Monday, June 2, 2008

Auckland: Biggest city in New Zealand in a beautiful harbour-side setting

01/07/01 - Auckland Central Backpackers, 1737

New Zealand so far has been very hassle-free. This hostel is packed with lots of great features (bars, cafe, movie rooms, TV rooms etc., although the rooms are a bit sterile and the lift appears to be very close to death trap classification.

I left the Pink House hostel in Sydney at 4am to get the bus to the airport. Tonight will hopefully be the first decent night's sleep I've gotten since Melbourne.

My room was pretty dodgy last night. Beer cans everywhere, as well as two poms who smoked joints back-to-back while they exchanged stories about taking various illegal substances they'd taken around King's Cross. Generally, the mood of the room was caught permanently in that moment in the early morning when the pot has run out, and everyone's coming down. Paranoia, antisocial and eerily quiet between the odd trivial remarks.

Understandably I didn't spend a lot of time in there. The movie room was a very good alternative - warm, friendly and of course entertaining. The Dutch couple whose dorm I stayed in previously were in there, as well as some girls from Newcastle who thoughtfully let me inside the hostel very red-eyed at 7am. They'd been in Sydney a few weeks, previously through China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Asked them a lot of questions about Vietnam and Cambodia and got some good information off them. They had apparently no hassles at all up there which is encouraging to hear, as I'd like to go up there at some point.

During the day, I hastily caught up on the sights I'd missed previously in Sydney. Bondi first, then I went up to the Aquarium which was good fun - the platypus seemed to be lapping up the attention. Unfortunately though , there was not enough light to get any decent photos in the main Aquariums.

Afterwards I went on a quick trip on the monorail (singing the monorail song from The Simpsons in my head). It seems to be a fairly pointless and trivial piece of public transport - it doesn't really go anywhere and doesn't hold much in the way of people.

Getting up at 4am was understandably a real pain in the arse. What's worse was waiting at the bus stop in the middle of King's Cross at that time of the morning. I didn't really see anyone dodgy, and for most of the time I was waiting for the bus there were two police paddy wagons across the road investigating something anyway. Maybe that's not so good actually, but you feel pretty safe with four policeman across the road. The day before I saw the KX police doing something else cool - posing with some English backpackers, who were up against a police car while one of the cops put on some latex gloves and another backpacker took some photos. It's good to know that some police have a sense of humour.

My Thai airways flight out of Sydney was late leaving. People get like sea gulls when a plane is late in boarding. They just have to get on board - and they pay no attention to what the airport staff are saying (for example, "the plane won't be ready for another hour"). When we finally got aboard it was a pretty comfortable 2 ½ hour flight. The in flight movie wasn't that great, but tolerable (Miss Congeniality), but the food was very nice.

I arrived late afternoon, and after a short rest I looked around the Auckland harbour area. But it was getting dark, so it seemed probably better to leave real exploration until tomorrow.

One thing I have already noticed in Auckland as well as in the East Coast is a real franchise plague. Western Australia seems to be a few years behind in the Starbucks and Burger Kings, but I expect it's probably not far away. In Auckland 24-hour convenience stores called "Star Marts" are absolutely everywhere - there is literally at least one in sight at all times around the Auckland Central Business District.

Then of course there is McDonalds as well - but that's a world wide plague. After leaving customs in Auckland, the first thing I saw? The Golden Arches near the exit of the terminal.

Perhaps these are some of the reasons that Melbourne was so full of S11, M1 and other anti-global/quasi-socialist graffiti and bill posters. Catherine told me there was often a blockade outside the Nike superstore in the heart of the city. In a tourist pamphlet on the bus into Auckland city, there was a section on Auckland Zoo which mentioned the "McDonalds Rainforest" exhibit (amongst other corporate sponsors) - the irony is sickening.

