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‘Hell-hole of the Pacific’ rants Darwin

June 20, 2012
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After 3 days of national commemorations for NZs Waitangi Day in the Bay of Islands it’s now time for me to catch a ferry for the short ride over to Russell from my base in Paihia.

Often considered New Zealand’s finest maritime playground, the Bay of Islands also has much to do on land and Russell is the centre of all that Northland offers.  Darwin called it the hell-hole of the Pacific because of the drunken, rowdy whalers and sailors, this area is the cradle of New Zealand’s settler history: Russell was formerly known as Kororareka and was one of the first European settlements in NZ.

At the south end of the tree-lined waterfront is Pompallier House, site of the first Roman Catholic Mission to New Zealand. Established in 1842 ‘to teach the Maori to pray the Catholic way” as one of the guides there said, it’s now been beautifully restored to its original French style and is the only one of its type in the country. I enjoyed watching a demonstration of leather making, printing and bookbinding here – and the gardens are lovely too.

It was interesting to hear that saying such as ‘skiving off’ and ‘cut to the chase’ came from the leather and book binding industry.

I wander around the township enjoying the museum and well-kept streets before heading off to ‘the Duke’ for a look at it, and lunch.  The Duke of Marlborough is one of the most historic hotels in New Zealand, and “The Duke” has featured significantly in NZs colourful history and holds New Zealand’s oldest pub license. Number one.  After a meal, on the veranda, overlooking the bay where dolphins had been seen from the ferry only minutes earlier it’s time for me to head off on a one-hour tour of areas not easily seen on foot.

‘The best thing about Paihia’ says our Russell Mini Tours driver ‘is you can sit on the beach and look across at Russell’.  He also tells us “the Maori came here some 900 years ago, Captain Cook in 1769 while he arrived 198 years later – on a school trip from Auckland!

Flagstaff Hill gives us 360° views of the Bay of Islands and we are shown the oldest church in New Zealand, (1835) built ten years after the Battle of Kororareka.

Darwin hated every minute of his 3 weeks here: 50-70 ‘grog’ houses, 1500 people. Many of whom were deserters, and no law – as our driver continued – ‘this is a blood and rum drenched place.’

My one day here was not long enough – but it was time to head back down to the wharf and step back in time aboard the R Tucker Thompson, a replica tall ship for a taste of life under sail.

See more about ‘the Tucker’ and ‘the Duke’ in a future blog – in the meantime … check out the links I’ve provided.

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