By ditching the centre, heading out to the harbour islands and exploring the Waitakere Ranges, David Whitley starts to discover a side to Auckland he likes.
Auckland and I have never really seen eye to eye. That’s mainly because, while I am no oil painting, Auckland’s eye is pretty darned ugly.
Even the most proud Aucklander would struggle to deny that the city centre is a hideous scar on what should be one of the most beautiful spots in the world. The city lies on an isthmus between the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea; it has two sprawling natural harbours, islands off the coastline and 40-odd volcanic cones dotted within its boundaries.
Yet, in what seems like a calculated bid to stick two fingers up at Mother Nature, Downtown Auckland is a high-rise monstrosity from which any architect with the faintest hint of flair or soul has clearly been banished. A troll stands in the shoes of a princess.
In my former incarnation as a backpacker magazine editor in, I had to come to Auckland once a year for conferences and expos. I never really saw beyond the city centre. Since then, I have stopped for the odd night in between the Pacific Islands and (the city is the major connecting hub). Again, I was more interested in getting the hell out the next day, so I always stayed in the city centre for the sake of convenience.
Time for a fair crack of the whip I suppose; I’ll give it two days to win me round.
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The key, somewhat unsurprisingly, is to get out of Downtown Auckland, to break beyond the utilitarian waterfront and out to the islands. Rangitoto is the newest, formed in a volcanic eruption around 600 years ago. The lava fields and Pohutukawa trees provide an intriguing contrast.
Waiheke is the most fun – head there for beer and wine tasting in the sunshine.
But Auckland’s biggest surprise and greatest treasure lies out to the west, beyond the identikit sprawl of low budget suburbia.
The Waitakere Ranges don’t feel like they’re part of Auckland at all. The villages there feel far too laid back, and are full of shambling beardy types. From the hilltops, it’s possible to see both harbours in the same field of vision, and the in-your-face, saturation-turned-to-eleven standard of the greenery is staggering.
Within the Ranges are some of the few remaining ancient kauri trees. Some of these giants have been standing for over 1,000 years; they were there before the first humans ever landed in. Something of that stature deserves a degree of respect.
But my epiphany – that Auckland really isn’t all that vile after all – arrives at Karekare Beach. It is reached via a steep, winding road that corkscrews down the mountainside with thick forest to either side. It manages to be simultaneously moody and dazzling at the same time; the black sand and headlands fight against the sun bouncing off the stream which flows into the sea.
It’s a little slice of magic, and proof that even your least favourite places deserve that chance of redemption.
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