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New Zealand Day 52-56: Whangarei and Poor Knights Islands

Posted by on February 25, 2018

Day 52: We hitched back to Whangarei in the morning, booked a room at the same hostel/former jail I had stayed at with Nuthatch and Magnus- the Cell Block. We got a room in the back building this time, requiring a climb up a steep metal ladder, walking through a bunkroom and past 3 or 4 other dormitories to get into what used to be a building for correctional officers/police for 5 days while we got our open water diving certifications. Our room was called “the barn”, because of its independent top and bottom halves of the door, and had a queen sized bed, wide windows opened by hand cranks, and was right next to the kitchen. We caught up with family, learned about each others friends, our hobbies growing up, and our dreams for the future, we ate really well, having constant access to a grocery store and the kitchen, and also made time to visit the generically named Indian Food restaurants in town. The best meal we made was either the beet root & quinoa burger with tomato, spinach, balsamic and aioli, with kumara fries on the side, or perhaps the falafels with crackers and hummus, but the Indian food was something Xena and I agreed could not be beat. We dropped our packs off in the barn, walked over the dive shop at the end of the same block, hopped onto the 3-day course that started the next day, and were given study 200 page study guides to read in the next 12 hours. We went back to the hostel and got right into it. Our only distractions were dinner and a discussion with Masa from Japan. Masa, having learned immediately that I was from the US, repeated to me many times that he loved America and really wanted to go there, explaining that its culture is pervasive in Japan and the prospect of vast open swaths of land blew his mind. He was here to travel and earn English, and would be leaving the next day to start school, but while I had him there, we talked about backpacking and rafting, and I asked a lot about Hokkaido, an island I have long wanted to visit, where his brother works as a farmer and English/Chinese teacher. Masa says the island is great for long nature walks, but not for cross-island trekking because there would be a lot of road walking and thru-hiking culture doesn’t exist in Japan. “Why wouldn’t you drive?”, he asked. Though, he says he has heard of people hiking across the islands long-distance, but they were all American, Canadian, or Anglo-European. For him, it’s too cold anyway. He’s from Osaka, and makes a point to emphasize how overcrowded it is there, where each morning people are pushed into the trains like sardines in a can to get to work and back at the end of the day, where a lack of personal space means female-only rail cars as a response to case after case of sexual assault. Trekking may not be his cup of tea, but he is an enthusiastic photographer, showing off his Nikon DSLR, which he explains in detail, and uses to take a photo of Xena and I, saying we look like “X-men’s Wolverine, and Transformer’s Megan Fox”. We studied until midnight. Xena had been taking notes on everything and still finished reading far before me, so by the time she finished I just skimmed the rest, having figured out the layout of the study guide, searching for only the most important parts and finding them pretty easily. Then we crashed. Hard.

