After years of to-ing and fro-ing between Hamilton and Auckland he knows the two cities and their tales well. So which one is the winner for ANDREW JOHNSTONE?
The Southern Pacific ocean as defined by the Rogers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific is an exotic and mysterious paradise, warmed by a benign sun, caressed by a gentle breeze and existing in a perpetual state of dreamlike serenity. It is a region that includes Tahiti, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, The Cook Islands and the North of the North Island of NZ, that gently scented air petering out at Auckland.
Auckland, New Zealand’s most populous city, has a particular feel to it, one that sets it apart from every other city in the country. It is an especially Polynesian vibe courtesy of that breeze, and while it has lost much of the region’s heat by the time it touches the city, it is still redolent with the scent of the tropics.
There has always been something of South Pacific – the musical – about Auckland for me: the volcanic peaks, the tone of the light, the salt air casting off the Waitemata Harbour and whenever I chanced to hear ‘Bali-Hai’ my thoughts turned to that city. It’s a comparison that makes little sense, but that is the associative power of the imagination for you.
The farm I grew up on in the central Waikato some two hours south of Auckland was formed from an English mould, all bucolic pastureland interspersed with oak and walnut trees, the native flora long banished to fire, and the first thing that struck me on those rare Auckland visits was the plant life. Most notable was the majestic Pohutukawa, a rare form of tree in the heavily Anglicised Waikato, and a host of other semi-tropical forms whose names I could not describe but whose features told my untrained eyes a different sort of natural history to the one I was most used to.
Perhaps the most telling difference between home and Auckland was the grass. Kikuyu is a harsh and brittle grass introduced from Zimbabwe in the 1920s and suited to the hard clay soils of the Auckland region. An unkindly juxtaposition against the soft lush ryes and clovers of the Waikato, it was the one thing about Auckland I didn’t like. Whenever we went to Auckland to visit relatives I would stare out the car window at this grass and wonder at the wisdom of it.
Kikuyu is an ungainly predator that will overwhelm anything in its presence, creeping out over edging and up trees. Its trail is unsightly, its texture hard on the feet and its scent ungracious, which is perhaps a fertile metaphor for the city itself, at least in the eyes of a nation that views the region’s hunger for tax resources with a degree of uncultured cynicism. Aucklanders were different too. Unlike like the stoic Irish descendants of the central Waikato, these people seemed worldly and sophisticated.
When I got a bit older my parents took me aside and offered me two choices. I could spend my teenage years at the local High School or go to a Catholic Boarding School in Auckland. I choose the latter because I knew it was what my Catholic father wanted and because I was drawn to the city.
I hated the school – an unkempt institution slovenly bound to bad food and bizarre beliefs – but loved its proximity to Queen Street and K-Rd, names I had long regarded with a kind of mystic awe, all bright lights and crowded streets with an energy that made Hamilton feel even more small town and provincial than it was. The thing about the Waikato then was its utilitarianism. It was conservative and suspicious of art and culture, a proclivity it still ferociously clings to despite the concerted efforts of a growing minority to break those chains.
Auckland on the other hand had museums, galleries and public art. It also had shopping. The offerings in the record stores and bookstores went far beyond the middle of the road staples of their Hamilton counterparts. Here was a cornucopia of the unimagined and mysterious, a gateway to new horizons in word and sound. Any chance I got, and many chances simply taken, saw me on the bus into town and wandering from store to store. I had no money but the mere sight of otherworldly album covers and strangely titled books was enough to fulfil a particular longing.
The weekends were the most special. Here I got to hang with my mother’s younger brother – the family’s glib and gifted black sheep. He was a man on the make with a massive stereo system and delirious record collection. He was the bad boy with a sharp intellect and over the years that marked my school tenure, we cruised the neon lit city suburbs through the early hours in his panel van as he chased down work and money while chowing down on Wimpy Burgers and Radio Hauraki. If only I had known how to describe my double life to my schoolmates then perhaps I would have been regarded with less disdain than I was.
Auckland was a dream, Hamilton was reality.
While I eventually returned to reality the dream has kept calling and every now and again I succumbed, packed up my things and settled in until my restless moods undid me and I retreated back to the Waikato.
