A MAORI WITH A FACE ONLY A MOTHER COULD LOVE, AND SHE DOES

WHANGAROA, New Zealand – You’ve heard of faces that could stop a clock? Not Hog’s. His is as complex and intricate as the insides of a Swiss watch – a face that would stop traffic anywhere but New Zealand.

You’ve heard of face lifts. Hog’s has been raised to an artistic level that may seem bizarre to an alien but is really a throwback to a prouder time when their country belonged to the natives, the Maoris, and the English conquerors hadn’t yet landed. It is a warrior’s fearsome countenance deeply imprinted and illustrated, marked by tattoos in a time-honored style that dates back centuries.

“A face only a mother could love, huh?” he laughs loudly. “Well, she does.”

“Oh, on you it looks very good,” says Danielle, another American visitor to this small town near the tip of the North Island’s east coast, a place known for its sport fishing.

It is 8 a.m. at the Marlin Hotel, right across the street from Whangaroa’s harbor that is well-stocked with boats whose principal Pacific Ocean prey is marlin. Several of them, extremely large, one a striped 440 pounder, float on the walls of the barroom where Hog is breakfasting and shooting pool, sipping Red Lion lager between turns at the table.

“Hog’s last name? I don’t know, and maybe he doesn’t either,” smiles the publican, Laurie Stephens. “But he’s a good man. Always obliging when some traveler wants to take his photo. A peacemaker if some of the boys go a little heavy on breakfast and get rambunctious.”

Laurie’s wife, Coleen, says that unbottled breakfast fare is also available, like eggs and bacon from her kitchen. Sounds good, and Danielle trades her pool cue for a fork.

The Marlin, a white frame building, has been a utilitarian hotel (plumbing somewhere down the hall) for more than a century. Zane Grey, the best-selling American author of Westerns, who rejoiced in rounding up marlins and swordfish, supposedly slept here during his quests of the 1920s. The writer of “Riders of the Purple Sage” delighted in riding the purpling seas.

Opening early, closing late, the Marlin is a repository for every fish story ever told. “Wonder if Grey ever lassoed a marlin, or used a six-shooter to nail one?” muses Hog, who claims he did even better. Hog says he once scared a surfaced marlin to death by flashing the traditional Maori warrior’s “if-looks-could-kill” look – eyes bulging, tongue jabbing venomously – at the poor creature.

“Too bad you didn’t bring it in here for me to cook,” scolds Coleen “But maybe a petrified marlin wouldn’t taste so good.”

“Not’s good as another frosty Red Lion,” Hog says, holding out his personalized mug for Laurie to re-fill.

Automotive flight from windy, rainy, washed-out beaches and chilly weather on the west coast had brought us to sunshine on this side of the territory called Northland. Nevertheless, it was an eyes-refreshing cross-country drive, the kind my friend, Aurelio, thrives on at the wheel: skinny, roads twisted through forests of giant kauris, seemingly virginal territory decked out in husky ancient ferns, and over the beautiful Parahirahi Mountains.

Now there would be one beach after another, deserted or virtually so, any number of sandy pick-and-play situations.

“But, first,” interjects Hog, “you can’t leave Whangaroa without climbing St. Paul’s. It’s our great landmark, our geological pride with the best view for miles. I’d lead the charge – but, uh, it’s a mite difficult to climb with a beer in each hand.”

A half-hour’s walk up the road, then through a pasture inhabited by horses, brings us to the base of St. Paul’s, a steep and lofty bald knob of rock that springs from the earth without warning.

“Looks like into thin hair to me,” says Danielle. “A good place to visit – by helicopter. If you get there, send me a letter. Like St. Paul. I’m staying at base camp.”

Aurelio scowls. “Come on, you two. It’s only 700 feet, with lots of footholds. There are supposed to be chains to help you along the hard parts.” When it comes to getting high by abusing only one substance – her companions – Aurelio is a champ. But why do we follow?

“Because she’s got the car keys,” shrugs Danielle.

Right.

Grunt . . . clamber . . . quiver . . . moan. . . shinny . . . pull. . . cling . . . squeeze . . . scrunch . . . slip . . . reach . . . crawl . . . brace . . . whine . . . scrape . . . .

“Now that wasn’t bad, was it?” beams Aurelio at the summit. “Isn’t the view” – far out to sea and to distant villages and butte-like Mount Taratara – “breathtaking?”

“Lifetaking,” says Danielle.

“Breathshaking,” huff I, third to the pinnacle. “Now, may we find a beach, please?”

“Name your flavor.”

There are so many. Matauri Bay, well below the highway, is both soothing and somber, its waters the tomb of the tragic Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior. The Warrior’s mission was honorable, to protest French nuclear tests of 1985 in the Pacific north of Tahiti. But before it could leave Auckland Harbour, the boat was shamefully blown up by French government agents, the explosion killing a Portuguese photographer, Fernando Pereira.

Its twisted remains were brought to Matauri, to lie submerged near the Cavalli Islands, and a sculpted memorial recalling the awful deed stands on a hilltop surveying the bay.

Adorning the shore of Wainui Bay is a camp ground amid lazy cows and large, rambling, red-flowering trees called pohutukawas – “New Zealand’s ‘Christmas’ trees,” says a local, Evelyn Lineham, proprietor of a fine bed-and-breakfast in Kerikeri. Farther along, Cable Bay, whose beach is only a few yards off the road, affords a fine midday swim.

But the late afternoon discovery is divine: Matai Bay, a double horseshoe divided by a rocky head at the end of a long, jouncy dirt road on the tip of eastward-lunging Karikari Peninsula. Each arc is almost a mile long, connected by soft and generous stretches of straw-toned sand. A camping site hovers above the left, and a few people are in the water.

Ah, but on the right – nobody. Just sand, and sea of varying currents and shades of blue. Most of the shoreline is assaulted by surf, its hoarse voice competing with seabirds for the ear. But the waves are not too imposing for body-surfing.

However, at the far corner, the ocean calms. A patch of sand walled by tall boulders is practically a private retreat, opening to a serene amethyst pool that seems pacifically divorced from the Pacific. As a scarlet backwall, a gigantic pohutukawa sends its wandering branches snaking in all directions.

Peel and paddle is Matai’s sensual invitation. It’s hog heaven.

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