Sunday, March 01, 2015

Great Barrier Island

Sailboat Misty is looking a little sad in the boatyard, with the dust and rust of neglect from these many months away. Henrick shimmies up the stern and sends down the ladder. Once we’re aboard, the memories flood back. Palm paradise beaches. Deep ocean blue. The smell of baking bread to the music of the Be Good Tanyas. Where went the struggles and seasickness, the wind shifts in the night and storms at sea? The memories are all idyllic. I long for the islands again.

We plan to paddle around Great Barrier Island together on this visit. The Barrier, as locals call it, protects the Hauraki Gulf from Pacific Ocean swells. Auckland is located deep within the Hauraki Gulf, along with a number of other smaller islands.

Henrick sharpens a knife for our trip. Angle grinder on metal. The sound and smell of young love. Creativity, beginnings. Marina Seca boatyard in Guaymas, Mexico.

We raid the diminishing larder—dehydrated egg powder and cheese, pasta, couscous, a jar of peanut butter.

The next day, we catch a ride with Dave, a friend, to Auckland for the ferry. With our kayaks on the car deck, and us on board with several dozen other passengers, the Sea Link catamaran leaves the harbor. We pass the Maritime Museum where Hokulea was tied up when we arrived last week. The catamaran is the replica of a traditional sailing canoe which started the renaissance of Polynesian navigation and cultural pride, We pass giant freighters being loaded by long-necked cranes. Sky Tower stands above it all.

The ferry pushes against an incoming tide out of the harbor and into the larger Hauraki Bay. We can’t see The Barrier from here. Eventually the Coromandel Peninsula comes into view. Four and a half hours later we arrive at Tryphena Harbor, GBI.

After a fine dinner at Tipi and Bob’s Waterfront Lodge, we check weather websites. We measure distances, calculate times, look at tides, decipher the currents from the tidal diamonds, and decide to set out counter-clockwise.

12 January
The first crux move is rounding the south end including Cape Barrier. In the morning we will have some 2-3 knots against us and against a 15-18kt wind. Great for surfing, but perhaps less than ideal for our first day and a committing cliffy coastline.

We set out at the stroke of 11am, which is still a little early for the current. We outsmart it by ducking into Sandy Bay, about 3 nm into our journey, and pass an hour by eating lunch and exploring of this tiny, uninhabited cove. The tide runs out and turns around to push us along nicely in much calmer waters. A fat SW swell enlivens the coastline.

At 4:30pm, we carry the boats over a low-tide beach and walk them up a shallow stream to the Medlands Department of Conservation campsite. Friendly neighbors, a refreshing cold shower, and a fine dehydrated dinner make it feel like home.

13 January
Onward up the coastline, we pass more sea caves. mostly guarded by churning white sea. A little blue penguin swims between us with a punk “hairdo”. Surfing into a kayak-wide channel in the rocks at exactly high tide, we enter a creek and paddle the rest of the way up to Harataonga campsite.

We return to the sea later to snorkel and see a tremendous variety of seaweeds (there are 66 recorded species around the island). We also spot a few fish, and a group of little hovering cuttlefish that change color with their mood. To warm up, we lie down in the shallow stream. Heat emanates from the streambed in some places. It smells slightly farty, but the warmth is welcome. There are mineral hot springs on the island, the last vestiges of a volcanic past.

Henrick and I walk part of the coastal trail for a view out to Rakitu Island and a stab at cell phone reception and a forecast, which we succeed in getting. It’s perfect for the next few days. The Kaka native parrots squawk and fly into the sprawling trees above us.

14 January
As islands on the horizon tend to do, Rakitu calls to us. We paddle out the next morning and follow the coastline closely with our unloaded kayaks, relishing the Romany handling again. Caves, rockhops, close-up views. The southern tip of Rakitu is a breathtaking Rhyolite dome formed about 8-10 million years ago as part of volcanic activity in the area. A basalt islet nearby is the only known basalt lava on “The Barrier”.

15 January
Before the rest of camp is up, we glide down Harataonga stream past the Blue-Winged Teal, a New Zealand endemic locally known as Pateke. Once past the dumpy half-meter break, we cruise along the coastline, watching the wind slowly build. It’s still closer to 10kts, but with the forecast E 20kts, we decide not to land at Wairarapa to avoid having to paddle back east again.

