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Tuesday, April 17, 2018


I started to get the feeling at Auckland airport that people are extra friendly in New Zealand. Not that most people haven’t been friendly everywhere in the world, but you can just tell from little things. Like the person you order food from remembering you and giving it to you, instead of calling out a number. Or someone running out to pump gas for you, or bag your groceries at the store! When was the last time you saw a person actually employed bagging groceries (and being damn cheerful about it)? 

All this, and more, was awaiting us. We climbed aboard the airport bus (with announcements in English, Chinese, and Spanish. I wondered about the Spanish—evidently a lot of visitors come over from South America.) But it’s not the recorded announcements that made an impression. It was the extremely helpful bus driver, who introduced himself over the intercom: “Welcome to Skybus. I am your driver, Amman. Please let me know if you’re not sure which stop and I will be happy to help…” Did I mention this was Auckland, NZ’s largest city, with 30% of the country’s population?!

So our welcome was the first thing we noticed about NZ. The second thing was the weather. It is what I would call fall here. As in, leaves fallen on the ground, and cool weather. The rain reminded T. of England or Ireland, not that tropical kind of rain we got in Queensland or the Top End.

Of course, this means it is significantly different in temperature from everywhere we have experienced since Ireland (except at high altitude on Kilimanjaro). I was almost excited to get out some of my layers from that trek. What we didn’t realize, as we settled into our Auckland Airbnb, was that it would be cold enough for a space heater and an electric blanket, both thoughtfully provided. The enormous rectory-style house was colder than the outdoors; I’m sure of it.

We also weren’t expecting a typhoon. Well, I don’t think it was classed as one, but there were window-rattling winds that first night, and we were glad we’d flown in that day rather than the next day. We got up in the morning only to find that in many parts of Auckland, the electricity had gone out. We waited for ages for a bus into town, when finally one of those helpful, friendly New Zealanders popped along and informed those of us at the bus stop that no double-deckers were coming our way. There was a sagging power line up the road that they couldn’t get past.
We saw much worse damage to trees than this.
It was a blessing in disguise that we’d waited so long for a bus, because the rainy weather had broken, and the sun was threatening to shine on Mt. Eden, just opposite. So we walked up. Mt. Eden is the tallest volcano in Auckland and it was quite interesting to walk round the crater.

We also got good views all around Auckland and the harbour.

The mention of volcanoes reminds me that New Zealand is an extraordinarily young country, geologically. It formed and is forming all the time with volcanic eruptions, which I think must be quite disconcerting if you live here. Right now it’s hard to imagine the frothing heat of lava pouring down a mountainside. “It’s really cold for April,” people keep telling us. “You should have been here two weeks ago—it was summer then!”

NZ is also very young in terms of human habitation. Whereas the Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia are the oldest continuous culture on earth, human beings have only been living in New Zealand for about a thousand years—which is nothing in historical time. The Polynesian ancestors of today’s Maori were themselves from somewhere else, and they have a better record of survival in the face of European colonization than most native peoples. Part of this is the Maori pursuit of war and treaty with the settlers who followed them, and part of it is the luck of NZ’s distance from other places. For example, a disease such as smallpox devastated North American communities when Europeans (unwittingly) introduced it, as they had no resistance. But these diseases never made it to NZ. It is such a long way from Europe that any sick sailors either died or got better before their voyage was complete.

Back at the bus stop, a young university student came by and told us she was on her way to a place where the buses were running, so we walked with her. She chatted with us the whole time. On the bus itself, we passed a movie theatre, started talking about what was playing, and got recommendations from the woman in the next seat! She worked for the power company herself, yet her power was still off. I am still adjusting to this spontaneous-conversation-from-everyone gig that is life in New Zealand’s biggest city.

We stopped at an outdoor equipment store so T. could buy a couple of thermal items. Not having climbed Kili, she was a little short in the mountain gear department. Eventually, we made it to Auckland Museum.