Day 53: A few hours later, I woke up and made breakfast to coax Xena out of bed, and we walked over to the dive shop to start our course. The dive shop had 3 parts- the retail shop, the office space/shop, and the pool room. The retail shop was about the size of a racquetball court, with ceilings half as high, BCD’s between a few hundred and over $1000 on the wall to the right, regulators next to that, fins by the counter, masks on a rack in the center of the room, weights and watches and knives and computers by the desk, tanks wetsuits, spearfishing guns, and a map of all the dive sites around Poor Knights Islands on the wall to the left. All along the ceiling were giant vinyl advertisement posters of brand names, logos, and sponsored athletes, photographers, a camo-clad spearfisherman hiding in a clump of kelp, someone conspicuously checking their dive computer. It smelled like the cumulative stench of many, many peed wetsuits combined with the musk of wet carpet and the fine smog of dusty air. The owner, a stocky, strong, beerbellied buoyant, grey speckled box of a man spoke loudly with every word, not because he was hard of hearing, or that he though everyone else was, but solely to make it understood that his was the voice that was to be listened to, like it or not. He’s a crass joker, a beer drinker, a successful businessman, and a master diver, and walked around the dive shop talking with every customer, though there weren’t many, and drove around in his souped up Toyota running errands for the business. There was young blonde woman at the counter who seemed to have heaps of knowledge and experience about diving without any of the passion, or perhaps that was a bluff. In the office space/shop there were a mess of tools, filing cabinets, compressors, air tanks, and a mostly bald, long-haired and grizzle-bearded old hippie working in the back, presumably because he was better as a handyman and the young blonde woman was better with customer interactions, with a decades old t-shirt, and jeans so worn they must have felt like fleece. We met Joseph, our instructor, tan and chiseled beach brah with a tank top, oakley shades, board shorts and flops, who took us upstairs to take our pre-test right away. He was a very cordial and charismatic dude, making an appropriate amount of small-talk about our trip, what we do for work, and why diving seemed like fun, then guiding us through the answers we had given for the pre-pre-test in the study guide we crammed through last night. We received 2 different versions of the actual 50 multiple choice questions pre-test, and Joseph told us that we could go over our wrong answers at the end and change any as long as he didn’t have to tell us how to change them, a way to ensure that we actually learn everything correctly instead of just moving on after getting a less than perfect grade. We both passed without a hitch, and followed him downstairs, met the 2 other kids that would be taking the course with us and their dad, who henceforth shall be referred to as “rad dad”, and Xena and I were fitted for wetsuits- rad dad’s kids had their own. His nickname came from a brief one-sided conversation we had with the mostly balding, slightly less than half grey, 6’1″, muffin-topped, sallow armed dude, after our wetsuits were on and before the course actually began, about how he was a doctor from California, now in NZ, and something self-righteous like (and I’m paraphrasing) how when ‘I went diving in Bermuda, my ship captain won third place in the (nobody cares) competition and we still stay in touch’. With our masks, BCD’s , wetsuits, snorkels, fins, and weights on, we hopped into the pool for the first time, parents watching from the side. We tested our weight systems and BCD’s, swam on the surface on snorkel, and were taught a system of underwater hand signals for communication, similar in nature to the hand signals used in whitewater, though a tap on the top of the head meant the opposite when under water, that you are NOT ok. My favorite however, was the rubbing the tips of the thumb and first finger, symbolizing what Joseph described as “tight butthole”, when you don’t have any access to air. We went over lots of rounds of group lessons followed by one on one testing on this first day, covering taking off our masks underwater, putting them back on and clearing out the water, giving and taking another air supply, neutral buoyancy, taking on and off the BCD, equalizing, CESA, swimming, floating, swimming for someone else, manual BCD inflation, and recovering and clearing our regulators. Joseph’s style was very patient, laid back, not too serious, but professional. This made rad dad’s constant nitpicking, nagging, and micromanagement all the more ridiculous and annoying. Saying to his son, “RONAN, save your precious air!”, and to his daughter “KALA, do you want to drown? Don’t be so stupid!”. He interrupted Joseph’s concise and simple instructions to add his own two cents or to try to clarify, sounding like he had just pretended to read the text-book last night and would spew out whatever line he thought he could remember whenever the subject was brought up in Joseph’s well-rehearsed lesson. For example, Joseph was explaining how to manage and distribute our weight systems to control our buoyancy and keep us upright, and rad dad interjected with “Weight system failure is the GREATEST DANGER A DIVER CAN FACE!“. Pretentious, ridiculous, and utterly hilarious. The kids struggled occasionally, but so did I while controlling my exhalations during CESAs, and Xena in staying upright during neutral buoyancy (though that can also be attributed to weight distribution, a not so deadly problem after all). Overall, the four of us made it through the first day with ease, and Xena and I celebrated that night with dinner at the generically named “Indian Aroma”.

