Waiheke weekender

Sunday 16 January 2022 – Waiheke Island, New Zealand.

Waiheke; an island of sun and sand, vineyards and restaurants and cafes, all connected by Auckland’s friendliest bus drivers. What else could you ask for in a weekend away?

Waiheke Island is the largest of the Hauraki Gulf islands and about forty minutes by fast ferry from downtown Auckland. It’s extremely popular with wine tourists, hen parties and other, less-alcohol focused day trippers. We spent the weekend there and it was a highlight of our time in New Zealand. Unsurprisingly, other than family and friend time, the moments I have enjoyed the most have been when we have left the city behind.

Over coffee earlier in the week a friend told me her brother and sister-in-law, who we’ll be staying with in Christchurch* in three weeks, were doing up an old bach (holiday home) on the island. I said we were going over for a day trip and was advised to contact them about staying there, which they happily agreed to.

It was finally time to break the backpack out from its long slumber, the last time it was used was in India in 2016. I love this backpack and can’t wait to be donning it for some sort of adventure in the future, pandemics and finances willing.

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We left for the ferry as soon as Eleanor finished work on Friday afternoon. We arrived at the ferry terminal 30 minutes before the ferry,  joining the end of an ever growing queue before getting on a full ferry. Those at the end of the queue, being forced to wait for the next ferry. It looks like the island is going to be busy.

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Not being familiar with the location of ‘The Shack’ as our friends called their bach, we took a short taxi ride from the ferry. As the driver dropped us off he asked if we were sure this was the right address. The Shack is on a section that our friend’s US based brother bought to build on when he returns to New Zealand in a few years. The Shack will be demolished and a new house built. In the meantime our friends are making it habitable for use as a bach without spending too much money on it. We are the first to stay there. It sits just above, and has a view over, Sandy Bay and we loved it. It is very much my sort of place; informal, quirky and a bit ramshackle. A bit like me really.

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I have seen some before photos and could see quite a bit of work had been put in to get it to a liveable state. My favourite interior design feature was this life-sized Donald on the loo door, and I now want one for my flat in St Leonards. Great for those suffering from constipation. I also particularly loved the astro-turfed floor.

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The view from the deck is fantastic.

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After unpacking we walked up the road and caught the bus into Oneroa. The first of six excellent bus rides with the nicest bus drivers in the world; they even wait for you to sit down before taking off, amazing! A number of the bus stops had mini-libraries in them too.

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We had dinner booked at Vino Vino in Oneroa but were too early for our reservation so had a drink in a nearby bar. I think the state of their wind break is a visual summation of the place; no vaccine passports, no masks and the worst wine on the island. We won’t go back. Imagine having that view for your customers and caring so little.

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Vino Vino was exactly what I want from an island break restaurant; a stunning view, great service, the best ceviche I’ve ever had and great wine, including the first glass of syrah from local winery, Man O’ War. A syrah I will now dream of, as at $50 a bottle I won’t be drinking it often. We enjoyed our evening and were the last out the door. They cleaned their windbreaks too, just sayin.

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Saturday dawned wet, the first rain we have seen for a while, it wasn’t unexpected and we enjoyed hanging out in the Shack for a few hours until it stopped later in the morning. The rain was welcome.

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We caught the bus to Ostend and visited the Saturday market where we shared a waffle for late breakfast.

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The first stop on our unofficial ‘wineries on the bus route tour’ was the Tantalus Winery. We thought about going to Te Motu, and probably should have, but half the bus got off there so we went to the next winery on the bus route. We didn’t particularly enjoy the glass of wine we had at Tantalus so only stayed for one.

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We walked up to Heke, a recently opened brewery/distillery/restaurant 100 metres up the road. It was busy and we got a high-table in the very noisy bar. I had another Man o’ War syrah, accompanied by some great fries and bread for second breakfast/early lunch. I mostly liked Heke, if the bar staff weren’t so loud it would’ve been nicer, credit to the staff for great service given the number of people there. The fries were great too. I tried a glass of one of their Waiheke whiskies. It was alright, a nice full round flavour but still a bit rough, though it was certainly drinkable. In a few years it will be a more enjoyable experience. Life is too short to not enjoy what I’m drinking. Eleanor had a gin and tonic with their gin which was very nice.

