The setting was Mount Eden; a dormant volcano that lies right in the middle of the city of Auckland, New Zealand. The date was May 3rd; the birthday of my new best friend Eric. I’d been living in Auckland for a little over two months at this point, yet already I was part of a tight-knit group of seven. We were all exchange students, and besides Eric, we were all intimately bonded through the common enemy of our sketchy apartment building. Today that didn’t matter though, because Eric was turning 21.
In the United States this would’ve been a big day, and Eric would’ve been able to have his first legal drink. That ship had already sailed, however, because the legal drinking age in New Zealand is 18, and needless to say we’d all had a few legal drinks in the preceding months. More than that though, going to the Auckland bars and getting drunk and obnoxious with a crowd of Americans would neither be Eric’s style or the style of our group (although I'd be lying to say it hadn't happened previously). What we came up with to celebrate this most cherished of birthdays was far better.
We all finished our classes for the day and met in our apartment’s lobby as we always did. From there, we walked to the nearest bus station and rode over to a local grocery store. There, we spent the next thirty minutes stocking up on all kinds of breads, spreads, and wine. We checked out, loaded the food and drink into our backpacks, and our merry crew piled into a bus headed out to Mount Eden.
We’d been to Mount Eden a few times before and knew how ideal of a location it was, but it wasn’t until this night that I really felt we’d taken full advantage of the place’s great potential. See, Mount Eden is the highest point around aside from the iconic Auckland Skytower, and from its peak, a view of the city is given that is better than any other city overlook that I’ve been lucky enough to experience in my travels. The volcano rises up from the flat landscape around it, and as you climb up you would think that you were just walking up nothing more than a steep hill. That is, until you get to the top and look down into the crater that falls deep into the middle of it, effectively forming a wide circular perimeter that visitors can walk around and each find their own area to take in the view.
Since we were no first-timers here, we knew exactly where to go. We hiked up the mountain and headed right for a big patch of thick green grass that felt like a mattress when laid on. From where we lay, we could see the skyline of Auckland city to our right and the sun setting over a mountain range to our left. On all sides of us, New Zealand's largest city sprawled out, its inhabitants going about their weekday routines as we looked down on it all from above. One of our group unfurled a big blanket in the middle of the grass, and we all situated ourselves around it as we laid the food out for our picnic feast. By the time we got started into the food, our dinner show was already beginning. The sun sank low into the horizon, and the blue of the sky started to give way to the pastel colors of the day’s end.
Time carried on even as we lost track of it in the food, the view, and the type of camaraderie and love that is only shared between new travel companions in the rare situations when you find those exact right people at that exact right point in your life. We talked, joked, and told stories as we worked our way through the food and wine with the sky growing darker overhead and the colors growing stronger in the sunset. The leftover haze of the day caught the light and turned the city below us into a blanket of civilization that we were the kings and queens of as we looked on from our grassy thrones.
Soon, lights started to turn on in our kingdom. The city came to life, and for every minute that turned the day into evening, another ten thousand lights paid testament to the lives being lived out below us. The skyscrapers of downtown buzzed with activity that flowed along and out of the city on bright streets, like electric blood pumping out of the heart of this metropolis into the expanse of land all around us. And here we were, joining this dark and ancient volcano that had formed these lands in watching over this organism of humanity for the night.
And our show was not over yet - no. I peeled my eyes from the city as the last purples turned to black in the sky, and soon the stars were there. Three stars turned to ten, which turned to a hundred, and soon I was lost in the sparkling sea of the heavens that dwarfed any amount of brilliance that we humans of Auckland could conjure up to send back at them, even with all of our millions of lights.
At this point in the night, we had finished our meal and packed the leftovers away. Everyone in our group was content to sit sprawled about in the grass and take in the power of this beauty. I put some atmospheric music that, coupled with the scene around us, took the mind to a new plane of reality - one where nothing but this moment could exist. We ceased to be students studying abroad; we willingly traded in our identities to become mere specks in the grand exposition of life and the cosmos. It was the kind of moment in life that you only believe exists in movie montages, until you live it yourself and know that the beauty of a real moment like this can never be recreated by any movie, not by any photographer, and not by any writer. Only those with the pleasure to experience it themselves can ever know. There was a shared understanding among all of us that talking about the perfection of this moment would only serve to take away from it, and so we silently laid in that New Zealand grass and forgot time as we allowed ourselves to simply be the young, awestruck travelers that we were.