Man In A Suitcase

Paihia, Bay of Islands

A quick recap: I spent my first day in New Zealand wandering blearily around Auckland and waiting for my body adjust to the long flight and the change in timezone. The trip really began with day two, on a coach trip to the northern town of Paihia in the picturesque Bay of Islands. Although, as I would be told repeatedly over the next couple of weeks, the best bits of the North Island are only picturesque if you haven't seen anything on the South Island. Why does this rivalry remind me of Northern vs. Southern California?

On our way north, we stopped to admire the native Kauri trees. Before Europeans arrived, the northern half of the North Island was covered by Kauri: tall, massive smooth-barked trees that live for upwards of 1500 years. British seamen took to the Kauri all too quickly, appreciating their straight trunks, tight grain and lack of knotholes. (Kauri are self-pruning, dropping lower branches as they grow and leaving only the smallest reminder behind.) And colonists found Kauri ideal for homebuilding and furniture. The demand was so great that the Kauri have all but disappeared. Now they're protected, with efforts underway to increase their numbers. Five or six centuries and some of the damage will be undone.

Interestingly, you can still buy artifacts made from Kauri. But not from live trees; all the carvings and boxes and such come from what are called Swamp Kauri: trees that were knocked down by some natural cataclysm and buried in mud for somewhere between forty and sixty thousand years. Enterprising souls have found a few of these ancient forests and are using the wood to make some truly beautiful pieces. (As well as a fair amount of junk, but I suppose that's to be expected.)

The old house at left, hidden in the trees and the pouring rain, had a starring role in the history of modern New Zealand. It was here in 1840 that the representative of the British government and 43 Maori chiefs signed a treaty that defined the rights of both groups of New Zealanders. (One can only hope that they had better weather.) Eventually, over 500 chiefs would sign. The Treaty of Waitangi is a unique document, giving the Maori a status that other colonized natives would take a lot longer to achieve. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that the treaty acknowledges the Maori's status. From everything I've learned, this was not a people to submit easily to second class status. How different might history have been if native Americans and aboriginal Australians shared some of the Maori's more assertive tendencies?

Following my damp encounter with the Treaty House, I was delivered to the teeming metropolis of Paihia. Paihia is the centre of tourism for the area and has way more restaurants and shops than one might expect in a town of its size. Heck, even my out-of-the-way motel had a restaurant that wouldn't have shamed San Francisco. Paihia is also home to The Cabbage Tree, the first really good tourist shop I found on my trip. My purchases made, I wandered down the street to discover the pleasures of New Zealand ice cream, in this case involving an interesting fruit called a feijoa, which I was told was local but actually originated in South America. And I quickly made a second discovery: stand around with an ice cream cone for a minute or two and you'll be surrounded by sparrows. They'll do practically anything to mooch a bit of waffle cone. Even pose for pictures.

By the time the sparrows and I had finished our ice cream, the rain clouds began to give way to a bit of sun. And I began to appreciate the beauty of the bay, especially after I noticed a set of steps leading up to a memorial with an excellent view of the beach, the water and a few of the closer islands. Now if only they could have done something about that big hill between my motel and the town; I'm not used to having to walk up and down such steep inclines. It's way too much like work; don't the city planners know I'm on vacation?

Different tours have different energy levels. There are couch potato adventures, workout activities and adrenaline rushes, all with varying degrees of challenge. But sometimes you get a range of excitement within the same itinerary. The boats at left are an example. Most everybody who visits the bay will do a cruise among the islands. But will you choose the smooth ride on the catamaran? Or the high speed chase of an open air jetboat, complete with foul weather gear and life jackets? As I was to discover later in my journey, jetboats are good fun. But as photographic platforms they are decidedly wanting. I preferred the low speed charms of the Fuller's cat as it slipped smoothly around the islands, a few with grand homes, some with campsites, others barely big enough to provide a perch for a few lazy birds.

The tour brochures make a big deal about visiting the Hole In The Rock, which Captain Cook in a rare burst of wit named Piercy Island. Pretty good pun, actually; it refers both to the island's pierced state and to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Piercy Brett. Depending on whether the captain has timed the tides properly, we get to run the boat into the Hole and out the other side. Which is one of those "you do it so you can say you did it" sorts of activities. After our penetration of the island, we made a stop at Urupukapuka, the biggest island in the bay, where a semisubmersible provided a view of some local sealife.

At the start and end of the trip we made stops at Russell, the oldest town in the country and former headquarters for the South Pacific whaling fleet that was once celebrated as The Hellhole Of The Pacific but in something of a decline since the 1830s. But only in the degree of its lawlessness; Russell is a charming little place with some nice buildings along a peaceful waterfront. I stopped off for some lunch in a restaurant that used to be a cathouse. And then took a little wander around the rest of town before I grabbed the ferry back across the harbour to the hustle and excitement of Paihia.

Cape Reinga & The Far North

There's another 120 miles of New Zealand beyond Paihia. And about half of that is a narrow peninsula with miles and miles of perfect beach facing the Tasman Sea to the west. How could I not pay a visit to the official Ends Of The Earth?

There isn't much left of the giant Kauri forests that once covered this part of the North Island. But there are a couple of protected forests that highlight the diversity of native trees and plants, with boardwalks that let visitors enjoy the sights and smells of native New Zealand without risk of damage to the forest floor. The Puketi Forest has some proper Kauri, grand trees over a thousand years old. Imagine what can happen in all that time. Winds and rain deposit dust and little bits of dirt on every flat surface. And birds drop seeds into that dirt, which sprout into life high into the air. After a few hundred years, the Kauri has become a nursery for all sorts of other forest plants. At left is a Kauri on its own; at right is a home for cabbage trees, vines and all sorts of other life.

Cape Reinga isn't really New Zealand's northernmost point; the North Point peninsula to the east extends a mile or so further north. But it's close enough to satisfy me. Besides, this is where the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean come together to make life so very interesting for sailors. And it has a lighthouse to keep things from getting too hairy out there. Besides, there's a mailbox here for tourists who want that special postmark from the top of the bottom. And a signpost by the lighthouse that marks the distance and direction to all the important places. Funny; I think people took more pictures of the sign than they took of the view.

Ninety Mile Beach runs for sixty miles down the west side of the northern peninsula. Yes, you read that right; Ninety Mile Beach isn't. (Something about measuring the beach by the travel time of a bullock team. I guess somebody forgot to consider the effect of beach sand on 19th century transport.) Getting to the beach is a bit of a challenge; there aren't any roads. Instead, you race down the bed of the Te Paki Quicksand Stream on its way to the sea, preferably at a time when the stream isn't in flood. With time out for a bit of snowboarding on the giant sand dunes that line the stream. Or should that be sandboarding?

Racing down the beach in a motor vehicle is another one of those "don't try this on your own" adventures. For one thing, you have to be wary of the tides; time it wrong and you could find yourself floating home. For another, there are a couple of narrow places even at low tide where you have to time your passage very carefully. Besides, all that sand and salt water and kelp can't be good for your undercarriage. I'm told that car rental firms call out Ninety Mile as a "Thou shalt not" in their contracts. Better in one of the tour companies' specially designed coaches. And the feeling of standing on an empty beach, the only sign of civilization your transport and your fellow passengers, is hard to describe. For a moment I can almost imagine what it was like for the early settlers. Well, maybe not.

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 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California