It takes 12 minutes to walk across Auckland at its narrowest point.
Let me elaborate. The North Island of New Zealand, of which Auckland is the largest city, looks like a fish with its head pointing south. At roughly the base of the fish’s tail, two decent-size bites have been taken out of each flank, leaving two harbors. Central Auckland fills the isthmus in between.
A river slices inland from the city’s eastern side, and at its farthest reach I survey the discards of suburbia: tires, engine parts, dead TVs, traffic cones. The tide is full, and a dull sheet of water soaks the mangrove stems. A swamphen—two-tone body, blue and black, outrageous scarlet bill—struts toward a grassy island, flicking its white bunny-tail as it goes.
“Eh, pukeko,” I call, saying its name. The bird ignores me.
I record the time and start walking west on Portage Road. Maori dragged their canoes across the isthmus here, which is how the road got its name. I pass car yards and two men mowing a lawn, but I picture tattooed chiefs brandishing spears, grimacing paddlers straining on flax ropes, the inching forward of a magnificent carved vessel with feathers streaming from its stern.
At an intersection, I stop to read a weathered plaque. The engraved text, barely legible, informs me that this half-mile connection “must be surely the shortest road between two seas anywhere in the world.” A canal was mooted, but never dug.
A shower of rain catches me. I hurry across a footbridge over railway shunting yards, and I’m in mangroves again, on Auckland’s other harbor. Twelve minutes, give or take, and I’ve crossed my city.
A City of Volcanoes
There’s a volcano near here, and I climb it. The first Maori chief to take his canoe across the isthmus did the same, scouting the way ahead. The cone is called Otahuhu. It blew up 30,000 years ago.
Auckland is a city of volcanoes. There are 50 of them within a 12-mile (19-kilometer) radius of downtown. They have been erupting for a quarter of a million years. The most recent—and the biggest—was Rangitoto, an island on Auckland’s front doorstep. It exploded out of the sea 600 years ago. There is a human footprint in the ash it showered on a neighboring island.
The volcanoes blew up, and then they went extinct. Not one of them has erupted twice, but the magma field beneath the city is still alive. Between a hundred and a thousand years from now, say the volcanologists, it will give fiery birth again.
I climb Otahuhu not for the view but to welcome a new day in the life of a mountain. Something historic has just happened. Fourteen of the city’s volcanic cones have been returned to Maori ownership. Otahuhu is one of them.
Something historic has just happened. Fourteen of the city’s volcanic cones have been returned to Maori ownership.
I’m not Maori, but it matters to me that the people of the land have been given back their ancestral peaks. Maori named and knew all these volcanoes. They terraced them for gardens, built redoubts on them, fought bloody battles to defend them. When they recount the history of Auckland (they know it as Tamaki Makaurau—Tamaki of a hundred lovers), their words swoop like seabirds across the many summits as they name the cardinal points of their tribal geography.
I envy their connection to place. I have lived 54 of my 57 years in this city, but I seem to have occupied it without really inhabiting it. To be honest, Auckland could have been any city, anywhere.
Wendell Berry, the sage of Kentucky, says you can’t know who you are until you know where you are. What seems important to me now is not just to be aware of my place but to be alive to it. So I stand on a cattle-cropped summit and pay my respects to a 30,000-year-old mountain.
This time of year—midwinter—sees the rising of Pleiades in the night sky. To Maori it is Matariki, the pivot of year. The old people often die at Matariki. They see it as a time for the changing of the guard. The old net is put away, they say, the new net goes fishing.
It seems a good metaphor for someone trying to have a deeper conversation with landscape.
I head west to the mountainous rim of the city, the Waitakere Range. Logged for its prime timber a century ago, the 15-mile (24-kilometer) stretch of rugged forest is now a heritage area, crisscrossed with trails, a green rampart between the city and the coast.
I cycle the ridge road through thin drifts of cloud, the forest’s exhalations. It would be easy to get a crick in the neck on this road, self-evidently named Scenic Drive, where tree ferns lean into the roadway and forest birds soar overhead.
“The Kauri Is Me, and I Am the Kauri”
A short walking track takes me to a solitary kauri. If I had a totem tree, kauri would be it. Kauri have trunks like stone columns and crowns that spread like worshipping arms. In those crowns live multitudes. Perching plants build miniature forests in the forks of the branches. No one knows how many creatures live in these islands in the sky. I’ve climbed into these crowns and felt I was in a foreign country.
The tree I’m visiting today is a young one, perhaps 500 years old. Some kauri still standing are more than 2,000 years old. But very few are, in fact, still standing. Ninety-five percent of New Zealand’s kauri forests have been felled. Some of the giants had girths up to 75 feet (23 meters). These weren’t trees; they were botanical whales—and they were just as vigorously flensed.
One of my grandfathers built motor launches from straight, true kauri planks. The other crafted kauri cabinetry, polishing the honeyed timber with the tree’s own resin. I once lived in a kauri house. I play a kauri violin. I have a history with this tree.
One of my grandfathers built motor launches from straight, true kauri planks. I once lived in a kauri house. I play a kauri violin.
