I'm a Victorian freelance writer & photographer living in the Macedon Ranges north of Melbourne.
Published April 12th 2017
Former Hell Hole of the Pacific
Blue water, blue skies and an almost endless parade of sail make Russell in New Zealand's Bay of Islands a little slice of paradise.
But it hasn't always been this way.
The view across Pomare Bay from Paihia to Russell in New Zealand's magical Bay of Islands. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
In the early 1840's, Kororareka, as Russell was then known, had earned for itself the unenviable title of the "hell hole of the Pacific", a lawless town full of grog-shops, whalers, brawling seamen and Maori 'ship girls', prostitutes who traded sex for clothing, blankets and muskets.
An old cannon, symbolic of the conflicts seen here, stands watch over the Russell foreshore. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
In 1840, at nearby Waitangi, a treaty was agreed between settlers and the Maori whose chiefs sought to retain control over their people and lands while trading more fairly with the Europeans.
Hone Heke was the first chief to sign and even gave the British a gift of a flagpole which was raised on a hill overlooking Kororareka.
Ferries operate regular services on the 15 minute crossing between Paihia and Russell. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
But it didn't take long for many Maori, including Hone Heke, to become dissatisfied with their treatment under the disputed terms of the treaty and mistrust quickly turned to conflict.
In July 1844, Hone Heke chopped down Kororareka's flagpole in an act of defiance. When the British re-erected it, Hone Heke chopped it down again. When they raised it again, he cut it down once more.
Governor Robert Fitzroy ordered more troops and the warship HMS HAZARD into the area to bolster the regions defences.
On the 11th March 1845, Hone Heke led an estimated 450 warriors in an attack on Kororareka that started the Northern Maori War, or the Flagstaff War as it was sometimes known.
Fighting continued throughout the day, the heaviest around Christ Church at the southern end of town, where sailors from HMS HAZARD fought alongside Marines defending a gun emplacement from a force of some 200 Maori. The British lost 6 men killed and many wounded before they were forced to retreat.
By late afternoon, with all civilians evacuated to ships in the bay, HMS HAZARD commenced a bombardment and British and Maori alike sacked the town – but not before Hone Heke had chopped down the flag pole for the fourth and final time.
Christ Church was the scene of heavy fighting when the town was attacked by Hone Heke - there are still musket-ball holes in the woodwork. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
Today, Russell is a place of relaxation and recreation, a quaint tourist town and safe anchorage directly opposite and just a short ferry ride from the Bay of islands tourism hub of Paihia.
Above its bay and beaches the hillsides are dotted with luxury homes, including Eagles Nest, New Zealand's most expensive rental property. You're never too far from a luxury yacht or cruiser, quality accommodation abounds nearby and the towns historic sites and buildings have been meticulously restored and maintained.
Russell's small museum provides a fascinating insight into local history. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
As you walk The Strand between Pompallier Mission and the Duke of Marlborough Hotel, stroll the back streets, explore the graveyard at Christ's Church or just sit on the wharf and gaze out over Kororareka Bay you'll gain a deep sense of the history of the place.
The site of Russell's present day Duke of Marlborough Hotel was also the site of Johnny Johnson's grog shop in 1827 which eventually became New Zealand's first licensed hotel in 1840. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
Getting There ....
By road take State Highway 1 north from Auckland. At Kawakawa take SH11 to Opua, Paihia and Russell. At the top of the hill approaching Opua make a right turn to the vehicle ferry. Operating continuous services throughout the day the ferry crosses to Opua. Russell is an 8 kilometre drive further up the main road.
First ferry departs Okiato at 6.40 AM for the 10 minute crossing and the last service departs Opua at 10 PM.
Cost for a car or van (less than 6 metres long) is $11. Additional adult passengers cost $1 and children (5 - 14 years) 50 cents.
Alternatively drive to Piahia and take one of the passenger ferries to Russell.
Fullers InterCity Ferries operate regular services on the 15-minute crossing to Russell. Return fare for Adults is $12 and Children (14 and under) $6.
It's difficult to imagine the picturesque Russell foreshore ever having been a bloodied battlefield. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank