Friday, January 01, 2010

Day 6 - Whangarei to Paihia

Paihia, that little jewel tucked away on Northland’s east coast is where we are headed today. The man at the motel in Whangarei informs me that there is a dolphin cruise that goes out from Paihia, so I’m eager to get there. The last time I tried to watch dolphins was when we were at South Island’s Kaikoura, famed for dolphin sightings, but unfortunately it was Christmas day then and none of the tours were operating on that day. So today, an hour’s drive and we are at Paihia booking tickets for the dolphin cruise.

The room that I managed to get here after paying a rather steep price is a family room, complete with its own washing machine and dishwasher, quite a contrast from the other backpacker places I’ve been staying in. After a quick lunch we head off for the wharf to board the boat that will take us out to the sea.

The skipper informs us that no dolphins have been sighted that day and the lady at the counter who had sold the tickets had said that there is only a 90 percent chance that dolphins will be sighted. So I send up a silent prayer, ‘please send some dolphins this way, there’s a boat load of people wanting to see them, not to mention another boat load who are waiting to jump in and swim with them.’

The boat’s first stop is Russell to pick up some more passengers. Then we head out for the islands that gives the Bay of Islands its name. The sea here is dotted with tiny islands, some too small to be inhabited and some of the larger ones privately owned. The first island that we pass by has a Maori name that means ‘First Island’. It is covered with lush green trees and the skipper informs us that it used to be barren save for three trees but the owners with the help of the Dept of Conservation and putting in considerable effort and expense had gone about replanting trees that over the years had grown to what it is today. Impressive!

In similar fashion we pass by a series of islands. Some have little beaches with people sunbathing on the sands and splashing about in the waters. I believe they go there in tiny boats and pitch tents and stay there, enjoying the sun, sand and surf.

But what really fascinates me is the sea. It gleams and twinkles like an aquamarine jewel, its blue-green body luminously opaque and shimmering, rippling gently under the afternoon sun. Sail boats sail past gracefully like as if they belong to a different era. Jet boats zoom past, creating waves in their wave but why anyone would be in such a hurry, I cannot understand, when you can lie back and allow the sea to rock you gently.

Then the skipper announces that there is good news, the boat ahead has sighted some dolphins and so she takes the boat closer to them. And then there they are! At first only their dorsal fins are visible as they swim just below the water surface. Then suddenly they surface and start playing in the water. Making little jumps and generally frolicking like little kids. The dolphins, the skipper says, are wild ones, not tamed and raised in a tank. They are not fed by humans and do not respond to our orders. They come in this close out of their own volition and it is entirely up to them if they want to make an appearance or not. They do not get fed or rewarded for turning up :) However, once they come within sight they are then treated like great care, much like we would care for little children. The boats go slow and don’t make much noise or unusual activity and the dolphins then know that we can be trusted. Otherwise, they would just go away and not come back. A pod of seven of them play around the boats for a while and then head back to where they came from. It seems like a blessing somehow, this visit by these innocent, loving, playful creatures.

The boat resumes its journey and soon we arrive at one of the furtherest islands which has an unusual feature in that the rock of which the island is made up of has a huge hole in it and hence it is called ‘Hole in the rock’. The boat passes by the hole for all of us to see and then goes through the rock opening, only just making it. This is not attempted if the weather conditions are poor, such as rough seas or a strong swell.

We turn back and after a while arrive at a largish island where we are allowed to disembark and wander around for an hour. There is a scenic spot on the top of the hill that gives a 360 degree view of the bay, so I make an arduous 10 min climb to the top. The effort is worthwhile indeed as I reach up and gaze out at stunning views of the bay. Little beaches tucked away, boats sailing lazily, green islands dotting the blue sea and the sea in all its blue-green splendour.

The last stop is the town of Russell which is not an island but is across the sea from Paihia but can be accessed through a roundabout road route. We disembark over here to check out the town. Russell used to be an old sea port. In the 19th century, it used to one of the first ports after a cross-Pacific sea trip and the sailors after such a long trip would go ashore looking for alcohol. It used to have many bars lining its waterfront and fights were frequent, as the result of which Russell had earned the reputation of being a place out of hell.

But Russell also has the oldest church in NZ built in 1836. A simple, wooden structure with a simple altar and windows that are fastened by ropes. The front courtyard is dotted with graves some of them of people who have died at the turn of the 20th century. A quiet peaceful air hangs around the place, and I think of the bones under the earth, now turned to earth also, and wonder why these tombstones are preserved. Why do we cling so obsessively to the past?

We walk around the Russell waterfront, strewn with cafes and shops and bustling with activity. Boats bob in the bay and people saunter on the sidewalks or lie on the beach soaking in the sun. The houses have a lovely, old-world charm to them, looking like they were built a hundred years ago. It’s a quaint, heartwarming little town with a wonderful ambience and heaps of character.

After sauntering around for a while, we catch the ferry back to Paihia. On the wharf, I spot a splendid looking building, red-tiled roof and looking like it came straight out a history book.

And then it’s back to our ‘family room’. Paihia for some reason has been special, maybe it was the dolphins, or the fascinating colour of the sea, or the whole experience of a perfect day spent out at sea or by the side of the sea. A great start to the new year :)))

P.S. I shall post the islands, Hole in the Rock and dolphins photos after I’ve downloaded them from the camcorder.