Climbing volcanoes

When I first heard that I’d be travelling to Auckland for a conference, I did the usual happy dance. I was going away for a few days, and to an exotic place I’ve never been to. For months I’d fantasied about the Te Aurora hiking trail that runs through the north and south islands of New Zealand, covering all historic and culturally-significant sites. It’s a 3000 kilometre trek, one that’d take 3 months for an experienced hiker and about 8 months for me. 

But that’s all I knew about New Zealand. Pathetic, I know. Which is why excitement ballooned in me as I clambered on to my flight, scarf and jacket on, ready to face the unknown weather conditions the kiwis were conditioned to.

Welcome to Auckland - airport entrance

When I landed at 12:30 am, it was chilly and breezy. But hey, I’m from Canberra—chilly and breezy is my jam now. I’d researched and planned to take the public bus system all the way to my hotel, a mere 500 metres from the bus stop. What I didn’t anticipate, though, is the lack of meals in my flight. Argh, vegan problems.

I touched down with a rumbling stomach, and the only place open at 2 am (security checks are a pain in the ass) that isn’t a McDonalds or Hungry Jacks was another burger place: Lord of the Fries—a complete, vegan junk food chain. Oh, well.

Dumping the public transport system, I chose the capitalist corporatism of Uber to feed myself. When I slept that night, it was 3:40 am and Batman was on television.

Every time I’m in a new place, my energy levels are so high that it baffles me. I was up and charged to explore at 9 am. I soon realised how cool Auckland’s public transportation system is: their bus card, called AT HOP, comes in two variants—a standard plastic card like the rest of the world or a key tag for practicality. Of course I went for the key tag! 

With a dangling key tag full of bus cash, the streets had become my oyster. Wandering around the neighbourhood, I went past the Sky Tower, spotting it from everywhere I stood. It’s a telecommunications and observation tower in the heart of the city, and like any massive piece of architecture, a tourism magnet. I’d seen a few towers to know my money’s better off someplace else, but I did take plenty of photos for free.

Sky Tower in Auckland

After all, Canberra has its own tower—the central point of focus for many a camera folk and sun gazers.

So far Auckland seemed abundant in glorious buildings. And every shop—cafes, restaurants, bars, quoted reasonable prices. Auckland is far more affordable than what I’d become used to. Nothing to complain. 

When I looked up activities nearby, my top hits were Mount Eden and One Tree Hill. Two dormant volcanoes, havens for trekkers. Bring it on, I thought as I traced the route first to Mt. Eden.

Panoramic view from Mount Eden, Auckland

The bus got me there in about thirty minutes from the city. As I ascended, I came across a notice board declaring the Mt. Eden trek as part of the coast to coast walking trail—the same Te Aurora I’d had my eyes on for ages. Elated, I told myself this’d be a practice session for when I’m indeed ready for the actual one.

Coast to Coast Walkway sign at Mount Eden, Auckland

It was easy enough. Joy and excitement are great motivators when you’re climbing a hill far more massive than yourself. I felt a spring in my step with every forward step. I smiled at trees, chuckled at bushes bursting with blossoms, and marvelled at the study ground that pushed me back as I pressed down on it. 

All around me, nature showered in hundreds of shades. Flowers in yellow, white, purple, and red laughed at me as I scaled their home, welcoming but also doubtful—as if they weren’t sure I’d make it all the way up the mountain. Ha, I never shun from a challenge like that.

View from Mount Eden, Auckland

Breathing in some of the freshest air I’ve experienced, I powered through. The higher I went, the more I saw of a deep gash in the ground. A valley sunk downwards, a clear sheen of grassland except it looked like a mountain turned inside out.

When I got to the top I saw it for what it was: a massive hole in the hill, covered with green, green, and more green.

Mount Eden, Auckland

As I looked around at the city, spotting the Sky Tower and the thousands of miniature homes that housed Aucklanders, I knew I was in utopia.

