Auckland has a problem.
Start with the traffic. Wedged as it is in a narrow isthmus between the Waitemata and Manukau Harbours, Auckland cannot be bypassed. If you have the misfortune to have to travel through Auckland in a week day late afternoon, you will join a traffic jam, a crawling nose-to-tail procession stretching from Sunset Road in the north to the Bombay Hills in the south, that is literally 100 kilometres long.
Greater Auckland accounts for over 50% of New Zealand’s population growth in the past decade. Housing and transport have struggled to keep up. Housing prices in central Auckland have sky-rocketed, so that people obliged to work in Auckland cannot afford to live there. Instead, they live in a satellite town like Papakura in the south, and commute. There is no substantial public transport system, so they drive.
Auckland Harbour Bridge has always been a bottleneck. When I lived on Auckland’s North Shore towards the end of last century, and worked in Middlemore Hospital in South Auckland, I would get over the bridge before 7 am, or I’d be sunk. Now, it’s 6 am. Traffic in Auckland has moved from the farcical to the surreal. There has been talk of a second harbour bridge, or a tunnel, but word on the street is there is no money. Personally I would favour greater investment in public transport; cars and cities don’t really mix.
But the traffic problem is merely symptomatic of a deeper malaise. It has been niggling away at me all through February while I’ve been here. I can best characterise it by contrasting a night I spent in NZ’s northland with a night in Auckland. I was in Waipapakauri on Ninety Mile Beach (where, incidentally, Alastair Cameron-Strange lived when he was a child). I came down the west coast and crossed the ferry to Rawene to meet a dear friend. I lost track of time and had an unscheduled stop in Rawene in the Old Postmaster’s House, a B & B of charm and character. My host gave me a door key and the run of the place.
Later, I had a similar unscheduled stop in downtown Auckland. I try to avoid the swanky hotels in the CBD, but I chose a brand new place in Britomart, handy for the occasion. It was the absolute antithesis to the Old Postmaster’s House. Security was tight to the point of paranoia. Yes I could park my car in the catacomb beneath the hotel. My “passport” was 124. I asked, “Is that the number of the parking bay?” The unsmiling man at the desk was implacable. “Your passport is 124.” It turned out to be the number of the parking bay. When I eventually got in, and ascended to the hotel proper, I laughed out loud. The interior resembled a penitentiary, an atrium with tiered galleries of prison cells. I was a bit player in The Shawshank Redemption. It started to rain and I noticed the roof leaked really badly. Not so; there was no roof. I retired to my “apartment”.
Funny word, “apartment”, but apposite. To stay in an hotel like this is truly to be “apart”. You are not going to meet fellow inmates for breakfast, exchange confidences and, as in Rawene, get an invite to Switzerland. Rather, you are in solitary confinement. The “apartment” was brand spanking new, beautiful after the manner of a supermodel’s sullen hauteur, and utterly sterile. If I slept well it was because I was exhausted.
In the morning I had difficulty breaking out. I eschewed the lifts and then got lost in a labyrinth of corridors leading to the hotel laundry, or to a door beyond which the world outside tantalised me, but which I could not open. I might have been in Kolditz.
I think I’ve had it with posh hotels. Miserable places. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. I went out on to Queen Street and sat down on the pavement and played chess with a seven year old Indian kid trying to raise money to play in a chess championship. He beat me hollow.