The long bus journey from Thames went quite smoothly and I arrived in a small seaside town by the name of Paihia well past nine in the evening. This would be my base to visit all the sights of the region for a bit. I realised I was tired of moving around so much and I felt like taking it easy and relaxing in a cosy place for more than just a couple of nights.
The hostel was one of my favourites: plenty of comfy couches, two fireplaces and a terrace with a view on the bay. The weather was still summery around here with temperatures in the low twenties during the day and the clear blue Pacific at a welcoming temperature of 18. I looked up the latitude of Paihia: 35 degrees south. The northern hemisphere counterpart lies under Europe along the coast of the Maghreb countries. Welcome to the “winterless north”!
It’s actually a great time of year to visit this area: the weather is still good enough for all the cruises, kayaking, cycling and other various activities, but since they have few customers the prices drop drastically. The place is also of historical significance: in neighbouring Waitangi the fouding treaty of independent New Zealand was written by the English and signed by Maori chiefs in 1841, and Russell, a short boat trip accross the bay, was the first capital of the country. It’s also the largest group of Islands of the country, but most of the islands are tiny specks of rock and barren flora.
So history and Maori culture was what I was after on my first day. With a kiwi guest staying at the same hostel we went to the Waitangi treaty grounds, where they recently opened a museum with extensive explanations on the early history of New Zealand. The entrance also includes a guided tour and a short Maori cultural show. Time to be a tourist again! But I wasn’t disappointed this time. The museum was so big I didn’t manage to go through it all, and our guide was a charismatic Maori fellow who spoke for fifty minutes non stop about all sorts of cool facts like how they built massive canoes with intricate carvings and on how a slight mistranslation of the treaty had dramatic consequences (sovereignty was translated to governance, fascinating story you can read about in the link at the bottom of this post ). The Maori cultural show was also worth the trip, it was a mix of songs and dances with some weapons they would use in battle or to hunt.
After I got back to the backpackers I just chilled and chatted with the other guests there. The next day, I didn’t get up to much either. I took a ferry accross to Russell and walked around for about two hours, a short hike goes down to a quiet little beach through a dense manuka forest. The town itself has large colonial houses, witnesses of its past role during the British empire. In fact, they look exactly like the colonial houses I saw in Myanmar, built around the same time, in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Bay of Islands is quite far up north but is still a few hundred kilometers away from the tip of the North Island: Cape Reinga. I decided to go on a full day guided tour up there: there are really good deals at the moment since still try to bring reasonably large groups out. This was probably my only chance of reaching the top: at this time of year there’s practically no traffic so hitching is not an option. I’m glad I went but it was a looong drive (the little flag is where we left from).
As well as being very beautiful, it was a bit of a spiritual experience. The Maori believe that when a person dies his soul travels up to Cape Reinga and from there to the islands they came from (eastern Polynesia). In a way, Cape Reinga symbolises the end of my own journey (I fly out on Sunday!) and the completion of my discovery of New Zealand, from the southern tip to the northernmost point. Not that I saw all of it, it’s so vast…
Spiritual babbling aside, it’s also a beautiful spot, with the churning meeting point of the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Sea, a cute little lighthouse, wind swept vegetation and remote beaches.
The driver had given us an hour to wander about and after that we headed to a nice picnic area for our barbecue lunch. Next came the fun part of the tour: sandboarding down giant sand dunes. I’ve got a video to prove I did it!
A lot of fun, and quite fast as you can see. We were now at the start of a long beach, Ninety Mile Beach (actually 105 km long), classified as a State Highway, with the odd four by four driving along. This is the route we took to head south: our bus was actually a big powerful truck capable of making its way through soft sand. The tide was only just low enough so there were some exciting moments when the driver had to rush as soon as a small gap would open when the sea retreated before the waves would close the gap down again. We were driving at 90 kph!
And then it was back to Paihia. We went for (veggie-)burgers and beers with a French guy staying at the same hostel, and then stargazing on the beach; we even saw a large bright asteroid being consumed as it entered the atmosphere. A rare sight I had never witnessed before.
I decided to extend my stay in Paihia, I felt relaxed there and I started preparing my return to Europe, enquiring about flat prices in Vienna and so on. This kept me busy most of the next morning but in the afternoon I rented myself a kayak and paddled around the bay. It’s great because there are a number of small islands you can easily reach, and heaps of pretty sea shells to pick.
At first the weather was perfect but after a while the wind picked up so I headed back and took a nice hot shower. Later my Malay roommate suggested going out for a drink (again!) and once again I had a great evening.
My last day (the fifth!) in the area nothing special happened. I was focussed on writing e-mails to my contacts in Vienna and finding a place to crash while I look for a flat. With Joey my Malay roommate we went for coffe and ice-cream in between rain showers and that was about it.
Now, I’m off to Auckland for my last stop before I fly back to Paris!