Sitting on a pile of rocks not long after that, basking in the rather hot sun, I savoured my raw chocolate caramel slice, engulfed in the uplifting scent of wet plants. 

It only got better as I left for One Tree Hill.

This one had more plains to walk through before the actual climb up. A well-paved pathway led me through light green meadows spotted with darker bushes, water tanks, sheep, and tiny humans scurrying across the vastness that enveloped them. 

On the way to One Tree Hill, Auckland

Unlike Mount Eden, the higher I went on One Tree Hill, the more greenery I saw patched by the unmistakable signs of human. I’ve always hated people’s irresistible urge to leave marks in places, to emboss their presence, to shove their opinions and fantasies on unassuming nature. And yet, there it was—a massive heart carved on the ground, names of long lost lovers scratched into the earth, without the least regard. Love can be so cruel at times.

At the top stands a tower, a memorial for Sir John Logan Campbell. Scotsmen Cambell and Willian Brown were the first Europeans to settle in the region, and together they built the first house and set up the first shop. Campbell was also a member of parliament and a prominent social figure before that. No wonder he’s called the Father of Auckland.

Daylight lingered as I descended from the hill. Spring had reached Auckland and I set out to wander the streets—there was still so much to see. But first, coffee. And some glorious raw treats. Well, why not?

Hello, joey

When my friend heard I’d been in Australia for four months and hadn’t seen a live kangaroo (I’d only seen dead ones along the highway), she took it upon herself to fix my life.

We were going to the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, the day after it snowed in Canberra. When I woke up (much later than usual), sunlight was streaming through the blinds I’d drawn the previous night. Jumping to my feet in panic, I coffeed, stretched, and showered in record time. Unboxing my thermal t-shirt that’d been shelved for almost a couple months, I told myself it was time to layer up.

By the time I got out the door, jacket, beanie, moisturiser, and some sourdough stuffed into my backpack, my friend and her husband had been waiting for 30 minutes. 

It was a cold Saturday afternoon, and even though the sun faked bravado, it was no use in the face of gale winds the speed of 50km/h. End-winter sure seemed worse than mid-winter, and I shivered as the breeze nuzzled through my wet hair strands. Apologising profusely, I snuggled into the warmth of air conditioning.

And we were off. All the way to Tidbinbilla to see kangaroos and whatever else we could set our eyes on. And boy, what a journey it was.

Road trips excite me unlike any thing else. While most people would chatter, laugh, and nod away to wonderful music, I’d rather let my aimless eyes wander as we pass by fields upon fields of green and brown smeared trees, peeling white eucalyptus barks striking power poses against the dotted blue skies. Beauty of such kind hits me dumb. And sure enough, as we waded our way through the curving street, weaving through yellowish greenery that defied all rules of winter, bright and nourishing like citrus-infused broccoli, all I could do was stare at the unapologetic expanse of nature.

A sudden “look!” from my friend turned our heads. Two large flightless, fright less, birds, their heads down, mushroom backs protruding, hunted the ground for edibles. I’d only seen emus in pictures before. We swerved out of the street and parked in a campsite nearby. We waddled our way into the wilderness, and I soon gave up trying to avoid squashing the ubiquitous droppings that made up our path. The birds cared naught about the three shivering, decked up, humans that’d invaded their privacy. We watched as one of them stepped over sticks and stones with its lanky feet, webbed toes flipping ever so slightly in the breeze. The other dropped a massive shit storm, thoroughly unabashed by its nakedness.

As we explored our surroundings, we walked into more droppings, some set and square, some round and rolling, some wet, most dry and smashed, blending into the rain soaked grasslands. 

And then we stopped. A mob stared at us from the distance. From no where, kangaroos had galloped over and paused in their pursuit of jumpiness to turn around and offer us a glance. I was elated. I looked squarely into the curious eyes of an adolescent kangaroo standing behind a thin, weak-limbed tree, and it looked back, just as fascinated about me as I was about it. A few others had stopped too, looking around at different directions before hopping away into the trees. But my kangaroo friend held my gaze for a good five seconds before dismissing my interest in a flurry of sand rising from its jumping feet. I swelled in joy—I’d seen a kangaroo at last. And it had seen me back too.