When I was a teen, the bus trip took upwards of four hours. From my bus window, during the four years of my schooling, I watched the motorway being built, and eventually that journey dropped to three hours. Now with a sharply shaven expressway joining the cities, it’s a snip at just under two hours.
The two cities are anomalous in this underpopulated land, being as close together as they are, and this proximity joins them in filial manner that neither are comfortable with.
Auckland is the older wiser sibling, self-assured and secure of its place in the greater scheme of things. Hamilton on the other hand is a little confused, uncertain and wants to be cool like its older cousin but doesn’t quite know how.
Auckland is a deal maker, a glib media-savvy salesperson on the make. Hamilton is a city of industry, a hard grafting manufacturing plant that spits out commodities, research and finely tooled engineering. Both have world class universities, mega-malls and destination concert venues though it must be said that Auckland’s much vaunted Vector Arena looks decidedly shabby against Hamilton’s Claudelands Arena.
As for rugby, the nation’s favourite sport, both cities have professional teams and much to Auckland’s chagrin, they are seldom able to beat their local rival despite a much larger population resource.
As NZ punches above its weight internationally, Hamilton often out punches its older cousin in any number of ways. This has to grate but Auckland is big enough to pretend otherwise.
As for personality, Aucklanders are sharper and more straight up, unafraid to say yes or no, a quality unusual in a land that uses polite courtesy to hide its shyness. Hamiltonians share this latter proclivity and are often unsure how to proceed, stringing you along out of fear of making you uncomfortable.
Auckland is four distinct flavours. The crowded, affluent and professional inner suburbs, the feral West (bigger Hamilton, as it has been described to me), the Polynesian South and the North Shore. This latter group aren’t Aucklanders per se, they are a slightly different breed informed by the migratory origin of their population and a dearth of white sand beaches. Here you’ll find enclaves of South Africans, Chinese and English ex-pats plus a kind of Kiwi who is decidedly distinct from the folk on the other side of the harbour, more akin to the traditional sort you find further down country. They are here seeking opportunities not available in the provinces and are more relaxed than their kin on the other side of the bridge.
As Auckland is divided by its harbour, Hamilton is divided by a river, the country’s longest. The University of Waikato dominates the Eastern bank of the river and between enclaves of students and minimum wage earners are the streets of upwardly mobile University lecturers and administrators. These leafy suburbs wind their way out to the city’s southern edge where they give way to the districts of Tamahere and Matangi, former dairy farmland that is now the province of the uber wealthy, all McMansions and European SUVs.
Except for the plush estates around Hamilton’s centrally located peat dome lake, the West side is middle income territory, giving way to Bogan Dinsdale on the city’s western edge, the gateway to the black sand beaches of Raglan, and Nawton, the city’s version of Mangere/Otara, ethnically diverse and low income.
As for Ponsonby/Remuera, you’ll find that 10 minutes south directly down the recently completed $200 million expressway. It’s called Cambridge and it does the job beautifully.
These days the differences between the cities is less striking. Hamilton has more people, more options and the internet has democratised the shopping process. Auckland is bigger than ever and with more people than the entire South Island it is more akin to an international city than just a big one on a far-off island at the bottom of the world. Perhaps the biggest differences are the people and the weather.
Hamilton still tends toward the provincial and feral while Auckland is a seething multicultural mix and more or less urbane. At its best, Hamilton is down to earth honest. At its worst Auckland is a victim of its own importance and confidence. Hamiltonians tend toward pragmatic and suspicious conservatism, Aucklanders throw caution to the wind knowing that the central government will pick up the tab when they get it wrong.
As for the weather, despite their geographical proximity they have little in common. I remember my first day at boarding school and the humidity that dripped off everything, making the tiled hallways a health and safety nightmare. Hamilton’s inland humidity has nowhere to go but sit around all summer long, choking the life out of you. Auckland’s is less clingy, informed as it is by the ever-present cooling breeze wafting off the harbour.
Auckland doesn’t get the great rolling Waikato fogs but I do, missing the deep insulating moisture that rises out of the river and swamplands. This thing is mysterious and satisfyingly claustrophobic, sheltering the soul as it does from reality, turning light into warmth and confusing day and night. Being something of a night owl, this is a quality I appreciate.
