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Alan And Robin Go North

"What time shall I set the alarm for?" I asked Robin.

"5.00am would be good," said Robin. "That's really 6.00am because the clocks go back an hour tonight, so we'll get a good night's sleep and still be able to make an early start."

To hear is to obey, and I set the alarm for 5.00am.

At 4.00am, which was really 5.00am of course, I woke up full of excitement and anticipation. There was no sound of snoring, so it was a fairly safe bet that Robin was awake as well. "I'm awake," I said quietly.

"So am I," confirmed Robin.

"Why don't we get up and make an extra early start?" I suggested. I looked out of the window. Rain was stair-rodding out of a pitch black sky; visibility was nil. "Conditions are perfect," I said.

And so we packed the car and set off for the far north of New Zealand. Not surprisingly the roads were almost empty and we made very good time. Slowly the black, wet night turned into a grey, wet dawn and the grey, wet dawn turned into a grey, wet day. I kept the headlights on to give the car maximum visibility just in case anybody else was mad enough to be out. However as far as I could tell, everyone else in the country was still tucked up warm and snug in bed.

As we passed across the central plateau, there was no sign whatsoever of the mountains. They were hiding shyly in the mist, refusing to come out and play.

"They know their own names," I told Robin. "If you call them by name they'll come to you."

"Nonsense," said Robin. "You're pulling my leg. Aren't you?" She sounded doubtful.

"Honest," I said. "They really do come when you call them. Try it and see."

Ngauruhoe, Tongariro, Ruapehu – Robin tried hard, but she couldn't quite get the names right, and so the mountains stayed hidden. Ngauruhoe and Tongariro paid us no attention at all, but Ruapehu was so annoyed at this seeming disrespect that he roared out loud, shattered the walls of his crater lake and threw a mighty lahar down towards us. As we sped away from the raging mud and water, we could hear the sounds of gates crashing shut as the desert road was closed behind us. But we didn't care, we were away free and the mountains were far behind us now.

We stopped for lunch in Taupo. The weather eased slightly and though it was still misty, the rain was less intense. An extremely damp motorcyclist pulled up outside the café His helmet had recently been groomed with a mohawk haircut, but the spiky black hair now sagged sadly to one side. Helmet under his arm, he stomped into the café and steamed as he ordered chips. We resumed our journey.

Just beyond Taupo, a farmer was winding string around stakes arranged in a small square. Bemused cows stood huddled together inside the string fence.

"We're trapped, ladies," said the head cow. "There's nowhere to go. We'll never break out of here in a month of Sundays. What a small field this has turned out to be!"

"I know what we can do," said another. "Let's chew cud. That always makes things better."

The road went ever on, north and north and north again. Blue signs with stylised white pictures indicated accommodation (a picture of a bed) and food (a picture of a crossed knife and fork) and service stations (a picture of a petrol pump). Once we passed a blue sign that contained only of a picture of a bed and a picture of an aeroplane. I have no idea at all what it was trying to tell me.

And so we reached the Bay Of Islands – it's a bay; it has islands in it. What else would you expect of a country that calls its northernmost island The North Island and its southernmost island The South Island? We were staying in The Duke of Marlborough Hotel in Russell. Round the corner is a pub. It's called The Pub Round The Corner.

About five minutes drive from Russell is a beautiful beach with lazy waves. It's just perfect for swimming or for simply sitting in the sun. The beach is quite long; it's called Long Beach.

There's a flagstaff on top of a hill called Flagstaff Hill. You drive up Flagstaff Road to get to it. There's a church in the middle of Church Street; and just by the sea is a house called Wharemoana, which translates as seahouse. This last gave me a little thrill – when I was a small child in England, we would often take our summer holiday in a small coastal village in Northumberland. The village was called Seahouses. That's Wharemoana as well.

Ferries run regularly across the bay linking Russell to Paihia. There's a ferry that is painted blue; it's called The Blue Ferry. There's a ferry that is painted white; it's called The White Ferry. There's a ferry that is painted red. It's much faster than the other two and so it is called The Fast Ferry. That's the one we took.

