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Opulent Cityscapes and Other Such Beauty

December 15th, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Maybe it was because we were fresh off of months in the no-stranger-to-squalor nations of Central America.  But then again we just had spent 24 hours in San Francisco, a good looking town by any account.  Even against that worthy point of comparison, Auckland was uncommonly beautiful.

We started our tour of New Zealand that early morning by walking a mile on foot, backtracking to make up for our hesitation to press the stop button press on our shuttle bus into town (we should have known that the Circus Circus we passed, the breakfast destination at which we were to meet our hosts, was in fact our cue to get off and no, it wasn’t one of a chain).  Even in the relatively pedestrian suburb in which we found ourselves, super reminiscent of the neighborhoods of my home town of Brookfield, Wisconsin, New Zealand’s polished nature and beauty impressed.  The air was clear &  invigorating, and the vegetation still wet with morning dew smelled simply delicious.

After holing up in a cafe to catch a proper breakfast, our host swooped in to pick us up right on time.  Back at their house we chatted a while over tea.  Charles and Amy are themselves about a month from commencing their own world tour, which gave us much to talk about.  It was somewhat humbling to be reminded what a big world it is when they described their own year-long path, one containing very little overlap with our own.

After an hour or so of visiting, my jet lag was getting the best of me and we settled in for a nap.  Here in the southern hemisphere the December days are long, so when I woke I guessed it was 4pm, maybe 5.  Nope, it was 8pm and still quite light.  To my surprise and utter non-disappointment, I had slept 8 hours, and felt thoroughly refreshed.

May we all be so blessed to have so comfy a bed to crash in after a 13 hour flight.

That night we made dinner (from the groceries we picked up earlier Tracy cooked lomo saltado, our favorite dish from Peru) and had a lovely little dinner party, topped with a drive down Auklund’s premier avenue for elaborate holiday decorations (a useful reminder that yes, we are in the Christmas season).

The next day, unfamiliar with couch-surfer protocol and wishing to err on the side of not being a needy or burdensome presence, we took to our own adventure of exploring downtown Auklund and its harbor area.  Charles set us up with directions and bus routes, and we were on our way.

This trip, during our day-long wanderings downtown and along the shores of the harbor, is when we realized that Auklund is ridiculously beautiful.  It’s a good looking town in general, but beyond that it’s pristine in an unreal kind of way, like visiting some sort of alternate universe utopia in the not-too-distant future.  During our whole day we saw not one bit of graffiti, not one homeless person, and I counted exactly 3 pieces of litter (they were floating near to one another in a little alcove of the shore).

Perhaps these typical marks of urban imperfection exist somewhere else in the city that we just happened to miss, but even if so it’s remarkable and deliciously disorienting to have them absent for even a whole city block, much less for hours of wandering about1.  Even the water of the harbor, this bustling harbor with shipyards and cargo ships all present and accounted for, lacks the usual grimy tinge to it in favor of gorgeous blue and turquoise that could be mistaken for the Caribbean.  Tracy’s got the pictures to back it up.

For lunch we hit a supermarket to assemble an impromptu picnic of wine, bread, cheese, deli meat, cucumber, and a pint of super tasty in-season strawberries, and took our bounty to a lookout point on a high hill overlooking the harbor, land and island formations dotted on the blue canvas below, and the city skyline across the way.

It was one of those “And this is what our life looks like right now.” moments.

Back at the fort Charles and Amy whipped up a smorgasbord of food and us two couples enjoyed our second little dinner party together, complete with wine and jazz music streaming from the collection on my laptop2.  Charles, a native Kiwi, and Amy, born and raised in China until 20, proved again to be delightful company, and yet another pair of data points to suggest that people from all backgrounds and walks of life are, well, pretty much the same when it comes to hopes, fears, ambitions, joys and all that other stuff that makes us human.

The next morning, rather than have us try to navigate early morning bus schedules to catch our return shuttle to the airport, Charles generously insisted on giving us a ride.  Since our earlier attempt at a greeting present of fresh roasted coffee smuggled all the way from Guatemala failed (turns out whole bean coffee is a bit of a niche gift around here, requiring the recipient to be a more than casual fan of coffee to own the requisite specialty equipment), I scribbled a note to accompany a box of Vizios that we would leave behind as gratitude Plan B.

This had the unfortunate side effect that my ballpoint pen through a single sheet of paper left a perfect imprint of my nice note upon the guestroom desk.  It’s one of those “Aw, crap.” kind of moments, because  “Hey, I just did something nice for you but defaced your furniture in the process, so, uh, I hope you still appreciate the gesture.” is not an ideal parting sentiment.  In the hustle of the morning I genuinely forgot to mention it to Charles until after he dropped us off, which made me feel like a bit of a spineless shit3, as though I were hoping they wouldn’t notice.  Two days later I did come clean with an email announcement of (and apology for) the defacement, which was met with a gracious assurance that they didn’t notice, that the desk was second hand & of no sentimental value, and would soon be in storage for a year.

Ah good.  I was hoping we’d be remembered as a net positive and welcome presence, and I rest reasonably comfortable that we will be.

So onward we flew to Queenstown, a town proclaimed 150 years ago to be fit for a queen.  Let me say right now that I doubt the city has lost any luster since that austere declaration, for it too was, ridiculously beautiful.  Nestled in the mountains and abutting several lakes, Queenstown, has all of grade-A natural surroundings, tidy small town architecture, and charming public spaces going for it.  Tracy and I felt immediately at home here, for Queenstown feels nearly identical to Colorado’s boutique mountain towns, fitting right in with the likes of Aspen, Vail, or Breckenridge.

