Thursday, October 29, 2015

One Tree Hill, Auckland, New Zealand

Its Maori name is Maungakiekie, the mountain of the kiekie vine. I didn’t notice any vines growing there. In fact, what struck me at first was the nearly complete lack of vegetation other than the closely cropped grass even on its steepest slopes. The reason for this was just as obvious. Sheep dotted the grass throughout the park, widely dispersed in some areas, clumped into small herds in others.

I’m trying to recall ever seeing a similar scene in an urban park. But I can’t.

There are trees in the park, but the native one (pōhutukawa, in Maori) that gave the hill its English name is long gone, victim of an act of vandalism by a white settler in 1852. Most of the non-native pines planted to replace it didn’t survive. Maori activists attacked the last remaining pine with chainsaws in 2000 as a protest against perceived injustices by the government. So, One Tree Hill bears no tree.

With only two days to see as much of Auckland as possible, we drove most of the way up to the summit. With more time and better weather I would have enjoyed the hike. We walked the last quarter mile in a light drizzle, sheep ambling out of our way as we approached. The cloud cover hung little higher than the summit itself when we reached it, which, along with the rain, limited the 360° panoramic views of the city and its two harbors.

One Tree Hill Domain, as the park is officially known, is one of a pair of conjoined parks (Cornwall Park is the other) that are situated near the center of the Auckland metropolitan region and the isthmus on which it’s located. Despite the inclement weather we were among quite a throng on the summit. In fact, there were many people throughout the large twin park landscape. I imagine it’s very crowded on beautiful days.

One Tree Hill is the remnant of an ancient volcano, one of 48 in the Auckland Volcanic Field. As we walked back down we noted the popular fad of using loose lava rock as movable graffiti down among the soft contours of the long-dormant crater. Without a few tiny sheep at the bottom it would be difficult to appreciate the size of the rocks or the scale of the mountain. Though far from a wilderness, One Tree Hill is a highly satisfying urban park experience.

This post is the second in a series from Australia and New Zealand. To go to the first, click on Muriwai Beach.

To see more photos from Australia and New Zealand, go to my flickr album

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Dispatch from New Zealand: Muriwai Beach

We’d been traveling in exotic places for so long, in two different countries and in several time zones, that the days of the week blurred together. But it was easy to tell that today was Friday. As it is with many a large city, the weekend traffic at 4:30 pm clogged the freeway leading out of town. As Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, sits on an isthmus, the single route leading out into the countryside was predictably jammed.

An hour later, however, we were cruising along curving ridge top roads through a pastoral, peaceful countryside dotted with sheep and dairy farms. Finally, as we drew nearer the coast the road dropped into a luxuriant pine forest. Graeme, our host and guide, explained that the forest was a recent development. A hundred years ago the hilly landscape had been nothing but sand held in place by sand-tolerant dune grasses. A government program of progressive vegetation had proceeded gradually from nitrogen-fixing shrubs to today’s climax forest.

The forest provides a wide variety of recreational opportunities as well as lumber for harvest. We passed trailheads for hiking and mountain biking and a gated off-road vehicle course. But the vast majority of weekenders, like us, pass through miles of forest in order to access the beach.

Barefoot, we stroll through the last seaward stand of stunted, salt-bleached trees. Twin dunes loom above us. They must be at least 30-40 ft. high. We stand aside as a motorbike buzzes through the soft sand and away onto the beach. It disappears before we get there. There is no one else around.

Dark, volcanic sand and pounding surf stretches away as far as we can see and vanishes in brilliant, foaming mist. Amazingly, as close as it is to Auckland, Muriwai boasts 50 km (over 31 miles) of unbroken, undeveloped beach along with protective dunes and forested lands. Graeme tells us that recently the government ceded control of these public lands to the indigenous Maori people. I marvel at this, trying to imagine the U.S. government giving back to Native Americans, say, for instance, North Carolina’s outer banks or Cape Cod National Seashore.

We dip our feet in the crashing Tasman Sea, which reaches Australia over 2,100 km away. Very cold. (Much like Lake Michigan.)

The beach is popular for surfing, fishing, dirt-biking (as we noticed), horseback riding, and bird-watching. There is a notable gannet colony at its southern end, too far for us to reach today. Swimming is discouraged, however, due to dangerous rip currents.

No worries. Wandering, sinking our toes in the soft, black sand, soaking up the warm southern hemisphere springtime sun, and basking in the stiff onshore breeze are sufficient to fill us with contentment. 

Lynn and I spent almost 2 weeks in Australia and New Zealand. This is the first of a series of dispatches and photo essays from our trip. 

To see more photos from Australia and New Zealand, go to my flickr album