Ten Days in NZ: Bay of Islands with the Dolphins

From Waipoua, I drove across the northern peninsula to the town of Piahia in the Bay of Islands. Before traveling to New Zealand, I found that the Bay of Islands was famous for dolphin watching (occasionally whales, but those are typically off the south island). I looked around at boat tours half-heartedly because I’ve lived in Florida after all, where dolphins regularly show up around boats. And even around the Puget Sound we see mostly seals, but sometimes dolphin and orca fins as well from private craft or even from the passenger ferries. I felt jaded about it, only passingly interested. Until I read about the swimming.

One thing I do want to point out in retrospect. I should not have felt jaded about the animals or seeing them. I should have, like the giant trees, been excited to see them in the wild no matter what. This gratitude glitch is fixed now and I hope it never breaks again.


20160816_122924I’ve wanted to swim with dolphins since the very first time I went into a marine park and saw the trainers interacting with them. If we hadn’t left Florida, I may have pursued a career as a marine biologist and/or dolphin trainer. Alas, my years in Tennessee squished that childhood dream like a bug on an 18-wheeler. Since then, I have learned the damage that dolphins suffer in captivity and no longer support marine parks with captive large mammals, which might be all of them. I do still go to zoos and aquariums. There are good reasons to have those things, not the least is that it engages children early and makes people interested in and concerned about animals in the wild and wilderness conservation. However, I couldn’t bring myself to pay a marine park for the privilege of swimming with captive dolphins whose lives are unfairly shortened by that captivity. Thus, when I found this option, this swimming with wild dolphins in the ocean option, I was hooked.

Whether the Weather

I knew that the wintertime waters would be cold, but also that being so far in the north (everything is backwards and upside-down, remember) the weather wouldn’t be too bad and that a wet-suit would protect swimmers from the water temperatures well enough. In order to protect the dolphins, there are only 3 companies licensed at any given time to do dolphin encounters in the Bay of Islands. The first company I emailed turned out to be closed entirely for the winter. The second was open, but running limited trips and offering no swimming opportunities in the winter. With my fingers and toes crossed, I tried to the third and final company, finding that, yes, they did winter swimming, but that it was dependent on so many variables including the weather and the dolphins themselves that it wasn’t really very likely. They said I should wait until a few days before I wanted to go to make a reservation in order to get the best weather possible.

NZ drive map (1)This is not as easy as it sounds. I had booked a room in a different location nearly every night for my trip. I wanted to be able to wake up near my day’s activities, enjoy them, then in the evenings when the sunlight went away and the temperatures dropped drive to my next destination. I’d booked a room in Piahia for Monday night, with the hopes of boating on Tuesday. I watched the weather like a hawk and emailed back and forth trying to determine the ideal conditions. On Sunday, the weather showed Monday to be rainy, but Tuesday and Wednesday seemed to be nearly identically perfect. I’d booked rooms in the north peninsula for Sunday, Monday and Tuesday night, each about an hour from the other because the peninsula isn’t that wide. So I had a little latitude if I was willing to do the extra driving, to rearrange my day activities Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. However, Wednesday night, I had a prepaid cabin at Hot Water Beach that I couldn’t move or cancel and that was a 4.5 hr drive back through Auckland and up the Coromandel Peninsula.

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When I arrived in Piahia Monday evening and checked the weather again, it looked great. The folks on the other end of the email chain were still being cagey, telling me that recent outings had only been able to put people in the water 1 of 10 trips. I tried several times to let them know I understood that they couldn’t guarantee anything, because even in perfect weather the dolphins may have young or be feeding, both of which prohibit the entrance of swimmers into their waters. I just wanted them to give me a best case on weather alone between Tuesday and Wednesday…. email silence. I tried calling from the hostel, but the office had closed early and the answering service girls didn’t know about the weather at all.

Finally, I just decided to go. I was here, the weather looked nice. I couldn’t reach anyone in the know, but there was plenty of space left on the Tuesday morning boat. I I decided to just get up early and walk down to the wharf to book my spot on the spot. I No matter what, I would enjoy the ride. If the universe said no swimming, I would accept that, but if it allowed swimming conditions, I would not be the one to stand in the way.

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I checked out of my hostel by 7:30 and walked over to the booking office of Fuller’s Great Sights where I chatted with a lovely young lady about my hopes and desires for the day. She assured me that the weather looked great for swimming. She told me some people got nervous about swimming in open water, but that she could tell from my enthusiasm it would not be a problem for me. She even gave me a discount on my ticket. I had enough time for a quick breakfast at the cafe next door (egg and bacon sandwiches should be universal) before we loaded onto the boat.

As an aside, the boats that are approved by the Department of Environment for dolphin encounters in NZ have special engines that do not disturb the dolphins. This means they have no fear of swimming right up to the boat and under it, giving passengers a first class view of the dolphins in the stunning blue waters of the Bay of Islands. My point is, even if the swimming isn’t your thing, this boat ride is a good trip.

