Somewhere only we know: Mount Albert
In Sydney, a main road is an infinite line of cars, a constant rage. In Mount Albert, a main road is a flat space that gets you from A to Z.
My school in Mount Albert, New Zealand was located on a large piece of real estate, donated by a rich old lady with no children of her own. Her will had outlined the idea of a primary school—young children were her favourite. But the donated land was so big that the council divided the plot into three sections: a primary, middle, and high school.
There were 600 students in total the year I enrolled. Not a lot for an educational facility with its own pool, sports field, and multiple libraries—the kind of facilities you’d only get in Sydney if you went to a private school. The small number of students meant everyone, in some way or another, knew each other.
If you were a primary school student with a sibling in the middle or high school, you were kind of cool, a gatekeeper of all the shitty adolescent gossip little pre-teens craved. If you were in middle or high school with a sibling in primary, they were a liability. One ill-advised anecdote was all it took to damage a reputation. It was that kind of school, and that kind of town.
My sister and I never worried about each other at school because we were an academic year apart. 15 months’ difference in age. “Almost friends,” my mum liked to insist. Plus, most of our companions lived in our apartment block. We were all children of newcomer immigrants—a coincidence which I now realise was not a coincidence at all.
The six of us attended the same Auckland academy, but our different ages made it hard to hang out at lunch. Instead, we rode our bikes together after school. We would drag our two wheelers (a four wheeler in my case—I was still on training wheels) up the steep slope leading out of our apartment complex. A five minute ride northwards, and we were pedalling fast on the main road, racing each other while trying to avoid looking directly at the golden afternoon sun. In Sydney, a main road is an infinite line of cars, a constant rage, a disregarded speed limit. In Mount Albert, a main road is a flat space that gets you from A to Z.
Or A to R. R was Rocket Park, a sci-fi themed playground named after two, bright orange rockets that towered over the entire park. We would climb them for fun, and play together until the sun set. Then we’d ride home, have dinner, and sleep, before repeating the schedule the next morning.
In this sense, every day in Mount Albert was much like the rest. The same show with the same old characters—but a surprisingly high quality set. This is after all New Zealand, the country with mountain ranges running down its spine.
Most people would find it unsettling to know your entire life—or at least life from ages six to 18—was right there in front of you, in a little suburb seven kilometres southwest of the capital city and at the bottom of North Island’s third highest volcanic peak. Yet I liked the certainty, the stability. I found it comforting to know I could wrap my whole life up in a blanket.
When we moved to Sydney, there was not one local park but four— and at least three of them only accessible by bus or train. Cycling was out of the question. The lack of designated cycling paths made it a dangerous activity for adults, let alone two eager-eyed children, aged 11 and ten. While my sister and I adjusted over time, it was hard not to miss a suburb that stretched only 18 miles, and a country that had everything from fiords to sandy coastlines to vast plains.
In my gut, I know Mount Albert has changed. Every hometown does. There are hipster cafes now. You can no longer climb the rocket at Rocket Park. And the local population has jumped from 2,000 to 5,000 in the last couple of years. But in my mind, the suburb stands untouched by the rest of the world: the same evergreen suburb of small town gossip and childhood stupor, where anyone could walk to the summit of a local mountain and through haze and mist see the 48 extinct cones that dot Auckland city’s skyline.