Note: I had a night’s stopover from Singapore to Fiji.
I managed a full day in New Zealand – just, and courtesy of Air New Zealand who decided to spend an extra hour and a half changing the Boeing 737 which had deposited me in Auckland.
The flight from Singapore, still inundated by the afternoon’s monsoon, was memorable for the mild alcoholic haze induced by the three cans of duty-free Tiger Ale to overcome pre-flight tension, followed by a free triple bourbon on the rocks and a bottle of white wine – “You might as well have it all; no-one else is drinking it,” the steward told me – which accompanied the reasonable meal.
Now, three days later, I have no recollection of what I ate: that was at 9pm. At 3am, though 7am NZ time, we were served breakfast which was pleasantly alcohol-free.
We landed and although in transit to Fiji, I was told that my ticket did not entitle me to a hotel at airline expense. So, with luggage stored in a locker, I set off in the airport bus for Auckland city.
There was an immediate impression of greenness. Lush fields with Friesian cows contentedly grazing. Hedgerows and barbed wire demarked herds. Alongside the road were neat bungalows, wooden clapboard exteriors, clean paintwork, neat paths and lawns to the front doors. Rust-free Triumph Heralds and Morris Minors seemed as common as the Japanese saloons which now dominate the roads of the world.
Downtown, where the airport bus deposited us, was more familiar: a shopping centre, car park and office block as seen in any of the world’s cities. From there, it was a short stroll into Custom’s St. for the bus out to the suburbs and bed space at the Ivanhoe Traveller’s Lodge.
Shopping streets free of the McDonald’s syndrome. Coffee bars and department stores with newsagents selling sweets and baccy. Go to bed with Sleepyhead. Next door to a pub. And a small red light district amidst the takeaways bringing nightlife to the high street. Everything a community needs within reach, and well-served by public transport.
After a short nap, a small compensation for jet lag, I decided to visit the Museum in the Domain.
Following my city map, I got off the bus in Karangahape Road, a curving human-scale shopping street in early 20th century red-brick style. And a shop selling some of the best ice cream I have ever tasted – anywhere. (Note: 27 years later, this remains true!)
And so, trying to stop the large double-scoops from dripping down my one outfit of respectable travelling clothes, I continued my walk past the city hospital, now in the a-typical office block style yet retaining the original cottage hospital as its admin centre.
Then the Domain, a people’s park dominated by a solid classical civic building on the hilltop – the Museum.
THE WHOLE EARTH IS THE SEPULCHRE OF FAMOUS MEN.
THEY ARE COMMEMORATED NOT ONLY BY COLUMNS AND INSCRIPTIONS
IN THEIR OWN COUNTRIES BUT IN FOREIGN LANDS.
ALSO BY MEMORIALS GRAVEN NOT ON STONE
BUT ON THE HEARTS OF MAN
Inscription over the portal.
And most apt in that this museum commemorates the culture of the country, not only from prehistoric times but also in the hopes for the future. Although the permanent displays of geology and natural history are similar to those seen in London, Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere, these are clear concise and naturally slanted towards the nation.
I could not closely examine the Maori display because a TV crew was recording a choir harmonising to a tape. The sound echoed throughout, constantly, again and again. I found myself humming the refrain, and wandered past into the temporary exhibition of musical instruments. Bangers, scrapers, shakers and blowers. A recorder next to a Tibetan horn. A one string coconut guitar next to a Fender. And in one corner a couple sang an Elizabethan melody to lute accompaniment. A bit precious, but nice.
In the main hall, the media wrapped up. And paused. A dignified man, a mop of white hair, bone tie clip and straight walking stick began an incantation. The red carved hose was once the home of his ancestors. Their spirits were being spoken to. In thanks for letting the TV crew in? An expiation or apology? I don’t know, but for me, a unique witness. The museum lives.
Outside I sat on the steps smiling as I surveyed the view, a downward sweep through the trees, across the harbour housing merchant ships and a white-sailed yachting regatta.
I meandered through the trees, gathering acorns and avoiding the Auckland joggers blocking the path en masse.
It was good to feel good, to wander still smiling past a clapboard house being renovated with donations from Berger Paints and Spike Milligan – Good on you Goon. Past small scale mirrored office blocks housing architects and interior designers. And a clapboard Truck Stop with a ’20s car outside. Both empty as traffic rushed by onto the entrance to the motorway. And past Buildings 4, 5 and 6, once harbour warehouses, now company offices – publishers and computer sales.
I continued to smile, chatting with the bus driver as she dropped me off at the Grey Lynn post office. In the Indian run general store, for my supper I bought half a pound of cheddar, two juicy delicious apples and a packet of fruit digestive biscuits to be washed down with a pint of milk.
It was a most welcome day of home comforts. I could not afford the loss of impetus a longer stay in New Zealand would have needed. ‘No regrets’ is my motto but I saw enough to want to return some day.
The country reminds me of a child’s comfort blanket – cozy and heart warming.