Te Ika-a-Maui (The Fish of Maui) -The North Island of New Zealand
I needed to sit for a little while before I could settle and write about the North Island. Some of the East Coast I had forgotten and had to revisit; it had been rather a long time and holy heck, there had been so much coastline that I had paddled past since I had been there. I almost convinced myself that I had to drive Cuzzie (our camper-van) back along the roads on a memory jogging trip, to place myself by the ocean and just focus.
The North Island and my paddling. What did I feel along the way?
Well it was actually rather kind to me at the start. Auckland waters, for some strange reason which I still cannot fathom, made me wake up with an initial upside down moment. I still shake my head at this, and Mother Nature and I started the game of respect. This coastline has so many cool little bays, so many places you want to stop and pitch your tent, beautiful beaches and numerous back to back days of paddling. In fact, there was a stretch of sixteen days of paddling with not a day to rest my paddle.
My first day off the water I remember was at Tologa Bay. What a gorgeous enforced stopover with a couple of days to relax and watch the locals easily catching crayfish from the Tologa Bay old wharf. Then on I headed towards and past Gisbourne. I remember Mike saying to me “I have not paddled this section of the coastline.” Later, once I was past, Mike finished the sentence by saying there were good reasons not to paddle along that coast. Thanks Mike. There were many firsts on this East Coast, paddling sixteen days straight was just one of them.
I had so many fun days along the way, paddling with the BASK team out of Hahei, then with Andy Warner and Nathan Pettigrew for a few hours at the Mount. I got to enjoy spending many happy hours with fantastic pods of dolphins; one of the memorable days was at the tip of Mahia Peninsula. Then it was time for more lessons from Mother Nature as I headed towards Wairoa and onto nasty, dumping, steep stony beaches along this next section of the coast, which quickened my heart rate as I paddled. The beaches were covered in driftwood, actually entire trees were on the beach; a huge reminder of the strength of these waves. We had lots of fun in the local camping grounds of Wairoa with the coolest Christmas light display I have ever seen. In another first, Cuzzie and Regan encountered the first flat tyre problem, or more like a tyre blowout, but the locals came to the rescue because (oops) we had forgotten to actually have a tyre changing team lesson! Then it was onwards into Napier and around Cape Kidnappers, seeing an amazing, stunning sunrise, and meeting so many cool locals all along this crazy coastline (such fantastic kiwi souls). This time also saw my first whale sighting, my first blue shark (up close and personal wanting to share my mid morning snack), my first 1000km was achieved (when I landed at Porangahau Beach), my first glass of champagne and also my first meal of Paua on this journey (Nat and I still talk about this day).
We also had another first while staying around this area; a kayak tie-down mishap. Thelma (my original red kayak) came to a sad ending when she fell from the roof of Cuzzie and hit the tar seal road as we drove along at about 80km! We were shocked and stunned with disbelief all over our faces. Only thirty-one days into the trip, and there I was having to ring Star Kayaks and say what had happened. Thank goodness for Andy and his support. The Star kayak team built another little red kayak for me and I only spent a day or two paddling my lighter kayak (Louise). For me, this initial time with Louise was not a wonderful love affair. When we first hit the water together we connected for sure! But it was more a story of Louise and a big wave hitting me. One large bump on the head and then a beautiful black eye. This was when I attempted to depart from a Herbertville beach. It was a black moment for me. I glared at Louise, then at the ocean, and poor Nat kept checking me for signs of concussion! Louise and I had connected but not in a positive way. Luck was on my side as the weather held us up north of Castlepoint and in that time my replacement red kayak arrived. Thelma 2, she was quickly nicknamed T2 and it was an instant “I like you” feeling. So off I set with T2 from Flat Point, we said goodbye to some wonderful locals and onwards it was. We paddled towards Wellington, passing steep beaches with the cray-boats being launched (by bulldozers not tractors), cliffs being eroded by the ocean, and even a couple of abandoned houses about to topple into the ocean whenever the next storm arrived.
Tora Bay paddle was one to remember, I was stopped by some local divers and given crayfish (another first) for our dinner. Nat was so happy and to top this off we were able to have a fire on the beach at this little freedom campsite. The RedzNZ team were smiling and happy that night. We got held up again by the wind and swells for a couple of days further south at Palliser Bay. I had opted to wait on the corner of Palliser Bay until I could gap it across and into Wellington. So we were stuck in a dusty layby and had to just wait. Eventually we decided that the only good weather window was going to be an overnight paddle! So, feeling a tad nervous, I got ready and hit the water before sunset. It was a full moon evening for paddling across Cape Palliser but the departure was not smooth. Waves off the beach meant I had a swim and then had to clamber back into T2. Although, for some strange reason, the two-dollar-shop battery fairy lights on T2’s deck (care of Nat) did keep glowing and they kept me smiling through this night paddle, even after the dip in the ocean. They did begin to flicker on and off during the night, but at long last on the 18th of December 2015, I was landing at Owhiro Bay. At 4.00am, it was really cold and we both curled up for a well earned sleep. I had a day off the water before I got to paddle up and around to the West Coast of this island, past Makara and into Te Tahi Bay, ready and set to head South.
