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