For the past 48 hours I’ve been burning the candle at both ends. After spending all day seeing the sites I returned to my hotel room each night and spent hours writing articles and preparing photos I’d taken that day. Most of the time this was no problem. Recently, however, I’ve taken so many photos that I’ve been up most of the night – at most I’ve had five hours sleep over the past two days. So when I got on the bus for the four and a half hour trip to Paihia on the North Island of New Zealand, I was so sleep deprived that I went out like a light.
I awoke sometime later when the bus stopped to pick up passengers. Bleary-eyed, I looked out the window. At first I thought I was dreaming. I shook my head and looked again. I was staring directly into the eyes of a hairy beast penned inside a corral next to the bus stop. The strains of the old tune “Wooly Bully” echoed through my mind….surely this MUST be the creature from that song. It was the size of a large buffalo but was covered in long brown hair that grew down to the ground. Sticking straight out from either side of his head were long horns with ends that tipped upward like a Viking hat. He peacefully munched on grass, looking like a prehistoric beast if ever I saw one. Beyond him in the pasture were other unusual livestock – perhaps llamas or alpacas. Further down the road I saw horses “dressed” in coats that reminded me of the lead-lined shields used in hospitals when X-rays are being taken. These coats were draped over the horses, reaching almost to the ground and covering them from mane to tail. Weird. Welcome to the Northlands.
This is a ruggedly beautiful part of the country where the scenery alternates between soaring geologic formations and verdant hills covered in grass, grown as fodder for the sheep and cattle. Sometimes the road hugs the coast, revealing jeweled bays. Other times the mountains dip their feet into the sea, forcing the road inland to climb up and over ancient eroded volcanoes. Each town in this sub-tropical paradise was more picturesque than the last. In fact, while adrenaine junkies and trekkers prefer the South Island, for me the North Island offers some of the most interesting things to do in New Zealand.
My destination was Paihia and the Bay of Islands, perhaps the most popular tourist destination in the Northlands. The bus driver graciously left me off in front of my hotel, Saltwater Backpackers Lodge, which turned out to be a fantastic place – a sparkling clean room at a very affordable price, although there was no Internet connection available in the room. After settling in I decided to walk off the bus ride and explore the town. Paihia is one of the most historically important towns in New Zealand, as it is the place where the Waitangi Treaty was signed. This document, which was an agreement between the indigenous Maori tribe and the British Government, is generally considered to be the founding document of the nation of New Zealand.
Today the Waitangi Treaty Grounds house a massive collection of carvings from all the Maori Tribes within a traditional Maori Meeting House, as well as Ngatokimatawhaorua – one of the world’s largest Maori ceremonial war canoes. My walk took me through the picturesque streets of Paihia, along its wharf, and past its red sand beaches. I rounded the town’s largest bay as the sun began to set and picked up my pace so I would reach the harbor before the sun dropped below the horizon, as I was hoping for some good sunset photos. I was rewarded with one of the most exquisite sunsets I have ever seen – the sky turned pink and violet, then to burnished gold, and finally to blood red before darkness descended.
Tomorrow I’ve booked a tour to the furthest northern tip of the island – Cape Reinga. Normally I don’t do tours, but sometimes it is the only way to see something. In this case I want to see 90-Mile Beach, which can only be accessed with a four wheel drive vehicle, so I relented. I’ve been assured that his will not be the normal cattle-driven tour, as it is conducted in a specialized vehicle that only holds 20 people. Here’s hoping. Only tomorrow will tell.