Sunday, December 19, 2010

Dispatch 63 Great Barrier Island

1-12 December, 2010

Finally, in December, I took a real holiday—two weeks off work! It was a luxury well deserved after 7 months straight. Richard preceded me to Auckland by a few days to get the green patina off the boat (a typical consequence of a wet winter without attention) and get the systems up and running, or at least identify those that aren’t working, as was the case with our refrigerator on the boat. Buoyed by my excitement of being sprung from work, I was undaunted by holiday aboard without a refrigerator—heck, our first 7 years on the boat we never had a fridge! He also was telling me all kinds of stories about going out and about town in shorts and t-shirt. Right, like I could believe that after months of Oamaru!

Well, upon arrival to Auckland, I discovered that, in fact, there is summer in New Zealand. Much like travel from Seattle to San Francisco (a comparable latitude change), the climate is really different and we were WARM! Ironically, upon our first arrival to NZ, all we felt was cold after years in the tropics. Now after one winter in Oamaru, Auckland seemed balmy—funny how the body adapts. We wined and dined with friends and enjoyed the big city for a couple days, then took Qayaq out to Great Barrier Island, about 50 miles from Auckland and a real treasure!

Great Barrier Island (so named by our hero Captain Cook) is a large and mountainous island with many, many beautiful inlets and coves. The Department of Conservation has built beautiful and well-maintained trails all over the central island and we enjoyed many of these as well as the lush greenery and the absolutely stunning coastal scenery. The island is complete with its own hot springs, which we visited as well. We didn’t take a dip in the pools, though, once we saw the signs at the head of the trail which mentioned “DANGER - Amoebic Meningitis; which can be fatal” A brief note from the MOH,NZ (Ministry of Health, New Zealand), put it all into perspective that we thought prudent to observe, “Amoebic meningitis is a very serious illness that almost always ends in death”. As the mode of acquisition is via the nasal passage, you are warned not to put your head under water. Now since we have been in NZ we have never heard or seen so much as a danger notice on any of our tramps so this one got our attention and we opted to stay dry and amoeba free. You have to wonder who the first lucky (???) diagnosis was. We ended up renting a car so we could really appreciate all the scenery of the place. The roads are partly sealed, (NZ speak for paved) and partly gravel, and about 1 to 1 ¾ car widths wide. SO travel around some of the sharp curves meeting large gravel trucks and the locals driving at break neck speed was exciting and there were NO danger signs regarding the road width or conditions but the hot springs rates a warning, hence our reluctance for a dip. An additional bonus was the start of the trip; we had a gorgeous sail out to the island complete with a dolphin visit. On the way we stopped off at another island and “summited” Rangitoto, an extinct volcano visible from Auckland (a very well marked trail of 3 hours walk). We think this is the volcano that erupts and destroys Auckland in the “must miss” movie by the name “Volcano”. Mmmm, altogether a delicious holiday.

As, usual, we focused on the local wildlife. There is an endangered duck on Great Barrier Island called the Pateke, a little brown teal (“endearing” as the brochure describes it). There are only a 1000 pair left in the world it is estimated, and all are on Great Barrier Island. Well, we got a close look at a pair which was a thrill until we realized that, just like Mallards, they were swimming around our boat begging! Awww. There’s also a parrot-like bird called a “Kaka” which, just like the parrots in Costa Rica, went squawking its way across the sky each evening flapping its fool wings for all it was worth. Each evening we would enjoy the show of the Gannet’s fishing. We loved to watch as they dive for their fish. They sound like a big kid doing a cannonball in a pool—they hit the water with such force, coming up shaking their heads, and, if successful, take multiple sips to help their meal go down. If not successful they are off again for another attempt. But it is odd to be in such a wilderness and not see mammals. In fact, the lack of snakes in this country was highlighted by a story in the local museum which told of a snake that was found on shore after a shipwreck and it was hypothesized that the ship must have acquired the snake in Panama.

Once again, we ponder how it happened that eons ago NZ separated from Godwondia, the combined continent that included Australia and how all the dangerous things (other than NZ drivers) ended up on Australia (salt water crocs, box jellyfish, man-eating sharks, all manner of poisonous snakes and spiders, etc.) and not one in NZ. As the naturalist on our cruise said in reference to the split from Australia hundreds of thousands of years ago, “Best thing we ever did, ey mate?”

Our last night, we headed to an anchorage that afforded easy exit from Great Barrier heading back to Auckland. Part of the reason for the choice was that our engine was acting up and overheating very quickly so we needed to be able to get out into the wind as soon as possible to sail home, and, we needed to sail virtually all the way to our marina because the engine would only get us from the marina entrance to our berth without overheating. All of that was OK with us—we’ve done it before, the weather report called for a favorable wind (enough, not too much, and supposedly from a good direction).

As we pulled into the bay we planned to stay in, we could see two pods of dolphins in separate areas of the bay. There was one other sailboat so we motored in past it looking for shallower water. No sooner had we passed that sailboat than the dolphins came rushing over to our boat. This was not a social visit—we could tell they were unhappy with our intrusion on the inner bay. They “ganged up” on the port side of the boat and literally swam against it as if to turn it away. Well, we got the message immediately and turned back, and, as soon as we were behind the other boat, they swam off—mission accomplished. We dropped anchor behind the other boat and watched them for a couple more hours. We wondered if one was sick or was giving birth, or what, exactly was going on, but we couldn’t sort it out. There were some young ones but none that looked small enough to be newborn. But their behavior couldn’t have been clearer.

The next morning, off we went, full of optimism about our sail back. It was a sunny day and a gorgeous sail. We saw whales at one point—always a bonus. It was a 50 mile jaunt and we were undaunted by the initial headwind because the weather gurus were clear about the wind shift about to happen any minute (early morning). Well, as morning became afternoon and we were still beating into 15 knots and growing seas and tacking back and forth and adding miles to our voyage, we suddenly realized that the weather wasn’t going to change. Sure enough, the revisionist history weather report shifted around 3 PM to call for SW winds all day (after they had been predicting SE then NE shift in the morning). We were traveling, you guessed it, SW. Then around 7 PM we really started to wonder what we would do as we were still 30 miles or more from our marina and dark happens around 9 PM. We started looking for an anchorage and found one we could get to in a couple hours, but, as the sun was setting, the wind started to drop and we suddenly realized that if there was no wind the next day, we’d be stuck where we were with no engine.

It was a gorgeous night, the wind dropped to light breezes, the stars started to emerge and we looked at each other and decided to keep going. After all, we’ve traveled many a night by sail! And a magical night it was—the wind was just enough to keep us going, we were traveling down the coast now with no seas and Auckland skyline lit up the horizon and provided us a cityscape as we got closer. The only dicey part was the shipping channel which we sailed through slowly just outside the shipping markers and watched as huge freighters chugged by at close quarters. We could only imagine what they were thinking about us! The wind continued to drop until, in the wee hours (4-5AM), there was barely a breeze and we ghosted through Auckland harbor, thankful for a favorable current (at times our only forward momentum) and the virtual lack of traffic at that time of day. The last 5 miles took us more than 2 hours, our 50 mile trip had morphed into 82 with all the tacking, but after sunrise, we were at our marina, fired up the engine, and arrived at our berth, safe and sound on a very still morning. We were pleased to have made the right decision to keep going as there was no wind that day until mid-afternoon, happy to be in our berth and crawled into bed for a nap before putting everything away. You see, even the most mundane of outings can turn into big adventure when sailing!