The Kiwi Chronicles- Day 7

Day 7  – Ramadan Day 1 – Time to head home. But not before some last minute exploration 🙂 If you’ve travelled half-way around the world and blown your budget, might as well see all there is to see before coming home. You’d not think it, but after 6 days, we still hadn’t seen Aotea Square – we suspected we’d coming pretty close but couldn’t be sure. I was tempted with the promise of ice-skating and so we prepared to head out in the last ostensible direction left to us. Not before figuring out how to send out my post-cards of course. I still can’t believe I left it to the last day but thanks to the wonderful concierge and the convenience store right across the lobby, I was able to send out all my postcards after breakfast. While getting stamps, we realized that said convenience store across the lobby actually had some pretty funky last-minute souvenirs too! Why we didn’t look here earlier, I’m not quite sure. We thought it would probably be more expensive, since it was pretty much in the hotel, but we were pleasantly surprised to discover that it wasn’t. We left the hotel in a good mood and finally spotted the first sign of Aotea Square – Town Hall!

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I spy with my little eye…

We didn’t know it then, but figured out as we walked past the Town Hall, that it had been converted into a performance hall. The musicians streaming in and out lugging their instruments was a dead giveaway ^^ Outside Town Hall, you’ll come across Auckland’s First World War Heritage Trail which makes for interesting, albeit sad, reading. We walked on and finally stumbled across the ice-rink which was sadly not open…we had come at a rather unearthly early hour. Right across the rink though was a landmark that had quite escaped our notice – Aotea Centre.

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Aotea Centre

If you’re interested in the arts, the Aotea Centre is the right place for you to go, with performances, exhibitions – it really does it all. We managed to see the Red Earth exhibit.

“September 17, 1916: Somme Battle

Ordinary routine.
Pouring with rain and deadly cold.”

This was one of the more upbeat of Private Roy’s diary entries. I think that makes me all the more depressed.

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Red Earth Exhibit – The words of Private Roy Crowther

We wandered out of the centre, and came across… polar bears! Now this is my kind of art… the hands-on assembly required 3D kind… I felt right at home!

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Wrong pole I’m afraid, you need to be headed north!

Our next stop was…the Aotea souvenir shop… we decided to do all things Aotea that morning. It’s a big shop, about as big as the OK Gift Shop which meant we spent a considerable amount of time wandering about and deciding what would make the perfect thing to take home. We finally decided on the Paua shell version of the Maori symbols of Koru, Matau and Pikorua. By 12 o’clock we were back at the hotel and ready to be picked up by Selwyn. As we waited, our helpful as ever concierge, told us not to worry too much about lunch as you could always pick up lunch at the airport. She highly recommended the burgers from Burger King, advised us to pack some to eat on the plane (that says a lot about airplane food doesn’t it) but also advised us not to use her burger ratio of 2.5 off the plane and 2.5 on the plane. Sound advice…

The drive to the airport was as cheerful as the drive from the airport had been. Selwyn was a lovely old chatty grandfather who entertained us with stories of his wife and 6 kids, his love of cars and the new British-run jail in Auckland. There was another thing we spoke about. And that was the news I had seen posted at Ronnie’s Cafe , someone wearing a turban had been banned entry into a club. Selwyn was upset, he said it would probably escalate to race relations. It was a really shame.

We said good-bye, and at the airport quickly moved our honey from our hand luggage to our baggage which was going to be checked-in. I’m not entirely sure why this rule exists but anyway… no honey in your hand luggage! We checked-in easily enough and then spent our time wandering around the duty-free wondering why it was so easy for us to buy things for others but not be willing to spend on ourselves. We found our way to the five burger Burger King but opted for crisps instead which the Japanese lady gave us at a lower price because we had no change and she didn’t want any big notes… this is I realize a universal dilemma.

