I will have the opportunity to prove my mettle behind the wheel today. We have a three-hour drive north to the Bay of Islands in the monster blue Holden (such a make of automobile exists). Why did I reserve such a huge fucking car? Jesus, I don’t even like driving on the right side of the road. My reflexes can be very casual and my stamina is diminished. These roads have no shoulders and only imaginary guardrails. They feel maliciously narrow and have an aversion to straight-aways. On a map of New Zealand, the shortest distance between two points looks like a plate of spaghetti.
Joss navigates us out of Auckland and onto Route One North, which is briefly a six-lane divided highway but quickly devolves into a two-lane country lane complete with a one-lane bridge, truly a fresh automotive hell. A couple of times, I fade to the left and the car’s wheels brush the curb. Joss hollers and splays herself across the passenger seat. I’m freaking her out. I hope my powers of concentration can prevail over the distracting inversions inherent in driving on the left hand side. Because the driver’s seat is switched, I can misplace the rearview mirror for a split second and end up sliding onto the non-shoulder or, god forbid, the slow lane before I get my bearings again. More than once, I set the windshield wipers to dancing rather than provide the folks behind me with the visible turn signal.
Our destination on the Bay of Islands, a B&B called Tarlton’s Lodge, is achieved. Friendly Dan, the host, shows us our rooms, which share a terrace overlooking the bay dotted with goddamn islands, while explaining many things that do not penetrate. Across the water is the town of Russell, New Zealand’s earliest European settlement. It is accessible conveniently by a ferry called ‘Happy’ and inconveniently by a long and winding road called ‘No Fucking Way’. We had stopped en route and had some delicious fish ‘n chips at roadside restaurant, so once we shake the automotive tension, we’re good for exploring. The Happy Ferry chugs across the Bay to Russell, whose original name, Kororareka, means ‘how sweet is the penguin’ in Maori. Russell was a sinful whaling port in the early 19th century, ‘the Hell Hole of the Pacific’. Charles Darwin stopped there on one of his trips and was totally grossed out. Check out The Voyage of the Beagle: under his entry for Kororareka, he notes only – “ew”.
Russell is a tourist destination now with a number of historic buildings and a quirky local museum. One such structure, the Pompallier Mission, was the headquarters of the French Catholic mission in the Pacific in the mid-19th century. Long derelict and now much restored, it tells the fascinating story of the Marist Fathers’ efforts to proselytize by translating Latin texts into Maori and then printing and binding tracts. The labor required boggles. Our guide, Lydia, delights in interspersing her descriptions with English catch phrases that come from the printing trade. ‘Mind your ps and qs.’ ‘Make a good first impression.’ ‘To be a dab hand.’ We hear someone playing guitar and singing Cat Stevens and from the second story window we look down at the wedding of Fiona and Matt in the garden below.
At last, ice cream, and we sit by the dock of the bay, licking. As we congregate to board ‘Happy’ we witness a badass woman weighing her huge tuna and posing with her catch.