Dolphins

 


 

David Whitley plays the clown for a very special audience in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands...

 

As a famous fuzzy-topped German scientist would probably agree, everything is relative. It would be impossible to say a flaxen-haired, hourglass-shaped woman with angular cheek bones is beautiful if you couldn’t compare her to a dumpy, sallow-faced hag. You couldn’t claim the Taj Mahal was large and hugely grandiose without the reference point of a dingy inner-city bedsit.

 

Similarly, you can’t properly explain how a dolphin can be elegant and graceful without first swimming with them. The contrast is remarkable. In the deep blue waters of The Bay of Islands, the sleek, silver creatures cut through their terrain effortlessly, turning in a natural arc and leaping upward in a fluid motion. Outside of the water, perched on the edge of the deck, are fifteen humans in ill-fitting wetsuits, jerking away as they attempt to stretch rubber fins over their feet. After much tugging, one woman finally manages to slip hers over her heel, and promptly falls backwards onto her back. 

 

Meanwhile, others are struggling with the logistics of their snorkel and mask. Is the snorkel really supposed to be at this angle?  Let’s see… if I put my head at this angle, like it will be in the water… ah yes, I suppose it is. Resonating above the sounds of the boat and the sea is the agonising thwack of someone testing just how much slack there is in the mask strap. Another unzips his wetsuit for the third time, delves down and rearranges his boardshorts so they don’t cut off his circulation under the big black idiot costume.

 

Eventually, bulges in all the wrong places, overly-tightened masks ready to leave permanent scarring around the head, we’re ready to get into water with the lovely, cutesy-wutesy dolphins. If ever there is a place to go swimming with everyone’s favourite creature, then the Bay of Islands is it. A few hours north of Auckland, it gets beautiful weather and has a stunning natural setting. Suffice to say, the name is not ironic. Little outcrops of greenery dot the bay, and once you’re on one, you’ve pretty much got it to yourself. The water, meanwhile, is a playground for aquatic creatures, and there are numerous pods of dolphins that call it home. And, it seems, we’re going to be allowed to play with them.

 

Oh what a sight… fin tripping over fin, and John Wayne-esque splayed legs waddling hopelessly, everyone half jumps, half tumbles into the bay. It’s at this point you begin to think that the dolphins must be in absolute stitches. What are these clumsy oaf things that have come to play with us? Do they do tricks? Do you reckon they can leap through hoops of fire or balance balls on their nose?

 

Bemused, they gleefully curl around in front of us as we flail hopelessly towards them. We’re the marine equivalent of an uncoordinated man attempting to dance like a robot in order to impress a mysterious, gorgeous vixen whose slinky, sinewy movements have the whole dancefloor captivated.

 

But we do have a secret weapon, however. Oh yes, we can pull funny faces, and according to our crew, dolphins are suckers for a rubber-featured comic. Jim Carrey would get on well with them, I imagine. The reason they hang around with us is that we entertain them almost as much as the other way around. They are inherently playful critters, driven by a sense of fun. One of their favourite past times, as we discovered in the ride to this spot, is riding along in the wake of the boat. You’d expect this to be for a boring reason like helping them swim faster, but no, it’s purely because they enjoy it. Same reason that we try and bodysurf in the waves whilst at the beach, I guess.

 

And this is why we’re all behaving like performing monkeys, waving our arms around and gurning. We’re trying to keep them occupied and entertained so that they’ll stay with us. Get bored and they’ll just swim off elsewhere, leaving us to flounder shamefaced and struggle to heave ourselves back on the boat. It’s probably this playfulness that makes us love them – we wish we could have that attitude in life ourselves.

 

Even the face looks inquisitive, like there is a wry, quizzical smile emblazoned across it. It’s not us that are getting the show here – it’s them. Eventually, of course, they decide to go their own way, and we’re not allowed to follow. Wed do get a parting gift though, as one of the pair we’ve spent twenty minutes clowning around in front of, leaps out of the water. Whether it’s a round of applause or a salute, we’re not quite sure, but judging by the grins on the performers’ faces, it’s been more than alright on the night.

 

Baldwin St

 


 

David Whitley limbers up for another of New Zealand’s unique adventures – climbing the world’s steepest street in Dunedin.

 

I’m approximately two-thirds of the way up, when a horrific thought strikes me. Imagine actually living here, and not having a car? The buses only go past the bottom end of the street, and having to surmount Mt Baldwin every day would probably send you into nervous breakdown territory. Baldwin Street isn’t really a mountain, although crampons and an ice axe probably wouldn’t go amiss in the depths of winter. Amongst New Zealand’s cavalcade of adventure sports, getting to the top of this suburban street doesn’t exactly rank high on the scale, but it has become one of Dunedin’s most popular tourist attractions.

 

Baldwin Street is – according to Guinness World Records – the steepest street in the world. Only drivers with the utmost faith in their brakes would consider parking on the upper stretches, while for joggers it offers a new level in masochism. It’s in an otherwise non-descript suburban location, yet throughout the day people can be found trudging to the top and shelling out $2 for a certificate and the supremely tacky shop at the bottom.

 

Every year, during the Dunedin Festival, the Baldwin Street Gutbuster race takes place. The theory is simple, even if the execution isn’t – the quickest to race up to the top and back wins. I pity the fools. While the first stretch is surprisingly gentle, the rest is pretty sweaty work. The street is only 161.2m long, but climbs a vertical height of 47.22m. That’s an average gradient of 1 in 3.41 and the steepest stretch boasts a gradient of 1 in 2.86. During this section, the sloping pavement is mercifully converted into steps. Many less-than-hardy adventurers seem to take this as a cue to have a nice sit down. Not me, however. Oh no – I’m made of sterner, sweatier stuff than that – and I painstakingly trudge onwards like an old donkey about to be melted down for glue.

 

And it’s from the very top – where a bench and water fountain have been thoughtfully provided – that you realise just how steep Baldwin Street is. From the bottom, the slope looks deceptively unintimidating. From the top, it’s like looking down from the highest point of a rollercoaster, just before you hurtle downwards. The views of hills and patches of woodland on the horizon contrast with the little ant-like cars at the bottom.

 

I make my way down on the opposite side of the road, and just at the bottom of the steps is a delightful splattering of vomit. Baldwin Street has clearly busted yet another gut... 

 

Lots more photos here