We are now back on dry land, and I think we are still friends!
Our first stop outside Auckland was Paihia, which is a small town north east of Auckland and the principle town in the Bay of Islands area. It was the area that was first settled by Europeans. Paihia is also where our friend Rose lives, who is the Queen of the 'bad idea bears'. Rose is a proper nutter. She came out here just over two years ago after deciding that the way ahead was to sell her house in UK, buy a backpackers hostel, and move to NZ (which is where her two kids have settled) with no Visa. The Pickled Parrott is now No 1 on Trip Advisor and home to a grumpy parrot and Rose's three dogs and one cat. The downside is that the hostel is obviously inhabited by evil demons as J and I both wake up with sore heads every morning.
We arrived in Paihia on Waitangi Day, which is the holiday that marks the Brits and the Maoris signing a treaty in 1836 agreeing how best to run NZ to the mutual good (I have since discovered that the motivation of the Brits was stop a Frenchman from claiming sovereignty, rather than giving a stuff about the Maoris). I understand that the deal was not a bad one, but of course 'The Crown' did not stick to it and now the Maoris have much to complain about. Waitangi, where the treaty was signed, is walking distance from Paihia so we got to see how 45,000 Maoris and non Maoris marked the day. The celebrations consisted of various cultural and musical events and a beating of the retreat performed by the NZ Navy band.
I was told that I may not enjoy the military aspects of the day as the band 'was not quite up to the standards of the British Army', but as we stood with a few hundred Kiwis (surprisingly few Maoris came to watch it) on a beautiful headland with views out to the islands, watching the rather small and odd band doing their stuff, I thought that they had got it right. It was an interesting combination of military pomp and 'camp it up' showmanship, with traditional and modern tunes, a South Pacific influence in the instruments and some very dodgy marching; it kept the attention of the crowd in a way that I don't think our very formal displays do.
The following day we went shopping (eggs, beer, bread, wine, beans, gin etc) and took over our yacht. Yacht is a bit of a grand word for the tiny 25ft thing we took over, and dingy would be a more accurate description. In bigger swell and stronger winds I found myself sailing it like a dingy, with one hand on the tiller and the other on the main-sheet. The website claims it could sleep 5, but they would have to be 5 very very close friends. Close enough to be comfortable watching each other poo, as the fore-cabin and the loo where combined. Still, with sails the size of handkerchiefs and ropes like pieces of string it was a good platform for J and I to see if we could sail a boat between us.
The bay and the islands are stunning; green hills coming out of clear blue water and there are wonderful houses with what must be spectacular views. It is also a thousand times quieter than the Solent. We had mixed weather, with a couple of perfectly windy and sunny days, but with others that where a little wet and had a bit too much wind.
On one particularly miserable day (rain and no wind) we had arranged to take Rose out for the day, but as it was grim decided to minimise the sailing. The good idea was to go for a swim and a bit of a walk to keep us out of the pub. The bad idea was to follow it up with a wine tasting. There is one vineyard near Russell, which is where we where parked, and it is run by one man called Linton. The vineyard had been neglected for a few years but the new owners have brought in Linton to get things back on track. It is rather basic. Linton is summoned from the vines by a blast on a foghorn, and in he comes in old tee-shirt and jeans to do the tasting. He was a lovely and enthusiastic bloke, with a tough and lonely job ahead of him; the place is so neglected that last year there was no harvest so they had to buy wine in from elsewhere and bottle it. He was also rather generous with his measures, so by the time we hopped back in a cab we where laughing and joking is that very relaxed manner that wine creates. The bad idea was to follow this trip up with a boozy lunch………………………then a visit to the pub next door………………………then getting in our very small dingy to visit our boat for a couple more. At this point we were still able to get in and out of the dingy.
After the best part of a litre of gin onboard, we decided that a better it was far more sensible for us to sail Rose back to Paihia, rather than get her back to the ferry in Russell; we could then drop her off then find a sheltered cove for what was forecast as a very windy and bumpy night. If only we had stuck to that plan. Once anchored off Paihia we decided that a night cap was in order. After a couple of these we noticed Rose's friends returning to their houseboat, and obviously thought visiting them was a good idea. I am sure you can see how this is going.