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We caught another bus to our final destination, Onetangi Beach. We had dinner booked later in the day so took our shoes off and walked along the almost empty beautiful beach, feet dipping in out of the warm sea as the tide washed up and down.

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Then up some steps; lots of steps,

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to a great view over Onetangi from the top.

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A hundred yards up the road we arrived at Casita Miro, our destination for the rest of the afternoon and my favourite place of the weekend. Casita Miro is a restaurant and small winery, heavily influenced by the flavour and art of Spain it serves tapas and makes a remarkable albariño, of which we had a couple of glasses.

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Access to the winery is via a dusty brown gravel road with grapes growing down one side. Walking under the warm lazy, humid sun, if I squinted my eyes I could easily place myself on a similar road in rural Spain.

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From the winery entrance to the tasting room is a long wall where a neo-Gaudi extravaganza is being created. Seeing the wall completed is reason enough to return when we are back in New Zealand next.

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We relaxed for a couple of hours over a couple of glasses of wine and a mid-afternoon snack of manchego cheese with crackers and jelly. As the vineyard is quite small the vintner only produces a limited amount of each vintage each year and these are only sold in the shop. It was tempting to buy some, though they are expensive. It seemed much better to drink some wine in situ, enjoy the experience and have the memory to take away, and look forward to coming back with more money in the wallet.

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Reluctantly we left the winery, walking back down the stairs (they seemed steeper and longer) and along the beach to our final destination of the evening, Restaurant 370, over the road from that fabulous beach.

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We met a couple of friends for a drink outside before heading in for an enjoyable dinner, and a final Man O’ War syrah.

A tropical cyclone had been forecast to brush the east coast of the North Island late Sunday or Monday. We had been keeping an eye on the weather all day with the idea of going back to Auckland after dinner if it looked like the wind would make the crossing unpleasant. It didn’t, so we had a final night in the Shack before catching the first ferry back to the city on Sunday morning. It was a lovely smooth and unexciting ride back to the city and reality. Boo hiss to reality.

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*We are flying to Christchurch on 14 Feb for a week in the South Island. With the omicron variant of Covid-19 only just making an appearance in New Zealand, we are hoping we’ll still be able to do this trip. However, the SI trip concludes three days before we fly back to London so we may be forced to re-evaluate that decision. I hope not.

Karangahake Gorge

Thursday 6 January 2022 – Waihi and Karangahake Gorge, New Zealand.

Karangahake Gorge is close to the top of my ‘Favourite places to visit near Auckland’ list. It has everything I want in a destination; lovely bush, an interesting history and the ruins to support that history, a good walk and a great river. Its main downside is it’s also on lots of other ‘Favourite places to visit near Auckland’ lists. It is hugely popular. We drove though the gorge on the way from Auckland to Whangamata, where we’ve been staying with friends for the past four nights. I had planned to stop but it was very busy as we passed through so we decided to stop on the way home instead; aiming to arrive earlier in the day to avoid the worst of the heat as the walking path is very exposed to the sun.

We managed to make the gorge as we drove home, but again far too late in the day for the full walk, it was another hot and busy day. Tottenham (Eleanor’s football team) were on the telly first thing in the morning so we had to stay and watch the match before we left.

As it was so late in the morning, and we had missed the early walking opportunity, we stopped for brunch and a quick look around Waihi as it was on the way. Waihi is a gold-mining town close to the eastern end of the gorge and, like the gorge, is interesting from a New Zealand perspective.

The Cornish Pumphouse was built on the edge of Waihi around 1904 to service the nearby Waihi Mine, New Zealand’s most profitable gold mine. It was modelled on the pump houses used in Cornwall in England to pump water from tin mines. I love this building, it stands on a small rise right on the edge of the town and can be seen for miles.

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The open-cast Waihi Mine is no longer working and you can see a landslip on one side of the mine. If there was time I think a tour of the place would be really interesting. Another ‘next time’ activity.

