Pahia, Russell, Waitangi and Hokianga

Having experienced the delights of Hundertwasser's toilets we moved on to Paihia where we have rented a Bach for the next five days. Bachs are generally holiday homes owned by Kiwis and let out for a few days or weeks. What you get is a real home with all the modern comforts and conveniences, such as washing machines and a full size kitchen which you don't get in hotels or even apartments or motels. We love staying in them because you can come and go as you please, cook a meal when you're fed up of going out and just relax and feel at home.

These homes are often situated in some beautiful spots and the one in Paihia is no exception. It is situated high on a hill and from its enormous wooden deck we get a fabulous view of the famous Bay of Islands. Out in the sparkling blue water are dozens of small islands and inlets, some inhabited with just a few luxurious homes, others not at all.

It's all about the water here and many Aucklanders come up to their second homes at the week-end to sail, fish and generally have a relaxing time. At this time of the year it's not too busy with tourists but in the peak season it's a tourist hot spot and I wouldn't want to come here then.

Paihia settlement (you couldn't call it a town) itself isn't much to write home about. Full of motels and apartments it doesn't have too much character. However, it does have a passenger ferry which goes across to Russell on the other side of the bay. Russell is a charming settlement of clapboard houses and small shops. It was the first capital of New Zealand. Captain Cook first set foot on NZ soil right here in the Bay of Islands (in fact, he ran aground out by one of the small islands which dot the bay) so this place has huge historical significance. Russell seems like an island, although it is, in fact, a peninsula, and it has retained much of its past allure because of that.

Bay of Islands also has another hugely significant historical site at Waitangi, just a few kilometers out of Paihia. For it was here that in 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by representatives of the British Government and Maori chiefs from all across New Zealand. New Zealand was placed under the protection of the British in return for help in repelling foreign invaders, such as the French. The Maori had a fearsome reputation for inter-tribal wars and land disputes but for the first time they united to make common cause with the British. In the way of these things some of their ancestral lands were later stolen from them, as seems to be the way everywhere. However, Waitangi Day is still celebrated every year by Maori and Kiwi alike.

A visit to the Treaty grounds is well worthwhile. It's a beautiful, peaceful place with great views across the bay towards Paihia and Russell and we spent a happy few hours wandering around, looking at replicas of Maori meeting houses, the first governer's residence and gardens and the famous flagstaff at which the Treaty was signed.At the Whare Waka (Canoe House) we also saw the world's biggest war canoe which is still sailed every year on Waitangi Day. In centuries gone by the Maori launched invasions of nieghbouring tribes from canoes hewn out of tree trunks. The canoe at Waitangi, I suppose, represents all those inter-tribal wars and their end by a coming together of all the tribes to unite behind the Treaty of Waitangi. It is absoluteley massive and takes 150 men to row. Dry, it weighs 6 tons but wet it's weight is double. It is, of course, purely a ceremonial vessel now but clearly embodies the spirit of the Maori nation, judging from the Maori guide we got talking to.

He gave us some fascinating insights into the canoe itself and the culture of the Maori. In return, what could we do but sing a few Maori songs for him. Pokare Ana, which is the unofficial anthem of New Zealand and a song called Te Aroha. The guide told us that was an old song which he last heard being sung by his grandmother. He was delighted to hear us sing it. (note for Monika and our choir pals: As with any language, Maori has several dialects. In Te Aroha, the word 'whakaponoe' is pronounced 'faka' by northern tribes, 'haka' by eastern peoples but 'waka' by Maoris from the south lands. So we haven't been singing it wrong all these years, just with a posh home counties accent!).

Although we've been based on the East coast on Northland we were determined to cross over to the West Coast to explore that and in particular Hokianga Harbour. In Britain the word 'harbour' conjures up visions of little fishing villages with tidy walled enclosures keeping out the Atlantic gales. In New Zealand, 'harbour' really means a salt water inlet and some of them can be so huge it would take several days to trek around. Hokianga is one such. It extends almost half the width of the mainland and is full of mangrove swamps.

What makes Hokianga so famous are the enormous sand dunes at its entrance to the sea. It's like you suddenly think you're in Egypt and expect a camel to walk past at any moment. Quite an arresting sight and a reminder that, in New Zealand, just when you think you've seen it all, you haven't seen anything yet.

So, what next? Well, tall ships and sunken ships and no buried treasure.

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