Tuesday, 4 July 2017

"The Antipodean Excursion" 1: Bangkok, Auckland, Devonport

My brother Simon and I have been planning to go to New Zealand for quite some time, possibly ever since The Lord of the Rings first seized our imagination some time around 2003/4. Peter Jackson's 6 Middle Earth films are notorious for boasting the spectacular New Zealand scenery as the backdrop to mythical creations and battles, and a whole industry has sprung up around Middle Earth 'tours', especially now Hobbiton, where Bilbo and Frodo Baggins live, is a permanent feature of the landscape near Matamata.

But in recent years we have had another motive: our uncle Steven lives near Palmerston North, towards the south of North Island, and while he's been over to Britain a few times in recent years neither Simon nor I had yet done the reverse trip, despite planning it or daydreaming of it on several occasions. And so it was that we decided to visit for definite in summer 2017: I've just finished my degree, and Simon is on his gap year between finishing school and starting at uni, so it's pretty perfect timing. The fact that it's winter over there rather than summer doesn't really perturb me (I'm a Nordic-Slavic soul at heart anyway, so I like winter; their winters have better weather than ours; it means things are cheaper because it's the tourism off-season). Anyway, here we are, it's July the 3rd, and what I'm calling our 'Antipodean Excursion' (because it sounds like a crap pulp thriller you'd find in an airport, and this amuses me. Most of my jokes amuse me and no one else, so this shouldn't be any different) has just begun. To all family, friends, and random strangers: you're very welcome to follow blog updates over the coming weeks - I'm envisaging about six such posts - if you want to know what we're getting up to (photos will be Google Image-y ones, not our own, because our own will be up on Facebook for those who want to see them).

The journey begins at Manchester Airport. We stayed a night with family in Manchester to avoid that little extra bit of travel on the day of the flight itself, made the airport in good time, and before long we were off. It was a pretty tortuous journey this week - or perhaps 'protracted' is a better word, for it was never quite as grim as 'tortuous' implies - involving 4 flights: Manchester-Dubai, Dubai-Bangkok, Bangkok-Sydney, Sydney-Auckland. Simon and I didn't get to see Dubai or Sydney outside of wandering through duty-free shops in the airports, but we did have a one-night stopover in Bangkok, and thus got to see a little of Thailand's capital.

Our shared experience of other Asian cities led us to conclude that, in our own personal impressions at least, Bangkok is something of a Delhi-Singapore hybrid. It is not quite as chaotic, ramshackle, and unhygienic as the former can be, but neither is it as stylish, moneyed, and modern as the latter. Our hotel was a delight, very comfortable indeed and blessed with helpful staff; it boasted terrific breakfast and a roof terrace swimming pool - cold water being something we found ourselves frequently in need of, naturally. The temperature in Bangkok was around 33 degrees Celsius while we were there, I think, but it's not the heat that gets you so much as the sticky humidity - the kind of humidity that means you need another shower after only fifteen minutes outside. It rained a fair bit too, though this was not particularly refreshing rain.

Anyway, enough moaning about the weather. Bangkok is a fun city to explore, though I'm not convinced that our usual go-to method ("wander around on foot and discover things until you're dog-tired, then eat a lot") quite worked here, because it's not a city that's geared towards pedestrians - we saw some people walking, but pavements exist only sporadically and the traffic is, if not quite on the frenzied level Simon witnessed in Delhi, still pretty bananas compared to what we're used to in the UK. People are much more likely to take tuk-tuks or taxis, though (as we discovered) you have to be pretty damn careful to ensure that your driver is charging you the right amount. 1000 Thai Baht for an hour's drive that should have been about 60฿? I don't think so! Still, Simon got to meet an old friend of his with whom he went to Rajasthan, we had some great food, and we saw around the incredible Buddhist temple of Wat Pho with its Reclining Buddha (at 46 metres long, one of the biggest in the country), so as very brief jaunts to major cities where you couldn't possibly do everything in one day go ... this was pretty good.

I won't bore you with any more flying details, so suffice to say that we were soon touching down in Auckland - via Sydney - albeit a few hours later than we should have due to some flight delays. Auckland is the most populous city in New Zealand (I think I heard at one point that it contains a third of the country's entire population), it's the country's financial centre, and it boasts major museums, parks, and other tourist attractions such as the instantly recognisable Sky Tower (which helps make the otherwise fairly bland skyline distinctive; we didn't go up it, but it's pretty cool from any given direction). It's not a particularly beautiful city, but it has lots of appealing aspects. The much-praised location where we ate lunch - "Best Ugly Bagels" - was an instant hit, for one thing, and interesting Maori murals sitting alongside old churches, cinemas, galleries and parks of aged mossy trees makes for a giddy, enthralling mix.

The "Auckland War Museum" (a slightly odd name in my opinion, because it's much more than just a war museum) is also terrific. It's kind of a cross between the Natural History Museum, the Imperial War Museum, and the British Museum, with bits of the Science Museum thrown in. Seriously, this one has it all - the history of Maori culture, from canoes to cabins; exhibits on the dormant volcanoes upon which Auckland is built; tons of space devoted to NZ wildlife; and a moving set of exhibits about New Zealand's role in 20th century wars (I certainly didn't know that NZ sent more soldiers per capita to fight for Britain in WWI than any other country: 1 in 5 of the population). Close by to the Museum, which lies within a sprawling park called the Auckland Domain, is a Wintergarden featuring both winter and tropical greenhouses as well as a fernery - also worth visiting.

We were couchsurfing for our stay in Auckland, with a lovely Indian couple called Raj and Arthi who made us feel very at home, cooked some stunning food (we did our best to return the favour ... hmmm), and were just generally excellent company. They actually live in Takapuna, part of the wider Auckland area but kind of its own town; just further along the coastline from them is Devonport, a sort of olde-worlde Brighton with charming shops and cafes overlooking the sea and with access to the vantage points of small hills such as Mount Victoria. This last spot offers stunning vistas of the whole Auckland massif, as absolutely nobody calls it.

We left Auckland to head north on Monday the 3rd, and are now in one of the country's most famously stunning locations - Paihia, on the Bay of Islands. But more about that next time!

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