The (Not So) Perfect Storm [46]

By Sharon Betteridge

Sunday 14 January 2001 Paihia, Bay of Islands, NZ

Hordes of noisy tourists disembarking at the wharf left Rob and I feeling a tad disenchanted with this choice of kayaking destination for our annual holiday. We had just spent a few days tramping through Tongariro National Park with 400 plus tourists, in the middle of what could have been described as the longest conga line in history rather than a wilderness experience, so these tourists should not have concerned us excessively.

However, we sat on the sea wall, nonchalantly licking ice creams and planning our next move. Tomorrow’s weather, and indeed the weather for the next few weeks, and possibly the last few, was predictable: calm, fine, 25 degrees, afternoon sea breezes to 10 knots …  perfect. Perhaps tomorrow would be quieter …

Monday 15 January 2001 Paihia, NZ

Up early after a quiet night spent at a ‘motor park’ a few kilometres away from the crowds and the noise of the beachfront, beside a river sheltered by gums, grevillea and bottlebrush, just to remind us of home.

“Si’ in or si’ on? Si’ in 45 dollars and si’ on 40 dollars,” said Trev in his cockney accent when we arrived at the beach and asked about availability of sea kayaks for rental. He pointed to his collection of  Tupperware craft, half of which were ‘Scupper Pros’ and the other half  ‘Storms’. We avoided getting into a discussion about whether or not a sit on top was a sea kayak as we were more interested in itineraries, safety gear and camping spots, places to visit and emergency procedures.

“It’s so busy just stick your paddle in the air and one of the yachties will come and get you,” Trev said. “Garbage,” I thought so I asked about VHF radios, maps, float plans, cell phone reception, current weather forecasts, and distances to the islands.

“Well, you sor’id yet?” asked Trev.

Keeping an open mind we chose two plastic ‘Storms’.

“Now they are the perfect kayaks for you,” he said, adding, “I’ll throw in a couple of spray skirts, not that you’ll need them, but i’ sometimes gets a bi’ choppy in the afternoon.”

He had also provided paddles and, at my insistence, a laminated map, although it was unscaled and ended just short of Urapukapuka Island, 20 kilometres or so away. Trev  wasn’t concerned about when we’d be back.

“Just call on your cell phone and tell me,” were his parting words as we launched. So began our taste of sea kayaking in Northland.

Being avid kayakers we had brought a mountain of ‘essential’ gear with us across the Tasman and our kayaks were heavily laden as we pushed off the grey pebbly beach into the calm blue waters. It was still early. Except for a few sooty oyster catchers, the beach and bay were deserted. The splash of the paddle blades and the squawk of the ubiquitous seagulls, another reminder of home.

After rounding the peninsular at Russell, islands were spread out as far as we could see: Motuarohia, Moturua and Urapukapuka and several smaller one rising from the sea, their cragginess the legacy of a volcanic past. To the north and south headlands spread like elongated arms, protecting the bay from seas and swell. With little rebound we were able to spend hours exploring the shoreline. Sneaking into caves, shooting through arches and paddling around rock gardens with relative ease, timing our runs effectively. It was truly paradise: beautiful one minute, perfect the next.

After circumnavigating Urapukapuka Island we found a quiet cove and enjoyed our lunch in the shelter of some Pahutakawa trees, their red flowers contrasting vividly with their suede green leaves. Nearby a family were busy filleting and cleaning their morning’s catch, nets spread across the beach in readiness for a late afternoon repeat of the morning’s success.

As we prepared to return I realised the morning’s continuous paddling and tight manoeuvring had put a strain on my muscles. Not that I lacked fitness, and I was certainly used to paddling long distances with a laden kayak, but this boat was slower, heavier and wider than my own lightweight, plywood kayak.

“This is not the perfect ‘Storm’ for me!” I yelled in frustration to no-one in particular, but the Black Back Gulls and Terns took offence and squawked back. They mistook me for a predator, and were guarding their young charges jealously. I paddled off quickly to allay their fears.

On our return journey we found the southern shores of the islands were no less beautiful. There were more rock gardens to play in, sea caves to explore and arches to paddle through just because they were there. Weaving around a submerged rocky platform I became absorbed in watching the sunlight filtering through the water and fish darting between clumps of seaweed. A loud scraping sound brought me back to reality. Momentarily high and dry I  realised these cumbersome craft were the perfect ‘Storms’ for playing around these sharp rocky shorelines.

As predicted the afternoon sea breeze arrived for the final few kilometres and we arrived at Paihia just ahead of the last fast ferry returning from Cape Brett…

Wednesday 18 January 2001 Orua Bay, NZ

“This can’t be safe!” My knuckles turned from pink to white as I watched the land disappear from three sides and a spectacular scene overlooking Stephenson Island opening up before us.

“I’d feel a whole lot safer in a kayak,” I continued. The directions stated: ‘Follow the road to Orua Bay’ but there was no mention of needing a four wheel drive.

Richard’s place was set up high, overlooking Stephenson Island. To the south, the Cavalli Islands and to the north, Whangaroa Harbour looked likely spots to explore and indeed they were, over the next few days, in some more Tupperware craft. Richard was the perfect host, and his plastic ‘Puffins’ were the perfect craft for exploring these sharp rocky coastlines.

