Bay of Islands: A tourism heaven in Darwin's Bay of Hell

By Geoff Cumming

Geoff Cumming traces the father of evolution's reluctant steps.

Christ Church in Russell. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Christ Church in Russell. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Gazing across the Bay of Islands, light bouncing off the languid waters and into my wine glass, it's but a small leap to Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution, of natural selection and survival of the fittest.

Competition out on the water is certainly fierce for the early-summer tourists: pristine beaches of golden sand or islands still largely cloaked in native bush, deep waters teeming with fish or performing dolphins and orcas.

There's a battle of sorts for survival on land, too, among those touting food, drink and places to stay.

Not that Darwin saw the bay evolving into a tourist mecca — he saw no future in the place, and little in New Zealand as a whole.

The great man was here in 1835, as naturalist on the HMS Beagle on its round-the-world journey of scientific discovery. When the ship left, after nine days, he wrote in his journal: "I believe we were all glad to leave New Zealand.

It is not a pretty place."

The natives and the "hovels" they lived in were "filthily dirty and offensive". The Europeans he encountered (sailors, traders and escaped convicts among them) were "the very refuse of society". In this "land of cannibalism", he noted, the missionaries were more scared of their own countrymen than of the Maori.

Nor did he like the landscape. The countryside was "uniformly clothed in fern, the whole scene, in spite of its green colour, had a rather desolate aspect".

Historians put Darwin's ennui down to cabin fever and homesickness after four years at sea. On the way home, he made similar unflattering observations about Australia and South Africa.

But what Darwin saw on the Beagle's voyage would culminate in the publication, 150 years ago today, of The Origin of Species, his theory of evolution that would turn ideas about human society, the natural world and religious doctrine on their heads.

While scientists and institutions around the world are marking the anniversary (this year is also the 200th of Darwin's birth), in the Bay of Islands there is little awareness that Darwin walked these shores, met its Maori and European residents, ventured into the hinterland and took samples home.

I have come to retrace his steps, to see if modern visitors can see what Darwin saw and find any links to his visit.

My journey starts at Russell, a booming trading port in 1835 and refuge for weary sailors, whalers and fishermen. It was then known by its Maori name, Kororareka.

Darwin found it "the very stronghold of vice", the Europeans dividing their time between grog shops and whore houses. Today, a few of the town's older buildings commemorate this heritage, but most are long gone.

Behind the main drag, a quaint wooden church stands among graves of early Maori and European settlers. Though renovated over the years, it looks much as it did when Darwin and Fitzroy visited, when it was nearing completion.

The visitors thought it extremely bold of the Anglicans to place a church in the midst of what Fitzroy (who later returned as Governor) called "the headquarters of iniquity". Fitzroy thought it looked rather flimsy, but it is today the oldest surviving church in New Zealand.

Just down the road, the Russell Museum has the subscription list for the church's construction, with the signatures of "Captain Fitzroy, Mr Charles Darwin and the officers of HMS Beagle". They gave 15, easily the biggest donation.

The Anglican missionaries weren't bold enough to establish their mission at Kororareka, choosing a quieter site across the water at Paihia. This left room for the French Catholics to set up shop, which they did just three years after the Beagle's visit.

Pompallier House, named in honour of the first Catholic bishop, still stands as a reminder of the times.

Host Kate Martin is a treasure trove of information on the town that Darwin found so offensive.

"Russell had timber merchants, a ship's chandlery, butcheries, blacksmiths, banks and a theatre. It was a well-established frontier port, with a thriving trade in timber, flax and potatoes — and it was all controlled by Maori."

Pompallier House was a printery, where 40,000 books were translated into Maori in eight years.

A tannery at the back processed leather hides to bind the books. The printing and tannery equipment is still there today, and Kate enthusiastically demonstrates the process to visitors, hauling skins from deep pits where, in Darwin's day, they were soaked in urine before being stripped of hair.

Russell had several tanneries and butcheries, says Kate. "Imagine the smell here in summer. No wonder Darwin got all snooty." It might also help explain why Darwin and Fitzroy based themselves across the bay at Paihia, at the small Anglican mission.

Darwin was impressed by the English flowers planted in front of the houses, "roses of several kinds, honeysuckle, jasmine, stocks and whole hedges of sweetbrier".

The last mission building, though built in stone, was destroyed by fire in 1859 and the site is now owned by a charitable trust, which hopes to restore the complex. Trust president Elizabeth Ludbrook is a great-great-granddaughter of Henry Williams, who established the mission in the 1820s. Mrs Ludbrook's daughter, Anna Wilson, conducts heritage tours of Paihia.

An unassuming sign on the main road points to the site, where a replica whare and information boards tell of the leading personalities of the time, including mission printer William Colenso, whose interest in botany Darwin encouraged.

Darwin also met James Busby, the British resident. Busby's house is today on the tourist trail as the venue for the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Busby arranged for Maori guides to escort Darwin to Waimate, the first inland mission established by the Anglicans, with a vast acreage. They proceeded by waka as far as Haruru Falls and landing. Today, Taiamai Tour Heritage Journeys offers the same experience.

From Haruru, Darwin's party followed a trail along the river to Waimate, with the odd diversion to avoid hostile Maori, a route which is now buried beneath tarseal and pasture.

In some respects, things have changed little in the Bay of Islands; in others they have evolved beyond recognition. But at least the tourism industry is beginning to make more of the area's rich heritage and its formative role in the establishment of New Zealand as a British colony.