I was sad to be leaving behind all the amazing people we had met… and yes… they had all been amazing. From 63C who wouldn’t even turn left as he slept, to R who checked us in and then checked up on us. From the concierge who booked all our tours, to the guys at Aria who remembered our breakfast order out of hundreds of guests. From the convenience store guy who gave us a great tip on how to maximize our phone balance, to room service who always came in with the biggest smiles. From our amazing guides with their crazy jokes, to silent Nate who consistently walked behind the ladies on every slope. From M who I only met for a few hours and who wished me all the best for my presentation, to Y for words of reassurance. From our airport pickup who showed us him home, to Prof. J’s wife who shared her life story. I’ve truly been blessed to have met such great people in such a short time. The flight back home was no different. An Australian gentlemen took 63C’s place on the flight to Brisbane and he was nice enough to help us with our luggage without being asked. In the transit lounge we met a lovely 75 year old lady ready to take the remaining three of five flights to get her from her home in New Zealand to see her daughter in the UK… a feat she accomplishes twice a year. And there I was thinking 20 hours was plenty of time to spending on a plane. We chitchatted about her family, her grandson and her aversion of spiders. She helpfully pointed out that spiders don’t like the noise so that’s one way to get rid of them. Point duly noted but I hope this is advice I never have an opportunity to act on. She gave us some great suggestions on where to go if we ever get a chance to come back to New Zealand… Arrowtown  in the South Island is a place I’d definitely like to go… And last but now the least, we had the company of an elderly lady all the way to Dubai who was most memorable for not having used the toilet for almost 16 hours. A true feat…

By 5am of Ramadan Day 2, we were back in the UAE… and while there’s something magical about travelling, there’s something even more magical about coming back home.

The Kiwi Chronicles- Day 6

Dinner was more parsnip soup and a cheese and tomato sandwich with french fries sent to mock us (they were fried in oil used for duck). By Day 6, we were craving a really good filling meal. I mean a reallllllly goooooood filllllllng meal. My stomach is growling just thinking about it.

My presentation was at 5.20pm, but the session started at 3-ish so we decided not to waste the morning and after much research the night before and thanks to a good recommendation from Dawn, we booked Fuller’s Explorer Tour of Waiheke Island– a four hour tour which would start off in the morning and bring us back by lunch, giving me enough time to get dressed for the presentation. We bundled up, packed our raincoats again and walked down to the harbour where we took our first ever ferry ride from Pier 2. Having never been on a ferry before, we were a bit apprehensive that we may get seasick but the ride was so smooth, we had no such trouble. It’s a 40 minute or so ferry ride to Waiheke and we decided we’d sit inside on the way there and outside on the way back.

Off we go!

Off we go!

The views were breathtaking, the landscape dotted with tiny green islands in the distance, remnants of the last volcanic activity, and after a while you start wishing the ride never stops. Yet, despite how remote the islands seemed, almost all bore some visible trace of human presence, past or present, in the form of fences, homes or cleared patches of land. I wonder if there is any place on earth left untouched by human hands?

I-want-to-livehere potential site number 4

I-want-to-live-here potential site number 4

The ride did come to an end, and we found ourselves on Waiheke at last. At first glance, Waiheke seems like a lush green wilderness, but there is evidence enough of the roughly 6000-7000 population living there, especially in the form of parking lots next to the pier at Matiata Bay for those who commute to Auckland every morning for work. That must be one of the most scenic commutes in the world. Sure beats what my work commute used to look like.

A Waiheke Welcome

A Waiheke Welcome

Now, Waiheke has a lot more to offer than just its famous wineries, in which we had no particular interest. Not only are there walking trails, activities like zip-lining (at some point, I will do something crazy like this…at least once), but the beaches on Waiheke are close competition with Piha despite have just regular sand. We had packed our raincoats but were blessed with another fabulous day with clear skies and visibility all the way… to Sky Tower! How is it that every thing seems so close, yet so far away! Apart from the clear skies, Waiheke was also decidedly warmer than Auckland, which I just loved. We left Matiata Bay, went through Onerwa over Causeway Road (a 1 km stretch with water on either side) and passed countless cute (there’s no other word for them I assure you) homes built on paper roads with steep driveways disappearing into the steep hilly faces. Now while the homes seem super cozy, it was pointed out that every home had their own rainwater tank for water collection, and if you ran out, you’d have to call the water company to fill it back up again. Moral of the story – all that glitters is not the water of the dams in Waitakere. Also, we were surprised to learn that the island has no dedicated power station, instead drawing its power over a single connection from the North Island. The engineer in me would like some redundancy measures in place, the traveller in me would like to see the island as it used to be when men first arrived.

A view of the wineries

A view of the wineries

Having a cute home seems a very Auckland-y thing to do :)

Having a cute home seems a very Auckland-y thing to do 🙂

We eventually reached Little Palm Beach which was not so little and visibly devoid of palms, but a beach which made you question the order in your “My Favourite Beach in New Zealand” list.

