I sat nervously
on my own in a quiet corner of the hotel bar. A cold pint
of Mac's Gold sat on the table in front of me, condensation
trickling down the outside of the glass. It had been a long,
hot and difficult day and I really needed a drink. I picked
up the glass and drank from it slowly, savouring the tang
and slight giddiness that come with the first few sips.
It felt good and I relaxed a little.
ridden the back road to Russell to avoid thundering traffic
on the State Highways. The coast road was an employment
creation project during the depression of the 1930's. The
result was enough to give any cyclist depression; we ended
up trading traffic for hills. The route was a North Island
special with hills of every description - steep, shallow,
short, long, stepped, continuous, rolling, undulating -
up and down, up and down, all day long, a painful traverse
of a sharpened saw. Thankfully, it was beautiful too, dropping
in and out of picturesque bays and deserted surf beaches
as it wound its way around to Russell, a tiny port in the
Bay of Islands.
The pain.... and the pleasure
of the coast road
my pint and browsed the dinner menu. It was all crayfish
bisque, sashimi, or scallop and asparagus mouse. Very up
market and beyond my traveller's budget. I felt a little
out of place in my dirty clothes and tatty trail shoes.
A rough looking local man walked into the bar, tattoos up
both his arms. He glanced in my direction as if to say 'Can
I join you?' I looked away and carried on supping. I wasn't
good company and he didn't look good company either. I'd
heard stories about this establishment, of how strangers
coming in for a drink could get befriended by a local, plied
with drink, locked in the cellar then shanghaied off to
sea. They say it was a long time ago but I was in no mood
to take chances. Much as I relished a few hours away from
Kirstie and the boys I didn't want extended leave.
about Russell and its' place in early New Zealand history.
Today it's a pretty little tourist town peppered with waterside
cafes, restaurants and holiday homes; white colonial style
residences, wooden picket fences, and a patchwork of red,
green and grey tin roofs. Ferries chug back and forth across
the Bay bringing visitors and supplies more directly than
by the long coastal route, giving the whole place a lazy
isolated island feel. But all this conceals a more unsavoury
Even Russell's police station
is pretty but it must have seen some ugly scenes in its
of Marlborough Hotel once welcomed ruffians dressed far
worse than me. It was the first licensed hotel in New Zealand,
established in 1837 to service the growing numbers of whalers
and sealers that plied their trade around the Bay of Islands.
Back then, Russell was a 'vile hole', infamous for harbouring
more rogues 'than any other spot of equal size in the universe.'
on for 200 years of European history, Russell is truly historic
in Kiwi terms where a building that's been around for just
50 years might get a historic building sign. Our 200 year
old house in England probably has more history than many
parts of this country, particularly if you ignore nearly
a thousand years of Maori settlement and history, which
people generally do. However, Russell was one of the places
where Maori and Europeans first encountered, traded, squabbled,
fought and negotiated with each other. Many early explorers,
traders and missionaries first settled around here. The
War of the North between Maori and Pakeha started here.
The Treaty of Waitangi was signed just across the Bay and
the first administrative centre was up this way too. Russell
just missed out on the honour of becoming the first Capital
on account of its' bad reputation.
The Duke of Marlborough Hotel
looks quite safe to drink in these days
I took another
drink and imagined the Duke of Marlborough's at its infamous
worst. Suddenly the empty bar was full, the spit and sawdust
floor heaving with Maori and Pakeha, eating, drinking, shouting,
swearing, screaming, fighting. As the liqor flowed, the
accordion played and seamen sang for the women, hoping to
trade shanties for panties. In one corner, squalid looking
ladies plied the oldest trade, flashing bawdy charms at
sex starved sealers. Meanwhile, across the room, wily European
traders struck up new trades, haggling ferociously with
spear wielding, half dressed Maoris. By the bar, half drunken
whalers slipped to the floor clutching tankards like lifelines.
And in the cellar, ex-convicts prepared comatose sailors
for sale to the next captain desperate for crew. Rats scuttled
under tables, sniffing out leftover bread, fat or gruel.
The air was stale and thick with tobacco, woodsmoke, rum,
ale and the scent of men who'd spent a hundred days at sea.
When you came here for a drink you knew you were alive,
and you knew if you weren't careful you could just as soon
be dead. Russell was deservedly known as the Hell Hole of
Not so these
days. The tattooed man finished his drink and left me sitting
in the empty bar once more. The most action I was going
to see was a pokie in the corner, a game of cricket on TV
or a plate of crayfish bisque. I finished my pint and left.
As I walked back to the campsite though quiet, empty streets,
I thought that maybe Russell had lost a little too much
of its past, transformed from a place of rough characters,
danger and excitement to a rather bland but beautiful tourist
resort. Shame really. It might have made a more interesting
Looks like the locals don't want
a return to the good old days