New Zealand: 4. Bay of Islands

The Bay of Islands, so named by the imaginative Captain James Cook because it was a bay with lots of islands in it. Well, give the man some slack: he was being expected to think up names for lots of places that no Englishman had boldly gone before.

It’s up towards the north end of North Island, a beautiful part of the country with a subtropical climate. We drove up from Auckland on the third day of our New Zealand tour, stopping along the way at Parry Kauri Park, Whangarei, and the Waitangi Treaty House.

Before the coming of human beings, most of New Zealand was covered with dense forests including the gigantic, slow-growing kauri trees. Maoris began to fell these to carve out their great wakas or canoes; but it was the European settlers who destroyed most of the forest cover, to clear the land for farming, use the timber for building, and eventually to export much of it to Europe. Too late they realised this was unsustainable (or perhaps they didn’t care), and now the few remaining forests of kauri are strictly protected. This is a long term project, as it takes centuries for the trees to grow to maturity. Most will live for at least 600 years, while the oldest known specimens may be 1000 or even 2000 years old.

Alison hugs kauri

The Waitangi Treaty House is said to be ‘the place where New Zealand history begins’. Here on 6 February 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between representatives of the British Crown, and the local Maori chiefs of North Island. I must have still been jet-lagged, because the enthusiastic and knowledgeable commentary given by the Maori guide who showed us round, passed all understanding. There was Too Much Information, without enough context or previous knowledge or time to look around the exhibition in the house itself. Truly, we were on the tourist group conveyor belt, I guess.

My limited knowledge of the history makes me think the British in New Zealand did try to respect, and live in some measure of harmony with, the Maoris who were already there (themselves relatively recent arrivals). And although there were tensions, wars, injustices, there were never the genocidal episodes which are such a terrible chapter in the history of the Americas. But perhaps I’m wrong about this. I really would have liked to hear other versions of the story to support or challenge the somewhat upbeat version we were hearing.

The Waitangi Treaty House

Maori ways and spirituality, their respect for Nature and the environment, seem to have many parallels with the Celtic spirituality of our own islands. I would really have liked to hear what a Maori Christian would have to say about this, as well as a critic of the Western missionary work of converting the Maoris.

On the day after we arrived in Paihia (which I think I understood was supposed to mean something like “Good place, this”) we enjoyed a boat cruise on the bay. Our all-female skipper and crew carefully told us that it was a bit bumpy out on the bay, today. One or two people chose to stay on land; some others who chose to go, were seasick and made use of the ‘Just in Case’ bags; but most survived well enough. Because there was some movement of the waters, the dolphins were out to play. Do they do all that stuff for the sheer joy of it? Or are they coming up to watch all those human beings whooping with excitement about seeing them? Or do they get a buzz from showing off to us? Who knows?

The highlight and destination of the Bay of Islands cruise is the Hole in the Rock, on Motukokako Island. Perhaps it’s part of the show that the skipper will tell you, “It’s a bit rough today, I’m not sure I’ll be able to steer us through,” then steer close up and retreat… But she did get us through, supposedly with just a metre clearance on each side, and here’s the video clip to prove it.

After the cruise we went ashore at Russell, once known as ‘the Hellhole of the Pacific’ because of the wild lifestyle of the whalers and sealers who lived there. It was also one of the first places to which missionaries came, and the site of the oldest Anglican church in New Zealand, Christ Church, Russell.

You eat fish at the Bay of Islands; and we did at the carefully named Only Seafood restaurant. They serve what I call a pavlova:

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