Day 45: We hitched out to Whangarei with a couple young farmhands, one kiwi teen and a twenty something dude from Denmark, talking about the hard work of raising cattle and the amazing feats of well trained working dogs. They dropped us off at the Pak n’ Save, where we established another ritual- taking our shoes off to walk around the grocery store. I had seen a few barefoot shoppers since I got to New Zealand, attributing the pattern to the proximity of nearly the entire country’s population to one beach or another, but after seeing a shoeless man at the Four Square in Waipu and trying to explain this phenomenon to Xena, I realized that the proportion of barefoot shoppers is just high enough to constitute a socially acceptable behavior, and we concluded that we ought to exercise our social freedoms by following suit. We put our backpacks in our shopping trolleys and discussed meal plans, walking all around, back and forth trying to navigate through an unfamiliar store layout. We split our total cost, then sat outside rebagging food, reorganizing pack space, and recycling excess packaging before a stop at the bookstore for some lightweight bird, fish, and tree identification guides, and one last stop at the Kathmandu outfitter so she could get a baselayer. When we hitched out of town headed towards Paihia in the Bay of Islands, it only took us 2 rides to get there- the first with a Maori dude that works as a Nike/Adidas rep who picked us up during rush hour traffic in Whangarei, the second with a Pakeha farmer who was very stoked about the one big fishing trip of the year he was about to go on. When we got to Paihia, we hung out on the beach, doing some acroyoga and making dinner before climbing up the short hill to our viewpoint stealth camp.
Days 46-47: Xena woke me up at 4 or 5 in the morning with an excited whisper, “dude you’ve got to check this out”. I rubbed my eyes and stretched my arms after slumping out of my hammock, walked to the edge of the viewpoint and was witness to one of the most spectacular sunrises I’ve ever seen. To the South, bright orange skies faded into yellows, pinks, blues, and a rich purple to the north, a vibrant spectrum of colors, speckled by the last remaining stars peeking out from the dark purple sky above us, the waning crescent moon resting just above the horizon. I was exhausted, but so glad she woke me up, and we held each other there in silence, watching the light slowly shift into the faint blue-grey of early morning. We got some chores done first, booking tickets for the Waitangi Treaty Grounds tour for the next day and a ferry to Urupukapuka Island the day after that, ate ice cream and listened to a brilliant classical guitar player busking in the town square, did more acroyoga on the beach, walked around the outside mall watching all the tourists do silly things, and played the public piano that sat by the docks in the center of town. Paihia is a town driven almost entirely by tourism, thriving on access to the islands, the beaches, the bush tracks, and Waitangi, bolstered by many restaurants, gift shops, hotels and hostels all around town. Today, one of the largest cruise ships in the world, Ovation of the Seas, had stopped in the Bay of Islands and ferried its thousands of passengers onto shore to spend more of their money, a pop up arts and crafts fair ready to absorb as much of it as possible in exchange for locally made memorabilia. Imagine the main street no more than a mile long with crowded shops on its sidewalks and nestled into open air alleyways that wind around to backstreets, hostels and housing stretching beyond the 2-4 block grid at the center of town, up to the base of the hill which marks the end of town and the beginning of the bush. Across the 2 lane highway from main street was the square, right on the docks where hang gliding and chartered boat trips take off, a painted piano sitting under a line of pohutukawa trees, between the modern public benches and the expensive seafood restaurant built over the water, the public bathroom covered in tiled murals and folk art designs, and water fountains for dogs and their owners. The boardwalk between the thin, busy highway and the beach stretched on for about 2 miles, lined the whole way with pohutukawas, starting at the hill we slept on to the south, and ending at the edge of downtown to the north, where the road winds up and around a seaside cliff towards Waitangi on the other side of the bay. We walked the length of the boardwalk the following morning and another 2 or 3 miles to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds for our tour. The property was pretty big, a nice open lawn a couple acres wide in the front, forested along the edges and a driveway curving through it to a parking lot where a few benches were set up beneath trees in a grass median. The building was also quite large, maybe 3 stories tall and wide like a warehouse, but very modern looking, aside from the maori woodcarvings adorning the walls and the foyer. We left our backpacks in the corner and our entire group of about 25 people, mostly families and older couples, were given portable radios and headsets like the one Mr Smith wears in the Matrix, so that our guide, a clean cut Maori dude in a button down nylon shirt and matching shorts, sharp facial features