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In New Zealand

As most Canadians do, we felt very much at home in New Zealand. It’s a low-key, friendly kind of place, where not much happens, and is noticeably more laid-back than its big brash neighbour (sometimes known as the West Island….). With a political system like Canada’s (and a conservative government currently in power), a significant recent-immigrant population and a historically dis-enfranchised aboriginal population, plus that more go-ahead neighbour, news and commentary were often remarkably similar to what you might see at home. Obviously, the favourite sports here are quite different, but Rugby seemed to occupy the same place in the national psyche as Hockey does in Canada.

The Church, Russell, Bay of IslandsWe kept the boat at Opua, which is a marina attached to a one-shop village in the Bay of Islands, in the far north of the North Island. Conveniently, there are a number of boat-related workshops in the vicinity, of which we took advantage so as to replace Bosun Bird’s entire standing (i.e. wire cable) rigging, to revamp the engine’s cooling system, install a new self-steering vane, replace our aged liferaft and so on. All this at considerable expense.

The sub-tropical Bay of Islands was the area first settled by Europeans so there is a lot of history here, and Northland is also the principal home of the Maori. Just across the water from us was Russell, once known as the Hell-Hole of the Pacific on account of its population of rough whalers, prostitutes, escaped convicts from Australia and rum-runners; when HMS Beagle called in, Darwin commented that it was populated by “the very scum of the earth”. He and Captain Fitzroy accordingly donated ten pounds towards the construction of the church, which still stands and is the oldest in New Zealand (just down the road from the pub that holds License Number One). Russell is now very sedate, except when a cruise ship disgorges 1000 or so passengers for a few hours.

Also very close were the beautiful house and grounds of Waitangi. This is where in 1840 the Treaty was signed between the British and the Maori that effectively gave Britain sovereignty, and which has governed relations between the Pakeha (Europeans) and Maori ever since. Ever year, in February, the signature is “celebrated” with some fanfare. In the past things have sometimes got a bit rowdy, but all was harmony this year. We watched a spectacular dawn ceremony as men from Maori bands (“iwi”) from all over the country, many in full ceremonial warrior-dress and tattoos, launched their wonderfully carved war canoes, known as “whakas”. The largest of these requires a crew of no less than seventy paddlers and it was an impressive sight as – sent off by the sung prayers of the elders and the women folk (unlike in the case of dragon boats, the women still stay at home…) – they paddled into the sunrise.

Launching the whakas, Waitangi Day Maori warriors, Waitangi Day

Young Nick first sights land, GisborneWe spent a couple of weeks touring the North Island in a beat-up old Toyota Subaru (1985 vintage) that we had “rented” from some Japanese cruisers, who in turn had bought it for $1000. We spent some time checking out locations on the east coast where Cook had called on his first great voyage of discovery; “Young Nick’s Head” is, sadly, named not after the captain of the Bosun Bird, but the cabin boy on the Endeavour, who first sighted land here. Monument to Captain James Cook, GisborneThere are two or three monuments to Cook at Gisborne, which is the site of the first landing (Tasman, who had seen and named New Zealand over a hundred years earlier, never landed), one of which had been defaced; likely this was the work of radical Maori but, bizarrely, the statue they chose to slash with paint is controversial not just because it commemorates the arrival of the white man and the beginning of native subjugation, but on account of its being modelled on an Italian admiral with no facial resemblance at all to Cook, and in the full regalia of the Italian Navy as it was in the 18th century; the sculptor has never deigned to explain this..

One of the “must do’s” in New Zealand is some serious “tramping” (as trekking is known here). After limbering up with a very hard walk in our own neighbourhood, to Cape Brett, we did a four-day hike through the wild volcanic landscape of Tongariro National Park, in the middle of the North Island. The National Parks are well supplied with huts of varying quality and size that mean you do not need to take a tent, and in some cases you don’t need to take cooking equipment either, which makes for more pleasurable hiking. In Tongariro we were mystified when some young tigers started enthusiastically talking about their ascent of Mount Doom; our map showed no mountains with any such name and it was a week or two later when it dawned on us – Tongariro, like many other locations in NZ, was used by Kiwi Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson for extensive location shooting.

Cape Brett "Mount Doom", Tongariro National Park

We later did three more multi-day tramps on the South Island and on NZ’s small third island, Stewart Island. The most famous walk of all, the Milford Track, is booked up to a year ahead, so we made do with one of the other nine officially-designated Great Walks, the Kepler – a four-day ridge-walk in the Southern Alps.

Milford Sound Queen Charlotte Sound

Ship Cove, Queen Charlotte SoundThis we supplemented with four days in the dense rainforest of Stewart Island, where we heard (but did not see) the elusive kiwi, another (privately-managed) tramp near Kaikoura, staying at farmhouses, and a final walk along the Queen Charlotte Track, at the northern tip of
the South Island. Apart from the history (Queen Charlotte Sound was Cook’s favourite anchorage by far) and the spectacular coastal scenery, this walk was attractive in that the ferry that takes you to the start at Ship Cove reappears every day to take your pack from you and deliver it to the next stop.

Of the cities, Auckland seemed to us like one large suburb with not much of a centre; there was much debate over what can be done to gussy the place up for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, but every plan that emerged was being shot down amid acrimony surrounding the current evolution of Auckland – Toronto-style – from multiple mini-cities to Supercity; indeed the prospect of the World Cup was leading to more angst than enthusiasm. Christchurch, Dunedin and Wellington all seemed to us a lot more attractive. Punting on the Avon, ChristchurchChristchurch is rather self-consciously English, founded as it was by four shiploads of earnest upper-middle-class Anglicans, whose descendants still top the social roster, but it has at its heart one of the most beautiful parks in the world; at Christ’s College the boys wear striped blazers and short trousers and on the Avon River you can have yourself punted around by young men in suspenders and boaters; more darkly it has a reputation for violent crime, as epitomized by (in our view…) Jackson’s best work, “Heavenly Creatures”. Dunedin, further south and colder, founded by Presbyterian Scots (it means New Edinburgh in Gaelic), is appropriately more dour, with heavy granite buildings and a statue of Robbie Burns, but enlivened by its relatively very large student population: the University of Otago is the oldest in the country (but Christchurch proudly claims Ernest Rutherford). As for Wellington, it seemed to us – with its colourful Cuba Street district – a lot less staid than you might have expected from the capital of such a small, quiet country, but it certainly lived up to its reputation as Windy Wellington: the captain of our ferry across Cook Strait was a marvel of seamanship as he backed us into our berth in 60-knot winds (just short of hurricane strength), and at the first test against Australia the Aussie fast bowlers were totally flummoxed by the wind and bowled wide after wide.

Back on the North Island we spent some time exploring on our doorstep, under sail. The Bay of Islands is beautiful but it has to be said that it does not take long to explore. There are really only three substantial islands and there are few locations with 360-degree protection (desirable because the wind direction is changeable): it is a distinct stretch to call this “one of the world's great cruising grounds”, as the literature does. But a week's cruise did allow us to practice with our newly-installed Aires windvane and to test various engine modifications.

Anchorage in the Bay of Islands Anchorage in the Bay of Islands

For our final road trip we drove up 100-mile Beach (actually about 100km, not miles..) and to Cape Reinga, at the very tip of the North Island: a spectacular location with half the Pacific at your feet and, on land, a yellow sign indicating 8475km to Tokyo.

Ninety Mile beach Cape Reinga

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