Auckland and I have never really seen eye to eye. That’s mainly because, while I am no oil painting, Auckland’s eye is pretty darned ugly. Even the most proud Aucklander would struggle to deny that the city centre is a hideous scar on what should be one of the most beautiful spots in the world. The city lies on an isthmus between the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea; it has two sprawling natural harbours, islands off the coastline and 40-odd volcanic cones dotted within its boundaries. Yet, in what seems like a calculated bid to stick two fingers up at Mother Nature, Downtown Auckland is a high-rise monstrosity from which any architect with the faintest hint of flair or soul has clearly been banished. A troll stands in the shoes of a princess.

In my former incarnation as a backpacker magazine editor in Sydney, I had to come to Auckland once a year for conferences and expos. I never really saw beyond the city centre. Since then, I have stopped for the odd night in between the Pacific Islands and Australia (the city is the major connecting hub). Again, I was more interested in getting the hell out the next day, so I always stayed in the city centre for the sake of convenience. Time for a fair crack of the whip I suppose; I’ll give it two days to win me round.

The key, somewhat unsurprisingly, is to get out of Downtown Auckland, to break beyond the utilitarian waterfront and out to the islands. Rangitoto is the newest, formed in a volcanic eruption around 600 years ago. The lava fields and Pohutukawa trees provide an intriguing contrast. Waiheke is the most fun – head there for beer and wine tasting in the sunshine. But Auckland’s biggest surprise and greatest treasure lies out to the west, beyond the identikit sprawl of low budget suburbia.

The Waitakere Ranges don’t feel like they’re part of Auckland at all. The villages there feel far too laid back, and are full of shambling beardy types. From the hilltops, it’s possible to see both harbours in the same field of vision, and the in-your-face, saturation-turned-to-eleven standard of the greenery is staggering.

Within the Ranges are some of the few remaining ancient kauri trees. Some of these giants have been standing for over 1,000 years; they were there before the first humans ever landed in New Zealand. Something of that stature deserves a degree of respect. But my epiphany – that Auckland really isn’t all that vile after all – arrives at Karekare Beach. It is reached via a steep, winding road that corkscrews down the mountainside with thick forest to either side. It manages to be simultaneously moody and dazzling at the same time; the black sand and headlands fight against the sun bouncing off the stream which flows into the sea.

It’s a little slice of magic, and proof that even your least favourite places deserve that chance of redemption.


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