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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 8 (November 1939)

Midnight Rail Excursion — A Trip — to the — Bay Of Islands

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Midnight Rail Excursion
A Trip
to the
Bay Of Islands

(Govt. Publicity photo.) “Where every prospect pleases.” A typical scene at the Bay of Islands.

(Govt. Publicity photo.)
“Where every prospect pleases.” A typical scene at the Bay of Islands.

It was from a recent screen advertisement during the interval at our local theatre that we had our first intimation of a midnight rail excursion to Russell.

The lovely Bay of Islands! How we had longed for a visit to those parts so rich in historic interest and natural beauty! The usual trips, however, had always been out of the question both from the point of view of time and of money.

Here was our chance. Leaving at midnight—romantic hour—with moderate fares commensurate with a moderate purse—yes, we must go.

It was an excited and joyful crowd that thronged the platform of the Auckland station on that memorable Saturday night.

The whistle blew on the stroke of twelve—and we were off! Midnight travelling itself was a new and thrilling experience, and determined to get every ounce out of the trip, few of us were disposed to sleep.

Somewhere out in the night a whistle sounded, its shrill notes wailing away into the black silence before one realised it was the warning note of the very train in which one sat.

A whistle! That meant a station. Where were we? Which could it be? Curiosity fighting desperately with increasing drowsiness, we raised sleepy eyes to the window to find to our astonishment that dawn had broken, and we were just drawing into Whangarei.

Never shall we forget that dawn, nor our first glimpse of this northern town by its ghostly light.

(Govt. Publicity photo) Sentinels at the Bay of Islands “that meet and mock the innumerable billows of the sew.

(Govt. Publicity photo)
Sentinels at the Bay of Islands “that meet and mock the innumerable billows of the sew.

Beyond Whangarei the scenery proved more and more interesting, but as we were within a few miles of our journey's end (as far as the rail was concerned) we had all too short a view of it.

Stepping down onto the platform at Opua, there was just time for a quick wash and brush-up at the station before we boarded the launches for Russell. The cool, exhilarating sea breeze soon dispelled all traces of sleepiness. Our spirits rose with a thrill of expectation as every moment brought us nearer this beautiful little town whose very name breathed the history of our fair land. Already its spell was upon us.

Kororareka, New Zealand's first capital. In all its peace and serenity on this lovely Sunday morning, it was hard to believe that this little jewel of a place set in its splendour of blue waters, page 28 sparkling sand, and bare undulating hills could ever have been anything but what it then presented, a veritable haven of peace.

Russell! The soft, homely name slipped off one's tongue as easily as a playful breeze wafted across the bay without a stir or ripple of the waters. But ever and anon the old name would beat insistently on one's brain, stirring up in one's mind vivid pictures of those old days when its shores teemed with life and action.

In the very early days it had been a lively enough little place, with dozens of whaling vessels visiting its shores, and Maori craft of all kinds, not forgetting their sinister war canoes, crowding every little bay and inlet. But Russell was as yet only at the threshold of its history.

There came the fateful morning of 1845 when that dauntless chief, Hone Heke, lay siege to its shores. Having already, four times in succession, cut down the flag-staff on a nearby hill, with the same tenacity of purpose on this occasion he burnt to the ground almost every building in the settlement except the church. It was only the fact of its being built on consecrated ground and thereby being declared tapu by the Maoris, that saved the church from sharing a similar fate.

It would have been a sad day indeed had it not been spared, for surely no building in the whole Dominion could be richer in historic interest than this, New Zealand's first church.

Moreover, it was in this church that Governor Hobson read Her Majesty Queen Victoria's proclamation of his appointment as Governor of New Zealand. The old church did not entirely escape, however, for there still remain evidences of the raid as shown by the holes in the walls caused by stray bullets.

Its cemetery, too, bears silent testimony to the brave stand made by the men of the H.M.S. Hazard against those of Hone Heke, for not a few of its mossgrown headstones mark the graves of these, the first British soldiers to be killed in the first engagement with the Maoris.

