Bus bust-up: What's eating Waiheke?Save
By Phil Taylor
A sunny Tuesday morning at Matiatia Bay and the soundtrack is male American. "Jurassic Ridge!" The excited voice is from several rows along on the top deck of our bus that ferries tourists around Waiheke Island's beaches and vineyards.
Jurassic Ridge is one of the island's 32 vineyards and perhaps the most evocatively-named. "Oh," exclaims our fellow traveller, suddenly crestfallen, "It's not even open. I really wanted to see that."
"Is that where they filmed Jurassic Park?" asks his female companion.
Chances of glimpsing actor and star of the 1993 movie Sam Neill here are low. It is more likely we will see a local giving the bus the fingers, judging by the protest earlier this month when a man in a maroon T-shirt was photographed doing exactly that.
It was a slow start that day for those aboard the Explorer Hop-on Hop-off tour. Marchers walked with their banners in front of it all the way up the hill from the ferry terminal to Oneroa. The Waiheke Local Board was represented. It doesn't want them. Too big for island roads, the wrong tone for island life.
But on board our bus, the mood is light and the commentary by tour host Ash is brilliantly, authentically Kiwi. He talks of the glories of the vineyards then informs they won't open till 11am - an hour away.
Ash is fresh out of a travel and tourism school, in his second week on the job and a resident of Takapuna but he has done his homework. "Just to the left," says Ash, "is a beautiful view." Oneroa beach shines in the sun.
"Oh, look at that!" says the American, recovered from news Jurassic Ridge is closed Tuesdays. Moments later, there's Little Oneroa beach. "A local favourite," says Ash, "and just over there is a fish 'n chip shop!"
Next town, Surfdale - so named because it has no surf. It does have an Irish pub, a French Cafe and Stefanos Authentic Pizzas, "run by an Indian family".
REAL ESTATE prices here start at $800,000 and north of $2 million adjacent to the long white beach at Onetangi. That raises eyebrows on the bus. But it is the rollocking ride along Carson Rd that causes one to gasp as manuka bush scrapes rowdily against the windows. This is where one double-decker nearly toppled over last month.
Three double-deckers are on the go, travelling at 30 minute intervals along a route that takes an hour and a quarter. Unlike those plying Auckland city roads, the Explorer has seatbelts and people are advised to use them.
The island's roads are narrow, winding and mostly devoid of a fringe. Carson Rd is the narrowest, has rough seal and the verge here slopes away sharply. I wonder what would happen should we meet a truck coming the other way.
Objections to the buses include that they have to cross the centre line to get around these roads. But their footprint is the same as regular buses. The few times our bus passed a cyclist, it did so carefully. Trees have been trimmed (reportedly at ratepayers' expense) to accommodate the extra height.
The double-deckers are heavier and the land here is clay, Derek Hindle, a gardener and a resident since 1963, tells me. "They will find the weakness in our roads."
Hindle, 86, sits with his shopping, as traffic streams through Oneroa. Waiheke had 1500 permanent residents when he arrived. It now has 9000 and 50,000 people can be on the island in summer.
"It's a mixed blessing, tourism," he says. "It does bring a lot of money. The downside is the ferries and buses are sometimes crammed."
On a back road a small sign propped in a house window for the benefit of passers-by reads, "Make Waiheke Great Again".
The bus rolls towards Mudbrick Vineyard. Lilly (we've hopped on a different bus) tells passengers that Mudbrick, with its two-year waiting list for weddings, is the most romantic place on the island. The bus isn't allowed on the vineyard's driveway to turn but she doesn't say why.
Staked nearby is a sign from the protest. It is on a white sheet that someone has cut in half. Each portion flutters in the light breeze. "Double-decker is land wrecker." Lilly doesn't mention it, and the tourists seated nearby seem not to notice. They seem happy with the service that cost $55 per person for the return ferry from Auckland and all-day bus pass.
Operator Fullers Group, the company that runs the ferry and Explorer tours, says the double-decker buses are the answer to moving record tourist numbers with fewer vehicles "and exhaust pipes".
Twice the number of single-deck buses would otherwise be needed - 544 bus movements a day rather than 272, it says. The response to the mid-December launch was "overwhelming", with 37,000 tickets sold.
Fullers is "a blessing and a curse", Simon Cairns - owner of upmarket store The Island Grocer and an island resident most of his life - tells us. Fullers is relied upon since a rival ferry company, Explore, closed last year, but is not liked by all.
It was a case, says Cairns, of you will have double-deckers.
"There's a lot more empathy around here for businesses who try to take the locals with them."
Fullers says it's listening, that it plans to use smaller vehicles and to reduce frequency over winter. Company boss Doug Hudson says it's time to talk. "We believe it's time to have a more effective, broader conversation about tourism's effect on not only the island, but greater Auckland."
GRANT BRIDGER'S Hawaiian shirt seems to sum up the threatened spirit of island life. He recently returned "home" after three years in the city. Waiheke suits. It's a place, he says, where people make time to chat.
Bridger is a theatre man, producer, director and co-writer of an upcoming play, Petty Crime, of which Fullers is a sponsor. His credits include Shortland Street and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. He hopes Fullers won't mind, but he does have an opinion on the buses.
"They're ugly. To me, it doesn't marry up with the vibe of Waiheke. It's not that we are bitching all the time. It's just that we have to stand up to keep the magic, the feeling that people come to Waiheke for."