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  • Writer's pictureTom

New Zealand: First impressions

Updated: Jan 6

whare whakairo, Auckland War Memorial Museum
Whare Whakairo, or Maori meeting house in Auckland War Memorial Museum

We first visited NZ almost forty years ago. Still only 14 years after Britain had joined the European community (and negotiated away trade with commonweath countries in agricultural products), one third of the cars were still British models from before 1972, reminding me of my childhood. We were greeted with a special anglophile friendliness that made us immediately feel at home. Travelling was great value for visitors and we had a wonderful time.

Today, all the cars are Japanese or South Korean. The friendliness is still there, it appears to be an engrained Kiwi trait. However there is no longer any overt favouritism towards 'Poms': the welcome is universal. The first 'event' after docking is to negotiate customs and the biosecurity checks. The officers immediately made us feel at ease and, by answering honestly and with Skyfall looking in good nick, all passed smoothly. Annick was even allowed to keep what remained of her chocolate cache (this is NOT on the confiscation list). The biosecurity checks are a far cry from those of the Galapagos.

The bargain travelling of our last visit has, however, disappeared. Prices are very comparable with Europe although some things are obviously cheaper and others more expensive. Red meats in particular, and agricultural products in general are great value whilst spirits are noticibly more expensive. Fortunately, decent wine is again affordable after the crazy prices encountered across the Pacific. That the country's living standard is comparable with Europe is also reflected in the labour rates. Do not expect any 'hours based' quote for boatwork to ask less than NZ$100/hour.

Once cleared in, we were able to explore Opua and Bay of Islands marina. The marina has a brand new building with showers to die for. The visitors lounge is spacious and well-appointed with fast, free, wi-fi. There are a plethora of marine businesses within walking distance and two chandleries. However, that is everything in Opua. The exploration lasted about one hour!

We had decided to wait for a good weather window to sail south to Whangarei, which meant six days before we departed. We needed a car to explore the surrounding area. (The boat jobs, apart from hosing down and de-salting everything, could wait). The nearest car rental was at the local Kerikeri airport, around thirty minutes drive away. There was a local bus twice a week to Kerikeri. Fortunately, it went the following day. Unfortunately, it did not go to the airport, only the town, and we would still have a five kilometre walk to collect the car. Or not. We asked the driver to drop us at the point closest to the airport; He responded, 'No worries mate, I'll take you there'. And the bus route changed for that day. When we wanted to take the car back there was no bus and we planned to try to hitch hike, knowing the 'backup strategy' would be a six hour walk. We had not got out of the airport onto the main road before a car stopped and took us all the way to the marina. I still do not know exactly where the Maori was actually going (place names are not the easiest), but I am sure it was not to Opua. I thought of writing that this is what you can expect in New Zealand. However, visitors have no right to 'expect' anything like the sort of kindness we have experienced.

The country is larger than the United Kingdom with less than a tenth of the population.

View from 'Magic Boulder', Waiwere
View from 'Magic Boulder', Waiwere

As you drive around the rolling hills of Northland the lush greens tell you that there is enough rain and that agriculture is an important part of the economy. Yet farming was not so straightforward for the early settlers. The land was covered in (Kaori) trees which first needed to be felled, vast areas were swamps, and even then top soil was quite thin in many places. We visited the 'Jack Morgan' Museum, a local museum in Hukerenui on the road to Whangarei, where the settlers trials and tribulations were explained. Interestingly, it was the women who did most of the actual farming. The men worked in the income generating industries of logging and digging for Kaori Gum in the swamps. The gum was highly prized in the 19th century and used as furniture polish.

Lump of Kaori gum
Kaori gum. The gum leaks from the tree through cracks in the bark, hardening in air. When covered with soil it becomes fossilised. It was found in the swamps

Apart from agriculture, the Bay of Islands economy revolves around boating (fishing and sailing) and tourism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Paihia, a small town within walking distance of Opua (we recommend the Coastal Trail). It consists of nothing but hotels, restaurants and bars. Tourists come primarily for the nearby Waitangi Treaty Grounds, the birthplace of this nation. We had visited forty years ago and decided to 'pop in' on the way back from Kerikeri. However, we discovered that, instead of free admission (it is public land), the entry fee is now $60 per person. We find this commercialisation very sad and very 'un- NZ-like'. We decided to refresh our memories about New Zealand's origins elsewhere.

Russell was a good place to start. This town sits on a small island which is reached via a ferry (which departs from Opua). The whalers came here in the beginning of the nineteenth century and, as a lawless bunch, created havoc. Maori women were 'recruited' (kidnapped) for the brothels and their men could do little about it as they did not have muskets. The town was known as the 'Hell-hole of the Pacific'. In addition, the Maoris were in fear of the French, who, earlier, had massacred 250 in 1772. On the other hand, they had respect for the British and their naval prowess. Hone Heke, one of the more powerful Maori chiefs, travelled to Australia to plead for British intervention and to send missionaries. In 1835 the 'Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand' was signed by thirty five Maori chiefs and James Busby. The Maoris viewed the 1835 treaty as both a way to control the lawlessness of the (British) whalers and also as a document establishing the sovereignty of Maori leaders. Unfortunately, Busby had acted without instructions 'from above' and London hated the treaty and wanted NZ as a crown colony. Captain Hobson was dispatched in 1839 to 'bridge the gap'. His efforts resulted in the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi which essentially signed over sovereignity to Britain yet established Maori ownership of the lands. New Zealand may be the only country where the people actually asked to be a British Colony!