Paihia has a mall with 24 shops in it. It's called The 24 Shop Mall. There's a licensed restaurant with a name that cannot be read for the sign outside is written in such a distorted script as to be completely illegible. Possibly the real name of the restaurant is The Illegible Licensed Restaurant, but I'll never know.

We rejoined the Fast Ferry to return to Russell.

"Today," announced the driver, "we are going to be the Very Fast Ferry for I have six stranded Germans on board. They got stuck in traffic and missed their tour boat. It's waiting impatiently for them in Russell, so I'm going to get them there as quickly as I can."

He was as good as his word. We simply tore across the bay. We overtook the Blue Ferry. We overtook the White Ferry. We overtook a low flying seagull who looked rather bewildered as the water from our wake almost knocked him out of the sky. We squealed dramatically to a stop by the pier at Russell, spraying water everywhere. Six moist Germans marched straight to their tour boat which immediately headed off to the islands. Then the Very Fast Ferry became the Very Slow Ferry as it went putt, putt, putt to its proper berth where Robin and I got off. We went round the corner to The Pub Round The Corner and we each sank a soothing pint of their home brewed beer. They have a choice of two; a bitter and a lager. One is called The Pub Round The Corner Bitter. The other is called The Pub Round The Corner Lager.

The next day we went exploring. There's a back road out of Russell which twines, twists and turns for mile after tedious mile until it joins State Highway 1 just south of Kawakawa. Interesting signposts declare that it isn't far to some small township or other, but they are all telling lies.

"Hey," said Robin. "It's only six kilometres to Rawhiti. Won't we have such fun when we get there? I can hardly wait!"

Six kilometres of rugged bush and sheer cliffs later, with no sign whatsoever of Rawhiti, we learned that Ngaiotonga was only another ten kilometres down the road.

"Well, I never did care much for Rawhiti anyway," said Robin. "Let's stop trying to find it. Let's go to Ngaiotonga instead. I've heard that it's a much more happening place in every respect."

Ten kilometres later we stopped and got out and looked around a bit. Ngaiotonga, just like Rawhiti before it, appeared to be town built of invisible buildings.

"Perhaps it's concealed inside a Klingon cloaking device," I suggested. I kicked a stone out of the road and looked around a small, scrubby fern in case Ngaiotonga was hiding behind it. It wasn't.

"I'm bored with Ngaiotonga. Let's go on to Tutaematai," said Robin. "This signpost says it's only three kilometres away."

"OK," I said and we got back in the car and drove off. As we drove round the first bend in the road I heard a distinct click! behind me as the people of Ngaiotonga turned off their Klingon cloaking device and resumed their partying.

The road went ever on and on, but we never did find any of the small towns that the signs pointed to. Just endless bush and steep, rugged cliffs. Eventually the road met State Highway 1 and we turned on to it with a sense of relief. All the signs on the state highway pointed to places that really did exist. It was nice to be back in the real world. We headed north again, towards Russell. A thin, brown man with a long beard walked along the side of the road. He was bowed down under the weight of a huge wooden cross which he was carrying over his shoulder. Presumably he was heading north for Easter.

The best way to see the islands that fill the bay is to take a cruise around them. We went on the Cream Trip, which lasts all day and which visits all the major islands. The cruise is not just a tourist trip – the boat delivers packages and mail to the islands as well. From the main cabin of the boat you can look out of the very large forward-facing observation windows. A tourist with an enormous bottom spent the entire cruise outside on the forward deck, leaning up against the windows, buttock cheeks spread out squashily all over the glass. I took a photograph.

The boat travelled leisurely around the islands, mooring at jetties in order to deliver the mail. All the people on the islands knew when the boat was near because they all had dogs, and all the dogs barked in delight when the boat appeared. The dogs all love the boat because the crew always make sure to give each dog a biscuit before the mail is handed over. As far as the dogs are concerned it's the biscuit boat, not the mail boat.

One dog was so enthusiastic that he leaped on board and said hello to all the tourists. He got lots of pats, but he didn't get any extra biscuits. Not that he seemed to mind; pats are almost as good as biscuits.

One of the jetties was rather hard to moor against. Somebody had bolted a small dinghy on to the end of it. The dinghy was full of earth, and growing in the earth was a huge flax plant. The skipper of our boat was bewildered.

