Bay of Islands


The little town of Russell in Bay of Islands completely failed to live up to expectations. Once just a grungy little mud-street with a few ramshackle hovels – many of which were bawdy houses and bars – it was the hangout of a runaway convicts, pirates, whalers and whores. In 1835 Charles Darwin wrote that it was full of ‘the refuse of society’.


It was known as the ‘hellhole of the Pacific’ and it was clearly just the sort of place I needed to see as an antidote to the picket-fence highland communities and chocolate-box coastal villages of New Zealand’s north island.


Bay of Islands is picture postcard perfect. Whoever the creator of this lovely area was – whether the Maori god or the Christian – he made sure that every one of these islands was laid just as it should be. Nothing is out of place in the Bay of Islands.


At the most recent count there were said to be ‘about 143’ islands here. Nobody is really sure how many because every now and then big stormy rollers sweep among the outlying islands and knock one down! (Apparently any rock that sits more than 2 metres above the highest tide of the year is designated an island).


Even as the ferry from Paihia arrives in the little bay it is easy to see that these days Russell is a long way from its rep as the hellhole of the Pacific. It has been many decades since the souls of the last whores and whalers were consigned to hotter climes. A sign on the village chapel reminds the current citizens of the risk of following in such decadent footsteps: ‘And you think it’s hot here?!’ it says.


Russell these days sees little tourism but would actually be a more attractive place to stay than the backpacker HQ of Paihia. Most activities and tours start from Paihia but the 15 minute ‘commute’ would be worthwhile for an opportunity to get to know the sleepy little coastal village that has such a colourful history.


The village constable certainly has a quiet life these days. His house is on the waterfront among a pretty row of B&Bs and cafes and a sign in the garden reminds would-be mischief-makers whose home it is and that they should ‘please respect his peace.’


We took a walk over the hill at the back of the village and, near Long Beach, found a secluded little cove where it seemed that skinny-dipping would not offend any local sensibilities. We dived for kina (local sea urchins) and split them with rocks to get at the delicious meat. The reefs were full of fish and the meadows were loaded with berries. It was easy to imagine that life here would once have been very pleasant for the original inhabitants of Bay of Islands.


Out on the gentle swell a cute little blue penguin bobbed his head, in search of his own lunch. Russell was originally known as Kororareka, which was Maori for ‘Sweet Penguin’...but presumably the ‘sweet’ referred to flavour rather than aesthetics.


In the 1830s Russell was the scene for one of the last great Maori tribal battles. The original instigator was a certain whaling captain called Brind. He had attracted the attention of two, apparently very fiery, pairs of Maori girls. Two of the girls were from northern Bay Islands, the others from the south. It seems that jealousy and feminine ardour ran to such levels that when the four girls met in Russell insults flew. And moments afterwards so did fists. Tempers flared and family members from both sides hurried to avenge the insults and injuries.


In the two weeks that the so-called ‘War of the Girls’ lasted hundreds had been killed or maimed and Captain Brind had fled to slightly less tempestuous waters.



By Mark Eveleigh




David Whitley searches for respite in a world of fancy dress, bad music played loud and people who like to ‘party’.


There is a girl I used to work with who now appears to live in Laos. I know this, because pictures of her regularly appear on Facebook, and she seems to be continually be surrounded by young people having fun in a bar. You may be tempted to think that this seems like the ultimate life; ensconced in Vang Vieng, where life is a constant party and everyone’s up for a good time after going rafting. To me, it sounds like hell.



There are certain places along the well worn backpacker trails that become hubs of continual enforced fun. Amsterdam is one, the Khao San Road in Bangkok is another and – even though I’ve never been there – Vang Vieng appears to be one too. Enforced fun is a catch-all term I like to use for things such as 100-person organised bar crawls, table dancing contests, shot drinking competitions and playing Twister on a stage for prizes. It is for cretins who like shouting “woooo” a lot and being surrounded by a combined IQ of well under 50. Get caught up in it, and you either have to pretend to enjoy the ‘party vibe’ or have the misery compounded by hundreds of people you secretly despise telling you to cheer up and drink more tequila.


Queenstown can err dangerously close to this. It is full of young backpackers who have been travelling around New Zealand on buses together, and have designated Queenstown as the place where they’re going to party every night. (Incidentally, if anyone ever uses the phrase ‘let’s party’ in your presence, run a mile). My first night was spent in a hostel where the bar was pumping out The Black Eyed Peas at ear-splitting volume, interrupted every thirty seconds by an MC saying: “YEAH! We’re gonna have a great night tonight.” It was, all told, horrible.


The next day, I walked downstairs to discover that the evening’s entertainment was to be a toga party with cheap shots. Time to check out and move elsewhere. Part of Queenstown’s problem is that it is New Zealand’s adrenalin sports capital. You can bungy, you can skydive, you can raft, and you can do all manner of other weird things that require far more detailed description. I actually enjoy this sort of thing – skydiving and white-water rafting are particularly great. But I don’t like the attitude that surrounds it or – whisper it – the type of character it attracts. Extreme sports bring out the enforced fun lovers in their droves, and before you know it, you’re trapped on a bus with dreadlocked white blokes, pumping fists and watching endless videos of dull people snowboarding.


But despite this, I thoroughly recommend Queenstown as a place to go. It is beautiful, and surrounded by some of New Zealand’s most incredible scenery. Skippers Canyon, in particular, is sensational if you get the chance to go there. The secret is to make it what you want it to be. Do a bit of prior research, and avoid anything that bills itself as a party hostel, backpacker bar or the like. You’ll still meet other travellers by going to a good pub instead of a booming hellhole that’s full of drunks in Viking helmets singing along to something drenched in Auto-Tune. They’re just more likely to be the types that are interesting to talk to. The enforced fun capitals around the world don’t have to be that way; it’s just a case of being aware of what you’re going into and exploring the quieter heart that surrounds the shrieking.


More photos here


*Incidentally, before I’m accused of getting old, it should be pointed out that I felt exactly the same way about enforced fun when I was 20.