Before I tell you about Whangarei I want to report on how we nearly got robbed in the Auckland Intercity Bus Station. You know how in airport terminals that irritating voice comes over the loud-speaker warning you to keep your eye on your bags at all times and to report any suspicious activity? My usual reaction is to groan. The officials are overreacting making us leering of everyone. So you are (OK, I am) pretty reckless about compliance. As we waited for our bus to Whangarei there was no recurring announcement. We were pretty careful anyway, since all our worldly goods are in our luggage. But this time, almost was not careful enough.
An anorexic-looking young woman was hovering near us. She came in for an uncertain landing in the seat just two away from our own. I had noticed her because of her erratic, apparently confused behavior. She said something to me, but her words were slurred and so soft I couldn’t make out what she was saying. When she sat her legs were in constant motion. After a bit she got up–and quickly started to carry off Joy’s small suitcase. I stopped her, explaining rather firmly that this was not her bag but ours. She resisted at first, then relented and sat back down. In a few more minutes, when our attention was diverted, she grabbed that bag again and was wheeling it out the terminal door before I saw her and thought, “Hmmm, that looks like Joy’s bag.” It took me a couple of seconds to process this, since I couldn’t dream she’d try it again. In this moment I learned another value of my cane. As quickly as I could I took after her, grabbed the bag’s handle with my cane’s, and saved the bag.
I still don’t know whether she was on drugs or had a carefully rehearsed act for lifting possessions from unsuspecting travelers. After we boarded our bus we saw her return again to the same row of seats in the waiting area. I alerted our bus driver who in turn alerted someone official-looking to watch her closely. The moral of the story: When they tell you to “keep an eye on your luggage at all times and report any suspicious activity,” you might want to do that.
[There’s a PS. On our return bus trip to Auckland a week later we had the same driver. As we approached the terminal he emphatically told the passengers to be very careful with their bags, because bags get stolen here. We thinking he was talking about us!]
Now let me tell you a positive experience–one of many–we had in Whangarei. It was Tuesday, our second full day in this town. Joy wanted to visit the Quarry Arts Center. As the name suggests, a group of artists took over an abandoned rock quarry and created a cluster of work- and display-shops for painters, sculptors, woodworkers, silkscreen artists, and other artistic types. Joy had a field day snapping photos here. But that’s not the best part. We had a delightful conversation with Ali Goodman, the manager who, along with several other artists, told us we should visit the gallery at Helena Bay Hill, about 45 minutes north of Whangarei. “It’s one of the best galleries you’ll ever find anywhere.” Then, impulsively, Ali told us that’s where she lives. “Why don’t you come home with me one afternoon, visit the gallery and batch at my home overnight and I’ll bring you back the next morning?” She assured us Stu would enjoy our company too. Besides, “he’s a kept man,” so he’d be there to help.
Just as impulsively, we accepted the invitation for the next evening. We couldn’t help noting the difference in this world between the “takers,” the would-be thief in Auckland, and the givers, our new friends Ali and Stu. On Wednesday we took a taxi (a belated taxi!) to the Arts Center where Ali whisked us off to the north. The Gallery was everything they told us it would be, and the evening with her and Stu was more than we could have expected.
Delicious food (barbecued wild pork and trimmings), good company (their seventy-year-old friend and neighbor Jock provided the entertainment—he’s a real Kiwi, Ali told us). They live in a virtual paradise right on Helena Bay., an ever-welcoming retreat for Ali and the best spot on earth for kayaker, fisherman, nature-enthusiast Stu. When we said good-bye we felt we were leaving long-time friends, though we had known them less than 48 hours.
Another highlight was a visit to Whangarei’s other former quarry, now the Quarry Gardens. This quarry was worked out in the late 1970s and served after that as an unofficial dumping grounds (old cars, rusted appliances, miscellaneous discarded “stuff,”) until in the 1990s some civic-minded residents took matters in their own hands and persuaded the city to let them transform the place into a garden. They could and they did and the result is stunning.
I made a bad mistake, though, as we walked the gardens. I walked, that is, while Joy stepped a few paces, took a picture, stepped a few more, took a few more—you get the picture! So I finally told her I’d walk on ahead and meet her in a few minutes at the café on the grounds. There I sat and waited, and waited, and waited. Finally about an hour later she showed up, after I’d had my latte and my Reuben sandwich. Worst part of the story, I had to pay for it myself. (Usually our meals come out of Joy’s grocery money.)
Yet another serendipity to be reported. Joy had found our apartment online through Airbnb. In fact, she selected Whangarei because of this place, which looked really good on the web page. The real thing turned out to be even better than the pictures. Squeaky clean, brightly lit (an artist’s dream), well furnished, and conveniently located.
The best part, though, wasn’t the apartment but our landlords. Kerry and Colin are the kind of hosts travelers dream about. They met our bus when we arrived. Colin, at 6’3″ wasn’t intimidated by Joy’s heavy luggage (which he carried upstairs for us); Kerry made certain our every need was met. We spent a happy last evening with them. Then they returned in the morning to take us to breakfast and drive us to the bus stop. As Joy said of these generous people, we have some new best friends.
The day before we left I broke a promise. We would rely solely on public transportation, said I to me. I don’t want to drive in foreign countries, and certainly not in countries where they don’t drive on the proper side of the road as in, for example, the UK, India, Australia, New Zealand and much of rest of the world. Well, if you’ve been following us you know I didn’t keep my word in Australia, where son-in-law Michael coerced me into driving in Melbourne. Nobody coerced me in New Zealand. It’s just that we needed more flexibility than public transportation allowed.
So we hired (from Rent-a-Dent!) a real man’s machine, a supercharged Toyota (one model down from the Yaris) and drove up north to Kerikeri, the Bay of Islands and Russell, New Zealand’s first capital. The South Island gets most of the tourist hype, but every day we spent on the North Island convinced us that it’s been unfairly underrated. The day was beautiful and so was the scenery. A great experience.
JOY’S PICK OF THE PICS
What a remarkable week this was. We’d love to return to Whangarei, the North Island, and our new friends sometime in the not-too distant future.