The Rock

 


 

The fish’s heart pumped and writhed in the palm of my hand like a piece of throbbing sushi. It didn’t look at all appetising but the crew of The Rock had convinced me that eating it would be a ‘cultural experience’ – a sort of initiation to the Bay of Islands. As I popped the pulsating morsel into my mouth I was already wondering why I have always had such a problem submitting to peer-pressure. Bigger boys made me do it.

 

Bay of Islands is renowned adventure travel centre and there are a few adrenalin fuelled trips here: everything from sky-diving to chopper excursions to trips on the bizarrely phallic ‘Excitor’ speedboat (which throbs its way across the bay to penetrate the famous ‘Hole in the Rock’ on a twice-daily basis). But an overnight voyage on The Rock, a veteran car ferry which has been converted into a cruising barge accommodating about forty passengers, is one of the region’s most popular excursions.

 

The boat is so steady, even in moderate swell, that it is even equipped with a pool table in the bar, but there is a spirit of adventure that is still alive and well in this part of the North Island and The Rock does a surprisingly good job of capturing it in what is after all a fairly limited time. Even before we were out of sight of Paihia wharf, a decoy duck (known as Matilda) was trailing off the back of the ferry so that we could take turns trying to blast her with a paintball gun. She was no ‘sitting duck,’ bouncing and jumping in the wake, and I was quite proud to be the only person to hit her with two out of three shots. (But, in hindsight, perhaps it was this that brought me to the notice of the crew and led to my sushi ‘prize’ later.)

When the competition was over Matilda was hauled aboard and trawling lines were let out. Within just a few minutes there was a shout as the first kahawai (pronounced ‘cow eye’) was seen leaping on the hook. Adam the skipper handed the wheel over to second mate Ben and came back to do a demonstration of how to gut and prepare this delicious fish (liberally rubbed with lemon-pepper and brown sugar) for barbecuing. His explanation was certainly worthy of the most advanced TV celebrity chef but I forget all the details. By this time I was drinking Steinlager rather than taking notes.

We moored somewhere beyond Tapeka Point and ate our dinner at a long communal table. Conversation was varied and reflected the diversity of the group. I was sharing a cabin with a South African engineer, based in Zambia, and a Spanish scientist from Galicia. There were also three German girl backpackers, two American expats, a couple of older English travellers and three generations from a family of Kiwi farmers, celebrating a birthday party.

By now it was completely dark and, with the moon not yet risen, perfect timing for a nocturnal kayaking trip. Far from any ambient light and out on the spooky black water we had the most spectacular display of phosphorescence I have ever seen. Digging our paddles hard we could power the kayaks forward and leave a glowing trail of vivid neon-green lights shimmering across the surface. Once back on the boat I dived overboard and, following Adam’s advice, swam under the hull where there was no light whatsoever. As I swam I could see the phosphorescent glow trailing off my fingertips and even bouncing off my nose.

I slept well – lulled by the rocking of the waves – but deadlines had been piling up lately and I woke before dawn to go down to the main deck to hunt down some coffee and try get some writing done before the day started. It was difficult to bemoan the hard life of a roving journo though with such an office to work out of.

A watery sun came up over the horizon and I watched small flocks of gannets and pied shags diving for their breakfast. The shags apparently dive with such force that most of them die eventually of blindness because of shattered retinas.

After breakfast we paddled out to a nearby island to explore and play football on the beach. Then we moored in the lee of one of Bay of Island’s 143 islets and snorkelled for kino (urchins) for lunch. Split open with a knife the skimpy rations of meat that the urchins yield is nevertheless extremely tasty.

Back on the boat Jonny Greener – the owner of The Rock – called me over to point out a little blue penguin floating on the swell. I was delighted with my first ever wild penguin sighting. As we watched my eye was drawn to a splash farther off on the watery horizon and I realised that a group of dolphins was heading our way. Another boat had already spotted the small pod of bottlenoses and was on its way towards them. Jonny and his crew are against these sort of invasive dolphin tours and refuse to chase the dolphins or to swim with them, unless the dolphins come to investigate the swimmers. In this case, however, the other boat was chasing the dolphins straight towards us and we had a grandstand view as several of the magnificent three-metre creatures leapt and tail-flipped through the water, seemingly playing water-polo with clumps of seaweed.

