New Zealand; The Longest Possible Journey - Part Six
The Kauri and the Whale
While New Zealand was being run by the birds, much of it was covered in dense fertile forests. But this of course being New Zealand, we're not talking about any old trees here, we're talking about the mighty Kauri. Were it not for the Kauri, it's unlikely that there would have been the steady stream of merchants flowing in and out of the Bay of Islands - for it was this tough, versatile, knot-free timber that they were by and large interested in.
The story goes that the Kauri was so threatened that the sperm whale came out from the depths to invite the tree to move off the land totally and live in the ocean, safe from the axe of man. The Kauri replied that it was quite happy living on land and would take its chances with the newcomers, but thanked the whale for its concern nonetheless. Fair enough, said the whale, but if you're going to stick around here, at least take a gift of my skin to protect you from the threat of mankind. And so the Kauri tree got its thick, grey bark.
So now you know.
A nice story, but nothing does justice to the reality of the mighty Kauri tree in person. These massive trees stretch skywards at heights which boggle the mind and confuse the senses - they seem to bend towards one another at the canopy, in a similar way to skyscrapers in a tightly packed downtown street. Conversely, however, the root systems of these awesome plants are incredibly fragile and sensitive, being very close to the surface. When we stopped at a section of forest that allowed visitors (which required navigating a road so narrow, twisty and undulating that three people had to stop the bus and liberate their barbeque lunch) we were able to wander through a section of natural, but protected, Kauri forest on raised walkways. I was reminded of a Ray Bradbury story I read as a kid where time travelling visitors could travel to a 'Jurassic Park' style game reserve, but had to keep to the paths. The point of the story being that changing the smallest thing could have drastic and unpredictable results on the future. Funny how stuff like that rings true later in life.
At ground level, crawling plants covered the forest floor, such that at times it was difficult to tell if you were suspended a few feet from the ground of high above a canopy of ferns and rough bush vegetation. Here you can witness as the Kauri fights its eternal battle with the mighty tree ferns which also at one time covered the land. It could be argued that the ferns have won, since the New Zealand emblem bears their image, not that of the Kauri. Whereas the battle once raged across the length and breadth of the land, it is now restricted to small pockets of protected forest in the North Island.
The trees here are safe from the woodsman's axe, but only because they are protected by law. The demand for Kauri wood products has not disappeared since the early days of Russell and Waitangi, but the nature of them has changed. These days it's not for ships, but for furniture and ornaments. That demand is now being met by the use of 'Ancient' or 'Swamp' Kauri. This is wood from trees which fell many tens of thousands of years ago and has been preserved there until being unearthed by prospectors who buy up worthless swampland in case it contains Kauri logs which can be sold for a very high price. Anything from novelty kiwis to entire dining sets can be bought made from this ancient timber, but given the price of the novelty kiwis you'd have to be one of the aforementioned prospectors (and a successful one at that) to own ancient kauri furniture.
The kauri forest is absolutely one of the most stunning environments I've seen - it has the feel of the rainforest, so many miles to the North, and its moist fragrant air envelops you like a snuggly blanket. I didn't want to leave, but such are the pressures of an organised bus tour.
When we got back to Waitangi I couldn't face another evening in the sterile business hotel I'd been put up in. Most of the other people on the bus tour were either going out for posh dinners or simply crashing out in preparation for the next leg of lego-block tour tomorrow, but me? I fancied a beer, and maybe a bit of a party.
Paihia is around 20 minutes walk from Waitangi and where the buses and boats leave from to tour the Bay of Islands area. In addition to the tourist trade, however, it's a bustling fishing town, with fishermen from all over the world head to the Bay for the best game fishing in the world, pulling snapper, swordfish, marlin and kingfish from the ocean off the coast. The local restaurants are only too prepared to offer these sea delicacies to their punters, mostly at prices vastly lower than you'd pay in Auckland and Wellington's chic eateries. The country's best fish and chip shop (they have a certificate to prove it) is also here and they, too, sell the exotic fish which are plentiful here. No cod and chips here. The menu above the fryers has five blackboard slots where the current catch can be detailed. You can have Hoki and chips or even a snapper supper all prepared to order and served, as is traditional, wrapped in paper. The best fish and chips I've ever eaten ensued. I chose Hoki, but frankly any of their piscine offerings would have been just as good, and enjoyed my meal on the quayside as the sun sank languidly into the Pacific.
If a fish supper does anything, it gets me right up for a night out. I headed where everyone else seemed to be headed, to the Beachcomber club. It was here that I first experienced Monteith's ale, which was to have an important part to play in the rest of the trip as the best beer I tasted in New Zealand. A second followed the first, and a third followed that and, before I knew it, I was sat drinking on a mission with a couple of lads from Glasgow and Cornwall who had headed to New Zealand looking for work and a damn good party - sort of a latter day Auf Weidersehn Pet. The evening's entertainment arrived in the form of a chap with an acoustic guitar who knocked out decent versions of well known Aussie and Kiwi pop as well as some classics from the other side of the globe. The core of his repertoire was Crowded House, New Zealand's best known musical export, but he also knocked out a couple of tracks by John Mayer (who I've been following for a while) and even Pink Floyd. We joined in the singing, banter and light hearted heckling, which he seemed to appreciate. When he joined us for the seventh or eighth Monty's at the end of the evening he thanked us for getting involved - it was a hell of a lot better than playing to the bunch of disinterested backpackers which made up his traditional audience.
I was mildly shocked to find myself absolutely smashed, but in complete drunken contentment. This Monty's stuff was going down dangerously well and it was as strong as a decent ale back home. All the same I made my goodbyes and my way back to Waitangi. I ditched the road in favour of walking along the beach - the moonlight lit up the ocean and provided all the light I needed to navigate the shore and, once I'd left Paihia, it was the only light there was while the sea provided the only sound. I may have been drunk and sentimental, but I was definitely starting to fall in love with this place.