Crosstown Traffic

27th March 2011

Six weeks into my new job and already the commute is killing me. I mean it. Each moment that I spend sitting with my right foot twitching uneasily between the “break” and “accelerate” pedals of my car as it crawls like a wounded animal through greater Auckland’s twice-daily north western motorway logjam, I swear a little part of me dies.

It wasn’t meant to be like this. The only traffic I expected to encounter in New Zealand was the occasional herd of cows being led off for milking. And the remoter parts of the country do almost conform to this arcadian idyll. Auckland, however, is an entirely different beast. Over a quarter of New Zealand’s total population live in and around it, so I suppose it shouldn’t have been a complete surprise that the roads here are every bit as thick with vehicular sludge as your average European city. Unfortunately, our first few carefree months here gave me something of a false sense of security. While we were still firmly entrenched in lazy holidayer mode, the earliest we’d ever venture into town from our countryside retreat at Kumeu was mid-morning, at which point the motorway was almost always free-flowing and the inner-city roads encouragingly quiet. Sometimes I’d hear ominous mutterings about the rush hour traffic, but would always put them to the back of my head, naively refusing to believe that my journey time to work could be significantly longer than the 35 minutes the drive into town usually took. Ignorance, as it’s transpired, was indeed bliss.

If anything, the commute is even more arduous than the most dire warnings suggested. On an average day, we are talking a minimum of an hour and ten minutes door to door, but on at least two occasions since I started working in the city seven weeks ago, it has approached the two hour mark. For poor Holly, who is currently working over in an eastern Auckland suburb, it’s another half an hour on top of that. As we both have to be at our desks by 8.30am, we are compelled to leave the house no later than the ungodly hour of 7. And with the traffic seemingly unable to abide by any laws of consistency, my sweaty-palmed, lateness-fearing morning commutes already number more than I can bear to remember.

I appreciate this must all sound terribly ungrateful to those readers who have spent their entire working lives having to somehow claw themselves out of bed at 5 in the morning and stagger through their working day like untrained extras from Sean of the Dead, but I guess it’s all a matter of what one is used to. For me, having spent the previous six years of my life in public transport-enabled London, my customary work get-up time has never previously been earlier than 8am, with the Tube usually getting me to my desk no more than an hour later. That all-important extra hour and a half in bed meant that I could happily stay up talking or reading or watching TV until way past midnight, whereas now I find myself unable to prevent my feeble sleepy head from nodding off much beyond 11pm. Suffice to say, it’s a lifestyle change that I’m not entirely comfortable with.

Of course, most of these things have their pros and cons, and I mustn’t forget the downsides to London commuting, which often involved lodging one’s face unceremoniously in a stranger’s cheaply perfumed armpit on an overcrowded Tube train (on the few occasions it wasn’t broken down, that is). Driving to work, though, requires quite a different mentality, and it frustrates me that my formerly precious twice-daily reading time is currently lost to me, while after-work drinks are restricted to units beneath the legal driving limit (yes, we're nice and law-abiding like that). There are, though, many wonderful things about life in the countryside, and I know that when we do finally make the shift back to apartment-living in the city, I’ll probably miss it more than I now realise. The one redeeming factor of our daily dawn commute is that it allows us to witness some of most spectacular sunrises I have ever encountered. As our battered old Daihatsu weaves along the hilly country road that runs past the house (the one part of our journey guaranteed to be traffic-free), we are blessed with unique views of the distant Auckland metropolis, and as the suns climbs up behind and bathes the urban skyline in always-different twists of pinky yellow light, we get an early morning hit as good as any cup of black coffee. And even in the most sluggish stretches of traffic along the north western motorway, we are at least gifted the dream-like views across the calm waters of the Auckland harbour reflecting those glorious pastel skies. For those brief couple of minutes each morning, it’s almost all worth it.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that I have trouble selling in our country life to those fortuitous enough to have pads in the city. Nevertheless, considering Kiwis’ oft-noted relationship with the land, I do find it odd that so few seem willing to embrace life beyond the confines of Auckland’s urban sprawl. Some I’ve spoken to seem to regard Kumeu and the other rural townships to the west of Auckland as another land entirely, and my commute back and forth to the city each day appears to baffle and horrify them in equal measure. Given my previous lamentations on the subject, I can hardly disagree with them entirely, but I’m nevertheless surprised by how few Aucklanders have even paid a visit to this part of the region. One business acquaintance recently confessed to me that he hasn’t seen a friend who lives not even as far as we do out to the west of the city since his first son was born nine years ago! Well, they don’t know what they’re missing.

The fact is that once you get past the psychological commute barrier – which, after all, only affects us five days out of seven – life out here is bloody great, and I’d far rather wake up on a Saturday morning surrounded by Kumeu’s rugged natural beauty, than by some bustling car-tooting thoroughfare in the city. And quite apart from the scenic delights of the area, there are actually some pretty fun things to do round here too. For example, we have recently become semi-regular patrons of the nearby Riverhead Tavern, which of all the drinking establishments I’ve frequented in New Zealand perhaps comes closest to capturing the distinctive charms of your traditional English country pub. With a fine selection of beers (spoilt only by the fact that they’re served in New Zealand’s favourite not-quite-a-pint glasses) and a hearty selection of freshly-made food, it offers everything you’d expect of a cosy rural pub, though its main selling point is its giant wood-decked outdoor terrace that sits several metres above a section of the local river. The views out over the surprisingly wide expanse of water are quite spectacular and evocative of nothing less than France’s Loire Valley.

Another local highlight is the Kumeu Country Show, an annual showcase for the area’s finest farmers and artisans. From a woodblock-cutting competition contested by local men with biceps bigger than my head, to a surreal sheep-shearing challenge in which a succession of doddery old farmers line up to shave their animals’ woollen coats in the quickest time, it was all a far cry from anything I would have encountered on a Saturday afternoon in the city. The dazzling cast of characters we encountered there represented all facets of Kiwi life, though judging by the scarcely credible gamut of mullets sauntering around, I won’t be rushing to associate with all of them. More appealing was the fantastic array of rainbow-feathered chooks (chickens to you and me) and improbably large vegetables on display, not to mention the barn full of alpaca and llamas, two species that god must have designed with a knowing smirk on his face.

In future times, when we’re back residing in the concrete jungle, I’m sure I’ll look back with a wistful nostalgia on this mad old country life and wonder why we ever gave it up. But if I hadn’t experienced it now, it might never have entered my head to aspire to it in the future, whereas I now believe with near-certainty that we’ll one day have our own rural dream home either here or back in England, preferably with at least one alpaca roaming around on the back lawn. Perhaps by then someone might have bothered to lay on a half-decent train service to the city. Or, more likely, have invented a jetpack to strap on the back of my alpaca and fly me to work in a matter of minutes. Anyone know a good patent attorney?


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