The morning after a gale in the anchorage.
Appropriately enough we slipped our lines from the poles of Whangarei Town Basin for the last time on another damp and overcast day. “Pole dancing” at a marina is just not our thing but we accomplished a tremendous amount and had a good time doing it.
All morning the VHF radio was buzzing as more and more boats left to ready themselves for the very serious passage north to the jewels of the South Pacific. Queen’s Birthday storm ring a bell? We waited for high tide which fills the basin with about three meters of much needed water and allows you to go with the flow instead of fighting it, but that leaves you without much daylight at Calliope Bay near the bottom of the river. It’s become a tradition for us to anchor overnight in this beautiful bay. One after the other, each of us called the very polite and responsive bridge controller to ask for the award-winning — for its design not its readiness — bascule lift bridge to lift. I don’t know about you but I always add a meter to our mast height just for good measure. The clearance always looks so close up there.
It’s a circuitous route down Hatea River. It’s not just a “gimme.” One has to pay attention due to the channel wandering around and of course just like the driving down here, it’s marked backwards from the USA. Two boats in front of us missed a mark and I suspect a little embarrassed, suddenly veered back behind us. Calliope is the place that our good and much-missed friends Diana & Alex took us for a hike out on the headlands. It’s a beautiful spot, from the land or the water.
Our plan, if you can call it that, is to check out different harbors on the way back up to the Bay of Islands where we will clear out of New Zealand and wait for a weather window. As we sailed out of the river the wind is — all together now — on the nose and the sea state had a nasty chop with a big swell running on the beam so we thought we’d get as far along as we could tolerate the conditions and that turned out to be another classic Kiwi Bay.
Okura Bay, deep green, wooded, with bright green grass like a meadow, craggy mountains, rocky spires sticking out of the water with little rocky islets artfully dotting the surface, every detail arranged so perfectly that you’d swear some crazed landscape artist had composed it. This is not an exception. Every bay, every turn, every anchorage is perfectly composed and stunningly beautiful. The vast beauty of this place has become almost commonplace for us now. It’s going to be a hard act to follow. Let’s not mention the climate though.
Another day, another bashing with W.O.N. (Wind On the Nose). After rounding Cape Brett, threading the gap between the cape and Motukokako Island which is the one with all the artistic holes in it, we passed our boat yard neighbor going the other way.
We decided to divert to something with protection from expected heavy weather from the northwest. Urupukapuka Bay would fill the bill, but first we would have to tip-toe through reef strewn Albert Channel while being buffeted by nasty wind and cross waves. Finally, rounding the rocky spires that shield Urupukapuka Bay from view, we felt the wind and the waves lose it’s grip on us and Escape Velocity glided into a bay so still and peaceful that it was hard to believe what we’d just been through. Craggy mountains, check. Dense forested hills, check. Bright green grassy meadows leading down to half moon beach, check. Tasteful rocky bits, seemingly randomly strewn about, check. Beautiful yes, but virtually no internet. Maybe more peaceful than we’d like but our friends Toucan joined us for the rapture of this stunning bay.
A view that magical tends to stay with me awhile but the following morning I noticed a few hardy souls splashing about in the frigid water only to realize they were swimming with a large pod of dolphins. I had never seen the cooperative feeding behavior of dolphins before. With repetitive tail slaps they formed a semi circle, jumping, diving, and constantly tightening the line until they were practically on the sandy beach. It was no fluke. They did it several times. Once you’ve seen it you’ll never forget it.
With high winds predicted we opted for protection from the northwest and it’s hard to beat beautiful Orokawa Bay for that. Marce and I launched our kayaks, Jean and Frank, for a spot of paddling in the sunny bay.
We did get some wind but it wasn’t too bad so the following morning we stopped off for lunch at Russell, one of our favorite towns. In the early days it was known as Hell Hole with grog shops and many houses of ill repute. Nothing in evidence these days.
As we work our way towards Opua to clear out, even the wifi is getting marginally better but I still wonder why something this beautiful has to be in such an overcast, cold, and wet, climate. Just doesn’t seem right.
When I ate the last lonely passionfruit from our visit to Martha and Bryce’s friends’ orchard, I knew it was time for us to move on.