I couldn’t wait to get to Tidbinbilla. I was addicted, craving more.

When we got there about fifteen minutes later, the kangaroo abode was our first stop. Three of them sat in a field of emptiness. What more could they want? We stepped out of the car, snuggled into beanies and rain jackets, and approached the closest one. It didn’t even look up at us. So intent was it on the uninteresting sheen of grass at its feet. Afraid of startling it, we remained still, watching its mundane nibbling. As still as us, the rest if its body stood unflinching, even though patches of its fur flurried in the icy wind. Watching it eat its boring food was less boring than I’d imagined. And so we stood for a good few minutes, observing what was clearly a feast, when suddenly a pink sausage poked out between its feet. Like accidentally putting your hand in hot water, the pink whatever pulled right back in as quickly as it had shot out.

My friend and I exchanged raised eyebrows. Our minds wandered through ungraceful plains trying to discern what that could’ve been. As if to clarify, something rummaged and we realised it was a pouch hosting a living being within. Affirming, a slender tail, like a single strand of rice noodle,  slithered out before it went back into the comfort of its home. It was the most pristine moment of life, and we watched for quite a long time, waiting, hoping, the joey would grace us with its face. And it did. First came the tiny nose, followed by pin pricks for eyes and a dollop of ears. Poking its head through the pouch, it tried to grab a particularly long thread of grass that seemed to tease, just beyond its reach. And all the while, the mother grazed on, unaware or unperturbed by the weight in her belly getting hungry. Unsatisfied with the spread before her, she galloped away to the other side of the field, her joey still protruding in curiosity.

And I felt complete. I’d seen more than a kangaroo. I’d seen life in its most natural form, in its undomesticated, unaltered state. 

For the next three hours, we walked along a few trails, spotting wallabies, a group of koala bears, one of which shuffled about with a joey of her own on its back, a bandicoot, and a few platypuses plopping in and out of the water. And throughout, alternating rain, snow, and a freezing wind brushed against our faces, pushing us forward, testing us, encouraging us, and numbing our bodies and minds with its suffocating beauty.

Having inhaled a cup of coffee, we pulled out of the reserve and were heading out into the open road when another “look!” screeched the tires. The day wasn’t over—for there sat one on a roof and another on a Eucalyptus tree, two kookaburras their yellow and brown stripped tails flipping, blue patches flashing, as if nature, unable to assign a colour to the bird, had thrown in a bit of everything. 

They asked to be gawked at.

We obliged.

It was the best damn day of my life.

Sydney scenes

When I exited the aircraft, I was so excited to be visiting Sydney for the first time. After a month there, my brother mentioned it was starting to grow on him.

We both hated the idea of living in Sydney. Even before we’d even seen the city. Now, though, he seemed to have second thoughts, and I was eager to find out how I felt.

Long story short—I still don’t like the idea of living in Sydney.

I did like Sydney, however. Contradictory, I know. But as soon as I reached my hotel on Harbour Street, in the heart of the city (CBD), I texted my colleague to see if we could catch up. After all, I wasn’t touring Sydney—I was there to attend a conference, to stay locked up inside the infamous International Convention Centre from 8 am to 5 pm on a Thursday and Friday. I met my team mates at around 5 pm, and after a not-so-great coffee, I left to explore.

Vivid Sydney display
Vivid Sydney display

Not one to linger these wintry days, the sun had set off at around 5. But Sydney city is the Down Under version of the city that never sleeps. Lights glared from every corner, and instead of listening to my colleagues ranting (reasonably, albeit boringly) about office politics, I preferred to wander the streets.