The South Island took some time, and shit we had some crazy adventures, but never in my wildest dreams had I imagined it would be the 30th of August 2016, before I would be standing on Te Tahi beach launching off with my new support person along with Nat. Was I looking forward to the West Coast of the North Island? Actually, to be totally honest, I was not! In all my days away I had only heard negative stories about this coastline and the lack of landings along this West Coast. But there was nothing I could do. Well, maybe there was an option: just not paddle this section! Or just suck it up and get on with it. I thought that maybe I could find a few smiles for this coastline, so I launched on a calm, still morning, paddling north. Te Tahi to Waikawa and then onwards. Day one was pleasant enough, the currents seemed to make it slow going, but the waves and swells on the horizon kept me looking over my left shoulder in the later part of the day. A textbook landing on these first two days helped my moral but my heart was feeling the strain. I even gave up coffee on this coastline as I could not cope with anymore adrenalin on each beach launch. The pre-paddling coffee was most certainly banned until I got to Spirits Bay.
The remaining West Coast beach landings were being counted. I totalled them up and there was going to be more bad landings, than nice landings, but me knowing how many thumpings I would get each day actually did help my mind. Some days at least. ”Day-by-day” remained my mantra and I tried to stick to that, not ever looking any further north than a couple of days. My countdown was on, and I focused on how to survive what Mother Nature was about to throw at me on this section of the coast. Daily I heard a bad story; it seemed someone would feel compelled to share a bad boating story, surfing misadventure, or (better still) to share a near death experience, or (worse still) a death story. Thanks, is all I could say. I promised to be really careful and I can share now that before hitting the West Coast section I had looked at and talked with all of my close team about the weather parameters I wanted to paddle in. I would stare at the weather maps and the swell maps for many hours when I was off the water. I scanned for landings and we did many trips up along the coastline to get the landings correct. I was totally blessed and I stayed strong to my promise and we stuck true to this mantra.
I wanted so much to love this coastline and disperse the gut fears into smiles. And Mother Nature obliged. I had some stunning days on this coastline, so as I progressed up towards Cape Egmont, I was patient. I watched and waited and learned as much as I could. We travelled every road and tramped some amazing tracks around Mount Taranaki while the bad winds and rain battered the coastlines. I got to know what this coast was about and learnt lots from the locals; what they called rubbish, normal or exceptional weather days for this section of the coast. Then we got a break, and with Anna Caudle (my gorgeous support crew member from the USA) a new record distance of 83km was hit and I paddled into Opunake boat ramp smiling and happy. I was handed a huge bowl of salty, oily popcorn (Anna had not worked out how to make it sweet) which I promptly spilt on the floor of Cuzzie and had to eat most of it with a crunchy coating of fine, blackish sand! How feral can you get Red!? We slept happily, knowing I was about to get around to New Plymouth the first milestone I had set for myself on this coast.
A day later I “gapped it” to New Plymouth and it was not as easy as it sounds. The departure and the first few hours were wonderful, but the Cape was rough with rain, wind and a messy swell, but I had New Plymouth in my sights so I just kept pushing, slowly knocking off my kilometres and my checkpoints. To the delight of Anna and Jase I paddled into New Plymouth later in the day. I was happy to be around that Cape and there was a little moment when I let myself say “wow.” It had been a tough paddle and when I looked down at my hands I saw some of the best blisters of this entire trip. And I still had an even tougher coastline to conquer. Still the coastline stories kept coming from the well-wishing followers and what I heard made me quietly frown and ponder. But then it was head down and keep saying “Day-by-Day Red. Just Day-by-Day.”
It was yet another ten day stand down due to weather. Again I had plans for this next section and it was to keep continuing the longer days of paddling, wanting to minimise my crash landings as much as possible and actually try and limit the wave bashing at the start and end of each day.
The coastline sections were planned and we looked over them numerous times. Landings were decided on so when I did eventually head north my heart was feeling okay. Well, sort of okay. The swells were always there and you watched the rolling ocean approaching from the west. It rolled underneath you sometimes bigger than expected and then with a massive thunderous crash the waves hit onto the beaches. A constant reminder of what you had to deal with at the end of each day.
