Wentworth Falls, Whangamata

Monday 3 January 2022 – Whangamata, New Zealand.

There was a brief moment after I entered the bush as the others walked on down the gravel path towards the cars, their scuffed steps and voices receding into the short distance, when all I could hear was nothing at all. It was as if all the birds had collectively held their breath while they guessed my intent and the gentle breeze stopped disturbing the trees to allow them to listen to me blundering about below. A half second or two of silence and then the wind ruffled the tops of the punga ferns and the bird chatter and song started up again. A brief moment of what seemed like total silence, a thin gap between human sound and nature, like a line drawn in the sand that I was allowed to cross. It was heavenly.

I love punga trees as much as I love quiet; The punga is a tall fern, almost palm-like, that grows in most low-land New Zealand forest. I love the vivid green of their fronds and how they spread out canopy like. I have been trying to take photos looking up into the mixed fronds of neighbouring trees with a bright sky above. It has been difficult, the punga is a low to mid canopy tree, meaning there is often a taller or even two taller trees growing above, between it and the sun. I’ve yet to find exactly what I want, and today was no exception, though, I’m happy enough with this photo and more importantly enjoyed stepping off the track to it.

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With another scorching hot day and uneven waves that were no good for surfing and a little too rough for family swimming I was surprised but not that surprised to find a lot of cars parked on either side of the narrow road to Wentworth Falls. The car park is a ten minute drive from where we are staying in Whangamata and it was busy. Half of Whangamata must have had the same bright idea as us; a cool walk in the bush.

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I love the New Zealand bush. Though it’s just a bunch of trees and scrub, maybe some ferns and grasses; all grouped together there’s nothing like it anywhere else. Due to New Zealand’s long isolation from any other land mass there are plants and trees here that don’t exist anywhere else on the planet.

Before I go further, and leave any wrong impressions ‘the bush’ is what Kiwis call a forest; large, small or any size in between, if there are a bunch of trees together and those trees are primarily New Zealand natives then it is the bush. A pine forest is not the bush, it is a forest.

The bush is generally considered to be ‘safe’, and I say this in quotes as it’s not entirely safe; the bush can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing, get lost or fall or otherwise hurt yourself away from other people, there are vast tracts of densely forested and unpopulated bits of New Zealand. However, New Zealand has no land animals that will kill you; there are no snakes, no majorly poisonous spiders, no crocodiles, no tigers/lions/other large cats/wild dogs with large teeth, nada. You can yomp around in the bush in bare feet to your heart’s content and nothing is going to fatally bite or sting you. There aren’t even any stinging nettles. However, there are lots of spiky things and some grasses with really sharp edges, so walking out of the bush with dried blood on your legs is not uncommon.

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Unlike the south east of England, and due to its volcanic and tectonic birth, the New Zealand landscape is very bumpy; steep sided valleys are everywhere, which means there are a lot of rocky fast running streams, and these often lead to some pretty fabulous waterfalls. I used to take a lot of photos of fast running water, lots of lovely tripod mounted long exposures to blur the running water. With no tripod those photos are impossible, though I still enjoyed watching and listening to the water.

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The bush was lush and cooling, it took us most of an hour to walk to the falls, mostly along a gravel path with a gentle gradient until close to the destination when, as you would hope when you are going to a waterfall, the path became a lot steeper. This is old gold mining country and there are a few bits of the old works still around. Though we didn’t have the time to do a proper explore I did find this huge stone wall, and I can’t tell you what it was for either. A mystery stone wall, with yeas of scratched graffiti and a punga stump in front of it.

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The falls have a have a total drop of 50 metres and are in three stages and would be fabulous after some heavy rain, though were pretty spectacular as it was, though hard to capture on a wide-angle lens at that distance. There were a few people at the viewing areas so we didn’t linger and hog the selfie spot. It would’ve been nice to just stand and listen to the water pounding on the rocks below, the wind in the trees and the gentle song of the birdlife, but it was not to be; too many humans.

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We walked up to the top of the falls to take a look at the view over the bush and out to sea. Glorious. I could spend all day here if I could, but sadly that was not the case today. Onward, upward (in this case downward to the car) and enjoy it while you can.

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Three Songs, No Flash. The Beths @ Whammy Bar

Wednesday 12 January 2022 – Auckland

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Before I start here is a quick note for anyone who landed here from a Google search while looking for information on The Beths Whammy Bar series. I couldn’t find the stage times elsewhere. This was from the Wednesday night performance so may not reflect the following nights.

  • Other than Friday 14 Jan, all five Auckland shows are sold out.
  • Doors at 7:00, the support band, Lips were on stage at 8:00 and The Beths on soon after 9:00.
  • A vaccine pass was required; most of the punters were wearing masks (yahoo).
  • Whammy has been proactive and installed some much needed, and very efficient, air-conditioning. The staff were great too.
  • Capacity has been reduced from 210 to 170 which made a massive difference to space.

The most important thing you’ll want to know; was the Wednesday gig any good? Hell yes, of course!

After the obligatory ‘Hi, we’re The Beths from Auckland New Zealand’, the band started with the fabulous oldie ‘Happy Unhappy’ with its poptastic ‘oh-uh’ opening, before launching into a set that seemed to have more tracks from the first LP than the second. All the ‘hits’ were there as you would expect so I doubt anyone will leave disappointed their favourite song wasn’t played. They introduced three new songs, unusually closing the encore with one of them, the very un-Beths like rager ‘Silence is Golden’, a track I’m looking forward to hearing on record.

If you have not heard The Beths and you like indie pop with great musicianship and witty songs with the best vocal harmonies New Zealand has produced since The Muttonbirds, then you definitely need to check them out. Then go buy some records. They are a great band, seem like lovely people and deserve to be huge, though not stadium huge as I hate stadium gigs. The Beths are doing a good old fashioned five night residency at the freshly post-lockdown re-opened Whammy Bar on Auckland’s K’ Rd.

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My favourites ‘Future me Hates me’, ‘Uptown Girl’ and ‘I’m not getting excited’ were played at pace and were fabulous, as was ‘Jump rope gazers’. With so many people masked up the crowd singing along was slightly muted too, an unexpected bonus!