Rangiwhakaea Bay, our target, is little over an hour away, and we’re reasonably sure we can land there in the forecasted conditions. We hope so because the next stop is four hours further, around the Needles at the north end. Henrick finds the bouncy conditions challenging as we round the point towards Rangiwhakaea Bay, and I worry about tomorrow, with its long exposure and the building swell.

We investigate three coves in Rangiwhakaea Bay and choose Kirikiri Beach, facing east but tucked behind its own modest point. A venerable Pohutukawa tree shelters us from the sun on a small rocky beach. The east wind flaps our laundry hanging from the Pohutukawa branches. A creek trickles through the forest to pool behind a berm of rocks and forest debris. The streambed itself has been bulldozed by some great force, leaving bare rocks, sand bars, and broken trees strewn in its widened path. We will see dramatic evidence of the June 2014 storm at almost every stream we observe, from here on around the island.

16 January
The swell is indeed bigger this morning. We don’t need to open our eyes to know. Besides, it’s still dark when we awake. The early start will let us launch before the tide drops too much and breaks more of the swells coming into our mini-bay. We time a quick beach-break launch off our steep beach, skirt up in the “safe zone” of deeper water a few meters off the beach while waiting for a lull between sets, then power past the point, where the waves start their outer break.

Henrick launches first, and disappears in the big, disorganized sea. It’s a steep, rocky coastline, which sends the waves’ energy back at various angles to cross the incoming swell.

Now THIS is the sea, I think as we paddle. So long as there is no reason to fear for our safety, I love a rambunctious sea. Henrick is concentrating, but doing well. I stick close.

Another reason to leave with the dawn this morning is the current around the Needles. Deb Volturno, Paul, and Natasha circumnavigated a few weeks before and said they were surprised at the force of the current near the north end, and how quickly it changed. Yesterday I studied the tidal diamonds on our nautical chart. Of course there is no diamond right where one wants it, since nautical charts aren’t made for kayakers. Diamond “B” is several miles west and “C” is about two thirds of the way down GBI’s east coast. Off the Needles themselves, the chart indicates tidal rips of 2-3kts in either direction. Since we paddle at just over 3 knots and realize how the current can affect the sea state, we do want to pass with minimal current, and in our direction if possible.

It’s not simple; the direction at “C” changes a couple hours before the direction at “B” and the directions of current spin around the compass, so it’s not “in” or “out”; it’s more complex. The best I can figure, we will paddle north up the east side with the current, round the Needles against less than half a knot (opposing a 1.5 to 2 meter swell), and paddle down the long, exposed west side with current building in our favor. We may be 4 hours at sea with no landings. Thankfully, the wind leaves us in peace.

There is a gap that would cut off the Needles and Aiguilles Island, and save perhaps an hour. I check in with Henrick. Because Tom the guitar-playing fisherman at Harataonga campsite told us that it’s not a real circumnavigation without the Needles, Henrick is determined to go the whole way. We’re perfectly on schedule, the conditions are lovely, and I am not inclined to leave any rock unexplored, so we go for it.

I take photos of Henrick paddling past the spires. Sometimes he’s in the photos. Occasionally a swell swallows him completely. Buller’s Shearwaters stream past us. Some wheel around for a second look. Several pop over a swell gliding low and find themselves beak to bow with our kayaks. They hang on nearly meter-wide wings, steering with the subtlest shift of weight.

The moment of rounding the tip of the Needles is brief and exciting. Smooth faces of the swells stand up when they meet the current. Occasionally the top meter or so tumbles in a roar of white. They are deliciously surfable for a few waves, and then we’re past. A fishing boat bobs in the much-reduced swells on the west side. Our adrenaline slowly subsides, but the flow of shearwaters past our heads does not.

Other birds mix in the flow of shearwaters. Something half the size and mostly grey. Something all dark—perhaps one of the Black Petrels that nest on Mt Hobson, The Barrier’s highest peak. Around the west side we encounter Little Shearwaters. They run along the water with outstretched wings before taking flight. We like them, though we’re not sure why. Perhaps because of their technique, or their petite size.

On Aiguilles Island we spot a tiny cobble beach that occasionally has a brief window of opportunity for landing a kayak. Since we’re almost halfway through our 4-hour paddle, and have heard from several sources that there are absolutely no landings remotely possible on the upcoming segment, we decide to try to land.

