Challenge House

Anyone reading my blog over the past few weeks will have noted I have some antipathy to Auckland’s Central Business District, particularly the rampant, seemingly unregulated, and frankly, hideous construction that blights the city centre, and has done for years. It seemingly never ends; and I’m not talking about the work being done to build the new underground light rail system, which is something the city desperately needs. What the city doesn’t need right now is more commercial and residential blocks.

I absolutely agree with and understand that a city centre needs to move as its demographic changes. The city centre; particularly Queen St, is no longer the primary retail centre of Auckland it was in the 1960s and 70s, and it hasn’t been since suburban shopping malls arrived in New Zealand. As retail moved out to the ‘burbs during the finance boom in the 1980s the centre became further aligned with  business and new office blocks and shiny towers to mammon went up almost as fast as the older buildings came down. Buildings by the corporate raider Ron Brierley (jailed for possessing child pornography) and investment bankers such as Fay (accused of tax avoidance and insider trading) and Richwhite (only accused of tax avoidance) were erected to show how important and flush they were with other people’s money.

Admittedly the Fay Richwhite Building completed in 1992 and now known as 151 Queen St or the SAP building is one of the better constructions. I worked in a slightly less lovely office block next door in the 90s and was slightly jealous of its shininess; until someone jumped off the roof in the midst of the financial crash that followed the boom, when other people wanted their money back.

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There has long been a move to include more residential living in and around the centre, though the explosion of cheap and poorly built blocks of tiny flats for overseas students wasn’t what most people had in mind. This appears to have changed for the better with more attractive and thoughtfully designed (read more expensive) blocks, such as the one we live in, now being built. However, there appears to be a lot of inner city flats for sale (there are 1198 Auckland City apartments on realestate.co.nz today) and walking around the city I see a lot of apartments that appear to be vacant. Like cities and towns all over the world, absentee and second home owners buy property they rarely use, pushing up prices for everyone else and leaving city centres void of much needed life.

As I wander around the construction site that used to be Auckland’s heart I wonder if the work going on to build new towers for offices and flats is a final attempt by the monied class to remove the last remnants of a working class presence in the city. There seems to be a desire to finish the job started in the boom of new wealth in the 1980s to demolish the last of the small workshops, the warehouses and factories where the less privileged slaved for poor wages before schlepping back home to the suburbs. Each decade sees more of the old working city disappear and I find this monumentally sad. Blandness will eventually reign supreme.

I worked for a Brierley owned subsidiary when I arrived back in New Zealand in 1988 after a couple of years in London. Brierley bought the business, asset stripped it; flogging the good bits to another one of his companies, then making the warehouse and retail staff redundant. The building I worked in just up from the city centre, on Hobson St was demolished in 1991 and is still a small shabby car park to this day.

I walk along Wolfe Street on about 25% of my walks through and around the city because I love this derelict and half demolished building. It used to be Challenge House and was sold in the early noughties to be demolished for some new thing. However, there were issues with the consent to demolish so nothing happened and the first three floors were eventually turned into a very rough car park. The demo of the car park first finally started sometime in 2018 but stopped soon after. This is what it looked like in October of last year. It was graffitied and messy, with dangling plastic secure fencing on some levels, but no razor wire and no scaffold and no work being done.

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Almost the entire block is now being demolished to make way for a ’multi-level commercial project planned to maximise gross floor area ratios’ (whatever that means in normal people speak). Naturally the developers are backed by overseas finance  with a company registered in that bastion of financial openness, the British Virgin Islands; not that I’m suggesting they are carrying on with the property development and financial standards set by their predecessors (accusations of tax avoidance etc). A couple of the old buildings in the block will have their frontages preserved in a new found rush for facadism in Auckland, though that is as it says,  just a façade. Nothing much is preserved and even that small amount is not by choice.

