Monday, 26 March 2012

The Big Adventure - Bobbing about in the Bay of Islands

I wrote the previous post while bobbing about on a boat in the Bay ofIslands. And bobbing about we certainly did. Only we could have travelled tothe other side of the planet and found ourselves in a yacht in one of the world's best sailing locations (according to the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Companion to sailing) in the middle of an approaching cyclone. We have been sailing in the Mediterranean in May for the last 5 years and have always enjoyed super weather - arguably, not enough wind, but certainly lots of sunshine. So here we were, in the southern-hemisphere summer, sailing out of port in slate grey seas, driving rain and in urgent need of getting round a headland before the swell got too big for us to be able to do so. It was not an auspicious start! The added irony being that the north of the North Island, which is where the Bay of Islands is situated, is meant to be sub-tropical - the warmest part of NZ - but, in the whole 4 weeks we had been in the country, it had consistently been the coldest and wettest! Hey ho. 

So, as we battoned down the hatches and hauled in the fenders, expectations were not high. I worried that I only had a waterproof jacket of medium quality and that none of us had waterproof trousers while Captain N executed a sweet move using the bow-thruster he'd so longed for to get us out of our tight mooring. Dignity in tact, we motored towards the headland and wondered with some trepidation what seas we were going to find. 

While there was certainly a large swell building and the ride was a bit of a roller-coaster, we navigated it without drama and were soon in to quieter waters. Time to look at the charts and find a safe haven for the night as those winds from Australia built (major cyclone warning in Darwin).

Indeed, what we lacked in sunshine and warmth for the week, we made up for with learning some valuable lessons about choosing appropriate mooring sites. Looking back, we obviously did ok, as on the night of The Big Storm, when boats were being ripped off their anchorages and crashing into rocks, we were safely tucked up in bed with only the deafening sound of water on fibreglass to keep us awake. And the deafening crashes of thunder, and the sheet lightning. We did not get blown around, we stayed firmly on anchor and in the morning, the worst we had to worry about was the ingress of water into the boat (such was the force and volume of the rain) and the fact that the blue waters of the bay had turned to opaque Amazon River brown overnight. This was particularly disheartening as I had promised E that on this trip we would finally find her the white sands and turquoise waters she craved. Every part of NZ we'd been to where this should have been possible had just suffered torrential rains, turning everything shit brown. It was a bit disappointing.

And so we spent our days confined to the Bay of Islands rather than being able to do any longer distances, getting off to a lazy start and then finding another bay to anchor in, enjoying some good winds and good sailing on the way. We ate entirely on the boat as we had been warned that there was an absence of restaurants and settlements. We free-anchored in bays everynight as this was the only option. We messed around in the kayak and the dinghy - and nearly lost E and L one day...

....E had been determined to take the dinghy out after we'd anchored up on the second afternoon and L went along for the ride. I had noted that the wind was blowing off-shore and that we were one of the boats anchored furthest out in the bay. They set off reasonably well, but on their return E's efforts to reach the stern of the boat (pointing out to sea) were confounded by the winds. She told L to throw the rope to G, so G could catch it and tie them on, but G missed and the rope slapped into the water and was instantly out of reach. By the time N and I realised what was going on E was in full panic mode, rowing furiously, tiring rapidly and being blown further and further out to sea with L standing up in the boat being useless beyond telling E to row harder! We told her not to panic, to focus on the rowing but in the end, with a certain inevitability, Captain N had to strip off and dive in to rescue them. E came aboard covered in cold sweat, sobbing hysterically and visibly shaking. It was a lesson learnt, but it was a horrible one. I still feel slightly sick thinking about it, especially as I went out in the dinghy for a row about in much less demanding conditions and found myself struggling to get the bloody thing back to the boat. My palms were sore and my arms ached. I take my hat off to E - I realised what a phenomenal effort she had made and how exhausted and scared she must have been as she drifted further away from the security of the boat and her parents out towards a scary grey horizon! Darling girl.