Eventually I got to Raglan. Seeing dolphins jumping, just before my final paddle into Raglan’s Manu Bay was a wonderful moment. Nat had returned as support person for this paddle, and being met at the Manu Bay boat ramp by Mike Scanlan was emotionally a huge spirit lifter. Later on we talked and went over my next section. I shared my thoughts and plans, and with his frank and honest talking, it set me totally focused for the next tough section. This was probably to be one of my biggest solo challenges yet. The plan was to go from Raglan onwards, and not lift my head until I actually rounded the tip into Ahipara. But there I sat for twenty-three days and I waited. I spent time alone. I spent time on the beaches at Port Waikato staring at the ocean and I went into a training phase. I went to my happy place of pool swimming and beach running, I drove up and down this next section south of the Manukau Harbour, and I was able to park up at a friends in Port Waikato and stay with them. I stayed on the West Coast and I stayed focused, waiting until Mother Nature let me go further, with one quick trip inland to collect with my newest support person, Bianca (from Germany).
Then we were off and after so many days off the water I wondered what this would feel like. 82kms later, with waves and a swell, crash landing at Hamiltons Gap, it was not too bad. I had the normal long sprint paddle from the back of the breakers and Louise was making me proud as I hung on to her stern and got a surf style ride onto the beach. I was feeling pretty chuffed, but also a little more nervous as I got closer to the Manukau Harbour.
Departure the next day could have gone either way but Mother Nature allowed me to escape. With a huge thwack we got over the last huge wave and I sat there on a slick, oily ocean at the back of those big West Coast waves. I was aware that this swell was dropping all day and it was a perfect West Coast day. The Manukau Harbour. All I needed to worry about was the amount of fizz boats racing out of the harbour to go fishing on this exceptional day. I escaped the harbour at full flood tide. There was a rolling swell but the Manukau Harbour, Piha and even Muriwai had me smiling. I have seen these beaches at their worst and so for me it was magic. Was my landing as magic as I ended my day and pulled in 15kms south of the Kaipara? It was not that painful. I got wet, Louise and I sprinted as hard as we could until Mother Nature got me with one of her waves, but a West Coast swim was not too bad. On the beach and damn happy with the day, the support crew had their own adventures. With the need to use a four-wheel drive vehicle for this beach access, we had Jase in action with his trusty Toyota ute on the beach. They had got themselves stuck a couple of times but by the time I arrived it was all sorted and the ute was safe and high on the dunes. Go Jase and Bianca. I am still disappointed that no pictures or videos were taken of the crew’s drama.
Seven days later it was time to escape this beach. I looked to the skies that morning and asked to be looked after by every spirit that had followed me on this journey. Kissing my pounamu and clambering into Louise with my heart in my mouth, did Mother Nature behave? No! She let me battle, survive and battle again. Then with 400m and two more sets to get over I got slammed. There was only one option that far out: a swim to Louise, then a gap in the waves leaving just enough time to clamber into a water filled cockpit, paddle a bloody heavy kayak out and over the last two huge waves while yelling at them “Don’t break. Please don’t break.” Then I was over and safe. The VHF crackled into life and I just asked the team to all talk to me. That was just the start of my day I still had what many had told me was to be my toughest part of the day. I still had the mighty Kaipara to get past. We did it. Closer than many wanted me to go, and as all watched my tracker over the hours it took me to pass and get clear, we all started to breathe a little deeper. Me the most as I used all my strength and mind calming skills to embrace, hug and then say thanks as I was able to pass into Glink Gully which blew up a storm as I arrived. I threw everything and more at this beach landing. I arrived with tears of joy. I was mentally and physically tired so I just sat in Cuzzie; eating and drinking while Bianca took control, and just sitting going “Holy crap. Wow. The Mighty Kaipara.”
There was not much time to wait as within a day I was on my way from Glink Gully to just south of Hokianga, to a river mouth called Waimamaku River. As planned, we knew it was to be a landing south of the river mouth as there were many rocks north at low tide. And with me, now fondly known as ”Crash Test”, we wanted to stay clear of wrecking a kayak on this coast. That was not a tale I wanted to tell. I landed with no trouble, but Bianca had the problem of swimming across the river to meet me and then, with a huge feed of very memorable fish and chips from the Hokianga small township, we went back to the river mouth to freedom camp. I now had my sights firmly on Ahipara. Mother Nature let me continue on, up and around into Shipwreck Bay the next day. She did let me out but nailed Bianca and her dry gear on the beach! However, the funniest moment was still me whizzing down the river mouth thinking I had the line correct to get out on the water and past the waves only to be foiled when I ground to a halt on a small sand bar. Which meant Bianca had to yet again wade out and drag me off the sand bar. I looked and felt like a stranded whale!