The swell must have been teasing us when we first saw the landing, for it gives no chance for a while after that. Powerful dumpers with cross-surges caress the beach roughly and slap against firm boulders.. Finally I see a moment, and dart in, leap out of the kayak and hold it fast as the surge recedes. Next surge, I drag it up with the water, then scoop up the stern in my arms and pivot it uphill. Henrick has zipped in as well, so I grab the bow of his boat and we stagger up the loose cobble (called shingle in NZ) under the weight of the kayak.

Relief break, a couple bites of salami, and we ready ourselves for the escape. Patience eventually pays off and we’re back on the water, feeling a little like we got away with something.

We wander among sea stacks. The gap that Deb and friends had passed through must have been at a higher tide, a smaller swell, or both. Today the swell wraps around the west side and meets the incoming east swell in a crashing white zipper. We are two hours before low tide at neaps.

Slightly further south from the gap I spy light through a passage. An arch leads into a gap to the other side where there is a deep cove, unnamed on our topo map. We’ve been told this is a reasonable landing and from which one can climb a hill for VHF reception and a forecast. We passed it by because of the swell direction and size, the interest of time, and because we felt reasonably confident in our good forecast and the steady conditions we had. In calmer conditions and with higher tide, this slot looks like it could be a great sneak.

Today, I watch as the other side of the slot explodes with every wave. A surge finds me in the slot—it was just a matter of time. I backsurf my way out up to my elbows in white foam, making the necessary zigzag turns between rocky walls, and feeling sheepish, like I’d just gotten away with something else. Henrick was just around the corner, so he only saw my exit. I’m really not a daredevil in remote places like this, and I don’t want him to worry.

“Cliffs of Doom” is how someone described the 4-mile stretch between the Needles and Miners Cove. Here a 250- to 300-meter high ridge follows the coastline, almost completely unbroken by streams. The cliffs are made of ancient sedimentary rock deposited some 150 million years ago. The formation underlays the island and predates the volcanic activity that created most of the rest of The Barrier about 18 million years ago.

Miners Cove, our destination, is a disappointment. It’s wide, protected, and shadeless. Somehow I just don’t like the vibe here. Was it the mining history that left scars in the spirit of the place? Was it the treeless valley? Was it just my mood being influenced by the good bang I took on my shin before leaving the beach this morning that makes it painful to walk or sit on the beach? We eat lunch and agree to explore further.

On our way out, we stop by a motor yacht for an updated forecast. “Take a Break” was doing just that before heading up to the Needles to fish. They offer us water as well, but we carry plenty.

We paddle through Ahuriri point. The Barrier and its associated islands have great arches that make shortcuts through points. This one is a little shallow on the exit, which makes it fun riding the surge through. A pretty beach meets us on the other side. In the center of it a tall grey stone stands over the waving grass. A marker for something. Something Maori perhaps. Beside it is a green DOC sign declaring the place as Ahuriri Beach. No fires, dogs, or camping.

The next beach is a winner. No signs at all. A fresh water lagoon has formed behind the beach. Piles of torn up trees and fresh berms of gravel and dirt with young plants tell stories of dynamic changes in the 2014 storm. Nine hundred centimeters of rain in a day, is the statistic I recall someone telling us. Nature is impressive.

The lagoon is deep enough that we can’t stand. We portage our kayaks to it, paddle across, and set up home on the far side. Up the hillside we get fresh water. At every campsite we’ve drunk from stream after purifying. The water is always a little cloudy, probably because the sediment is still sorting itself out after the storm exposed raw earth.

Henrick walks the low tide rocks along the shoreline in the evening. My shin still throbs so I’m completely content to relax and watch the world from here.

17 January
I could stay here another day. That’s the beauty of having too much time to do a trip! We spend the morning under the pohutukawa trees on the hillside, reading and listening to unfamiliar birdsong.

We eventually decide to paddle away. The luxury of choice. Around noon we set out. After the next major point, we see no beaches good for camping until almost Whangaparapara. Thankfully, DOC has an official campsite near Port Fitzroy.