Of course, once the drama was over and E had calmed down a bit, we sat around and reminisced about the time Captain N decided to jump off the back of an apparently barely moving yacht in the middle of the ocean and then found himself rather rapidly not actually being able to keep up with the barely moving yacht! Thankfully I had decided not to join him, or we would have been in a right pickle...More lessons learnt.

Captain N was determined to get us out of the sanctuary of the Bay and made a couple of forays out into the High Seas. It didn't last long - E was screaming withing minutes as she clung white-knuckled to the railings as we took on acute angles. I suggested quite firmly that he executes his desire for adventure on a boys' sailing trip some time in the future rather than in the bosom of his terrified family (E is keenly aware that our sailing experience is still relatively limited!). The situation was not helped by the fact that he helpfully pointed to a couple of black fins in the water and shouted 'Look! Dolphins!'. So we looked. But it wasn't dolphins. Dolphins come up for air. These fins did not, and they were behind eachother rather than side by side. Distinctly more evil. It made the need not to capsize rather more urgent and did nothing for E's enjoyment of swimming from the boat thereafter!

And so New Year's Eve came and went. Captain N made his 'famous' spaghetti bolognese. We cracked open some fizz and he made proclamations about how things were going to change when we got back to Blighty. (All the usual stuff that everyone says and never actually does. And so it has turned out to be. Nothing has changed - in fact we've seen even less of him since our return than usual as he's been travelling a lot as well as doing the usual 14 hour day. Still, the intention was good.) We went out on deck for midnight to watch distant fireworks and salute the stars but the moment was a little lost when E appeared from her cabin and then announced, just as the clock was striking midnight, that she needed a poo. Honestly. So 2012 instantly became 'Happy Poo Year!' The shape of things to come...

Mercifully, in the short term, things started to look up a bit. The skies, if not the air, cleared and we finally got some sunshine and turquoise water for the last day and a half, though it was still not particularly hot. We took the dinghy on a trip to a spit which revealed itself at high tide and gathered shells, and we took ourselves for some short walks ashore to take in the views. We hung out in a bird hide, we found a Maori cemetery high on a hill and we listened to all those exotic bird calls which for me were the soundtrack of New Zealand. But best of all we eventually found the dolphins for which the area is renowned. Literally on our sail back to port, as we rounded the headland which had been so unfriendly at the beginning of the week, now with sunshine glinting off calm waters, we spotted some fins. As we drew closer we saw more and more and more...it was a huge pod of Bottlenose dolphins, so much larger than the Hector's dolphins of Akaroa, or the Dusky dolphins we swam with in Kaikoura. We stopped sailing, turned on the motor and then just followed them and observed them for the next couple of hours. It was quite the most magical and extraordinary experience that we have ever had - an utter privilege to be so up close and personal with these wonderful creatures in their natural environment. We watched them dancing and diving and jumping and playing. We took absurd amounts of photos and videos. We completely over-indulged to the point where we felt slightly queasy, it was such a rich spectacle. In the end, as the sun sank lower in the sky, we had to tear ourselves away in the knowledge that we would probably never see anything like this again in our lifetime.

And so the sun sank, too, on our Big Adventure in New Zealand. The trip I had waited so many years for, the trip which I did not want to end. N and I may never find time to get back there with all the other things to see and do with the remaining time we have on earth - the girls may well make it back, spurred on by their memories of the happy times they had here with their parents. I hope we have given them a gift which they will treasure.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Big Adventure - Campervanning in New Zealand


(The following post was written while still in New Zealand, 30th December 2011)

Having spent most of the last 25 years cursing campervans on our roads, it was with some shamefacedness, not to say hypocrisy, with which we picked up our smart 6-person campervan from Kea Campers in Christchurch. But let's face it - that's what everyone does in New Zealand. It really is the best way to travel around and see the natural wonders this country has to offer without the dramas of having to find somewhere to sleep every night. You have the confidence, snail-like, of having your house on your back. Gone is the stress and panic of road-tripping. Just pull up, make a cup of tea, open a beer or boil up some pasta and you're sorted.

