Waiheke Island & Auckland
I flew from Brisbane to Auckland on September 15th after leaving Cairns, Queensland and landed late at night. It felt really cold after the tropics as I stood outside the terminal waiting for a shuttle bus to the city centre.
On advice from some of the Cairns dive team I headed to X Base Backpackers which even after midnight was buzzing with activity. This backpackers’ chain is a sight to behold: seven floors, tight security, cafe, nightclub style bar and so on… Kinda impersonal but clean and as I said secure.
I spent the next day wandering the streets of Auckland and quickly found it to be a pretty souless city (as I had been forewarned). The saving grace is the harbour with a fleet of ferries running here there and everywhere and I figured out that Waiheke Island is one of the easiest and fastest ways to trade the concrete jungle for some slow-paced island time.
Waiheke is like a small version of Saltspring Island with about 8,000 residents and close proximity to a large city. the passenger only ferry service feeds a superb bus system which for just $10 a day you can ride anywhere all day. I stayed at Hekeru Lodge which despite it’s BBH rating of only 75% I found to be a haven.
Also staying there was Jorge from Germany and Maria from Paraquay and we teamed up for a day of walking the many beautiful beaches while dodging the rain showers. The bus saved us from the final afternoon deluge.
I would have stayed a day or two more to check out more of Waiheke’s beaches and vineyards but I’d bought a ticket to see Lee Scratch Perry on his final farewell tour so it was back to Auckland for a night and then on to the Bay of Islands.
Bay of Islands – Paihia
With the weather still looking as it was going to decide things for me I started to look north from Auckland for places to go. The first attractive sounding area north of the city is the highly rated Bay of Islands and in particular the little seaside town of Paihia.
I took the Northliner bus to Paihia and settled in at the Peppertree Lodge for no other reason than Lonely Planet’s line that they have free kayaks and bicycles. It was here that I clued in to getting a BBH card (Budget Backpackers Hostels). The VIP card that had served me really well in Australia was relatively useless in New Zealand and the rumour (which proved to be true for one hostel I stayed at) was that VIP hostels in NZ are crappy. Peppertree gets a 83% BBH rating and I’d say it was spot on the place was excellent.
I hooked up with two (separate) travelling Brits Ollie and Becky and we made a plan to dive the Rainbow Warrior wreck with Paihia Dive. Ollie and I spent a morning over at the neighbouring village of Russell which is reached by a short and scenic ferry ride across the bay from Paihia. The town was quaint and there’s a short walk up to a flag pole on a hill with a local legend and a great view to entice.
Dive day dawned clear and calm which was a relief after yet more days of blustery showery weather. We gathered at the dive store meeting Junya our guide and two other divers Ian and Phil, also Brits. The boat ride out to the dive site was really scenic and the boat skipper Darren was a certified character who entertained with Marlin fishing stories that were virtually unintelligible through his thick kiwi accent and the roar of the ancient Chevy V8.
As Becky and Ollie had yet to do a deep dive they were to stick with Junya for the wreck dive which bottoms out at 24 metres. I teamed up with Ian and Phil and we all suited up and dropped the buoy line into the murky water. Yes it was cold but we were kitted out in 7mm wet suits which kept the cold at bay. The wreck was pretty cool. A bit of a personal pilgrammage for me I suppose with my BC connections and recent run for the Green Party. There was a big school of fish in the cabin and I had an encounter with an eel on the deck. Other than that I was a bit underwhelmed considering the hype.
Our second dive was a little closer inshore at Lion Rock and was an interesting cruise through rocks and swaying kelp forest. The visibility was limited which wasn’t helped by the dark clouds pouring rain above. Luckily it only rained while we were underwater and the sun returned to warm us on the return trip to Paihia.
In pursuit of more sun I booked a bus ride further north to Kaitaia and on the recommendation of Simon at Peppertree I was aiming for Endless Summer Lodge at Ahipara.
Cape Reinga – 90 Mile Beach
It’s a short bus trip to Kaitaia from Paihia. It turned out that Endless Summer Lodge at Ahipara was booked up for the next two nights so I checked in at Main Street Lodge in Kaitaia, (BBH gives it 70% and deservedly so, just a little sgussy).
My delay in Kaitaia turned out just fine, I met up with two more travelling Brits (there’s a lot of them, only rivalled by travelling Germans) Kelly and Haley. We took Harrison’s Cape Runner tour up to Cape Reinga the next morning which turned out to be one of the best $35 I spent in New Zealand. Now I’m not one for the bus tour scene but this was a tour well worth it. The only stop of true tack was at the Ancient Kauri Kingdom where locals have dug up 50,000 year old rotting trees and carved them in to grossly overpriced, gawdy household items, everything from honey spoons for $3 to dining tables at $30,000. The spiral staircase carved out of a single log is worth the stop though and the coffee was good.
But on to Cape Reinga… The driver was a hoot with an endless stream of good humoured Maori banter. He took us to a number of stops on the way, a couple of cool beaches and an ice cream the size of which would make you weak-kneed at the prospect of trying to finish it, for $2.
The cape and the lighthouse are suitably dramatic perched at what feels like the end of the world above the wild Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean. After a walk around the cape we drove down to a sheltered beach for the provided lunch and a nice stroll on the white sand. From there it was down the Te Paki Stream for some sand dune tobogganing, yes, for real, check out the photos.
Then the bus drives right down the beach back toward Kaitaia, almost 70 km of Ninety Mile Beach in a refurbished Japanese coach!
Next day space awaited at Endless Summer Lodge at Ahipara and I hitched a ride with Kelly and Haley along with new American buds August and Emily to our beachside cabana (BBH 92% !!). What a great place. If you go one place in the North Island this should be it. Oh, take a wet suit because beautiful though it is the water is chilly. There’s great surfing here and endless walking on the beach in either direction. That’s how I filled my time, walking up and down the endless beach. Awesome…