David Whitley plays the clown for a very special audience in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands...


As a famous fuzzy-topped German scientist would probably agree, everything is relative. It would be impossible to say a flaxen-haired, hourglass-shaped woman with angular cheek bones is beautiful if you couldn’t compare her to a dumpy, sallow-faced hag. You couldn’t claim the Taj Mahal was large and hugely grandiose without the reference point of a dingy inner-city bedsit.


Similarly, you can’t properly explain how a dolphin can be elegant and graceful without first swimming with them. The contrast is remarkable. In the deep blue waters of The Bay of Islands, the sleek, silver creatures cut through their terrain effortlessly, turning in a natural arc and leaping upward in a fluid motion. Outside of the water, perched on the edge of the deck, are fifteen humans in ill-fitting wetsuits, jerking away as they attempt to stretch rubber fins over their feet. After much tugging, one woman finally manages to slip hers over her heel, and promptly falls backwards onto her back. 


Meanwhile, others are struggling with the logistics of their snorkel and mask. Is the snorkel really supposed to be at this angle?  Let’s see… if I put my head at this angle, like it will be in the water… ah yes, I suppose it is. Resonating above the sounds of the boat and the sea is the agonising thwack of someone testing just how much slack there is in the mask strap. Another unzips his wetsuit for the third time, delves down and rearranges his boardshorts so they don’t cut off his circulation under the big black idiot costume.


Eventually, bulges in all the wrong places, overly-tightened masks ready to leave permanent scarring around the head, we’re ready to get into water with the lovely, cutesy-wutesy dolphins. If ever there is a place to go swimming with everyone’s favourite creature, then the Bay of Islands is it. A few hours north of Auckland, it gets beautiful weather and has a stunning natural setting. Suffice to say, the name is not ironic. Little outcrops of greenery dot the bay, and once you’re on one, you’ve pretty much got it to yourself. The water, meanwhile, is a playground for aquatic creatures, and there are numerous pods of dolphins that call it home. And, it seems, we’re going to be allowed to play with them.


Oh what a sight… fin tripping over fin, and John Wayne-esque splayed legs waddling hopelessly, everyone half jumps, half tumbles into the bay. It’s at this point you begin to think that the dolphins must be in absolute stitches. What are these clumsy oaf things that have come to play with us? Do they do tricks? Do you reckon they can leap through hoops of fire or balance balls on their nose?


Bemused, they gleefully curl around in front of us as we flail hopelessly towards them. We’re the marine equivalent of an uncoordinated man attempting to dance like a robot in order to impress a mysterious, gorgeous vixen whose slinky, sinewy movements have the whole dancefloor captivated.


But we do have a secret weapon, however. Oh yes, we can pull funny faces, and according to our crew, dolphins are suckers for a rubber-featured comic. Jim Carrey would get on well with them, I imagine. The reason they hang around with us is that we entertain them almost as much as the other way around. They are inherently playful critters, driven by a sense of fun. One of their favourite past times, as we discovered in the ride to this spot, is riding along in the wake of the boat. You’d expect this to be for a boring reason like helping them swim faster, but no, it’s purely because they enjoy it. Same reason that we try and bodysurf in the waves whilst at the beach, I guess.


And this is why we’re all behaving like performing monkeys, waving our arms around and gurning. We’re trying to keep them occupied and entertained so that they’ll stay with us. Get bored and they’ll just swim off elsewhere, leaving us to flounder shamefaced and struggle to heave ourselves back on the boat. It’s probably this playfulness that makes us love them – we wish we could have that attitude in life ourselves.


Even the face looks inquisitive, like there is a wry, quizzical smile emblazoned across it. It’s not us that are getting the show here – it’s them. Eventually, of course, they decide to go their own way, and we’re not allowed to follow. Wed do get a parting gift though, as one of the pair we’ve spent twenty minutes clowning around in front of, leaps out of the water. Whether it’s a round of applause or a salute, we’re not quite sure, but judging by the grins on the performers’ faces, it’s been more than alright on the night.


The Mangatoa Road



David Whitley ignores his SatNav to head down a back road that contains all that is good about the west of the North Island


Marokopa is a one shop town, and that shop closes when the owner is doing the school bus run. Beyond the pretty-but-functional wooden houses, the beach guides the remnants of the Marokopa river out to the Tasman Sea. The sand is a moody, volcanic black; the spit of dunes opposite largely off-limits. The parts that aren’t ancient Maori burial ground are reserved for nesting penguins and endangered seabirds.


Marokopa encapsulates New Zealand’s wild west coast. It’s unheralded, it’s evocative and it thrills with its raw, unpolished beauty. But it’s also the start of the road that nobody goes down.


Few people go west beyond Waitomo, the North Island’s well-drilled tourist village of cave adventures. Getting out of Waitomo is usually a case of doubling back and rejoining State Highway 3. Refuse to retrace your steps and you enter a world almost entirely uncovered by tourist information pamphlets.


The collapsed cave splendour of the Mangapohue Natural Bridge gets brief mention. The seemingly endless cascading tiers of the heart flutter-inducing Marokopa Falls get the criminal undersell treatment. And the rest is territory to be a pioneer in.


GPS systems and Google Maps won’t send you west because a significant chunk of the 58.5km Mangatoa Road between Marokopa and Awakino is unsealed. But it’s perfectly manageable in a conventional vehicle, and it takes in some of the North Island’s most magical scenery. Hobbity hills commandeered by ambling sheep give way to soaring coastal views, dense unlogged forest and wheel-clutching zig-zag descents. It’s the sort of road that turns driving from chore to unbridled joy.


A right turn at Waikawau leads through terraced green hills and the sort of dreamy pastureland that’s probably home to cherubs as well as cows. But the road stops before a narrow tunnel topped with an almost Gothic arch. The tunnel was cut through the limestone and made just wide enough to transport cattle through – it was easier to take them along the beach than up and down the hills.


That beach, however, feels like a cherished discovery. A brooding capturer of lonely headlands at low tide; an intimate cove at high tide.


Arriving Waikawau beach feels like uncovering a treasured secret, but for overpowering majesty, Pukearuhe further south is the king. Again, the sand is a deep, sparkling black. But it’s set against transcendent white cliffs. As long as the tide is not fully in, it’s possible to walk for hours, crunching shells underfoot and looking up at the chalky walls.


It may be the road that no-one goes down, but it’s a road to wonderful nowheres. It’s a New Zealand of Heathcliff-style brooding romance; a drive into the unknown for those who want their own special piece of the country to themselves.


by David Whitley



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