Tag Archives: adventure travel

CATHEDRAL COVE, NEW ZEALAND – sea kayaking in mercury

Phew! Sea kayaking has been cancelled. Mike Grogan of Cathedral Cove Kayaks tells me when I phone to check, ‘Sorry if it messes up your plans, but the sea’s forecast to be pretty lumpy till Thursday.’

‘No problem,’ I say quickly, ‘Safety must always be the number one priority. I absolutely understand.’

I’m secretly relieved. Paddling looks easy enough, but I’m a complete novice and have no idea whether I’ll be able to last ten minutes before being totally exhausted. Moreover, my body is flexibility-challenged. Can I even squeeze through that little hole in the top of a kayak, and will I ever be able to straighten my legs again afterwards? Now I won’t have to worry about that till Thursday.

In the meantime, I have plenty of very important things that must be done around Mercury Bay, on the east coast of New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula. There are beaches begging to be strolled, mountains that need tramping and cafes that must be drunk in. Island cruises, fishing trips and glass-bottomed boat tours are on offer.

But first, I try Mercury Bay’s weirdest attraction; Hot Water Beach, where people rent spades, dig holes in the sand and sit in them for hours. Something volcanic is close enough to the surface to heat the ground water, which bubbles out of the sand at over 60 degrees, creating a natural hot tub.
At low tide, the spot is crowded with bodies lying in the pools like a colony of pink seals – backpackers, families, and oldies who have poured out of the tour buses. From time to time somebody with a spade builds up a sand wall to protect the warm bath from the incoming tide. Then the next wave floods the pool with cold water, and the bodies scream, scramble and scatter.

That sort of paddling is all good fun, but the kayaks are waiting at the tiny town of Hahei, and the forecast is fair for Thursday. It does look like kayaking heaven out there. Mercury Bay, named by Captain Cook while he was observing the transit of that planet, is dotted with little islands with clumps of trees on top. Along the shoreline, soft white cliffs of volcanic ash and pumice have weathered into extraordinary pillars, pitted with caves.

I’m told that, in the high season, whole flotillas of kayaks bump into each other as they splash round this coastline. But when Thursday arrives there are only three of us ready to paddle; instructor Mark in his solo kayak and my partner in the double one, fit-looking Joanne who’s done kayaking before and rowing too, she says. Great – she can sit in the back, flex her rowing muscles and steer with the foot pedals. I’ll contribute the essential ballast in the front.

Cathedral Cove beach

Mark gives us a quick equipment and safety lesson. I’m sure I look very fetching in my lifejacket and the rubber skirt designed to seal my body to the top of the kayak and keep out the water. Then Mark pushes us off and I desperately flail my paddle as we burst into the pounding breakers. Okay, they probably just look like little ripples to any wimps watching from the beach, but you should see them from low down in a kayak!

Once we’re through the foam the sea flattens out, so I open my eyes again and enjoy the sparkling view. We’re in the Te Whanganui A Hei marine reserve, so declared in 1992, after years of battles between conservationists and fishermen. Now fish stocks have risen dramatically, attracting seals, dolphins and even killer whales so everybody is happy.

We paddle out a kilometre or so to circle Motueka Island, with waves crashing on its rocky shores. Maori chief Hei named this island, because he thought its shape resembled that of his own nose. He must have been an interesting-looking chap, since Motueka has two large humps. The name of the town opposite, Hahei, means ‘breath of Hei’.

The swell is building. ‘There’s nothing between here and Chile,’ says Mark, pointing to the eastern horizon, ‘but you’re paddling well, so we can cope with this.’ We take his word for it, even daring to follow him towards the natural tunnel under the end of Poikeke Island. The surf carries us right through, as we ride the swell and steer nervously. Whoo-ooh!

After an hour in the kayaks we land at the much-photographed Cathedral Cove. Mark makes surprisingly good cappuccinos on the portable stove, and we explore the amazing cave and rock formations in the soft pumice. ‘Those two pillars used to be an arch,’ says Mark, ‘but the middle collapsed not long ago.’ Oh, really? Without appearing to hurry, I step nimbly out of the cave and admire it from the outside.

Getting the kayaks back into the sea should be a doddle now we’re old hands, but the surf is bigger than when we set out. The first dumper breaks full in my face. My skirt flips loose and water floods into the kayak. ‘Keep paddling!’ yells Joanne, ‘How can I steer when we’re not going anywhere??’ I can’t think of a satisfactory answer – besides, my mouth is full of salty water.

We burst through another breaker and reach flattish sea again. Ah, now we can gently paddle back past Stingray Bay and Gemstone Bay, looking with some scorn at the lazy wusses who have arrived there in powerboats.

On the way to Hahei we hear one more story from Mark, and a tragic one. Around 1820 the local Ngati Hei tribe stole a princess from their neighbours, who came with muskets seeking revenge. Many were massacred, and reputedly bodies were boiled at Hot Water Beach.

By now we’ve going three hours, and we’re ready to face our final tricky landing through the surf. Mark will paddle to the beach first, then guide us in with hand signals. Beckoning arms mean ‘paddle this direction’. Palms out mean ‘wait for the wave behind you to pass’. Hands crossed on the chest, like a laid-out corpse, mean ‘paddle backwards as hard as you can; the wave behind you is really, really big!’

It all goes swimmingly. We paddle, we wait, we paddle backwards, we surf in and thump onto the beach. There are handshakes and backslapping all round. I won’t make the K2 team in the London Olympics, but next time someone asks ‘Anyone for a paddle?’my hand will be the first up. Whoo-ooh!


Getting there: Hahei is best reached by private transport, about four hours drive from Auckland.