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Australian artist Stella Donnelly was supposed to play the support slot but was unable to attend due to the travel restrictions. The Beths played one of her songs ‘Tricks’ in tribute, I thought that was the weakest song of the set.

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We saw a great The Beths set at Heaven in London in August 2019, along with 1100 other people, though this much more intimate venue really suits their personalities. The on stage and audience banter worked so much better here and at times it felt like it was a sing-along with mates rather than a public show. With fewer people than normal Whammy Bar was the best it has been, the sound was excellent, particularly at the back and the lighting was not too terrible for photography, though I still had to convert to mono as the colour cast was pretty bad 🙂

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I stayed at the front taking photos for the first three songs before heading to the raised area at the back to stand with Eleanor to enjoy the rest of the show.

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I have not heard support band, Lips, before. I thought they were OK, they had some good songs, the first couple and the last were the standouts for me.

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While Covid rates are (thankfully) incredibly low in New Zealand we all know how virulent the omicron variant is and we won’t know it’s in the community until it’s in the community. Getting Covid right now, just before we head off on holiday, and then back to London would be just so ironic. With that in mind I (we?) was a little tentative in the hours before the gig; this was only the second show we’ve gone to since Feb 2020 when we saw Penelope Isles in St Leonards. The last gig we went to was Deathcrash in July 2021 and it was a fully seated, socially distant event held in a Hackney church. The lack of shows was not through lack of desire; there were none in the UK before we left for New Zealand, and when we arrived in Auckland we went straight into lockdown. Gigs have just started again and we were so glad we got to go this one before we leave. It was originally scheduled for September and had been postponed twice before.

For a return to standing gigs we couldn’t have picked a better one. It was a fun show; great band, good sound, busy but not packed venue, and most importantly smiles round (as far as I could tell as the majority of the audience were wearing masks).

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Whangamata, New Zealand

Thursday 6 January 2022 – Whangamata, New Zealand.

For the first time in an age I feel refreshed. A break from the city combined with four nights of solid sleep had me almost perky when we arrived back at the flat. We’ve just returned to Auckland after a fabulous time staying with friends at their bach in Whangamata. The quiet, sea air and stress free environment, matched with great friends and good food and wine was the perfect antidote to the noisy and fume laden city we live in.

It was about 20kms into the journey south, I was driving and Eleanor was in charge of the music,  when the stress and anxiety that had built over the last few weeks started falling away. I almost felt physically lighter as the emotional load seeped though my skin and was sucked out of the car windows. The further from the city centre we travelled, the better I was feeling. I just knew we were going to have a good break, even when we caught up with the first traffic jam of the day.

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A bach is a New Zealand holiday home, often found near the sea. The glory days of the traditional one or two room bach made of wood or fibrolite with a tin roof are long gone. Some of the new places are bigger than the average house and as, if not more, expensive. Old friends Michael and Jan’s place is closer to the traditional bach than most, but it’s still large, with four sleeping spaces and a good sized kitchen/living area. It backs onto an estuary that flows along the southern edge of the town of Whangamata and is 100 yards from the surf beach. Whangamata is about 2 1/2 hours south east of Auckland and has a permanent population of about 2000 and a peak summer population of 25,000. It is peak summer.

We didn’t do much in Whangamata itself, it’s a small town with little of interest other than being located alongside a glorious 2km Pacific Ocean beach with occasionally good surf and a sea that is eminently swimmable in summer. For a short summer break who needs anything more than that? We seemed to busy the whole time we were away and only managed to take one walk up the beach; to the northern end, where we met our friends at a café on the main street and enjoyed one of the best breakfasts I’ve had in New Zealand. The sun burned the tops of my feet as we ate, thankfully not badly. The tide was very high when we set out so we had to make the occasional dash up a sand dune. In places we could see the damage this tide was causing the dunes and could imagine what Whangamata will look like as the sea level rises.

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Unlike Eleanor and I, this couple, mutually dressed in black and wearing the same model shoes, seemed to be having less fun walking the beach. I was laughing at them (inside of course).

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After breakfast Michael drove us to a bush-clad lookout over the town with a cool tree-shaded 15 minute walk around a headland. The tree line has changed since some of the lookout spots were defined leaving few clear wide open views over Whangamata and the ocean, though there was plenty to see and with a 30 degree day the tree shade and light breeze was very welcome. With or without trees the view was stunning.

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Michael also showed us nearby Onemana where his family used to have a bach. What seems to be typical of New Zealand beaches there was little shelter here; as the beach was closed due to dangerous surf we didn’t linger. The leaning trees are an artefact of using a wide angle lens, the trees were standing nice and upright 🙂

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Unlike the harsh daytime the evening light was warm and soft and welcoming and I used the camera a few times. I imagine the early morning light was equally as good, though until the last day I didn’t see any early mornings, sleeping to beyond 7:30 each day. Sleeping-in is part of my rest and recovery routine, photography should be as well I suppose, but I have never seem to manage morning photography.

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On our final day I was up earlyish and managed to get one final body-surf in before we left for home, stopping in Waihi on the way. Waihi will be the subject of a near future post.

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Though I’ve not been working since July and we’re staying in a rented apartment in Auckland rather than our usual home in the UK, these past five months have never really felt like a break, especially as Eleanor worked for four of them. This was our first proper holiday in such a long time, and it was just so enjoyable. I can’t remember the last time we went away, it was pre-2020 anyway. We should do a lot more of it; now we are allowed to again.

Thanks Jan, Michael, Paul and Lisa!

Four days of Christmas

Tuesday 28 December 2021 – Auckland.

In the ten years since I left New Zealand I’ve intended, and have indeed talked about on numerous occasions, to come back to spend Christmas with family. I’ve never quite made it and there has always been some reason or other, usually the massive increase in the cost of travelling to New Zealand for a summer Christmas. Anyway, this year we got to spend Christmas with my family, and it was lovely and fun and a welcome distraction from everything that is going on in my and the wider world.

I struggled a bit through the days leading into Christmas. Eleanor worked to mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve and had a lot of complex work related things to deal with. I tried to be supportive and think I did OK, but I find the whole lead up to Christmas an anxious time and wasn’t as fully on as I would’ve wanted to be.