Little Palm Beach

Little Palm Beach

From Little Palm Beach we wove our way around the island, past wineries and souvenir shops in little neighbourhoods and finally reached Onetangi Beach. Now I was about to add this as another point in my I-wish-I-lived-here list but was scared away by the property prices. Our German guide who’s been living in Waiheke for ages told us that the average market price for even the tiniest house was easily NZD 750k. Scratch that plan. But it didn’t stop me from enjoying the brilliant jewel of a beach and finally getting to see some shells which I couldn’t find on Piha.

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Onetangi Beach

Also, here is where I finally uncovered the mystery behind the teeming Asian population in Auckland. It appears that one doesn’t need to be a citizen of the country to buy property here, which means a lot of homes have been snatched up by a lot of wealthy Asians. The Chinese are leaving China with a lot of wealth which buys them options almost anywhere in the world, but NZ is not too far away, which means its a viable choice. For the Japanese, people are leaving mostly post-Fukushima and again, the close proximity makes NZ a good candidate country. In addition, a lot of Asians come to Australia and New Zealand to learn English and also for higher education, which would explain the large expat student population. And finally, a lot of Indians come to New Zealand, as students and also to work in the hospitality industry, as we saw at our hotel. Mystery solved… case closed! 🙂

Back to the beach… With the ferry tour comes a complementary bus pass so we were free to stay behind at any of our favourite sites and then catch a bus back to the ferry to take us back to Auckland. While I would have loved to stay at the Onetangi Beach, we were pressed for time thanks to my presentation and had to bid farewell. The ferry ride back was enough compensation for the missed view though, with a fading panaroma of the beautiful islands in the sea, but we suddenly realized that the beautifully sunny skies had turned oddly grey and dreary as we approached Auckland.

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Where are all these clouds coming from?

And by the time we reached Auckland, we had moved from the toasty warmth of Waiheke to the 3-5C freezer of a walk back to the hotel, after our last Subway lunch for the trip. I dressed in a hurry, ran down to Ballroom 2 to get my slides uploaded on the PC and then decided to stay there and sit and review my presentation. It was actually a very good thing that I came way ahead of schedule. It turned out that some presenters couldn’t make it due to delayed flights in Hong Kong, so their colleagues had to present on their behalf…which meant a quick run-through of the slide deck because they didn’t have much background in that research area. When all was said and done, the entire session wrapped up by about 4.30pm (imagine I walked in at 5pm, a good 20 minutes before my session only to find… no one there!) The presentation went smoothly and yes, there were questions but only two, one from each session chair and so the main purpose of my trip ended on a high note.

That meant all that was left was packing up for the flight the next day and figuring out how to make the best use of the morning… well that and dinner which was… you guessed it! Parsnip soup, but this time we treated ourselves to some rich and gooey chocolate filled cake with vanilla ice-cream. Not a bad way to the end the day, if I do say so myself.

The Kiwi Chronicles- Day 5 Part 3

…As we wrapped up the morning leg of the tour, we changed from our minivan to a bigger bus where we met our guide, Kevin, and other tourists who had signed up for the wilderness part of the tour – two old American ladies who were not up for walking much, a quiet Australian, and another mum and daughter pair, also American. Everyone was lovely and chatty, exchanging pleasantries till our first and most important stop…lunch. Lunch was at a bakery, the pies of which Kevin swore by. We sampled a bit of the warm vegetable pie, but with a long day to go and my tummy’s abysmal track record, I decided on a  safer alternative – a banana, salted crisps and a nibble of the cake we’d picked from a Japanese bakery opposite our hotel.

We drove from the Pacific coast all the way across to the Tasman coast. Our destination was the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park , a far cry from the hustle and bustle of the city of Auckland. What I found rather amazing was how incredibly close everything is, it’s just about an hour’s drive from the heart of Auckland to the ranges which is way shorter than my work commute used to be! At the ranges, we took a tour of the Arataki Visitor Centre, picked up some souvenirs (I admit I’m a sucker for 3D puzzles and now I’m into wooden puzzles).

Arataki Visitor Centre

Arataki Visitor Centre

But for me, more than the visitor centre which is trying to preserve the Maori heritage, I was drawn by the splendid view, made even more splendid by the clear day which meant we had visibility all the way till Sky Tower. It really means something else to live on an island…surrounded by all that water. Here we learnt how Auckland is pretty much self-sufficient when it comes to their water supply- being blessed with good rainfalls, Auckland’s dams, like the one in the Waitakere, provide upto 80% of the city’s water. Coming from a desert, albeit with beaches in every emirate, I find it surreal to be surrounded by all this water.

