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Terra Australis Incognita

The Tail End

NEW ZEALAND | Friday, 23 January 2009 | Views [807]

In the beginning, there was Maui. One day, Maui and his brothers went fishing in their canoe, and Maui, wanting to catch the biggest fish, brought out his magic fish hook, which was the jawbone of his grandmother, a sorceress. He baited it with blood from his own nose, tied it to a strong rope, and cast it over. He soon caught an immense fish, and struggled with it for some time but finally landed it. The fish became New Zealand's North Island, Te Ika a Maui, with Wellington Harbor as its mouth, the East Cape as its dorsal fin, Taranaki as its flipper, and the northern peninsula as its tail. The canoe, meanwhile, became the South Island, Te Waka o Maui.

My last week in New Zealand was spent exploring the tail of Te Ika a Maui. Tail end of my trip, tail end of the fish.

Just like I did when I visited California, I decided to splurge and rent a car for an entire week to do this. There's a lot to see north of Auckland, and I was tired of dealing with buses.

My first stop was Goat Island Beach, NZ's first marine reserve and supposedly a great spot for snorkelling. Now, I know I've raved about the water in New Zealand before, but...this was something else. For all the world, it looked like tropical water you'd see over the Great Barrier Reef or the Bahamas. Crystal clear and aquamarine. The only way to tell the difference was to step in, because it certainly didn't feel tropical. There weren't tons of fish, but a good variety nonetheless, including huge snapper, sea urchins, blue maomao, and what I think was a purple sea slug.

But that was just a sampler to get me ready for the best snorkelling New Zealand has to offer: the Poor Knight's Islands, which Jacque Cousteau rated as the 7th best dive spot in the world.

That night in the hostel, however, I overheard an older Canadian couple talking about a great place to see glowworms. I ended up driving them there. It was a place in the forest actually, and just a short walk revealed a rock wall absolutely covered in the buggers. That once place alone probably had twice the number, or more, of all the other glowworms I've seen in New Zealand combined. And it wasn't even in a cave. There were so many that you could make out faint bluish shapes by their glow alone.

Once again, the harbor where I left for the Poor Knights was that same beautiful color Goat Island Beach had been, and the day was cloudless. The islands are volcanic remnants, much like the islands off of Cathedral Cove are, but larger and taller, with sheer cliffs that go straight into the sea and continue downward for 50-100 feet. These cliffs are eroded into an array of arches and caves, including the biggest sea arch in the southern hemisphere and biggest sea cave in the world, by volume. An air horn blast in this giant cave (the boat easily just steamed right in) seemed to echo for the better part of a minute.

While snorkelling, I could just swim right in another large cave, which was really cool but a bit precarious, as water continually rushed in and out with the heaving sea. This motion created a powerful blowhole from an another, almost-submerged cave. With a strong swell, a firehose blast of air and water would spray out of the tiny opening remaining above the water level. From under the water, I could see a huge air pocket under the shelf of rock, which was tempting to swim into but obviously dangerous, as it continually got blasted out with each blow.

So the geology was in many ways more interesting than the marine life. There were more fish, and a greater variety than at Goat Island, but still nothing compared to a coral reef. The highlight of the day, fish-wise, was a yellow moray eel - smaller than its better known green cousin, but far more beautiful, with golden flecks glinting on its skin as it wiggled like a worm around the kelp.

My next stop was Ahipara, in the Far North. This is a beautiful place with a nationally-renowned surf spot. It lies at the very beginning of ninety mile beach, which continues all the way up to Cape Reinga. The hostel I stayed at was possibly my favorite ever style-wise: it's an all-wood 150 year old home, the oldest in the area, that's right on the beach.

The day after I got there the surf was not too good, so I did a day trip up to Cape Reinga and back. On the way, I stopped at the Te Paki giant dunes for some sandboarding. I was awed by these dunes - they were absolute mountains of sand, bigger even than what was on Fraser Island, and far more vast. After a painful climb up the main sandboarding dune, I looked out to see a dunescape all the way to the horizon, like a little Sahara. So I buried my sandboard and went for a walk - but these dunes were so extensive, I got lost for lack of any point of reference! When I finally did make it back, I had to climb back up to my sandboard only to find it gone. Someone returned it to the rental hut, but when I retrieved it I was a little tired of sand, being covered with it from head to toe.

