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» moa me the money
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moa me the money

New Zealand’s largest city has more than its share of attractions, not to mention sophisticated food and wine haunts. But the true soul of Auckland is often revealed in unexpected encounters with the city’s charismatic locals.

Lunch in Auckland was supposed to be perfect.

Raw beetroot salad; a rich, semi-soft cheese called hipi iti (“little sheep” in Maori); a loaf of toasty Kumara sourdough bread; a bottle of wine to wash it down. Joshua Hall, a professional food journalist and the head of Wine Korea, is a Kiwi transplant I befriended while living in Seoul. When I found out I’d be visiting New Zealand, I asked him for a few recommendations.

“Get out of Auckland as soon as you can,” Joshua advised, “and find a wild part of the country to call your own.” I told Joshua I’d get out of town as soon as my camper rental was ready but that I couldn’t do it on an empty stomach.

“In that case,” Joshua said, “pick up groceries at Ripe Deli in Grey Lynn, grab the perfect loaf at Wild Wheat, get a bottle of Fairbourne sauvignon blanc, and find a quiet spot on One Tree Hill in Cornwall Park. That should be more than enough Auckland for one day.”

I do exactly as Joshua has instructed: I find a solitary spot on the hill, lay a blanket on the ground, kick off my shoes and sit down to my perfect little picnic. I think of all the exciting things I’ll do over the next few weeks – kayaking Milford Sound, stargazing at Lake Tekapo, tramping Tongariro pass, attending an All Blacks rugby match. None will take place in Auckland proper; I wonder why.

Auckland seems like a nice enough city – a bustling harbour town set against a dramatic volcanic backdrop; a place where sheep still rule public parks and people aren’t afraid to talk to strangers on the street (I’m asked out for a drink twice before checking in at my hotel: once by an immigration officer at the spectacularly efficient Auckland International Airport and once by my taxi driver). Kiwi hospitality is the stuff of legend.

If I was the type who kept a diary, I’d have filled my Auckland entry with exclamation points and Kiwi curse words, if only to accentuate the superlatives of a place that, ’til now, I’d overlooked.

Most visitors use Auckland as a mere stepping stone to the “great New Zealand unknown.” Perhaps, I muse, Auckland itself deserves some attention.

As the last drops of wine tumble out of my ad-hoc decanter and onto my tongue, I drift off, content to count the sheep on the hills below.

THE BAREFOOT BANDITS
Perfection has a short shelf life.

I’m awake, and I’m missing more than the contents of my wine bottle. My shoes are gone; so too is my wallet. I suspect the lamb: there’s always one black sheep in the bunch. I’m too ashamed to go to the police, though – how could I explain myself? There’s no way I can call anyone, since I’d oh-so-cleverly tucked my phone into my shoes so I wouldn’t lose it. Thankfully, I have just enough change for a bus fare back to the city. I suppose I’ll be at Auckland’s mercy for a bit longer than expected.

Now I’m on the bus. The fella across from me, it appears, is a fellow victim – his shoes are also missing. At least the bandits didn’t make off with his bespoke suit – that would have been a real shame. I want to ask if he has any suspects in mind but settle instead for an exchange of knowing glances. “I hope they catch the bugger,” I say, unable to help myself.

The fella smiles uncomfortably, his brow furrowed in confusion. I realise I must look like a bit of a loon, with my patchy beard (I thought I’d need it for warmth climbing Fox Glacier), grass-stained jeans and unacceptably dirty feet. My dorky Canadian accent isn’t doing me any favours, either.

The fella crosses his legs and I see that the bottoms of his feet are even filthier than mine. His shoes must have gone missing months ago. I begin to wonder if he knows.

He catches me staring. “These are Auckland’s finest dancing shoes,” he says, taking the seat next to me, “and I see that we are men of similar tastes.” Norman introduces himself as a skull grinder (I’m too afraid to ask him what that means), asks how long I’ve been in Auckland and wonders aloud why we’ve yet to go for a pint, since “You can’t get dressed up with no place to go, mate.”

I realise that Norman doesn’t think I’m homeless; Norman thinks I’m a hipster. I’m about to hit the dance floor and I don’t even know it yet.

NO SHIRT, NO SHOES, NO PROBLEM
A Canuck and a Kiwi walk into a bar, and neither of them are wearing shoes. The Canuck looks at the Kiwi and asks, “Are you sure we can go in here barefoot?” The Kiwi looks down at his feet and smiles. “Don’t worry about it, mate. The bartender and me are sole mates!” Just like that, the bartender at Hallertau, an eclectic mash-up of brewery and gastric utopia in Riverhead, is sliding a Maximus Humulus Lupulus down the bar in my direction.

