Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All
Chapter 1: Paihia
If you stick a hatpin in at Boston and drive it through the center of the earth you come out very near the Bay of Islands. The first Europeans to go south of the equator expected to find a sort of looking-glass world, backwards but recognizable, like people who resembled them but walked on their hands. This, of course, is not how it was, though there were birds that scuttled and animals that flew, trees that lost their bark and kept their leaves, pools of bubbling mud and other wonders. But even today there is something about the antipodes that makes one feel estranged, as if time had stopped or begun reversing, as if under a different heavens one were breathing a different air.
The first time I was in New Zealand it was as a tourist. I had been living in the Pacific for about three years, studying at the University of Melbourne, and I was on my way back to Australia after spending Christmas with my family in the States. I was traveling alone with no real plans, only that I wanted to spend a week somewhere, and New Zealand, like Tahiti or Rarotonga, was conveniently on the way. I had been to the islands on previous trips and I was looking for something uncomplicated, someplace I could just relax before starting the new academic year. At the tourist bureau in Auckland they suggested I try the Bay of Islands. “It’s beautiful up there,” said the girl at the counter with a sigh. So I took a bus to Whangarei and got up early the next morning to catch the milk run going north.
There were only a handful of passengers on the bus, all half-asleep. The front two seats were stacked with mail bags and parcels. I took a seat halfway back and watched as we pulled away from a Victorian country railway station on a defunct stretch of line. The sun was climbing into the sky and the day promised to be hot and bright.
We left town by the industrial quarter, a series of low, corrugated aluminum sheds, chain-link fences, boats on blocks, and the hulks of rusting machinery. We passed a three-story Victorian corner hotel painted blue, the Golden Dragon Chinese Restaurant, the vast, empty parking lot of Pak ’n Pay. Then we were on the outskirts of town, row after row of little wooden houses, yellow and white, each with a concrete step and a patch of yard and a Hill’s hoist gleaming in the morning sun. Every couple of blocks there was a corner store already open for business, the day’s headlines blaring in four-inch type from posters propped outside—FINANCE MINISTER SACKED; FRENCH EMBROILED IN DIPLOMATIC SCANDAL. I caught a glimpse of dim interiors behind strips of fluttering plastic, the poor man’s flyscreen door.
For nearly four hours we ground our way up steep, volcanic hillsides between dense patches of native bush, thickets of manuka and giant fern. Then down the other side, the engine whining in protest and the landscape opening out before us like a nineteenth-century painting. The names of suburbs and towns rolled by: Kamo, Hikurangi, Whakapara, Waiotu, Moerewa. I looked them up in my dictionary of place names: Kamo—to bubble up, descriptive of hot springs; Hikurangi—point or summit of the sky; Whakapara—to make a clearing in the forest; Waiotu—spring or pool of Tu, the god of war; Moerewa—floating like a bird in sleep or, perhaps, to sleep on high. In between, the country was empty. Stripped of its native covering it looked smooth and bald. Sheep the color of dust grazed on hillsides covered with a stubble of grass and the scoria of ancient volcanic explosions. In the vales and clefts the grass was startlingly green, on the hills it was burnt golden brown by the fierce antipodean summer. There were farms every so often and once or twice a view of the sea, glimmering far off.
At Puketona we left the main road and made a steep descent through a twisting, deeply-shaded ravine, emerging suddenly into a blinding world of sunlight and water. Welcome to Paihia, said a sign by the roadside, Jewel of the Bay of Islands.
Paihia is not a Maori name. It is widely believed to be a pidgin expression: pai means “good” in Maori, while hia is thought to be a transliteration of the English word “here.” According to a popular story, the Reverend Henry Williams, who established a mission there in 1823, was so enchanted by the site that he exclaimed “Pai here!” meaning “What a good place this is!” or “How good it is to be here!” The experts, though, cast doubt upon this explanation, arguing that it seems too good to be true. At least two other early commentators had spelled the name differently, referring to it as Pahia, which, in Maori, means to slap.
Today Paihia is a tight half-mile of chip shops, milkbars, seaside motels, and concrete condominiums, a pale, patterned grid of balconies and awnings set against a backdrop of brooding, prehistoric bush. Across the road is the Pacific Ocean. Not the open sea, but the Bay of Islands, a sublimely beautiful stretch of water with dozens of islets and a complex, meandering coastline, named in 1769 by Captain James Cook, who was the first European to see it.