"That wasn't there last time I tied up to the jetty," he announced over the public address system. "Some eccentric or other has obviously been very busy indeed. But why on earth would anyone want to grow a flax plant in a dinghy on the end of a pier?"

Answer came there none. Silence was the stern reply.

Many of the islands are known by their Maori names. Thus we have Moturoa Island, Moturua Island, Motukiekie Island and Urupukapuka Island. Since the Maori prefix motu means island, some of the names are tautological. It also turns out that the Maori are just as unimaginative about naming things as the Pakeha are. The suffix roa means long. Thus the rather long and skinny island called Moturoa is simply Long Island.

The suffix rua can be translated as pit or chasm. So Moturua Island is the island with a chasm on it. A kiekie is a species of thick vine. Motukiekie Island is an island where the kiekie vine grows.

Uru is a grove (as in a grove of trees) and a puka is a shrub-like tree with large leathery leaves. The repetition of a word in Maori adds emphasis to the word. Thus pukapuka would mean lots and lots of this particular shrub. And so Urupukapuka Island would be the island covered with thick groves of shrubs. Oddly, the word pukapuka also exists in its own right (rather than as added emphasis for puka) and it means a book or, more generally, a document of some sort. So perhaps Urupukapuka Island is the island where books grow on groves of trees! What a paradise for a bibliophile like me. I couldn't wait to get there.

We stopped at Urupukapuka Island for lunch. The books hanging from the trees had not yet reached their full growth. They were unripe and unreadable. It would be at least another two months before they ripened and were ready to be harvested. Disappointed, Robin and I headed off to the island's other major attraction; the yellow submarine Nautilus.

It isn't really a submarine, though it is shaped like one, just for fun. Tourists climb on board and take their seat in the keel which is, of course, under the surface of the sea. The keel has glass sides and as the boat chugs slowly around the bay the glass sides afford a perfect view of the fish swimming past in huge shoals. There are always massive numbers of fish, because the crew of the Nautilus always make sure to put a lot of fish food into the water to attract them. They've been doing this for years, and word has spread. Every fish in New Zealand territorial waters knows exactly where to come for a good feed. There are so many fish in the water that you can almost walk across the bay on their backs.

From Urupukapuka Island, we headed off to The Hole In The Rock. It's a huge great rock with a hole in it. When the sea is calm, the boat sails through the hole from one side of the rock to the other. There is something amazingly surreal about sailing right through an island.

The sea was completely calm and clear and we could see shoals of fish swimming around the boat as we emerged from the hole. Sometimes a fish would jump exuberantly into the air and then dive down again into the water with a huge splash of foam.

We sailed away from the Hole In The Rock and headed down the mainland coast back towards Russell. We briefly explored Deepwater Cove – it's a cove where the water is very deep – and Assassination Cove. Can you guess what happened at Assassination Cove in June 1772?

We got back to Russell just in time for tea.

One of the must-see excursions that you can take in the far north of New Zealand is a coach trip up to Cape Reinga at the very top of the North Island. Along the west edge of the spit of land that terminates at the cape is a beach that is sixty four miles long. It is called Ninety Mile Beach. Since sixty four miles is almost exactly ninety kilometres, a better name might be Ninety Kilometre Beach. But the beach is very old and set in its ways, and it has no patience with these modern, new-fangled metric measurements. So it remains Ninety Mile Beach, and if you dislike the inaccuracy of the name that's your problem. The beach doesn't care.

At low tide, the beach is officially part of the state highway system and the coaches on their way to and from Cape Reinga always zoom along the hard-packed sand close to the water's edge. There's something quite thrilling about zooming along the beach at 100kph for mile after mile after mile.

We travelled north on the beach. On our left, the sea stretched endlessly west to the horizon, and the sea and sand ran together north and south as far as the eye could see. Long, lazy waves swept in and beached themselves gently on the shore. To our right huge, soft sand dunes loomed, held together by spinifex and scrubby grass.

Birds strutted along the sand and glided gracefully in the air, skimming along the edge of the waves. Pied shag, red billed gull, black backed gull, oyster catcher, dotterel, godwit, caspian tern, white fronted tern, left tern, right tern...