Globalization politics aside, the customs process at Auckland airport. I put my steel-cap boots in my main backpack so I wouldn't set off the metal detectors like I normally do when I foolishly wear them at airports. Unfortunately hiking boots have to be declared to New Zealand customs (mostly due to Foot and Mouth concerns), so I had to fish them out of my ever so nicely packed backpack. Prior to this I got thoroughly sniffed by some cute and cuddly drug-sniffing dogs. They put some sort of disinfectant on my boots, and then I was on my way.

03/07/01 - Burger King Auckland, 0942

OK, OK - I'm eating breakfast in a franchise. I had breakfast in a cafe yesterday and it was quite expensive - for a little bit more in Burger King I get a Simpsons figurine as well! I'm such a sucker for merchandise like that.

I think yesterday was the most physically demanding day I've ever had whilst on holiday so far. I planned to go to Auckland Museum in the morning, and ended up trekking through a muddy rail yard and into the Auckland domain which was like something from Endor in Return of the Jedi. If it was any other time than Monday morning I would have been very concerned going through both areas - they both seemed dodgy.

The museum was quite good - the Polynesian/Maori exhibits in particular. They had a large section on the social history of New Zealand which was really well put together. The war section was of similar quality, but I've seen so many of those exhibits now that they've started to lose their impact. The building itself has great marble walls and amazing stained glass windows (and a ceiling) on the top floor; some of the stylings in the stained glass are similar to the Australian War Memorial.

I then set out to get to Mount Eden (an extinct volcano in the Auckland suburbs), which turned into a bit of a mission. A short bus trip, some help from the locals, and a long walk later (at one point past a particularly nasty looking prison), I was finally at the base of the 196m hill/mountain. Sure, that's not a high peak by any standard, but I didn't realise the trails were so long and the slope so steep. Nor did I realise my boots would have been far more helpful on my feet instead of in my bag at the hostel.

I was exhausted once I finally got to the top (a reflection of my fitness more than anything), but it was all worth it. The views were amazing, as was the massive 50m volcanic cone in the heart of the summit. Getting down from the top was very simple - it was typical that I discovered a very easy path down the hill (compared to the cross country one I took going up).

I got a bus back into town, but half way through the trip a truck clipped a window and put a tiny chip in it. After they sorted out who did what and exchanged details, the window slowly started disintegrating in large pieces as we drove closer to the city centre. No one was hurt or close to getting hurt, but nonetheless the bus driver (a huge Maori woman whom I'm sure the truck driver did not argue with) let everyone off a bit earlier as she had to get the window repaired.

Had a fantastic Malaysian satay for dinner, followed by a lot of beer with an American guy staying in my dorm. About 10pm he turned in, and I had planned to call home when I stopped by the TV room and saw "Big Brother Uncut" - I just couldn't resist. It was the Australian version, and even though it was trashy managed to make everyone in the room laugh a fair bit.

I got into bed at about 11:30pm, and the cover band upstairs in the bar kept cranking out loud and boring covers of Pearl Jam (as opposed to exciting covers of Pearl Jam?) until about 12:30am. As soon as they stopped I finally managed to get some sleep.

Now it's time to try and see some real Kiwis at New Zealand Zoo.

03/07/01 - Frontlome Bar, Auckland, 1718

Pretty hectic day today - or maybe I just didn't get much sleep. The Zoo was OK as far as Zoos go, except the amount of kids was intolerable. I'm usually quite tolerant of kids, but today they really managed to put me off reproduction. The amount of times I nearly stood on one after they kept walking in front of me...

I managed to get a very brief glimpse of a Kiwi - it's a bit hard what with them being nocturnal and all. I did manage to see a Tuatara though. That was pretty much my fix for New Zealand fauna. The rest of the Zoo was your standard African fare, along with a nice compliment of Australian marsupials and birds.

Next I went to Kelly Tarlton's Underwater World. The Aquarium bit wasn't quite as good as Sydney, but still worth seeing. They had some massive rays and sharks. What really made it worth while was the penguin colony. We drove through it in little red train things (mean to be like Antarctic trucks), and got a great view of them, snow and all. I managed to get some good shots of the penguins, but I doubt much else from the Aquarium will turn out.

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