Sunday, February 12, 2012

Kia Ora from Auckland!

After six hours to Los Angeles, an awesome dinner with my cousins, then another twelve plus hours across the vast Pacific expanse, I finally landed thirty minutes outside Auckland this morning. Monday morning that is.

The drive to City Center during rush hour was unlike any commute I have ever made before, having nothing to do with the fact that my taxi was driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. The trip was beautiful. One is never more than eighty miles from water’s edge in New Zealand, and numerous waterways flanked the highway. The North Island hillsides were a lush green my camera simply cannot convey sufficiently. 

Halfway to my destination, we left the highway with the regular commuters to wind through the small suburb of Epsom en route to Auckland. It is the middle of summer here, but it is still the school year, and every kid walks to school – nearly all of them seemingly in uniform. Most storefronts displayed the goods and wares of local businesses; global chains were few and far between.

Auckland rises out of nowhere, a center of commerce whose skyline is defined by Sky Tower – New Zealand’s rendition of the Space Needle in Seattle. I am still unclear about what offices operate out of the city’s tallest structure, but I do know that bungee jumpers are permitted to leap off one of the upper ledges of the building. Imagine that happening at the Comcast Center! But that is New Zealand for you…

After dropping off my luggage at the hotel, I walked around the city (more on that shortly) before heading to the zoo. The flora everywhere, and especially at the park where the zoo is located, is unlike anything in America and breathtaking. Aside from feeding a giraffe (and seeing its one-month old daughter) I focused entirely on the native New Zealand species.

First, the one bird for which I do not have a suitable picture: the infamous and beloved Kiwi. I did finally see one – two actually – for the first time in my life, and they exceeded all expectations. These are beyond goofy creatures. They have no wings, and maneuver across the forest floor via an odd combination of waddling and running. One chased after the other relentlessly, but since the birds are nocturnal and the exhibit was accordingly dark, I could not get an adequate picture of New Zealand’s national pride and symbol.

The two birds that stuck out were two I had not heard of before. The Tete (or Campbell Island Teal), a flightless bird and one of the smallest ducks in the world, was once found exclusively on a tiny island several hundred kilometers south of South Island. When rats invaded this small land mass, the bird was nearly wiped out – a familiar plot line for many New Zealand birds. However, in this case, the species was saved; through rebreeding programs on the mainland and the eradication of rats from the native land, several hundred Tete have now retaken their rightful home.

Sharing the exhibit with the Tete is the Antipodes Island Parakeet, which exists in the wild in a similarly precarious state. Unlike other species, the small green bird was never decimated toward extinction. Rather, strict measures have been implemented to ensure that the few humans who do visit the island cannot carry rats or any other threatening animals with them.

Here is also a picture of the Tuatara, which I briefly mentioned in my last post, and I will elaborate more on at a later point.

Back in City Center, I could not help but notice the similarities between Auckland and my beloved Philadelphia. Both possess rich dining and culture, relative to their respective nations, and both have a neighbor city across a waterway. (That being said, Davenport is a quaint town, unlike Camden, and the universal friendliness and hospitality here certainly keeps murder rates significantly lower.) Both have underutilized waterfronts resulting from decades of commercial focus at the docks; running and biking trails drive locals toward the water, while ferries attract tourists. At least Auckland has some waterfront restaurants next to the infinite docks. As New Zealand has only grown into its own in recent decades, Philadelphia has a history and a character that Auckland cannot possibly possess at this point in time.

I walked along the water before catching a bus to nearby Mission Bay. Imagine my amazement when just ten minutes later, I arrived at a small strip of cafes, green parks, and a beach more comparable to Compo (to those Connecticutians reading) than the Jersey Shore. I sat on a small strip of beach for the next hour, watching sailboats pass by and teens practicing rugby on the sand.

The United States has an amazing diversity of ecosystems and destinations, but they are usually spread out, separated by states and sometimes time zones. New Zealand has everything condensed into two small islands. The fact that within my first twelve hours in this country, I went from countryside to city, park to beach, all with relative ease, is only the beginning. By next Tuesday, I will have encountered so much more.

At Customs, they make sure that you have definite plans to leave the country, because apparently they are having some problems with people who simply stay indefinitely. I have begun to understand why someone would not want to leave.  This is a paradise prism with a dazzling spectrum of attractions and adventures. And tomorrow, my journey will take me underwater.

Until then – kia ora! 

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