My bus rumbled to a stop at the edge of the wharf. The passengers all got off and stood outside, blinking and stretching and putting on hats and shading their eyes with their hands. I stayed where I was for a moment, staring out at the glittering sea and thinking about the long January arc of the sun as it made its way across the southern hemisphere. In Boston, where I had just come from, it was pitch dark at four-thirty in the afternoon.
After a minute the bus driver stuck his head back in. “You need any help there?”
I got off the bus and walked out onto the pier. To my right an arm of the coastline reached out into the bay, enfolding a little harbor. A number of yachts and launches bobbed at anchor and I caught the faint, melodic clanking of wires hitting the aluminum masts. To my left and beyond was the open bay and the myriad islands like the hills of a drowned continent sticking up out of the sea. There were dozens of boats out on the water, their brightly-colored spinnakers bellied out in the breeze. But the air on shore was still and the sun hot in a cloudless sky.
In Australia I often used to stand on the beach and look out to sea and think about what it must have been like to see these places for the first time. It was a curious thought, since the view from where I stood was exactly the opposite of what those first Europeans saw. They, seeing land from sea, recorded it in gently undulating profiles, taking note of any distinctive formations that might prove useful to future navigators. To them it was a stretch of rocky coastline, miles of inscrutable grey-green bush, a series of possible landfalls, inlets and bays where one might get water, reefs and sandbars to avoid. To me, standing there with my back to the cliffs, it was a great reach of emptiness, a stretch of possibility, the gentle curve of the horizon at the edge of the sea. Still, I thought I understood something of the sense of expectation those early explorers must have felt as they approached an unknown coastline for the first time.
The Pacific was an enormous challenge for Europeans. It was so far away, so difficult to get to, and, when they finally reached it, so unexpectedly immense. The early explorers suffered terribly from scurvy, hunger, thirst, not to mention disorientation in the course of voyages that often lasted for years. But it was not just the size of the Pacific that confounded them. It was its emptiness, a reality all the more distressing for the fact that it was not at all what they had imagined they would find.
For centuries the map of the world showed a huge mysterious landmass to the south peopled by men with funny hats or the heads of dogs, wielding spears and praying to idols. It was known as Terra Australis Incognita, the Unknown South Land—or sometimes, more optimistically, Terra Australis Nondum Cognita, the South Land Not Yet Known—and its existence was an article of faith among European geographers for fifteen hundred years.
The theory, first articulated by the ancient Greeks, was that the landmasses of the northern hemisphere must be counterbalanced by an equal weight of continental matter in the south, or else the world would topple over. But although European explorers crisscrossed the Pacific, beginning with Magellan in 1520, the great South Land remained stubbornly elusive. There were tantalizing hints, rumors of sightings: an island auspiciously named Austrialia del Espiritu Santo by Quiros in 1605, something called Davis Land in the eastern Pacific, sighted by an English buccaneer in 1687 and never seen again, suggestions of continental shadows, of land birds too far out to sea, of unexpected cloud formations in places where they shouldn’t be. There were bits of Australia, a tip of Tasmania, a coast of New Zealand, islands scattered here and there, but few complete outlines well into the eighteenth century. And in the absence of conclusive proof to the contrary, many continued to cherish the idea of a rich and wonderful country somewhere in the South Seas.
But if Europeans in the Pacific were always hoping to stumble upon some great good place, experience often disappointed them. The Solomon Islands, named for the biblical King Solomon (and his gold) by the sixteenth-century Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendaña, turned out to be inhabited by cannibals. Australia, first visited in the early seventeenth century by the Dutch, was, in the view of Jan Cartensz, “the most arid and barren region that could be found anywhere on earth,” while New Zealand was inhabited by a people so treacherous and belligerent that anyone hoping to land there would, according to Abel Tasman, have to fight his way to shore.
Of course, none of this stopped Europeans from coming—far from it—but it did occasionally give them pause as they peered into the early morning mist, trying to decide if that smudge on the horizon were the coast of some undiscovered country or a bank of low-lying cloud, or wondering, as they drew nearer some unknown coastline, what manner of men they might find.
I took a long last look out across the bay and made my way back up the pier to where the bus was idling. All the other passengers had vanished, merging into the crowd of tourists and shoppers on the opposite side of the road. For a moment I thought about following them. It was an appealing sort of place, touristy but recognizable in the way that resort towns often are, an easy sort of place to imagine staying. But the ticket I was holding was not for Paihia. It was for an inland agricultural center called Kerikeri where, in what now seemed a ill-judged effort to economize, I had booked a bed at the local youth hostel.