Our visas are about to expire and the weather’s getting colder every day and we need to get a move on and sail back up to the tropics. That means a concerted effort to work through the rest of the maintenance and repair list and provision for the coming cruising season. Now that we know what is and isn’t generally available in the island nations we’ll be visiting we can be more judicious with what foods we stock up on. Still, I have a tendency to fill every nook and cranny with whatever catches my eye on the day until there just isn’t room for even one more jar of pickles or packet of olives.
As time grows shorter I remembered that I hadn’t fully commemorated our epic journey to New Zealand in the usual Polynesian way, with new ink. I nearly put it off until we got back to the islands but in the end I found a Maori artist who worked with me to design a small but meaningful tattoo. (Photo when it’s completely healed.)
All the boats in Whangarei have started watching the weather and getting things stowed and sorted, us included. We put one of our paddleboards under the cockpit roof and stowed the other one uninflated below. The kayaks are tied on deck forward and I bought storage bags for the bikes so they can also be secured on deck but still protected from the weather. Unfortunately the other day Jack’s bike was stolen from its lockup on the dock, so after a couple of euphoric months with two bikes and the freedom that comes with them, we are down to one and will have to hope another one comes our way again soon as effortlessly as this one did.
A few days before our planned departure from Whangarei the marinas and local marine services hosted a farewell dinner for all the boats who’ve called this welcoming town home for the past six months. It’s a chance for us to thank the vendors and services for their good work, and for the services to show their appreciation for the business we cruisers bring. We enjoyed a delicious dinner with our friends Bruce and Di from Toucan, reconnected with others we’ve met along the way and met some new friends, too. There were speeches and commendations and a marina representative from Fiji, a destination for most boats, and the evening ended with entertainment from a local music and dance troupe, and of course, a farewell haka.
We even won a bottle of wine in the drawing at the end of the evening and that tied a ribbon on our six month sojourn in the Land of the Long White Cloud. Now it’s time to make our way back up to the Bay of Islands where we’ll join the other boats in the daily ritual of weather watching and stress management. Going to sea is always stressful, more so when it’s been so long since the last time. And yet we’re eager to be on our way again. It’s a good stress.
After our North Island road trip and before we returned our rental car we visited cruising friends who’ve swallowed the anchor and bought a farm about 30 minutes from Whangarei. We first met Bryce and Martha of Silver Fern in the Tuamotus and we crossed paths on and off for the rest of the way across the Pacific. Their landfall in New Zealand completed a circumnavigation and now they’ve moved ashore to tame the land and plant kiwi fruit.
We were welcomed with a fantastic lunch after which Martha took us for a tramp through the woods and pointed out the native plants. They’ve done a lot of improvements already, clearing and draining and weed control, in preparation for planting the kiwi fruit crop.
Martha paced off the size of the field where the crop will be as she and Bryce discussed whether the future house will have a clear mountain view (unfortunately obscured by haze on this day) once the vines and support structure are in.
As if the visit to their farm weren’t enough of a treat they drove us to meet their neighbors who grow passionfruit. They are a small commercial operation and ship their fruit via a broker to the States where it’s sold under the Melissa brand name. We learned how the crop is washed, sorted and packed, and I was able to indulge right then and there in my favorite fruit.
Passionfruit grow on sturdy vines similar to grapevines, supported by an elaborate covered structure. The season runs from February through September and the fruit is gathered every morning when it drops to the ground. These small homesteads are human-sized, largely operated by couples with only the occasional outside labor for sorting and packing. It looks like a nice life, but as in all farming operations, large or small, without much time off for vacations or travel.
We left the passionfruit orchard loaded down with a generous bag of fresh fruit and drove to a kiwi fruit operation so Bryce and Martha could show us what their own land will look like in a few years. Kiwi fruit are also vines and require a similar support structure to make tending and harvesting easier. Both fruits require protection from wind and disease. You can see the incredibly tall hedge-like windbreak in these photos. Every time you see those tall hedges along the road, Martha said, there’s an orchard behind it. And just like the kauri forests we’ve visited, kiwi fruit farms have shoe washing stations to prevent the spread of disease to the vines.
