Monday, 10 July 2017

"The Antipodean Excursion" 2: Paihia & the Bay of Islands, Waitangi, Cape Rienga, Tauranga

One thing which has struck me several times whilst travelling around New Zealand so far is that its Tourist Marketing Board really ought to make more use of the slogan 'A Greener, Pleasanter Land'. It's not particularly original to observe that, in its undulating green countryside, pastures full of grazing sheep and cows, New Zealand resembles the United Kingdom - but a UK that is somehow cleaner and more unspoiled. Less prone to traffic jams. Less industrialised and exploited and full. Like all unoriginal observations, though, it's not the whole story: for in its longitudinal and latitudinal position New Zealand doesn't map onto the UK, in point of fact, but rather Spain. So it would be more accurate to describe it as a Spain unwarmed by the Atlantic Gulf Stream, a more temperate Spain, but still with a climate that's plenty warm enough to support forests of subtropical plants. Combine this with rolling English landscapes, quasi-Saharan sand dunes, snowy mountain ranges, and volcanic formations, and you're onto a pretty unique combination.

But then, if our stay here has taught me anything, it's that NZ is a pretty unique country. It's the last inhabited landmass of any significant size on Earth: to put it another way, human beings arrived here more recently than almost anywhere else. It is, therefore, one of the areas we have had the least time to fuck up yet. When we think of arriving in NZ, we all think of 1772 and Captain James Cook (or 'Lieutenant', as he was then), but the first Europeans here were of course the Dutch, who gave it the name it still has today (Abel Tasman in 1643). But New Zealand's indigenous people, the Maori, surely have a long history on the islands? Not really. They first migrated here in the 1340s from Polynesia, making them comparatively recent colonists even by the time the Dutch arrived. The fact that these islands, now a "Western" country, were devoid of human beings for such a long time, does give them a distinctive flavour.

The Maori believed this, too; they thought there was something mystical about the land and revered it as a goddess. Their word for 'land' (whenua) is the same as their word for 'placenta': the land, the earth, is something which nourishes us and from which we arise, spring into being, and by which we define ourselves as tangata whenua (the people of the land). It is a far cry from the Europeans' conception of land as a commodity to be bought and sold, to be owned under the Crown and managed or bent to one's will as you did with all your other possessions. No wonder the two belief systems clashed in the 1700s.

It's this distinct blend of incredible geography and fascinating mythological history - and even more fascinatingly, the way the two weave together - which is so compelling when you visit the Bay of Islands. Our first stop after Auckland, the Bay is a major region towards the very north of North Island. We generally wanted to go south after Auckland, so we were making a proper detour to head in another direction first, but by all accounts it would be worth it. It was.

Our base for 4 nights was Paihia, a port overlooking the Bay, and a prime spot for backpackers (they actually use the word 'BACKPACKERS' on street signs, that's how used to us they are). We couldn't have been happier with the Haka Lodge hostel we stayed in - especially the absolutely stunning lounge with views out over the bay. Our first night just saw us wander around the town a little and cook ourselves dinner, so our experiences of the Bay didn't get started until the following morning - out on the water. We took a boat trip from Paihia jetty out over the Bay - all gorgeous blue skies and white clouds - and wove our way between the different islands (a particular favourite was Urupukapuka Island, a sunkissed wonderland of green hill-tops and forests, with magical vistas of turquoise lagoons in the foreground and deep blue expanses of the Pacific stretching out into the distance).

Further out, you reach the Hole in the Rock, a geological formation whose name rather gives its appearance away: a cavernous hole 16 metres across in the base of a huge rock rising out of the sea. In calm weather, skippers are happy to steer boats through the Hole - but on the day we went, the swell was just a little too strong for that. Some people don't take well to being out at sea, but we spent most of our time on the front deck where the swell was sprayiest, the wind most blustery, because on a good day, when the sun shines, you never feel more alive than on open waters.

Day Two was more about the cultural experience, and I don't think I could have asked for a more comprehensive and engaging introduction to NZ history than visiting the grounds where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840. For anyone, like me, who feels they don't know nearly enough about NZ, this document is more or less as historic a moment in their history as the United States' Declaration of Independence: the instant at which the British Crown and the Maori chieftains agreed on the future direction this land was to take.