The block includes the building that housed Food Alley a very popular hawker style food centre which I used to enjoy eating at when I was working in the city. it was a good place to meet friends, buy a beer and food from the multitude of, primarily Asian, food stalls. It was the closest Auckland got to Singapore style eating and that has been taken away. Maybe it was too radical for the good burghers of Auckland city.

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Weirdly, when I looked the address up on Google Maps, the shadow from one of the older towers casts a darkness over the building site; as if Google or the Gods don’t want to acknowledge the development is happening; or maybe its just the CIA have hidden something.

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When I was walking past last week I was shocked to find that the demolishers have come back, razor wire is all around the site and scaffold is now up and work has commenced on pulling this old, and frankly ugly, mess down. I took a few photos over the fence to remember the place as it will be gone when I’m back in New Zealand; possibly, I thought that last time I was here too.

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Though I’ve just called it an ugly mess, I am a little saddened by this, this graffiti covered relic of a bygone era was unloved by many but it was symbolic of the rush to knock down the old and rebuild with the new, even if the new had never been planned, financed or even agreed. ‘Pull it down’ they say, ‘once it’s gone it’s too late to protest and they will accept our cunning plan for a replacement. Bastards.

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The building on the other side of Wolfe St, number 6, was for sale in 2018, I’m not sure if anyone bought it. Built in 1912 it has been vacant for 23 years, and it still is. I wonder who owned it and whether it had been land banked until the money was right, though why it couldn’t have been repurposed for something and saved I don’t know, surely there would have been some value in restoring a heritage building? Perhaps I’m just a fantasist who longs for days past?

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Challenge House was nothing special; so much so I couldn’t find a photo on the internet of when it was built or being used as it was intended. So, given its current state it has to go.

Few of the other remaining early twentieth century buildings left in town are ‘special’ either, but that doesn’t mean we need to get rid of them. There is an excess of commercial and residential property in the city, and now its largely unaffordable, few see the city as a retail destination either. We just don’t need any more large buildings; investment should be made in preserving and re-purposing the last remnants of Auckland heritage, while there is one.

Challenge House is dead. Long live Challenge House.

10 days left

Monday 14 February 2022 – Auckland city.

Though I (we) don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day, it was worth noting February 14 in 2022 for two reasons. Firstly, six months ago, on 14 August we finished our time in managed isolation and were free to roam new Zealand (for three days before the Auckland lockdown ruined any plans we had), and secondly, we were going to fly to Christchurch for a week long holiday that afternoon, but…

I cancelled that trip last week due to the rise in cases of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 in New Zealand. Though the daily infection rate is still very low (981 today) compared to the UK (35,000) it’s on the rise and the risk of getting ‘pinged’ and told to isolate for 10 days is rising with it. We can neither afford to have to isolate in hotel somewhere in the south island, nor do we want to miss our flight back to the UK on the 24 Feb, in 10 days. Perish the thought we actually got sick with Covid.

The primary reason for the trip south was to attend my nephew’s wedding in Dunedin where he is a student. It would have been the first time I’d have seen him, his brother and parents (his mother is my sister,) for a few years and we were really looking forward to having all the New Zealand based family together for the first time in ages. Due to Covid related risks none of the Aucklanders (mum, sister, son and other nephew and niece) are heading down to the wedding, which is a real shame. Eleanor and I were also looking forward to seeing some parts of New Zealand we haven’t seen before, Lake Tekapo for me, and hanging out with friends in Christchurch, a city I haven’t really visited since that terrible earthquake in 2011.

The days and weeks since we came back from Waiheke have been a real drag; with returning to the UK on the horizon, Eleanor working until last Thursday and the threat of Omicron growing exponentially I have really struggled with motivation and have done very little other than lie about reading a bunch of books; hoping somewhat for enough inspiration to get me out the door. It has been quite hot and extremely humid over the past week and having air-conditioning didn’t help me out of the flat’s front door.

