As with everything in this country, I intended to only stay a day in Auckland to break up my southward driving. But in short: I found a traveler’s commune and stayed four nights. And got a stick ‘n’ poke tattoo.
Let’s rewind. I headed out from Rawene on Tuesday, strapping in for a long drive. I stopped briefly to see Tane Makuta, the world’s largest kauri tree. I listened in on a tour guide explaining that the root system of the giant tree is only 5 meters deep, so it relies on the trees around it to hold it down. It also only grows to the height of the tree canopy around it.
After another hour I grabbed lunch in Dargaville, a small and vaguely uninteresting town midway down the west coast of Northland. I ate a curry kumara wrap at the Blah Blah Blah cafe, a funky little purple place. (Kumara is what NZ calls sweet potatoes.) I took a sweet treat for the road: a caramel macadamia slice.
Back on the road, I chugged through the next couple hours of hills and farmland, pausing only for a selfie at a scenic lookout.
Finally arriving in Auckland around rush hour, I drove to the little suburb of Sunnyvale where the Fat Cat Traveller’s Community lived. I found Fat Cat through Hostelworld, which pre-warned me that it’s sort of, well… a hippie commune. I immediately met a few people helping cook dinner, which I realized is a free community meal (along with breakfast each day).
Helping with dinner I met Sabrina from California, Rebecca from France, Mao from Tokyo, and Johanne from Denmark. They were making beetroot salad (!) and chickpea burgers with naan. It was, in a word, killer.
Where at first I had big Manson family vibes from Fat Cat, after eating I felt assured that I’d found a new home…. and I ended up booking a few (3) extra nights there. It’s not a cult.
That night I drove to Auckland City (about 20 mins) to grab a drink with Baps, the French dude I met my first time around in Auckland. We went to the Lumsden House in Newmarket, outside of Auckland CBD. I ordered a funky gose and enjoyed conversation with Baps, who’s leaving for Toulouse in a couple weeks.
Feeling exhausted, I headed back to the Fat Cat to collapse into a deep slumber. I also had a non-bunk bed, which was heavenly. The next morn, I woke up for the community breakfast of porridge, eggs and dat good coffee.
Johanne and I went on a walk to the Opanuku Stream Cycle & Walkway, which is basically a greenway path built in Henderson, a suburb nearby. We talked about education in the States versus in Denmark and the bizarre world of student athletes.
After coming home I felt a fever coming on, so I laid in bed for a few hours before Jo and Sabrina woke me up for lunch and a hike. Because they’re good people and not laziness enablers.
We went to the Waiatarua Reserve, a collection of waterfalls leading to a big dam where you can faintly see Auckland City. It’s probably not something you’d usually see on a tourist list, which was cool because we explored a bunch of side paths and lagoons. And maybe Jo and Sabrina swam illegally.
The big waterfall at the end was pretty sweet, although it made us wonder about the physics of waterfalls, and how there’s a continuous stream of water seemingly emanating from nowhere. An unhelpful Youtube video left us confused.
The dam was at once tranquil and vertigo-inducing. All in all, a solid afternoon adventure that made me feel less like poop.
For dinner we ate pasta with chunky veggie sauce and bread. Ricardo (Portugal) and Karin (the Netherlands) are the current hostel managers, and they encouraged us 30-some guests to share where we came from and which country we’ve loved most. We also each picked a chore for the evening, such as sweeping, washing dishes or preparing fruit salad for the morning. I love this kumbaya life. Jo, Sabrina, Cassidy (also California) and I shared a couple bottles of wine and discussed the prospect of getting tatted by Jo, who’s an excellent artist.
While Fat Cat hosts short-term guests like myself, they also run a larger fruit picking and selling business, and they’ll find people to volunteer through Workaway for room and board at the hostel. That’s what Johanne and many others are doing, which creates a uniquely close-knit community.
Breakfast the next morning was fruit, porridge, bread and heavenly guacamole. I ran errands at the Henderson mall with Mao and Cassidy before getting back to the hostel and taking a righteous selfie with a stupid choker I bought at the thrift store (here, they call them op shops).
Feeling restless, I drove into Auckland City to visit Little & Friday, a wonderful bakery with exquisite chocolate raspberry cake. They serve everything with a painted toy animal, a tranquil elephant friend to accompany me.
That afternoon, Sabrina and I drove to Piha Beach, a famous black sand beach west of Auckland. We brought a few beers and some cheese and bread — although I took a chance on some “value” cheese that ended up being straight-up plastic. No big loss. I was too distracted by the beauty of Piha in the early evening.
