Touring Sand and Forest

The black sand still peppers the bathroom, glimmering in the florescent lights and gathering in pools in the corners of the shower. Our shoes are still full of the volcanic powder, eking out the sides as we attempt to wash them. We were warned that the sand will stay with us for the rest of our time here, and possibly even continue to cling to us as we leave this country behind. Even now I’m still finding grains on my sheets.

The day started out pretty clean. The program directors thought it would be appropriate to give us a tour of the area from urban to rural. We started with the top. The top of Mt. Eden that is.

The familiar view of the city stretched below our group of 34. Things were different this time however.  The day started off sunny but the skies soon sagged with mist, eventually shrouding the distant volcanic hills in grey and shadow. The sun was fading. It felt like some presence was on the horizon, closing in. And yet we stayed, in our rain jackets and hiking boots, snapping pictures on our phones and cameras as our guide and University of Auckland professor told us about the geological history of the scene below us.

Our tour continued with a slow trundle through what used to be the most expensive street in New Zealand and then on to something much more unassuming. Simply put, it was a field. Off to one side was a grand memorial to PM Michael Joseph Savage and on the other was a traditional Maori marae (tribal center). In between was just an undulating green expanse.

Our guide gathered us in the middle, and as the mist rolled in, he gave us a brief history of the past that lay beneath those bright blades of grass. In 1977, Maori occupied the land to protest pakeha (white New Zealanders) settlement of what used to be Maori tribal land. Police eventually broke up the protest in 1978, but the area remains undeveloped and has become an important historical landmark and tourist attraction.

After that solemn history lesson, we made our way to the nearby Orakei beaches to gaze at the pulsing waves, the looming Rangitoto Island, and the milling Pokemon Go! players. We stayed long enough to make a bathroom stop before hoping back onto the bus to drive out of the city.

The volcanic hills we spotted through the encroaching mist on top of Mt. Eden now surrounded us. They were fuzzy with vegetation and moisture as we drove through their valleys. A few sheep dotted the green fields that sat along the along the roads; their bodies hunched in the drizzling rain.

We soon stopped at Cascades Kauri Park, and rushed through the rain into the shelter of the trees. We took our time in that tropical forest, stopping here and there as our guide pointed out local flora and fauna including the famous Kauri trees. Leaves dripped, birds called, and we continued walking.

We eventually ate our packed lunches on the bus to hide away from the rain as we drove on to our next stop. Before we got off, our guide suggested that we take off our shoes for this next area. It was optional because of the cold, but highly encouraged. Knowing my feet’s tendency to freeze, I decided not to. I would later regret my choice.

Once again, we filed off the bus and followed our guide through a car park and down a violently green path. The people with bare feet complained about the gravel and the prickly grass, but everyone quickly shut up when the path ended and we saw it: The black sand dunes of Lake Waimanu.

After the initial shock wore off, a general euphoria swept the group. Some people ran through the sand, stretching their arms wide to take in the beauty. Some laughed and yelled, shouting about the awesomeness of their surroundings.

“I wanna cry,” one girl said, “because…nature.”

I felt that rush, a bloom of excitement within my chest. The landscapes around me were unthinkably beautiful, unspeakably gorgeous. It didn’t matter that the wind was picking up or that the mist obscured the distant hills or that we were slowly getting soaked in the light rain. In fact, it added to the general surreal and breathtaking atmosphere.

We slowly made our way to the lake, occasionally stopping to take photos or to frolic along the way. Once at the lake, some people jumped in. (We had been told to bring our swimsuits the day before.) More photos were taken as the sand began to cover our bodies and our backpacks.

The wind was becoming ferocious as we moved on, all climbing to the top of a dune. Once there, our guide then showed us how we could safely jump off. And so screaming and laughing we went, falling a few yards down the side of the sandy cliff before being caught in its soft volcanic embrace. That is how the sand made its way into the crevasses of my clothing, into my shoes, and deep within my socks. But it was worth it.

As soon as we had our fill of jumping, our guide then bounded down the sandy cliff towards the creek at the bottom, motioning us to follow him. Wanting to protect my camera, I took a longer route down and ended up with a few others at the back of the group. As we carefully tried to pick our way through the waters, we fell further and further behind until we could see no one else upon the horizon. We were all alone.

But we continued along the creek because had a vague notion of being told before that was what we were going to do. However, we began to doubt ourselves as the waters soon creeped up our legs. My “waterproof” shoes began to squelch with every step. My feet were freezing. And I wasn’t the only one.

We were tempted to turn around or at least down a fork in the path to escape the encroaching creek, when our guide showed up to rescue us from his own abandonment. Turns out we were headed in the right direction. He soon guided us along to a path next to the stream so we were able to finally step out onto dry land. Then after a while, cold, wet, and covered in sand, we eventually made it back to the bus with the others.

We were exhausted. Everyone was. But the tour wasn’t over. There was still one more stop on our itinerary.

It was a short drive to Te Henga (Bethells Beach), a west coast expanse full of waves, black sandy plains, and mounds of volcanic rock. It was this wild beach that some of the first European settlers were set down, alone in a Maori-controlled land. No settlement awaited them, just the forests and the black sand.

We were allowed free reign upon the beach. I had broken down and taken off my soaked shoes and was now filling up the last bit of my camera’s memory card. We were heading back when my camera beeped. 647 pictures and I could take no more. I looked up and took in the wind-swept, black sand beach and knew this image would always be with me, years after the last bits of sand finally disappears from my things.

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Devonport Views

It was her birthday. A cake came in the mail as did a case of champagne and a pair of woolen shoes. Cupcakes came yesterday along with a preemptive call from her sister. For days, the Birthday Girl, my roommate, concocted plans for the big day with the help of the Assistant Director of the Program. Eight people, including me, agreed to join her when the day came. She decided on one place: Devonport.

