Days 166 – 169 (Nov 14th – Nov 17th) At sea and landfall in New Zealand. Bay of Islands, Auckland & Tauranga

Another sea day with the usual round of trivia, lectures and eating!

Finally, making landfall in New Zealand on the 15th Nov 2022 at the beautiful area known as the Bay of Islands. Our boat was anchored a long way off-shore and we tendered into Waitangi, site of the famous treaty. Since we’d been there already back in 1995, you’ll have to read up on it yourselves!

A short bus ride is required to get to the main town in the area, Paihai, a small place but one which exuded class and calm.

We wandered around for a while, picked up some supplies and then caught the ferry over to Russell, a peaceful and picturesque township set deep in the Bay of Islands, Russell is renowned as a big-game fishing centre and as a holiday town of major historical interest. Its tranquility belies the frantic activity of its wild early days when, as the centre of the first European settlement it was known as ‘the hell-hole of the Pacific’. Today the wildest thing is probably the all-day breakfast available at one of the cafes just inland

Originally a Maori village, the settlement was first called Kororareka (Sweet blue penguin) but was renamed Russell after Lord John Russell, Secretary of State for the colonies and later Prime Minister of Great Britain. The town is rich in history with a variety of shops and services that do not spoil the old charm. Probably the most interesting place was Christ Church which was built in 1836 and is the oldest surviving church in the country. Even the headstones at New Zealand’s first church have a story to tell…the crew of HMS Hazard seemed to have a had a pretty tough time in Russell as the captain drowned in 1844 and a number of the crew died the following year in an altercation with local maoris. There were memorials to both.

The weather perked up so we ended up walking along the coast back to catch the tender onto the ship, seeing a few birds on the way, including a Variable oystercatcher, an Eastern rosella (parrot) and a beautiful Sacred kingfisher.

The Bay of Islands was not a disappointment and was probably even nicer than we remembered from 1995. Our next stop was Auckland, a thoroughly modern city with some seriously expensive boats in the harbour including, it was rumoured, the prototype of the New Zealand entry for the Americas Cup.

But we weren’t in Auckland to gawp at big yachts, we were there on a mission to prove we could arrange an expedition independently of Seabourn. To ensure the ship didn’t leave without us if we arrived back late our plan was to ensure other people from the ship also participated in our trip, including staff from the Ventures team. This was thwarted by the ferry company having to downsize ships at the last moment and we were the only ones able to board the ferry that morning for the magical island of Tiritiri Matangi. Sharing a small boat with what felt like a million schoolkids and American birders with huge telephoto lenses was a small price to pay for 4 hours on this island, now restored to what it would have been prior to man arriving on the scene. When we first visited in 1995 the facilities were basic and playing bird calls to attract the birds out was allowed (certainly not the case now). Now the island is far better equipped for tourists and educational visits but is still stunningly beautiful. You’re still able to escape into the interior and avoid all other humans. A rare treat!

The main attraction, of course, was the birds. Many are endemic, so only occur in New Zealand and many can only survive on these small island reserves where rats, mice, stoats and other animals introduced by man are absent. The loudest and most obvious is the Tui

But the humble Bellbird deserves a mention after giving us the run around for much of the trip.
We were lucky enough to see some rarities such as the Weka, the Stitch bird, the Rifleman to name but a few.

While waiting for the ferry to arrive, we were entertained by the parties of school children. First the primary school aged boys did an impromptu Hakka and the girls from Auckland Grammar school replied with a moving Māori song. Tradition and customs replayed throughout time. Luckily the ferry left on time and we boarded before the ship left port.

Our final day before a sea day was at the port of Tauranga, gateway to Rotorua, site of a fabulous thermal park. An interesting place as look one way and you see the largest industrial port in New Zealand, look the other and there are fabulous surf beaches. We took a bus out to Rotorua and were taken round the Thermal Valley viewing bubbling mud pools, steam vents, thermal pools along with the constant overriding smell of sulphur. You are not able to get close to anything considered a safety concern but the local Māori’s are allowed to use one of the pools as they have done for medicinal and relaxation reasons for hundreds of years.

Strangely, there was also a Kiwi conservation project ongoing, with viewing of the birds only possible as they trick them into thinking day is night and vice versa as they are nocturnal. We had to walk through a series of darkened rooms to watch them foraging in their enclosures. They are released into the wild from hatched eggs when about 8 months old. They are endangered as being flightless balls of fluff they are vulnerable to dogs, stoats and even rats and mice. They are training farmers with dogs to teach the dogs to ignore the kiwis as they tend to live on farm or agricultural land. Will it work?

After this the day went downhill a bit as unbeknown to us the schedule was changed and our BBQ at the oldest and most impressive hotel in Rotorua, was changed to a buffet lunch in a “boutique” hotel. The best thing were the gardens and view over the lake. In addition, the local entertainment didn’t happen. This meant we had more time to kill so our enthusiastic driver drove very slowly back to the port, stopping us from napping with his constant commentary but he redeemed himself by driving us slowly by the best surf beaches in New Zealand. This 2nd complaint to the destinations team resulted in a minor refund for everyone.

Seabourn need to accept they have a duty to ensure the tours they advertise are the ones we experience. Being told the buffet lunch was dearer than the original BBQ and they had made up the difference is missing the point entirely.

End of moan, onwards to new adventures.