Steve Braunias presents his annual guide to the 20 most startling and glorious bits and pieces in Auckland.
1. Best skywalk. 214 Karangahape Rd.
I can't get enough of these two crazy skywalks almost side to by side on the meanest of all of Auckland's mean streets. What you can do, and I really recommend it, is walk into the Lim Chhour supermarket on K Rd and go down the back to a glass door which leads to the first skywalk. It slopes up, or is it down?, and has two shattered panes of glass. It crosses over dingy old Cross St and into a carpark. Then you turn right, and go through another glass door, to the second skywalk. It slopes down, or is up?, and there are two more shattered panes of glass. It crosses back over dingy old Cross St, then through an empty, ghostly arcade – there's a dead sunflower in the window of an abandoned shop – and back out onto K Rd. It's like you've just entered and exited an alternate universe of hopelessness and decay. Do it today!
2. Best inlet. Pahurehure inlet, Wattle Downs
I swear this is the quietest spot in Auckland. I recently wandered along the shoreline from the Sunningdale Rd entrance and was awestruck by the deep, deep silence. The tide was in and gentle rain fell on the water without a sound. There were flaxes, some rushes, a cabbage tree. I looked straight across to the long, green headland of Karaka. So much of South Auckland has water tickling the soles of its feet, via the Manukau harbour and its creeks, inlets and lagoons; this particular spot is perhaps the prettiest, the most peaceful.
3. Best ferry terminal. Beach Haven.
Beach Haven! God. I wouldn't mind. It's beautiful there. It's way up high on a ridge, close to the Sun that warms the pavements and the villas. Steps lead down to the jetty, where the ferry comes and goes just a few times a day; not a lot of people take it. A nice attendant at the ferry terminal takes his camera to work and photographs white-faced herons feeding in a channel on the mudflat. The terminal is right across from Hobsonville Point. It's quiet, watery, dreamy.
4. Best roadtrip. Route 66, from Pt Chevalier to Sylvia Park.
Auckland Transport unveiled this new bus route in July this year and it's a beautiful ride, right through the landlocked, loveless, hard-working heart of the isthmus. Things start getting interesting along Mt Albert Rd through the suburban wastelands of Mt Roskill and Three Kings, then it really gets dense and real along Mt Smart Rd past dear old Royal Oak with Onehunga to one side and Oranga to the other, ending via the dark satanic industrial factory mills along Penrose Rd towards Mt Wellington. It's a novel by Dickens, it's the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of people – it's Auckland.
5. Best airport. West Auckland Airport, 76 Green Road, Parakai.
When the going gets tough, I get on the 125X bus from Westgate to the Parakai shops, and walk about half an hour along a dusty, mooing farm road to West Auckland Airport. Skydivers regularly litter from a little plane on to a field of clover. There are a few hangars and a line of white cottages on the side of the airstrip. There are falcons and thrushes, and good views of a crusher taking in sand from the Kaipara River. Then I hoof back to Parakai, and have a soak in the hot pools. Air and water: happiness.
6. Best enigmatic shed. Corner of Blockhouse Bay Rd and Rosebank Rd, Avondale.
It's been there for years – the strangest building in the city, a thing with feathers, unknowable and striking. You'll surely have seen it in your travels around Auckland. It's at the top of Rosebank Rd as it swings left on to Blockhouse Bay Rd, and it's a boarded-up, padlocked fibrolite shed with a sign on it which reads AUCKLAND REBLOCKING AND HOUSELIFTING SUPPORT. But the thing which gives it beauty and mystery are the two big pictures of pigeons on the front of it. There's a rock pigeon, and a kereru, the wood pigeon. What's with the birds? Why pigeons? Was it once a pigeon club? The questions flap in the air like heavy wings.
7. Best Christian camp. Willow Park Christian Convention Centre, 1 Hostel Access Rd, Bucklands Beach.
I wish I were a teenage Christian. I'd love to go to a summer camp at Willow Park. It looks awesome there. It's got a tennis court, volleyball nets, a rotting old trampoline, a playground with giant tyre in it, mini golf – and right across the road is the beach. The whole place is suffused with seas alt and the sunny presence of God.
