Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand, is the last large piece of the temperate and sub-tropical world to be colonised by men and ground-living mammals. Some of its flora and fauna are descended from ancient Gondwanaland, from which New Zealand split eighty million years ago. The Islands evolved unique flora and flightless birds large and small, the only alpine parrot and some of the world’s most accomplished songbirds. Despite this lineage, it is difficult to find any landforms older than 14,000 years.

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One side of New Zealand has white-capped mountains, glaciers, hot springs, caves and volcanoes. It is home to the wild places like Fiordland, the Southern Alps, Mount Taranaki, Rotorua and the Western rain forests. This is the place the tourists come to see and play in. The other New Zealand is agricultural. It is tame, tidy country, marked off by high, long hedges and paddocks, extensive irrigation. A place that looks like it could well hide a hillside of hobbits. It hosts kiwifruit and vineyards, apple orchards, dairy and deer farms, and, of course, the ubiquitous sheep. None of the country’s native plants or animals have been domesticated or used in any commercially sustainable way; all the crops come from the Northern hemisphere.

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The entire archipelago of New Zealand takes in some seven hundred islands, but most of the land mass is accounted for by the unimaginatively named North and South Islands. To the Maori, they are Te Ika a Maui (the Fish of Maui) for the North, and Te Waka a Maui (the Canoe of Maui) for the South. The coastline is enormously long, 15,000 kms (9,300 miles), but you are never more than 130 kms (80 miles) from the coast. A North-South hiking trail called Te Araroa has been in existence for a little over ten years now. It covers slightly over 3000 kms (1875 miles) from North to South.

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So far, only about two hundred people have done the whole thing. Last year, a Melbourne-based adventurer named Richard Bowles became the first person to actually run it. It took him just 65 days, but was the toughest thing he had ever done. “I was running in the notorious Taraua Range and the wind blew me clear off the ridge line. I tumbled 200 metres before my pack got wedged in some rocks.”

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Our adventure was going to be a great deal less taxing, We would be venturing out with guides in stable, sea worthy kayaks. We would be based at a cabin about a one-hour drive north of the town of Paihia, on the Bay of Islands, in what is called the Northland. To get to the tourist town of Paihia without driving requires booking passage on one of the two bus lines that runs between Auckland and Paihia. Thanks to the frequent stops to pick up and drop off passengers along the way, the journey takes four long hours. Fortunately, we were given a very quiet room at our motel in Paihia and got a good night’s sleep. We did not fare so well at the end of our kayak adventure.

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On this particular trip we were going to be the beneficiaries of an old friendship between our outfitter, a hybrid Kiwi/American named Mark Hutson, and his good friend Richard Israel. Richard’s property was to be our home base. We would take up residence in a rustic cabin without electricity but with running water, cooker and a huge picture window overlooking the rugged coastline. Our bathroom was in the great outdoors, a short, walk up hill. There was a flush toilet, au natural if you will, and a very refreshing cold water shower to get the salt off.

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Fortunately, for every day except Christmas, the weather Gods smiled. During our five day sojourn together we snorkelled off an island that dates from the Permian extinction, paddled the rugged coastline around Tauranga Bay and Whangaroa, explored caves, checked out a Maori site called a Pa and threaded our way through a mangrove swamp and up a beautiful creek. We swapped stories and favourite books, shared anecdotes and laughed a lot.

On Christmas morning Mark, his helpers and family members treated us to eggs Benedict and presents. Despite some reservations, I dressed up as Santa Claus for the occasion even though I had no presents to offer. Perhaps this post will make up for it. With everyone around me wearing antlers, what else could I do?

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Check out the rest of the photos by clicking any of the pics that run alongside this post in the More Pics box. That will take you to my Flickr site. I am Red Flier on that site, but the name has nothing to do with Santa Claus. It has to do with a bicycle, but you guessed that already. Until next year.

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