It has to be said that I was planning to do a lot more free camping than we did i.e I had hoped to be free as birds, stopping wherever took our fancy. As it turned out our desire to see as much as possible of this remarkable landscape, having schlepped across the globe at some personal cost to sleep and pocket, meant that we have been somewhere different every night for the last three weeks or so. And everywhere we've been we could have happily spent a number of days exploring and doing all the things that were on offer. We have travelled 4,183km of road and loved every minute of it. Ok, well, not quite. I do remember being a little fed up with the relentless rain in the Canterbury plains when sky touched earth, the windscreen wipers sweft back and forth and all was gloomy grey, dank and cold. This was like winter in the High Peak, not summer in New Zealand. 13 degrees. Not good. There was one day where we slept the whole morning just because it was too grim a prospect to get up and go out to the loo in high winds and driving rain across a soaking wet field. This was not what we'd signed up for!

There have been many nights where the rain beat down on the roof of the camper and the wind whistled about. We only used the picnic table and chairs three times and the parasol not once. I have been wearing the same fleece and the same pair of jeans with the odd break into shorts - because when the sun does comes out it is very hot. Sun cream has barely been touched, despite dire warnings of how easily you burn down here in the southern hemisphere. I think that tells you how poor the weather has been this year. In fact, I read that Australasia has just had the worst start to summer since the 1960s - and, hey, we got the T-shirt!

And yet, despite the disappointment with the climate, we have had a lovely time. Even as we lay listening to rain on metal, N coined the phrase 'Cramper-van' while we reflected on having five people in a space not much bigger than your average double bed. With that the giggles started and within minutes the whole van was shaking as one by one the girls, supposedly sleeping, picked up on the joke. This and other special 'family moments' are what, as much as anything, this trip was about. Sharing experiences, good or bad, and just being together.

I, in particular, loved having our house on our back. I loved the girls all tucked up together behind a curtain in the sleeping compartment above the driving cab while we were at the back of the van. I loved waking up and making a cup of tea with a different view every day. I loved making pot noodles for lunch by a lake (all culinary pretensions out the window), or scraping peanut butter onto a piece of bread and stepping out into the countryside to eat it. Or making a camp fire on the beach, or sitting around the table playing bananagrams or watching a DVD together after a bowl of pasta. It was just about us. Simply spending time together, without the clock actually ticking. A stream of experience rather than carefully apportioned days.

We have river-rafted on a classic 'braided river'; N has bungy-jumped from the bridge where bungy jumping was invented; we have eaten fabulous food and drunk good wine in vineyards in the sunshine; we have whizzed down river gorges in a jet boat; we have swum in almost every piece of water - lake, sea, or river - that we have come across; we have tramped around the base of majestic Mount Cook and walked wide sandy river estuaries; we have stood at the base of glaciers which touch hands with rainforests; we have been bitten by sand flies and swum with dolphins; we have watched penguins waddle over rocks and seen baby fur seals just born; we have seen iconic kiwi and mischievous kea birds, sleek sealions and mythical albatross; we have woken to the sound of the sea or the most beautiful dawn chorus; we have been woken by passing cows and passing sheep and passing motorbikes; we have seen unique plants and heard hilarious bird calls; we have seen clear tumbling waterfalls and opaque turquoise blue glacial lakes; brown plains rippling with tussock grass; swards of jewel-coloured lupins and vibrant yellow gorse; wild brown seas and calm blue seas; deep flowing rivers and shallow bubbling torrents; fields of venison, fields of cows and fields of sheep; high mountains, wide plains, narrow gorges; boiling geysers and sulphorous volcanic mud; golden sun, wide skies, snow-capped mountains, dense green forests, giant ancient trees, sparkling lakes, deserted beaches and shooting stars. A landscape where, quite simply, the elements and nature rule supreme.

And I have finally been to the other side of the world and seen things upside down: a summer Christmas and a sun which travels through the north not the south, and water which goes down the plug hole anti-clockwise.

I feel privileged, I feel happy, I feel humbled.

North Island, New Zealand, December 2011





Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...