8. Best temple. Fo Guang Shan, 16 Stancombe Road, Flat Bush.
I wish I were an old Buddhist. I'd glide around this awesome temple in light, flimsy robes, empty my mind of all thoughts (I do most of the time, anyway), feed my face at the in-house Water Drop café (a favourite: Lohan Delight, which is black mushrooms, chestnuts, fungus and gingko nuts, $15), and marvel at the fact that a corner of boring, grassy Flat Bush is nirvana.
9. Best motel. Ranfurly Motel, 285 Manukau Rd, Epsom.
The thing I've always loved about this place, and makes it stand out, is its street sign. It's in italics. It has an exclamation mark. All of which should mean nothing more than good cheer and an appeal to rest a while, but the sign goes one further, or one less. It reads: "We don't relax unless you do!" I know what it's getting at. I appreciate the concern it shows for a guest's welfare. But the second I read it, I feel an overwhelming anxiety, almost a dread – because the message it sends is that if you stay there, and for whatever reason you're not relaxed, the hosts will be nervous wrecks, pacing up and down outside your door, imploring you to please, for the love of God, RELAX, because otherwise they'll be up all night, anxious, stressed, not in the slightest bit relaxed. Cool!
10. Best name for a restaurant. Mates Rates Takeaways, 122E East Tamaki Road, Otara.
Great name, and it genuinely lives up to it. Check this out: potatoes 30 cents each, sausage $1, chips $1.20, hot dog $1.30, ham toasted sandwich $2, taro $2, egg burger $3.80 ... This is surely the best priced takeaway in Auckland, nay, the Western world. Also, the service is fast and friendly, and the food's all good. It's very popular. I popped by the other day and there were lines two deep. Cheers, Mates Rates! Love the name, love the deep, deep fry.
11. Best use of yellow. Golf Warehouse, 74 Newton Rd.
Who doesn't love a bit of yellow? I love a lot of yellow, and hundreds of thousands of off-ramp motorists are treated to a great big hubba-hubba fix of it every day on the outside wall of the Golf Warehouse. It's like a wall of sun. It's like summer stapled onto concrete. If only golf courses were that colour, too.
12. Best space between two shops. Raams Dairy, 1266 Dominion Rd, Mt Roskill.
There's something about the space between two shops, isn't there? It's William Blake: "To see a world in a grain of sand/ And a heaven in a wild flower." Infinite possibilities and boundless joy can exist in the smallest of openings; there are sudden, soul-lifting views of the harbour between two shops when you're sloping along horrible, dingy K Rd, but my favourite is at the shops at Mt Roskill, which are also a bit of a drag and a blot on the landscape – until you catch glimpse of the gap between Raams Dairy and Sanam's Haircare. It's a dirt track and at the end of it there's a karaka tree. It looks so glorious, so verdant, a scene from the Garden of Eden. I've gone around the back and there's just a clothesline and a diseased fennel plant. But to stand on the footpath and look up is to enter heaven.
13. Best gym. Auckland City Barbell Gym, 99B Gillies Avenue, Newmarket.
Now this is a real gym. A real man's gym, a real woman's gym. It ain't fancy. It don't put on no airs. It's a long, low shack beneath a rock face, and it's dark, and silent, and it's there for one reason and one reason only: to press weights, to get the job done. This isn't Les Mills with its awful blaring Muzak and its sickening cornmeal smoothies. So some of the fittings are ancient and there's ripped, torn vinyl, and the windows ain't been washed since the days of Precious McKenzie. But it's trained some of the best in the business and it's an icon of Auckland muscle.
