Off to the Bay of Islands

posted in: Travel | 2

We left Auckland on Sunday morning, heading north to the Bay of Islands. The coach drove through rolling green hills which had been cleared of the native vegetation years ago. It must have been a huge job. Just how huge was on display at our first stop, the Parry Kauri museum at Warkworth, dedicated to the kauri, an enormous, magnificent NZ tree. It’s the second largest species in the world after the USA’s majestic sequoia. The timber was prized for making boats, masts, and furniture and most of it has disappeared. Humans are good at that. They find a plant or animal that’s useful to them and exploit it to extinction. Part of the problem is that these trees are slow-growing. It takes hundreds of years for them to reach a useful girth, some more than five metres.

The Kauri museum property is home to two of the largest kauri trees still alive and these days, like the sequoia, the species is protected. The sequoia was introduced into New Zealand and (like many other critters) they enjoy the conditions so much they grow at a faster rate than they do in their native California because they have a longer growing season. There’s a kauri tree in Australia, too, which grows on Fraser Island (K’Gari) very close to where we live, and on the Atherton Tablelands. The trees are protected, of course.

They used to be VERY big trees

Kauri is a soft wood with a fine, even texture and it can be used for just about anything. Boards are flexible, therefore perfect for boats.

The banisters for this staircase in the museum is made from kauri.

Then there’s swamp kauri. The trees fell and died in peat swamps where they were covered and preserved for centuries. Swamp kauri is much darker and harder than the fresh stuff. It is also highly prized and is used as a substitute for old growth kauri.

Apart from the magnificent examples of woodwork, the museum also has a sawmill and many exhibits of the early years in the timber industry.

Kauri trees also produce a resin that resembles amber, which is highly prized. It forms when the tree self prunes, losing lower limbs. The resin helps to heal the wound – but it is sticky and can trap insects and small animals just as amber does in European forests. When it hardens the gum can be carved.

Carved gum

The gum was also ground into powder and used to make varnishes and linoleum.

After our visit, coach captain Linda took us through the town of Kawakawa to see – of all things – the public toilets. They were designed by eccentric Austrian artist Hundertwasser. Linda told us the toilets were built after the artist’s death but it seems to have been a worthwhile investment.

“They have been voted the ‘best toilets in the world’, since then many tourist shops and cafes have created a small boom around those arty toilets. They are located at the pedestrian crossing in the middle of the tiny town.” [1]

Taken from the coach but you get the idea.

With a name like Hundertwasser, designing toilets is probably a given. The name means ‘100 waters’. There’s a Hundertwasser gallery in the nearby town of Whangarei. (FYI – WH in the Maori language is pronounced ‘F’)

Our coach carried on to Paihia on the shore of the aptly named Bay of Islands. It was one of the first areas settled by Europeans, principally whalers, traders, and sealers. They arrived in the early 19th century in Kororāreka, a town near the entrance to the bay, a short ferry-ride away. The Europeans traded with the Maoris and the town soon acquired a name as a den of iniquity, rather like somewhere in the Wild West. Lawless, lots of violence, lots of brothels. But the Maori name didn’t last. It was renamed Russell in 1840, signalling the beginning of the European take-over. The Maoris were not impressed when a flagstaff was erected by the British on a hill above the town. They cut the pole down four times, leading to war in 1845.

After lunch we were taken to the Waitangi treaty grounds where the famous treaty between the Maori and the British was agreed to. From what coach captain Linda told us, and the explanation given by our guide, my understanding is that there were two versions of the treaty – one in English, the other written in Maori. The Maori didn’t have a written language until 1815. There are cultural differences between Europeans and Maori which meant that the two sides interpreted parts of the treaty in different ways. You’ll find a clear explanation at the Treaty in Brief.

Suffice to say that in the British version, the Brits took over sovereignty. (I suspect the main reason was that they wanted to get in before the French.) In the Maori version, the Maori retained sovereignty. One huge problem was that the Maori had no concept of ownership of land in the way the Europeans did. They had traditional tribal land but they didn’t ‘own’ it. It wasn’t something they could sell. And of course, European settlers wanted to buy land.

The view from the Waitangi treaty grounds

The Treaty of Waitangi

This is a transcript of an explanation accompanying the painting above, displayed on a board outside the Marae.

“By 1840 the area in front of Busby’s house looked something like it does now – a well-cultivated lawn. On 5 February of that year it was the venue for the momentous gathering, when Captain William Hobson, representing the British Crown, met with a large group of rangatira (tribal leaders) and their people. Missionaries, mariners and settlers all came too.

Hobson brought with him a proposal for the chiefs to agree to British settlement in New Zealand.

A marquee, over 40 metres long and decorated with colourful flags, was erected for the occasion. The meeting began at noon. It lasted about six hours during which the chiefs vigorously debated the proposed Treaty, for and against. They continued their discussions that night at Te Tii, the marae on the flat land across the Waitangi River.

On 6 February the returned to the marquee where over 30 rangatira signed the Maori version of the document known as the Treaty of Waitangi. By September 1840 over 500 leaders from throughout New Zealand had signed.”

Our guide took us to the Marae where the treaty was discussed. A Marae (pronounced MUH-RIGH) is a Maori meeting house, displaying ornate carvings of cultural significance. According to tradition, one can only enter a Marae with peaceful intentions and to signify our agreement we were asked to take off our shoes. I don’t have a problem with the idea – here in Queensland most people leave their shoes at the door – but if I took my shoes off I wasn’t at all sure I’d be able to put them on again. I wasn’t the only one. Those who did get their shoes off were taken inside where the guide explained the significance of the traditional carvings.

Inside the Marae

The rest of us had to make do with the carvings on the Marae’s veranda.

We walked down a hill to an enormous ceremonial waka (canoe). Canoes like this one are designed to make a statement. It took a LOT of warriors to get up speed in one of these. They’re built from totara wood. This article will explain how they were built.

Transcript from a poster at the site.

“The waka taua (ceremonial war canoe) here is the largest in the world. It is a treasure that we at Waitangi look after on behalf of the iwi (tribes) of the Far North.

It makes a voyage at least once a year – on Waitangi Day. Being a crew member or a passenger is counted as a privilege and a prized experience.

Waka taua are the largest kind of waka and carry the mana (prestige) of a tribe, its leaders and its people. In former times the tribe’s warriors paddled them to war – ‘taua’ means war party.”

After we walked back up the hill through the obligatory gift shop we went off to our accommodation for the next two nights. The hotel, set in landscaped grounds, is located a short walk from the sea front and the wharf. We could have done without the stairs, one of only two properties on our trip without lifts, but at least we didn’t have to manhandle our suitcases up there.

The view from the beach

Tomorrow we would have a free day to amuse ourselves as we saw fit. We thought we’d visit Russell. I’ll tell you all about it next time.

By the way, if you’ve happened upon this page by accident and you’d like to read more about the tour, go to the tour page where you’ll find the rest of our adventures.

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