My focus over those last few days was booking a brief holiday in the South Island to coincide with my nephew’s wedding in Dunedin. We now have an itinerary, and flights and accommodation are booked to match. Fingers crossed Omicrom doesn’t balls it up. I also booked our return to the UK. We fly soon after returning to Auckland from Dunedin, and just before the lease on the flat runs out. This was an anxiety filled booking. Even though I resolved to return a few weeks ago it was still difficult to actually click the continue button and I feel like in some way I’m letting people down. I’m also trying to not spend too much money as I haven’t had an income for five months which is also adding to the stress level. While I don’t want to wish Christmas away, a part of me will be relieved once it is over.

Eleanor is a Christmas person and I’m not that into it at all. I think there is a big difference to how northern and southern hemisphere people process Christmas and I’m stuck somewhere in between. I don’t dislike Christmas, but I don’t love it either. One of the things I appreciate most about our relationship is we have accepted, and continue to accept, our differences (Tottenham / Arsenal for instance) and move on. I wasn’t really capable of that in earlier relationships which is something I’m not particularly proud of. I know I can be a bit of a stubborn arse at times.

In the days leading up to Christmas we took a couple of walks around central Auckland to see the Christmas lights, though there were far less than normal this year due to the pandemic. Franklin Road which is very close to where we live usually has a big and popular display with all the houses lit up, though the council cancelled it this year which was a major disappointment to us. We visited the display in the Smith and Caughey department store on Queen St, the story across a number of windows was popular with young families.

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We then walked down to Britomart to watch the short and largely uninspiring Christmas projection, though this photo is very unfair on the display. Great sky though!

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The following evening we went to see the new Spider-Man movie, my first trip to the cinema since some time in 2019. It was an OK film, but it was great just being in a cinema again. The new Matrix film will be next.

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I have rented a car for a few days, so on the way to my sister’s house on Christmas morning we took a detour and drove along Tamaki Drive. It was a glorious day, very unusual for an Auckland Christmas. I think Eleanor was surprised at the number of people enjoying Christmas day on the beach, even though it is a bit of a New Zealand Christmas cliché. I was surprised too. I was looking for somewhere we could park the car next to a pohutakawa, the New Zealand Christmas tree. It wasn’t easy finding something, though we did in the end. It would have been nice to be able to spend some time here, but I’d left it a bit late to leave the house so we didn’t have any time to hang about without leaving the rest of the  family waiting.

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All my Auckland family were together for Christmas lunch which was fabulous, this was the first time ever that all four generations have been in the same room on Christmas Day. 

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It was great being able to spend time together, enjoying a meal and sharing gifts. I’m not sure when, if ever, it will happen again. With pandemics and climate change and the cost of global travel who knows when we’ll be back and if the younger generation (s) will even still be in New Zealand when we do return for Christmas. It was a great short few hours.

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While we were all together we had a brief Skype call with my South Island sister and her family as well as my family in Australia. It was lovely to get some more photos from Queensland of my son and granddaughter later in the day.

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When the young folk had left mum, my sister, Eleanor and I went for a short walk to a local park with my sister’s dog, Millie. It was brutally hot and with Christmas lunch belly it was an uncomfortable time, we didn’t stay outside for long. I am used to a colder Christmas day and a post-lunch snooze, not a post lunch walk under a hot blue sky.

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I’m not sure what my sister was saying, but mum was obviously horrified!

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Christmas was enjoyable and fun and being able to see and celebrate with family was one of the primary reasons we came back to Auckland this year. I am so glad we did.

Since dad’s passing in 2007 it has been a Boxing Day tradition to visit Muriwai where his ashes were scattered. I drove mum, Eleanor and my Auckland sister up there in the rental car. I love Muriwai so it is always a pleasure to visit, though I haven’t been in the surf for years.

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There were a lot of gannet chicks but I only had the wide angles on the camera which was a shame. It was surprisingly empty at the gannet colony which meant there was no pressure on time at viewing platforms and the paths were less crowded and easier to walk on. While it was warm out it was not as hot as yesterday, I guess the sea breeze helped; thankfully a repeat would have been most unpleasant.

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We stopped by the spot we scattered dad, before getting in the car and heading back to Mum’s for a late lunch, and then on to home.

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The following day, Monday, and the 10th anniversary of me leaving the country, Eleanor and I took a drive out of Auckland, along the coast road by the Firth of Thames, which runs along the southern end of the Hauraki Gulf. We were going to have fish and chips at the famous cafe at Kaiaua but it was closed for a few days. Disappointing. There was not a lot open anywhere along the coast which was surprising given the number of people out and that so many places had been closed to pandemic restrictions not that long ago.

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It was a lovely day for driving in an air-conditioned car and we enjoyed being out of the city for most of the day, visiting places Eleanor had not been to before. At Miranda we headed back inland and drove back to Auckland via highway two. The traffic going in the opposite direction, towards the Coromandel Peninsula and Bay of Plenty beach towns was appalling. Auckland empties at this time of year. I hope it isn’t so bad next week when we make that same journey. Back in the city we drove around central Auckland looking for fish and chips but none of the takeaway bars were open. Monday is not a good day for fish and chips it appears. I think I cooked when we got home.

Tuesday morning we met mum and my sister at Auckland Art Gallery to visit the Mary Quant exhibition. We arrived 15 minutes before opening and there was already a (very short) queue forming. There would have been twenty people by the time the doors opened. I am glad we got there early as we had the exhibition largely to ourselves.

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With Covid restrictions applying there were fewer people in anyway, masks on and vaccine passes mandatory for entry. The exhibition was really good, I would have liked to have seen more period photos to see the clothes in the real world, but other than that minor thing I very much enjoyed it. It was interesting and entertaining and some of the clothes were amazing. There was a big queue outside the exhibition when we left. I love 60s fashion.

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Eleanor I drove out to Hallertau Brewery for a fabulous late lunch, as I was driving I  only drank two small beers. It was then time to return the rental car and the four days of Christmas were over. It was an enjoyable time, and I appreciated being able to spend time with mum and my family over Christmas, for the first time in 10 years.

