Sometimes, you find a destination which is worth every minute of travelling.
One year ago, my Dad and I packed our bags and set off to Birmingham airport. Twenty-six hours later, through stops in two countries and flying over twelve time zones, our plane touched down in New Zealand.
The holiday which followed took me into the heart of New Zealand’s North Island, and gave me a love of travelling which promised to change my life forever.
In remembering one year since the journey, over the coming weeks I’ll be sharing some of my favourite stories and sights, and I’ll be taking you on a virtual tour around the sights of North Island, including Auckland, Rotorua, Lake Taupo and Tongariro National Park, and showing you why New Zealand really is the most breathtaking country in the world, and explaining why the homeland of the Kiwis is worth the journey like no other.
This time, I’ll be casting an eye back over Auckland and the some of the surrounding areas, Mount Eden and Piha Beach.
Throughout the article you’ll find links like this (opens in a new tab) which will take you to some further information about the places I visited. So, once you’ve finished reading, why not click on the links and take a look for yourself at some of the highlights in and around Auckland.
If you like what you read and want to keep up to date with future articles, be sure to follow the blog by pressing the link at the bottom right of your page. You can also read some of my previous work, and like the blog page on Facebook (links at the end of this article).
If you haven’t read my original New Zealand Travel Diaries series on the Rambling Man blog, including a day-by-day breakdown of the places I visited and my favourite moments, be sure to read it here.
Normally I would never recommend a flight that long: even with the destination in mind, you are exhausted and want nothing more than to sleep for the next twelve hours (which is exactly what I did). But when I finally overcame my tiredness and stepped out into the morning under the swaying palm trees and with the sounds of the Tui birds all around me, I was finally in Auckland.
Even sleeping on a couch couldn’t dampen my spirits on that first day.
Auckland is a massive city, in every sense of the word: it stretches from Albany in the north to Manurewa in the south, and covers an area of around 216 square miles. To see and experience everything in that diverse and sprawling city would have taken days, or even weeks: time that, sadly, I simply could not afford.
Still, I was lucky enough to see a massive part of Auckland over the five days that we stayed there, thanks mostly in part to my Uncle Steve’s local knowledge and some of the best roads for city driving that I’ve ever seen.
My first proper view of Auckland didn’t come until the second day of the holiday: even though it was bright daylight when we landed, the sheer immensity of the journey I’d undertaken got the better of me. So, after a beer at the beautiful Dominion Bar, my first day in Auckland ended rather unceremoniously with me collapsing into bed (or, sofa).
I very quickly learnt that, if you’re travelling around Auckland and aren’t fortunate enough to have a free local guide at your disposal, navigation can be tricky at best. Yes, the roads are incredible (a trip over the Harbour Bridge is an absolute must) but being set between two bays and stretching over a massive area does not help the unwary tourist if they’re looking to find their way around. Having a map, even with our guide, was essential: especially if you find your road closed or blocked, as we did more than once. Auckland is a city, after all.
If you’re only staying in the Auckland area, other must-sees in the city itself are the Waitematā Harbour (most commonly known as “Auckland Harbour”), and the various natural parks dotted around the city (including the stunning Western Springs, where I spotted eels, parrots, black swans and an elusive kingfisher among other things).If you’re more interested in the tourist spots, or if the weather turns against you, take a trip to Kelly Tarlton’s SEA LIFE Aquarium. There’s no shame in spending the afternoon indoors, especially when you’re on an island in the middle of the ocean.
I could write thousands of words on this incredible city, and perhaps one day I’ll be lucky enough to go back and write a massive article going through every sight and sound. But even with the time and energy to undertake such a project, I could write for days and still not cover everything.
In truth, the only way to see everything is to jump in a car and take yourself to somewhere really, really high: like the summit of an ancient volcano. That’s where Auckland truly came alive, and was sent into a league of its own.
Packing our cameras into Steve’s dark blue Holden, smelling distinctly of coffee and menthol cigarettes and with the greatest hits of Kiwi rockers The Exponents blaring through the speakers, the first stop on our two-week tour of New Zealand was the summit of Mount Eden (Maungawhau). With views spanning countless miles in every direction, it is perhaps the most impressive view of a city you’ll ever find for free.
