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.
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.