14. Best house. 449 Old Te Atatu Rd, Te Atatu.
I wrote about Dave McCormick's amazing house a few years ago in the Herald. He's still standing and much more remarkably, so is the house, where he was born on June 24, 1937, ("It was right by the fireplace") and has lived all his years. People used to come from miles around to look at Dave's wooden home on his half-acre section. That was when he had up to a dozen boats moored in the long grass. It was like a shipyard in the suburbs; you could taste the seas alt in the air. Now there's just a couple of craft, one with beautiful lines, and meanwhile the house has continued to crumble and dissolve. It looks like a shipwreck. "It's just the way I live," smiles Dave; and in this mean, pinched age of in-fill, high-density housing, his home is something to celebrate, and regard with awe.
15. Best bus depot. Birkenhead Transport Centre, 4 Verrans St, Birkenhead.
This is one of the most spectacular sights on the North Shore, a piece of history, beautifully maintained, and in tip-top working nick. The depot was built in 1933. It's got a sort of art deco and stucco vibe. It's long with high ceilings and has 14 bus bays, stocked with two and three-axle vehicles kept ship-shape by an expert team. Does it have a heritage rating? It ought to be preserved for all times.
16. Best clock. 252 Great North Rd, Arch Hill.
It used to be a funeral parlour. It's been empty for years, this art deco relic between the New Zealand Defence Force and Bunnings Warehouse, and the lovely little clock on the outside has stuck at 6.30pm. Morning, or night? Time stands still when you're dead.
17. Best second-hand bookstore. Hard to Find, 2 St Benedicts St, Eden Terrace.
Hard to Find used to be easy to find – you'd drive or take a bus to Onehunga Mall, and there it was – but it lives up to its name since it upped sticks this year and moved into that weird little inner-city ghost town neighbourhood, Eden Terrace. But once you're there, you never want to leave. It's the ideal second-hand book emporium, loads of rooms, many ladders, a couch here and there, and the collection is enormous as well as sensibly priced. I went in the other day and got a fantastic haul – a picture book on Alcatraz, essays by Gore Vidal, a study of Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday's autobiography, and John Keats's letters for $51. Hard to find; but find it, and ye shall know the world.
18. Best publication. K' Road Chronicle.
"News and views from the Auckland streets", promises this lively little newsletter which comes out every two months. "Warning: contains words, pictures, drug references, adult themes and dad jokes." The mastermind is Paul Kendon, also known as VI, a former rough sleeper who evokes Karangahape Road in all its shabby, crazed, down and out, proud and loving glory. Latest editorial: "We've made countless spelling errors. We've breached some ethical boarders ..."
19. Best view of Hell. Goldsbury Track, Stonefields.
To enter Stonefields is to enter a hole in the ground, an abyss, 20,000 leagues beneath the sea – it's got a nice lake with swans in it and no doubt the people are swell but this Auckland suburb built in an old quarry has to be seen to be disbelieved. The best place to view it is on the Goldbury Track which goes up into the hills and looks down upon Stonefields. The sign ventures into bold type: "Users should be aware of the significant falls hazards present ... Pedestrians use this trail at their own risk." People live in Stonefields at the even greater risk of losing their minds: it's a kitset suburb, a barracks of the damned, each house two levels, in shades of tan or beige. Mile after mile of a conformist nightmare, in a quarry, in a cavity, an absence. Stand and marvel at man's inhumanity to man.
20. Best view of Heaven. Chelsea Sugar Works from Hamilton Rd beach in Herne Bay.
Been there, swam that, for many a summer when I lived in Herne Bay – it really is something to wander in at high tide beneath pohutakawa, and look across the water to the North Shore at the big tangerine-ish cake of the Chelsea Sugar Works. I love the way Ian Wedde describes it in his poem "Ode to Auckland", which I published in my just-released anthology of New Zealand poetry, The Friday Poem (Luncheon Sausage Books, $25). He writes about walking past the "family homes/ of the somewhat wealthy" in that gentle suburb, then entering the "murky Waitemata" for swims in the last of the sun – 6.30pm, 7pm. He looks "across the wind-ruffled harbour" to the Chelsea sugar factory, and the poem ends on a high note, transcendent, full of all the joys of Auckland, this crowded, difficult, but also gorgeous, fecund, water-logged city: "I swim towards that/ decaying old heap of sweetness/ with joy that verges on reverence".