The driver was already in his seat and he gave me a nod as I climbed back on the bus. It was just the two of us and as soon as I was settled he yanked shut the door and we pulled out into the stream of traffic snaking through the town.
We passed a series of gift shops and tearooms, a couple of real estate agencies, a one-hour photo lab, some restaurants, a hairdresser, and a bank. There were signs for at least a dozen motels that I might have stayed at: the Dolphin, the Outrigger, the Nautilus, the Admiral’s View. There was one with a nice ring to it called Cook’s Lookout and another with the oddly ironic name of the Abel Tasman Lodge. But it was not a big place and before long we had reached the end of Paihia proper. Then trundling over the Waitangi Bridge, we left the motels and spinnakers behind us and climbed back into the green and shadowed bush.
Kerikeri, known to the missionaries as “Kiddy-kiddy,” lies upriver from the Bay of Islands just beyond the navigable head of the Kerikeri River. There is a famous mission house there and the oldest stone building in New Zealand and, not too far from either of these, the ruins of a Maori pa, or fortification, known in pre-European times as Te Waha-o-te-riri, or the Mouth of War.
At thirty-five degrees south latitude, well watered, and protected from the prevailing winds, the inland Bay of Islands is a gardener’s paradise. Charles Darwin, visiting the region in December 1835 on the homeward leg of his voyage in the Beagle, described crops of barley and wheat standing in full ear and fields of potatoes and clover. “There were large gardens,” he wrote, “with every fruit and vegetable which England produces; and many belonging to a warmer clime … asparagus, kidney beans, cucumbers, rhubarb, apples, pears, figs, peaches, apricots, grapes, olives, gooseberries, currants, hops, gorse for fences, and English oaks; also many kinds of flowers.” Kerikeri, which means, literally, “dig, dig,” still produces all this and more, including many fruits unknown to Europeans in Darwin’s day, like passionfruit, feijoas, and tamarillos.
Like most ordinary towns, Kerikeri is made up of concentric circles. It has a small retail center with a handful of shops, a newsagent, a couple of banks, a laundromat, a supermarket, a post office, and a pub. Outside this is a ring of marine and agricultural businesses: tractor sales and tire centers and places to get a boat engine overhauled. Then there’s a suburban belt of ranches and bungalows on quarter-acre blocks, beyond which lie the commercial orchards and farms.
Kerikeri is a prosperous town with an air of solid, middle-class well-being. A sizable chunk of the population is made up of local farmers and businessmen, some of whose families have lived in the area for generations. In recent years it has attracted a large number of new arrivals: rose-growers and hobby farmers and well-heeled retirees, drawn to the region by the gentle climate and the pleasant way of life. Somewhat less expectedly, Kerikeri is also home to a thriving alternative fringe. Tucked in between the farm stands on the road to Whangarei are pottery barns and woodworking studios. You can easily find someone who does Shiatsu massage or aromatherapy, and at least one store in town sells Indian cottons, crystals, and healing CDs.
On certain days of the week there are great congregations of Maoris in Kerikeri. They sit in parked cars and chat through the window. They buy fish and chips at the take-away and eat it off butcher paper in the park. They splurge on lotto tickets, tailormades, pies with sauce, cream buns, and cases of beer. You can see them in the Laundromat, folding and gossiping while the kids play video games, at the petrol station, and in the supermarket, where their trolleys are piled high with staples: flour in twenty-kilo bags, sugar, tea, milk, potatoes, pumpkins, butter, eggs, and jam.
Most of the Maoris in Kerikeri live out beyond the smaller landholdings, beyond the orchards and the farms, past where the tarmac ends and the gravel takes over, on small residual blocks of tribal land. Some of these communities are inland, but most of them are on the sea, cupped in a sheltered bend of the coastline or perched at the back of a cove. Many of these settlements are ancient by New Zealand’s standards, dating from long before the arrival of any Europeans, and many of the people who live there today are directly descended from those who occupied them hundreds of years ago. Although they are not exactly hidden, these places are not easy to locate. A lot of Maori history can be found in the local tourist brochures and guidebooks, and there are maps showing how to get to the ruins of Kororipo pa or the recreation of Rewa’s village. But there are few if any signposts to the places where most of the local Maoris actually live.