The coach stopped and we got out for a walk on the sand.

"Don't get hit by a bus," warned the driver, and he wasn't joking.

There were some rocks poking up from the sand. Thousands upon thousands of worm casts pock-marked the surface of the sand around the rocks. Small creatures scuttled in little pools. The wind rustled across the sand stirring it up into crazy patterns.

We got back on the bus and carried on to the end of the beach where huge sand dunes towered like mountains. Adventurous souls carried body-boards up to the top of the dunes; an enormous trek. The dunes were so tall that the line of people walking up them looked as tiny as ants. Everybody walked in single file, putting their feet carefully in the footprints of the person in front of them. When they reached the top, each person flung themselves head first on to their body board and slid down the side of the dune at an enormous rate, screaming all the way in a huge cloud of sand.

Some people braked themselves by digging their feet in. Other, hardier souls just zoomed in at full speed and splashed down in the water at the bottom. All of them spent the rest of the day picking sand out of their teeth.

The bus drove on to Cape Reinga, popularly supposed to be the northernmost tip of New Zealand, though in fact the rather more aptly named North Cape stretches 15 kilometres further north.

From Cape Reinga, the spirits of the Maori dead make their way down to the underworld. It is a very spiritual, very sacred place. The cape is also where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. As you stand at the lighthouse on the cape and look north you can see the waves from the Tasman Sea on your left rolling in from west to east. The waves in the Pacific Ocean on your right roll in from east to west. The two sets of waves meet just below the lighthouse and annihilate each other in a shattering spray of white water. It is a hugely dramatic and humbling sight.

From the cape we headed south again and travelled through the Puketi kauri forest. There are very few kauri trees left now. The small number that remain are tall, graceful giants more than 1000 years old. There have been three distinct kauri forests here in the last 50,000 years. Each has been destroyed by the forces of nature, rather than by the depredations of man, though nobody is quite sure exactly how it happened. Excavation of the remains of these forests suggests that the trees grew roots only on one side in order to anchor themselves against the prevailing winds, which tend to blow in a constant direction. Perhaps one day there was a storm and the fierce winds blew from a different direction. Since the trees lacked support on that side, whole forests simply lay down and died.

The weather had been quite gloomy during the trip to Cape Reinga and as we got back to our hotel Robin remarked, "We were very lucky really. The rain kept away while we were sight seeing. It only rained while we were driving around in the coach."

"Yes," I agreed. "It could have been worse. We could have had continuous rain."

No sooner had I spoken the words than we began to get continuous rain. It tumbled out of the sky in a drenching torrent. It got heavier and heavier. So we went to bed and ignored it.

The next morning it was still raining. Actually, "rain" is much too small and insignificant a word to describe the huge niagra-like cascades that were pounding down. The roof of the hotel rang and rattled as though it was being battered by liquid cannonballs. The rain was hitting the ground so hard that it was bouncing up into the air again before finally settling into enormous puddles and, where the ground sloped away, into raging rivers.

It soon became clear that the hotel leaked like a sieve The staff scurried around putting pot plants under the most significant leaks. The plants greedily sucked up the water like manna from heaven; which it was of course. But the rain was so heavy that it wasn't very long before the plants began to exhibit symptoms of acute indigestion. Soon they were writhing in agony, and vomiting up all the water they had just drunk. They were quickly replaced by a collection of miscellaneous buckets and tubs dragged up from who knows where, and someone was deputed to run around emptying them before they overflowed.

Robin and I sat in the bar watching the rain fall down. We hadn't brought any wet weather gear with us; everyone knows it doesn't rain in the winterless north in the tourist season. So we were stuck in the hotel. Through the window we could just see the end of the pier jutting out into the bay.

"Look," said Robin. "There's a ferry."

We watched as the ferry from Paihia appeared out of the curtain of rain. It moored itself to the pier. Nobody got off; nobody got on. The ferry hung around for a while and then went back to Paihia. Half an hour later it reappeared in Russell. Again, nobody got off and nobody got on. Neither Robin nor I was very surprised at this. Who in their right mind would ever want to go out in this weather? Obviously the ferry company came to the same conclusion, for the ferry went off back to Paihia and we never saw it again. Service was suspended for the duration of the storm.

