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

Real Maori


David Whitley gets a glimpse of authentic Maori culture on New Zealand’s East Cape.

Authenticity can be something of a double-edged sword. And this is particularly the case when it comes to understanding Maori culture in New Zealand.  To many visitors, this is a case of going to Rotorua, going through greeting rituals and having a meal as Maori in traditional costumes dance.


And if you like that sort of thing, then go for it. But such cultural villages generally make me want to cry. It’s a different story on the North Island’s East Cape. This is arguably the most Maori part of New Zealand. Over 50% of the population in this part of the world identify themselves as Maori, and the old ways are still strong. Outside the main city of Gisborne, settlements are small and  rural. There’s an end of the world feeling to East Cape, but if you take the time to detour out there you’re more likely to get an �?authentic’ Maori experience than you will do anywhere else in New Zealand. 


The flip side is that this authenticity comes with baggage. Sitting in a café in Tolaga Bay, Anne McGuire tells me about the village. “Anyone who wasn’t here before 1940 is regarded as being not part of the community,” she says. “It’s quite closed, and if you’re not from here, people will make sure you know that.”This isn’t what you expect from a tour guide, but it does shine a light on why the East Cape hasn’t yet made it as a massive cultural tourism destination. The term Maori is a relatively recent one. Many native New Zealanders do identify themselves as such, but ties are a lot stronger to their tribes and sub-tribes. Someone in Tolaga Bay is more likely to feel a part of Te Aitanga-A-Hauiti than a wider Maori nation. 


It would be a mistake to think that most conflict in New Zealand’s post-European settlement history has been between the Maori and the white interlopers. It hasn’t – most of the worst violence has been between competing Maori tribes. Past wars have, in many cases, led to lingering feuds, bad blood and mistrust. And that wariness of the people in the village down the road can translate as an unwelcoming attitude to all outsiders. In short, don’t expect to come to the East Cape and expect to be welcomed into the family by hundreds of smiling theme park Maori. But it is possible to get a small window into Maori life. Anne takes me to her marae. It’s difficult to adequately describe what a marae is, but the closest approximation is a tribal headquarters. It is where important meetings are held, and members are always welcome to stay there.


We go into the main meeting hall. A stack of mattresses and pillows are crammed into the corner near the back window – visitors pay what they can afford when they book the hall for funerals, weddings and the like. The architecture is distinctive. The building represents an ancestor. The triangular roof decorations represent the arms, the door is the mouth, windows are the eyes and a central pillar is the heart. Removing shoes before entering is regarded as a sign of respect to that ancestor. Upkeep of all the buildings and the grounds of the marae is conducted voluntarily by whichever tribe members can spare the time, and most important discussions are conducted there. 


Anne tells me that, in the past, everyone would talk in turn until everyone was happy with a decision. You could not talk without holding the talking stick, and the idea was to achieve consensus however long it took.It rarely works like this in the modern world – votes often take place instead. People can’t spend weeks debating something any more – they have other things to do. This is one of the subtle changes that traditional culture has undergone over the years, and the clash between the old ways and the new can be painfully clear to see at times. There are approximately 20,000 members of Te Aitanga-A-Hauiti, but only 700 or so still live in the local area. Members working in Auckland or abroad have very different needs to those in Tolaga Bay. Catering for everyone’s is difficult, and ties are much stronger for some members than others.


My visit was a little look through a window onto Maori culture. It’s complex, forever changing and not easy to suddenly throw yourself into. There’s a lot more to it than hakas and costumes. But those looking for authenticity may not find the simple life they seek.

More photos here


Disclosure: David was a guest of Tipuna Tours ( and Tourism Eastland ( 



By David Whitley