I spent just under a week in Kerikeri, much of it on my own. I hiked the trails to Rainbow Falls and walked down the hill to Waipapa Landing to see the Kemp House and the Stone Store. I visited the arts and crafts co-operative and a nursery specializing in lavenders and culinary herbs. I hung out in the tea room on Kerikeri road and across the street in the newsagent, where I found a surprisingly good supply of books.
I was always on the lookout for books when I traveled, and I never went anywhere without some of my own. There was one, in particular, that I took with me whenever I crossed the Pacific, a battered 1949 anthology called The Spell of the Pacific that my brother had given me when I first left the States. It had a worn, rather lurid dust jacket showing the mauve mountains of a high island with its green coastal plain and, in the foreground, a cluster of lateen-rigged canoes sailing on a coral sea, all framed with a bit of beach grass and a fringe of black palm. It was filled with accounts of poets and explorers, missionaries, sailors, scientists—travelers of all kinds—arranged geographically and prefaced with an epigraph from Moby Dick:
There is one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath … To any meditative Magian rover, this serene Pacific, once beheld, must ever after be the sea of his adoption. It rolls the midmost waters of the world … zones the world’s whole bulk about; makes all coasts one bay to it; seems the tide-beating heart of the earth.
Plainly sensational in its presentation—the flap copy was addressed to “those whose hearts can thrill to romance and adventure,” while the back promised “Natives,” “Shipwreck,” and “Romance”—it was nevertheless a serious, even a scholarly work, containing an astonishing array of European writings about the Pacific from an eyewitness account of the death of Magellan in 1521 to a wartime dispatch from the Philippines in 1944. Anyone who was anyone was represented: Conrad, Melville, London, Maugham, Tasman, Darwin, Cook, and the unhappy Captain Bligh—over a thousand thin, brittle pages between fraying cloth-covered boards. My copy, which my brother had found at an estate sale in Santa Barbara, had been at some previous time inscribed on the flyleaf: For your travels. I packed it in my hand luggage and carried it with me, reading as I went.
There were sections for Melanesia, Polynesia, Australia, and The Sea. The New Zealand section began with Tasman’s arrival and the first recorded instance of contact between the Maoris and Europeans at a place thereafter known as Murderers’ Bay. It was followed by a couple of Maori myths, one a tale of treachery and revenge; an extract from Charles Darwin’s Beagle journal; a grim uncharacteristic story by Katherine Mansfield about madness on the colonial frontier; some poems, including one with a dirge-like refrain that began “Morning in Murderers’ Bay,/Blood drifted away”; and a excerpt from a curious book called Old New Zealand, written in 1863 by a “harum scarum Irishman” named Frederick Maning. This last was titled “A Maori Ruffian,” and it told the story of a fight between the author and “a bullet-headed, scowling, bowlegged, broad-shouldered, Herculean savage” who had “killed several men in fair fight, and had also—as was well known—committed two most diabolical murders, one of which was on his own wife.”
None of this correlated well with the magazine in the seat-back pocket of my Air New Zealand flight or any of the other popular representations of New Zealand as a land of panoramic beauty dotted with sheep. Nor did it seem to have much to do with places like Kerikeri or Paihia, and I began to wonder about the history of the place and the undercurrents that might run through its contemporary society.
I was booked on the late bus back to Auckland and, looking for a way to spend my last few hours, I wandered over to the pub. It was a Saturday evening at the height of summer and the place was full of smoke and people sitting at sticky tables crowded with pitchers of Lion and DB. At one end of the room, a jukebox was playing a loud mixture of reggae and rock. At the other stood a pair of pool tables surrounded by players waiting for their turn. A number of counter-height tables were scattered around the room. The women perched on barstools and drank rum and coke. The men stood and drank their beer straight from the jug, as if even the largest glasses were too small for their hands. There were a handful of people who’d clearly been there all day, but most had been trickling in since late afternoon and by the time the fight broke out there was standing room only.
How they all knew something had happened I have no idea, but the minute the punch was thrown every head in the place swiveled in the fighters’ direction. A space had opened up in the middle and in the center of it were two young men, one of whom had just thrown the punch, while the other was standing stock still with a hurt expression and blood running down his face.