Cathedral Cove Kayaks operates year round from Hahei. Half day trips cost NZ$95, full day trips NZ$150. See cathedralcovekayaks.co.nz

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WHANGANUI RIVER – canoeing in New Zealand

Photo (c) Jack Marsden-Mayer

They call me a random canoeist, even before they’ve seen my erratic paddling. ‘Random’ means I’ve arrived without a partner and the guiding company has assigned me to share a canoe with a random stranger, Emma from Scotland.

We’re both beginners, with plenty of ignorance to pool, and there’s a three-day, 80km river trip to Pipiriki ahead. This will be a steep learning curve.

Dave from Wades’ Landing Outdoors makes it sound easy. ‘You could chuck an empty canoe in the Whanganui River and it would end up at Pipiriki. It’s only people make things complicated.’ In other words, he’ll get his canoe back whatever. Call me fussy, but I’m hoping to arrive with the canoe underneath and two random canoeists high and mostly dry on top.

The Whanganui River starts life on the slopes of Mt Tongariro, in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island, then winds down to the sea. Once an important waterway for Maori people and settler farmers, it is now popular with canoeists. It is still remote, though. It takes the best part of an hour in Dave’s truck to get from the nearest town, National Park, over the rough road to our launching place at Whakahoro.

Once there, our clothes, cooking gear and sleeping bags are stowed in plastic barrels, along with enough food to last a week and enough decent Hawkes Bay wine to get us through a couple of nights. Cameras are handy in sealed ‘dry bags’, ready to be pulled out at scenic points.

But first we need to practice this paddling business. Dave pushes us off into the swirling water, muddied and swelled by recent rain, and we’re on our way. For the next few hours we random paddlers zigzag awkwardly across the river, sometimes forwards, sometimes backwards, making ungainly circles as we’re caught in invisible whirlpools and eddies. We bubble over patches of choppy water, our knuckles white on the paddles. We strain our eyes for telltale ‘V’ shapes on the surface ahead, which Dave has warned us signify hidden obstacles or rapids. Other paddlers, less random than us, steer neatly past and disappear round the bends.
Eventually we realize that, in spite of already making every mistake possible, we haven’t gone overboard. So we relax and pull out the cameras. It is truly fabulous landscape. The steep mossy cliffs lining the Whanganui’s banks remind me of Peter Dombrovskis’s iconic photo from Tasmania’s Save the Franklin campaign. The river is lined with dense forest of tree ferns, rimu trees and rata vines, with beech trees dominating the higher slopes. Numerous waterfalls gush, trickle or pound into the river below.

On flat stretches, the only sounds are the gentle lap of randomly co-ordinated paddle strokes, and the musical calls of the glossy black tui birds that dart from the foliage to circle above us.

The river does all the hard work, whirling us downstream at about 8-10 kilometres an hour. We’ve soon completed the first 37.5km and bump into a muddy landing below John Coull Hut, where some 20 canoes are already moored. This Department of Conservation hut has no showers, but it does have gas stoves, pit toilets and bunk beds. Hut accommodation is on a first come, first served basis, but latecomers can pitch tents on the nearby campground.

John Coull mooring

Enthusiastic volunteer wardens, retired teacher Brian Laing and his farmer brother Murray, help with unloading gear, provide weather forecasts (cloudy, sunny, chance of rain) and remember everybody’s name. Over hearty food and heartier drinks, we meet some of our fellow travellers – youth leaders Drew and Amy from Canada, Danish scientists Dorte and Sune with their two young boys, and a friendly group of 50-something Kiwis who meet up each year for an active adventure.

Someone tries fishing in the river, and there’s a moment of great excitement when the small eel he’s hooked is suddenly eaten by a monster eel as he reels it in. As night falls, bats flit in the trees and kiwis call across the river. Well, according to Brian and Murray they’re kiwis and who am I to argue?

The next day’s paddling seems easier, and is broken by a welcome chance to get out of the canoe and walk an easy 90 minute round trip to the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’.

Bridge to Nowhere

It’s an impressive concrete span over a gorge, a relic of the time this was farmland, before being declared National Park.
At Tieke Kainga Hut a large totem pole reminds us that this area is sacred to the Maori people. Each bend in the river had a guardian spirit controlling its mauri (life force) and in quiet moments it’s as if we can still feel them.

By the third day, twelve hours of paddling have made Emma and me considerably less random and we’re almost travelling in straight lines. We welcome the appearance of a few rapids to give a frisson of excitement. Occasional jetboats bringing day-trippers up the river show we’re nearing civilization, and we feel justifiably smug about our achievement compared to their wussy mechanized transport.

Too soon we make a neat bump-free landing at Pipiriki, where Dave is waiting with the truck. New Zealand lost the rugby while we were away, apparently. There was a cabinet reshuffle. A celebrity marriage is on the rocks. The stock market is down again. Who cares? I’d rather be paddling randomly.

The writer was the guest of Visit Ruapehu, Wades Landing Outdoors, The Powderhorn Chateau and Tranz Scenic railways.


Getting there: Train from Auckland to National Park or Okahune takes just over six hours and costs NZD99 one way. http://www.railnewzealand.com

Staying there: The Powderhorn Chateau, Ohakune has double rooms from NZD198 http://www.powderhorn.co.nz. Adventure Lodge, National Park, has dorms from NZD30 p.p. adventurenationalpark.co.nz

Further information: 3 day canoe hire from Wades Landing Outdoors, including all equipment and transfers costs from NZD150 p.p. See whanganui.co.nz. For other guiding companies and activities in the area see visitruapehu.com

First published Sun-Herald, Sydney


Filed under New Zealand, Travel