Impressions of New Zealand – June 2022

Russell – Kororāreka

I left Auckland during rush hour on a wet, winter’s morning. I sat near the front of the half-empty bus as it made its way north, through the city’s suburbs, towards the Bay of Islands.

My ticket was to Paihia.

The four hour journey up the highways was sleep-rocking, and more or less masked. I kept my eyes open for as long as I could, fixing them on the life through the window – small towns, roads under construction, occasional deep pockets of exotic plants, and acres and acres of pastureland dotted with sheep and cattle.

We reached Paihia just after midday. I stepped off the bus and looked around, thankful that the sun was back.

Paihia is not shy. It is activity central, but the day I was there it seemed to be stranded in the starting blocks, its hotels, cafes, gift shops, boat trips, fishing cruises, and helicopters, all waiting for customers. There were not many around, and the only out-of-town tourist I saw that morning was a young female backpacker, trying to dodge the attention of an older man who had spotted her waiting for the next bus.

I dragged my suitcase along the jetty to book my ticket. The first ferry was the Happy one, with a barefoot skipper, and two (sometimes one) smiley face flags flying from flishing poles on either side of the wheelhouse. It didn’t take long to load the handful of passengers, and then we were out on the shining water of the Bay of Islands.

The sea was strung with yachts.

As Paihia dropped out of sight, Russell came into view, its wooden buildings eyeing us from behind an avenue of pohutukawa trees. It looked like a rocking-chair town – a comfortable place for four days of wandering.

I picked up some information in the small tourist shop on the jetty. One of the many helpful recommendations was to do the town bus tour.

Once I’d delivered my suitcase to the apartment where I was staying, I decided to take the advice.

The bus was not big, more ice-cream van than coach, but it was the perfect size for the five of us who climbed aboard. I stared out at the buildings, wondering if I really wanted to spend the next hour trundling around them. But it was too late. The engine rumbled, and a voice plucked the doubt right out of my head.

This is how I remember it.

“You looking at those old buildings? Well … none of them are original. The first lot all got burnt down. This place was the Hellhole of the Pacific.”

I sat a little straighter as the bus swung out along the seafront.

“Heard about the flagpole?”

None of us had.

“Well, that got chopped down a few times. I’ll take you up there.”

The tour, barely full and barely an hour, went in and out the town, up to the flagpole, down to the beaches, round the notable properties, and back via the churchyard. It gave us the restless bones and the gossip, and I had four days to flesh them out.

First thing I picked up was that the Russell I was in was not the original Russell. I was in a place that used to be called Kororāreka (how sweet is the penguin), apparently after a penguin broth approved by a Māori chief.

In the early nineteenth century, Kororāreka became a favourite trading point, and many ships began to visit the bay. A large number of these ships were whalers in need of supplies, and the resident Māori were quick to oblige. Also arriving were escaped convicts, missionaries, armies, and all kinds of explorers looking at the odds and their options. Sought after commodities included women, weapons and alcohol, and with each transaction it seems the stakes in the Hellhole got a little steeper.

And none of this is that long ago – little more than two centuries, and only some fifty years before this Moreton Bay fig tree (Ficus macrophylla) was planted by the town’s first customs collector. A sign beside the tree says that he was in post between 1870 and 1886.

Just behind the tree is the Duke of Marlborough Hotel, founded in 1827 as Johnny Johnston’s Grog shop.

It’s been burnt down a few times since then, and has shifted personality to suit its clientele, but it hasn’t forgotten its past, and the paintings on its walls are still full of the sea, and the lives that set out in tiny boats to hunt whales.

A few years younger than the Duke of Marlborough, and only a short walk away, is Christ Church. Founded in 1835-6 it is the oldest church in New Zealand.

Its gravestones tell the stories of the town – of lives lost in battle, and of families devastated by disease. A stone just outside its white picket fence remembers the fighting that took place there between the British Army and the Māori in 1845, during the Flagstaff Wars.

The fighting was fierce but did not touch another old building just around the corner. This building, Pompallier House, close to the seafront but at the opposite end of the beach to the Duke of Marlborough, was part of the Catholic mission established by the French Bishop Jean-Baptiste Pompallier. The building was completed in 1841, and housed a printing press and tannery used to produce bibles in the Māori language.

Prior to my tour of the building I had a croissant on the verandah, not far from where the French flag flies in the garden. As I munched, I had a sudden sense of how the old tensions bubbled.

When these tensions erupted in the Flagstaff Wars they carried the name of an Ngāpuhi Chief, Hōne Heke, with them. It was he, or his men, who felled the flagpole again and again, unhappy with the outcomes it symbolised for their people, and that it flew the Union Jack rather than the flag chosen by the tribes, known as the Flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand.

Today the often-replaced, now steely flagpole stands on a hill, at the edge of the town.

At the top of another rise, just across the carpark from the flagpole, several carefully arranged panels, tell the story of why the site came to symbolise so much.

The views from this summit, known as Te Maiki or Flagstaff Hill, are stunning, and in the image below, showing the opposite shore, you can see the flagpole marking Waitangi. This was where, in 1840, the treaty was signed that contributed to the troubles that upset Hōne Heke, and later became the wars that flared around the area for years.

Waitangi, which gave its name to the treaty, was where the official ‘resident’ of the British government lived. His name was James Busby, and he arrived there in 1834, living with his family just beyond the lip of the Hellhole. By the time he arrived, many of the Māori tribes were weary of the disorder and influx of strangers, and hoped the British Crown might help them. The Treaty, which was supposed to do this, was signed in 1840, but soon some Māori tribes claimed that the Treaty implied different outcomes to those delivered. Unhappy, the influential Hōne Heke targetted his frustrations on the flagpole.

To add to the gloom, at around the same time as the treaty was signed, the British decided to move the capital to Auckland. Their first choice had been a small town, briefly called Russell, and not far from Kororāreka. This was abandoned, leaving Kororāreka to bear the brunt of the Flagstaff Wars. In 1845, the final time the pole was chopped down, Kororāreka was burned, and looted and most of its occupants decided to leave.

Many decades later the town began to grow again, absorbing the name of its abandoned neighbour Russell as it did so.

Then, in 1925 Zane Grey came to visit and to fish. He was smitten, and his passion gave the town a new hook.

Below is the Bay of Islands Swordfish Club. Based in Russell it is the oldest fishing club in New Zealand.

While I was in the town the International Yellowtail Tournament was happening.

This photograph of the jetty, with the fishermen and their catch at the end of the day, seems like a good place to leave Russell. Laughter rolled out around the bay in front of me, while from the bush behind the town I could hear the weka calling.

If you are interested in reading more about the Flagstaff Wars here is a piece I found that provides some rich context, and includes references to HMS Hazard

And finally, a little clip of a weka

Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2022

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