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Russell: The once legendary 'hellhole of the South Pacific'

Joanna Wane visits Russell – once the legendary “hellhole of the South Pacific” at the heart of New Zealand’s origin story.

Charles Darwin was four years at sea and a world away from home when the Beagle sailed into the Bay of Islands in 1835 and dropped anchor. History doesn’t record whether he went ashore at Russell to drown his sorrows in grog at the Duke of Marlborough or find “southern comfort” of a different kind. But the odds, it seems, are against it.

Back then, the township was known as Kororareka, the largest and roughest whaling port in the Southern Hemisphere, where grogshops and brothels vied for trade along the waterfront.

Darwin, who’d been born into British society, was appalled. His radical theories on evolution were still germinating in a mental petri dish but here, in a sense, was natural selection at play. The English jetsam who’d washed up at the arse-end of the civilised world were “the very refuse of society”, he wrote, fleeing to the missionary settlement, with its cups of tea and Maori maids, across the water in Paihia.

Johnny Johnston’s Grog Shop was opened in 1827 on Kororareka’s main drag by an Irish ex-convict, who renamed it the Duke of Marlborough to add a bit of class. And although he was a canny entrepreneur quick to profit under the new colonial government – in 1840, the Duke was granted New Zealand’s first liquor licence – his personal sympathies lay elsewhere. Fluent in te reo Maori, Johnston acted as a translator during the Treaty of Waitangi negotiations and is said to have warned local chiefs they’d be signing their rights away.

That didn’t save his hotel from burning down when the town was sacked in the Battle of Kororareka five years later by Hone Heke and his men – firing the opening shots in what would become known as the New Zealand Wars. But the hotel was soon back on tap, and the Duke – “Refreshing Rascals & Reprobates since 1827” – has been in business ever since. In November, a party was thrown for its 190th birthday, and while a portrait of its patron, the Duke of Marlborough, still hangs in the dining room, Northland has its own royalty now.

“Watch out for cigarette butts… and peacock feathers,” quipped a colleague, when I told him I was heading up to Russell for a long weekend at the hotel. On election night, Winston Peters used the Duke as his NZ First party base, and apparently he likes to pop in every now and again to take the mood of the town. “He’s one of our favourite rascals,” laughs owner Anton Haagh.

Haagh was operations manager for Simon Gault’s Nourish Group in Auckland when he bought the languishing hotel with his wife, Bridget, and a couple of old friends from Otago University, Riki Kinnaird and Jayne Shirley, after they stopped in at the Duke for lunch while holidaying together in Northland. Despite being outsiders (and Aucklanders, at that), the Haaghs had one saving grace: unlike the previous owner, they weren’t French. “At least we were Kiwis,” says Haagh, who poached head chef Dan Fraser from Euro.

At the time, Kinnaird was chief executive of a telecommunications company in London; Shirley was HR manager for a large Spanish bank. “Their street had more people living in it than the whole of Russell,” says Haagh, who talked the couple into moving back from the UK.

“We swapped the Viaduct and London for sleepy old Russell. But it’s not typical small-town New Zealand; it’s quite international. And we were welcomed into the community very quickly, almost surprisingly so.”

Kinnaird and Shirley’s two pre-schoolers were born here. Haagh’s six-year-old goes to the local primary school, which holds its swimming sports off the wharf. He says it’s a “nightmare” trying to get his children to put on shoes when they go back to Auckland. “They’re Russell kids now.”


When the new partners took over the Duke, in 2010, there were four fulltime staff. That’s risen to 60 – and doubles in summer, when the population explodes from 812 permanent residents (according to the last census) to more than 10,000. And the town is still famous for entertaining sailors: at Labour Weekend, carloads of supporters poured in to party at the finishing line of the Coastal Classic yacht race from Auckland to Russell, won by a boat with America’s Cup skipper Jimmy Spithill on board as tactician.

Today, the gentrified waterfront with its gabled heritage houses and neatly clipped gardens is a world away from the bawdy Pacific hellhole of folklore. But come New Year’s Eve and you can start to picture it again, says Haagh. “I love the way Kiwis pretend we’re all virtuous and chose to come here, not like Australia. But dig deeper and a lot of our first founders were ex-convicts, or escaping ones.”

It was Captain Cook who named the Bay of Islands, when the Endeavour anchored off the Russell peninsula in 1769 (a charitable trust, Te Au Marie, already has plans afoot to mark the 250th anniversary of those first encounters, in 2019). In all, there are 144 islands, and Russell feels like one of them because although it’s part of the mainland, you almost always come to it by sea – passing within sight of the flagpole at Waitangi during the ferry crossing from Paihia.