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Unless things really turn to shit, we arrive back in the UK on 25 February and I start back at my old job on 7 March. I’m not sure if this is the right or the wrong thing to do, but this was my call. I miss London and St Leonards and while I love being with family and New Zealand is mostly a nice place it is no longer really my home.

Year 10 of my two year break

It was ten years ago today that I left New Zealand for my second Overseas Experience. The OE, now known as the gap year I guess, is the thing you do when you’re a young Kiwi, not a 49 year old single father of three mostly-grown children. My life was perfectly ‘fine’ but I was burnt out and needed a break from work and the repetitiveness of the everyday, plus I wanted to see more of the world than I had managed to so far. It was to be an opportunity to clean house and unload a bunch of physical and emotional baggage and escape reality for a while. When I flew out of Auckland Airport, destination Singapore, I had no plan beyond a flight to Borneo three days later. I told family and friends I’d be gone for no longer than two years, but secretly hoped to make it past the three weeks I had committed myself to. It wasn’t as if I’d a job or a home to return to after three weeks if I chickened out and accepted that the mundane was safer, quieter, less challenging and maybe pretty damn good after all.

Here I am 10 years later, back in Auckland for five months; and preparing to leave again in another two. The reasons for leaving this time are very, but not entirely, different, but at least now it feels more like going home rather than running away. Of course Eleanor is the big difference to how I feel about home, and she is the main reason why my ‘maximum of two years’ plan was discarded so long ago. I am a much happier and far more content man than I used to be. I think I am a better human too.

I left New Zealand to travel, and over the first 15 months I travelled a lot, visiting countries in SE Asia, Africa and Europe. Did I do all I planned? Yes, more than I could ever have dreamed of, but was it enough? Heck no. I still have the wanderlust; but now it’s restrained by the reality of being 59, by finances and right now, by Covid. The future of travel and wandering is uncertain and that does make me a little sad, there are still a lot of places I want to see and experiences I want to have. I am greedy and selfish I know, I’ve done more than most and should be satisfied with that, though I’m not.

I need to learn to enjoy the now more than I sometimes do, enjoy the very good things I have in my life; the family, friends, the job and its money, the freedom and the privilege. I do understand and appreciate all those things and more and know I am incredibly lucky, but one more backpacking trip wouldn’t go astray…

I have a few regrets from that time; I would love to be a better granddad and spend more time with my grandchildren, and I would like to be physically closer to Mum too. This trip to New Zealand was supposed to be the start of that journey, but New Zealand is just not where I’m meant to be. I have learned many things about myself over the last ten years and one of those things is I have to look after myself first. If I’m no good to me then I am no good to anyone else. Some may see this as a selfish point of view, and I can’t deny that it is selfish, but I also know the alternative is unsupportable over the long term.

The other big regret is not making better and more use of my photography and writing. I have always been too cowardly to try and make a living, albeit small, doing something I absolutely enjoy. I would love to have been a travel writer and should have at least given it a go when I had the chance.

I should end on the many many positives, so here are a few highlights of the last 10 years?

Though the past couple of year have been rather unadventurous, I have done a lot of interesting things and been to some amazing places since I left New Zealand, I have done a lot more than most men of my age, I would imagine. 

Number 1 is, of course, Eleanor. I am constantly amazed by, and grateful, that she has put up with me for eight years and I just cannot imagine life without her. She makes me very happy and I love her very much. There could be no other number 1.

Number 2 was the birth of two grand children, one in New Zealand and the other in Australia. Though I don’t get to see them as much as I would like, I’m the one who has chosen to live on the other side of the world. They, and my mum and the rest of the my family, are good reasons to keep visiting New Zealand and Australia; with the occasional sub-adventure on the way.

Number 3 has been buying the flat in St Leonards-on-Sea. While it means I’ve much less disposable income and we haven’t been visiting many other places for the past couple of years, it’s an anchor as well as an investment and I’m missing it a lot.

Number 4 was making it past three weeks of travelling. Three weeks was the minimum I set myself when I went to SE Asia, I was determined to at least give backpacking a decent try and I admit there were many moments in the five months I lasted there when I wanted to stop and give up, but I stuck to it and had one of the best experiences I’ve had and proved to myself I could do something different and something that wasn’t easy. It was a life changing experience and I know I came out of it a better person.

There have been so many individual highlights that I cannot possibly name them all; so here is today’s top ten, I am sure there would be a different selection if I was asked tomorrow.

1. One thing I will treasure until I leave this planet will be the day I spent with wild Gorillas in Rwanda. Wow, that was a lifetime highlight not just of the last ten years. Expensive as it is, and that is not including getting to Rwanda, I would love to do it again one day and highly recommend it to anyone.

2. Seeing Orang-utans in Borneo. Admittedly I saw them in nature reserves, but I would love to go back and see them in the wild. They are my favourite animal.

3. Before I left New Zealand, under the advisement of my friend Alex, I completed a scuba diving course in Auckland, and wow, that was an extremely wise investment. I completed close to 40 dives in the first two years away and went diving in so many great places. I regret not keeping it up, and would one day like to do some more.

4. Also under Alex’s advice I attended the Hindu Thaipusam festival in Kuala Lumpur. I have never been to anything like this and it was the people-based highlight of the trip. This was hugely out of my comfort zone, so was a challenge I had to overcome and it was a magical experience.

5. This is getting repetitive, but Alex also recommended I attend the annual camel fair in Rajasthan as it coincided with a short trip I was planning to visit India. The camel fair was pretty amazing and lot of fun, though the aftermath had some money challenges I had to overcome.

6. Angkor Wat was close to, if not on top of on my list of places to visit before I die, and I was not let down at all, I absolutely loved it and just regret not taking a better camera with me.

7. I hadn’t heard of Bagan before I started planning the Myanmar leg, but as soon as I heard of it, it was number one on the list of places I had to go to. I have always been interested in old stuff, ruins and temples, castles and forts, anything ancient that can be looked at, walked around and investigated. Bagan has all that in spades, plus rickety old bikes and more. I absolutely loved the three days I spent there, it was one my favourite places, not just for the scenery but for the people I hung out with.  I feel so much for the people of Myanmar and their current, awful, situation.