Maximus is Hallertau’s signature brew. “Designed for rich tarts,” explains the bartender, but Norman, connected to just about every man and woman in the city, has us guzzling pints for free. Maximus is a fierce amalgam of hop bitterness; rich, malty earth tones and bright citrus notes, with a back end that kicks like a mule. It is as fine an India Pale Ale as I have tasted in my life, and as good a reason as any to get to know Auckland better. An order of pork belly arrives, followed by beer-battered fish and chips.

“They grow their own vegies in a garden out back,” Norman tells me. “And they raise their own chickens, too. The chickens grow up on grain and hops from the kettle stock, so they burp but don’t cluck.” Norman laughs, calls for another round and toasts everyone at the bar. I bring my glass to my lips and gaze at the distorted crowd through the bottom of my libatious telescope. Quite a few people are missing their shoes. “It’s just how we relax,” Norman says. “And you’re fitting in famously.”

Fitting in is all I’ve ever wanted to do, but now I want to go full native. I puff out my chest, say, “Moa me the money!” and ask the barman to bring the choicest cut of big bird they’ve got. “Extra rare,” I add, sucking back my Maximus for effect.
I’ve heard rumours of a bird that’s twice the size of an ostrich, with eggs that can weigh more than four kilos. “Bring me an omelette, too.” Laughing breaks out around the room. Norman smiles a devilish grin. “Mate, them moa birds have been extinct for about 300 years,” he says.

I’m crushed. I feel the same way I did on my first visit to the United States, when I learned that it was frowned upon to order bald eagle for breakfast. “Why don’t you try another New Zealand delicacy,” Norman says. “Let’s sink our teeth into some fresh possum pie.” I accept the challenge.

At the end of the fifth round, Norman tells me he’s late for a previous engagement. He scribbles a few notes on a cocktail napkin and tells me to meet him later at a bar on Ponsonby Road. “Which bar?” I ask.

“Pick a bar. I’ll find you,” Norman says. “Show up sometime after 11 p.m. That’s when the dancing begins.” With that, Norman departs. The napkin looks like something a theoretical physicist might have taken to the bathroom with him: a jumble of cryptic addresses, code words and secret formulae. At the top, written in block letters, are the words: EYES ONLY: THIS IS AUCKLAND.

WHEN IN ROME
“Discover the vibrant city of Auckland on the hop-on, hop-off bus, or get to know this lovely city on the Auckland Great Day Out. View famous landmark Mt. Eden, shop in historic Parnell Village, visit the Antarctic Encounter and Underwater World and relax in Auckland Domain – the city’s oldest park. Gorgeous islands, hot bubbling mud, glow-worm caves, historic sites and fresh snowfields – there’s plenty to enjoy on a day trip from Auckland.”

I’d culled this bit of information from the back of a tourist brochure while flying into Auckland and thought some of the recommendations might come in handy later. Yet none of these activities are listed on the napkin Norman gave me. In fact, one crucial tip I can decipher states that I am explicitly to avoid Underwater World or I’ll be thrown into a bottomless glow-worm cave. I’m starting to wonder whether or not Norman is a bit of a savant, or simply the world’s greatest tour guide. Either way, I don’t want to disappoint the guy. I don’t know why, but I feel like I should tick off the items on this list. So, I’m off to the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

From what I gather, the Auckland War Memorial Museum has less to do with war and more to do with the cultural majesty, wondrous biodiversity and enchanting historical legacy of this tiny island nation. The fact that the museum sits atop a volcano in Auckland Domain is icing on the cake. A few hours in the museum and I’m primed to explore – though it takes me some time to wade my way through the poetic puzzle Norman’s drawn up for me. He either wants me to visit the Otara Flea Markets or an Oktoberfest musical; if time allows, I’ll try to squeeze in both.

I figure that if I can keep my mouth shut while wandering around Otara’s market, I’ll get away with looking like a local. Then again, maybe not. Otara, a suburb of Auckland roughly 20 kilometres from the city centre, is remarkable in that it has one of the largest populations of Pacific Islander peoples in the country. Consequently, Otara Flea Markets houses mainly Polynesian and Maori vendors.

Norman could have sent me to Buana Satu on Karangahape Road in search of a pūrerehua, a blade-like miniature surfboard that’s attached to a length of rope and spun above the head in an effort to replicate the sound of a 400-kilogram hummingbird flying through a wind tunnel (though experts generally concur that pūrerehua were traditionally used to summon summer storms).

Norman did not send me pūrerehua-hunting; nor did he send me to the Zambesi design studio on Ponsonby Road to find a suit to match my dancing shoes. Norman sent me to Otara Flea Markets, in an effort to tune me in to the North Island’s remarkable Polynesian heritage and colourful Māori culture.

