Backpacking Pensioners travel blog

A view at Helena Bay

Oakura, on the back road to Russell

Whangaruru Harbour from the unpowered campsite

Bland Bay from the powered site

The Strand at Russell

The Pompallier at Russell

Christ Church at Russell

Some of the hand embroidered church cushions

Scale model of the Endevour in the museum

The musicians from the Academy of Music

Sylvia’s Comments

After leaving the campsite we drove into the town and parked at the Town Basin, the busy harbour area, where we knew we would be able to park the van and have just a short walk to the internet shop. This is important when carrying a laptop around and besides it was raining so we did not want to get too wet. We were soon logged on only to find that Mytripjournal web page was down, so we decided to use the time to check out the American Consulate in NZ website for further information.

As our home is rented out until the end of December we need to spend time elsewhere and either Kieron or Richenda (our son and daughter) might have to give us a bed and look after us. As we are travelling to America for a wedding it looks as if Kieron has lost and we will spend time with him. This will mean we will be required to obtain a visa for America as we will just over run the 90 day visa waiver scheme that allows tourist entry into the states. To obtain a visa an electronic form must be completed online, we did this whilst we were in Hamilton. Having completed it we then had to print it off and then phone the consulate in Auckland to arrange an interview date when we have to take our form in, along with other supporting documentation. The number we had taken down always seemed to be engaged when we tried it, and we thought we would check if there was another number we could ring.

Whilst online we were able to have a conversation with Kieron on Messenger as we waited for our site to come back on line. On enquiring of the lady in the shop if they sold coffee she said they did not but offered to make us one using her kettle for no charge. Once our site was operating again we quickly got our information uploaded, and then we returned to our van and drove around to the supermarket for a weekly shop. Then we were on the road again heading north on SH 1.

There are two roads to Russell, straight up SH 1 to Kawakawa and then onto SH11 to Opua and over on the car ferry. We were going to go on the back road which skirts around the coast from Whakapara. Our Lonely Planet book said this was a long and unsealed road and for those wanting to get off the beaten track. To our great delight we discovered the road is now sealed all the way to Russell. The road took us across country to start with then we got some stunning views over Helena Bay before dropping down to the side road that led to the bay itself. We pulled into the picnic spot right by the beach and had lunch before having a walk on another deserted beach. From here the road continues along side the Whangaruru Harbour giving us more wonderful views. The sun was now shining and the Pacific Ocean was sparkling, beats working any day.

At Ngaiotonga we turned off on the road taking us down to the Whanganuru North Head Scenic Reserve where we found a campsite for the night. Actually we found one camp with two choices, on one side of the road there were views over the harbour itself but with no power sites, the other side had views over Bland Bay on the ocean side and power. We opted for the latter and got a site right at the front with uninterrupted views around the bay. Apart from one permanent caravan we were the only people on this side, a rental van was on the other site. As we checked in the gentleman told us that he had only opened the camp site today, so we counted ourselves fortunate as it is a long drive to the next site at Russell. After a coffee we went for a walk along the harbour beach then crossed back over and returned on the ocean beach. Whilst out we met a gentleman walking his dogs, he had a speech impediment but through sign language and perseverance we managed quite a conversation with him, learning he had lived here eighteen years and what a nice place it was.

Our plan for the next morning was to have a longer walk around the area but when we opened our blinds it was very overcast and soon began to rain, so we decided to move on. We returned to the Russell road and crossed inland to reach the Bay of Islands at Parekura Bay. A road from here goes up to the isolated settlement of Rawhiti and the start of the track to Cape Brett, a hard 20k walk to the top of the peninsula. As it was still raining we thought we would give this a miss, preferring to see it when we take a boat trip in the bay, to the Hole in the Rock, sited on a small island at the end of the peninsula.

From here to Russell our road travelled along side the Bay of Islands passing many little inlets, bays and coves with good views over some of the 150 islands in this bay. This part is one of the most scenic areas of the North Island and features in many travel pictures and films made to promote NZ as a tourist destination. It is famed for its costal scenery and although a very popular tourist destination for land travellers and ‘boaties’, most of the islands have escaped township development. At first sight it is a bay of many islands, but under the surface lies a drowned river valley. The islands are all that’s left of the old hills and ridges.

The Bay of Islands is also a place of historic significance. It is the site of the first English settlement, the birthplace of European colonisation and the starting place of Christianity in NZ. It is also here that the Treaty of Waitangi was drawn up and first signed by 46 Maori Chiefs in 1840.

At Russell we found a campsite and had lunch then we donned our wet weather gear and went for a walk. On the pier we went into the tourist office to enquire about a boat trip around the bay. The lady in the office suggested we book a trip this afternoon as it was going to rain tomorrow, has she not looked out of the window today, it is raining now? The trip she was referring to was a jet boat ride out to the Hole in the Rock taking 1 ½ hours instead of the 3 ¾ hour cruise boat. As we wanted to see the Bay of Islands our choice was to go on the slower boat. Whilst leaving the office the jet boat was coming in to pick up passengers. All the passengers were sitting in the open, dressed in wet weather gear getting soaked. Not my idea of fun spending £32 to get soaked.

We continued our walk along the front until we reached Pompallier, NZ’s oldest Catholic building. It was beginning to rain a bit heavier so we paid our admission fee and went for a look around. In 1838 a French bishop, a priest and a brother of the Society of Mary landed at Hokianga. The arrival of a Roman Catholic mission outraged the Anglican Church and Wesleyan missionaries, who despised Catholicism and thought Maori, should be Protestant. It also disturbed the British Resident, James Busby, who feared colonisation by France. Despite this hostility the Pompallier mission survived and moved their headquarters to Russell, just across the water from Church Missionary at Pahia.

The monks knew that to spread Catholicism and to counter the ‘heresy’ of their protestant rivals they must produce religious text in Maori. A printing press, bookbinding and tannery were added to the building and soon 6,000 handmade copies of the 648 page book ‘Teachings and Prayers of the Roman Catholic Church’ were produced. When the building was sold in 1856 it became a private home until the government took it over as a historic monument in 1943. Nowadays it operates as a working museum, but not today, it was still an interesting place to visit.

In order to keep a balanced perspective we next visited Christ Church, one of Russell’s oldest building and NZ’s oldest church. In side the church all the pew seats cushions are hand embroidered and show scenes depicting the history of Russell, or the flora and fauna of the area. Charles Darwin made a donation to the building fund of this church when he visited the area. Our next stop was at the small museum where there is a 1:5 scale model of Endeavour, Captain Cook’s ship, built to mark the bicentennial of his visit to the bay in 1769.

There was also a lot of information on the history of Russell which was originally a fortified Maori settlement known as Kororareka, (translated roughly as sweet penguin). It was named by a Maori Chief after he was given some penguin soup whilst recovering from an illness. In the early days of European settlement the community was a magnet for the rougher elements of society and was described in 1835 by Charles Darwin as ‘full of the refuse of society’ it also gained the nickname as ‘hellhole of the South Pacific’ .

All this culture was making us thirsty so we called in to the Duke of Marlborough, the oldest hostelry in NZ, to enjoy ‘happy hour’ and discovered a group of musicians practising for a concert tonight. Listening to them whilst we enjoyed a drink we decided to return for the performance later in the evening. We dashed back to the van, put the shopping away, got changed and returned to treat ourselves to locally caught fish for tea. The musicians are all teachers at the Kerikeri Academy of Music, formed to bring music and the teaching of music to Northlands. It was a great evening and we heard some talented performers. After a really good night out we returned to our van not too worried by the damp weather.

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