8. Copenhagen with Eleanor was our first European break together and the first place we visited together where English wasn’t the first language, not that that is a challenge in Denmark. It is a lovely city to visit and we were scheduled to return in 2020 as stop over on a 10 day train trip from Oslo to Amsterdam that was cancelled due to the pandemic

9. When I was a child I read a lot of adventure stories, including those by Willard Price, and these really set my imagination for places and animals on fire. Settings from those books stuck in my mind and being able to visit some of those places of adventure was a genuine thrill. When I travelled upriver into the ‘wilds of Borneo’, and entered cities such as Mandalay and Zanzibar I thought of those adventure stories, of swashbuckling heroes, mystery and hidden danger, experiences beyond the usual. I get excited thinking about it. There are still a few to visit, though some, such as Timbuktu, will sadly be impossible unless the world changes in the next few years.

10. I absolutely loved Namibia and Laos, two wildly different countries, and for wildly different reasons. Two small nations that probably most of the world has not heard of and some of those who have heard of them would never be able to point out on a map. Both amazing places.

It’s been an incredible ten years; if the next ten are even half as good they will be fabulous, and I am looking forward to the journey. I am not sure if the blog will last much longer, it was supposed to be about travel and I’m just not doing enough of it anymore. I will see.

Huge hugs to those of you who have been here for the whole journey!

Merry Christmas day 2021 from sunny Auckland. xx

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Killing time

Wednesday 15 December 2021 – Auckland.

Ten days to Christmas, crikey! My first Christmas in New Zealand in ten years and I’m not entirely sure what I think about it, it’s certainly different to the last nine years. It’s hot to start with, too hot sometimes; there was a moment this morning as I was walking the bike path when the sun cleared the dense low cloud and it felt like walking in a SE Asian city. It was heavy, airless, hot and uncomfortable and luckily it only lasted a few short minutes before the sun disappeared behind some cloud and it felt like Auckland again. I was relieved. Heat and humidity will be our future so I have to get used to it, particularly as I am wanting to finish some travelling in hot and humid places.

This week seems to have gone by quite quickly, though to directly refute that I’m struggling to believe it’s only Wednesday, it feels like it should be much closer to the weekend. The heat and humidity feels worse this week and sleep at night has been hard to find and I feel jet-lagged most days. Not working means an afternoon lie down is possible, though I’ve yet to manage a nap that has refreshed. I’m constantly tired and can’t shake off the lethargy I was feeling last week, though as a bonus I’ve read more than I have in years. I have also been watching travel documentaries on Youtube which has been entertaining, interesting and not a little depressing. There’s still a lot of world I want to see, though I’m not sure I’m brave enough now to visit some of the places remaining on my list; but who doesn’t want to see the Sapeurs of Congo, Komodo Dragons, search for wild orangutans in Borneo or wonder at 1000 year old palaces or temples?

I went out for a walk mid-morning to avoid the worst of the heat and the expected afternoon rain. I have been walking infrequently over the past couple of weeks so have committed to get out more, even if it’s just to complete a mindless loop. I’m hoping that exercise will help break the lethargy as well as let me drop a few pounds. Eleanor bought me a book with some short walks in the centre of Auckland that looks at the city’s architectural history. The book reminded me that I’d yet to walk past my favourite city centre building, the Courtville Apartments, so with an end game in mind I set off out the door with the camera in my bag.

My other objective was to walk the ‘Pink Path’, more officially known as the Nelson Street Cycleway, it was opened in 2015 as stage one of a safe cycling and walking route from the top of town down to the water front. It’s built on an unused section of motorway off ramp and is a great safe short cut as well as a good use for a large chunk of old and unused infrastructure.

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The path starts between the Nelson Street Motorway off-ramp and the Hobson Street on-ramp, which makes for a good road challenge just to get there, these are busy and fast intersections and red light running is the norm. As the city has opened up the traffic has got significantly busier, noisier and dirtier. On a hot day waiting to cross is unpleasant.

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The path is about 1km (at a guess) and passes under Karangahape Road ( K Rd).

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There is a little bit of a view through the Perspex screens that slightly reduces the road noise from the motorways below. 

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The screens are quite grubby with car fumes and every single one seems to have some graffiti written in the filth. There is very little other graffiti elsewhere on the path.

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The path ends near, then crosses, Upper Queen Street, before continuing as the Grafton Gully Path, crossing under Symonds Street, down the side of the Symonds Street Cemetery and running alongside the Grafton Road motorway off ramp to the back of the university. The interesting looking Ironbank Building on K Rd. is also in the book Eleanor bought me and I could just see it popping out above the buildings between us.

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There is nothing to see on the Grafton walk, it is just a traffic-free way of moving through that part of town and is probably best done on a bike, at least the downhill bit. I was glad I was listening to music as I walked.

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I took a couple of photos at the back of the university buildings. There are some very colourful pohutakawa trees here, a nice contrast with the monochromatic building behind it.

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The Auckland High Court building was completed in 1868 and is one of the city’s lovelier buildings, or at the least frontage is, the building itself has been more recently expanded in generic blocky, yet practical brick. There are a number of gargoyles around the entrance and adorning the tower, one of them looks a lot like Queen Victoria, though less so from the angle I took this photo from. Without the wide-angle lens I couldn’t get the whole building in.

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Next to the court lies the Courtville Apartment building/s, my favourite residential building in the city centre, and second to The Pines tower block in Mt Eden, as my favourite in Auckland. I’ve always liked this three story block of flats. It was built in 1915 and has had some interesting occupants and I’m sure it still does. It was the first residential block built in New Zealand; people were not interested in apartment living in Auckland at the time so it was quite controversial. As it slowly ages and mould and the residue of diesel fumes seeps into the concrete exterior it reminds me of somewhere like New Orleans or one of the other Creole speaking towns left when the French were kicked out of America; a memory derived from television as I’ve never been to the American south. I can clearly see touches of the Laotian cities of Vientiane and Savannakhet in how the building is aging and the seasonal greenery;  both places I visited on my travels and coincidentally,  somewhere else the French were kicked out of. The hint of early 20th century Parisian design rather than that of London is quite unusual for vintage Auckland buildings, just look at the high court building next door. It’s that non-English Europeaness that I love so much about it.

