From One Coast to Another – Into the Bay of Islands

Bay of islands New Zealand

“Now I understand how your Granddad felt,” my dad said as he scraped the last flake of muesli from his titanium pot and licked the spork.

Born on a dirt floor in abject poverty, my granddad (Honey) went to bed without dinner most nights. Later in life, when most Americans had forgotten or never known that kind of hunger, he still gnawed the last shreds of fat from his t-bone steak. And then devoured the leftovers from everyone else’s plates as well.

Sitting in our cow-pie camp outside the Herekino Forest, I wouldn’t say our situation was quite on par with the Great Depression. But for the first time in my life, I’d awoken at some horrific hour of the morning with hunger pangs. But I couldn’t eat. I mustn’t. It was against some stupid rationing plan I’d created for some stupid reason. Now, there was a very real fear that if we were to continue into the Raetea and Puketi Forests, we’d run out of food.

When at last we stepped into a supermarket in Kerikeri after hitchhiking some 40 miles, I could have shouted to the fluorescents above, “As God as my witness, I will never go hungry again!”

You wouldn’t believe the supermarket’s towering aisles of food, stocked to the ceiling. Cheese! Sausage! Tortillas! Nuts! Chocolate and calories and fat! By the time we were done, our packs were weighed down with ten days of horrendously heavy food. Our shopping spree lasted so long that the post office had closed and we’d missed our opportunity to ship half the kitchen pantry ahead.

We looked at the map and shrugged. It was only a day, an easy walk in fact, to Paihia and the next post office.

I once read (long ago and very far away) that a backpacker should carry no more than 30% of his or her bodyweight. When I hefted my Osprey on the next morning, it weighed a lot (and I mean a lot) more than 30%. More like 40%. Or more. The damn thing was so heavy, I had to lay it on the bed and crawl into it; which resulted in me flopping around for a bit on my back like a capsized turtle.

We set off. Straining up a gentle hill, twenty minutes into our hike, I felt a sharp pang in my knee. Oh no, I don’t have knee problems. It’s not really something I do. But with another step, another pang. Oh, and it was getting worse.

By the time we reached the start of the picturesque Waitangi Forest Track, each step felt like it could be the end of my walking career. Or perhaps of just walking all together. You never know with these things.

“Let me carry something. Give me your GoPro,” Dad said.

“Your pack weighs just as much as mine! Maybe more.”

“You want to blow out your knee? Give me your Nikon, too.”

I dug out the cameras and handed them over.

We carried on. Mile after easy, scenic mile became endless agony. The most astounding view of the Pacific Ocean hugging the green, rocky coastline on a brilliant, sunny day only reminded us how far we had yet to go. We arrived late in the day at the YHA in Paihia.

“How’re you getting on?” The owner, Andy asked.

“Great… do you have an ice pack?”

I spent the evening icing my knee and scowling at some other thru-hikers with inconceivably light packs. One of them actually had the audacity to complain about having too much food. Further scowling ensued.

The next morning I awoke feeling bright and refreshed. I stepped tentatively from bed. Nothing. And another step. No pain there either. I skipped downstairs to the kitchen and put the kettle on. When I returned with our coffee, Dad limped from his room and leaned against the doorjamb.

“What’s wrong with you?”

Then I saw his shin. Or rather, the bulging purple and yellow mass that seemed to have grown around his lower leg and ankle overnight.

“What the hell is that?”

“I don’t know. But it hurts.”

Andy directed us to the local medical center. Under a persistent drizzle, I followed my Dad to the doctor. None of this bode well.

I read New Zealand gossip rags in the waiting room, catching up on the loves and lives of celebrities I’d never heard of. Dad emerged from the back.

“Shin splints. Really bad shin splints.”

The doctor prescribed rest, ice, and a mild painkiller. Dad prescribed scotch. It looked like a few extra days in Paihia.