Ahipara was a place that both Bianca and I had longed to reach. My reasoning was that I would be able to see the top of this island and Bianca’s was because she could maybe get a couple more days of surfing in. But that was not to happen, as the next morning we were on the water. I was heading up and along the first stretch of Ninety Mile Beach towards The Bluff; the only little rocky out crop on the entire stretch of this very long beach! It was a day of trying to entertain myself on what was a tad repetitive paddle. Watching the slow walking hikers on the beach made me glad that I was on the water and not hiking, with a huge backpack to carry. But what I remember most about this day was me singing badly to myself. So badly, and on purpose, as it entertained me for a few hours, thinking the whole time: “If my singing teacher mother could hear me, it would have truly ruined her day.” Her daughter with such wasted talent. Oh well, we never seem to do what our parents dream we should!
65km later I at last see Bianca on the beach waiting and giving me a good line to land safe and dry on my last West Coast beach landing. Little did I know that Mother Nature had other ideas. Sadly, while on my VHF to Bianca, I had not realised I had drifted far too close to the breaking swell just north of the Bluff. Luckily I had time to lock down my VHF radio before turning to paddle up and over a huge breaking swell. Did I attempt to roll? No! I had reverted to full “survive and escape” mode over the past few months. So swim I did, over to the patiently waiting Louise, clambering in and then paddling down some more crazy waves until I was nailed and followed Louise to the shore! My last wet landing of the West Coast, and I actually thought for a moment it was to be an unexpected, easy landing. Mother Nature had the last laugh and I deserved to get wet. For just a split second I took my eye off the West Coast and dared to think it was all over. I had to wait on this section of New Zealand for twelve long days. Up and down we drove, meeting many cool Northland characters, watching the different tides around Maria van Diemen and Cape Reinga. A couple of times I did doubt my weather app and felt a tad miffed, but everything happens for a reason and on Monday 19th of December I was off, leaving the West Coast on a beautiful low swell day.
Cape Reinga here I come. Currents and rips did slow me as expected up towards Maria Van Diemen, but the trip went according to plan. I sat at the base of Cape Reinga on the slack tide, talking on my VHF and listening to the tourists and my support team cheer. I cried as the mist lifted and a magnificent circular rainbow surrounded the sun. It was a very magical, memorable moment. I thanked the spirits for letting me pass and then slowly paddled on. It was one of those days I will not ever forget, but it was also high time for me to keep pushing as I had a deadline to meet. I had to get to Spirits Bay in time so I could push towards North Cape. In the end I stopped for the night at Spirits Bay, thanks to timing and a possible wind building, along with the threat of nightfall arriving while I was still out by North Cape. That evening we sat on a blanket in the late afternoon sunshine with a glass of champagne. What a massive achievement. This is also where we discovered the meaning of “clouds” of mosquitoes. They arrived en-masse as soon as the sun disappeared! Northland has as many mosquitoes as the Fiordlands have sandflies. It was lockdown for the night and whenever someone dared to leave the camper-van you were sprayed with a cloud of fly spray and pushed out with no lights on, so you always stumbled in the darkness. I am so lucky as they loved Bianca. Sadly she was not that impressed with the itching and swollen bites they had left!
I actually attempted a pre-dawn escape the next day onto the water before the wind and swell awoke. 5km into this journey I stopped, turned and said “bugger this.” It was the first time since the East Coast that I had got on the water and turned around! It was yuck, and Mother Nature and my gut were telling me to return back to Spirits Bay. I was a tad miffed, but I did settle and be content and happy to be nearly on the East Coast. The team were happy chappies when they saw my face at the window of Cuzzie, as they also had a bad feeling about my decision to get on the water, and were very glad I had turned back. Quickly I announced “let’s please leave the mosquitoes and head south to a few bays.” We had fun scoping out these new unseen locations. We also knew the weather and wind was not going to improve for a few days so we spent enjoyable times at Maitai Bay pre-Christmas. Then a weather window appeared so back up the coast Bianca and I sped on the night of the 21st of December. We stayed well clear of Spirits Bay, but alas we actually found a campsite that had thousands more mosquitoes. It was truly insane. Both of us were dreading the beach for my launch. But strangely when I launched the next morning from Spirits Bay the pesky flying insects had disappeared! Crazy Northland bugs.