“You get what you pay for” is a well known saying.  There are exceptions to this all over the place, of course (otherwise the Thunder Quotient™ would be a moot concept), but boy does it hold in the comparison of New Zealand to Central America.  After months spent acclimating to $3 breakfasts and decent lodging for $20US, New Zealand’s prices came with a dose of sticker shock.  Everything is beautiful, everything is immaculate, everyone is super nice, and prices for comparable goods are all somewhere between 2 and 5x.

It’s simply the tradeoff you make when going from the third world to the first.

So overall here in New Zealand we tread lightly, indulging in only a few of the pricy adventure offerings.  Our first was an excursion to Milford Sound, a 3-hour bus ride through spectacular terrain and a boat cruise through the sound out to ocean.  While winding our way through the Kiwi countryside I saw ample evidence that, yeah, there probably were more sheep than people in this two-island nation.  Our bus winded through lush valleys, over uncommonly blue rivers, and past more waterfalls than I usually see in a year.  Tracy’s photography brings this crude account to life.

The cruise through the sound was similarly beautiful, just on water.  Actually no: we also had a dozen or so dolphins keeping pace with our vessel on both sides, doing their fanciful dance of side flips and jumps as though deliberately entertaining for tips.  The masterstroke of this experience was when our boat pulled up close to a waterfall, forming a scene of dolphins literally jumping through a double rainbow formed by the falling mist.  It was the sort of scene that, to make more magical, would require something like Jesus riding in on a little cloud, flashing a peace sign and giving a wink before zooming off into the distance.

Again, score one for New Zealand.

By the time of the bus ride back my eyes were quite thoroughly saturated on natural beauty, so its splendor on the second pass was largely lost on me.  Fortunately, the time was made fantastic by a few simple joys: munching on a tasty takeout order of fish & chips, and watching a film of New Zealand propaganda, “The World’s Fastest Indian”.  Based on a true story in the late 60’s, Anthony Hopkins plays a delightful old New Zealander who goes to the US with dreams of setting a new land speed record with a motorcycle he built.  Basically his character is all chill and makes instant friends and allies with the motley assortment of (sometimes weird) Americans he meets along the way, a resounding endorsement of simple, down-to-earth friendliness if I ever saw one.  If every New Zealander we met wasn’t similarly charming and friendly I’d swear it was a contrived plot to make New Zealanders look good.  Nope, turns out his character is, uh, pretty representative.

Our second adventure was to hike a glacier.  We hopped a 5 hour bus to Franz Joseph with hopes of hiking the glacier there, but this turned out to be a small failure of internet research intel: it turns out with the recent trend of melting it is no longer safe to hike this glacier.  The other option was a helicopter tour at $330 per person, which, uh, wasn’t in the budget.  Confronted with the possibility that we’d come all this way without actually doing what we’d set out for, we opted for Plan B: to backtrack to the Fox Glacier the next town over, still walkable, and do the guided tour plus gear for a much more palatable $115 per person.  We booked it for the next day.

With our afternoon and night to kill in Franz Joseph, we went for the 5km walk to the glacier.  By this time my lungs were still keen to enjoying the clean as can be air, and it was a splendid walk through more nature that was just plain good looking and ecologically distinct enough to feel just borderline otherworldly.  The choice to use New Zealand as the setting for the fictional land of Middle Earth suddenly made so much sense.  The only letdown of our “glacial preview walk” was that the glacier, from a distance, looked like one big pile of dirty snow.

Fortunately the Fox Glacier was much prettier when we got up close and personal the next day.  Equipped with every layer that the tour company had on offer (socks, snow pants, and rain jacket–we are largely packed for summer conditions, after all), we strapped on our crampons4 as we descended on the entry point to the glacier.  Our British mountaineer guide brandished a pickaxe, and as we went along our path he now and again swung it windmill style like a pro to tidy up the small stairs carved into the ice (all the guides and tour outfits lend a hand in keeping the stairs in tact).

Again, Tracy’s pictures do justice to the experience which words alone simply cannot.

Fox Glacier has been receding for literally centuries.  As you drive on in to the valley carved out by ice many years ago, you see signs that “Fox Glacier was here ____ years ago”.  So the overall pattern of melt is nothing new, it’s just that it’s happening a lot faster than it used to.  During our hike, our guide showed up a white narrow tube jutting up from the glacier.

“We do this and take measurements in collaboration with a few scientific survey endeavors happening around the world.  We put the pole in all the way, so that they’re flush with the ice.  As the glacier melts the pole rises relative to the surface on which we are standing.  You can see how it comes up to my waist now, which means there’s been about a meter of melting in the last 2 weeks.  That’s a lot more than in usually does.”

If climate change is a hoax, be warned that these friendly Kiwi’s with their fancy melt measuring devices are in on it.

After the glacier we returned to our hostel, and warmed up (kinda) in a small wooden box with infrared lamps posing as a sauna.  Tomorrow it’s off to Wanaka, another beautiful town on a lake in which to enjoy our last few days in this beautiful country.


  1. It’s kinda like Clinton balancing the US budget during his presidency.  Sure there’s debate about whether or not he actually did, but that there’s a debate at all is stand out remarkable against his contemporaries.
  2. With my love of Genesis and other artists inappropriate for my generation, I don’t have a lot of what you would call “cool” music.  So it’s a nice occasion when I can serve up some tunes and have them be well met in mixed company.  Heck, I’m listening to Genesis right now as I write this.
  3. “Shit” in the delightful British sense of the word, like when spoken of a loved one who messed up, e.g. “Deary, you can be such a shit sometimes.”  Not nearly as harsh as the American usage.
  4. Shoe attachments which feature down pointing metal teeth, great for biting into the ice and making otherwise slick surfaces quite walkable.
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