We met up with Chris, Sabrina’s friend, to drive over to nearby Bethells Beach for a lifeguard party. The lifeguard stations at the numerous beaches around the area are all ending the current season, so they had one last hurrah. Don’t ask me how exactly I ended up there, but I had the sudden realization that I was most certainly one of the oldest people at the party. Such is life. On a more positive note, Bethells is absolutely gorgeous.
Sabrina insisted I try Scrumpy’s, a New Zealand cider whose impact is more “Four Loko” than craft alcohol, although with less poison than a Four Loko. The ginger variety comes highly recommended, as it tastes like kombucha. The sugar hangover isn’t the most fun, but worth it if you’re partying with a bunch of 20 year olds.
The next morning I felt like hot garbage and took a hard nap after the drive back from Bethells to Fat Cat. Awaking from my slumber I drove to Pho Bien, a solid Vietnamese restaurant in Henderson that resurrected my soul a bit.
Back at Fat Cat, I lounged hard for the rest of the day. Jo and I attempted to find a missing ring in one of the hostel walls — a few days before, a girl named Ilham (from Holland) told us how she stayed here five years ago and helped build some of the hostel walls. In the process, she lost her mom’s treasured ring in the clay, and she thinks it’s still stuck in there somewhere. She bought a metal detector but wasn’t successful in finding the ring, so I told her to write a note and leave the detector so that others could possibly find it. Jo and I were unsuccessful, but miracles can happen, right?
That night, it was Sabrina, Jo’s and my collective duty to make dinner for the hostel. We opted for a veggie bolognese with onion, broccoli, peppers, and beans, along with freshly made bread. The hostel erupted in cheers as they ate it! Just kidding. It was probably medium quality.
And then… it was time to follow through with the stick ‘n’ poke tattoos. A few days earlier, we’d talked about getting matching sun tattoos on our shins, because that was the first tattoo Jo had ever sticked ‘n’ poked on herself. We shopped for some quality sewing needles and India ink, poured some wine, and Jo got to work.
I volunteered first, opting for seven rays around the sun as a lucky number. The needle actually hurt less than my other tattoos, probably because it was just hand-poked instead of with a machine. Jo is a professional, through and through. It turned out wonderfully, and onlookers were enthralled. I think she might need to do commissions from now on, as she’s soon taking over managerial duties at the hostel.
Sabrina was up next, then Cassidy. When all was said and done, these babies came out pretty darn well. The Fat Cat crew now lives forever in our hearts and on our shins.
In the morning, we had to take a commemorative group photo.
As a side note, there are a few cats roaming around the hostel, and one of them bears a resemblance to the white cat on the front of the Caticorn cereal box. Caticorn is basically just Froot Loops, but with cat.
And finally, it was my last morning at the Fat Cat. More than anything, the people are what makes traveling truly worthwhile, regardless of where you are. And nowhere has that been more true than here.
Sabrina and I were planning on going to the Coromandel Peninsula for the day, but through a funny turn of events we got Jo out of her hostel duties and convinced Emma, a super cool chica from Seattle who’d been at Fat Cat for awhile, to all go camping in a small town called Kaiaua. The Fat Cat never ends.
We took our campervans and cars to Hunua Falls, a waterfall with a 3-hour trek around a regional park about an hour’s drive from Auckland. Along the way, the four of us talked about the concept of “escaping” with travel, and the implications that come with taking multiple months away. Jo, Sabrina and Emma are all on working holiday visas, like many people I’ve met in NZ, so they can stay here for up to a year and earn money from their work.
The walk was quite nice, taking us through mostly shaded forests with minimal stair climbing.
As the sun began to set, we drove an hour to Kaiaua, a free campsite where we parked our vans/cars and set up shop for the night. We made chickpea stir fry and bought Squiggles from the petrol station — Squiggles are chocolate-covered, hokey pokey-flavored cookies that effectively shut off my brain’s decision making ability when consuming them. Highly recommended.
Another side note: campervans are SLAMMIN! Sabrina’s van is named Phoebe, painted with a blue stripe and built out with a bed, sink, and most of the basic amenities. Emma’s van is basically a tiny home, with a bed that converts into a table that’s convenient once the nighttime gets colder and you need somewhere warm to drink beer and eat Doritos. Heh.
I wanted to test out how my little Mazda would work if I converted the back into a makeshift bed, so I could camp if I needed to. With a couple pillows, a fluffy blanket and some fairy lights (thanks Sabrina!), I turned it into an effective home for myself. Probably not recommended for people over 5’4”, though.
Early the next morning, I said goodbye to the crew for (hopefully) not the last time, then stopped to get a ham, cheese & onion toastie from The Pink Shop, a cute little dig outside the Kaiaua campground.
And with that, I said goodbye to my time in Auckland area. Fat Cat stole my heart for a few days, but as always — it’s time to move out. Coromandel, here I come.