Bay of Islands

Of course, there are far worse places to be stuck than the Bay of Islands. Nearly 150 tall, mountainous islands reach skywards through deep aquamarine waters. Whimsical sailboats drift lazily in the harbors and white cottages polka-dot the bright green hillsides. Tourists zip across the bay in speedboats searching for dolphins. Fishermen scour the waters for the next big catch. And no one wears shoes.

Named quite cleverly by the English explorer Captain James Cook in 1769, the Bay of Islands eventually attracted the first European settlers in the early 19th Century. Back in Kerikeri, the Stone Store and Kemp House are the two oldest surviving buildings in the country. Te Araroa passes just under their eaves.

The old Kerikeri Mission Station (Stone Store and Kemp House) provides a fantastic insight into the history and way of life of early European missionaries)

The old Kerikeri Mission Station (Stone Store and Kemp House) provides a fantastic insight into the history and way of life of early European missionaries

Erected by Anglican missionaries under the protection of the Ngapuhi tribe in 1822, the Kerikeri Mission Station was front and center to major events of 19th Century New Zealand. During its construction, the Ngapuhi chief Hongi Hika returned from a trip to London and Sydney (in which he introduced himself as the King of New Zealand to George IV!), and brought home 1,000 deadly souvenirs – black powder muskets. The introduction of armed warfare (one-sided for a good while in favor of Hongi Hika) began a series of particularly bloody and brutal Maori wars.

(Incidentally, while Hongi toured England, he visited Professor Samuel Lee of Cambridge University and helped put the Maori language to written word in A Grammar and Vocabulary of the Language of New Zealand.)

His greatest, though not most humanitarian, contribution to history it seems was changing the inter-tribal political scene through the Musket Wars. At one point in time, Hongi lead 2,000 men across New Zealand. The resulting arms race lead other tribes to acquire weapons. The wars peaked in 1822 and 1823. Thousands were massacred on all sides. The chaos seemed to settle down in 1840 after a general feeling of war-weariness and, by some accounts, the spread of Christianity.

In an unexpected turn of events, the Kerikeri Mission Station did not initially have many converts … due in part to a few drunken, adulterous missionaries. It wasn’t until Revd Henry Williams took over, basing his operations from Paihia, that Mission Station began to see success.

(The Stone Store and Kemp House of the old Mission Station are in much the same condition as they were in the 1800s, with a museum, guided tour, and gift shop. Definitely worth a stop if you’re in Kerikeri.)

Rather than spend time convalescing (who listens to doctors, anyway?), Dad and I walked a few kilometers from the YHA to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. It was here, in 1840 that Britain officially annexed New Zealand and granted Maori the rights of British citizenship. The historian John King writes, “While that Treaty was in part a product of the most benevolent instincts of British humanitarianism, and those who signed it on February 6 had the highest possible hopes for benign outcomes, the document would turn out to be the most contentious and problematic ingredient in New Zealand’s national life.”

Waitangi Treaty Grounds

While the intricacies (and controversies) are much too complicated to delve into here, imagine if the  U.S. Constitution had been written in both English and, say, Navajo. And then try to comprehend the mess Congress would be in if it were to discover the translation between the English and the Navajo were significantly different. It’s probably not a good analogy, but it should give you some idea of the political struggle that has resulted around the founding document of New Zealand.

While the English version of the Treaty clearly stated that the Maori chiefs were signing away their sovereignty to Queen Victoria, the Maori version more or less implied Great Britain would assume the role of governor (and protector from other European countries). On top of that, the promises made in both were largely ignored for decades until the 1970s when Maori activists essentially rediscovered the Treaty.

Politics aside, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds provides a unique insight into Maori culture and history. As Te Araroa passes directly through the grounds, there was no reason not to stop – or double back, in our case!

After just two days in Paihia, we were restless to get back on the trail. The swelling in Dad’s shin had eased a bit, but as we would later discover, wasn’t quite ready to go.

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