Fitzroy is supply central for a healthy boating population which enjoys the inlets and islands nearby. We stop in the port, pick up a few more supplies at the store and enjoy a couple of burgers at the burger shack on the waterfront. Kids jump from the tops of pilings along the wharf. Tourists sunbathe on a dock in the bay. Tied between the dock and shore is a big log. Kids take turns logrolling, solo, or in groups, splashing into the sun-gilded water as we eat our early dinner.

Akapoua campsite is best accessed at mid to high tide since the storm washed rubble and trees out of a nearby stream. We and the camp host have the place to ourselves on his last night of being on duty. We also share the site with a half dozen Pateke. It’s hard to imagine they are rare. Here, they are not shy, and they are not nice to each other, with one going as far as to grab another’s tail. They patrol around our kayaks, hopping on the deck, peeking in hatches. The sand flies are not shy either. Banded Rail, another rare bird, runs around the campsite. This is the best campsite for birding. Tui and raucous Kaka wake us in the morning.

18 January
It’s just a couple miles to Smokehouse Cove, a haven for cruisers that we’ve been told repeatedly about. We manage to make it into a journey of 10nm by circumnavigating Kaikoura Island and its neighbors including Wellington Point, the westernmost part of The Barrier.

Facilities at Smokehouse Bay include deep tubs for hand-washing laundry complete with old-fashioned ringers for squeezing water out of clothes. Fishermen may smoke their catch in a large smokehouse. A woodstove can also heat water for a bath of shower. A girl is swinging from a rope tied to a grandfatherly Pohutakawa tree when we arrive. Her mother studies for her radio license in the shade at a picnic table below. They’re Swiss and traveling with the rest of their family on a catamaran anchored among the dozen other boats in the bay.

We eat lunch. I walk up a trail to get cell reception for an updated forecast. Henrick is chatting with some other cruisers when I return with news of more good weather for a few days. The cruisers say that Emmy of Great Barrier Marine Radio asked about us that morning during the 7:45 weather on channel 1 . “Take a Break” reported we were alive & well, last seen in Miner’s Cove. It’s good to know folks are looking out! We’ve been unable to get Emmy’s broadcasts on our hand-held radio, so the cell phone has actually been a better source for forecasts. Sometimes it takes hiking up a hill, but we’ve had sufficient reception everywhere except in Rangiwhakaea Bay on the NE side and Miners Cove on the NW.

At 3pm we leave to scour the coastline for a campsite. Wanting an early start through the Broken Islands, we’re reluctant to go back to Akapoua campsite. For 6nm we poke into every inlet and mangrove swamp. In many places along the coast, but especially in these coves, we notice slips where the storm rain loosened hillsides and they slid down into the water. In some cases communities of trees remain somewhat intact, just a little crooked and at a little lower elevation.

Tide is rising. Many places look good, but won’t in 2 hours. Finally we settle in against the crumbly cliffs of Red Cliff. A log makes a seat, and Henrick’s kayak makes a fine dinner table.

We set the tent up against the cliff and wake to another high tide in the morning just a foot away from our nylon front door. Thankfully mussel farms in the long inlet protect us from the wakes of passing boats.

19 January
The Broken Islands offer too many options! They express the island’s volcanic past, with rubbly breccias, lava flows, and layers of ash. Since the period of the ice ages, about 2 million years ago, river-carved valleys were flooded by a rising sea, creating these islands out of former hilltops. We weave our way randomly through their many gaps.

On remote Mahuki Island we duck into an inlet for a snack break and discover a house and little dinghy tied up. We don’t stay long and don’t see anyone. The rest of the island has gannet colonies above the cliffs.

Bowling Alley Bay has been recommended to us for camping, but we want to make it to Whangaparapara today. Good thing, too. Bowling Alley Bay beaches have bowling-ball size cobbles. Or almost that big. There is sand offshore; perhaps it washed out in the storm. We lunch on one cove and actually manage to doze off afterwards draped over those cobbles. Beautiful anchorage, though. A few dolphins exit the cove as we enter.

We coast another 6nm to Mangati Bay where there appears to be a nice beach. We didn’t land, as we’re too distracted by the Bottlenose Dolphins playing and leaping. From scarred old veterans to little babies, they swim around as we float. They like to leap out and back flop, exposing white bellies. I put on my mask, wondering how they might respond if I took a peek within their element. It only takes one dip, sculling with my paddle, and three dolphins come by to have a close look. I hear their squeaks.