It was the perfect ending to this fleeting glimpse of the Bay of Islands. The Rock cruise had been a tantalising morsel that, like the sea urchin meat, left me wanting more. But, unlike the raw fish heart, it was an experience I would like to repeat at the first opportunity!

For more information on The Rock visit rocktheboat.co.nz

 

 

By Mark Evelegh

Marlborough

 


 

David Whitley takes on the stunning waterways of New Zealand’s Marlborough Sounds in the most ridiculous boat imaginable.

Is it possible for a boat to be cute? If so, the plucky little tin contraption I’m charged with fits the description perfectly. Any more than two people on it would be something of a squash, and the engine is better measured in donkey power than horsepower.  It’s really the marine equivalent of a go-kart or motorised scooter, but it’s mine, and that’s all that matters. Boating for beginners it may be, but there is an enormous advantage to having your own vehicle on the Marlborough Sounds. It’s a staggeringly beautiful area in which hills and forests grope their way around the water; a series of craggy arms flailing around in a giant pool. To do it on a cruise would somehow not be doing it justice. The way most people see the Sounds is on the ferry between Wellington and Picton and while it’s an undeniably great journey, it doesn’t have that exhilarating feeling of freedom. In short, there has to be a middle path between being crammed onto a boat with 100 other people and travelling painfully slowly for days in a kayak. And Leicester Bull thinks he may well have found it.

Leicester designed the dinky little boats himself, and has decided that the best way to explore the sounds is a guided safari. Essentially this means dividing everyone up, two to a boat, and puttering around the Sounds in an undisciplined convoy. They reach speeds of up to – gasp! – 20 knots per hour, and there is a guide in one of the boats to ensure that everyone knows what they’re looking at. He also makes sure that his guests avoid the crowds in Picton – the bay the safaris set out from is a fair old drive away from the area’s major hub, and there is minimal traffic on the water once you’re out there.

The guide doesn’t particularly mind people doing their own thing as long as they head in roughly the right direction. There’s freedom to chug around trying to spot penguins on the rocks, get the rush of bombing out over choppy channels at full power or throw in a few twists and turns along the coastline. Along the way, there’s the odd history and culture lesson. The Sounds are, essentially, a series of flooded valleys. Subsidence and rising water levels over thousands of years have led to the present state – an eye-popping 1,500km of coastline in a relatively small area.

The land has a variety of stories to tell, too. Some of the trees towering on the hilltops have been in New Zealand longer than humankind – and that includes the Maori. The bigger ones have been slowly growing for around a thousand years, as the early loggers who leapt upon the region with enthusiasm found to their cost. In the original days of European settlement, the vast forests of Marlborough were a passport to riches, but it soon became apparent that replanted trees don't grow all that quickly in these parts. No trees equals no money, hence a more convenient import was brought in.

The vast tracts of pine trees are an inescapable feature of the waterways, some of them springing suddenly from ultra-green pastoral land, and others interrupted by fern gullies that look like they've come straight from the set of Jurassic Park. It's not just the land that has managed to cultivate an industry which manages to be scenic at the same time, as we learn once we pull in by a network of buoys. Between them are ropes, absolutely covered in seaweed and black shells.

It's a mussel farm, of which there are plenty in the Sounds. The black ones on top would be prime fodder anywhere else in the world, but here they're nonchalantly discarded. It's the green-lipped ones below the surface that are of interest. These are the region’s speciality, and are transported across the country (and, indeed, the world). The mussel farming has an interesting by-product too. Because mussels filter toxins, they have to grow in ultra-clean water. If a few bad batches got out, and made people sick, the damage to the country’s reputation would be immeasurable. This means that no nasty stuff is pumped into the Sounds, harvests are not conducted the day after heavy rain, and pine trees cannot be planted at shoreline level (they release toxins). It’s another rare example of industry and environment going hand in hand – the water is a pure light blue, easy on the eye and fabulous for swimming in.

Another advantage of the small boats is that they can easily pull over pretty much wherever they like. For lunch, we pull over at the Ferndale Scenic Reserve. It’s not an ironic name. The mountains spread across the horizon from our little private beach. Apparently dolphins sometimes scoot past here, while whales have also been spotted in the Sounds. Most importantly though, the only signs of human life are our small group, our sandwiches and those funny little boats.

Disclosure: A full day Explore the Sounds’ tour is available with Waterways Safaris