The long commute

By Alan Perrott

Room for their birds to roam was a primary incentive for Kim and Nigel Boyd, with 18-month-old daughter Amber, to move to the country. Photo / Martin Sykes
Room for their birds to roam was a primary incentive for Kim and Nigel Boyd, with 18-month-old daughter Amber, to move to the country. Photo / Martin Sykes

The glorious view can take some of the blame for Chris Gayford's Tairua home remaining unfinished; the black bag by the front door with the toothbrush jutting out of its front pocket can shoulder the rest.

"Oh, that ..." he says. "It's got a spare shirt and my passport. I grab that on my way out and I'm good to go." Go where? We'd just been drinking tea on the uncompleted upstairs deck of his multilevel home where we gazed out over empty dunes to an azure bay, book-ended by sunkissed islets. Away seemed a sensible person's last destination.

But a couple of times a week, the expat-Aucklander gets up at around 5am and heads to work with that bag in hand. Nothing remarkable there, hundreds of thousands of us do the same thing every day, except that in his case the commute runs from the east coast of the Coromandel peninsula, past the Whangamata turn-off, across the Kaimai Ranges, over Kopu Bridge, along the motorway of death, up and over the Bombay Hills and then north along SH1 to Auckland International Airport. When work is that far away, it's no wonder he packs a passport.

But there are occasions when it all goes wrong for the 59-year-old. Like the morning a logging truck tipped over and blocked his rollercoaster route west, or the times when heavy rain buries said road under tonnes of impassable debris.

Then Gayford has to turn around and make his way south to Whangamata, then Waihi, then west to Paeroa, and so on, north through to Manukau City. There was even one week when, due to temporary carlessness, he had to charter a flight so he could clock in on time.

To date, our intrepid commuter says he's never been late for a shift, but you'd suspect the constant potential for problems must drive him barmy? Not at all, such problems merely allow more road time for thinking about "things".

And by "things", he doesn't mean his carbon footprint — after working on airline cabin crews for nearly 40 years that's beyond redemption — he means life organisation and some quiet reflection on the tedious jams of traffic that finally drove him from Remuera three years ago.

If he's behind the wheel for longer spells since moving, and he argues the toss on that assumption, Gayford says the fact that he's moving at all gives him a reassuring sense of going somewhere; the complete opposite to how he felt when trapped in the snail's pace action we call Auckland's rush hour.

And he's not alone. While more people choose to work within Auckland's metropolitan centre every year, a growing number of us now want to live outside it while doing so. Admittedly, not too many go to the extreme Gayford has. The 2006 census says he's one of only 195 Coromandel residents who undertake that particular commute, and while not all will be escapees, their numbers are growing.

But even as these runaways bemoan the traffic they've left behind, their head to hills mentality means that in some ways they're only making a bad situation worse — living somewhere prettier and slower doesn't bring your desk any closer.

Estimating how many Aucklanders have gone bush is difficult, but we do know that 40 per cent of workers living in Waitakere City now commute to Auckland City daily. With significant numbers doing the same thing north and south of the city as well, it would seem Auckland's a great place to work, but not everyone wants to live here.

Was it something we said? If you consider the region's bottleneck geography and then add the morning and afternoon school traffic into all this long-distance hauling, it's a surprise the rest of us get anywhere.

So why do they do it? Well, if Auckland's economic growth proves the jobs are increasingly found here, it follows that the pickings out there in the wops must be thin at best. So if you've found a job you love you're stuck with it unless you're prepared to pump gas.

In this case extra travel is the price runaways pay for what they're really after, a certain lifestyle and a close community to share it with. Which might seem an odd notion given the Gayford's home is the only permanently occupied property within 200m of their driveway — apart from holiday season, any risk of gridlock ends when they pull on to their road.

Still, his comments suggest there's a community lurking somewhere: "This is the type of place where everyone really does know your name," he says, "every time you go out you spend five minutes shopping and an hour chatting." All the same he does live in a slightly different time zone to everyone else.

"With all the travelling I have to bring my life forward two or three hours a day to fit everything in, but that's about all there is to [commuting long distances]. There's nothing I can't handle, if I have a two-day course or something, I just stay at the airport and I know each trip costs me about $20 in petrol. I know I have to get to work and then get back again, so I just factor all that stuff into my life."

As for the double-takes he got when workmates heard where he lives, they eased when everyone started swapping commuter stories. "From what they say, it takes just as long to get to the airport from the North Shore. It can take you an hour just to cross Mangere bridge, then another three-quarters of an hour to get home if you live in Takapuna. I'll be at Kopu bridge in an hour. Then I start to relax and feel like I'm home again."