Heritage restrictions and the lack of a reticulated water supply have largely protected the township from development, retaining its appealing character. Northland is notorious for its divide between wealthy and poor, but while there’s at least one house on the market with a $7 million price tag, you don’t get the sense of a segregated community here. Great consternation surfaced recently when new owners put up a high fence around a corner property where children used to play under the golden elm trees.

A few years back, someone left St John $1 million in their will and that was used to build an ambulance base. The GP centre is community funded and one year the Russell RSA paid for prostate checks for all the men in town. Over summer, it’s cheek by jowl in the cafes and restaurants, but when the crowds drain away, locals emerge to reclaim their town. “If there are two people in front of me at Four Square, I walk out of the shop and come back later,” says one retired fisherman. “I didn’t come here to queue.”


Tamed into farmland by early settlers – roaming cows grazed freely in the township until the 1950s – the Russell peninsula is slowly returning to bush. Possums have been largely eradicated and effective pest control has seen the bird life flourish, with a resident population of some 500 North Island brown kiwi. Locals often find nosy weka foraging in their gardens.

“It’s our bay now we’ve got rid of the furry creatures,” says conservationist Eion Harwood, who’s involved in the Russell Landcare Trust, a community initiative to restore the peninsula’s native biodiversity. Its ambitious aim is to double the number of kiwi and eventually cover the entire area with stoat traps.

He and his ecologist wife, Lisette Collins, have established what is effectively a bird sanctuary in their backyard. One of the highest concentrations of North Island weka live on the doorstep; Harwood says their birdcall comes swooping down from town, over the hill and into the valley like a Mexican wave. “They’re so frustrated they can’t fly,” he says. “It must be awful.”


The couple run guided walks introducing people to the bush and the critters that inhabit it, from warblers to weta. Go after dark and you might even spot a kiwi; Harwood has a sixth sense for sniffing them out in the undergrowth. Actually, it’s the birds who do the sniffing, and they have a very sensitive nose. If you’re wearing perfume or have had a glass of wine or two, they’ll catch your scent and vanish into the undergrowth.

Back on the township’s main strand, Barry Newland volunteers for Russell Radio – the Guardians of the Bay – broadcasting weather reports and looking out for boaties from Tutukaka to the Cavalli Islands. It’s the onshore westerlies you’ve got to watch out for, reckons Newland, who retired to Russell last summer and lives on his yacht at Matauwhi Bay, where New Zealand’s first Christian wedding service was performed in 1823, on the grass above the beach.

When Newland first lived here, in the early 70s, Russell was little more than a “frontier town” of little baches that rented for $20 or $30 a week. “Solo mums, alternative lifestylers. Now it’s all big mansions owned by foreigners. But they’re very nice people,” he says. “You can’t stop change, as long as it’s good change. You can’t stop people coming to live here. But yeah, you gotta hope it keeps its quaintness.”


Historic Russell

  • Get your bearings and a snapshot history lesson with a lively one-hour Russell Mini Tour (www.dolphincruises.co.nz) or pick up a Heritage Trail pamphlet for $1.50 at Russell Museum (www.russellmuseum.org.nz).

  • At Pompallier Mission, you can tour the gardens and French-style pioneer printer, now restored to full working order, where Catholic missionaries printed te reo Maori translations of religious texts in the 1840s (www.pompallier.co.nz).

  • At Maiki Hill, Hone Heke and his men felled the flagstaff four times, triggering the sacking of Kororareka; from The Strand, it’s an easy 20-minute walk uphill. In 1857, as a sign of reconciliation, a “noble spar was felled in the bush” and dragged into place by 400 Ngapuhi warriors. Today, it stands as a gesture of such national symbolism there are calls for the flagstaff to be officially recognised as a historic landmark.

  • Trace your fingers across the musket-ball holes in the walls of Christ Church, built in 1835, and follow the “cemetery trail” for a truly poignant wander back through the township’s history (there’s a pamphlet for that, too). One tombstone claims to be the final resting place of the first white woman born in New Zealand. Samuel Ford, buried here with his wife, Martha, was the country’s first resident surgeon, but lost three sons and a daughter to scarlet fever in a single year.

Russell Nature Walks

Book a two-hour guided Ecology Walk through Eion Harwood and Lisette Collins’ forest reserve or come after dark to eavesdrop on nightlife in the bush. The couple have created a kiwi nursery on their land, monitoring several nesting boxes with motion-activated cameras. Family rates available, and $15 from every ticket is spent on conservation work.

