“It’s time… to get…. grimyyyy!!!!!” The ripping bass-line rose one last time before dropping into a frantic beat. I smiled as my arms and legs began pumping the dance floor. A wave of nostalgia swept over me as memories of my teenage years came flooding back. I turned round to spot Hamish, probably the oldest person in the club, dancing with a manic vigour. Josef, a 19 year old spectacled German with a keen interest in meteorology, thumped out his own space further back. Mario and Laura, a German couple, danced a little less animated next to them. There’s nothing like a good bit of drum & bass to release some pent up energy.
CouchSurfing had brought the five of together. After leaving Geoff and Miriam’s, I headed to the southern suburb of Hillsborough to stay with Hamish. A generation above me, with his greying hair, dark eyebrows and lively eyes, he was kind enough to put me up for my latest chapter in Auckland. Now living alone he enjoys the company of us younger travellers and frequently opens his lovely home to CouchSurfers. By trade he’s an engineer who specialises in designing machines that create the tiny crystals that power GPS devices. I was initially attracted to his profile by his interests: electronic music, science, fire-breathing and people.
For the first few days it was only the two of us. Hamish mostly worked while I carried on with my preparations. I enjoyed the space he provided me, but also the conversations about world issues and his two ex-feral cats – Butters and Benjy. Towards the end of the week he came home with the news of “Hey, so the house is about to fill up. I’ve three more CouchSurfers on the way!”
Mario and Laura turned up first. Having quit their jobs and home in Germany, they first travelled to Asia before camper-vanning Australia and making their here. Josef is growing up fast. At 16 he embarked on a wilderness project to the Yukon, Canada, spending time with the native First People and participating in a conservation project. Here in New Zealand he wants to further his work with wilderness project that’ll educate youth back in Germany.
After spending our first evening together at home, gelling over beers, Hamish took us out the following afternoon for a trip to One-Tree-Hill. We piled into his car just as the raindrops started pattering the windscreen. Luckily it held off, and after parking the car, we stepped out into an oasis of green. Families barbecued nearby as we jumped a ditch to say hello to the grazing cows. Hamish approached a large mother a little too suddenly, upsetting the huge chunk of meat. She snorted and aggressively moved towards the barefooted native, tossing her head from side to side. For a second I feared Hamish would be on the receiving end of a savage head-butt, but he dropped to his knees, never taking his eyes off his challenger. She saw that he wasn’t a threat, turned, and went back to concentrating on the grass.
It was actually I who got hurt shortly after. My attention had wandered from the cattle to the trees. A thick, tall pine grew nearby, with large branches fanning off its trunk. Aha, time to climb! I circled the base and fixed my eyes on the lowest of the branches. Using a root as a spring board, I leapt up, stretched my arms and spread my fingertips to the hold. They briefly closed onto the bark, yet just not enough. My legs swung forward with the momentum as my body came crashing back down again. Thump! My lower back and head impacted with the roots below, and for a split-second the world went black. Opening my eyes again I hoped no one had seen, but was met with four concerned faces looking my direction. “I’m ok, I’m ok, only a bump” I reassured them as stars danced in my vision. “So you think you’ll be safe walking New Zealand alone?” asked Mario with a grin.
Like the two hills I visited in Devonport, One-Tree is an ex-volcano and ex-Maori pa. We climbed its stepped slopes, stopping to join the sheep in admiring the views. Auckland suburbs stretched out below, spilling out the water’s edge.
“Do you think sheep appreciate a good view?” asked Hamish. Baa-a-a-a answered one of our fluffy companions.
The one tree, a totara, that the hill was named after is long gone. So too its replacement, a foreign pine planted by the British, which was frequently attacked by Maori protestors. One of the chainsaws used in an attack ended up listed on eBay. Now the only landmark to rise from the summit is a large, stone obelisk.
As we approached this structure the mellow sound of singing voices floated down to us. A group of 30 or so Fijians had congregated with a ghetto blaster that provided the beat to the gospel. From this vantage point it was plain to see how this site was once home to the largest and most powerful pa in pre-European times. 5000 people once lived on these slopes. Food was either grown locally or sourced from the two nearby harbours – the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean both in sight. On the Pacific side Hamish pointed out a large scale canvas. Messages using volcanic rock had been written on the green grass.
After dinner at home this new group of friends headed into the city. I’d heard about CouchSurfing for a couple of years now and regret not signing up sooner. People find the concept of hosting and staying with strangers weird, as if every unknown person out there is a potential threat. But with its vouching and referral system it’s a brilliant way to travel. A few days previously I’d attended a CS “meeting” in downtown Auckland – basically an excuse to drink beer and meet people. I went alone but passed the evening in the company of a sheep-heart dissecting German, an uber-polite Japanese student, an ethnic Chinese from Sawarak, Borneo, a bike peddling Mexico traveller, and finished with a group of young Spaniards who almost dragged me out to a nightclub. Over 50 CouchSurfers passed through the bar that night. And I don’t think it was just the discounted beer that drew them out.
Unfortunately the beer was back at full price when I brought our merry group to the Bungalow 8 bar. Though the fish in their tanks swam the same, the vibe wasn’t as open as it had been on the CS night. After talking about Pacific flags, boxing and bloodlust, and the state of the cheesy electro being pumped out, we headed onto the Fu bar and a night of drum & bass….