I do manage to bargain for a rugby ball with what’s left of my pocket change, and I challenge a group of strapping local lads to a friendly match. Nothing stirs the Kiwi spirit quite like the sport of rugby, so the lads are more than happy to oblige me by stomping, pounding, thrashing and bashing me up and down the pitch. They show me how to intimidate opponents before a match and how they celebrate after scoring a try, with a dance called the “Haka, Haka, Joy, Joy,” though I suspect the steps have been created for my benefit and their amusement.

With my knees skinned, my head battered, my lip busted and my pride tattered, I bow out of the game, feeling like I belong in this place, no matter how loudly the countryside’s farthest corners call my name.

THIS FEELS STRANGELY NORMAL
I haven’t had time to tick off even half of the things on Norman’s itinerary. I still plan to Eskimo-kiss a penguin and eat a possum pie in Parnell – but I know I can’t miss the grand finale. Suddenly, I have only a few minutes before midnight. Norman is nearly an hour late, and I’m afraid I’ll turn into a pumpkin if I wait any longer. Perhaps Auckland has run out of magic, finally, and the glass slipper’s about to shatter.

Dejected, I slip into Suite, a watering hole on Hobson, tucked away neatly in an old spice house, then The Flying Moa – a bar that had me the moment it included the giant extinct dinosaur bird in its name. Sadly, they don’t serve moa meat either. In my current state, I collect sideways glances the same way I might have done if I’d stitched an Australian flag to my forehead. I’m even denied entry to a club on account of my shoelessness and the torn sleeve on my shirt. This is no longer the Auckland I once loved.

I find myself skipping stones into Saint Marys Bay from Westhaven Marina as Auckland’s beautiful night skyline taunts me. A sleek bay cruiser floats free from a slip, another reminder that a whole other world exists on the periphery of my imagination.

As the boat closes the distance between us, a voice calls out to me, skipping across the crisp night air. “Auckland was once known as Tamaki Makaurau,” Norman says from the captain’s chair. “The maiden of 100 lovers. Tonight, she claims a fresh pair of souls.”
Charged by my friend’s appearance, I jump aboard the boat without asking where we are going, or if the boat belongs to Norman in the first place.

We spend the next few hours picking grapes by the light of the moon at a vineyard on Waiheke Island. Norman promises to craft a special vintage from our haul and post me a bottle for my birthday. Knowing that Norman will likely stomp the juice from the grapes himself, I proceed with caution and give him Joshua’s address instead.

We take an impromptu side-trip to Rangitoto Island to climb up and over the alien moonscape and look back at the lights of the big city, returning to port ahead of daybreak. I dream of sailing all the way to Queenstown but I’m afraid to speak my thoughts aloud, knowing that Norman would immediately chart a new course.

Norman meets me at the rental shop next morning to see me off and wish me luck on my extended New Zealand holiday. “I bet you have yourself a story to tell about Auckland now, eh?” he says, shaking my hand. I tell Norman that even if I forget the music, I’ll never forget the dance steps I’ve learned. Dancing in Auckland is, after all, good for the heart and sole.

Photography by Flash Parker and courtesy of respective establishments.

Getting there
Air New Zealand, Virgin Australia and Qantas all fly from Australia to Auckland.
• Air New Zealand. 132-476; airnewzealand.com.au
• Qantas. 131-313; qantas.com
• Virgin Australia. 136-789; virginaustralia.com

When to go
Between December and February, the days in Auckland average 22°C, while temperatures rarely dip below 8°C even in July, the coldest month of the year. Auckland’s mild climate makes it suitable for visiting any time of year.

Where to stay
• Hilton Auckland. 64-9/978-2000; hilton.com
• Skycity Auckland. 64-9/363-6000; skycityauckland.co.nz
• Sofitel Auckland. 64-9/909-9000; accorhotels.com

What to Eat and Drink
• The Flying Moa. 65 Lunn Ave., Mt Wellington, Panmure; 64-9/570-2800; flyingmoapub.co.nz
• Hallertau Brewbar & Restaurant. 1171 Coatesville Riverhead Hwy., Riverhead; 64-9/412-5555; hallertau.co.nz
• Ripe Deli. 172–174 Richmond Rd., Grey Lynn; 64-9/360-6159; ripedeli.co.nz
• Suite. Basement/2 Hobson St.; 64-9/307-7030; suitebar.co.nz
• Wild Wheat Limited Specialty Breads. 20 Rylock Place, Pakuranga; 64-9/577-5164; wildwheat.co.nz

What to Do
• Auckland War Memorial Museum. Domain Dr., Parnell; 64-9/309-0443; aucklandmuseum.com
• Otara Flea Markets. Newbury St., Otara, Manukau; 64-9/274-0830; otarafleamarket.co.nz
• Zambesi Workroom Ltd. 169 Ponsonby Rd., Ponsonby; 64-9/360-7391; zambesi.co.nz

Further information
Visit Auckland Tourism’s website for additional tips on travelling around this North Island city. aucklandnz.com