As the sun sets over the bay, the twin-masted schooner R Tucker Thompson makes a reassuring sight as it glides to anchor off Waitangi. It's a replica of the fast schooners that traded in these waters in Darwin's time, and quite a contrast to the fast ferries and jetboats. Tucker trades in day trips to the islands, but it also makes heritage excursions along the coast to places that put New Zealand on the map.

The schooner also takes hardy types on eco-tours, visiting coastal islands to retrieve native bush from introduced pests including stoats, rats and weeds. Darwin feared as much, writing in his journal: "In many places I noticed several sorts of weeds which, like the rats, I was forced to own as countrymen. A leek has overrun whole districts, and will prove very troublesome."


The wonders of technology mean that visitors wanting to follow in Charles Darwin's footsteps can accomplish in a few days what he managed in nine...

1st inst

I am billeted to the Duke of Marlborough on the waterfront of Kororadika. A public house opened on this site in 1827; the Duke lays claim to being the country's oldest hostelry. On the balcony, as evening sun filters through the pohutukawas, I observe the sexes intermingling.

A couple who do not appear to be man and wife order a second bottle of wine. At least their clothes are clean, he in a managerial suit, she in a red dress that reveals bare flesh. A peek upstairs in the refurbished front bedrooms reveals a commodious looking bed. Darwin would no doubt surmise that little has changed in this town.

The locals, however, seem unrepentant. "This has always been a party town," one tells me. "We still get sailors calling in from around the world and the first thing they need after being at sea is a drink."

2nd inst

I am conveyed across the water to Paehia, where Tony and Dan, the charitable folk at Bay Beach Hire, lend me one of their fine canoes. I duly paddle up the river towards CawaCawa, a town which was a Maori village in 1835. Back then, the river was deep and wide; sailing ships could venture as far as the township on the high tide or, more frequently, go as far as Derrick's landing to load goods. Darwin enjoyed the "pretty scenery".

Nowadays, mangroves and sediment are encroaching and the river is forded by both railway and road, beyond which it narrows to a stream. The river becomes a swathe of English pasture, sprinkled with cows. The railway - which is being restored by a band of bold enthusiasts - now conveys the traveller between the town and the landing at Taumarere. The resourceful locals plan to restore the rail link through to Opua.

I venture south to Waiomio, and the interesting "erratic boulder" formations Darwin walked to from CawaCawa in 1835. He wanted to go inside the limestone caves to dig for moa bones but the Maori wouldn't let him as they used the caves for burials. These days tourists can enter to see glow worms.

3rd inst

I board a waka to be escorted by natives up the Waitangi River. Darwin himself went this way when he ventured to Waimate. We stop at the family marae of our guide, Hone Mihaka of the Taiamai hapu, whose story is written in ink on his skin. We are subjected to a fearsome challenge or wero which, if you suppress your primal urge to turn and jump in the river, turns out to be a welcoming ritual.

We enter a meeting house to hongi, which Hone says is about sharing the breath of life, or life force. He says this is where life originates from; that Darwin was nuts saying we came from monkeys. "He came from a race which thought the earth was flat," he laughs.

Back in the waka, we venture as far as the waterfall and landing at Haruru, from where Darwin walked to Waimate, following a riverside track and crossing numerous swamps. A plaque denotes this landing's importance for trade from the hinterland - timber, kauri gum, and crops.

4th inst

I am conveyed by motorised carriage to Waimate, where the Anglicans in 1828 established a mission of vast acreage to provide food and educate the natives in the ways of cultivation. Darwin was hugely impressed.

"The sudden appearance of an English farmhouse and its well-dressed fields, placed there as if by an enchanter's wand, was exceedingly pleasant. ... It was not merely that England was brought vividly before my mind ... the domestic sounds, the fields of corn, the distant undulating country with its trees might well have been mistaken for our fatherland ..."

These days the bishop's house and an old oak tree are all that remain of the original mission but the house has many fine antiquities, among them the nation's oldest dining table, oldest bookcase and Bishop Selwyn's old bed.

As for the crops, it seems the Maori knew more about cultivation than the Europeans. Within five years of Darwin's visit, they had failed.

5th inst

I venture further than Darwin to Kerikeri, which by 1835 was linked by track to Waimate so missionaries could convey crops to the 1830 Stone Store. Alas, the failure of the crops at Waimate rendered the store redundant. These days it is filled with paraphernalia from the area's European and Maori history.

Across the road, a pear tree planted in 1819 by Samuel Marsden still bears fruit. The nearby eating house has been renamed in its honour and new owner Neil Brazier does a splendid pear and vanilla crumble. He plans to restore the adjoining blacksmith's store and a bush track which runs behind the riverside restaurant. I'm sure Darwin would have approved.


Where to stay: The Duke of Marlborough Hotel, on the seafront at Russell.

Things to do:

Bay Beach Hire runs kayak tours around the Bay of Islands.

Go sailing on the R Tucker Thompson.

Visit the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway Trust.

Taiamai Tours offer a range of cultural experiences in the Bay of Islands.

Information on Te Waimate Mission, Pompallier House and other Historic Places Trust properties can be found at

To check out Kawiti Glow Worm Caves, phone (09) 404 0583.

Find out more from the Paihia Haven of History Charitable Trust.

Where to eat: The Pear Tree restaurant at Kerikeri Landing. Phone (09) 407 8479.

Further information: See

- NZ Herald

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