Vive la difference.

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No sunset photo today, the weather has been more like this lately;

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I feel like I’m just killing time until we go back to London and then St Leonards-on-Sea in a couple of months. There is a lot of time to kill and most of me wants to make good use of that time and do some upskilling, or writing or more photography, however there’s a small part of me that is idle and tired and bored, and sadly that small part is dominating and I don’t do anything much at all.

The clown show

Friday 10 December 2021 – Auckland.

This post isn’t a commentary on the current UK Government, nor its Prime Minister. Apologies for the potentially misleading headline.

Today is the end of the first week where mostly everything in Auckland has opened up and things are relatively normal; whatever normal means for Auckland City. I have been away too long to know. The southern and northern border of Greater Auckland effectively remain closed to most of us for five more days, opening just in time for those with money to flee the city to their holiday homes for the Christmas and summer holidays. There are no east or west borders, only the sea. The city will effectively be fully open, though rules on gatherings and masks will still apply, whether they are followed or not is yet to be determined.

I’ve not done much over the past couple of weeks and am struggling to remember what I have achieved other than visit people, very enjoyable though that has been. I had my Covid-19 booster shot earlier in the week which explains the lethargy I’ve been feeling for the past couple of days; it was my first dose of Pfizer so I wasn’t surprised by being tired and listless. It’s also very warm and even more humid than last time I wrote and this isn’t helping clear the woolly head nor motivate the woolly body. A few books have been read and plenty of music listened to. To be fair I’m mostly happy, though I acknowledge that rarely comes across in my writing.

It’s time to come clean and say that unless something drastic happens we’ll be heading back to the UK at the end of February. Of course with Covid and the new omicron variant then something drastic could happen; who (WHO) knows, it’s too early to tell. We’ve yet to fix a date for the flight and there are a number of variables that affect that decision, though I start back at work on Monday 7 March so that’s certainly a target date. There’ll be more on the decision when it is made in the new year and the impact of omicron on travel and borders is clearer.

I’ve done very few walks recently, though today I made it out for an hour mid-morning, the impetus today was to get nice bread from the French café for lunch. I’ve walked most of the central city area and as it’s got busier as the city opens up it’s a less enjoyable place to just vaguely and aimlessly stroll around. The more the traffic increases the more negative I become. I sometimes think we should have left last month when my view on the city centre was more positive. I’m not yet at the level of dislike I was at before we came back which is something I guess.

I walked up to Westhaven Marina, crossed the motorway by Pt Erin Baths and then walked back along the old foreshore walk between the base of the cliff and the motorway. Much as I like walking along the seafront I prefer the foreshore walk, fewer people and more things to look at.

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I was trying to find a ‘New Zealand Christmas Tree’, the pohutakawa, that was sheltered from the persistent breeze. I didn’t have much joy, though took a few photos just in case there is no better opportunity before we leave.

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The pohutakawa tree blossoms bright red through December and the big old trees look magnificent. December also appears to be a very windy month, which makes it more difficult to get a good close up of a pohutakawa. I took a couple of photos today, but am not overly excited about them. I was using the 50mm lens which I need to replace as this one is not quite sharp enough for close up work. When I’m back working it will be the first thing I buy myself.

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As I’m sure I have mentioned before this section of the foreshore walk runs alongside the motorway leading to the harbour bridge and it is becoming one of my favourite walks with a nice mix of urban grunge, greenery and the odd bit of the mad conspiracy sharing that has been growing in Auckland’s fringe.

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The barrier between path and motorway does a fine job of blocking most of the noise, though I generally walk with headphones. Today I was listening to a rare podcast, music being my usual fancy when I walk. 

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I enjoyed the walk and bought a very nice loaf of bread for the delicious squash and blue cheese toasties Eleanor made for lunch soon after I returned.

After Eleanor had finished work for the week we took a walk to the art gallery to see the ‘Vocabulary of Solitude’ installation which opened the day after we last visited. The installation by Swiss born New York artist Uno Rondinone is a collection of clown figures in various poses reflecting his view on solitude. The installation is made more dramatic with coloured film covering the huge windows in the gallery which cast ever changing shade and light over the figures. The clowns are foam dummies, though some appear quite realistic until you look closely; I was half expecting one of them to be a real human and was waiting for a quiet smile and the raising of an eyebrow as I looked at each one in turn.

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The light effect was particularly strong when we arrived, fading as the bright sun dropped, departing completely when it disappeared behind the neighbouring buildings.  

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The installation was first shared in 2014, but with Covid-19 and the solitude that has been enforced by it and it seems even more relevant and poignant now. I saw myself in some of those faces.

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We stopped for a glass of wine in the gallery café before walking back home via The Warehouse; where we picked up a small Christmas tree. I made a damn fine shakshuka to wrap up what was a pretty good day. The weekend ahead has plenty of promise too with a meal out with friends booked for tomorrow night and a Skype with friends in the UK on Sunday.

Like the last post, I will end with another image of one of the glorious sunsets we see from the balcony.

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Culture vulture

26 November 2021 – Wynyard Quarter, Auckland.

Another month almost gone and the news of the week (month, quarter) is that Auckland will mostly be back to normal on 3 December. I’m particularly looking forward to the gym over the road reopening and hopefully moving the 7am exercise class inside as I’m heartily sick of false woops of encouragement first thing every day of the week. Who wants that sort of positivity at 7am on a Sunday? 

I’m nervously interested to see how quiet our flat remains once things open up, will the streets around us be full of 3am shouty drunks, and will the neighbours kick-off party season this weekend? I like things just as they are.

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The one gotcha we face with the country opening up is there will be a requirement for vaccine passes (passports/certificates as they are called in other countries) to enter most places. I agree with these in principle, however at the time of writing neither Eleanor nor I can get one. In theory those with overseas vaccinations will be able to get a pass on Dec 2, but both of us have had issues with what the New Zealand health ministry have on file. Mine seems to now be resolved, but poor Eleanor has been round in numerous circles with the very friendly and trying to be helpful staff at the call centre, seemingly with little joy. Try again on Thursday was the advice today.