and pomade in his spiked hair, wrap around shades with a mirrored lens and a straight wooden walking stick, could be heard clearly by everyone along the way. He spoke clearly and loudly enough that you could hear him without the headphones, though it was still nice to have all of his interp right in your ear so you didn’t have to miss a thing. He led us through the gift shop first with all its t-shirts, greenstone pottery and jewelry, framed paintings and photos, and plush kiwi dolls, past the wood carving shop where all the trinkets and the big ornate sculptures are made, across a shaded walkway and into a pavilion with a huge war canoe and a mammoth kauri stump on display. As we walked, our guide talked about the history of the treaty grounds, about the tribal, warring culture of the Maori, the settling of the islands by the Polynesians, and the social and spiritual importance of ancestry, which he explains by pointing out a wood carving of one of the earliest gods and going through, name by name, his entire ancestral line as it connects him to this god. The carvings were intimidating and phallic, all in red, both on the war canoe and on every beam of the pavilion. He talked about Waitangi Day, which is coming up in a few weeks, and how each year one of the big war canoes is dragged out into the water and paddled by 76 people in celebration of the treaty that gave them sovereignty. This one is 115 feet long, weighs 6 tons dry and 12 tons saturated, made from 2 kauri trunks, lashed together with fern rope, wood carvings along the entire thing, a huge tauihu and taurapa (bow and stern pieces) on each end, and was built in the 1930’s for the 100 year anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. He also mentioned the giant kauri stump in the back of the pavillion, about the history of deforestation and the modern issues with Kauri Dieback diesease being spread by unknowing trampers that don’t clean off their boots when entering a new section of bush. As we walked across the lawn, he went into the story of Maori political history, explaining how Iwis work and how ancestry played a critical role in pre-colonial politics. He talked about colonialism, mostly from a Western perspective- how England, France, and the US were all encroaching on NZ for its resources, how eventually England was the first to propose a treaty which would give the Maori sovereignty, and how the mistranslation of one line changed the effect of the whole treaty. He talked about how William Hobson, the author of the treaty, was a staunch Maori advocate, why he may have used this word “sovereignty”, and how this ultimately gave England legal justification to take over native Maori lands, and has the been the source of protest for generations. I appreciated his approach to interp- I can imagine that it would be quite easy to get push back when talking about politics, but he was fair in explaining the history from different perspectives and stuck to quoting primary resources as his way of driving home the point that although the Maori have maintained more rights than almost any other indigenous people, they have still been greatly taken advantage of. He made no mention of the settlements, which are controversial, but encouraged us to check out the museum, which as we would find, went much more into detail about the history of race relations and politics in New Zealand. First, we walked through the house of the old rich English representative to New Zealand, James Busby, which he had shipped over from England to give the family a sense of home, and laughed at how absurd it must have seemed to the Maori who were here at the time. We also walked through the section of maintained natural forest, reading all the signs about the trees and birds, and I am delighted each time I see how much joy Xena finds in the Tuis- such a big smile and a laugh that is free and warm. The museum was fantastic- a labyrinth of movies, backlit photos, artifacts on display, maps, with written and audio explanations of everything along the way. Walking through this maze brought us forward in time, from the time of settlement, through the expeditions of dudes like James Cook and Fitzroy, a great amount of detail poured into the deliberations of the chiefs over the Treaty, the systematic takeover of resources and land, the various independence efforts in King Country that were quashed, modern movements like the Whina Cooper’s march to Parliament, and the settlements that are taking place now. At the end of the maze, the walk outside led us through a corridor of modern photos of Maori people and their quotes about the Treaty and what it means to be Maori today, ranging from indignant to grateful and everything in between. Xena and I had a small picnic of veggie chips, hot sauce, and sweet mango chutney, then made the walk back into Paihia, having dinner, doing some calisthenics in the grass where the arts and crafts fair had been set up, some acroyoga, picked up snorkeling gear for our trip to Urupukapuka Island tomorrow, and we jammed on the beach before heading back up to our stealth camp. This time, there some super loud raging parties just below the hill that made it hard to sleep- that and the sinus clogging pollen of the NZ tea tree that caused me to blow out chunky yellow-green loogies each morning.