At the end of a 16nm day, we land at The Green DOC campsite, deep inside Whangaparapara. A small grassy campsite is all ours for the night. A magnificent horizontal pohutukawa tree lines the waterfront, grounded by at least 4 trunks. These trees put out aerial branches that become new trunks if they reach the ground.

“I hate these trees,” declares Henrick as we move the picnic table out from under it. Pohutukawas drop their red flowers on everything. But they are beautiful in their exuberant flowering and shady sprawl.

I’ve thought that if I were a tree I’d like to be a pohutukawa. Their structure creates the opportunity for a whole community of plants and animals. Epiphytes cling, birds roost, vines twine. Kayakers sit below. Almost every lunch we’ve eaten on this trip has been in the shade of a pohutukawa tree. If I were a pohutukawa, though, I’d be sure not to drop my flowers in Henrick’s dinner.

20 January
A relaxing day of reading and a walk to Whangaparapara peak. We keep a good sweaty pace and beat the estimated time posted on the sign (1hr 10mins) by an incredible 40 minutes. Still, I think we’ll skip the 22km round trip hike to Mount Hobson.

Upon our return we find we have neighbors; two groups of hikers. This campsite is walk-in or boat-in only, which reduces the traffic. This site has more mosquitoes at night than any other site we stayed at. So long as we stay in the tent we’re protected and can listen to the droning whine of their hoards with detachment.

21 January
I have found a way to make 2-year oatmeal appetizing: have as the only alternative 2-year old egg powder and “dog food” (flavored soy protein). We’re making ourselves eat through the food stores that remained on the sailboat after our Mexico to New Zealand crossing in 2012. We do reward ourselves at night with a delicious dinner at Tipi & Bob’s. Tom the fishing guitar player with the radio show who we’d met at Harataonga campsite recommended the Reef & Beef, so I have to try it.

Our waitress at Tipi & Bob’s also has a show on the local radio station and knows Tom. Actually Tipi & Bob’s underwrites Tom’s show. The waitress tells us of a tavern owner up the hill who records open mike sessions at his tavern and sometimes plays the authentic local music on his radio show. That’s as genuine “Barrier” as it gets!

• Emmy Pratt Great Barrier Marine Radio channel 1 7:45am 6:45pm? Phone 09 4290 281
• Margery (manager) Tipi & Bob’s Waterfront Lodge in Tryphena Harbor. Water access with steep concrete ramp, picnic tables, restaurant. 09 4290 550.
• Sea Link Ferry

Campsites we stayed at (there are more):
• Medlands DOC campsite (Carry into shallow stream or long carry direct to campsite at low tide)
• Harataonga DOC campsite (may be able to paddle all the way in at high tide, or may require some carry to get into stream; stream paddle-able)
• Freedom camping Rangiwhakaea Bay; Kirikiri Beach
• Miner’s Cove (big, flat, tree-less)
• Freedom camping just around Ahuriri Point
• Akapoua DOC campsite (best access within 3 hours of high tide)
• The Green DOC campsite (at least 1 meter of tide recommended)
• (Bowling Alley Bay very rocky—may have changed in 2014 storm. Would not recommend camping. Mangati Bay may be another option, close to Whangaparapara)
• DOC sites $10 person. First site will charge an extra $5 person for not having reserved ahead, or if you change your dates. Thereafter, there are no extra fees. These are to encourage pre-booking, which they also understand may be difficult when kayaking around. There was plenty of space in mid-January.

Crux moves:
South end. (We went counter-clockwise) Tidal diamonds on nautical charts extremely valuable info for planning this. SE-facing Rosalie Bay was not a desirable landing in 1-meter SE swell, but a tiny NE-facing cove between Haupapa & Shakespeare Point offered a pit-stop in lower tide. No camping here. Sandy Cove offered good shelter for a last break before committing to the paddle.

North End. Tidal diamonds B & C invaluable for extrapolating currents and inferring conditions around the Needles. We rounded (counter-clockwise) 5-6 hours after Auckland high tide, on neaps. May be able to land in a NE-facing cove on east side of point and climb hill for forecast if the swell isn’t big NE. At lower tides and swells of over 1 meter, the gap shortcut may be inaccessible.