Commuting and traffic weren't big issues to the Boyds either when they shifted from Torbay to Puhoi. Their decision came about after they realised guns — okay, water pistols — weren't enough to protect their favoured lifestyle.

This is an immigrant South African family that's big on very big birds. Parrots, gallahs, geese, they love 'em all. The neighbours' cats loved them as well, if for slightly more culinary reasons. For three years, both sides battled over the birds' affections, but once it came down to the couple patrolling their fence line with fully-loaded buckets and water pistols, they decided it was time to move on.

"So you could say it was for lifestyle reasons," says Kim Boyd, 38. "We were also feeling quite squashed in the suburbs. We grew up on farms at home and really love having some space around us."

So they are now perched on a spacious, rural ridgeline accessible only by a slippery, twisty and steep gravel road. Their only chance of feeling squashed now is if their car is in the wrong place when a slip comes down.

But while they adore their new home and the eccentric, deeply green community that came with it, they also love their jobs. Kim works in a Takapuna art gallery, Nigel at a Murrays Bay school, and each day sees the pair car-bound for at least two hours as they go to and from. Long summer days are gloriously picturesque, but winters ... Kim says there have been many moments when she's gritted her teeth and thought "to hell with it".

"Well, it can get really tedious." They set off in the dark and return home in the dark, with each journey dominated by that gravel road, the hair-raising right turn into SH1, and once they hit suburbia, the school traffic.

"So it does get to feel like your day is divided between work and sitting in a car, but that's the reality of the life we've chosen, so you just get on with it and look forward to summer." They had hoped the flash Orewa bypass would make life a lot easier, but at $4 a day it's more a case of making life more expensive.

Then just to complicate things, two newborns arrived, daughter Amber (now 18 months) and a baby McCaw parrot. Both need feeding, care and preening. "It's all meant that we've had to become much more organised," she says.

"We like to travel together, so we have to co-ordinate everything so we both get back in time." But there's not much that can be done when things go pear-shaped, which is why looking for daycare near their places of work is all about stress relief.

But if travel is a bore to the Boyds it's a salve to Mike Alexander. This is a man with an apparent allergy to urban life. He's given it several cracks, the most recent being a six-week house swap with some mates in Mt Eden, but each testing of the suburban waters has only reinforced his white picket fenced-in nightmare. For the past nine years, the lawyer and Knight Coldicutt partner has been living in Muriwai with wife Teresa O'Connor, and latterly their 5-year-old twins, Jonty and Isabella.

"I like the city," says Alexander, "and with the work I do, I need to be downtown to be credible. I'm just no good at living there, I struggle with things like lights, kerbs and having to stop every hundred yards. Ideally, I want a clear sky at night and to be able to hear the sea. So I always enjoy the drive home, the city just gradually falls away behind me. Then I can get up early, go for a surf and still get to work by 9am."

Still, he admits to major second thoughts when he confronted his first windswept gridlocked motorway. Then, like your classic silver lining, the recession came along and fixed everything. High petrol prices are your friend if they get a large chunk of your fellow commuters out of their cars and on to public transport. So we'll have to excuse him if he's not totally gagging for an economic recovery.

And until it arrives, especially given his obvious rapture over his circumstances, you have to wonder why we all don't live out there with them. Or maybe nudge the city slightly west. Alexander might even meet us halfway, if only for budgetary reasons. Petrol costs aside, every night out in town featuring booze invariably ends with a $130 taxi fair. "I've done that once or twice ... okay, quite a lot actually. But it's cheaper than a night in a hotel, although I'm now thinking dial-a-driver might be a good option."

Part of the reason for the expense is avoiding strife at home. Alexander's standard 7.30am-8pm working day means domestic life is a bit of a blur where his kids are permanently asleep, so he likes to stay put on weekends and play surfer dad.

"Ummm, no," says O'Connor, who is a full-time mum, and likes to get out every so often, too, if only to remind herself that not everyone she meets knows her name. After all, when Alexander said he wanted them to move to a beach, she thought he meant Mission Bay.

But if these couples have been chasing an ideal, real life can still come along and stuff it all up. In the Alexanders' case, there's a big decision to be made when the twins reach secondary school age.

Their part of the wops might have views and the comfort blanket of a first-names-only community, but the kids might need a bit more. While the couple have heard good things about Kaipara College, they suspect their days as bumpkins may be numbered. But they need not have any fear. If they want to slowly get used to the idea first they can pop down to the beach and put a shell to their ear, it sounds just like distant traffic.

- NZ Herald

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