After a fantastically cleansing wash off at a secluded beautiful bay (which would have been great for surfing - if only I had had a board!), I made it to Cape Reinga - the end of New Zealand. The Cape isn't the most northerly point of the North Island, nor the most easterly - but it is where the Tasman Sea side (west) and the Pacific side (east) meet - you can even see where the currents clash, in a foamy line far below the cliffs. High up on the cliffs by the old lighthouse, you can see miles of coastline on both sides - it's a really beautiful spot, especially in early evening. And having made it there, I can now say I've made it from one end of New Zealand to the other: from the southernmost point of the South Island to the northernmost (accessible) point of the North Island, and all over land or sea, no planes.

It wasn't until two days later that the surf was up in Ahipara, and word had gotten around - apparently, this was the end of a long drought of surf, and I think half the town was there. Unlike most surf spots I've been to, this is a point break, so the waves sort of break at a 45 degree angle to a line of rocks, rather than right on them. In this way, you can get a ride for a long time here. After a couple of hours of practice and trying to find a medium between lack and surfers and good surf, I started to have the best surfing of my entire life. These were gentle waves with a long lifespan, making them perfect to learn on, and I could practically feel myself getting better by leaps and bounds. My last ride, after six hours, was unbelievably long, and probably by a factor of two or three the longest surf I've ever had. It was fantastic.

I had to leave that night to head south, and stayed in Pahia, the Bay of Islands' main town. I debated even going here, because I couldn't see the appeal, really, but it was more or less on the way and it is Northland's main tourist attraction - people come up here solely for the "beauty" of the Bay of Islands.

I was right to have doubts - this was, by far, the most overrated place I've been to in New Zealand or Australia. Sure, it was picturesque, but utterly ordinary for New Zealand, and frankly, a good deal less appealing than almost anywhere else I had been to in the region. The islands were just green and brown lumps in the opaque greenish-blue water - which was probably prettier before all the boats started plying on it. The attraction is the hundreds of different tours and activities, which is likely why I've heard about it so much.

Also on the way south were the largest of New Zealand's giant kauri trees: it was a little hard to be impressed with these after seeing giant sequoias, but one, the Father of the Forest, seemed to come close, with a circumference of over 16 meters.

Finally I made it to a place I could be suitably impressed by: Piha Beach, set in the Waitakere Ranges, a large nature reserve that's remarkably close to Auckland. My accommodation was super-funky: an old camper-trailer welded together with a little hut to make a two-bedroom cabin. There was no running water except for the propane-heated shower.

I came here to surf, but it was impossible not be distracted by the beauty of this place. I throw that word around a lot, probably because it applies to so many places in New Zealand - and yet, so many of them are still uniquely beautiful, as Piha was. The beach is set in a basin surrounded by tall black-rock cliffs topped with rainforest, with a huge monolith, Lion Rock, as a centerpiece. There are innumerable trails up and around these cliffs and mountains, and since the surf wouldn't be good until evening, I took advantage of these. The trail gave some amazing views of the coastline, which is mercilessly pounded by the Tasman Sea - this isn't a sheltered bay, like the surf spot in Ahipara is.

I experienced this first hand and up close that evening. At first, it was seemingly impossible to get past the endless walls of whitewater, but it was possible by walking around the rocks at the end of the beach, and going in from a spit of sand that had collected between the cliffs and a big offshore rock. A little paddling, and I was quickly in amongst the big rollers. And they were tremendous - I didn't do much actual surfing because the waves would either roll under me or roll me under. And if I did happen to catch one, the ride would be so wild that it'd be impossible to control the board or stand up. Twice, in fact, two absolutely titanic waves broke behind me, sending forth a deluge of water that felt like being hit with a liquid freight train. All I could do was hug the board and hold on.

It was a wonderfully surreal experience to be out there, though, rising and falling from mountain to valley in the golden light as the sun set.

Though I debated it, I really didn't have time to surf the next morning, the day I had to return the car. So I went for another hike instead, to the last waterfall I'll probably see for years. I expected a little trickle of a thing, but instead got a 130 foot tall, multi-terraced gusher, set in a secluded rainforest and shining in the morning light. Still impressive after all the other ones I've seen. The Waitakere Ranges and Piha Beach were a fantastic way to close out my four months of adventures. 

So after that, I had to make a mad dash back to Auckland, take a shower, get some kiwi-exclusive treats I'll never find in America, and type this up. And that's about it.

Well, it was fun. I've got a plane to catch.



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