We have been out a bit over the past few weeks. I haven’t taken many photos as we haven’t really done much of interest, we have mostly been enjoying ourselves which is the important thing. Primarily we have been walking around the city centre, though it’s getting warmer and humid and there’s a lot more traffic now, so city walking is less pleasant than it was. I’m not particularly looking forward to peak summer, especially in the new year when I suspect many more office workers will return to their desks and the traffic will be back to it’s normal awfulness.

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It’s hard to believe that Christmas was over two months in the future when I took these two photos in October.

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We visited Auckland Art Gallery the evening after it re-opened to the public, there were very few people there and at times it felt like it was just us and the staff, it was very enjoyable. We missed the opening of an interesting looking exhibition featuring clowns, ‘Vocabulary of Solitude’, by 24 hours so will go back sometime to see it.

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We did catch the Bill Culbert ‘Slow Wonder’ light sculpture exhibition which was interesting, though sculpture is not really my thing I kind of enjoyed it.

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The gallery are showing a collection of their stored works titled ‘Manpower: Myths of Masculinity’ which was interesting. Seeing paintings and sculptures grouped outside of their regular context and used to tell a story is something I am starting to appreciate a lot more as I go to more galleries and more exhibitions that are not solely focused on a single artist.

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The following week Eleanor and I visited Auckland Museum. We wanted to visit these public institutions before the city border was re-opened and they became more popular with internal tourists. We also wanted to get in before the vaccine pass became mandatory to avoid issues if we remain unable to get one for a while. This was the first time we have visited the whole museum together and it has changed a lot since I visited just before I went on my travels. Changed for the better I might add.

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Interestingly I particularly enjoyed the WWII collection, possibly because I’ve now been to a few of the places in SE Asia that New Zealand troops fought in. I’m not usually that taken by military collections as I’ve tended to (mostly incorrectly) link these to glorifying war or victory over another nation, though this is definitely changing and the words being used in museums to describe what’s on display are, in my view, significantly more neutral in their stance. There also seems to be more acknowledgement of the horror of war and more importantly, the atrocities committed by the ‘good guys’; i.e. us. Visiting the ‘American War of Aggression’ Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (old Saigon) and seeing a war museum from the point of view of those my nation(s) fought against was an eye-opening experience, and perhaps the start of this journey.

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There is a link in my mind back to the ‘Myths of Masculinity’ exhibition at the art gallery and how society’s view on masculinity has changed over the years, particularly more recently. Taking time to be able to reflect on things has been one of the few positives of lockdown and there is more thinking, and talking, to be done on this particularly subject.

Being able to visit the library, gallery and the museum have been real highlights of our time in Auckland. Signs that the city is opening up again and places that inspire, start conversations and open minds being allowed to open before pubs and restaurants shows a maturity of leadership missing in the UK. Much as I miss the pub and being able to eat out, I can drink beer and eat a good meal at home; I cannot stand and admire a work of art or a piece of history in my sitting room (and looking online is not the same).

Continuing on this unintentional military theme, I have walked, run, cycled and driven past these two WW2 installations on Tamaki Drive hundreds of time though only just learned they held search lights and not large guns.

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Way, way back in the middle of October I took a walk through the Nikau Grove in Auckland Domain and had planned to go back to take photos once I had collected the tripod from mum’s place, which I have now done. After the 30 minute walk from home I discovered that somewhere on the journey I had lost an essential component which rendered the tripod useless. I back-tracked all the way home, then repeated the walk the following day in a hopeful attempt to find it, though these were both in vain. The tripod is now a three-legged lump of aluminium and worthless, and sadly the part does not seem to be available in New Zealand. This means there will be no further photos of the nikau grove other than this last hand-held shot of a punga tree.  I was looking forward to spending time making more images there, and for that a tripod is a must.

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Some last minute pre-click-on-post good news.

Our UK vaccines have now been registered in New Zealand and we both got our vaccine passes this morning, Yay! Even better news is we are eligible for booster shots, something that has been on our mind as Eleanor is now 6 months from her second shot and I will be in December. Eleanor had her booster this morning and I will try for mine next week. This will provide additional protection when we do some holidaying over the festive season and when we fly to Dunedin in the south island for my nephew’s wedding in February (fingers well and truly crossed that we can do these things.)

We’ve had some very nice sunsets from the deck of the flat lately, so I will end with a photo of one.

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The backstreets of the Wynyard Quarter

Friday 05 November 2021 – Wynyard Quarter, Auckland City.

I enjoyed taking and editing the black and white photos in the last post so much I decided to do the same again today, focusing on the less appealing parts of the nearby Wynyard Quarter in downtown Auckland; the bits behind buildings, the official car parks and those yet-to-be-built on places where people also park cars. There is a lot of parking available in Wynyard Quarter. Like Wednesday I set myself up to take black and white photos.

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The walk wasn’t as inspired as the one on Wednesday, the sun was a bit too bright for my photographic style and there were too many people out and about. I have also come to the realisation that I like walking hills more than the flat roads of a harbourside, which I guess some people my think is a little peculiar. It was forecasted to be raining in the afternoon, and I hung on as long as I could but the rain failed to materialise. I wanted the rain. Rain meant fewer people, a darker sky and opportunities for reflection, and I don’t mean personal reflection. I don’t take a camera if I am planning on some of that sort of reflection. The weather forecasting in New Zealand is absolutely hopeless.

As well as carparking I also found visitor bike parking, which isn’t something I have seen before, but mightily approve of.  

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Anyway, I took photos and I had fun in both the taking and the editing. Half a day was mostly used up, and really I can’t ask for much more than that at the moment. Let me know what you think of the photos!

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The area has either been built on or is being built on, and as I’ve previously mentioned I think this space has been designed quite well, the apartment blocks are low rise and mostly attractive and there is quite a lot of greenery about as well as plenty of pedestrian space (though not as much as car space).

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I am really looking forward to cafes and the barber properly opening.

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I have added two colour images to finish, the black and white conversion didn’t really work on these.