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The Karangahake Gorge was formed by the lovely Ohinemuri River which runs through the gorge. The gorge’s history is heavily linked with gold mining, though not in the same way as Waihi with its huge open-cast mine. Here, tunnels were dug into the hillside and the mined rock was dumped into the river. Pump houses pushed the water and rocks through large batteries which crushed the rock exposing the ore. The remains of that old industry lie all along the river side and I’d like to come back one winter, when it’s cooler and less busy, and photograph them again. At its peak, around the start of the 1900s, gold from the gorge made up 60% of the gold found in New Zealand. Prospecting still goes on in the area, but not to the same degree and it is all hidden away.

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My favourite bit! I’m a huge fan of trees growing in and around ruined man-made structures, and I never tire of finding them.

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We crossed the swing bridge over the Waitawheta River, a tributary of the Ohinemuri River just so I could take the above photos. From memory there is a good walk up the tributary that is less busy than the main path, though we didn’t really have time to do either today.

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We dropped down to  the edge of the Ohinemuri River for a quick look before walking back to the car and continuing on the with journey home. I think Eleanor was pointing to my finger being over part of the lens…

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We made a final, brief stop in the town of Paeroa for the obligatory photo by the giant Lemon and Paeroa (L&P) bottle, the town’s main tourist attraction since 1968. L&P is a soft drink that used to just be lemon and carbonated spring water from the town, but it’s been owned by Coca Cola for years and probably has loads more ingredients than is necessary.  L&P isn’t sold or well known globally, but it is ‘World famous in New Zealand’.

Eleanor seems thrilled to have her photo taken near a New Zealand icon.

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And that was it, the end of four great nights away, our first holiday in ages.

The Mount

Wednesday 5  January 2022 – Whangamata, New Zealand.

Famous for its small peak, glorious beaches, great surf, and drunken New Year’s Eve violence, Mount Maunganui has been a must go summer holiday spot since the invention of beer cans* for any young New Zealander with the means to get there and beer to drink.

I’ve never been to ‘The Mount’ for the New Year festivities but I have visited on a number of occasions over the past 30 or so years. The last time was the middle of the noughties when I used to do day trips to the nearby Port of Tauranga for work. I left Auckland early enough in the morning to get there for a run round the Mount, a quick swim in Pilot Bay to cool down then in to the office before most of the local staff turned up. It was usually a good day out.

Pilot Bay is one of two beaches at the Mount and is on the inside of the small isthmus, with the main surf beach on the outside. It’s a great place for a quiet swim and is family friendly. Eleanor and I started the 45 minute walk around the Mount from here.

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We were in Mount Maunganui for the afternoon visiting friends who recently moved into a home mid-way between the two beaches. It is a 2 ½ hour drive from where we’ve been staying in Whangamata. It was another brutally hot day so Eleanor and I were advised the best thing to do in the midday heat was to take the easy and reasonably shaded walk and experience some of the fabulous views and the sea breeze that whips round the point. We weren’t the only people making use of the breeze, though not all of them were on the ground.

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Leaving Pilot Bay there is a short and gentle climb which is pretty much the extent of the uphill walking all the way round. There were a few walkers but nothing like the crowds that filled the main shopping street. This is a very popular tourist spot and it gets extremely crowded over the few days around Christmas and the New Year.

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As you near the tip of the point the stunning view over the Pacific and the bush lined white sandy beaches on the other side of the fast running harbour entrance comes into view.

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The view all the way around is magnificent and I took quite a few photos.

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Three quarters of the way round the almost complete circular path is a great view down the surf beach towards Tauranga. Eleanor enjoyed the view as well.

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As the circle came to a close there are some steps that start the path up to the top of the Mount, I ran/walked up there ages ago and it’s tough going. It would be brutal on a hot day like today as there isn’t much shade on the early section. I’m very glad** to be rather unfit at the moment, that and the heat were goods reason to not make the climb.

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We had a cool down dip in Pilot Bay once we had finished the walk and then went for an enjoyable drink and early evening pizza with our friends before driving back to Whangamata. I’m not as comfortable driving as I used to be and was loathe to be driving on windy country roads in the dark, so was quite happy we made it back soon after I’d put the headlights on.

Another great day on this lovely little break we are having, though we head back to Auckland tomorrow.  We may come back to Mount Maunganui and explore a bit more before we leave for London in seven weeks. We just have to see how timing works and what else we need to fit in, and time is disappearing quickly now.

* This may not actually be true.
** This is also not true, I’m not at all happy about being so unfit.

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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