Since landing in Australia yesterday morning, it’s occurred to me that I’m a little behind here. Between leaving Arrowtown and jumping over to a new continent, I was actually able to visit some pretty spectacular places in New Zealand and so, in the interest of keeping things (somewhat) organized, I thought I’d finish them off before moving on to this:
Here are a few kinds of native scenery you quickly develop an ability to sleep through when you travel in New Zealand: Waterfalls. Lakes. Mountains. Flocks of sheep blocking your bus from passing down the road. It’s not that these visuals aren’t always stunning, but rather that they’re everywhere. After a while, your backpacking-induced exhaustion convinces you, “hey, you’ve seen 12 (mountains, waterfalls, giant kauri trees), you’ve seen ’em all! Keep those earbuds in and keep on nappin’!”
Not quite the same with Mt. Cook, however. It’s the tallest mountain in the country which, I’ll admit, is still probably not that tall in the grand scheme of… mountaineering? Altitude? Topography? I’m a little out of my element here with the technicalities. But I will say that Mt. Cook, regardless of size or status, is one of the most breathtaking places I’ve been since getting to New Zealand.
Now, the morning we left Arrowtown, it had just snowed for the first time this year on the Remarkables mountain range that walls in the town. Those of you who attended college with me may recall just how much this California girl loves her some first snow of the year. So going from a snow-dusted mountains in the distance to quartzy, snow-blanketed, better-put-your-sunglasses-on mountains in Mt. Cook National Park was – well, it was something I definitely wanted to wake up for.
There are a number of full-day and multi-day hikes you can do in Mt. Cook, but one disadvantage of traveling by bus (and thus on the schedule of 20 other people) is that you often arrive too late in the day to do everything you want. But we were still able to hike out to Kea Point, where the water was icy and reflective, the mountain looked deceptively close, and, well, where I was glad to be in New Zealand for a few final days before taking my extended leave.
I know I was supposed to be sad walking around Christchurch. I know the city’s been devastated by earthquakes, the historic center fenced off so visitors and locals can’t even see the rubble of the historic cathedral, only the huge number of cranes poised above what’s left of the once-beautiful town. But, walking around what’s left, I actually couldn’t help but enjoy it.
Let me clarify: Christchurch really seems to have done its best to cordon off the devastation (largely, I assume, because a rubble- and crane-littered area is the last place anyone wants to be snapping pictures if another earthquake hits), so my view of it has to rely solely on how the town is recovering.
When I first hopped off the city bus in the new center of Christchurch, I thought to myself, “Wow! What sleekly minimal buildings! What modern flair! What luck that at least the city’s main shopping area managed to survive the earthquakes!” And at street level, you can almost see where I would have gotten confused. Locals and visitors were strolling in the sunny pedestrian streets, an opera-singing busker was exercising considerable vibrato over Ave Maria from a corner, and stores were hawking everything from hiking gear to local clothing designs to gourmet groceries.
It wasn’t until Hayley and I stopped for lunch on the roofdeck of a little coffee shop that I realized, “Hey… we’re on the roof of a shipping container!” And then, taking in the view of the streets from my new perspective, “Hey… these are all shipping containers!”
I find something inherently good-natured, cheeky, even optimistic about this kind of response to recurring natural disasters. The city hasn’t just slapped a cheap, quick, and easy Band-Aid over the problem of having no more central city – instead they’ve created something new and charming, a colorful little commercial shanty town that could have come from the imagination of Frank Lloyd Wright. They’re calling it a “pop-up city” which, by its very definition, means the whole thing will probably be transitional at most. But I almost can’t help wishing they’d leave it as-is even as the rest of the city continues to recover more permanently around it. It feels like a visual example of a typical kiwi can-do attitude, a reminder of the kind of new ideas that can come out of bad situations, and, what’s more, it’s just cool.
Admittedly, I have not spent a lot of time in Auckland. The few days I did spend there when I first arrived in New Zealand had left me with a bit of a funny aftertaste as I’d mostly rushed through them, running around applying for Internal Revenue Department ID numbers, setting up bank accounts, and buying everything from a cell phone to shampoo before taking off for the Bay of Islands. Beyond that, Auckland just doesn’t have a good reputation around the rest of the country. Kiwis often refer to the city as “not really New Zealand,” and the term “jafa” (“just another f___ Aucklander”) is not exactly a moniker you want to be saddled with anywhere else on either the north or south islands. But before flying out of Auckland yesterday morning, I had about 36 hours to kill in the City of Sails, and I have to say it’s growing on me.
So, what did I do in Auckland this time around? I did spend much of my time printing e-tickets and changing money, and all those other annoying chores I needed unlimited internet and actual banks to take care of before leaving. But I also had time to start exploring a few of the city’s neighborhoods.
As any New Yorker (or San Franciscan, or Parisian, or any other urbanite for that matter) will tell you, a good city is really just a collection of neighborhoods. In my mind, you can stay in Times Square, spend your days picnicking in the lower-third of Central Park, and see as many Broadway shows as you like, but you haven’t really been to New York until you’ve eaten Cuban food in the West Village, spent a hazy night stumbling around the streets of the Lower East Side, or trekked up to Inwood for the river views. So it’s with that perspective that I have to say I don’t know how well I’ll be able to love Auckland until I’ve gotten to know more of its neighborhoods – but so far, I am liking what I’ve seen. Like Britomart, a Williamsburg-meets-Chelsea neighborhood of waterfront bars and small design boutiques, or Ponsonby, where tropical overgrowth takes over Victorian houses and main street’s seen a Park-Slope-grade boom of hip bars and cafes and even hipper patrons.
But before exploring the rest of Auckland – or anywhere else – I’m off to Bondi Beach.