Auckland – Finding Parnell
The North Shore was a fine place to stay, but leaving it was not so easy … at least not the way I did it.
I’d been lent an old car to simplify my trips to the centre of Auckland. The car, a veteran of the beaches and foothills of New Zealand, sat low on the road, leaking sand and old trainers.
“It’ll get you anywhere,” said the owners of the car.
“Sure,” I replied.
I sank doubtfully into the car’s sinky seat, the rolled up towel pushing me forward just enough to see over the steering wheel.
“You’ll be fine,” they said as they disappeared into the distance.
“Of course,” I replied.
I’d been shown the route, actually driven along it. I’d tried to memorise it, knowing my old mobile would be little help in urgent reroute situations. There were some positives. Auckland wasn’t London, and it wasn’t Naples. Plus, the roads I’d seen were amazingly free of bicycles, scooters, motorbikes, anything with less than four wheels. All I had to do was aim for Harbour Bridge, then Port, take two rights, and I’d be there.
“Easy” they said.
“Easy,” I replied.
It was not.
We did our best. Up over Harbour Bridge, then down around the corner that looped under the big signs labelling the exits. And there was Port. Even the roads began to name it, in big letters picked out on their grey, as they broke free of State Highway 1. I chose an exit, and took it, to Port I thought, except it wasn’t. Suddenly Port vanished, and the name Fanshawe stared up from the road, and there was no chance of getting away from it.
Fanshawe swept us on towards the highrises at the centre of the city, plunging us, SatNavless, into its long shadows and cryptic road system. We crept around the junctions, and up and down the steep hills, with buses bellying down their lanes to either side of us. My hands sweated, my heart barely functioned, as we circled around the Easts, Wests, and Bridge versions of Wellesley Street, desperate for signs to Parnell.
At last we found them, and could see ahead of us Parnell Rise, like a ribbon, inviting us up and away from the tangle below. It is hard to describe the relief, the joy at being freed from the tide of traffic pulsing through the central business district.
I wanted to see Parnell because our Zoom calls over the two previous years had been to a one bedroom flat on its outskirts. The area had been described to us, but from so far away I could barely imagine it.
So, for a couple of mornings, twice (very stressfully) via Fanshawe Street, I walked around the area admiring its old houses. Most are wooden bungalows set slightly back from the road on small plots, surrounded by plants. Many are now business premises.
I understand from what I have read since that Parnell, established in 1841, is New Zealand’s first suburb, and that in the 1970s, Les Harvey (below) reinvigorated Parnell, restoring its tired profile and encouraging it to flourish again.
I walked around the small shops and cafes. Most were open, but there were not many customers. On cold wet days it felt particularly empty. One forlorn coffee shop owner told me that most of his regulars had gone travelling when the borders opened.
Towards the top of Parnell is the Holy Trinity Cathedral. It looks large in brick, next to its 1886 gothic ancestor in pale wood.
Both were closed each time I passed, but I did get a glimpse of the windows of the new cathedral.
Beyond both of these striking buildings is one that is even larger – the Auckland War Memorial Museum. It’s not on Parnell Road itself, but sits to one side, occasionally visible through the trees. The Auckland Domain, the city’s oldest park, is spread around it.
I visited the museum on a rainy day, approaching from the opposite side to the one shown above. On my way towards the entrance I passed a small tree. At its foot is a plaque which links it to the War Memorial part of the museum’s name.
My first impression of the ground floor of the museum itself however, had nothing to do with war. The strong, grey facade of the building gave way instantly to a spacious, modern atrium with a restaurant, a shop, a cafe, and the skeleton of a dinosaur.
The reception desk, dwarfed by the large space, was where I learned that as an international visitor I had to buy a ticket. There did not appear to be a lot of travellers from overseas that day.
I paid for my ticket and began.
It was my first look at the history of New Zealand, and the displays were fascinating. Most of the information, as I remember it, focused on the early settlers, in particular on the various groups of Polynesians (ancestors of the Māori) who inhabited the area for hundreds of years prior to the arrival of Abel Tasman, and then Captain Cook. Maps, photographs, interactive displays, carvings, canoes, whole buildings, and some background on the current negotations around land, filled the high ceilinged space and all of my visit. I did not manage to get any further than the ground floor.
Outside the museum, in its ‘court of honour’, open to the Domain, is the Auckland Cenotaph. It is a replica of the one outside Whitehall in London, and commemorates the soldiers from the province who lost their lives during the two world wars.
Below it stretches the park, also full of its own history, marked out with statues, plinths and plants.
Plaques positioned beside a lake remember the Acclimatization Society which was granted four acres in 1867 to propagate different species “of grains, grasses, shrubs, flowers and fruit trees”, and to house the various birds being introduced to the country. Trout were also an import.
“All of these were distributed freely to the settlers, the plants for their very existence, and the birds to help against the ravages of insects. The garrison band played here on Sunday afternoons to entertain the pioneers and their families, who came to admire the gardens and the birds reminiscent of their homeland so far away.”
I enjoyed wandering the Domain, trying to imagine how those first pioneers must have felt, and wondering how lush and wild New Zealand would have been in the early 19th century. The dense vegetation along one of the paths out of the Domain gave me some idea.
Back near Parnell Rise the car was waiting to carry me back to the North Shore. Our return journey, thankfully, proved easier than our efforts to arrive.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2022