Auckland gets cold for a minute or two in depth of winter but never bone cold like the Waikato where the frosts set in for weeks, crystallising the landscape and torturing the unwary and lightly dressed. The morning frost is the promise of razor sharp blue skies and clear yellow sunlight, much as Auckland gets most days regardless of the time of year.
That’s one thing I will never miss about Hamilton, those leaden skies, a dark grey omnipresence that leaks into one’s soul without fear nor respite. They hang about for weeks until a storm might whip up over the Tasman sea to the far west and sweep it all away. It’s all very wild and woolly and standard for the land beyond the Bombay Hills, a district named for a ship named after the Indian city that brought settlers specifically designated to this area of rich volcanic soils that were destined to grow cauliflower, potatoes and onions for the growing city up the road.
Auckland ends at the Bombay Hills, from whose peak you can see the entirety of the Northern Waikato. This is the end of Polynesia and from here on the atmosphere has a very different quality. This is the atypical New Zealand of wind-swept skies and endless rolling hills, bush, farm and every 30km or so a small town or village. Otherwise it is empty, austere, stark and rugged.
Here the air is shaped by the breath of the winds sweeping up from Antarctica and across the surface of the brooding Tasman sea, the gateway to Australia. Gisborne, Tauranga and Napier have hints of Polynesia about them but the ominous landscape that rises up behind them tells a different story, and as for the South Island, windy Wellington on the North Island’s furthermost point is the first hint that things are about to get crazier.
Fault-lines, raging sub-Antarctic weather, dripping forests, granite grey landscape and snow. This is an entirely different place with different attitudes. Auckland and Hamilton can be marked by their business orientated conservatism, the South Island favours socialist collectivism. Here the comforting warmth of the north of the north gives way to a more stoic realism fuelled less by sushi and more by mutton fat.
I always think fondly of Hamilton until I remember its self-satisfied and well-healed ruling class who lavish the city with gifts while paying homage to libertarian political philosophies, the kind that hint at an innate selfishness of the type that sets in once wealth has confirmed a certain intellectual superiority.
As for the city’s influential conspiracy lobby, a loud and boorish collective of the ignorant and misinformed convinced that fluoridisation is eroding their liberty and giving them cancer, these folk determinedly soak up public time with their endless demands for attention. They stand in stark contrast to the city’s small and determined arts set, those with dedicated cultural aspirations who live in the shadow of sport, the one constant that gives the city meaning. If winning an Olympic gold medal is your dream, then you ought to move to Hamilton tomorrow. The region produces Olympic champions the way it produces milk. It is also a dab hand at making hit songs, though this hardly matters in the broader context of… sport.
Hamilton is still a callow teenager with an underdeveloped cerebral cortex, the biggest cow-town in a land of cow-towns, the brightest light in a dimly lit hinterland. Auckland’s a little more grown up, not much more, but enough to allow the eccentric, subversive and go-getter anonymity and space to breathe. In Auckland a man can walk around in a dress and no one blinks an eye. In Hamilton a bald man out on a Saturday night will suffer an endless stream of abuse from half-cut kids pointing out your deficiency as they cruise up and down the main street, bored, drunk and clueless.
From a high point (of which there are few) you can look out across Hamilton and wonder where it is, hidden as it is beneath a towering canopy of deciduous trees, the gift of long dead British settlers determined to reinvent this region as little England. From a high point in Auckland (of which there are many) you can look and see the Sky Tower, a space age ode to gambling culture and a statement that says none too subtly, ‘I am big and I am here’.
Both cities are more alike than either would admit, dedicated as they are to the cause of money. They are also both remarkably peaceful, safe and benign though Hamilton, marked as one of the country’s most geographically and climatically stable areas, holds down all the communications infrastructure of national importance. Auckland on the other hand sits on top of fault lines and a restless volcanic field. Built around 48 extinct volcanoes, it is expected to blow up at any minute. When this happens I can always go back to Hamilton – the city that once infamously called itself the place ‘Where it Happens’, an irony that escaped no one.
* Since penning this piece, Andrew Johnstone has moved back to a farm in Cambridge, not so far from Hamilton.