6080 Russell-Whakapara Rd, www.russellnaturewalks.co.nz

The Bay of Islands Swordfish Club

Drop-in visitors are welcome at New Zealand’s oldest game-fishing club. Upstairs, the clubhouse is stuffed with memorabilia, from battered trophies and photographs to the mounted cast of “Old Blue”, a 461kg monster of a marlin hooked offshore. In the 1920s, legendary US angler Zane Grey put Bay of Islands game fishing on the world map when he based himself on an island offshore. These days, some 60 per cent of fish are tagged and released, but you can still charter the boat he rented, the Alma G.

25 The Strand, Russell, www.swordfish.co.nz

Hole in the Rock

Dolphins and occasionally whales keep the catamaran company on a half-day cruise to the lighthouse on the cliffs at Cape Brett and Motukokako Island, where a narrow 16m-high hole has been carved into the rock by an eon of ocean swells. If conditions are right, you’ll sail right on through. Take the extended trip for an “island of the day” stopover and clamber as high as you can get for spectacular views in every direction. Adults $107, children $53.50.

Fullers GreatSights, ph (0800) 653-339, www.dolphincruises.co.nz

Kawiti Caves

In the 1600s, a Maori woman named Roku was on the run from her husband when she stumbled across these 20 million-year-old limestone caves. Home to thousands of glow worms, they were opened to the public in the 1950s by a descendant of renowned Ngapuhi chief Te Tawai Kawiti, and have stayed in the family ever since. A short detour off SH1, just south of Kawakawa, it’s the perfect place to break your road trip. Adults $20, children $10, for a half-hour tour. 

49 Waiomio Rd, ph (09) 404-0583, www.kawiticaves.co.nz


The Duke of Marlborough

New Zealand’s first licensed hotel celebrated its 190th birthday in November and has reinvented itself as a world-class destination, with a lively bar and a fine-dining restaurant that specialises in seasonal Northland produce and local wines – from Waikare Inlet oysters to hapuka delivered to the kitchen daily fresh from the wharf. Original pieces by Kerikeri artist Lester Hall cover the walls alongside historic works he’s restored and adapted – with both meticulous care and wonderfully whimsical humour. Summer tariffs from $170 per night to $395 for a bungalow or waterfront balcony room.

35 The Strand, Russell, ph (09) 403-7829, www.theduke.co.nz

Orongo Bay Homestead

Built in the 1860s and set in six hectares of native bush, the homestead was New Zealand’s first American consulate, then did time as a sanatorium for American sailors, a school and a Methodist church before being restored as a certified-organic guest house, complete with underground wine cellar and a vintage Austrian grand piano. From $350 per night over summer, with a fresh “bakehouse breakfast”.

45 Aucks Rd, Russell, ph (09) 403-7527, www.thehomestead.co.nz

Donkey Bay Inn

The operatic, sensual nature of owner and local winemaker Antonio Pasquale – a doctor of philosophy from Padua – is stamped all over this brand-new addition to the luxury end of the eco-market. A riot of colour and eclectic style, the whole retreat is an immersive sensory experience with clifftop views, concierge service, an atrium library, a helipad and a planted, living roof. A path from the house winds down through an extraordinary crystal-adorned sculpture installation to a secluded naturalist beach. Three themed rooms, priced from $1000 a night.

Long Beach Rd, ph (09) 403-8027, www.donkeybayinn.co.nz

Omata Estate Vineyard & Kitchen

Wine tastings, gourmet platters, wood-fired pizza and stunning views over the bay (walk off lunch on a track down to the water or take the 8km bush-and-boardwalk trail back to the township). Wineries are relatively new to Northland, but the climate on this stretch of coastline is similar to Waiheke’s – sea breezes, lots of sunshine – and Omata Estate grows all its grapes on site. Try the 2017 rosé, made from syrah with a hint of strawberry, or cap off the evening with oven-roasted figs, vanilla-bean ice cream and a shot of oak-aged port.

212 Aucks Rd, Russell, ph (09) 403-8007, www.omata.co.nz

Charlotte’s Kitchen

A convict from England who led a mutiny on the ship transporting her to Tasmania in 1806, Charlotte Badger was possibly the first white woman to settle in New Zealand. This sun-soaked eatery, run by the team at the Duke, is perched at the end of the Paihia wharf and celebrates her buccaneering spirit in style, with themed artworks, live music nights, and a suitably adventurous cocktail list.

69 Marsden Rd, Paihia, ph (09) 402-8296, www.charlotteskitchen.co.nz 


This was published in the December 2017 issue of North & South.