Waitakere Ranges Regional Park

Waitakere Ranges Regional Park

We enjoyed the view with the help of some handmade vanilla ice-cream and strawberry syrup in a yummy waffle cone (Danish Delight- you can’t miss it) and then made our way to the Karekare Falls. The road leading to Karekare reminded me of the road up to Nuwara Eliya in Sri Lanka – being narrow, winding, two way with speeds to thrill, but it was not dizzying which is a definite plus! Now I almost didn’t get to see the waterfall, because mum was scared off by Kevin’s warning of a steep initial climb down. She finally relented when Kevin said he errs on the side of caution and was exaggerating how steep it was…and so I got to see my first waterfall ever and what a fall it is.

Karekare Falls

Karekare Falls

Surrounded by greenery, faced with a waterfall with a sound to calm your soul, and a bench to sit on, I was ready to pitch tent here as another place I’d love to live. In the rock face off towards the left, you can in fact spot some houses and I couldn’t wonder what it would be like to live in a place so remote. It wasn’t easy to part with Karekare but since getting left behind is not an option, we had to move on, this time towards Piha, with its famous black sand beach with a diversion first into the rainforest.

As we headed into the rainforest, we had to first disinfect our shoes. Kevin explained that the Kauri were currently being faced with a disease called dieback which spreads through the soil and the root system (I know understood why biocontrol at the airport had been so strict about bringing soiled shoes and equipment into the country). We saw a number of native trees such as the Pohutakawa but the main purpose was to see the stump of a Kauri, a pitiful legacy of an era of logging (30m to the first branch…they probably felt like they had stumbled across a goldmine). The size of the stump itself was so big that you had to wonder just how magnificent the whole tree would have looked. Just thinking that made me feel upset, so I opted not to take a picture with the stump, as many tourists do, simply because it felt cruel to smile next to silent dead stump.

We left the rainforest and continued towards Piha. The first view of Piha is stunning, with the imposing Lion Rock standing guard, but it is nothing compared to actually being on the beach itself.

First glimpse of the black sand beach

First glimpse of the black sand beach

It was so incredibly sunny that day that trying to take a picture to capture just how black the sand was, was a lost cause, which was not necessarily  a bad thing because it meant we had more time to enjoy ourselves and take everything in. The black sands are comprised chiefly of iron and titanium and glittered in the sun as far as the eye could see. It was as though someone had liberally sprinkled glitter all over the beach. It was a relief to know that no one has yet figured out how to separate the titanium from the sand… when that day comes I wonder if Piha will stay the same.

Lion Rock on Piha Beach

Lion Rock on Piha Beach

And while it was sunny, it was equally cold, with bracing winds which meant we couldn’t stay out for too long, but it was a sight I’m not likely to soon forget. I wish I lived here point three of this tour. As we wrapped up at Piha, we were taken to one final stop… to see a living Kauri. I cannot decide what made me sadder, seeing the stump of the Kauri, or seeing this magnificent Kauri surrounded by none of its kind. We had to see the Kauri from an elevated platform, further precaution to protect the roots by preventing any possible contamination). There is one thing I found decidedly spooky about this place…the absolute silence. Where are all the animals I wonder? No sound of a bird, no rustle of leaves, no insect to swat away… nothing but a forest seemingly without residents.

Lone Kauri Standing

Lone Kauri Standing

As we headed back to the hotel, I couldn’t help but think of what Kevin told us of how native animals have been pushed to the brink of extinction thanks to the introduction of cats, dogs, rats, pigs and possum.

I wrapped up the day at the conference banquet were I met a Saudi from Um Al Qura University and a very Jet-Li kind of Chinese assistant professor working in Singapore. I was glad to have met each of them for different reasons. Mr. Chinese was very well-travelled and gave me a top tip, that if travelling to China, I should not miss out on the 6 hour climb up Mt. Hunashan in Hefei to see the Sea of Clouds, a feat he had accomplished three times. Mr. Saudi was flying out on the first day of Ramadan, and I was flying out on the second. When I told him I was concerned how I would be able to fast… in a word, he was able to make everything okay – Rahma.

And with that I had to get ready for Day 6, also known as the Day of the Presentation.

The Kiwi Chronicles- Day 5 Part 2

…and so we left the war memorial and moved down to the Winter Gardens. The gardens house two greenhouses separated by a pool on the corners of which are 4 statues, representing each of the four seasons. The first greenhouse housed all sorts of flowers and the second was a hot house for tropical plants.