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The news of the week is Auckland Library is now open to online order and onsite collecting. I ordered and collected. This made me very happy, though I got a book about Angkor Wat and the Khmer Empire and now I’m sad as I can’t travel to the places I am reading about, maybe I should make better book choices.

The flâneur

Wednesday 03 November 2021 – Auckland City.

I want to get this off my chest now, before I get too far into writing and give you, dear reader a false impression that I’ve always had this impeccable taste in music. I’m going to start with a confession.

Prior to his untimely death in February 2020 I hadn’t really paid a huge amount of attention to the music of Andrew Weatherall and his various guises. Dance music wasn’t my thing and I never got excited by the legendary Weatherall produced Screamadelica album by Primal Scream. The indie nerd in me was more of a fan of the Screams’ earlier un-dancey guitar based pop. I was, of course, very aware of him as a popular and well regarded DJ and producer and he had performed in Walthamstow on more than one occasion to rousing and popular acclaim. I just didn’t do dance music.

Weatherall’s passing generated a tsunami of broken-hearted and loving messages in my Twitter feed supported by numerous eulogies and heartfelt stories in the mainstream press. The outpouring of love for this man compelled me to read those articles and I discovered there was a lot to like and I was quickly sucked into his world, becoming, like so many before, an avid fan. I now own some of his records and in this period since his death have become far more interested in electronic music and dub. My music world view has positively expanded in the past 18 months and this journey was very much down to his influence.

I read this piece in the Social online in the weeks after Weatherall’s death that spoke about him as a flâneur; a stroller or saunterer. Apparently he was known for his flânering around various parts of London, dropping into a record shop here, a bookshop there or stopping for a chat in a favoured café, an act we both love, and have in common. I was reminded of this at the weekend when I came across a Guardian piece from April of this year that I’d read and saved titled ‘Why cities emptied by Covid-19 are perfect for the modern flâneur’. With little else to do at the moment, and a determination to fall in love with Auckland city centre, flânering looked like a good use of time.

On Saturday night Eleanor and I watched a new documentary from Todd Haynes on the highly influential New York rock band The Velvet Underground. VU were a band I listened to a lot and if you look through my record collection you will find Velvet Underground influences in well over half of the artists represented there. Musically and attitudinally the Velvet Underground and Andrew Weatherall are almost polar opposite to each other, but in their chosen fields they are/were key innovators, both taking modern music in new and exciting directions.

Velvet Underground were heavily associated with the artist Andy Warhol and he was a key influence on their style and the imagery surrounding them. I was very inspired by the footage and photographs in the documentary, which were mainly taken in the late 1960s and early 70s. Those grainy and soft black and white images made me want to go out and take photos of the urban environment around me; not that I am in anyway trying to compare 2021 Auckland to 1970 New York.

Today was a particularly overcast day with a forecast of rain and it felt like exactly the right kind of day to take a camera and go flâneur. I set the camera to be as close to a 60s film camera as it could get; black and white, a fixed 50mm lens and to get the grainiest possible images, an ISO of 6400, the highest it goes. To inspire a creative side to the walk I made a new Andrew Weatherall playlist and donning headphones I left the flat. No fixed plan, just see where the roads, and more importantly the construction-closed footpaths lead me.

The camera was out almost immediately.

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I walked for two and half hours, mainly around the centre of town, primarily sticking to the side roads and the small number of alleyways and open malls linking roads together, keeping away from as much construction as possible. I was looking for images that spoke ‘urban’ to me, that touched on an older Auckland; the one from my youth. Though there is little left of either that city or my youth.

I had a good time, I’ve walked all these streets before so there were no great reveals, but in the past I rarely looked at things in detail or even spend any time just looking.

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Lorne Street.

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The University Precinct.

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Downtown.

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I had planned on taking some time to sit and write over a coffee around the High Street / Vulcan Lane intersection, the ‘coolest’ part of Auckland City, or at least the area with highest concentration of decent coffee. Earlier rain had left all the public seating wet so I huddled in damp jeans with a too hot espresso next to a couple of recently stubbed out cigarette butts on a stair under the covered entrance to a closed office; looking more a dishevelled street drinker than the modern and sophisticated flâneur I was posing as.

I was hoping to take in the air and make pithy observations in this most sophisticated corner of the city, and though most of the shops were open for click and collect, other than strategically and poorly parked cars there was not a lot to observe, pithily or otherwise. There was a group of six or so men in High Street, just around the corner from my humble perch, guffawing and talking overly loudly in that ‘look at us’ kind of manner the over-confident have. Though I couldn’t hear what they were saying the noise was distracting enough for me to not stay for longer than it took to finish the over hot-coffee. I had experienced this group once before; they look like they work in a small IT business, when I was waiting to pick up a book from the shop over the road. That time they were collectively leering at a young woman who was unfortunate to be walking down the street. The most obvious of the group is in his early forties and wearing the overly tight shorts and t-shirt combination of a philanderer who has found himself recently and unexpectedly divorced. A part of me is a little jealous, if I was wearing those clothes they would bulge in all the wrong places and there’d be an inch long strip of hairy and pallid belly emerging between t-short and shorts, and no-one wants to see that. I guess I managed to make some pithy observations after all.

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It started raining again, heavier this time, so I set off in the direction of home, taking one last photo on the way.

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Once home I uploaded all the images to my computer, I’d taken about 50 which is a lot for me. I use Adobe Lightroom to edit images for here and social media, though I rarely do much to the images other than a few basic tweaks to give the RAW files my camera creates a bit of life. Shooting in RAW means that though the camera thought I was shooting black and white today, the stored images were actually still in colour. This meant a Lightroom conversion back to black and white.

This isn’t the first time I have converted a colour image to monochrome, though with more time available to me and with some base images I actually liked, I took time to teach myself some new editing tricks and techniques. Spending some extra time converting and working on the photos gave me a lot of enjoyment; this is not always the case, and it very much added to the pleasure I got from flânering with camera.

I will do this again.

It was the 30th anniversary of Primal Scream’s Screamadelica a couple of weeks ago and it’s being re-released as a double LP along with a box set of ten 12 inch singles from the band from that period. I won’t buy either of the tjem.