km) dating from a cataclysmic event that killed everything on
the North Island, 15,000 years ago. Despite it's vulcan origins a lovely
place and not unlike Lake Tahoe, though it is a shame, that here, of all
places, bungalow architecture has enjoyed perhaps its greatest
flowering. There's not a great deal to be said about the lake except
that it has some exceptionally stylish thermal vents nearby and is a
charming place to go for walks. On one of these we saw a (perfectly able
bodied) man taking his dog for a walk by driving around a field while
pooch scampered. I was impressed: I always am when people put real
effort into their laziness.
Ski Resorts and unseemly paternal yearnings
After Taupo, we headed down to Mt Ruapehu, the far end of the geothermal
area and NZ's biggest volcano, for a spot of volcano skiing. Actually
this sounds terribly extreme, but, of course, it's exactly like normal
skiing. Well, almost. There are a few big differences. The first is that
the volcano occasionally erupts (as it did back in 1996) and wrecks the
ski season. The second is that when you ski on conventional mountains,
you're in the middle of a load of other mountains so you're surrounded
by slopes covered in white stuff and it all looks very alpine. But
volcanoes can exist individually (or it this case, in groups of three)
so on Rupehu everywhere you look 'off mountain' there's flat brown
ground which is so low that snow never falls. Except when you gaze
north, where you can see Mt Ngauruhoe. This is a young volcano, less
than 2500 years old and is still a perfect cone. With it's winter snow
cap and filigree frost trailing down its sides, it looks a bit like Mt
Fuji in Japan and is enough to make a man come over all
poetic...speaking of language, the other cool thing about Ruapehu (and I
mean, really cool) is the actual resort is called Whakapapa, pronounced
F**k a papa (and, presumably, twinned with Ishaggedyermum).
From our incestuous-sounding ski resort, we set off east, to Napier,
which bandies itself about as the world's finest Art Deco city. Largely
because it was destroyed in an earthquake in the 30s and rebuilt when
art deco was considered quite the thing. Well, it's OK, but you'd have
to be uber-keen on deco to get that excited about it, mainly because,
while the tops of the buildings retain their 30s charm, the bottoms have
all been remodeled in strip mall look that the Kiwis are so fond of.
Still, I suppose it was nice to see somewhere in New Zealand where there
is some sort of architectural awareness and the buildings have more than
one floor. A few kilomtres down the road is rather less famous (and
therefore much better preserved) town of Hastings which is far nicer and
the kind of place a true 30s aficionado could get a big old deco chubby
After Hastings we passed through the sweet little town of Clive. I only
mention this because it's a cool name for a town and many NZ towns have
blokish names like Bob, Gary and Keith. It also had a store selling
'pre-loved furniture.' You see signs for this all over the North Island,
but I have to wonder...I mean, while a pre-loved chair or footstool
sounds fine, I for one would be decidedly uncomfortable with a
'pre-loved' bed. God knows what you'd find under the mattress.
From Clive, we drove in continuous rain to Wellington, the capital.
Hemmed in by mountains on all sides and thus starved of land, Wellington
is much nicer (and considerably less bungalist) than Auckland, though
it's still hardly a 'destination city'. But, though the city was hardly
memorable our B&B more than made up for this. I knew that the owner,
a little guy called Alan in his 60s, was supposed to be a 'loveable
eccentric' but we were hardly prepared for how crackers he really was. I
said to him, 'Hi - you must be Alan.' He replied, 'Well today, I'm an
evil bastard called Saddam Hussein, but Alan will be back tomorrow.'
As promised, Alan was back at breakfast the next day serving porridge,
fresh carrots, 'for your miserable flagging, shrivelled libidos' and
toasted sandwiches with heart shapes cut out of the tops. The removed
toast hearts were later served when we were instructed to 'thank the
Lord for your mothers.' Breakfast continued in this vein for quite some
time and I was starting to wonder if we'd stumbled into the B&B
California. But I needn't have worried: Alan may have been nuts, but he
was happy to let us leave, once we'd paid. And in many ways he was a
taster of things to come. On the relatively populous North Island,
people are generally pretty sane, but across the water on its
depopulated southern sister, it's a different story. That's where the
real Kiwi fruitcakes are.