I ordered another beer, plugged in my laptop and watched a DVD. Robin went up to our room and watched the television.

And so the day passed. It was a day of beer, DVDs, television and rain. At a suitable time, we went to bed. The rain continued to fall. We lay in bed listening to it and soon the regular sound, loud though it was, lulled us to sleep.

The next morning it was still raining. If anything, the downpour was heavier than it had been the day before.

"Looks like another day of DVDs, beer and television," remarked Robin.

"Yes," I agreed. "But it could be worse. At least we've still got electricity."

No sooner had I spoken the words than the lights went out. There was a brief pause and then the lights flickered and came on again. We heard a rumbling sound and the air filled with the distinctive smell of diesel fuel as the hotel's emergency generator kicked in. It had just enough grunt to keep the essential services running – the lights, the bar, the till, the kitchen, and the sign outside the hotel that advertised Stella Artois beer. There was no power for the televisions or for the sockets in the wall. Even the water supply to our room stopped because it was a high pressure system and there was no power for the pumps. We couldn't flush the toilet in our room and so, whenever we felt the urge, we trotted off to the public toilets in the bar. That way the stench became someone else's problem instead of ours.

"Well," I said, "we won't be watching any television or DVDs today. What shall we do instead?"

"Eat," said Robin. "And drink a lot."

Shortly after the power failed, we heard the chilling sound of sirens in the distance.

"I bet that's something to do with the power failing," said Robin. "I hope there hasn't been an accident."

We learned later that there had been an enormous slip on the main road out of Russell. Six huge, ancient trees had fallen with it and they had crashed across the power lines, bringing them down.

Our hotel was the only building in Russell with its own generator and therefore it was the only place in Russell where food and drink could be obtained. It wasn't long before the glowing Stella Artois sign at the front attracted people like moths to a flame and the hotel did a roaring trade as most of the tourist population of Russell ate, drank and made merry as they watched the never-ending rain fall down.

About twelve hours later the power came back on, though few people were in any position to notice since most of them were over-full of beer and wine. I went up to our room and had a celebratory flush of the loo just because I could.

By now the rain was starting to die down and by the next morning it had gone completely. The day dawned bright and cheerful with clear blue skies. Six grim men wearing fluorescent orange jackets trudged past the hotel. They had a lot of work to do...

All the roads out of Russell were closed, blocked by enormous slips. Opua was still without power and it too was isolated because the roads were blocked. The bridge at Kawakawa was closed to traffic because it was unstable. Four motel units had been swept away by the raging river at Haruru Falls. Fortunately nobody was in them at the time. A fourteen year old girl had been winched to safety across the river. We were marooned in Russell and we had nothing to do except wander round the immediate area and look at things.

We went up to Flagstaff Hill, the highest point in Russell. There were several large slips on the road up to the hill, but one lane was open. From the top of the hill we could see out across the bay. The water was a deep yellow colour because it was so full of churned up sand. A boat chugged slowly across the bay leaving a wake behind itself. The wake didn't go away – the sand was so thick in the water that the boat was making a permanent track.

Twenty four hours later the situation had slightly improved. Some roads had been opened by the simple expedient of pushing all the slips to the side with a bulldozer, thus opening up a single lane. We drove cautiously out of Russell past enormous teetering heaps of earth and trees and rocks. Many roads were still closed and detours were in place to bypass the worst of the damage. But even the roads we detoured through were only barely passable. At one point half the road simply wasn't there any more; the floods had undermined it and swept it away without trace.

We drove past paddocks that looked like swimming pools. The topmost branches of trees stuck forlornly above the flood. A house sat abandoned in the middle of a field, the flood water lapping gently against the downstairs windows.

"We were very lucky really," I said. "It could have been worse. We could have had..."

"Shut up!" Robin interrupted fiercely. "Haven't you realised yet that those words are a magic spell? Every time you speculate on how it could be worse, it gets worse! Just keep your mouth shut and let me drive us out of this mess that you've made of the north of the country."

So, being an obedient, dutiful husband, I did what I was told.

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