THE BAY OF ISLANDS, 240km north of Auckland, lures visitors to its beautiful coastal scenery, scattered islands and clear blue waters. There are other equally stunning spots along the Northland coast, such as the Whangaroa and Hokianga harbours, but what sets the bay apart is the ease with which you can get out among the islands, and its pivotal history. This was the cradle of European settlement in New Zealand, a fact abundantly testified to by the bay’s churches, mission stations and orchards. It’s also a focal point for Maori because of the Treaty of Waitangi, still New Zealand’s most important legal document.
Perhaps surprisingly, much of your time in the Bay of Islands will be spent on the mainland, as there are no settlements on the islands. Most visitors base themselves in beachside Paihia, which is set up to deal with the hordes who come here for the various cruises and excursions, as well as being the closest town to the Treaty House at Waitangi. The compact town of Russell, a couple of kilometres across the bay by passenger ferry, is prettier and almost equally convenient for cruises. To the northwest, away from the bay itself, Kerikeri is intimately entwined with the area’s early missionary history, while Waimate North, inland to the west, was another important mission site and Mission House.
In 1927 American Western writer Zane Grey came here to fish for striped and black marlin, making the area famous with his book The Angler’s El Dorado. Every summer since, the bay has seen game-fishing tournaments and glistening catches strung up on the jetties.
A warm climate, abundant seafood and deep, sheltered harbours contributed to dense pre-European Maori settlement in the Bay of Islands, with many a headland supporting a pa. The bay also appealed to Captain Cook, who anchored here in 1769. Cook landed on Motuarohia Island at what became known as Cook’s Cove, where he forged generally good relations with the inhabitants. Three years later the French sailor Marion du Fresne, en route from Mauritius to Tahiti, became the first European to have sustained contact with Maori, though he fared less well when a misunderstanding, probably over tapu, led to his death, along with 26 of his crew. The French retaliated, destroying a pa and killing hundreds of Maori.Read More
The Bay is aptly named, with six large, and around 140 small, islands. Many are subject to the DOC-led Project Island Song, which aims to rid many islands of introduced predators and turn them into wildlife havens. Assorted birds have been reintroduced to many islands, notably Urupukapuka Island, which can be explored in a few hours using DOC’s Urupukapuka Island Archeological Walk leaflet highlighting Maori pa and terrace sites.
Of the other large islands, by far the most popular is Motuarohia (Roberton Island), where DOC manages the most dramatic central section, an isthmus almost severed by a pair of perfectly circular blue lagoons. Snorkellers can explore an undersea nature trail waymarked by inscribed stainless-steel plaques.
Other sights that often feature on cruise itineraries include the Black Rocks, bare islets formed from columnar-jointed basalt – these rise only 10m out of the water but plummet a sheer 30m beneath. At the outer limit of the bay is the craggy peninsula of Cape Brett, named by Cook in 1769 after the then Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Piercy Brett. Cruises also regularly pass through the Hole in the Rock, a natural tunnel through Piercy Island, which is even more exciting when there’s a swell running.
The Treaty of Waitangi
The Treaty of Waitangi
The Treaty of Waitangi is the founding document of modern New Zealand, a touchstone for both Pakeha and Maori, and its implications permeate New Zealand society. Signed in 1840 between what were ostensibly two sovereign states – the United Kingdom and the United Tribes of New Zealand, plus other Maori leaders – the treaty remains central to New Zealand’s race relations. The Maori rights guaranteed by it have seldom been upheld, however, and the constant struggle for recognition continues.
The Treaty at Waitangi
Motivated by a desire to staunch French expansion in the Pacific, and a moral obligation on the Crown to protect Maori from rapacious land-grabbing by settlers, the British instructed naval captain William Hobson to negotiate the transfer of sovereignty with “the free and intelligent consent of the natives”, and to deal fairly with the Maori. Hobson, with the help of James Busby and others, drew up both the English Treaty and a Maori “translation”. On the face of it, the treaty is a straightforward document, but the complications of having two versions (see The Treaty of Waitangi) and the implications of striking a deal between two peoples with widely differing views on land and resource ownership have reverberated down the years.