We were caught up in Bryce and Martha’s enthusiasm and energy to undertake such a longterm project. Modern homesteading is a frequent answer to the question of what comes next after a couple has spent five or ten years sailing across oceans and traveling to some of the more remote corners of the earth. It’s a topic that comes up a lot when we long-distance cruisers get down to brass tacks. What will we do when we get too old to sail? How will we know when we’re done? Where will we go? What will we do? Jack and I don’t know what the answers will be for us, and besides, there’s a whole wide world ahead of us yet. We’ve barely scratched the surface and with the end of the Pacific cyclone season already here, it’s time for us to move on.
Funny things can happen when you travel in second and third world countries for a couple of years. Ours is a 12-volt world. Even when we turn on our inverter it’s just inverting 12 volt DC from Escape Velocity’s 12 volt battery bank to 110 AC at 60 cycles. So that’s 12 volts DC or 110 AC, all from solar energy, which is good because the generator hasn’t worked for years. Time marches on.
We were so tickled when we made it to New Zealand where fast Internet and WIFI not to mention olives and real chandleries would be readily available. In short, a first world country. “Well, maybe a one-and-a-half world country,” a smiling Kiwi friend corrected us. We get that now but it’s close enough for us. We’d been dealing with lots of bizarre electrical systems for quite some time now so on our two week whirlwind tour of New Zealand’s North Island we threw our trusty globe trotting bag of electrical adapters into a canvas boat bag and assumed we had it covered. After all, NZ uses 220 volts at 50 cycles which is nothing we hadn’t seen before. The first night, after plugging in every disconnected light, heater and TV in our room, we plugged in all of our electronics and iPhones to charge, only to discover that our globe-trotting adapter bag wasn’t as complete as advertised. So for Yours Truly it was go out and find a big pharmacy and buy New Zealand adapters. The new adapters seemed to work but then stopped working but then started to work again. I got the fix-it-quick-skipper look from crew. I quite frankly was gobsmacked. A little help from the turbaned Paradise Motel desk clerk showed us that not only does one have to plug in every light and appliance but one has to throw a little switch beside each outlet as well. I may have heard a slight snicker. When did that happen Escapees? Things still seemed to operate randomly and morning found our hungry little devises only partially charged. Clearly we’re missing a critical piece of information here.
We continued to be dogged by intermittent power “outages” throughout the two week tour until the last motel which, for us, was a very modern Best Western. The lap of luxury! We arrived in daylight but soon found that while everything was already plugged in, nothing worked. No lights, no heat, no coffee pot, no TV, no outlets. This was too much. If I told you Dear Escapees what we were paying for this room your eyes would bug out. This time I’m not even a little bit embarrassed, I mean the whole room doesn’t work! The desk guy said, “Did you use your key card?”
“Of course, that’s how I got in.”
“No, no in the slot on the wall with the blue light.”
Come to think of it I did see an odd blue light somewhere. When I inserted the key card the whole room lit up with the TV running and the radio too! When did this happen, dear readers? Noone told us.
Maybe we need a culture break or frequent warnings of any new developments from our Escapees. Please keep us up to date. We’re counting on you.
From tiny worms that light up in caves to the bright lights of a big city, we Escapees know how to have a good time. We were especially excited to catch up with friends Julie and Ken of Kia Ora whom we met, improbably, in Golfito, Costa Rica, and even older friends Sue and Mark on Macushla, whom we first met way back while still in the intercostal waterway in the US. Both couples were housesitting near Auckland. Hmmm, have we missed something here?
I’m sure, dear readers, you’ll remember that when we were last in Auckland, Escape Velocity was left at anchor in Waiheke Island while we took the ferry over for a whirlwind tour of the city. It was a great day but we missed a few things in the rush. Chief among them was the New Zealand Maritime Museum.
This time we would not be denied. First we needed a room but Auckland can really book up and as luck would have it this was one of those nights. Marce had to resort to AirBnB for a semi-creepy stayover in someone’s frilly room featuring a plethora of flowery night lights with colored balloons. I had to unplug them all.
With Eggs Benedict nudging my belt we walked past the magnificent KZ1 America’s Cup boat on display just outside the entrance to the New Zealand Maritime Museum. Of course KZ1 lost but it certainly makes a statement. These Kiwis have really influenced sailing skills and innovative design the world over.
