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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 2 (May 1, 1935)

On the Road to Anywhere — Russell and a Rainbow. — Dolce far niente at Keri-Keri. — Part II

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On the Road to Anywhere
Russell and a Rainbow.
Dolce far niente at Keri-Keri.
Part II.

Russell, Bay of Islands, North Island, New Zealand. (Rly. Publicity photo.)

Russell, Bay of Islands, North Island, New Zealand.
(Rly. Publicity photo.)

So this … so this … was Russell.

“Perfect,” said I firmly.

The train from Whangarei had splashed its way through grey veils of moisture, thoughtfully supplied by overfed rainclouds which looked as though nothing could possibly discourage their tireless energies. Finally, after grim concentration on ham sandwiches we came to a dead stop. “Opua, ladies and gentlemen… Launch here for Russell.”

“That,” said the ever-obliging, ever-informative “Man Who Had Been There Before,” “is our launch, Knoxie II.”

Very chic and sturdy is Knoxie II. Green, with handsome cream-coloured trimmings. Little waves bobbed up and down in a handsome Brussels lace pattern alongside. And overhead, stretching all the way across a world of jade sea and darker green islets, sparkled the best-looking rainbow I have seen for years.

What magic is there in Bay of Islands waters, that makes their crisp flash around the prow of a launch a thousand times more fascinating than the rest of New Zealand's perfectly good ocean? Is it true that only where humanity has lived long, dreamed, quarrelled, builded and fought does Nature wake up from her trance of sunlit days, and take a hand in the game, shining in peace where happy memories are to be found, frowning in lonely majesty as one slides past the little rock which was once the scene of combat?

People who come to Russell are usually occupied, to the exclusion of all else, in the pursuit of swordfish and suntan; and this is well enough. But were I staying in Russell long, I should begin, almost automatically, to keep an eye open for ghosts. And at moments when the great milk-of-jade smother occasioned by the mako's leap should distract one's attention from anything else under the sun, I should look over my shoulder for the slim beaked prow of a red-ochred war canoe, on its way back from the South to Heke's terrible, dominating pa at Keri-Keri. In the misty, silvery moonlight of Russell nights (perfectly sheltered is the little town, and as quiet as a dream), I should think to hear the rough shouting of the traders who used to swagger down the street that once boasted over thirty hotels. Almost all New Zealand's early history, since the pakeha first turned his attention to a green new isle in southern seas, is crowded into this strangely placid bay. Ghosts …. the place is full of them.

Paihia on your left…..A quaint and charming little resort, complete with bush, birds and bungalows. It has been labelled “exclusive,” and as that devastating word always means that people flock to partake of the exclusiveness, many think that its future as a holiday centre is even more securely settled than Russell's. Be that as it may or mayn't, Paihia (where the rugged blue-grey stone of the new Williams Memorial Church makes it appear older and more English than the far more elderly little structures of wood at Russell and Keri-Keri), is a place of great peace and pleasantness.

If I wanted to make a fortune in Russell, (nobody is so utterly prosaic, the sole desire of the tourist heart is to catch a finer and fatter “swordie” than will nibble the line of any other visitor), I'd buy one of the sleepy-looking, memory-stored old gabled houses which line the few streets of the tiny town, and endeavour to make it just a little like the taverns which must have winked golden eyes out to sea in the palmy days of whalers and sailors.

A club presides over the destinies of those who go down to the sea in launches, and have urgent business (with “swordie” or with mako), in the great waters. Its premises are not exactly pretentious, but it's a very important institution: and seldom have I seen more placid satisfaction with life, the good sun and the ways of the world than is expressed in the faces of seasoned fishermen, who from an early hour in the morning are up and about, comparing notes and fish-stories. They all wear shorts, they are all sun-tanned to the magnificent mahogany hue dear to readers of Ethel M. Dell. But it's no good, my dears, no good whatsoever making for Russell and endeavouring to attract the notice of these stalwart sea-gods. Fish is all they care about; the old superstitions of the sea are rather amusingly in favour hereabouts. This launch or that (all for hire to the tourist prepared to see makos and die), is supposed to be lucky, or the reverse: the catch of a really O.S. fish from any boat is always widely advertised, not only by word of mouth, but in the printed catalogues which set forth Russell's various advantages.

Grey and rose, and delicately misty like a perfect opal was the Russell sunset, tiny clouds, like plumage dropped from flamingoes' wings, reflected in very still waters. What peace there is in that shimmering, island-dotted sweep of sea ….. yet ever the ghostly masts and sails of the long-ago whalers, the ghostly prows of the half-forgotten Maori canoes, seem to round the headlands in the half light. An easy walk from the township stands the flag pole, thrice cut down in the days of “the rising of Koro-rareka,” thrice raised again in defiance of the odds of numbers. In the churchyard of the St. Joseph's lilies, you will find old graves commemorating the death of men who fell in that rising. If the gaiety, the sport, the cheerful dolce far niente atmosphere of the place claim you by day, after dusk you will almost certainly lift the curtains of the world of history.

Cream launch? Fishing-grounds? Launch to Keri-Keri? Or what you will, Madame. Morning offers a delightful variety of trips over these green sparkling waters.