Day 54: Open water day today. Started the day as we had the day before- I woke up early to make breakfast, openly using food as a bribery for timeliness, something that Xena is quite adept at, but has chosen deliberately to not worry about while on vacation. We rode in the company truck with Joseph behind the wheel to Whangarei Heads, talking about raft guiding, paragliding, Donald Trump, Joseph’s 4×4 rig, diving in Thailand, and his volunteering to help underprivileged youth through the church. When we arrived at the little park near the base of Mt Manaia, we helped unload gear as the rad family got their own gear ready. It was a clear day with a slight breeze, and after we hobbled down the stairs, weighed down by all of our heavy gear, we waded out into the silty water, got our fins on, and followed Joseph as he set up, explaining the dive float and marker. The slight breeze carried a little chop with it that tried to push us back to shore, but soon enough we all dove down (including the rad parents to all of our chagrin), following each other through the murky water as best as we could, unintentionally exacerbating the problem by accidentally kicking a fin into the silt on the bottom and losing all bearing- up down, left, right, or otherwise. As Joseph tested one of us, the other 3 would try to sit still on or just above the bottom, completely lost unless we were within 6″ or less of someone. Not only was the water close to opaque, but the goggles we bought in Paihia were easily filled with fog, and what little we could see of the bottom was apparently lifeless. At some point, after the agreed 60 second interval without seeing anyone else (even thought they could have literally been on top of me), I surfaced slowly and within another minute so did Joseph, then Xena and the kids. We had spent quite some time drifting blindly and were 50 yards or so away from the dive marker, so we swam back to it, Joseph grabbing onto it and swimming ahead, advising us to hold onto the line and swim toward the buoy that was anchored in the harbor. The giant concrete disc we found at the bottom of the buoy’s chain would be our visual reference point so we didn’t separate, and aside from its sheer size, visible from 10 yards away even in the murky water, the sudden appearance of aquatic life nestled into the cracks, dimples, and pockets of concrete kept us all close at hand. As Joseph tested us one at a time, the rest of us were completely distracted by the tiny blennies that hung out in the soft algae/sponge/grass/moss, microscopic snails, blue-grey demoiselles, and a surprisingly quick starfish, in this miniature ecosystem surrounded by an ancient sunken glass coke bottle, some beer caps, shattered bits of plastic, and a car tire. Each species filled a niche- the blennies clung to the soft stuff in a wide antigravity hug, the snails wandered the miniscule topography of their landscape, the demoiselles hid around corners, occasionally poking their heads out to say hello, some bolder than others, the starfish racing on the wide open flats of dust that carpeted the area around the anchor, and the soft stuff filled every available space it could, including the inside of the coke bottle. Xena and I poked and pointed many times, stoked about everything we saw, but for some time I lost myself in the charm of a tiny blenny as I rested on my fin tips, goggles merely inches away from its unfathomable existence. Momentarily I would be distracted from being distracted, obliged to perform some basic maneuver like taking my weight belt off and putting it back on, followed by a fist bump from Joseph, the sign of a job well done, then straight back to gawking at this microecosystem the likes of which I had never seen. Before we knew it, however, we were directed to surface and our day was over. Rad dad and mom were there on the surface too, and rad dad was explaining to his son that it was impossible for him to have seen the shark he claimed to see, when he asked Xena with his assuming air “Did you see a shark?”, to which she later told me she wanted to make a patronizing comment about how surely he must know better than anyone, being so experienced a naturalist. She did see a shark. It was a bullet shark. Packed up, full of blissful hormones from the thrill of adventure, I chatted more with Joseph on the way back, Xena having fallen asleep. We tried another Indian restaurant called Divine Indian Restaurant, ate until we could eat no more, then crashed hard back in the barn.

