By Grace Bridges
Near my house there is quite an ordinary road in an ordinary suburb. It runs along the top of a high ridge, as many roads do around here, but that doesn’t mean it’s level by any stretch of the imagination. It has its fair share of ups and downs. Mostly ups for the first few minutes of walking, in fact, so that for a good deal of its length, it overlooks the landscape for miles around except where the next ridgeline-road abuts the horizon.
No need for second wind, that was the worst of the climb. On the very highest point stands a squat fir tree, wider than it is high; its top must have been lopped off for safety in the vaguely distant past. It presides over a clutch of letterboxes, one decorated with a cat chasing butterflies - no, wait, on second glance they’re fish. I pause in front of it at the only place from which the sea is seen in both directions.
Rangitoto Island, our most beloved volcanic icon, looms dark over its channel to the east. Other islands cluster beyond as the Hauraki Gulf opens up to the great Pacific. To the west is Oruamo or Hellyer’s Creek, leading into the upper reaches of the Waitemata Harbour with Hobsonville on the other side, then fading to shades of grey in the foothills of the Waitakere Ranges. Beyond the mountains is the Tasman Sea. The land here is a skinny strip between the oceans, but not the skinniest: that honour belongs to south central Auckland, where the Manukau Harbour and the Tamaki Estuary edge in from either side to a distance of only two kilometres.
I can’t quite see that far from here, but almost. That’s the thing about these ridge-roads: they are high and follow the straightest route available (which isn’t necessarily straight), but in any case the topology means that many of the houses are accessed by a descending driveway, often shared by multiple homes. There are driveways so steep that even the residents prefer to park at the top. Tips of roofs might only just be visible far down in the trees, or not at all. The next home along is tucked into the slope, reached on foot by steps down from the street; there’s a wooden two-car parking veranda at road level, propped above the drop-off. Some entrances boast three letterboxes, others five or eight or nine. The five are a mix-n-match of triangles and trapezoids in wood or metal, indicating decades of development on back sections, while the nine stand like soldiers all alike, except that three are white, one blue, and the rest green, one with a pointy top instead of round.
House numbering, too, is a creative art in New Zealand. The last property on Manuka Road is numbered two hundred and something, but there are easily three or four times that many. For example, at number 79 (the original building) there might be 79A and 79B as well; or even 1/79A, 2/79A and 3/79A, as well as possible B’s and C’s and so on down the line. Besides the letterboxes, the road is liberally scattered with for-sale signage and advertisements for home businesses hidden down the driveways: computer servicing, alteration tailors (two of those), the guitar tutor, the masseur, the makeup artist, the handyman, the hair salon, the fitness coach.
This part of Glenfield is so far from the hub that they gave it another name: Bayview. From Manuka Road I can look both ways, southeast to the mall on the next ridge (with the city centre scraping its section of sky several miles behind), and north-northwest down the gully that leads to the water. Being this distant from the highway and the sandy east coast beaches meant that it was one of the later areas to be suburbanised. For a time it was known as Nappy Valley, because its housing was affordable for young families, but now it’s grown a character of its own.
There’s a mix of construction styles: regular box-shapes, older types identifiable by their wooden window frames, pole-houses and flat-roofed 1970s units, some with extra rooms built on; new houses with flashy metal claddings, building projects in progress under shrink-wrapped scaffolding, white weatherboards with crosswise dark wood slats mimicking a German decorative style. Decks, patios and windows jostle to take best advantage of the sunny north side. Retaining walls abound, to tame the steepness of the grades: wood, stone or brick, holding up driveways and gardens, and sometimes even the road itself.
One little old house sits on a square footprint, its roof sloping front to back, its planking and French windows painted bright white, with a carefully-tended garden and woodpile, and a compact car in the driveway. I pegged it as a granny’s house long before I spotted the sprightly white-haired inhabitant. Farther along there’s a home with a windmill, water tanks fed from the roof, solar panels and a giant vegetable garden, as well as four enormous off-road vehicles on the front lawn - though to be fair, I’ve seen one of them plugged into a power cable more than once. Then there’s the elegant brick unit with a pale-blue classic Mini parked beside its little flowerbed between the wall and the fence. It only just fits.
The buses travel through Bayview in a perpetual anticlockwise loop, so the shelters are all on the north side of the road. They are built of glass, bearing vivid transparent photography, larger-than-life representations of local inhabitants - flowers, birds, children. The one with the kowhai flower is quite near an actual kowhai tree but the real thing is so much more glorious, especially when frequented by native birds who flock to its nectar. I hear tui song and stop in my tracks, searching the swaying branches for the noble singers. If I’m very lucky I may see a courting pair conversing. The sexes are indistinguishable except perhaps by size, a more just distribution of beauty than many other species, where the male is so often the pretty one. When they feed, the golden pollen covers their black faces to comical effect.
Everywhere there are boats on trailers; a kayak hangs in an open carport. Everyone’s ready to head for the water at a moment’s notice. It’s not far away, though the timing has to be right. There’s a boatramp right down at the end of the road, serviceable only at high tide, near where lanky pohutukawa trees cling to the cliffs. One hangs over the entire width of the asphalt. I walk down there often and listen to the sea and the wind and the birds. The last half-mile dips steeply to sea-level, requiring a considerable power-walk on the way back up. I felt invincible the first time I did it without having to stop for breath. There are days of patchy cloud when I wait for a shadow to fall on the road so I can conquer the hill without getting too hot in between the welcome refuge of roadside trees, but other times an icy breeze makes me snuggle in my windbreaker the whole way home - not a seasonal change, but something that happens from day to day and completely normal for hereabouts.
On the return leg I greet the walkers I meet, and speculate at the identity of roads and intersections I can make out from this high vantage point. There are a couple of churches, the neon sign on the laundromat, what used to be the fast-food pie restaurant (sorely missed even 30 years later), the high school in the deep Kaipatiki valley. A school bell rings, probably from the much closer Manuka Primary. The bank is bursting with onionflowers, weeds no doubt, but they’re pretty and even edible.
Closer to home I pass by a family digging out large dandelion roots on the roadside berm. They place them carefully in bags - for eating? I applaud them if so. Camellias drop from bushes along the wayside, littering my path with petals. Almost at the final corner is a row of shops: the hairdresser, fish ’n’ chips, the bakery, and the dairy (a well-stocked mini-mart with exorbitant pricing; atop the store sits an apartment for the proprietors). The chip shop is responsible for the legendary fish burger, one of my guiltiest pleasures: a crispy battered cod fillet with tartare sauce and salad on a perfectly toasted burger bun. It’s all I can do to walk past it, most days, and the best strategy is simply to have no money on me.
All the way along the road are the trees. Manuka. Always the manuka, reasserting its original dominance. This is not the fringe of urban settlement. This is within sight of the very heart of New Zealand’s biggest city, as proven by the volumes of traffic that pass me. But we are reminded ever and again that we are newcomers here, that the trees and birds owned this place before our ancestors came or the builders with their clever kitset houses in the latest models for each era of architecture. In every direction there is forest canopy, blanketing the rumpled hillscape, obscuring the marks of civilisation. The manuka swallows our roofs and we are at ease in the clattering greenery, for the land has been good to us.
Grace Bridges is a dreamer whose muse blows best when it’s fresh from the sea. A graduate of the University of Auckland, she translates German for a living and writes from her hilltop in New Zealand. Her work appears in various international anthologies and she is currently working on a series of novels. Her hair started going silver about a year ago. Visit her online at www.gracebridges.kiwi.
Header image by Bernard Spragg, public domain.