I know a very sad story about Keri-Keri. Two young people, blithe of heart,

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journeyed there on a particularly hot, dusty, and, if one may so describe it, thirsty sort of day. After explorations of an exceeding thoroughness, calculated to develop the leg muscles but not to cool the brow, they were delighted to be asked by the occupant of a charming bungalow whether they couldn't manage to accommodate one drink apiece. “Yes,” said they, that they could, and willingly. Tumblers of a promising length, and brimming with fluid of even more promising amber hue, were thereupon produced. They quaffed, blinked. The liquid offered for their consumption was none other than Keri-Keri's famous (or is it notorious?) passion-fruit. That's the way Keri-Keri feels about its passion-fruit. Nobody thinks anything of walking you miles and miles to observe the notable behaviour of some vine or shrub, which is “coming along nicely.” And, indeed, the sunny settlement, which is by right of charm alone one of the most interesting places in the North Island, may one day become New Zealand's California.

The name Keri-Keri is variously interpreted, but the version that I liked best was “Rumbling Waters.” A little freshet does decide to turn itself into a rapid just at the entrance to the bay; and beyond this sparkle of waters (swept by the long locks of willow-trees) prance the graceful white launches, home away from home for full many a business man who forgets all about being tired once he arrives in this idyllic country.

Keri-Keri's store I thought far more imposing than anything in Russell, where you could, if you liked, buy calendars in the shape of quite recognisable swordfish, novelettes, mosquito and suntan lotions, or milk chocolates. But the Keri-Keri store has a history… . All the way back to those old dream-days of strife, hopes and ambitions it goes again… .

It is built of very thick stone walls, which look as though they should stand the centuries. Warm and brown and evenly cemented, they are, and you'd hardly guess that Maori hands built them under the guidance of the first missionaries, in the days when the cannibal feast was still taken as a matter of course and the war canoe was dyed red with blood as well as with ochre. The deep-set windows are securely barred; for in this store, women of the pioneers and their
Historie Keri-Keri, in the Far North of New Zealand. (Rly. Publicity photo.)

Historie Keri-Keri, in the Far North of New Zealand.
(Rly. Publicity photo.)

frightened children would shelter in the days when Heke threatened business. Scarcely a bowshot away, directly opposite Keri-Keri and its tiny cluster of English homes, once stood the pa of dread renown, famous throughout the North for its elaborate ornamentation, but far more famous to the settlers for the eternal menace it conveyed. Red battle took place on that site; its details—the swimming of the narrow arm of sea by English soldiers, the taking of the pa by stealth—are a matter of history. But it is hard to realise how much this old stone store, which suns itself in Keri-Keri's golden light as if it knew nothing but peace, has seen and can remember.

Upstairs, great silvery cobwebs drape the now empty rooms which were once Bishop Selwyn's library. Touchingly this greatest of the early missionaries, who died in England homesick for his wild New Zealand, and who, like Marsden, was a man whose strong unresting personality made him more enemies than enough, has written of the peace he found in this still room of the thick stone walls, its quiet “so uncolonial.” He writes hoping for hours of meditation here, “that there may be some abundance in myself, from which I may give to others.” Another missionary records the joy with which he saw the plough, for the first time, enter New Zealand soil. It is gone, the little patch of corn which was cultivated by these forerunners, who established a tiny college of training for the mission life here, against every possible difficulty: until later this was moved inland to Waimate. But surely it will not be long before New Zealanders, recognising in “these old shades” the builders of their land, in the tranquility of the cobwebbed room the cradle from which something of greatness and dignity emerged, commemorate the early missionaries in the best possible way. Why is not this upper chamber of meditation, now given over to the spider and to the keeping of a few stores, entered only by a steep and twisted old staircase, converted into a museum where every possible relic of its old occupants might be kept? Then indeed the visitor might feel in its drowsy air that “abundance” of which Selwyn writes.

Tea in a nikau palm kiosk …or passion-fruit, of course, if you're determined to do in Keri-Keri as the Keri-Kerians do. This quaint little place, kept by a charming New Zealander who has become something of an authority on ancient Maori lore, and on the early history of the North, is well worth a visit.

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It is Maori-built, and the fingers of the natives have not yet forgotten their old craft in thatching. Wind and rain stay outside, where they belong; and one devours (not without vigour) hot cakes, and discusses the legend of Maui, whose fish provides New Zealand with its first and fishiest fish story, and leaves even Zane Grey gasping in the rear.

Talking of joi de vivre: I was not a little astonished, on emerging into the bright sunshine, to see the very substantial form of a retired sea-captain, dressed briefly but brightly in shorts and shirt, executing a very notable version of the hornpipe on the green. One of the most enthusiastic inhabitants, he was. His little cottage, with its garden bourgeoning with sweet-peas and kumaras, was a model of bachelor tidiness. Leave Keri-Keri? Return to civilisation, trousers, tittle-tattle? Not, Sir, if he knew it.

Some of the inhabitants dispense with the formality of having a house, and abide cheerfully on launches. A former M.P., his barque celebrated for its spick-and-span beauty, is among these: and very cheerful he looks. But don't think Keri-Keri is without its more elaborate mansions. One resident, who like many others in the little colony has spent most of his days in China, has glorified the entrance to the Keri-Keri inlet with an astonishing but very attractive pagoda, bright sky-blue and scarlet adornments brightening the landscape. Not everyone, not everywhere can abide in a sky-blue pagoda: at Keri-Keri it can be done, which is just one more little advantage of the Winterless North, where, to say true, almost everything appeared to me advantageous.

And the Christmas tree was beginning to burn with slow scarlet flame, on the gleaming run back to Russell. Little inlets, where dwell charming English folk who, like most Northerners, are hospitable on sight, and whose one hankering after the outer world seems to be a craving for books and magazines, were lighted with the red torches of blossom … and the cool silver sea, haunt of memories, heaven for “swordies” and fishermen alike, whispered legends under the swift keel of the boat. There's no need for that silver sea to say “Come back!” Come back they must, all who have seen its rippling beauty.