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



By Mark Evelegh

Black sand beaches

David Whitley visits Piha and Karekare beaches in West Auckland, and finds himself reassessing what a great beach looks like 

If you ever need to reassess what makes a great beach, come to Piha. It doesn’t fit any of the usual clichés – it’s not particularly glamorous, plenty of seaweed gets washed up on it and the sand is anything but squeaky white.

But it depends on whether you like your beaches beautiful or magnificent. For me, a good beach is one that looks pretty – but a great beach is one that commands respect.

At Piha, the signs warn of strong currents, large waves and submerged rocks. It’s pretty clear that the Tasman Sea as it thumps into the shore isn’t to be messed with – although on a hot summer Sunday afternoon plenty of people are prepared to take on the challenge. A crew rows a boat into the waves, a cox on the rudder bellowing orders, while stand-up paddle boarders have made it out to the quieter swells.

On the southern side of the beach – it is divided by a stream and a large, climbable rock that is optimistically said to resemble a lion’s head – the surfers plunge into the waves, gluttons for frothy-but-forceful punishment.

The sense of awe is not just created by the sea, though. It’s the setting. Piha is reached via a winding road that cuts down through thickly forested hills west of Auckland. It provides a backdrop that you don’t associate with beaches – a green, ferny landscape rather than sandstone cliffs, seaside cafés or rolling dunes. A few holiday homes are dotted amongst the trees, but to call Piha anything more than a hamlet would be pushing it.

It’s a place that brings together the two colours that characterise New Zealand – the green of the hills, and the black of the volcanic sand.

It’s that black sand that adds to the moodiness and power of the place – particularly when you start walking along it. Amongst the dark grains are what look like glittering crystals – tiny diamonds twinkling in the sunlight. Perhaps this happens on normal beaches too, but it’s harder to detect because the white sand offers a lack of contrast. Either way, at Piha it makes you feel like a god striding across a universe of blazing stars.

Everything that Piha has, however, is magnified further along the coast at Karekare Beach. The road down is steeper, greener and narrower. The signs of human impact are harder to find – there’s not even a café, let alone a road running alongside the beach. The rocks guarding the beach are higher, more fearsome, more commanding. The dunes backing onto the forested hills are moodier. The stream flowing out to the sea has to be waded across to reach the sand. And that sand is black, twinkling and roasting hot on the feet.

At low tide, the beach seems to go on forever; an epic gateway to infinity. And the lifeguards survey the sea with a look of intensity – the currents out there are monsters, waiting to drag all but the strongest swimmers away.

Karekare is not a beach to enjoy; it’s a beach to be dominated by. You can go around the world and find beaches that are prettier, but you’ll struggle to find one anywhere near as powerful.


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