Okay, let’s go way back to the first week of December. I’d landed in Auckland, New Zealand the last week of November, and hadn’t done much since. I decided to get out of town, so I took a bus up to Paihia, a holiday town on the eastern coast of the North Island. It rained the whole time I was there, so it wasn’t exactly a long weekend at the beach, but I had plenty of fun anyway.
Paihia is right on the Bay of Islands, a perhaps not terribly original name for an important area of New Zealand’s history. Just north of town is where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. I touched on this a little in an ACAM post a couple years ago, but as a reminder, the treaty is still controversial, because the Maori translation has significant differences concerning sovereignty and ownership of property from the English version. I did not walk up there in the rain, but they’ve recently revamped the museum and it’s meant to be worth a visit.
Across the bay from Paihia is the town of Russell, a quaint little town of clapboard houses and a picturesque church, that also happens to be the oldest Pakeha settlement in New Zealand once known as the Hellhole of the Pacific, back when it was a filthy town full of bars and brothels for rowdy whalers.
The church is the oldest existing one in New Zealand, and it’s seen a lot: in 1845, the Battle of Kororareka included skirmishing near the graveyard, and the side of the church still bears bullet holes from the fighting.
I visited Russell with Cora, a lovely woman from the States who manages the YHA in town. We were put in touch by a mutual friend, and we had fun wandering around the tiny town, eating lunch as the clouds rolled in, and getting back to Paihia just before the rains started up again. This is why I’m always asking people if they have friends in various places–they’re usually great people I’m happy to meet!
If you’re not visiting historical sites or trekking around waterfalls (again, nixed on this trip due to rain), the main activity you’re likely to take part in is dolphin watching. Common and bottlenose dolphins live in this area, and sometimes whales come through as well. I’d booked a tour but put it off twice due to rain. Finally, I had one last day to go on the tour before I left town, so I went out on a Fullers Great Sights tour.
Turns out, even though the rain had mostly subsided, the seas were still rough, so as we pulled away from the deck, the captain casually mentioned on the loudspeaker that this Hole in the Rock tour would not be going to the Hole in the Rock. Wait, what? Okay, so we skipped that landmark because it was too close to open sea, and instead spent more time tootling around the islands inside the bay. I was a little disappointed, but everything we saw was beautiful, so I couldn’t be too upset.
We went through straits with black rocks, the same kind of rock I saw on the Aran Islands in Ireland. Another boat radioed that they’d found some dolphins, so we sped over to Okahu and watched a couple dolphins frolic for a few minutes. I saw one speeding along just under the surface, but no one seemed to believe me when I pointed, and then a minute later it surfaced right where I’d been pointing, thankyouverymuch. Sorry, I didn’t get any decent photos of the dolphins–mostly splashes where they used to be.
The dolphins tired of us pretty quickly and swam off for a quick bite or whatever it is dolphins do in the early afternoon. We docked at Urupukapuka, an island reserve. There was just enough time to follow the path mowed in the grass up the hill to the right, past a field of cows and beyond a small grove of trees, then steeply up to the hilltop. The views, as the captain promised, were incredible. For the first time in the four days I’d been in the area, the skies cleared completely, and each island was a brighter green and every wave a deeper blue than I’d seen before.
We made our way back, taking note of Captain Cook Bay at Motuarohia as we did so. (Captain Cook haunted my entire time Down Under–which, fair enough, he was the first European to chart both Australia and New Zealand.) I believe it was this island that was the site of a bloody battle between Maori and French back in the 1800s; today it hosts an expensive private home and not much else.
I had a good time in Paihia, and I can see how if the weather weren’t so consistently rainy, it could be even more fun. A lot of people use it as a jumping-off point to visit Cape Reinga (most northerly point in the country) and other places in the Northland. There are several little restaurants and bars of varying price ranges along the three streets that make up the town, and a weekly farmer’s market is held behind the library. Recommended if you’re on the North Island!