Maori believe that trees are the elder siblings of human beings. The same sacred sap flows through all. “Ko te kauri ko au, ko au te kauri,” they say. “The kauri is me, and I am the kauri.” I pick a fleck of resin from the trunk and chew it, letting its turpentine aroma fill my mouth. It feels like a good way to start a conversation.
Returning to the mountains on a starlit night to search for living starlight, I walk along the forest-flanked road, scanning the darkness. The sound of running water catches my ear, and I peer into a gap in the forest—and here they are. Glowworms. Constellations of them, spangling the clay banks.
I climb down into a dell and switch on my headlamp. I’m surrounded by fairy necklaces. Each “worm”—actually the carnivorous larva of a native gnat—is a master jeweler. It crafts a work of exquisite form and deadly function. A dozen silk strands, each studded with viscous droplets, hang like a diamond chandelier. The worm—a transparent spindle of slime—lies above.
At one end of this unlikely creature glows a single light: a greenish spot of bioluminescence with which the worm lures its prey of midges to their death. They blunder into the sticky drops and become trapped. The worm pulls in the silk line as if reeling in a fish and devours its captive.
I, too, am captive to its light.
I look around for other nightlife. On the leaf of a native pepper tree I find a slug so translucent I can see the green of the leaf through it. A gangly crane fly, all wings and legs, brushes my face. I hear a low trilling sound: the hunting call of the endemic owl, ruru. Another owl responds, using its location call—more-pork, more-pork—the sound that has become the bird’s more familiar name.
On a palm frond I notice some small pointed objects, like tiny ice-cream cones. I recognize them with pleasure. They are case moth caterpillars. They spin a silk case in which they live. But they’re more skillful artists than just this. They gather fragments of leaf and bark and glue them to the case, weaving a garment from the forest. When they move they take the forest with them.
I imagine the first settlers of Aotearoa studying this creature, finding inspiration for their own gatherings from the forest, their own cloak-weaving. They must have considered the case moth carefully, because they also chose it as the embodiment of their goddess of music and dance, and they made flutes in its shape.
When Maori lift those flutes to their lips, the notes tell the moth’s story and invoke its guardian. When the flute sings, it sings her song, and it sings the song of the land. Life, the spirit, the land—a perfect three-part harmony.
Walk on the Wilder Side
Beyond the western range lies an even wilder side to Auckland. Here the mountains fall sharply into the Tasman Sea. Powerful surf pounds this coast incessantly. Most of the beaches have black iron sand, which heats up in summer to almost untreadable temperatures.
But it’s winter, and on a Saturday afternoon at Te Henga, the patrons are photographers, dog exercisers, and urban avoiders like me, come for a bracing tonic of wind and salt. The surf is too big for swimming today, the undertow too strong, but I wade in as far as I dare. Foaming wave fronts race across the black sand flats. The force of the water is huge. I can’t keep a wild grin off my face as it sucks at my legs, sinking my feet into its quicksand.
I’m drawn to these wild city fringes—the harbors, mountains, islands, and coasts—but I’ve also learned to look for the wild in the cracks of the tame. Jogging distance from my suburban home, there’s a creek that runs in a deep valley between a commuter road and a sprawling university campus. Few Aucklanders know it exists, but it’s become the place I go to be stitched into the fabric of the world. Like Annie Dillard, I’m a pilgrim at a creek.
“God decants the universe of time in a stream,” Dillard wrote. Our best hope, she adds, is to step in. And so I do.
Here I encounter creatures that have no interest in, or need of, humans. An eel luxuriating in a bed of watercress. A cock pheasant scuffling among oak leaves. Fleshy pink octopus arms of stinkhorn fungi, sirens of the mushroom world, which use their foul odor as a glowworm uses light.
“God decants the universe of time in a stream,” Dillard wrote. Our best hope, she adds, is to step in. And so I do, edging on slippery rocks behind a waterfall to view the world through a sheet of tumbling water, or watching a carp surface like an orange submarine from its cloudy pool. Once I made a video recording of every rapid on the creek, so I could become familiar with its many voices.
A century ago, Englishman Rudyard Kipling commemorated Auckland in a poem. It was the first poem I learned at school, and, even to a child, the first line struck a plangent chord: Last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart.
Auckland’s a grown-up city now. Kipling’s adjectives seem quaint and past their use-by date. Like any city its size, Auckland has money on its mind. As if 50 volcanoes weren’t a sufficient visual signature, the city fathers decided 20 years ago to erect a thousand-foot-high (305-meter) tower in the heart of the commercial district. Its hypodermic profile befits a city hungry for the next injection of capital.
But down by the creek, or in the forest, or on a wind-lashed shore, Kipling’s words still hold true. These are places of loneliness and loveliness, places apart. These are the places that hold me.
The call of the wild is easy to hear in Middle-Earthy New Zealand, where a third of the country is conservation land, but outdoorsman, writer, and founding editor of New Zealand Geographic magazine Kennedy Warne followed its beckoning voice into his own backyard: the nation's largest city.