Winter Garden Greenhouse

Winter Garden Greenhouse

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Corpse Flower

We were lucky, or unlucky, I can’t decide which, to be there just as the Corpse Flower was starting to blossom. The last time it blossomed, over 17000 people came to see it, braving its rotting smell. Not being too fond of the smell of rotting meat, we passed on coming back to see it in full bloom and finally left the warm and toasty Austen-like greenhouse to head to Devonport’s popular landmark- Mt. Victoria also known as Takarunga

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Postcard worthy views of Auckland

Up on the freezing Mt. Victoria (well, it really was freezing at that point), is an old disappearing gun installed for fear of pending Russian invasion (which obviously never happened). The gun, Dawn told us, was only fired once – a test round- after citizen’s complained of the sound. As we drove around Devonport we came across the Michael King Writers’ Centre, a great place for writers to find inspiration, we mutually concluded. Devonport has some great shops but we were pressed for time and instead headed towards Westhaven (which coupled as our toilet break). It was there that we finally realized how aptly named Auckland is, as the City of Sails, with almost everyone owning a sailboat. Incidentally, Auckland also has one of the highest rates of car ownership in the world.

Westhaven Marina

Westhaven Marina

Auckland Harbour Bridge

Auckland Harbour Bridge

We got a great view of the Auckland Harbour bridge but were not daredevil enough to try the bungee jump. If I’m not jumping of Sky Tower towards a concrete pavement I’m not jumping of a bridge into the deep blue either. They have the option of a bridge climb too which looks like a much safer albeit less thrilling option.

This was the last stop before the wilderness tour in the afternoon and we made our way back after passing Kelly Tarton’s Sea Life Aquarium which we were amazed to learn was an aquarium built using unused underground sewage tanks. Who would ever imagine that such a place would house penguins one day!

Stay tuned for Day 5- Part 3

The Kiwi Chronicles- Day 5 Part 1

Also known as The Day Of The Full Day Tour. It’s really quite cruel when an alarm forces you to get out of your warm and cozy bed, but time it was to get ready for the trip. We started off with nice hot showers and an early attempt at breakfast. We stocked up on our snacks (mostly crisps and water because we weren’t quite sure what lunch would entail), together with our raincoats (which we forgot we had brought along on the trip) and were all set to go. We thought the tour had been booked with GrayLine but as in turns out the hotel had booked us with Bush and Beach, which turned out to be a good thing in the end. The morning city tour ended up being a private tour with our lovely English guide, Dawn, who had backpacked to New Zealand with the intention of staying for 3 months, only to end up staying there for about 28 years. It’s funny how things turn out.

Dawn was amazing enough to swap out our Queen’s section of the tour since we’d pretty much been everywhere. Instead, we started of with some fabulous views of the city. After yesterday’s umbrella incident, we were worried that it might turn out to be another cloudy day but we were incredibly lucky. While it was freezing cold, there was not a single trace of a cloud which meant visibility was absolutely stunning.

Sky Tower- always there to help find your bearings

Islands basking in the sun

From the deep blue so close to touch, we moved up to Achilles Point. There’s one thing about Auckland that I’ve got to point out here… every view seems decidedly better than the last, so much so that you’re hard pressed to pick a favourite. It was the same with Achilles Point- yet another place on my long list of “Ooooh let’s live here” places.

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A fine white line between blue and even blue-r

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To dive and swim off…

But since we couldn’t live there, we were forced to move on towards Parnell. Parnell is a world apart from Queen’s and Albert Street. While those places were packed with people on the move, Parnell had more of a laid back small-town feel, with cozy homes turned-shops and cafes lining the streets. It was not always such a place and the story of its transformation made it all the more charming.

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Anyone up for coffee?

It was at Parnell’s that we came across St. Mary’s Church, one of the oldest wooden churches, and known for two things. It’s first distinction is that it was lifted from its original location and moved across the street to accommodate some fancy new housing development. The second is that this is where Sir Edmund Hillary’s service was held.

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St. Marys Church in Parnell

Reminded that the main religion in New Zealand is actually rugby, we then headed to the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Despite the schoolchildren on their trip, the mood was sombre…Lest We Forget.

Auckland War Memorial Museum

Auckland War Memorial Museum

Lest We Forget

Lest We Forget

We may never forget, but are our memories enough to stop us from repeating the same mistakes? It would appear not and that makes all the difference.

Stay tuned for Day 5 Part 2