The streets of Russell were empty save the dogs and their walkers. Restaurants were closed and the only place that seemed to be lively was the 4 Square (a cross between a convenient store and grocery store that for some reason is an icon of New Zealand kitsch culture). Kirsten, Yvonne, and I had gotten up early in the hopes of getting something to eat before the group gathered for the day, but that was proving more difficult than it seemed in this off-season seaside town. It just never occurred to us that the sea would be deserted at the end of July.
We eventually found a bakery and the only open café and bought pastries and coffee. We sat and watched the bouncing sail boats as the others gathered. Most had found a gelato place and had settled on starting the day with brownies and other sweets.
Once together we made our way down the seashore to Pompallier House, the sight of Catholic proselytizing back when the British only just formally took over, when pirates still ruled the area, and when Russell was still lovingly called the “Hell Hole of the Pacific.” The group split here, as there was too many of us to tour the complex at once.
As Group A went off to explore the grounds, Group B was left to the attentions of our Maori guide. He regaled us with tales of Maori defiance, particularly Hone Heke’s repeated and successful attempts to cut down the British flagpole on Flagstaff Hill, and his final attempt to cut down the pole which led to a British ship bombarding and destroying the town.
Before that happened however, unlike what the name would suggest, Bishop Pompallier never actually lived in Pompallier House. He just managed it while it churned out the first Maori translations of the Bible. We were eventually shown by a very monotone tour guide the recreated printing works, complete with working tannery and still operational printing presses.
As soon as we had enough of the 19th century technology, we made our way to the beach where our Maori guide recited a traditional Maori prayer to bring us luck while we headed out to for the day back to Paihia to participate in various water-based activities.
As the group split up to do either parasailing or kayaking and we paid our fees accordingly, I noticed that we seemed to be the only ones in the town besides the locals. We were such a big group that we seemed to take over anywhere we went, creating unseasonably long lines and attracting weird looks. I felt like a self-conscious American once again.
Around 1 o’clock the kayakers trooped down a mile down the beach to the mouth of a river where four enthusiastic guides waited for us with smiles and lifejackets. One by one, we paired up and filed into the kayaks. Yvonne was my partner.
Both of us being extremely inexperienced kayakers, it took us a while to gain a rhythm and we ended up trailing behind the others as they headed up the river. But I didn’t mind. It was a peaceful ride. No one else was on the water besides our group. A chill lingered in the air but the sun often peaked out from the clouds. We moved slowly against the current through swaths of trees, clumps of marshes, and rows of suburban houses as we attempted to find songs we could both sing as we traveled.
We eventually caught up to the others as they gathered in front of a waterfall. The only other tourists I saw that day stood on land, taking pictures of us and the water. Our guides explained waterfall safety to us as we clung to each other’s boats, creating a lumpy island of colorful plastic and wet college students. Then one by one we broke off and tried to skirt the rock wall and go under the waterfall.
One boat flipped. We ran in head on. Needless to say I got soaked. Dripping with cold river water, we let the current push us away from the rushing waterfall. Excited screams of the others could be heard in the background as we floated farther and farther away. I fished out my glasses, and we began to make our way back. We took it slow and steady, Yvonne singing songs along the way.
After a while, we finally stepped upon the shore, feet bare and body soaked. I rung out the fleece I had on the best I could and hitched a ride with one of the kayak guides back into town. I was tremulously grateful. The wind was picking up and with my wet leggings I wasn’t sure that I could make it without freezing to death. After some quick souvenir shopping, we hopped on the ferry back to Russell to change before our group dinner.
Flash forward two and a half hours: Saturday night, 6:30 pm and the streets were empty. Our 30+ group felt like a swarm bearing down on the local RSA (Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association). It was the small building in the corner of the main road. Inside was decorated with wood paneling, honorary plaques, and vintage metals. It was full of a few bleary eyed locals, questioningly looking at us over their pints and burgers. We were led to a back room where they had set up banquet tables and a buffet fit for Thanksgiving dinner (save the turkey and cranberry sauce). And there we sat, thankful for the chance to be in dry clothing and stuffing our faces with warm food and hospitality.