Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Kicking Back in Paihia

I knew my itinerary, devised to maximize my time in New Zealand, was going to be challenging. Every other day, I was jumping on a bus and going somewhere new. Days in between were jam-packed with tours, museums, hikes tramps and visits to other assorted points of interest. The goal, both here and on all my travels, is always to see as much as possible without totally running myself ragged.

With that in mind, I decided to end my trip on a chill note. My last two days, before returning to Auckland to catch a flight home, were to be spent relaxing on the beach. From Rotorua, I stopped briefly in Waitomo to see some glow worms. No photos were permitted so you will have to take my word for it that they were hella-cool and reminded me of the glow in the dark stickers I had plastered all over my ceiling as a child.

 From there, it was onto the Bay of Islands where I based myself out of Paihia, a laid back beach town with no shortage of bars playing Bob Marley tunes and boat trip operators waiting to take you out on the water.

The view from Mousetrap Backpackers and the spot where I finished knitting my sister's Xmas gift.

Since this was to be the more tranquil portion of my travels, the plan was to sleep in and take an afternoon boat trip. Only I woke up early, saw that it was going to rain later in the day and was at the dock in time for the 9am sailing.  

It wasn't long before we started seeing dolphins. This is one of the few places where you have a chance to swim with free dolphins,  the only option in New Zealand since they are civilized nation and have 100% banned keeping dolphins in captivity. There is also a law prohibiting swimming with them if there are babies around, which was the case on this day, so we were unable to enter the water.

It was still thrilling to see so many of them happily playing in the wake of our boat.

The most famous spot in the Bay is the aptly-named Hole in the Rock.  On calm days, it is possible to go through the hole, which is exactly what we did.

This is where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the British and the Maori, establishing the nation of New Zealand.
With the early start to my day and the boat trip over,  I now had time to explore Paihia's neighbor island, Russell (or Kororāreka). In the 1800's, whaling by British and American ships was big business. With the ships came the sailors.  In catering to them, Russell became a hotbed of bars and brothels earning it the nickname "the hellhole of the Pacific".

Today, it is more quaint boutiques and less den of iniquity but I suspect they are still able to throw a mean party if the opportunity arises.

Wanting to see a bit of history (and a great view), I hiked up to Flagstaff Hill. This spot was once home to a Maori tribe. In 1840, with the Treaty of Waitangi already signed, the British decided that it would be a good spot to fly the Union Jack.

Hone Heke, a Maori chief, thought otherwise. In 1844, one of his men went up there and chopped down the flag pole. Undeterred, the Brits put up a new one. Heke said 'nope' and hack, hack, hack- pole down. The Brits erected flagpole #3, this one sheathed in iron, and placed troops to guard the damn pole. It lasted one day.  #4 goes up. Heke, who has to be exhausted from all this climbing and hacking, chopped it down and killed all the guards for the good measure. This led to the Flagstaff War, which went on until 1846, when a truce was signed. By that point, the Brits were all "You know what? Screw this flag business. We're over it." and stopped putting up poles. Now here comes the plot twist.  In 1858, a Maori leader- not Heke- decided that a flagpole would be a good way to show "Hey, no hard feelings" and that all is good between the Maori and the Brits and up it went. That one, flagpole #5 still stands.

On the way down from Flagstaff Hill there were a number of signs proclaiming the area a Kiwi sanctuary but since these mythical little night creatures refuse to show themselves, I can't be too certain about that. I consoled myself for the lack of kiwis by sitting down for a drink at NZ's oldest hotel/bar/restaurant, the Duke of Malborough. Tag line: Refreshing Rascals and Reprobates since 1827. I like to think I am both.

The party continued once I took the ferry back to Paihia, where their nightlife was kicking in nicely. I returned to the hostel a good 15 hours after I had left. In retrospect, I don't think I am very good at this sitting and chilling business.

For the second day, I booked a tour to Cape Reigna, New Zealand's northernmost point, partly because it was included with my Intercity Flexipass. I had no idea how popular it would be. The bus was full of young backpackers and led by a great guide with the twitchy kind of energy usually reserved for Red Bull-addled gym instructors.  He was not only driving our bus but keeping tabs on all the other drivers running the same route.

Of particular concern to him was a first day driver and his crossing of the Ninety Mile Beach. The beach is a lot of things, It is a scenic tourist destination on the Tasman Sea. It is part of a Great Walk that takes you from one end of the country to the other. It was once an airport runway. It is part of the national highway system. But there is one thing Ninety Mile Beach isn't: 90 miles long. The missionaries who first arrived here used a horse-based measuring system. Their horses could travel 30 miles a day before needing to rest. It took them 3 days to travel the length of the beach, ergo 90 miles. Said the horses "We're running on sand, Asshole. Why don't you try it and see how fast you go?"

The reason for our driver's agita is the treacherous conditions that come with driving on the beach. The tides and winds have to be timed just right (you can cross on low tide and a couple of hours before/ after). Drive too far from the water and the sand is too soft. Drive too close to the water and it can claim your car. You can't go too slow or you get stuck. Stop in the wrong place, hope you brought a book because you are going to be there a while.

Happily, all buses made it on and off the beach with no issues.

We continued up to Cape Reigna, where the Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman Sea. This spot has a particular significance to the Maori people who believe that this is where your soul goes when you die. Reigna means underworld and it is from here that the soul slides into the ocean to return to the ancestral motherland, Hawaiiki-A-Nui.

With only a 30 minute stop, no one really had time to visit the underworld, we were soon heading towards our lunch break.  We stopped at a famous fish shop in Mangonui. Interesting note: the term "famous fish shop" is international code for "Vegetarians not welcome".  I explored the small town instead.

The old courthouse in town has been turned into an art gallery and its former kauri wood deck has been turned into various knick knacks, including kitchen chopping boards. If you ever find yourself in my home while I am preparing vegetables, resign yourself to hearing this story again.

Kauri trees are amongst the world's tallest and longest living trees. They grow so tall that the Mauri believed that they pierced the heavens and created light. The northern part of the island was once covered with them. Then more humans came. It's always the humans.

Today the few that left are considered sacred and are protected by law. There are exceptions that allow builders to tear them down, but our guide explained that the protests that ensue- which usually include people chaining themselves to the trees- are generally enough to deter any such attempts.

But that doesn't mean that the logging of the past is not still visible, as evidenced by the obligatory shopping stop at Ka-Uri Unearthed. The store sells all sorts of kauri trinkets and features a staircase made from the single log of a 1000 yr + Kauri tree.

As scenic as the long drive back to Paihia was- and if I learned anything in NZ, it's that all drives are scenic- I completely passed out. It may have taken me 17 days but I was finally taking it easy and dreaming of my return to this spectacular land.

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