Testing a new Auckland coastal walk

By Ewan McDonald


The sun. It must be somewhere up there where the impossibly blue sky meets the improbably blue sea. I can see only harsh grey asphalt.

The family had begun this walk three (or what felt like 23) hours before at our apartment a hop, skip and a tumble down the hill from the beach. We had taken the road less travelled. Up the hill. To the citrus groves. Under the grapevines. Past the sheep pens. Turned left at the 17th century monastery. We kept walking until ...

Sam broke the parts of the silence that the cicadas hadn't. "I can taste it," he muttered. "What?" asked his mother, Jude. "Beer," replied her first-born. "At the village up there," gesturing towards the ... sun.

You will have guessed that we are not talking about a stroll in Auckland this summer. The bit about the sun gave it away. We were walking on the Amalfi Coast, on hillsides above the Mediterranean. At every bend in the path we looked over seascapes plagiarised from postcards.

Next week, the Waitemata Local Board will see a proposal that Aucklanders have a local version of that, or the fabled Cinque Terre path. When I heard about it, I thought I'd amble the byway.

I may have been prodded into this exercise by Hush Puppy, our 20-year-old mostly whippet. Walks are her speciality.

Hushy and I began at Meola Reef because it seemed much more amenable than the other end of the route. Our gobs were smacked, and if you haven't been there and are well acquainted with a dog you should get his or her tail down there. Lately we've poked Auckland's public servants with a sharp stick over a possible outrageous rise in dog fees: here, in 10 acres or less, they have got it totally right for human and canine ratepayers.

The waterfront walk would begin on the other side of the mangroves at Weona Reserve which is another example of what the weekend supplements call "Auckland's hidden treasures". From there we had a decision: up the streets to the Westmere cafes or around the bays.I voted coffee. Hushy preferred seashore. I have never won a democratic vote with a female, so ...

You have to choose your moment to walk around the bays. The moment (a two or three-hour window) is called low tide and you find it somewhere around the World pages in the Herald.

The mangroves stretched before us in what an ageing whippet would describe as heaven and I knew were the last rites for a much-loved pair of trainers. Captain Oates' famous last words flickered across my mind as we struck out - neither of us particularly boldly - past mudlocked yachts and the first of many waterside villas and boathouses we'd admire.

Around the bluff, the strand of Westmere. To appreciate our foreshore you must see it from the - sadly unsung, rarely rhapsodised by the poets - mudflats.

We splashed, we sploshed into and across Coxs Bay, one of few places where road and water meet. A few corners past the West End boating clubs, we struck a problem. Or two: water and rocks. Temperamentally indisposed to climbing and dipping, I resorted to higher intelligence. I asked the dog. She found a switchback path up to some cul-de-sac. We ambled past mansions and estates where visitors, from across the city or the world, are welcomed with discreetly menacing signs about CCTV surveillance and security guards. It's not how the villages greet the world's tourists on the Cinque Terre but then that's the Latin temperament for you.

We happened on a nice little lane that led down a cliff path thoughtfully provided by a previous council for the benefit of some of its ratepayers to a wharf that seems to have no apparent purpose.

Neither yacht nor ferry berths here, likely never shall. I think they still say "shall" in these parts.

And one wonders how the well-meaning proponents will engineer a footpath around here, for the private properties with their retaining walls and fences and gates and waterfront pools and boatsheds and jetties run to the high tide. How much of our character has passed into private, privileged hands, and been passed on to the next grasp.

The bridge is in sight. I can taste the beer.

First, more challenges. Auckland annihilated some of its most accessible beaches to create the bridge and motorway and now tunnel. Hushy and I walk, doggedly, taking in views denied most ratepayers, realising it was necessary to sling the bridge across the harbour to allow the city, but mourning the cost. Dove-Myer Robinson got it right about the poo-ponds, the harbour. Fifty years ago, he was right about a light-rail system, too. The Nats cut him and us off at the kneecaps, or maybe just north of that.

Returning to the streets near Pt Erin, the dog and I suffer the belches and whines of eight lanes of truck and car fumes that despoil the most beautiful inner-city beachfront on the planet, the known universe (© Auckland Tourism and Events) etc, etc. We chat to fishermen who tell us it's not a good day and don't seem to think tomorrow will be, which goes against the generally accepted optimism of fisherfolk. The City of Sails high-rises behind the masts of Westhaven. But a 20-year-old dog has had her day out. The trainers are beyond redemption.