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I’ve been missing a destination, after roaming the city off and on for weeks I’ve not only run out of steam I’ve also run of interest. It isn’t the nicest centre to walk in at the best of times (and with all the construction at the moment it isn’t the best of times). I need somewhere other than the library to visit, a café or bar for instance. The kind of bar I could find in London, or any British or European city doesn’t seem to exit in Auckland. I want a bar or café with a sofa, or a comfy corner chair to relax into; and these just didn’t seem to exist. It’s all backless bar stools at high tables, benches or criminally uncomfortable wooden or plastic chairs. These things are fine when hanging out with a group of mates (except for those bloody bar stools), however they’re hopeless to lounge in with a good book for a slow hour over coffee or a glass of pinot and I like a lounge, and I want to lounge in comfort.

Recently my friend Martha introduced me to the atrium of the De Brett Hotel House Bar and subsequently we’ve been occasionally meeting there for a mid-morning coffee. The coffee is good too. Eleanor and I went there for a glass of wine one evening after work last week and it’s exactly the sort of place I dreamt about. Quiet, decent wine and comfy chairs, it looks fab and the music isn’t as awful as pretty much everywhere else in Auckland; i.e. not 70s/80s and 90s ‘hits’. It also had the feel of a place where I could sit with a book and headphones over a drink and I wouldn’t feel like other punters were staring at me like I am some sort of bookish loaner freak.

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One of the books I read was ‘Flâneuse’ by Lauren Elkin. Eleanor was loaned a copy by a London friend before we left but didn’t get a chance to read it so got a copy out of Auckland Library, of which we are now both members. I enjoyed it more than Eleanor did, I think. 

One of the things the author mentions was the pleasure found in getting ‘lost’ wandering a city, something I still like to, and can do in London. I enjoyed the aimless, almost lost wandering in some of the places I have visited on my travels; places like Singapore, Hanoi, Paris, Barcelona and Valencia and I need to do more of this. It’s something that is seemingly impossible to do in, or near, Auckland’s city centre. Of course part of the reason for this is I’m pretty familiar with the city as I’ve lived here most of my life. Though having said that. I still like to place the blame for this squarely on the domination of the skyline by the sky tower. One of the benefits of walking under low cloud and in light rain is the absence of the sky tower.

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I know I could  get out of the centre and catch a bus out to Howick in the east or Beachaven in the north (I know the west pretty well) where I could lose myself fairly quickly, but who wants to walk in Howick or Beachaven? Not me. There is probably nothing wrong with those places, but I don’t want to walk suburban streets I want to walk in an urban centre, where there is some life and activity, some culture and some grit, and life goes on 24/7…

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I finished reading ‘Flâneuse’ as a period of bad weather arrived, the wind, rain and cloud bizarrely inspiring me to get out to try and take some photos. I managed a couple of short walks, but missed the worst of the weather, which was a shame as the rainy city was what I wanted to photograph as I’m a bit sick of the constant nice weather. Weather forecasting in New Zealand is an even more inexact science that it is in the UK.

As I was wandering around I decided to buy myself a new Canon 50mm lens, the ‘nifty fifty’, it is very cheap and probably my favourite lens. The one I bought second hand in the UK before we left isn’t as sharp as it should be and I broke the one before that. I ordered one online last week and will collect it later today. I will do some comparison shots between the two, hopefully it will prove the lens I have is too soft; it’s either that or I cannot hold a camera steady anymore which would suck massively. I will sell one when I get back to the UK, they seem to hold value there better than here. I guess having some ‘spare’ money is the only benefit of not travelling to the south island, though I still need to be careful with the cash. My sabbatical ends soon and I start work again on 7 March, (in three short weeks, where did that time go!)  but I won’t get paid until the end of the month.

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I walked around the High St area, which is pretty much my favourite small bit of Auckland.

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Then up to, along and around the back of K’ RD (Karangahape), avoiding the record shops on the way.