Day 48: We got out of camp pretty early so we could hit the grocery store to resupply for our island adventure, sort out the food between the 2 of us, and so that I could run down to the paddleboard/kayak rental shack on the boardwalk and rent a shitty old life vest for $10 for 4 days, then run back with enough time to play piano for a minute before we left. The jet boat ferry had 2 floors- first floor was chock full of seats and had a bow window that opens right onto the deck, second floor was smaller, but there was a small quartee deck to sit outside on at the stern. We were the only people being ferried at this time slot, so we chose to ride at the head of the boat, sitting and holding a hand rail while the wind whipped our faces and chilled our fingertips and the gannets and petrels flew overhead. The black and yellow powercat sliced through the 3-4 foot waves with great force but a small wake, passing quickly by all the old coastal shacks and cottages as high as 100 feet up on the hill, the new upper-middle class estates above on the peninsula’s precipice, and the rusty buoys under the historic flagpole on top of the hill. It took about 45 minutes and it was glorious ride. As the island came into view, the size and topography of its granite and limestone hills surprised me, steeper than I had expected, but not tall and the island wasn’t too big- should be an easy time hiking it, and there are plenty of bays to snorkel in. There was a ton of life visible just beneath the surface of the water as far as 50 feet down: starfish, kelp, coral, wrasse, and a great grey-faced petrel and some gulls on the short, thin, and flat beach, thoroughly satisfied with their overabundance of food. The boardwalk was high over the goopy tidal beach, but went 30 or 40 feet out over the bay, and kids jumped off into the water on the other side of our dock as we pulled in. A long strip of grass hugged the crescent beach, a string of a few dozen cabins on the west side, a café and the accompanying utility buildings in the center, the project island song building on the east side, all backing up to the sparse tea trees on the 150-300 foot tall hills, and a trail winding up the hill towards Urupukapuka Bay, which we followed after a bathroom stop at the café. There was a gate for grazing sheep at the top of the hill and as rain looked imminent, we searched for place to set up camp. We ended up setting up a modified pyramid with my tarp in a gently sloping tussock field using all 4 of our trekking poles: one propping up the entrance between two staked corners on the long side, two propping up the wings inside the tarp, and one behind the tarp, pulling up the overhead space in the back. It drizzled and poured alternately through most of the evening and into the early part of the night, and we were comfortable the dry the whole time. Nova cooked for us, as she did most of the time, and if there were no veggies to be prepped or any other way to help, I would serenade.
