Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Bay of Islands

Two weekends ago before I got distracted by exams and disappeared off the face of the Earth, my mom and I did a day trip out to the Bay of Islands, which is a lovely spot about three hours' drive north of Auckland in the aptly named Northland. Beautiful spot in the world, but I'm sure you guessed as much already, and we went up with a day tour that felt the urge to take a giant bus for all of four passengers for some non-environmentally friendly reason.

First stop, a Kauri tree! These are the biggest trees in New Zealand- they reach an average height of 50 meters (~165 feet) and diameters of 7 meters, and live to be up to 2,000 years old. Impressive no matter how you look at it! This particular tree we saw was a mere 800 years old, making it a real baby compared to what they can be like.
The problem with Kauri trees (or at least why it's a big enough deal that it's a scheduled stop on a day trip) is they were relentlessly logged for a century because it's some of the finest timber out there. As a result, it is estimated that only 4% of the Kauri survived deforestation, and most of the ones that did survive are the comparative "little trees" compared to the behomeths of days past. (There are reports of trees that were up to 22 meters in circumference for example, which would have taken well over a thousand years knowing their growth rate.) As a result, it is now illegal to fell any New Zealand Kauri so the few that are around can be protected.

I will point out though that New Zealand is an interesting nation in one respect: they have the largest amount of natural beauty per size of any other country on Earth, yet within a century they did a pretty solid job destroying a lot of it. (That is to say, they had to make room for the sheep somehow.) It is estimated that up to 90% of the New Zealand forests were deforested in the ninteenth century, and no one even pretends to know how many native animal species went extinct after man arrived. It really is a shame, though to their credit New Zealanders take commendable steps to preserve what little they have left.
But anyway, Bay of Islands! Our day trip consisted of two major parts, a tour of the Treaty of Waitangi grounds where the treaty was signed making New Zealand a British colony, and a boat tour in the harbor. The story behind the Treaty goes like this: around 1840 the main town of New Zealand, Russell in the Bay of Islands, was a rather nasty stopover descriptively called "The Hellhole of the Pacific" thanks to all the prostitution and gambling and general lack of order. The Maori didn't like this very much so they asked the British to send some troops to instigate law and order, which eventually led to the Maori chiefs signing a treaty with the British whereby the Crown got to rule New Zealand, the Maori got to keep their land, and the Maori became British citizens. They signed on February 6, 1840 and as a result Waitangi Day is celebrated on that date each year as a public holiday.

Of course, nothing ever worked out perfectly with European settlers and the Maori populations: there are controversies regarding the Maori translation and subsequent lands taken from the Maori without their consent (primarily thanks to the gold rush a few decades later). Compared to the problems and issues that have arisen in the United States and Australia on comparatively similar matters, however, there are comparatively few controversies today regarding this.
Picture of a Maori war canoe on display at the Waitangi Grounds, which is the largest war canoe in the world (they used to carve them out of Kauri trees, of course). Every year on Waitangi Day this war canoe is taken out onto the water with several other canoes from all over New Zealand to commemorate the founding of the nation. Kind of a nice tradition, don't you think?
This is a view out onto the Bay of Islands as we started out on our cruise. This is the point where the pictures become spotty unfortunately, as I discovered that my camera was essentially out of juice so I only turned it on for a quick shot here or there until it died altogether. So you'll have to trust me when I tell you that Bay of Islands really is a lovely part of the world though having great weather helped- I'm told that Bay of Islands has the "second bluest sky in the world" after Rio de Janeiro, whatever that means. Either way, it was lovely.
Ah, what a pretty spot of coastline! That's a little lighthouse up there (known as the Cape Brett Lighthouse) on the mountainside in case you're too lazy to click on the image, and it was arguably the most picturesque lighthouse I've seen. Most of the coastline in New Zealand is like what you see in this image by the way...
Piercy Island and the world-famous hole in the rock! Formed by natural erosion, the hole is actually big enough for a boat to go through...
Going through the hole is oddly arresting because it's so different from anything else really like it- the top is high enough to be a cathedral and wide enough for a cruise boat to chug through, but it's all completely natural. Plus when you get to the other side you get to spend a bit of time looking for fur seals on the rocks who give you odd looks wondering why those funny people are making such a huge fuss and interrupting naptime.

So that's about where the pictures end. I will note, however, that the entire time this little boat cruise was going on I was wearing my jacket, hat, and gloves as it is cold in New Zealand right now: it is the equivalent of December for us, meaning highs are in the mid-50s and it dips into the 40s at night. So not quite like our typical Decembers back home, but still enough to make me regard treasonous Northern Hemisphere talk of high-80s with a suspecting eye. Ah well, guess I'll experience it myself next week.