Day 55: Our last day of diving started with Joseph taking us to the yacht club where our diving charter was docked. Xena slept- she had been feeling sick, but not so sick to choose not to dive in one of the most renowned reefs in the world. We helped unload gear from his truck, tanks into a hatch on the floor of the boat and BCD’s hung up on racks on the wall. The rad family met us there, as did 2 other diving groups- one guided and one pair of private divers. It was a beautiful cloudless day, but the swell was huge once we boogied out of the harbor and into open water- huge to a river boatman that is. The rollers were easily 10 feet high, blowing steady from the northwest, and the boat cut across them obliquely at a north-northwestern heading, rocking both back and forth and side in one smooth motion. The boat had 2 floors- the first had an open double doorway at the stern leading into a lounge cabin with couches along the windows, beanbag chairs on the carpeted floor, a small wooden table with many books and magazines about fishing, boating, diving, photography, and species identification, and a small bar in the front, where tea and coffee were served. Maps and charts adorned the walls, depicting our location relative to all the other prime diving spots, many of which were marked onto the maps by hand, as well as up to date weather reports, decompression charts, tide times, and maritime law. Xena having gone back to sleep to stave off any seasickness, I made my way up the extremely steep and narrow staircase from the lounge cabin to the second floor to sit on the railside benches on the open air deck behind the bridge (where the ship is steered), a vast array of dials. knobs, buttons, switches, gauges, and digital monitors all logically organized and yet indecipherable to the common eye, windshield wiper working furiously to keep the splashing sea from impairing the captain’s sight line. The crew was both relaxed and alert, diligent when necessary, and casually social when it was appropriate. They would swing around the rigging and walk across the thin strips of grip-tape that ran around the bridge and the lounge cabin, adjusting things or tying knots, performing their tasks with ease and an air of unimportance, as if their lackadaisical demeanor wouldn’t change even if a catastrophic failure was actively bringing the ship down. Though if it was, they would be most likely able to fix it quickly without anyone else noticing, and if they couldn’t it seemed that they would be entirely nonchalant about being stranded at sea; either a prideless feeling of invincibility or an optimistic preparedness for death driving their actions.  Rad dad was also on the upper deck and tried to start a conversation with me about, surprise, himself, just as I was starting to feel a little queasy myself. I tried to focus on the horizon, but actually closing my eyes seemed to feel better. I would breath deeply and occasionally open them again, watching the shearwaters float on air pockets just above the rolling surface of the sea, appearing to move very slightly forward relative to the position of the boat in a complex dance of flight, broken only by the occasional whitecap. The sun shined hard and bright, reflecting its total power off the top of every wave in a great arc directly in front of us, blinding even the raddest of dads with the photochromic, polarized, mirrored, stone-etched lenses in their shades. I asked for a bucket, not yet sure if I was going to hurl, but wanting to be prepared for the worst. Thankfully I never did. As we approached the islands, their prominent, oddly shaped, and relatively small forms became clear. There ere tall, jagged, knobby bluffs rising sharply out of the water, covered even on the vertical faces with plant life. The remnants of a volcano, eroded by varying sea levels over 11 millions years ago, covered in pohutukawa forest, fertilized by millions of seabirds that prey on an extraordinary diversity of fish amongst the kelp, coral, anemones, sponges, urchins, and so on, that sit under the water’s surface. Jacque Cousteau called the Poor Knight’s Islands one of the top 10 diving spots in the world, and we would soon find out why. We entered a thin channel between the peninsulas of 2 islands, both of which had huge caves, one of which with a great sea arch, perhaps 80-100 feet high with hundreds of feet more of igneous rock above it. The density of plants and the conspicuous presence of the bellbirds and Buller’s shearwater (a fascinating species that migrates back and forth from North America), are astounding to me. It takes a couple of tries to find anchor, but when it is finally found, we all scramble to get gear on, stumbling around each other in our fins until we, one by one, all jump off the partially submerged diving platform at the stern.  The water is cool, but not cold, and the waves are only about half a foot high in this cove. Soon, we all go under, immediately surrounded by hundreds or maybe thousands of large, dark, and radiant fish that became only more colorful and clear as the entire school swam right through our group within arm’s reach. We practice flooding our masks, neutral buoyancy, sharing our spare regulators, and finding our main regulators when they are pulled away from us, fist bumps of approval from Joseph, and finally we are ready to explore, following Joseph along the hills of the reef, the swaying kelp forests, and down to the bottom of the cliff wall. It was impossible to take in fully all of the life around us, abundant at every scale- massive schools of trevally, blue maomao, and kingfish, thousands at a time, effortlessly drifting through the clear dark blue water- each individual’s movement distinct, though melted together in the loose fluid patterns of the school, as if all their minds were connected, but with a pinch of free will and a dash of neural delay. Wrasse and grouper seemed hyper aware of, but generally unconcerned with our presence, as well as that of all the other fish. As we swam a foot or two above the rocky slopes of the reef, thousands more individuals must have gone unnoticed, blending in well, knowing where to hide, and choosing not to move. As we descended further and further along the face of a large underwater cliff, little blennies, demoiselles, snails, and urchins seen nestled in the algae and the nooks and crannies, millions and billions of them probably spread out along this tiny island chain. The current moves everything in unison, back and forth with a tremendous amount of force, unconcerned with its impact on the rocks, reefs, unsuspecting fish, or the kelp which lives its life as a sleeping person on a roller coaster, tossed around limply with each twist and turn. Only the humans struggle with it, and only the newbies and first-timers at that. We saw the 2 private divers near the mouth of a cave at the bottom, one carrying a huge light and the other a camera, both heading towards the surface. After only about an hour of exploring, we surfaced right behind them, climbing aboard, shuffling around each other on the crammed deck, putting our gear away, then back into the cabin and right onto the couch. The private divers said they saw an eel and Xena and I went through an identification book on the coffee table to confirm each of the species we had seen. We both slept on the ride back, still not right from the ride out, and helped pull gear off the boat when we got back to shore. Soon enough, we bade farewell to the rad family, got in the car with Joseph and had a mostly quiet ride back to Whangarei. Our goodbye to Joseph was anticlimactic, but I had fun in taking a really silly photo for my divers license, and we tipped Joseph handsomely. Always tip your guide.

Day 56: We were very slow to leave Whangarei the next day, taking advantage the kitchen for a late lunch and hitching out around 4 or 5pm after a great chat with Chrissy, the hostel owner about how she started the hostel after owning a garden center, hence all the plants, and how it took a lot of work to make the old jail feel as welcoming as it does now, and how her business acumen, experience with design, and passion for plants helped a lot in the process. Badass lady. From Whangarei we got a ride with an older dude, his son, and their ferocious little dog all the way to Ngaruawahia near where King Tāwhiao is buried. We were dropped off late in the night at a trailhead I found directions to on my phone, walked up the road a bit, realized had gone to far and were entering the waste management plant, then turned around, walked down the proper trail, and set up our hammock camps in some tight spots between the fern trees.

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