THE WALK - DAY TWO

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This one has sun. Hushy and I rejoin the walk where hulls rock and masts roll and stays creak. Makes one proud to be an Aucklander, unless one comes from one of the thousand suburbs where not quite everyone owns a yacht, or a gated, guarded, waterfront mansion with a Merc and a Lambo in the garage. I am engaging in mind-conduct unbecoming of an Aucklander and a gentleman. Just as well I am having this conversation with a dog.

Wynyard Quarter. At 3 in the afternoon it's rather ... less ... er, inhabited than the Sunday gossip pages would have us believe. I have to say I love what has happened here and applaud the vision. It just needs ... well, people would be nice.

Cross Te Wero Bridge to the Viaduct, of which I've never been as enamoured. It always feels somewhere trying so hard to be ... oh, the place it too-desperately wants to be. Monaco's boat harbour. Marseille's Vieux Port.We're crowded by accents: American, British, German, French.A cruise ship is parked outside the Hilton. Len Brown wants to build a shrine to these people on Queens Wharf. I don't get it: they get off the ship, join their half-day tour to Waitomo, get back on the boat and head off to Napier. Do we really need to clone the airport's duty-free arcade on our precious ...

Hushy and I know this boulevard. We walk it two or three times a week and we don't like it. We don't like that "the most beautiful inner-city beachfront ..." is somewhere over there behind the import cars that have done their dash in Japan and New Zealand and are now being hocked off to the Pacific Islands, or behind seven storeys of containers of kitsch on their way to The Warehouse.

And all of it nicely secured from the people of Auckland behind a 2m Red Fence decreed to be a Historic Monument.

It's probably the only thing in Auckland for which council planners would lay down their lives, or at least their clipboards. On recent performance they'd let the museum or the old cathedral be torn down before they'd let anyone tamper with the Sacred Barricade of the Holy Harbour Board. The wrought-irony is: the peasants of Auckland actually own everything they're barred from.

The whippet and I look across the road and wonder how many other cities blessed with the most ... sorry, other cities with a really nice waterfront chose to enhance it with a four-storey carpark, gym, 24-hour supermarket and fast-food "restaurants".

"Hushy, you are being unkind,"I point out. For when one has passed those emporiums which are vital to the life of a world-class city, not to mention the petrol station and car wash, we find that Ports Of Auckland, out of consideration for its shareholders, aka you'n'me, has gifted us a walkway on the harbour front. You get to it by ducking the container trucks that run the red lights on the crossing by the police emergency base, where they moved the memorial to the officers who died in the Eagle helicopter crash after The Aucklander pointed out that it was hidden behind a rubbish skip for several years.

The path offers a unique view of downtown life and Hushy and I would respectfully submit that it is a must-see on the proposed Coastal Walkway. There is no other place where one can stand just metres from, and admire, the muscled container trucks, the delicate tracery of giant moving cranes, while gazing across the sparkling Waitemata, and truly appreciating what it will look like when they have dumped another several billion tonnes of landfill into the most beautiful ... (we regret to advise we have received a letter from the City Solicitors and are unable to complete this freight-train of thought).

Might this shameful desecration have been stopped in its bulldozer tracks if people had got mad two years ago, when The Aucklander was the first publication to reveal the port's plan (now "under an extensive review") to concrete over more of the harbour?

We are almost at the end of our journey. We live on The Strand, metres from the port, so Hushy thought we were nearly home half-an-hour ago and is grumbling that it's time for her post-walk biscuits. The plan insists we keep right on to the end of the road, several hundred metres past the Parnell Baths, where there is a concrete bridge with a blue Transport Agency sign where the waters tumble into Hobson Bay, with an incomprehensible code declaring it to be Pt Resolution. Or a couple of hundred metres earlier, at the rococo wooden bridge to the baroque lido, where there is a green sign giving the history of Pt Resolution.

But your investigative reporter has done his homework. Move'08, which seems to be an official council document (though I don't know which council or if it still exists) declares that the walk will end at Pt Resolution Park. This is a concept to be dredged out of the harbour some leagues earlier - back at the edge of the container port, where rescue helicopters buzz and trucks shake tarmac laid over our harbour and port grandees trade knuckledusters with workers. Here, we're offered "a green bookend" of beach and fishing jetties.

We set out from Meola's volcanic reef, native-bushed park, mangroves at the water's edge. We end at an industrial Gehenna where citizens may "re-connect", as some urban designer is bound to say at some point in the planning process, with its waterfront by playing in an artificial park.

"We've gone from one extreme to the other, but that's Auckland for you," I say to Hushy. She agrees.


- THE AUCKLANDER

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