Devonport lies just on the other side of the bay, a mere 15 minute ferry ride away. Our New Zealand culture and history professor lives there, as does the musician Lorde. We were told that the views upon its volcanic hills were fantastic.

After a posh breakfast in Britomart next to the harbor, we jumped aboard a ferry and sailed in the sunshine. Once on land, we strolled along the coast, watching the few kids picking at the sand in their winter coats.

We passed houses decorated with Victorian trimmings surrounded by bright tropical plants. We passed dozens of docked boats, their lines whistling in the increasing wind. We passed the Royal New Zealand Navy Museum with visitors milling outside, staring at the sea. North Head was our goal.

This dormant volcano has been a strategic military point since the Maori settled the area. More recently it was used to protect New Zealand against a possible Russian attack in the 1880s. That activity left the sight with tunnels and buildings that have since been left to the birds and the tourists.

On the way up we stopped, pushed back strands of wind-swept hair, and stared back at Auckland. Greenery surrounded us, the houses of Devonport stretched below us, and there on the horizon was Auckland, clouded in rain and sunshine.

“Okay,” one person said. “Now we never go back.”

Cameras and phones out were now out, and we began to take pictures. We didn’t stop when we explored the pitch black military tunnels or when the wind battered our ears as we walked around the summit. We only put away our cameras when we reached the other side of the complex and rested along the rooftop of an abandoned outlook post. The rest of the peak sheltered us from the wind as our feet dangled, and we gazed out over the water at another volcanic mass, Rangitoto.

“It’s like Narnia,” one girl said. “Everything here is beautiful.”

We soon left the spot and wandered down to Cheltenham Beach and strolled along the deserted sands, shells and seaweed bolstering our steps. We didn’t stay long as people had classes to attend, so we repeated the long walk along the shore, back towards the ferry station, content in our tiredness to say nothing and simply take in the beauty of our surroundings.

Auckland’s Pockets of Green

The rain drenched streets shone dully in the filtered sunlight as I strolled down the hills of Auckland. The rush of irregular traffic and the piercing tones of crosswalk signals followed me into the parks. But the bright greenery hushed even those sparse urban noises.

One of the first facts I learned when I arrived here was about the trees. Those that lose their leaves aren’t native. Only the New Zealander trees keep their green.

And I noticed it. Not only visually but also in the air. The air smelled cleaner, fresher. Except for the faint whiff of gasoline as lines of cars passed, based on the smell, I would say I wasn’t in a city, much less one of the biggest in the country.

Auckland is still urban, don’t get me wrong. Crowds, especially around the university and the shopping areas such as Queen Street and K. Road, still bustle and hum, as traffic flows down the hills and around modern buildings.

But the city’s parks and greenery give the area quiet literally a breath of fresh air. So when the opportunity presented itself, I took the chance to explore some of those pockets of green.

When researching Auckland I ran across a hiking route that takes one across the Auckland isthmus, from one coast to the other. The route is appropriately named the Coast to Coast walkway. It starts at the harbor, crosses the heart of downtown, snakes through Albert Park, briefly dives into the University of Auckland before crossing the highway and climbing through Auckland Domain park. After a passing through residential neighborhoods, the trail peaks at Mt. Eden volcanic crater and then eventually continues on to the other coast.

That path sounded like a good way to see Auckland’s nature, so I when I had a free day between my classes, I deiced to give it a shot. Already living next to Albert Park, I started there. From there I plodded my way along the path, deviating a little here and there but eventually making it the top of Mt. Eden. I turned back from there partly because, well, nothing was going to beat that view. I mean, the pictures speak for themselves.

Going on a Kiwi Adventure

It began with time travel. We were high in the air, the lights of civilization shinning in the distance like so many expertly crafted jewels. Soon we were zooming over clouds and oceans, blank expanses serving as backdrops as we journeyed through time and space.

Houston, Texas had been our origin. Auckland, New Zealand was our destination. It would take us 14 and a half hours, and by crossing the dateline, we would skip a day and travel into the future and then enter a land of mythic beauty.

Even as I was sitting on the plane, struggling to sleep, it still didn’t feel real. I was going to be studying in New Zealand for three and a half months. I had made the decision almost on a whim. I had the room in my schedule and in Boston University with its idiosyncratic ways, studying abroad is actually cheaper than studying on campus. So I thought, why not?

But then with the jet lag clouding my vision and the sudden winter chill cooling my body, I couldn’t help but ask myself, what am I doing here? I wasn’t as prepared as when I went to London. I knew little about New Zealand, it’s culture, it’s history, besides the abbreviated rundown I read in my guide book. I had only just recently watched Lord of the Rings in full, and even those movies only give one a glimpse of the landscape of the country and nothing else.

I knew even less about the people I was with in the program. The rooms they assigned us were meant to be doubles, only they squashed four of us in with only one dresser, one closet, and one vanity to share amongst us. We were isolated from the other BU students. Everyone was scattered about in the hotel, which sat across the street from the University of Auckland were we’ll be studying.

I’m a senior. I should be living out my glory months in the comfort of Boston with my friends, lording over the lowly freshmen and taking advantage of my momentary superiority? But I remembered the trapped feeling I experienced after coming back from London and the wistful eyes of last year’s seniors, bemoaning the fact that they couldn’t go abroad again. I am here because I wanted to be, because I could. A normal semester isn’t enough for me anymore, and this opportunity only presents itself once in a lifetime.

And now that I’m looking out over the city with the sun rising in the east and a good night’s sleep under my belt, I can feel it: the nervous excitement and wonder of exploring and experiencing something new. The next few weeks are going to be rough, no doubt, but it’ll be worth it. As Bilbo Baggins would say:

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