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

Christchurch

 

David Whitley pretends to follow in the footsteps of Scott and Amundsen on New Zealand’s South Island.

 

 

During the winter months, it can get a little chilly in New Zealand – that white stuff on those mountains isn’t paint, you know. But for a taste of something really cold, you have to venture further south, to the frozen wilderness of Antarctica. However, if being surrounded by scientists, having to wear a gigantic coat all the time and having only penguins for entertainment doesn’t seem like a sustainable barrel of laughs to you, then Christchurch has a brilliant cheat’s option.

 

The International Antarctic Centre is a little more than a cool tourist attraction. Sitting by the airport, this giant complex is the base not only for New Zealand’s Antarctic research missions, but for their American and Italian counterparts too. 70% of visitors to the Antarctic go there from Christchurch, so the centre is really as close as you can get without actually being there. The serious work is done in the gleaming white buildings set back from the visitor’s centre, but most people don’t come here for research and training – they come to feel ice storms and look at thoroughly loveable penguins.

 

The visitor experience begins with the science part, explaining what all those duffel coat-fancying geeky types are doing lolling around on the ice. Or more importantly, how. There are no permanent runways in the Antarctic, so people are constantly having to fashion one from the ice. As you can expect, the Dreamliner won’t be landing there any time soon, and the planes are horribly cramped. They make Jetstar look like full luxury first class, but are instantly supercool purely because they have skis as part of the landing gear.

 

Next comes a mock-up of an Antarctic scene, complete with sleds, plastic penguins, and a massive Snowmaster truck. And the snow starts falling as you wander through, which is a taste of things to come. The atmosphere is built with booming readings from Captain Scott’s diary, which get gradually more pessimistic and doom-laden. Well, I guess the famous South Pole explorer can be forgiven for not being overly cheery, given the circumstances. A clear highlight of the Centre is the Antarctic Storm, which gives a proper idea just how nippy it can get. It takes place inside a large, glass-panelled room with an igloo and tent to shelter in (and, incongruously, a slide for kids). The floor is covered in fake snow and the temperature is a parky minus five degrees. 

 

It’s only going to get worse, and that’s why we’ve been given snow storm coats and overshoes to don. Gradually, the temperature drops and a wind machine ramps up the chill factor. As it gets down to minus 18.7, a mental note is made that the Scott Base is not an ideal spot for an idyllic beach holiday.

Still, the Russian scientists get it worst – a sign nearby says that it’s currently a scarcely credible minus 48 degrees at their Vostok base. And that sort of temperature requires a little more than a scarf and electric heater in the corner of the bedroom.

 

Next comes the cute bit. There’s not been a single person in human history that doesn’t go “awww” at the sight of a penguin, and the Antarctic Centre has its own colony of the adorable furballs. The ones kept at the centre are incapable of living in the wild – they all have disabilities. They’re Little Blue Penguins, which can also be found on New Zealand’s South Island as well as Antarctica, and all have been given names. This is presumably to increase the attachment factor before you’re fed information on how they can be choked by plastic rings from drink can packaging or savagely mauled by pet dogs taken for a walk along a beach.

 

There is also a bit of a penguin stat barrage, and it’s great pub trivia weaponry. Did you know that penguins have a small gland above the eye to filter the salt out of sea water? Or that Pingu and pals swim the equivalent of 1,000 laps of an Olympic-sized pool every day? To offset the cute factor, the centre also offers the chance to get a bit of an adrenalin rush with a ride on a Hagglund. Understandably, the average Nissan Micra doesn’t quite do the trick over frozen wastelands, so special vehicles are needed. 

 

The Hagglund looks like a truck and a tank have had a baby with growth deficiencies, but its tracks and general sturdiness mean it can handle most terrains. Very slowly, admittedly, but its creators were evidently quite into Aesop’s tortoise and hare yarn. The 15 minute ride goes over a specially designed course outside the centre, and has a touch of the fairground about it. Passengers are strapped in (rather uncomfortably), and then thrown round corners at precarious angles, up and down steep hills and through large murky brown puddles. All jolly good fun, unless sat next to a fat American woman who continually moans that it seems a bit dangerous.

 

More photos here