Day 49: It’s much clearer in the morning and we let our stuff dry out for little bit before packing up. With bellies full and packs dry and light, we walked up the rest of the way up and over the hill, down the consistently steep, switchbackless singletrack to Otiao Bay, a few great views of the steep bluffs we walked toward, the hilltops where the tussock reigns, and the vast open ocean, dotted with islands off into the distance, a couple dozen boats too. The scrubby forest held many tomtits, fantails, and a silvereye or two, though it was not as dense as the mainland forests. I thought about what off trail travelling might be like here, but the terrain is still quite steep and covered in rotting logs, moss, and criss-crossing of trees that had enough space to grow wide. There were rocky, tidal outcroppings on either side of Otiao Bay, with a bird blind where one could see some teal and shags and the like hanging out in the trees of the unique grey-green brackish-tidal marsh. The water was calm and refreshing and I went snorkeling there for the first time in my adult life. Needless to say, it was awesome. Diving down took two of three times to get used to controlling my breath and making efficient movements in order to stay down and explore for longer, but I sort of got the hang of it, and was able to get quite close to the kelp and coral to see the droves of fish hiding amongst the rocks and a ray as I swam back to shore. Xena is a dolphin in the water and I only saw her head above the surface once as she swam back to shore. We immediately referred to the fish identification book we got in Whangarei and crossed off the species we had seen, a list that was later lost. With plenty of time left in the day, we hid our packs in the dense forest, inflated my packraft, set up my trekking pole paddle, donned our life jackets, and began paddling out with the tide with the intent of paddling about .8 miles along the shore, then a couple hundred meters across Waewaetorea Passage to the red cliff beach on Waewaetorea Island. I sat in the back of the packraft and Xena sat between my straddled legs, both of us propped by the inflatable sleeping pad we stuffed into the floor for extra buoyancy. We moved slowly, but the sense of adventure was high, and we joked about trying to race the sailboats that glided easily past us in rougher open waters. As we came around the point, I noticed that the single chambered tube of the packraft was getting floppy. Were we losing air or was the cold water shrinking the volume of air inside? I very much hoped the latter. We were not terribly far from shore, but the nearest land was cliffy and many sharp coral reefs sat just below the surface, and the beach where we set off would be too far if we were indeed losing air. I tried to lean over the back of the boat and inflate it with my mouth while we were in the water, but the position and the extra pressure of my body weight on the tube made it counterproductive. A calculated risk was made. I paddled gently toward a part of the reef that sat just a foot or two under the surface, and as we approached, handed the paddle to Xena, sticking a foot out to keep the boat from coming into contact with the razor sharp coral. The waves made it hard to keep myself in a steady safe position, but I managed to get a few strong breaths into the tube, climbing back into the boat unscathed and still floating. But being her first packrafting adventure, Xena had lost her confidence in crossing an open water passage if we couldn’t even make it around the point. I agreed, especially given the possibility that there may be an undiscovered leak in the boat. So we paddled back to the beach, having failed in reaching our destination, but succeeded in achieving an adventurous ocean packrafting adventure (turns out the boat was fine and that Charles’ Law was to blame). That night, we set up the tarp under the branches of a tree that had grown from the eroded rocks at the top of the beach, overhanging the sand, the waves of high tide lapping just a few feet from the edge of our camp, trading the risk of being overtaken by the sea in the middle of the night for the reward of a supremely comfortable and beautiful campsite. We were rewarded mightily.
Day 50: This day we walked the short but steep trail up and over the hill into the neighboring and aptly named Paradise Bay, where we did some morning beach acroyoga, and spent most of the day snorkeling. Paradise Bay had many of the same fish and another ray was to be seen near the beach, but when we hiked over to the west side of the island, the side facing the open ocean, we were met with an incredible abundance and diversity of sealife. Giant Paua (Abilone), Kina (Urchins), Kingfish, Wrasse, Pigfish, Demoiselle, Bleny, and fortunately or unfortunately no face to face time with an Eel. This is really where I got the hang of diving, learning to chill at the bottom for a while, watching for little eyes to peer out of the cracks and trying to keep myself from being pushed into the jagged rocks. In every bay we visited, there were a few sailboats and yachts, almost always with a small motorized inflatable tied off the side, kayaks or paddleboards stashed on deck, and wealthy white people aboard and at the helm of most of them. Heading back to Paradise Bay, we set up the tarp between a big horizontal tree branch and a thick system of roots that stuck out of the sandbank, the night clear and the sun setting red over the reflective water, which lapped onto the beach in gentle waves all night, lulling us to sleep.
Day 51: Back to Paihia today. Made our way back to the café, spotting a song thrush in the tussock on top of the hill and chatting with a couple who were sailing for a few months about travelling light. There were many more people at and around the Otehei Bay café, waiting to return on the morning ferry. Xena and I got some freezy pops, did some stretching, acroyoga, and she hooped while I played some light jazz, all of which turned heads. The boat was much more full on the way back to Paihia, so we sat on the second floor sternside quarterdeck, looking back at Urupukapuka as it faded into the horizon. We got a room at a hostel in town, desperately needing showers and wanting some wifi to reconnect with family and friends, a brief moment to recuperate before the next grand adventure.