Paihia, Kind of Shitty

Campervaning is an exceptional way to take homely and private comforts to isolated spots. Twice in two days I woke up next to protected coves and walked with a mug of Earl Gray over beach sand laced with the tri-toe stamp of piper feet. I had uninterrupted mornings to sit barefoot on grass-backed sand dunes and ruminate and guess what 3am Trump tweet I’d missed. And when that inexplicable, sourceless itch for movement came, I packed everything, closed Ruth’s doors, and drove off.

The second and third days on the northbound route were, safety concerns aside, gorgeous. When the sun was low in either the west or east everything was just gold, and through open windows I could smell the jasmine flowers that ornament the near-to-the-shoulder-forests. Roads summited prominent hills, which let me see the far off denuded hillocks where cows perched on the hillocks’ ribbed sides. Roads scrunched into switchbacks, and Ruth’s engines whined to be made to labor up just to go down. I went through so many towns without petrol stations that I had to stop at a holiday park and ask where to find one. “Hm, you’ll have to turn around and head back to Whangarei.” “I just left there like thirty minutes ago!” “Sorry about that my bru.” (I had stopped in Whangarei because it is a large city known to have malls and I needed to grab small conveniences (towel, utensils, etc.) and non-perishable food (sour gummy worms, non-sour gummy worms, gummy fruit salad, gummy with chocolate coating, etc.). I had to ask two teens for a primer on each store and whether they could match them to an American equivalent:“The Warehouse, that’s like your Wal-Mart. Kmart, that’s like your Target, and there’s Countdown, but I don’t know what grocers you have in the states.” I was driving east from Whangarei when the petrol incident occurred).

Near evening I hiked a protrusion of land locally famous for having a WW2 bunker and a pinkie-nail sized beach where smugglers landed contraband.


A trio of French girls lounged in the rear of their van when I parked, and when I returned they were still there, flipping through guidebooks and flicking their phone screens. I asked if they had been north. “No, but we go to Paihia tomorrow we think.”

Paihia is the gateway city to Northland’s most iconic natural photography backdrop, the adjectivally named Bay of Islands. Paihia, though, is a mediocre town situated like some sty on the lid of an opal eye. It’s the congregation point for the tourists who seek the tropical promise that the Bay of Islands offers via the many trifold brochures found in New Zealand’s ubiquitous information sites (colloquially an “I-Site”). The town relies entirely on the two sand beaches it was built between and the dozens of boat charters that depart hourly to the outer bay rock formations and dolphin swims. The bars and restaurants are water facing, and there is a wharf specially made for dining patrons. It juts over water and people sip $12 pints over its barnacled wood posts.

Aesthetically the town’s buildings are flat walled, pre-fab, and plain colored. This kind of bland pragmatism is in itself an aesthetic that complements the congregational look of the Germans, French, and British backpackers who sit Indian style with laptops in front of the library or wait at the bus stop next to the supermarket, which is of the type that stocks quick foodstuffs—one pan rice and noodle dishes; pre-marinated meats; vegetables already diced or julienned. Other than eateries and backpacker huts, the core businesses are for all-day trip excursions. Seemingly everything in the town is meant to get you out of it.

The focal point of the town’s main drag is a t-intersection with an I-site and ice cream stand, each with a stellar beach view. I asked the kiosk employee what I should do during my three day stay. She recommended I visit the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. (I stopped by. It’s New Zealand’s most important historic site according to the organization that runs it, though it survives on the $40NZD a person, all-day admission since the New Zealand government provides no financial or licensing support. I passed.) I could walk the Haruru
Falls. (Which I did and saw an underwhelming, not-worth-breaking-out-the-camera-for two-story waterfall in what felt like an urban park setting and was reminiscent of the artificial falls built at the entrances of San Diego luxury sub-divisions; a platform walk through mangrove forest did salvage the trek, especially since it was low tide and mangrove seeds fell into the mud and created what sounded like a symphony of snapping fingers.)mangrove-walk

Or, she said, I could spend a day walking the Coastal Walkway. (I attempted this. It’s an over-hyped walk with a wreck of failed promises. Beaches, estuaries, oyster farms, and superb bay views I might have seen had I not turned back after three hours of sharing a road shoulder with cars, walking on peoples’ lawns, bordering the town’s landfill, and passing the furtive refuse discarded from oyster operations.)

Her final suggestion was to take a charter cruise to Hole in Rock, an aptly named volcanic formation a few hours boat ride from Paihia. I left a day early instead. I heard later that the charter is worthwhile. Maybe with a touch more patience I’ll stick around long enough to see it one day.

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