Going down the off beaten road in New Zealand

On a trip to Paihia, Vimala Nandakumar discovers there`s much more to New Zealand than guided tours.

It was our first trip to New Zealand, but instead of spending our holiday in the city, we decided to sneak into a resort away from the madding crowd. As soon as we landed, we headed to Paihia in the Bay of Islands, towards the north of Auckland. En route, we were enchanted by the smooth roads, the comfort of the luxury coach, the green countryside and the sheep grazing in the meadows (ratio of sheep to man is an impressive 20:1 in New Zealand). A three-and-a-half hour drive later, we had reached. In Maori, Paihia means `it`s good here`. It is heartening to note the importance that the government has given to Maoris. Many streets, beaches and cities carry Maori names.

A sleepy town with walking trails, hillocks, beaches, book shops, ice cream parlours and gardens; Paihia is beautiful. But to our shock, we found no internet cafe, barring one. The following six days were the most relaxing days of our lives. A five-minute walk from the hotel would bring us to the wharf at the Pacific ocean which had a spectacular view–Russell island, seagulls flying in the blue sky, plenty of ferries and boats anchored, people cheerfully walking along the beaches or basking in the sun and kids with their pets. Kiosks sell tickets for those who want to take half-day trips from Paihia.

Three km away from Paihia lie the historic and impressive Waitangi treaty grounds, where on 6th Feb 1840 a few Maori (the original people of New Zealand) chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi with the British Crown. It is a good opportunity to learn about the Maori culture at this exhibition centre. A sound and light programme highlights the history of Maoris as well as the song and dance of the locals.

Not very far from Paihia is Kawakawa, famous for the Toilets by Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser, an Austrian artist. Born in Vienna, he became one of the best-known contemporary Austrian artists and was famous for his non-geometrical, odd-shaped stairs, supporting columns and windows of his buildings. It appears that Hunterwasser made Kawakawa his permanent residence till his death in 2000. He was commissioned to design public toilets for Kawakawa in his unique style and this uniqueness is apparent in the New Zealand grass growing on the roof and by his art-deco style columns.

There are several half-day trips that can be done from Paihia and Russell island was our first stop on one of these trips. Ferries depart from the wharf at Paihia town every few minutes to Russell island. We spent an hour walking around the island and soaking in the beauty of the island–trees line the streets, and the houses with beautiful gardens We could not miss a visit to the waterfront and to the restaurants and shops of the island.

Next on the list was Cape Brett`s the "Hole in the Rock" with a possibility of watching dolphins. As luck would have it, we managed to spot more than a dozen dolphins swimming in the Pacific Ocean. The ferry approached the "Hole In the Rock" which is a huge passage carved out of a rocky mountain. People on the ferry shrieked and shouted with joy when the ferry was about to go through the hole, but the rough sea made it impossible for the captain to navigate the ferry safely through the hole and we returned disappointed.

Half an hour from Paihia are the Kawiti glow worm caves, which was where we headed next morning. Glow worms (Arachnocampa Luminosa) at Kawiti caves are transparent larvae of the Fungus Gnat and have a life cycle of 10 to 11months from egg to adult fly. The worms stick to the ceiling of the caves and are as thin as a sewing needle with blue/green tail light. They drop thin strands of sticky fluid to catch bugs and insects for their food. The brighter a worm, the more hungry it is. The glow worms maintain adequate distance amongst themselves to avoid turf wars for food. The guide was a Maori who spoke fluent English. The moment our Maori guide told us to switch off the lanterns we were carrying, we found ourselves gazing at the `milky way` of the glow worms, which were so close that we could have touched them. These caves, discovered in the 17th century, are full of breath-taking limestone formations of massive stalactites and stalagmites apart from the glow worms.

We left Auckland for Mumbai. The long flight via Kuala Lumpur was tiring but when we landed in Aamchi Mumbai our faces glowed like the worms of the Kawiti Caves.

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