The Rock

 


 

The fish’s heart pumped and writhed in the palm of my hand like a piece of throbbing sushi. It didn’t look at all appetising but the crew of The Rock had convinced me that eating it would be a ‘cultural experience’ – a sort of initiation to the Bay of Islands. As I popped the pulsating morsel into my mouth I was already wondering why I have always had such a problem submitting to peer-pressure. Bigger boys made me do it.

 

Bay of Islands is renowned adventure travel centre and there are a few adrenalin fuelled trips here: everything from sky-diving to chopper excursions to trips on the bizarrely phallic ‘Excitor’ speedboat (which throbs its way across the bay to penetrate the famous ‘Hole in the Rock’ on a twice-daily basis). But an overnight voyage on The Rock, a veteran car ferry which has been converted into a cruising barge accommodating about forty passengers, is one of the region’s most popular excursions.

 

The boat is so steady, even in moderate swell, that it is even equipped with a pool table in the bar, but there is a spirit of adventure that is still alive and well in this part of the North Island and The Rock does a surprisingly good job of capturing it in what is after all a fairly limited time. Even before we were out of sight of Paihia wharf, a decoy duck (known as Matilda) was trailing off the back of the ferry so that we could take turns trying to blast her with a paintball gun. She was no ‘sitting duck,’ bouncing and jumping in the wake, and I was quite proud to be the only person to hit her with two out of three shots. (But, in hindsight, perhaps it was this that brought me to the notice of the crew and led to my sushi ‘prize’ later.)

 

When the competition was over Matilda was hauled aboard and trawling lines were let out. Within just a few minutes there was a shout as the first kahawai (pronounced ‘cow eye’) was seen leaping on the hook. Adam the skipper handed the wheel over to second mate Ben and came back to do a demonstration of how to gut and prepare this delicious fish (liberally rubbed with lemon-pepper and brown sugar) for barbecuing. His explanation was certainly worthy of the most advanced TV celebrity chef but I forget all the details. By this time I was drinking Steinlager rather than taking notes.

 

We moored somewhere beyond Tapeka Point and ate our dinner at a long communal table. Conversation was varied and reflected the diversity of the group. I was sharing a cabin with a South African engineer, based in Zambia, and a Spanish scientist from Galicia. There were also three German girl backpackers, two American expats, a couple of older English travellers and three generations from a family of Kiwi farmers, celebrating a birthday party.

 

By now it was completely dark and, with the moon not yet risen, perfect timing for a nocturnal kayaking trip. Far from any ambient light and out on the spooky black water we had the most spectacular display of phosphorescence I have ever seen. Digging our paddles hard we could power the kayaks forward and leave a glowing trail of vivid neon-green lights shimmering across the surface. Once back on the boat I dived overboard and, following Adam’s advice, swam under the hull where there was no light whatsoever. As I swam I could see the phosphorescent glow trailing off my fingertips and even bouncing off my nose.

 

I slept well – lulled by the rocking of the waves – but deadlines had been piling up lately and I woke before dawn to go down to the main deck to hunt down some coffee and try get some writing done before the day started. It was difficult to bemoan the hard life of a roving journo though with such an office to work out of.

 

A watery sun came up over the horizon and I watched small flocks of gannets and pied shags diving for their breakfast. The shags apparently dive with such force that most of them die eventually of blindness because of shattered retinas.

 

After breakfast we paddled out to a nearby island to explore and play football on the beach. Then we moored in the lee of one of Bay of Island’s 143 islets and snorkelled for kino (urchins) for lunch. Split open with a knife the skimpy rations of meat that the urchins yield is nevertheless extremely tasty.

 

Back on the boat Jonny Greener – the owner of The Rock – called me over to point out a little blue penguin floating on the swell. I was delighted with my first ever wild penguin sighting. As we watched my eye was drawn to a splash farther off on the watery horizon and I realised that a group of dolphins was heading our way. Another boat had already spotted the small pod of bottlenoses and was on its way towards them. Jonny and his crew are against these sort of invasive dolphin tours and refuse to chase the dolphins or to swim with them, unless the dolphins come to investigate the swimmers. In this case, however, the other boat was chasing the dolphins straight towards us and we had a grandstand view as several of the magnificent three-metre creatures leapt and tail-flipped through the water, seemingly playing water-polo with clumps of seaweed.

 

It was the perfect ending to this fleeting glimpse of the Bay of Islands. The Rock cruise had been a tantalising morsel that, like the sea urchin meat, left me wanting more. But, unlike the raw fish heart, it was an experience I would like to repeat at the first opportunity!

 

For more information on The Rock visit rocktheboat.co.nz

 

 

By Mark Evelegh

Sir Edmund

 

Sucked in by tales of an extraordinary adventurer, David Whitley decides to spend his limited time amongst New Zealand’s highest peaks in a darkened room.

 

 

On a list of what would seem to be poor choices I have made whilst travelling, visiting Mt Cook for two hours after a eight hour round trip from Queenstown would have to be pretty high up. Close behind on that list would be the decision to spend the majority of that two hours inside a darkened room rather than getting out and walking around some of the most spectacular scenery on earth. Especially given that it was a perfect blue sky day.

 

For this, I blame one man: Sir Edmund Hillary.

 

Mt Cook was where Everest’s first conqueror took his baby steps in the world of mountaineering. Well, I say baby steps, but you’d be hard pushed to get to the top of New Zealand’s highest mountain without some serious training and fancy equipment. In many ways, it was the perfect training ground for bigger peaks, and plenty of mountaineers have used it as such. Nowadays, Mt Cook Village - which sits at the foot of the mountain it is named after – pays tribute to its most famous temporary resident. The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre sits within the Hermitage Hotel, and a large part of it is dedicated to the people who have climbed Mt Cook and worked within the National Park that surrounds it.

 

Some of the stories are extraordinary. For example, in 1982 Mark Inglis and his climbing partner were trapped in below freezing conditions and without rations on Mt Cook’s Middle Peak. They toughed it out for 13 days before being rescued by a helicopter, and severe frostbite meant that Inglis lost both of his legs. He then went on to be a cycling medallist at the Paralympics, a wine-maker and a competitive skier before returning to the scene where he nearly died in 2002. Inglis made it to the summit of Mt Cook – a remarkable feat that he topped in 2006 by becoming the first double amputee to successfully scale Mt Everest.

 

And it’s stories like that that keep you inside.

 

If it’s stories you want, then Sir Edmund Hillary (or ‘Ed’ to just about everyone) had thousands. This remarkable man – who died in 2008 – did so much more than just climb Everest (as if that wasn’t enough). He led an expedition across the Antarctic, stood at the North Pole and rode a jet boat up the River Ganges in India.But the most fascinating parts of the centre are devoted to Hillary the man. He was an awkward giant who was, on occasion, cripplingly shy and had to propose to his first wife through her mother.

 

His life is laid out on video, and it is played on a loop amongst all the mountaineering equipment. I went in for a quick peek and was reluctant to leave again. There are so many aspects of Hillary’s life that I didn’t know about - from his philanthropic work for the Sherpa people of Nepal to the death of his wife and daughter in a plane crash. They were coming out to meet him while he oversaw the construction of a hospital in the Himalayas. 

 

The whole thing moved and fascinated mean in equal measure. And while it may seem absurd to have barely explored some of New Zealand’s most magnificent scenery whilst I had the opportunity, sometimes it’s worth deviating from the obvious plan.

 

More photos here

 

 

Disclosure: David visited Mount Cook as a guest of Great Sights New Zealand.