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As always once I am out, I enjoyed taking photos again and wish I could do more. However, I’m still suffering from a mental block, a lack of desire to do anything more than lie about reading. I found writing this post chore enough and it’s taken four days to get it to print. I had to make myself do something as I want to write and photograph more but just can’t. I’m hoping a return to the UK will boot me out of this ongoing and frankly rather tedious lethargy.

Anyway, I will close by saying it’s not all doom and gloom in my head and there is plenty I’m excited about and looking forward to.

Happy Valentine’s Day lovely xx

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A big view of Auckland

Sunday 16 January 2022 – Auckland.

Looking like a junkie’s dirty syringe waiting to inject gambling into the veins of Aucklanders, the Sky Tower thrusts into the sky above the city, the early morning dream of a well funded architect compensating for a small penis.

Visible from everywhere in the city, at 328 metres, the Sky Tower is the tallest building in New Zealand, the southern hemisphere (surprisingly yet to be unclaimed as Australian) and the 28th tallest structure in the world. It is an important communications tower and popular tourist attraction but its main purpose is to act as a giant phallic advertisement for the casino it sits above. Before the tower there were no casinos or seemingly a need for a casino in Auckland.

Photo taken in October.

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It was constructed between 1994 and 1997 and was, at the time, deeply unpopular with the people of Auckland; though I suspect most are, at best, ambivalent about it now. Approval was railroaded through with all the false commitments of economic benefit you would expect from an international gambling empire; the promised ‘world-class’ conference centre is being built now (delayed due to Covid). I hated it when it was first built and have a love/hate relationship with it now I’m used to it dominating the skyline. It’s hideously ugly, but also beautiful in a brutalist, functional fashion. For all my dismissiveness, it does have a great view over Auckland, and much as I never want to contribute to the casino’s vast profits I would still recommend going up the tower to look at one of the world’s prettier cities when viewed from on high.

The threatened cyclone had failed to materialise by mid-afternoon so, as the sky was relatively clear and Eleanor had a handy discount voucher, we took the opportunity to visit the towers viewing decks, one of the few items left on Eleanor’s Auckland to-do list. The tower is close enough that if it fell over the tip of the mast would likely hit the far side of the apartment block we live in, so it didn’t take long to walk there.

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There are five (I think) publicly accessible levels in the tower; level 51 is the first viewing deck, 50 is the café, 52 the revolving restaurant, 53 access to outside activities and 60, the top viewing deck.

The automatic lift, with a viewing window in the floor, took us directly to level 51. Eleanor didn’t step onto the glass and I can’t recall doing so either. It was weird watching the journey up the lift shaft, it felt very sci-fi.

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As you can imagine, the view from Auckland’s tallest building is wonderful, from this height on a clear day Auckland is a lovely looking city, the two harbours almost mirror-like in the sun. The central business district almost looks grown up. I took a few photos though the heavily tinted and solid looking glass.

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Just like the lift there are windows in the floor allowing a clear view down to the ground 200 or so metres below. I stood on the glass, though it was tentative and I didn’t stay for long. A nearby sign advised the glass was as strong as the concrete floor I was more than happy to walk on. Perceptions eh?

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We caught a second lift up to the floor 60 viewing deck, there were fewer people up here which was nice, not to say that level 51 was crowded min. Very restricted numbers allowed up the tower during Covid.

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Most people were wearing masks on 60, unlike the floor the below. I took a photo out towards our apartment block, the white building touching the bottom left corner of the park.

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This photo was taken in December out the bedroom window, as I said earlier, we are close and the tower is tall.

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After circling the deck a couple of times, with me pointing out places of interest, or places where we had visited we took the lift back down to 51, then walked down to level 50 for a glass of wine and a relax over the view in the café. There was only time for one before we were tossed out at 6:00 closing.

It was still early so we walked to the Park Royal Hotel near the Wynyard Quarter and had a final couple of glasses of wine for the weekend (I had one more Man O’ War syrah) and the best fish and chips we have had in the city. It was a great end to a great weekend.

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.

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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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.

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.