It’s a given that one enters the museum via — all together now — the gift shop, then through the ubiquitous displays of ancient pirogues and ocean-going catamarans of the first immigrants to a small archipelago at the bottom of the then unknown world. An excellent video tribute to Sir Peter Blake, a large collection of in-water heritage sailing vessels and examples of just about every known type of sailboat awaits the nautically obsessed. Lots of fun for Yours Truly.
In the meantime Marce found an Ethiopian restaurant and lined up dinner with the Macushlas. We’d been enjoying all the Indian cuisine down here in New Zealand but this was our first Ethiopian meal since 2014 in Washington, DC, and we four old friends lingered at the restaurant until closing time, enjoying our last evening together for a while. To top it off Marce found a real room at a Best Western Motel. We’ll be back home on Escape Velocity tomorrow and it’s none too soon. This dirt life is exhausting!
You’ll remember we tried to visit a couple of glow worm caves near Whangarei but were thwarted by high water underground. We knew we wanted to see the famous New Zealand glow worms and with time running out we turned the rental car toward Waitomo, a concession cave that guaranteed we’d get to see the worms without getting wet. It would just cost money but we’d done our best to travel economically so we squeezed the cave tour into the meager budget.
“Stop the car!” I called out as we drove down a country road toward the caves. You don’t see that every day, we agreed. There were three ostriches that we could see from the road, and a promise of more in the field over the hill. We walked up a narrow lane to where the largest, fluffiest bird we’ve ever seen was grazing near the fence. We slowly approached and he came closer, as interested in us as we were in him. We figured he’s used to being petted and rewarded for it but we kept our distance as we quietly observed each other for about 20 minutes. He was huge and powerfully built and we thought it wouldn’t be so pleasant having those muscular legs stomping on us, or whatever they do when attacking. This fellow seemed nice enough though.
By afternoon we reached the caves and booked an early morning tour. The Waitomo Caves is a well-run operation with a modern shelter over the cafe and gift shop.
They offer various levels of tours but we’ve both been in plenty of caves and didn’t need to spend much time on stalagmites and stalactites, but were more interested in the glow worms. Our tour took us into the dark caves past the usual limestone formations and our guide told us about the Maoris who lived here and about the glow worms and their life cycle. It was all very interesting, but the best part was when we piled into boats and floated on an underground river through a tall pitch black cave where overhead a gazillion glow worms mimicked the galaxies of deep space. We were not allowed to photograph in the caves at all, but if you do a google image search for glow worms you’ll see how spectacular the vision is. We know we could have seen the glow worms for free in undeveloped caves near Whangarei, but lying back in a boat, staring up in silence at what looks like the night sky was worth every penny.
We came out of the cave at the bottom of a ravine, disembarked to a small dock and made our way back up through the woods to the car park. It’s a nice exit from the underground world.
The day dawned clear and bright. From our hostel room window we could see that even Mt. Ruapehu was peeking out from the clouds revealing a clear summit.
Yes, we’re heading up that way but the brochure I was reading offered options. “Walk up, run up, or catch the lift.” So let’s see if I’ve got this straight. We can climb up over around and through the stark, barren, and boulder-strewn steep mountainside or take a nice chairlift or two up to the highest cafe in New Zealand, have breakfast above the clouds and enjoy a spot of lookout viewing.
The chairlift won the day but first Marce had to face that fear of heights thing and until today she had successfully avoided chairlifts or anything that lifts you high up and dangles from a cable. But Marce is a team player and after warning the lift helper that this was her virgin ride she clamped onto the bar with a death grip and away we went. After awhile she opened her eyes and I fancied that she enjoyed the ride. A real trooper.
Two long lifts later and what a magnificent view. We even toyed with the idea of following a route all the way to the summit clambering over boulders, going from white pole to white pole but with no discernible path and an estimated two “Kiwi Hours” each way. One could even hike to Mead’s Wall which was featured in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Instead we sat down at the cafe above the clouds and had breakfast while watching a few hardy souls picking their way through the lunar landscape up towards the summit.
After breakfast the clouds suddenly moved in and we headed for the chairlifts for a ride through the clouds. Coming out of the cloud cover we were rewarded with another spectacular view. The land of the long white cloud is as mysterious as it is beautiful.