By the time I took to the dingy, my balance was a little off, so I deserved to end up very wet next to an upturned dingy in increasingly bumpy swell. Luckily Rose's friends, Pete and Catherine, saw what had happened, rowed over to pick Jodie and Rose up and gave me instructions to get dry cloths and a towel then get to their much grander boat for a shower. This worked. Hurrah.
Things were back on an even keel and Pete insisted that we could follow him over to a sheltered bay once we had put Rose ashore (in what was now a dark, windy and rough night). Unfortunately, as Catharine took Rose back to shore via our boat to pick up her back pack, things went wrong again as the 6ft+ Rose learnt about the importance of keeping her weight down low in a small dingy. When Jodie and I rowed around the back of our boat we were met by the sight of Catherine's upturned dingy and a very wet Catherine trying to hold on to both her dingy and our yacht. Rose had a good hold of the yacht but was devastated by the fact her bag containing all the wine she had brought at the vineyard (and less importantly, credit cards, purse etc) was now at the bottom of the sea.
Obviously everyone had good ideas how to rectify the matter. Much to Jodie's frustration I decided to ignore all the good ideas on the premise that another two drunk people in the water was not going to be helpful, and tried to compose myself. This took longer than it took Pete to see what had happened, anchor his houseboat once again, kayak over and give very clear instructions that remedied the situation. It has to be said, sober civis can perform much better than legless exp-army officers when they need to! Thank god for Pete.
By this stage I had no intention of moving the yacht again and Jodie and I spent a very uncomfortable night anchored off the beach until by 7am the ferocity of the swell, the wind and our hangovers forced us to move. All's well that ends well though; by 10am J and I where in a reasonably sheltered bay, we had enjoyed scrambled eggs and backed beans, we'd had a pod of Dolphins feeding close-by and I nice man had returned Rose's back pack that he'd found washed ashore!
The rest of the week was pleasant but less exciting. On the Dolphin morning, we met a lovely couple who told us that we should head back out to a cove called Pipi out in the bay proper. We did so and had two lovely days and nights. On the second night the couple who gave us the recommendation appeared and invited us over for drinks on their palatial motor cruiser - we were very jealous of the space (it was about the same size as Box Hedge Cottage) and the facilities (loo, shower, fridge etc). He was ex airforce and had served in Vietnam as a Forward Air Controller attached to the USAF, had then had a career with Air New Zealand and now they spent three months a year on the boat in the bay. Lucky w***s. After drinks we returned to our boat and got chatting to another couple who where paddling around the bay in an attempt to keep away from the wine bottle for a while. Twenty minutes after they left, he returned with a huge tub of mussels for us that he had caught that morning. I had a wonderful scoff and once again we marveled on just how nice Kiwis seem to be.
We returned the boat at the end of the week in one piece on a very windy day and had come to the conclusion that despite Jodie's insistence of questioning everything ('I am sure we could be closer in' or 'Don't you thin k that we are a little too close in'), we make a good sailing team!
14/02 - Valentines Day. We hired a car for a day and visited the bays north of Paihia and as I write this we find ourselves in one of those very special places. We are sitting on the veranda of our hillside motel in a small village called Mangonui, which is on Doubtless Bay. I have just demolished a kg of Green lipped Mussels (which are huge, very meaty and the insides of the shells are gorgeously iridescent) which cost just over £1, washed down with white wine, and the sun is going down over the bay. Straight ahead of us is the mouth of the Bay then open sea. To the left there is a steep-sided hill which plunges into the sea, tree covered less for what looks like ancient earthworks at its peak. At its base are about 20 yachts, all obediently facing into the falling tide. To the right is a slightly mellower hill, with an even mix of trees and open pasture (and I think I can see grapevines in one clearing - maybe worth a visit tomorrow) and where it meets the sea there is a lone man in a little boat, fishing for is supper (which is all well and good, but I got my mussels from an excellent fish shop about 200m from him, so am not sure why he bothers). Whilst I would have to admit to being a little tipsy at the moment, I could not think of a more beautiful place to be! This comes at the end of a day which has featured the word 'wow' far too often. The coastline up to Mangonui consists of white sandy beaches and coves, green hills and glorious islands. I know that this can also be found in Devon and Cornwall, but the incredible thing here is the consistency of the beauty, the predictability of the weather and the sheer emptiness of the place. On a Saturday in high season, the roads and beaches are close to deserted. So many stunning areas are also completely undeveloped and we could picture the most amazing houses on scores of empty pieces of land.