The entrance to Mt. Eden was a nondescript turning off a side road, surrounded by trees and marked by little more than a small sign. I thought we had the wrong place: the road seemed to wind up and down, and was banked on one side by thick trees that blocked out the sight of the city and a thick wall of grass and stone on the other. For a long while, we found ourselves going in circles, taking one narrow road after another hoping to find our way to the summit. The language coming from the driving seat was as heated and diverse as the view.
Suddenly Steve pulled the car to a stop and declared that we were there. I followed dutifully behind him, camera in one hand and and hat in another, trying not to be blown sideways by the wind. Sure enough, the path opened out suddenly and we stood on the lip of a grassy crater that dived steeply down in front of us.
The view, which stretched far out into the city, was incredible. Rangitoto Island rose impressive and dominating to the north, whilst all around the city were grassy mountains that seemed to rise out of the very buildings themselves: the last reminders of Auckland’s volcanic beginnings. The city stretched out before us, and Steve tried in vain to point out all of the areas of interest you could see. The Sky Tower, Eden Park, One Tree Hill. The list was massive. My head span: I’d never seen a city so massive, and yet so beautiful and full of character. I knew right from the start that I would love every moment of my stay there, and I wasn’t mistaken.
The whole scene would have been picture-perfect if someone hadn’t put a traffic cone in the crater.
The striking thing about Auckland, and all of New Zealand for that matter, is the sheer variety of climates and environments in such a small space. Taking the road north-west of the city, the view soon changed from high-rise flats and bustling streets to roads surrounded by immense trees and forests for as far as the eye could see. This was Piha Road, and our next destination was the volcanic-grey sands of Piha Beach.
There are only a few stops along the winding road, and for good reason: for the majority of the journey, any views are closed away from your eyes by the dense jungle and steep cliffs. But every so often, the trees would part or the rock would be carved away, and there would be a small lay-by in the road where we would stretch our legs. Steve would light a cigarette, I’d take pictures of the trees (trying and failing to capture the beauty of the place), and then we’d climb back into the Holden.
In another one of these stops, no different from the rest, we halted again. Shielding our eyes from the sun, which was beating down relentlessly, we were standing in a place which would feel more at home among the tropical rain forests of Brazil than a few short miles from Auckland. Camera at the ready, I peered through the trees…
Through the trees, which stood massive and towering, the land suddenly dived away below me. The jungle stretched onward towards a bay far off in the distance, where the trees gave way to a grassy knoll and small river. Set before the bay, as if carved out of the forest floor, a lake shimmered brilliantly in the afternoon sun and drew my eyes towards the blue horizon. Beyond the bay, the sea stretched away to meet the sky, uninterrupted by nothing save for a small finger of tree-topped land which carved its way into the midst of the bay.
It remains to this day one of the most breathtaking views I have ever seen.
Leaving the dense jungle behind, the road took us downwards and suddenly we emerged at the coast: Piha Beach. Enclosed in a high bay, the beach stretches for a long distance along the water. But perched in the central point of the beach, straddling the sand and the sea, was a colossal pillar of volcanic stone that had remained standing alone among the erosion around it: Lion Rock.
The crystal-blue waters and blacked volcanic sand of Piha Beach truly make it stand out, as well as the evidence of volcanic eruptions that litter the sand and are fused to the earth. Standing underneath a natural stone archway, with the wind billowing strong but strangely warm, Piha is a place which I would happily return to in an instant.
Travelling to New Zealand from the UK was not an easy task, especially when my longest flight to date had been the four hour trek to the Canary Islands. But if you can survive the sweltering airports, lack of sleep, and the cramped limbs from twenty-six hours in the air, then the destination far out-weighs the troublesome journey.
As the start to most New Zealand adventures, Auckland is a fantastic place to recapture some lost sleep and explore some of what the island has to offer without every straying too far from your hotel.
If your travels every do take you to New Zealand and you don’t know where to start, or if you’re looking to escape to the other side of the world to a place that’s remarkably different and strangely familiar all at once, when pack a bag and take yourself to Auckland.
Trust me, you won’t regret a moment of it.
Until next time,
~ Ross M. F. Firth
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