Hell hole of the Pacific? Russell Bay
Date: 11th April 2005
Subject: Hell hole of the Pacific
Place: Russell, Bay of Islands, New Zealand
A drink to calm my nerves
I sat nervously on my own in a quiet corner of the hotel bar in Russell Bay. 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.
We’d 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.
Relaxed but out of place
I sipped 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.
Russell is a place with a history
Stories abound 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 past.
A vile hole with a bad reputation
The Duke 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 Bay was a ‘vile hole’, infamous for harbouring more rogues ‘than any other spot of equal size in the universe.’
With getting 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.
Trading shanties for panties
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.
The hell hole of the Pacific
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 the Pacific.
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 night out.