I was pleased to get around and past North Cape. I thought it was going to cause me some pain but North Cape calmed and allowed me around and through numerous large fish boil ups and birds diving for their breakfast. It was wonderful as I paddled down towards Henderson Bay and then onto my final destination at Houhora Harbour. I was pleased and starting to smile, knowing I was officially on the East Coast, and it was apparently now downhill! But again, I was made to wait until the next settled period. This time the 26th of December. Then, as I had warned many, I was going to make the most of this next fine patch, enjoying the small swells and hoping to be blown by tailwinds and paddle as fast as possible towards my final destination (the Takapuna boat ramp). The coastline changed dramatically and I loved each beach and bay I went by. I also had my moments with head winds and trying to keep my head down and not think too much. Six full days of paddling, one being a new record of 85.25km. I paddled hard down this scenic section, mindful that Mother Nature was giving me a chance to finish. Once past the crazy Bay of Islands, dodging huge launches (gin palaces) and every possible size of boat, I rounded Cape Brett. I was a tad grumpy that day, for a few reasons: probably I was tired, probably I was sad this was going to soon be over, and as I sat on the beach at Bland Bay and cried, and yelled at the support crew. I then realised I was actually maybe going to finish this trip in 2016. Only one more crux day, around Bream Head and then to battle a head wind with off shore huge gusts that stopped me and my tiny Louise to a standstill all day as I edged closer towards Langs Beach. I cussed on my mobile to the team, choosing that as my mode of communication so others did not hear our conversation. Actually I am so glad the team have a good black humour, as it was needed. I reached Langs Beach at last, having an afternoon sleep and then one of the most fantastic roast lamb dinners I have ever had. Crispy roasted food, my dream dinner. Thanks Ev.
At last we all felt confident that Mother Nature was going to play nicely. It was time to head towards old paddling grounds, as I left Lang's Beach it was a nice change to have a paddling friend Ev with me for the first 20 km, then solo again onto Goat Island, Kawau Island and Martins Beach. Seeing Mike Scanlan on the water to greet me was amazing and we paddled in together to Martins Beach. Another quick sleep and another fabulous dinner (Eye Fillet) at the Scanlan’s. Thanks Mike and Jan for the perfect dinner. Then too soon it was time for bed to rest for my final North Island paddle day. Only a half day, just 40kms. It would all be over by lunchtime!
Rangitoto brought tears to my eyes and then so did the team in the STAR kayaks that located me on the water. A blessing from Ev and a blessing from Mike made me truly glad I had sunglasses on that day. I was very tearful at these moments. I arrived onto that boat ramp with so many familiar smiling faces and some faces I did not know but they all knew me. Never could I get around to talk to them all, and so again I want to say thank you. You are the reason I am still smiling about that final day; not that I dared to let myself know it was my final day. I had convinced myself it was just another day. “Day-by-Day” had got me this far, so it had to continue.
The North Island. The East and West Coasts. So very different, but I have to say (and I will probably be the only West Coast paddler to say the following) I loved, enjoyed and was totally spoilt with my spectacular days on the West Coast of the North Island. Huge respect to this coastline. Yes, there are huge rolling swells to keep a very watchful eye for. Yes, they are the longest beach sprints in and out of the surf. Yes, there is enough pure adrenaline to make me give up coffee. But my secret? I kept my promise to Mother Nature. She has let me pass and also see some of the most incredible days. This coastline is not like anything else you will ever see and I am lucky to have such wonderful and beautiful stories. Mother Nature and I at last had come to be friends. She showed me this ocean and the calm waters on some very beautiful days, and they are some of my best days. I even had moments when I had to remind myself what coast I was on. Was it the West Coast? Or had I magically switched to an East Coast paddle! Every day I looked to the sky, clutched my pounamu and said a grateful thank you. I respected her power and strength. I thanked everybody who watched over me and provided me with such a magical, wonderful West Coast experience. There are some very memorable moments and some more firsts, many new friends, many life lessons and something only a very few have experienced over on the West Coast. I am one of the few. Yes, Paul Caffyn, I truly am one lucky lass!
For every day that MN gave me a new life lesson on and off the water.
The East & The West Coast ..the yin and yang of this North Island
The beautiful days on the West Coast.. & I was shown a few.
West Coast Swells, . as far as you can see, just rippling rolling waves on the horizon,.
The Kiwi friends I have meet.
Sunrises & amazing sunsets.
Cape Reinga.. this reduced me to tears..WOW..The Spirits came to play on the 19th Dec 2016.
If you listen with THE SPIRIT, you will find your heart softened, your faith strengthened & they will take the time to guide you...
Respect forever to Mother Nature.
Ma Te Wa.