Sunday, October 18, 2009

Wine Tasting and Mount Eden

I've continued to meet people in Auckland through Couchsurfing. I've gone to each of their Wednesday meet-ups since I arrived and plan on keep attending. It's an interesting mix of locals, people here on a working holiday, and travellers from all over the world. This Wednesday, as I was on my way to the meet-up at the Buffalo Bar on Princes Wharf in Viaduct Harbour, I saw a penguin swimming in the water! It was a very small variety of penguin, called "little penguin" or "blue penguin," which is the smallest of the penguin varieties. Other interesting things I've seen at the harbour this week include a crazy-looking black trimaran ship, dubbed the "Batman Ship" by one of my co-workers. Near the end of the week, a giant cruise ship, taller than the surrounding buildings, was docked there, attracting gazing crowds of locals as well as generating its own crowds of people walking around the harbour. It glowed brightly at night and one can see the passengers walking around on its decks and the crew working busily on and around the ship. But I digress; through the Couchsurfing community, I joined a Saturday wine tour organised by Kirin, one of the two Couchsurfing city ambassadors of Auckland.

At noon, I met with two other couchsurfers at the Albert Street Food Alley, one of the many international food courts in Auckland. I've met both of them at the Wednesday get-togethers. Nadia, from Moscow, is studying English in New Zealand. Although she has a bit of trouble communicating, she manages quite well for the amount of time that she has been learning English. Sara, from San Francisco, had just arrived in the country this week on a year-long working holiday visa and still appears to be working off hear jet lag. As we waited for Kirin, it rained and became sunny in spurts, as it had been doing in Auckland for the past few weeks.

After being picked up, we picked up Craig Smith on the way to meet other other car of couchsurfers. We found out that Craig was a singer, specialising in children's song, and with the help of his illustrator friend, had just recently published a best-selling children's book based on a song of his that was named New Zealand's Children's Song of the Year in 2008. he showed us a copy of the book, and we loved it as it was illustrated very well. After a quick lunch at the Ponsonby Food Court, we headed off on our way to the wineries.

It turns out that Craig and Kirin where very much into wine, chatting with the vineyard staff and telling us about the different kinds of wine and how to enjoy them. As we drove out of Auckland, the scenery changed very quickly into a rural setting, and Kirin pointed out to us where the Hauraki Gulf, part of the Pacific Ocean, was separated from Manukau Harbour, part of the Tasman Sea, by only a kilometre.

Throughout the day, we visited four wineries. Babich Wines, still within Auckland, was surrounded by new houses built in the past five years. These houses were an eyesore in what would have otherwise been a pristine area of green, grassy hills. They didn't have a spittoon for the wine, and the owner, a very nice, distinguished-looking lady, was making fun of the people who asked for a spittoon. I quite enjoyed her stories and one of their higher quality sauvignon blancs; it was crisp and refreshing. Soljans Estate was very commercialized, but had a very interesting sparkling muscat which was quite enjoyable and tasted like pop, which I'm told is called "fizzy" in New Zealand. Kumeu River was higher-end, with a variety of wines in the more expensive price ranges. I tried and liked very much their different chardonnay wines, which Kirin told me were all fermented using natural yeast on their skins. The old lady there also told us many interesting stories, and it just happens that she is leaving for New York that evening to attend a prestigious "by invitation only" wine event with the top wineries around the world. Last but not least was Matua Valley, a relatively large and slick operation. Their wines were all reasonably priced and tasty. Their botrytised riesling was especially good, rich, and had no off-flavours; it was a steal at only $16.50 per bottle as they were running a special on it. I bought a bottle to share with my flatmates, but left it in Kirin's car as I was pretty tired and was zoning out by the end of a day of drinking.

After saying bye to the other group of couchsurfers, we decided to end the day at Muriwai Beach. It was only about a twenty minute drive from the wineries, which in turn, were about a twenty minute drive from Auckland. I was amazed at how thin this part of the country was, as it takes only about forty minutes to drive from the west coast to the east coast at this point, with thousands, if not tens of thousands, of kilometres of ocean on both sides (yes, I realize that the Coromandel Peninsula is more east than Auckland, across the bay, but hey, it extends only about another forty or so kilometres north before it ends). Along the way, we saw heaps (I'm going to start using NZ terms from now on!) of sheep, including many new-born lambs. I also saw a white horse on a farm, and immediately thought of Gandalf.

Before arriving at the beach, we picked up some food and water from a small shop, where I got hoki (a kind of fish) and kumara chips, which came wrapped in newspaper. We sat on a small grassy area overlooking the beach to eat, watching a group of kitesurfers jumping around on the crashing waves. The sand at Muriwai is mostly black due to its high concentration of iron filings from past volcanic activity. There were even plans to mine the iron sand at Muriwai in the past, but the residents successfully intervened and stopped the mining from ever happening, saving this beautiful stretch of coastline.