The treaty was unveiled on February 5, 1840, to a gathering of some 400 representatives of the five northern tribes in front of Busby’s residence in Waitangi. Presented as a contract between the chiefs and Queen Victoria – someone whose role was comprehensible in chiefly terms – the benefits were amplified and the costs downplayed. As most chiefs didn’t understand English, they signed the Maori version of the treaty, which still has mana (authority or status) among Maori today.
The Treaty after Waitangi
The pattern set at Waitangi was repeated up and down the country, as seven copies of the treaty were dispatched to garner signatures and extend Crown authority over parts of the North Island that had not yet been covered, and the South Island. On May 21, before signed treaty copies had been returned, Hobson claimed New Zealand for Britain: the North Island on the grounds of cession by Maori, and the South Island by right of Cook’s “discovery”, as it was considered to be without owners, despite a significant Maori population.
Maori fears were alerted from the start, and as the settler population grew and demand for land increased, successive governments passed laws that gradually stripped Maori of control over their affairs – actions which led to the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s. Over the decades, small concessions were made, but nothing significant changed until 1973, when Waitangi Day (February 6) became an official national holiday. Around the same time, Maori groups, supported by a small band of Pakeha, began a campaign of direct action, increasingly disrupting commemorations, thereby alienating many Pakeha and splitting Maori allegiances between angry young urban Maori and the kaumatua (elders), who saw the actions as disrespectful to the ancestors and an affront to tradition. Many strands of Maori society were unified by the hikoi (march) to Waitangi to protest against the celebrations in 1985, a watershed year in which Paul Reeves was appointed New Zealand’s first Maori Governor General and the Waitangi Tribunal for land reform was given some teeth.
Protests have continued since as successive governments have vacillated over whether to attend the commemorations at Waitangi.
Bay of Islands tours and activities
Bay of Islands tours and activities
Unless you get out onto the water you’re missing the essence of the Bay of Islands. The majority of yachting, scuba diving, dolphin-watching, kayaking and fishing trips start in Paihia, but all the major cruises and bay excursions also pick up in Russell. From December to March everything should be booked a couple of days in advance. Hotels and motels can book for you; hostels can usually arrange a discount of around ten percent for backpackers.
The two main operators are Fullers Great Sights and Explore NZ/Dolphin Discoveries, both offering sightseeing, sailing and dolphin trips. There are also numerous yachts that usually take fewer than a dozen passengers and go out for around six hours: competition is tight and standards vary. Most operators give you a chance to snorkel, kayak and fish.
The Bay of Islands is excellent for dolphin watching; there’s an eighty percent chance of seeing bottlenose and common dolphins in almost any season, as well as orca from May to October and minke and Bryde’s whales from August to January.
Your chances of swimming with dolphins are about 35–40 percent. Swimming is forbidden when there are juveniles in the pod, and only 18 people are allowed in the water with dolphins at any time. There’s usually a money-back offer if you miss out (check when you book); your best chance is on a cruise with companies licensed to search for and swim with dolphins.
Trips from the Bay of Islands
As the main tourist centre in Northland, the Bay of Islands acts as a staging post for forays further north, in particular for day-long bus tours to Cape Reinga and Ninety Mile Beach – arduous affairs lasting eleven hours, most of them spent stuck inside the vehicle. You’re better off making your way up to Mangonui, Kaitaia or Ahipara and taking a trip from there, or saving your dollars and taking Salt Air’s fixed-wing Cape Reinga Flight, which takes in the beach, Bay of Islands and includes a field landing and short run to the cape itself.
Fullers Great Sights also runs Discover Hokianga, another epic tour visiting the Hokianga Harbour, taking a Footprints Waipoua tour to the giant kauri trees, and taking a look at the Wairere Boulders. Again you are better off getting closer and spending more time at the actual attractions.