Sydney Harbour during Vivid Sydney
Sydney Harbour during Vivid Sydney

That’s when I realised the sheer volume of people who called Sydney home. I wasn’t far from Chinatown and Koreatown so I ran into thousands of all flavours of Asians. And I don’t mean ran into in a figurative sense either. So many people wandered just as I did, except they were looking at their phones letting their well-practised feet and conditioned subconsciousness guide them through navigating the street signs.

Almost everyone followed street signs. And that made me so happy. But it was also frustrating when a lot of couples clung to each other while walking down the footpath. Dawdling behind them, I had a hard time overtaking them without bumping into another arm-locked couple.

And I won’t even start about the low-burning cigarette butts every other person clung to. It wasn’t that cold. At least not for me—not after Canberra anyway.

But it was all great fun. I stopped by for a hot chocolate and walked over to the Opera House. May-June is a great time to visit this studded bay area because Vivid Sydney is on show. The whole locality lights up, laser shows beam about, special over-priced cruise tours dig gold, and along with the many significant buildings in the neighbourhood, the Opera House takes on a stunning veil of animated display.

The closer I got to the building, the faster I seemed to walk. It happens to me all the time. Excitement and eagerness make me trot without a regard for my knees or my not-good-for-walking Converse. But what the hell, I thought to myself. You don’t always get to see the Opera House for the first time. There’ll always be reasons no to do something—rain, cold, wind, stiff shoes, bad hair days, tired feet, or work night. But nothing beats the sense of accomplishment that comes with pushing through nevertheless. That keeps the spark alive for a traveller.

Nestling in that spark, I returned to my room, ready for work the following day.

Next day—

Work was average, and I wasn’t happy with my contribution. But the spark still triggered me to take a ferry unto Manly. And I saw the Opera House again from a whole different perspective. After all, what’s the point of life if you let work interfere with it?

I protest

Nowadays, it’s ever so common to see crowds gathering in front of government houses, with upheld banners and raised voices, protesting. It doesn’t matter what for—policies, opinions, misspoken words, misspellings on social media—why, some people even oppose the existence of other people. Regardless of the “why” of these protests, almost every rally I’ve seen and heard of has a similar streak: violence. In its core, whenever anyone disagrees or rebels, they use harsh and violent behaviour to make themselves seen and heard.

Of course, in recent years, silent, un-violent, and fasting protests are becoming more desirable. But even today, all the marches and show of disagreement contain angry outbursts, name-calling, and plain spite. What’s sad, though, is that just as a self-fulfilling prophecy, these violent protests get more attention than the others. Even though our generation understands and even professes the effectiveness of the pen over the sword, the influence of weapons in conflicting opinions is far too significant to ignore.

That’s why it feels amazing to come across a different form of protest. Both in movies and real life, we’ve seen governments cutting off funds to public welfare systems like health care programmes, transport services, and university courses. Each time it happens, the government—factual or fictional—faces large mobs of angry citizens, swearing through megaphones and wasting fuel on stick figures and flags.

But then I saw this:

Canberra Museum and Gallery - 1

It’s a necklace. It’s also a sign of protest. When the state government of Canberra (Australian Capital Territory) cut off funds to the National Institute of Arts, teachers and Canberra sponsors together presented this necklace to the Chief Minister at the time, Kate Carnell, as a sign of their protest. What’s unique about it though is that each metal link in the necklace has a tag with the name of a sponsor. So each piece resembles a protestor, and together it makes a neckband for the chief minister of the then ACT.

No hate speech, no blood, an no fasting to death. What a daring rebellion! And what a beautiful necklace it is too—when you take away the historical value, that is one marvellous piece of accessory, won’t you say?

Canberra Museum and Gallery - 2

It made me stop and think about how much has changed in the way we fight for our convictions. Of course, we should stand up for what we believe in, but when our fight costs innocent people their peace, patience, or worse, life, then what good does our conviction do?

The necklace is on display at the Canberra Museum and Gallery. If you’re in the area, stop by and pay a visit—it sure is worth looking at.