(Govt. Publicity photo.) The “Alma” and other craft at anchor at the Bay of Islands.

(Govt. Publicity photo.)
The “Alma” and other craft at anchor at the Bay of Islands.

Not all of us, perhaps, had known the history of our first church, but few if any were ignorant of the historic importance of our next stopping place, Waitangi. It was with no little interest, therefore, that we set foot on its shores, and with heart pulsing with expectation, set out on the cross-country trek from the wharf to the old Treaty House. The actual approach to the house seemed to offer a striking contrast between the old world and the new.

Accustomed as one was to this barren, undulating country, it came as a very pleasant surprise to find that one descended into a delightful old orchard (or what had once been an orchard) nestling in the valley between the outer paddocks and the house. Perhaps it was the obvious age of much of the surrounding growth, the gnarled old trees, winding paths and rustic bridges over an almost hidden stream, that lent to the scene such an atmosphere of old-world charm and grace.

One's first impression of the old Treaty House is that it is typically colonial. Memories of its place in the life of the nation come flooding into one's mind, and one realises one would not have a single aspect changed. It is, as it stands, a truly national heritage —thanks to the generosity of our former Governor-General, Lord Bledisloe, who purchased the house and adjacent lands in 1933 and presented them as a gift to the nation.

With so much yet to see, and so little time at our disposal we had reluctantly to bid farewell to Waitangi and to board the launch once more.

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(Rly Publicity photo.) Luxuriant tree ferns at Pukekura Park, New Plymouth.

(Rly Publicity photo.)
Luxuriant tree ferns at Pukekura Park, New Plymouth.

Our next landing place was the Zane Grey Camp, a name inseparably associated with one of the world's finest deep-sea fishing grounds. Fittingly enough, one of the first sights to meet our eyes as we drew into the wharf was a swordfish hanging from a derrick.

Small wonder that men, coming from the far corners of the earth to fish in these waters, sing its praises far and wide. Small wonder, too, that many return again and again. Indeed, to those not drawn here by the lure of sport, there is, in the ineffable beauty of its bays and islands, a soul-satisfying joy so seldom realised.

From the Zane Grey Camp we proceeded on our way back to Opua, not landing again until we reached Paihia, directly across the Bay from Russell. Once again we were forced to be content with but a passing glimpse of another historic landmark—Marsden's Cross. We were indeed reluctant to pass this spot, for it must stand second only to the old Russell church in historic interest, for it was on this spot that, in 1814, the first Christian service to be preached in New Zealand was conducted by the Rev.
(Rly. Publicity photo.) The first draft of Special Force recruits arriving at Wellington Station on 3rd October, 1939, to entrain for camp.

(Rly. Publicity photo.)
The first draft of Special Force recruits arriving at Wellington Station on 3rd October, 1939, to entrain for camp.

Samuel Marsden before a gathering of Pakeha and Maori. It was not until nearly a hundred years later (1907) that the great service rendered to both races by this man was commemorated by the erection of the cross. Of Celtic design, it bears the inscription: “On Christmas Day, 1814, the first Christian service in New Zealand was held on this spot by the Rev. Samuel Marsden.”

All too soon our splendid excursion was drawing to its close, but the spell that, all day, had been cast upon us by the rich heritages of the past, was not to be broken, for at Paihia, too, history had generously left its mark.

Here, in 1823, the Church of England's third Missionary Station was erected in charge of the Rev. Henry Williams, joined later by his brother, in which charge they remained for nine years. Here, too, the first printing press was landed and set up, and the first ship to be built in New Zealand, the S.S. Herald, was launched. The ruins of the printing press are still to be seen, while a small stone monument marks the launching place of the Herald.

The present little church, the Williams Memorial Church, though not built until 1925, is, nevertheless, a fitting edifice to the memory of these two great men.

Doubtless there was much more of interest to be seen, but we had perforce to bid a reluctant good-bye to Paihia, and with a last lingering look at Russell across the waters, we bade farewell to the Bay of Islands and turned our thoughts once more to the homeward journey.

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