Hell Hole of the Pacific


Next morning, after a much-needed lie-in, we were off on a (very bumpy) ferry ride to Urupukapuka Island. We were warned when we arrived on the island and before we left Russell that due to there being no natural predators or pests on the island could we please help keep the island pest-free by checking our bags for rats, mice, stoats and seeds before disembarking along the litchen covered weather worn pontoon to the shore.

looking over the pontoon
looking over the pontoon

We spent most of the day in kayaks, paddling about this idyllic island and across to even smaller neighbouring ones, even pissing off the locals (some exceedingly large sting rays) and trying the “local sea produce” of kinna…raw – a Maori favourite.

a view from the kayak
a view from the kayak

A paddle back to the shore and hike up to the peak gave us a knockout view over the bay and most of the rest of the island. Fine grassy knolls are interspersed with the rough and ready scrub-like manuka (a plant once considered a weed by early New Zealanders’ until honey connoseurs unveiled its unique top quality taste and potent medicinal properties – particularly anti-fungal and bacterial). Wonderful red flower bouquets – like a floral firework display – populate the island, and are found along the seashore all around New Zealand – a beautiful product of the pohutukawa tree, also known as the New Zealand Christmas tree, New Zealand’s most popular tree and seen by the Maori as a ‘chiefly tree’. So important are these trees that under no circumstances are they to be chopped down, and if a tree is interfering with your property and you are found to have poisoned it to get rid of it, this will carry a jail term!


Our return ferry was booked for 3.30pm, which, much to the relief of everyone’s stomachs, crossed much calmer waters and meant we arrived back in Russell with just enough time to explore the town and tag onto a guided tour around the Pompallier Mission and Tannery / Printery. Described as “a most saintly enclave in the most sinful site of the Southern Seas”. Here, at the mission, Catholic brothers translate holy texts into Maori, printed them and bound them into beautiful books.

Built in 1842, in what was previously known as “The hell hole of the pacific”- due to it being a popular port of call for sailors, whalers, traders as well as deserting seamen, runaways, convicts, grog sellers and prostitutes. Paired with the growing high demand for the holy texts in Maori, the Catholic brothers really had their work cut out for them.

The structure was built using traditional French rammed-earth (pies de terre) style and is unique to all of Australasia. Also New Zealands’ only surviving pioneer printery and tannery! The original printing press still stands nobly in the corner of the first room you will enter, under the ever-watchful eye of the Virgin Mary, below which, Christian-Maori converts would sit, on woven flax mats and gaze up at her. Both items were brought from France on one of the many voyages made by the Catholic missionaries.

As you move on to the tannery itself, you will see how the fresh hides brought down from the local farmers would be prepared to become leather for binding books. They actually have the hides on display and examples of the hide at different stages of preparation. Once treated and left to part-dry, the hides are brought inside. Already stretched, it’s now time to “skive off” the fat from the back of the hide before the pummellers pummel the hides to soften them. A pummellers role was much more exhausting and labour intensive than a skivers role, and the story goes that it was in these surroundings of a tannery that the phrase “to skive off” was coined.

Now that the hides are ready, we made our way up the creaking wooden staircase to the printers on the first floor. We are presented with the typesetting letter trays and the original letter press blocks. Here it is someone’s job to sort the “p’s” from the “q’s”, and then two shelves will be where you divide the capital letters from the standard letters – capitals on the upper shelf case (upper case) and standard letters on the bottom shelf case (or lower case). Once the text has been set and the link (originally made from whale blubber) applied using “dabbers” – those who became experts at dabbing the ink became known as “a dab hand”, it was then time to make…the first impression, and ultimately the most important. All the texts are then printed and the books are stuck and bound, with a fresh bay leaf slipped inside each book to keep the book worms, moths and other pests ‘at bay’ from destroying the books.


After our historical interlude, we’re back up to the house to get ready for a New Years night on the town. Starting the night with local wine and freshly caught Russell Bay oysters fresh from the morning, before heading back down to the Duke of Marlborough – which received New Zealand’s first ever liqueur licence in the 1840s. As 2014 drew to a close, everyone crowded down to the beach to watch the fireworks and ring in the tidings of 2015.

Author: ellecoco

A buckaneering chocolatier, fuelled by chocolate, powered by adventure...

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