You really get your money's worth when visiting the treaty grounds; I think we spent at least half a day there. First off is a comprehensive and immersive exhibition, bringing visitors up to speed with regard to Maori culture, Maori encounters with the British, the various tensions this caused, and efforts of the major players to address these tensions. Though NZ has been one of the Commonwealth nations least damaged by British imperialism, the Treaty of Waitangi and its stipulation that the Maori had exclusive rights to fishing, hunting grounds etc. was nonetheless not properly upheld for a long time, not until it was enshrined in law in 1975. Next you are led through the grounds themselves, between towering tropical trees, to see the astonishing sight of a waka - a Maori war canoe carved from the trunk of one ancient kauri tree (more on those later), with lashings and using no nails whatsoever. It takes about 120 men to carry and weighs 6 tonnes (swelling to 12 when the wood is saturated), and unless I'm mistaken the one we see is one of the biggest canoes in the world. Finally, we saw the Treaty House itself (i.e. where it was signed) and a Maori meeting house built next to it, here in the north of New Zealand and facing south so as to watch over its children. Approaching the house, we were invited in to a Maori cultural performance, which made me smile, gape and cry in turn: feats of strength, hakas, laments for the dead, incredible displays of athletic prowess and more were all on show, and it was a haunting, inspiring glimpse of a completely different culture that made the entire day thoroughly worthwhile.

The weather held that day, to our surprise (bad forecasts followed by surprisingly good weather seems to be a recurring theme on our trip so far), and we went for an afternoon run by the shore. Later that evening, to treat ourselves, it was off to dinner at 'Charlotte's Kitchen', the one restaurant actually on the pier jutting out into the Bay: very fine seafood accompanied by live music (and a pretty drunk middle-aged woman who proposed to me, then when I politely declined assumed that Simon and I were a couple... there's nowt as queer as folk, is there). 

Day Three - our last day in the area - saw us rise at an ungodly hour to catch a bus at 7.15am, a tour bus that took us all the way up to Cape Reinga (the northenmost point of New Zealand) and back along the renowned Ninety Mile Beach. The weather that day was a bit spottier, but our luck held: it mostly rained while we were in the bus and the sun came out once we were wandering around. One of the places where we didn't mind the rain was a brief stop off in Kauri Forest, where trees of a species older than the extinction of the dinosaurs still flourish in a subtropical green paradise: it was like arriving on the set of Walking with Dinosaurs and, in a way, it was. Cape Reinga, which was the furthest point of the tour, is a picturesque location, a sort of jungle version of Land's End or John O'Groats, with a solitary (and solar-powered) lighthouse at the cliff edge looking out into the vast blue of the Pacific Ocean to its east and the Tasman Sea to its west. Shortly after that came the immensely fun experience of sandboarding, or dunesurfing, or whatever it is they call it, down a huge desert slope (and I do mean huge; I didn't know you got such big sand dunes outside of the Sahara): it looks terrifying, but simply throw yourself down the slope, grip the board, don't be afraid to dig your feet in the sand to brake, and you're good to go. Ninety Mile Beach (which is more like seventy-two miles, apparently, but there's nowt as queer as folk etymology, to coin a phrase) was also pretty charming, though I don't think we were quite prepared for the bus to drive along the beach and through fast-flowing streams and even the sea. 

Our bus driver was a strange mix of an adrenaline junkie and radio host: whilst driving he simply would not stop chatting, in his gentle NZ patois, of this subject and that, usually inanities, but for the most part inanities which, like the radio, one could tune in and out of as one wished. And sometimes he was genuinely informative, about Maori pronunciation or the like; sometimes he was hilarious, as when he talked about the steep price of avocadoes in the area for a solid twenty minutes, then spotted one of those "help yourself, put money in the honesty box" stations selling avocadoes at a ludicrously cheap price, stopped the bus and ran out to buy them; sometimes he was enigmatic, as when he sang Maori songs to us, which is definitely not what I usually expect from a bus driver; and sometimes he was terribly moving, as when he unexpectedly decided to tell the whole busload of tourists that his five brothers had all died of cancer and he'd had to bury them all. Most of us being Brits, we didn't quite know what to say.

We left Paihia on the fourth morning, this time catching a bus south - going past Auckland and on past the Coromandel Peninsula (a bit of NZ we'd love to see, but simply don't have the time to fit in) to a town named Tauranga. Tauranga also sits on a bay, the Bay of Plenty, but unlike in Paihia, we weren't here for the views or for water cruises. Tauranga is pretty well situated to reach Matamata, and Matamata is where tours of Hobbiton (from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit) begin. But more about Hobbiton in the next instalment: for now, a little about Tauranga. It's not that it *doesn't* have a tourism industry - the Bay of Plenty is fairly popular I think, cue all sorts of slogans like "Plenty for Everyone" - but it did seem weirdly dead for a Friday, albeit a Friday in the winter off-season. Still, with a bit of poking around we found numerous attractive charms. For one thing, our hostel was called 'the ArtHouse Boutique' and boasted loads of offbeat, quirky artwork. For another, as we were wandering down one of the major streets we stumbled into an art gallery that was doing a big launch exhibition of its guest artists, with free (and excellent) cheese and wine. Let's just say we stayed there much longer than we normally would have spent at an art launch! After that, it was astoundingly cheap Turkish food and astoundingly pricey craft beer all round, and two fat hobbits tumbled into bed, agog for the Tolkienian delights that the morrow would bring.

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