After eating, Nadia, Sara and I explored the surrounding. We discovered a cave with waves crashing in and out of it, but from our angle we couldn't see how deep it goes. They also discovered a path the the gannet (a type of sea bird) colony nearby, while I was walking around somewhere else. When we returned to the car, Kirin drove us to a parking lot by the gannet colony where we took a path through bush populated with beautiful native plants to one of the observation platforms. The view from this platform was breathtaking. To the left, there was a lone surfer in the water based off of a secluded beach of black sand at the bottom of steep cliffs and hills covered in delicate green spring grass. There was an ocean of majestic squaking gannets below us, spaced out evenly sitting on small mounds. Whenever one of them stood up to stretch, we could see the eggs placed carefully in the bowl at the top of the mound. Some of the gannets were
courting by batting their beaks together, and some even mated on occasion. To the right, a few people with fishing rods were on a rock outcropping battered by the pounding waves, creating periodic tall sprays of white foam. Offshore, there was a tall, steep island with a flat top that hosted yet another colony of gannets. All of this was set to the backdrop of a setting sun over a vast expanse of open ocean. As we returned to Auckland from the great day, we exchanged contact information, and Sara mentioned that she would contact us if she decided to visit Rangitoto tomorrow, Sunday, the 18th of October, 2009.

Sunday morning, I got sucked into a computer game for many hours. Since I didn't receive a message from Sara, I had nothing to interrupt my playing. I finally stopped playing games at around 3pm. I decided to take a quick walk to Mount Eden Domain, also known as Maungawhau Reserve. Mount Eden, as with many of the other hills in and around Auckland, is a well-formed cinder cone from previous volcanic activity on the currently dormant Auckland Volcanic Field. This particular lava vent, erupting about 15,000 years ago, is the highest natural point in Auckland, at an elevation of 196 metres.

On the way over, I took a wrong turn as I was using a large, green, volcano-looking hill as a visual queue to orient myself. Unfortunately, I did not take into account of the vast number of these hills around Auckland, and ended up walking towards Mount Hobson Domain. Fortunately, I corrected my course quickly after walking through the residential neighbourhood of Grafton, where I caught a glimpse of Mount Eden behind the houses. Because of this detour, I ended up walking right in front of the Mount Eden Prison, a castle-like structure constructed in the 1800s.

Following the road up, I arrived at Mount Eden Domain. Immediately, even at the base, there are shallow grass-covered basins which looked like shallow amphitheatres perfect for small concert events. I followed a path by a road winding up the mountain. Since the mountain is quite steep and the road winds up the sides , the path was one or two metres higher then the road it follows, and I felt like I was walking on a wall. As I reached the first flat area about two-thirds of the way up, I was treated to a beautiful view of Haruki Gulf, with Rangitoto and the various volcanic craters of North Shore City clearly visible. There is a flat, fenced field overlooking downtown Auckland there, where cows are led to graze from time to time.

Just beside this field there is an area in the shape of a wide mound with about half a dozen bowl-shaped depressions (*edit: I later found out that these pits may have been kumara pits dug by the Māori), each about two to three metres wide. I found this fascinating as I imagined what this area would have looked like as it was erupting millennia ago. Following up a steep path straight up the side of the main cinder cone, up through the terraces formed long ago by the Māori as a part of a pā, or a fortified village, I arrived on the north rim of the main crater. I was quite taken the first time I saw the entire crater. Other than some worn away areas around the edge, it was nearly perfectly bowl-shaped and circular, was quite steep, and was quite large at about 50 metres deep and 200 metres wide. It looked soft and pleasant as the entire crater was covered by a layer of green grass, and there appeared to be a series of small, concentric terraces, although I can't tell if they are natural or man-made.

I walked around the rim of the crater to the higher southern side where there was a 360º view, other than a few trees blocking a few small areas. The view from up there was amazing. I could see a series of volcanic islands among turquoise waters in Haruki Gulf to the north, the sparkling waters of Manukau Harbour to the south, large hills in the distance, and all around, there were numerous volcanic cones covered in a layer of light green spring grass speckled with trees. There were billowing clouds all around, travelling at quite high speeds in the windy day, forming moving patches of rain and sun in the Auckland area, which explains why the weather here seems so sporadic and unpredictable. As the rain blew over the peak periodically, I sheltered myself against a stone dedication pillar. I also met a small kid up there who was worried that he hasn't seen him mum in a while. I kept him company and reassured him for a few minutes before his family showed up and was very happy to see him.

I took a different path down, exploring a few different areas of the volcanic cone. There were some cool terrain features, but nothing as exciting as the craters at the top. One interesting thing I noticed was that in many areas the path crosses a fence. Instead of a gate in these areas, they built a series of steps which looks like half of a picnic table with a fence running through it. These steps are what people would use to step over the top of the fence, although they looked suspiciously easy to trip over. The walk back was uneventful and I didn't get lost a second time. I enjoyed the view of Rangitoto the entire way back as it was downhill all the way back to the flat.

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