This neoclassical building is the type of great museum that isn’t fashionable these days: cultural artifacts on the ground floor, natural history above that, and on the top floor, a war memorial. Just to confuse matters, the whole museum is sometimes called the Auckland War Memorial Museum. It won’t surprise my readers that I love this jumbled kind of place. There's a giant Maori canoe downstairs, and upstairs you'll find the ice ax the most famous New Zealander of all, Sir Edmund Hillary, used to ascend Everest.

Skeleton of a moa
NZ’s isolation also gives it a unique evolutionary history. It split from the giant pre-continent comprising Australia, South America, etc. so long ago that no land mammals evolved here, except bats. Many of the roles played by mammals in other parts of the world are, or were, filled by unique birds. The various flightless types of moa are, sadly, extinct today.

NZ, or at least some of its outlying islands, also has a native lizard I remember reading about in my childhood: the tuatara. The tuatara has been around since dinosaurs were alive, and is distinct from any other living reptile. As far as I can see, the only reason the tuatara is not called a dinosaur is because dinosaurs are considered, by definition, extinct!

The war memorial part of the Auckland Museum was moving too. New Zealand punched far above its weight in wars of the British Empire, of which it was part (it even contributed to the American war in Vietnam). 
Anzac Day is coming, and poppies are being sold.

Most devastating of all was the First World War. At a time when NZ had only one million people, 100,000 men were abroad fighting the Great War—ten percent of the entire population.

Some wars, like the First World War, look more wasteful looking back on them in history. No doubt some genuinely believed that they were fighting a war to end all wars, but two decades later, the next generation marched past those war memorials (every town has one) to fight in the Second World War.

Looking back at the end of this war, by contrast, people must have had a stronger sense of what it was all for, as the full extent of Nazi atrocities became clear. This point is made well by an exhibition now on at the Auckland Museum, on the life of Anne Frank. Anne Frank’s story is well known through her famous diary. Primo Levi, himself a Holocaust survivor, is quoted at the exhibition as saying:
"One single Anne Frank  moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did but whose faces have remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way; if we were capable of taking in all the suffering of all those people , we would not be able to live."
The exhibition has many pictures of the Franks and those in their circle that I had never seen before, and goes on to quote a number of young people today on their experiences of prejudice, and the need to fight it. What I always find most moving about these stories is what we learn about those who did not have to go into hiding themselves, who were not Jewish, and yet took great risks to help people like the Franks. One of those, a colleague of Otto Frank, was Victor Kugler. He and another helper were put in concentration camps for their efforts, but survived the war. I always marvel at these types of responses when people like Kugler are asked what motivated them to help.

We made the most of Auckland in our limited time, but a Hi-Top awaited us. That was the type of camper van we took from Melbourne to Hobart, and we liked it so much we thought we’d do it again on the North Island. The remarkable friendliness of Kiwis continued at the rental place, where the guy helping us went over everything on paper (instead of making us fill things out ourselves on an iPad, as in Australia) and took his time showing us everything thoroughly. 

Handily, I’d seen a road atlas (and a lot of other good books) in Time Out bookstore the evening before. Right there in Mt. Eden, our neighborhood. It seems like ages since T. and I went to an independent bookstore, but they have some in Auckland. Get shopping! 

Then when we went to get sandwiches, we were talking about which route to take out of the city, so of course the man in front of us in line started talking to us. He and T. were so friendly that the woman serving asked if she was his wife! Then, corrected as to her mistake, she apologized—to me. 
Maybe she’d been on the horn to the Tiwi Islanders in Darwin.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How great to be in a culture where people are spontaneously friendly and helpful at nearly every turn! Three cheers for the Kiwis! And we enjoyed your walking up Mt. Eden and your visit to the Auckland Museum, with its great variety, including powerful quotations from Primo Levi (regarding Anne Frank) and Victor Kugler. P.S. Bashas in Phoenix employs people (with smiles) to fill one's shopping bags at the checkout. G & P