The hitter was a Maori, a half-caste, with a compact body and fair, freckly skin. He could hardly have been more than eighteen, probably he was younger. The bleeder was a Pakeha, a New Zealander of European descent. He was blond and wiry and older than the Maori boy, with a face already weathered by the southern sun. He was wearing blue jeans and a red plaid shirt, which was handy, I remember thinking, since he was using the sleeve of it to mop up his face.
For an instant there was silence. And then it was over, just like that. The Pakeha vanished into the bathroom, the Maori sat down with a thump, and everyone else turned back to his beer.
“What happened?” I asked the fellow standing nearest, a tall, solid Maori with cropped hair, sunglasses, and a bright pink shirt. “What’s going on?”
“Guess someone said something someone didn’t like,” he said. “—Gotta light?”
He was very big, I realized, studying him more closely. Not just tall but heavily muscled and dark, or maybe that was the shirt. His face was broad and perfectly impassive. I could see nothing behind the glasses, the lenses of which looked black.
I handed him my lighter.
“Ta,” he said. “You here on holiday?”
I explained that I was living in Australia, though, as he could tell from my accent, I was obviously a Yank. “How about you, are you from around here?”
He said he was a foundryman and that he made boat parts in Whangarei. He pronounced it the Maori way—FAHNG-ah-day—so that even though I’d just spent a night there on my way up to Kerikeri from Auckland I didn’t recognize the name. He’d come up home for the Christmas holidays. His family lived out in Mangonui, about fifteen miles away.
I told him I’d been in Kerikeri for a week, staying at the youth hostel, and that I was headed back to Auckland that same night.
“Hmmm,” he said, looking past me in a manner I found oddly reassuring.
“So, my name’s Christina.”
“Tauwhitu,” he said, pronouncing it TOE-fee-too. “But everyone calls me Seven.”
“Tau whitu. In Maori it means ‘seven years.’”
But this, like everything else, was curiously misleading. He was not called Seven because his name meant “seven years.” He was called Seven because he was the seventh of ten children and because some wag among his cousins had nicknamed him “Number Seven” when he was a kid.
The way he told it, it was only an accident that he was even in the pub that night. He said he’d been out on the water all day diving for crayfish with his cousins—by which I understood him to mean the piratical-looking crew of Maoris at the next table. They were all wearing sunglasses and close-fitting jeans and some had leather jackets. “We only came into town for cigarettes,” he was saying. “We didn’t plan on stopping at the pub.”
The problem, it seemed, was that none of them had any money. But then someone had the bright idea of taking the crayfish, which they were supposed to bring home, and hawking them in the pub. At the last minute, the crays were saved when Seven found a twenty-dollar note on the men’s room floor. He laughed as he mimed handing it over to the bartender with the very tip of his forefinger and thumb.
Just then the noise in the pub, which had once again risen to a steady roar, died abruptly for a second time. A group of policeman, five or six, in hats and uniforms with handcuffs and billy clubs dangling from their belts, were standing in the door. They shouldered their way through the crowd to where the Maori who’d been in the fight was sitting. “Outside,” said one of them roughly. “Outside with yer mates.”
The boy and his two companions, one with dreadlocks and a crocheted cap and a thin, grizzled fellow in his forties, got to their feet and left, followed by the police.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I’ll be right back.” And, leaving my drink on the table, I slipped out after them.
By this time night had fallen. The police had their suspects lined up against the wall and were barking questions at them: What were their names? Where did they come from? What were they doing here? They told the Maoris to empty out their car, a battered old Falcon stuffed with clothing, blankets, fishing gear, and trash. As the one with the dreadlocks went to open the door, a Doberman leapt out and he grabbed it by the collar. I took in the scene from doorway—the police beacons flashing in the night, the whining dog, the staccato nonsense of the radio, and the dark mutterings of the men, whose disheveled belongings were now strewn around the parking lot—and wondered if this were normal for a Saturday night.
At last the police decided to take the oldest, apparently most inoffensive member of the trio to the station, leaving the other two to stuff their things back into the car.
“You can pick him up later,” they told them. “Then you’re on your way.”
I went back inside, if anything even less clear about what had actually happened. Why were there so many policemen? Why did they take the wrong guy? Why did they even bother to turn up when the fight was over? What had happened to the Pakeha? And why was there no buzz about it in the pub?
I headed back to where I’d left my beer and put my questions to Seven.
“Ah,” he said, “they’re just troublemakers. They’re not from around here.”