Today, Russell has a pleasant feel with a colonial waterfront and white picket fences.

Cavalli House, Russell
Cavalli House, Russell

It also has a decent anchorage and active sailing club. We visited the weekend that the 'Coastal Classic' (Yacht race from Auckland to Russell) arrived. There had been strong winds from the south and the first boats arrived Friday evening, with the slower boats coming in through the night. On Saturday morning the pier was a hive of activity and the bars were full of crew unwinding after their endeavours the previous day.

Russell Pier the weekend of the Coastal Classic
Russell Pier the weekend of the Coastal Classic

There are trails and coastal walks everywhere in Northland. From Russell you can walk up 'Flagstaff Hill', the scene of fighting and dissent between the British and Maoris until 1857. Yet the British only flew the Union Jack from the top of Flagstafff hill.

The Maoris felt that their flag should at least accompany it. This was partly because of the confusion and differences between the 1835 and 1840 treaties. When the governor refused, one on Hone Heke's chiefs cut down the flagstaff. Then came multiple instances of a new flagstaff being erected, fighting, the flagstaff being cut down again, etc. The British gave up. Until in 1857, when, as an act of reconciliation, the Maoris themselves decided to erect a new flagstaff for the British. And they all lived happily ever after! Well almost. Today Maoris assert that, when they 'sold' their lands, they were tricked, and that their ancestors believed the remuneration paid to them was to allow people to use (or lease) the lands, not to buy them. What ever the merits of these arguments, we feel that the Maoris have integrated, influenced New Zealand culture and become part of the heritage much more successfully than either the Australian or American indigenous people. The current Flagstaff is obviously not original as it is metal and tensioned with wire stays.

Whangarei Falls
Whangarei Falls

The trail continues as far as the headland, Tapeka Point, and the views across the Bay of Islands make the effort worthwhile. Many of the other trails in Northland lead to waterfalls. Take your pick from Kerikeri, Whangarei (above), Haruru, Wairua, Piroa, Taheke or Ross Park.

The British had sent Missionaries prior to the request from Hono Heke but they had met with limited succcess. The Church Missionary Society and Samual Marsden took a different approach. He believed that the way to get Maori attention was to show benefits to the 'European way'. Christianity would then flow naturally. Missionaries needed to be tradesmen who could bring new skills. The second oldest building in NZ today is the Mission House close to KeriKeri. Built in 1822, the missionaries involved were a farmer, an architect (and house builder) and an expert in flax (used for ropes and weaving). The settlement was so successful that, at its peak, there were 100 buildings and the community farmed 18,000 acres. Today, the mission house is the only one of those buildings that remains.

Mission House, near Kerikeri
Mission House, near Kerikeri

There are multiple other tourist spots to visit so our six days in Northland passed quickly. Before we knew it, our weather window appeared with the wind in the north, ideal for our 78nm hop to Whangarei (Marsden Cove), where Skyfall will spend the cyclone season. And just in time. Normally one would not sail to NZ before early November. However, in El Nino years there is a risk that cyclones will come earlier and the advice is to sail south earlier. And so it has come to pass. Last week, Cyclone Lola wreaked havoc in Vanuatu. The remnants hit NZ the weekend of the Rugby World Cup final with 100 km/hr winds. We are pleased that Skyfall was already safely tucked up in a secure marina up a river with her 2023 sailing season complete.

After putting the boat to bed, we spent a few days in Auckland before flying out. The city centre is relatively compact and most of the sites can be visited on foot in one day. There is currently a 'Kiwi Art Trail' which leads you to strategically located Kiwis painted by different NZ artists.

Kiwi Art Trail, Auckland
One of the exhibits on the 'Kiwi Art Trail', Auckland

Of course, our visit coincided witth the Rugby World Cup final. I asked someone where the best place was to see the game. He answered, 'France!' I was impressed with the knowledge and respect of the fans. Whenever the camera panned to an ex-player in the stand, the recognition and round of applause was instantaneous. And although (in my opinion) the All Blacks were robbed by referee decisions and two missed kicks, they were very gracious in defeat. Something football fans everywhere should learn from.

Like any capital, there are several spots to add to any tourist itinary; the zoo, the Memorial War Museum, Auckland Art Gallery, the harbour, Skytower, etc. However, the 'star attraction' for a sailor has to be the opportunity to blast around the harbour on a real, relatively modern, America's Cup 12m yacht. They may not be multi-hulls or have foils but, with a 34m high mast and a 20 tonne lead bulb on the keel, these are racing machines. The Explore Group offer this experience for a relatively affordable price. With the bad weather associated with the tail end of cyclone Lola it was not possible before we fly out but I know what I am getting myself for Christmas!

12m yacht in Auckland
Fancy a ride on a 12m racing yacht? The Explore Group offer sailing experiences on NZL41 and NZL68 sailing around Auckland harbour.

Skyfall will be here until early May, the end of the cyclone season north of here. We have plenty of time to explore the South Island in the New Year. In the meantime, our first impressions of New Zealand have been overwhelmingly positive.

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