Brauniasland: O Hamilton! O Yay!
The best thing about Auckland is that it’s close to Hamilton. Ninety minutes by car, two and a quarter hours by train — I commute to that brittle, attractive city on the Waikato plains one day a week on the Northern Explorer rail service, and it’s always a relief to escape Auckland’s 1.42 million residents seething and bitching on the isthmus, and enter a city often muffled by fog. Magical city, where the low white fog rubs up against the windowpanes, and lies on its back on the river; milky, peaty, damp, formerly and elegantly known as Fountain City, now known by that witless monosyllable, the Tron.
Best fence. That would be the high fence which acts as a kind of Berlin wall between the Hamilton railway station at Frankton, and the Frankton shops. KiwiRail put it up last year, preventing access between the station and the shops — and inspiring a guerrilla war. Some hero with bolt cutters would nip a hole in the fence. KiwiRail would put up a new fence. It went on like this, back and forth, until peace broke out earlier this year. KiwiRail installed a gate in the fence; it looks locked, but it just needs a shove.
One of the band of trainspotters at Frankton station — the best, and most meticulous, is a short, quiet man, who rides a bicycle — told me the deep background one day on the platform. He said of the war on property, “It was the Maoris kept doing it.” The fence was needed to stop kids crossing the tracks; the secret gate was a compromise. The spotter said, “We’ll let you in on the secret because you come every Monday. But it’s like this.” He tapped the side of his nose. Then he turned, and got out his notebook; a freight train with coal in it was approaching.
Best shops. So I get off the train, say goodbye to whoever is working on the Northern Explorer that day — Simone, Mark, David, or Fiona, who actually lives in Hamilton, and has to watch it disappear from view when the train leaves Frankton and heads south to Wellington — and then I step over the tracks, cross the road, and enter the strange, lovely shangri-la of the Frankton village shops.
It’s like “Penny Lane”. “The barber shaves another customer” — it’s got four barber shops, plus three opshops, a store selling American candy, hanging pot plants, a coin-operated pony, swings and a slide, a clumsy fountain, and an amazing retail behemoth, Forlongs, a family-owned department store which has been in business since the 1940s.
I love Frankton. It’s relaxed, possibly even groovy. I go there and get haircuts, books, beer, candy, organic meat, stamps, the Waikato Times, and always give a few dollars to Des, a large Maori bluesman who always wears a thick black jersey, and always asks me, “Are you the guy who played in Crowded House?”
Best cafe. So I do my shopping, then catch a Red cab to the Wintec campus, where I mentor journalism students in my grandiloquent role as editor in residence, and we hang out until I walk up to the main drag, Victoria St, and sit down for a late lunch of grilled sirloin with onion, chips and salad at Ronnie’s Cafe. It’s a fantastic place. It grills everything in sight, offers big helpings, and pours coffee from the pot. You can fill your boots for less than $20, easy. I fill them and waddle down to the bus depot and catch the 5pm back to Auckland, happy and greasy and fat.
Best bar. Every now and then I go out with the class for a drink. House on Hood is an excellent downtown bar, roomy and fun, but the best in the city is in Frankton, at Good George, a craft beer emporium which has also got to be one of the best bars in New Zealand. It’s big, friendly, always happy, they do pizzas and that, and the beer is genuine Waikato beer, brewed on the premises.
Best bridge. Most of the time I’m stuck in my ivory tower at Wintec. But last year’s class were such a drag that I avoided them, and spent long, happy days wandering the streets, usually staying close to the central fact of Hamilton: the Waikato River. A city built on a river has something special about it. All river towns have a melancholy and even a distress about them, but also an obvious beauty. My favourite of the four downtown Hamilton bridges is the one on — I bet you didn’t see this coming — Bridge Street.
Best abandoned swimming pool. The saddest sight to be had in my inner-city perambulations this year has been the abandoned Municipal Pools on Victoria St. They were closed in 2012. The pump failed. It will cost an estimated $6.8 million to reopen. The council are thinking about it. The eggshell blue lanes are filled with brown leaves.
Best wall. That would be the so-called “Wintec wall” — a great big concrete retaining wall that takes up an entire block and keeps the Wintec campus from falling, in downtown Angelsea St. It routinely attracts murals and various art projects. But it’s a marvel in and of itself. With its immense scale and flat, stark surface, it’s The Great Wall of Hamilton.
Best press club. It just so happens that I also serve as life president of the Wintec Press Club. We stage three free lunch extravaganzas every year at the Ferrybank, a venue on the banks of the Waikato, featuring a guest speaker and an invite-only audience of 100. It serves a serious purpose — bringing together students and some of the most distinguished and interesting journalists and other such types in the Waikato, Auckland, and beyond — and it’s also the only way I get to meet anyone in Hamilton who hasn’t just left school. Roger Laybourn, the number one criminal defence lawyer in town. The two National Party MPs, David Bennett and Tim MacIndoe. Radio host Mark Bunting. Plus models, athletes, businessmen, farmers, shopkeepers, horse breeders, strippers, prostitutes, mayoral candidates — the last three are, of course, Lisa Lewis.
Best writers. There used to be three ridiculously good writers until recently at the Waikato Times, but Alistair Bone, the most original newspaper feature writer in New Zealand, took himself off to Queensland this year, leaving the ridiculous goodness of Aimie Cronin, winner of this year’s Canon Media Awards junior feature writer award, and Josh Drummond, a columnist who routinely agitates the good people of Hamilton into various frenzies.
Best bus depot. My knowledge of Hamilton remains limited. I’ve never indulged in such popular pastimes as walking around downtown plaza Garden Place after night and getting my head smacked in. I’ve not stopped and smelled the roses in the Hamilton Gardens. Every time I go to the central bus depot, I long to get on the bus marked BREMWORTH — I view it with wild surmise, imagine the streets laid with carpet. Apparently it’s near the famous Mormon Temple in Temple View. I’ve never been. It switches on 150,000 Christmas lights every year.
I’d love to go. But I get onboard the 5pm Inter City bus, and go home, north, to that other city I love.
First published in Metro, December 2013. Illustration by Tane Williams.