Launching from the pebbly shore into a gentle wash we realised how protected this section of coast was from big seas and swells. We headed north, hugging the coastline to give us ample opportunities to play in rock gardens. At the entrance to Whangaroa Harbour we explored many spectacular sea caves, each with its own identity.

One was so narrow Robert and Richard had to reverse out. I refused to venture inside fearing I might get stuck. Another was so dark it took ages for our eyes to become accustomed to the lack of light. Whilst sitting in the blackness with the sonic boom of the sea rebounding in the cave around us we felt very small indeed. One had a right hand bend before you exited.

In another there was a curious phenomenon where the tunnel funnelled and amplified the local 5 knot wind creating a headwind almost impossible to paddle against. My favourite was big, easy to get into, and where the vines hung down. I could almost hear Tarzan calling through the jungle…

Heavily vegetated jagged mountains surround the many coves and creeks inside Whangaroa Harbour and the rising tide afforded us the luxury of some exploratory paddling in an ancient and  beautiful landscape before we headed back to Orua Bay…

Thursday 19 January 2001 Orua Bay, NZ

“Let’s paddle to that island,” I exclaimed, waking Robert from a deep sleep. Our previous evening’s accommodation was quirky. The front wall was glass, allowing an uninterrupted view to Stephenson Island and, as the first rays of sunlight struggled over the horizon, the scene looked like a freshly painted water colour, the window’s architrave its frame. Hidden in a grove of tree ferns, a short walk from the cabin and completely open to the elements, was the outdoor ‘bathroom’, complete with a flushing toilet and shower.

Several small blue penguins accompanied us the seven or so kilometres to Stephenson Island. The clarity of the water enabling us to see them flying through the water, popping their glossy blue heads up momentarily before diving under our boats to continue their chase. Like the other sections of coast and offshore islands we had visited, there were many rock gardens, sea caves and beaches to explore. We never tired of exploring all the nooks and crannies, and marvelling at how kind the weather had been.

We stopped for lunch in a delightful cove before climbing to the top of the highest peak on the island where a panorama from Whangaroa Harbour to the Cavalli Islands opened before us. It was stunning.

We continued our circumnavigation, successfully trolling for Kawai for dinner…

Tuesday 23 January 2001 Auckland Harbour, NZ

“Hi,” Rob Gardner called out, leaning over the balcony adjoining his office. “I’ll meet you in the pub in ten minutes.”

Rob had generously offered to show us the delights of Auckland Harbour by kayak. Over lunch we finalised plans for an evening paddle.

Since returning to New Zealand Rob has done what so many of us kayakers only ever get to dream about. He landed a job on the Auckland waterfront and found a house close to the beach from where he is able to paddle to work. He also works a couple of evenings a week for a local kayak company as a guide, sharing the delights of his home patch with visitors. We soon discovered Auckland Harbour and the Hauraki Gulf form a paddlers paradise. Multi-week expeditions can be planned without leaving the gulf and there are many spectacular island destinations to explore.

It was late in the afternoon when we met up with Rob and his son Jamie. Rob rolled up the shutter on the club boathouse revealing racks of boats. The local kayak club has around five hundred members. They have club rooms, a large boat shed and adjoining launching ramp which they share with the famous ‘Fergs Kayaks’ business. There is even a cafe on the premises.

We carefully launched our kayaks from the boat ramp trying to avoid slipping on the ever present algae. Helping to steady the double ‘Sea Bear’ for Jamie I realised he was a seasoned kayaker. He needed very little assistance and then confidently paddled off with his Dad in the rear. In the distance we could see the volcanic cone of Rangitoto Island rising symmetrically from the water.

A third of the way across we stopped beside a marker and waited for the fast ferries to pass before continuing. From Rob’s guiding experience he was aware of ferry movement, and had this been a commercial trip he would have followed the standard procedure of radioing the Harbour Master to indicate our whereabouts and intentions. Guides leading commercial groups all carried small waterproof VHF radios for this purpose.

A group of paddlers passed us but we caught up again as we landed at the island’s wharf together. The walk to the peak up the steep, sharp and stony track was worth it. Rob entertained us with his guide’s spiel, outlining the history and geomorphology of the area. We sat and ate our picnic tea, whilst admiring the magnificent view over Auckland and the Hauraki Gulf complete with sailing boats, a trade mark of this harbour.

Our paddle back in the dark was into a gentle headwind. I think Jamie was paddling on auto pilot. He looked exhausted, his eyes closed and he still didn’t miss a beat. It was late and we were all pretty tired as we pulled our boats up the ramp, talking about our next rendezvous, somewhere on the sea…

Trip Planning Information

  • Bay of Islands: The waterfront at Piahia is bristling with commercial operators. They offer the trip we did in a day as a three to four day tour, as well as renting kayaks and sit on tops, for single and multi-day use.
  • Northland: Richard Israel, of Northland Sea Kayaks, runs single and multi-day trips for beginners to advanced paddlers and organises his trips according to your level of skill, fitness and time available. He can be contacted at
  • The Kiwi Association of Sea Kayakers (KASK) Handbook has useful information about paddling and venues. It can be purchased through KASK Treasurer Max Grant at
  • Auckland Harbour: Fergs Kayaks are on the waterfront in Auckland. As well as offering guided trips, his store stocks a plethora of kayaking gear.