Dolphins Permitting

20160816_094356I sat up on the very top and began (as I do) chatting with another lone traveler until the skipper asked all those interested in swimming to come to the cabin below for a safety talk. If/when they sighted dolphins, we would have very little time to get changed and jump in, so they wanted to give us the talk as early as possible. We filled out our health and indemnity forms and then listened to the safety regulations about not touching the dolphins, about the possibility of cold shock and hyperventilation in the water, and about how to wear a snorkel. Just as she was finishing up, the skipper announced a dolphin sighting. Our safety class all but disintegrated as everyone rushed to the doors and windows to see. Only threat of not being allowed in the water brought them back.

After the lecture was concluded, we did have a chance to go up on deck to see the dolphins in the water. As it turns out, the crew have to watch a pod for a while to determine their behavior before people can be allowed to join in. Juvenile dolphins are very curious and will wander off from their mothers in order to investigate the strange new creature in the water (eg, humans). Then the mothers will separate from the pod to keep their kids in sight and soon the two of them are cut off from the protection of the group. Bay of Islands is sheltered but not totally free of predators, including Orca, who would find a separated mother and baby quite ideal lunching. As such, Department of Conservation don’t want us in the water with the babies, not, as one might think, because it scares them, but instead because they are SO curious, they will put themselves in danger to be near us.

The other behavior that we cannot interrupt is feeding. Dolphins actually make separate time for feeding and for playing. Feeding is serious work, and usually group behavior. They work together to confuse and herd a shoal of fish so everyone can eat when the fish are grouped tightly near the surface. It saves energy from trying to catch one fish at a time and dolphins need a lot of energy. So if they are feeding, humans need to stay out of the way or we can loose them their lunch.

The dive instructor also told us that the dolphins could be somewhat cheeky and like to play pranks on swimmers. They had learned to recognize the boats and would come up to us just until everyone was in the water, and then swim away… until everyone was back in the boat and then come back again. It was their idea of a game, she told us, so don’t be surprised if they run off as soon as you get in.

20160816_094402As we were watching the dolphins swim around, the skipper announced they were feeding and we wouldn’t be able to go in the water after all. So I settled in to take some pictures and watch them play. I was amazed at how close to the boat they came. They swam around us, not just little fins in the distance, but just below the surface of the water alongside the rail. The skipper was identifying those of the pod she could by their dorsal fin shapes, as each dolphin’s fin is as unique as a fingerprint, and I’d only taken a few photos when suddenly the call came to change into our diving gear now, now, now.

Psych, Swimming!

I don’t have an underwater camera yet, and the crew were busy with saftey, so I don’t have any pictures of myself in the water. If

We rushed inside and started shedding layers of winter garb, scarves and jackets left pell-mell on the unused indoor seating. I ran to the toilet to throw on my swimsuit then back into the cabin for a wet-suit. They were only ¾ suits, stopping at knees and elbows, but that was likely for the best because they were faster to get on. Soon I was kitted out with a mask and flippers and people were lining up to jump into the water.

The boat had a large net on one side that we were meant to jump into and wait in. The boat pulled away from the dolphins while we entered so our splashing wouldn’t disturb them too much, then slowly went back toward them with us in the netting. The water was icy cold and shocking. Although it wasn’t actually freezing, 13 C feels intensely cold if you’re immersed in it. When I first tired my snorkel, it leaked and I was worried I’d miss my chance. People were already getting out of the net and into the open water while I was trying to convince the dive master to give me a new headset. She thought the water was coming in from the top, that I had it tilted back, but I’ve done snorkeling before and know what it feels like to have water come in at the top, this water felt like it was coming through a breach in the mouthpiece. Finally, I got a new mask and snorkel, and sure enough, no extra water.

By this time, I’d lost the group. I headed out into the water, following the pointing arms of the people in the boat who could see the dolphins nearby. At first I couldn’t catch my breath. This had made sense with the leaky snorkel, but now with the functional one, I worried for a moment I might be suffering the cold-shock induced hyperventilation she warned us about. I quickly tried to both get warmer by moving about and to get control of my breathing by taking even measured breaths. Yay for yoga. The instructor also told us that dolphins like to play. That holding still in the water is boring, so if we wanted their attention we had to spin about and do tricks and make noise. This sounds tricky while you’re on land, but it turns out that being in icy water and having lost not only all my people but also all my dolphins, meant I spun around like a top looking for anything there was to see while trying to stay warm.

The water, which had seemed so clear from aboard the boat, was cloudy once I was in it. The boat uses water jet engines and even on low they were stirring things up a little. Then there were the 9 people in the area trying their best to move around interestingly to attract dolphins, plus the dolphins themselves. When I popped my head up to orient myself, I found the group nearby and saw that the people in the boat were quite excited which told me the dolphins must be near. I put my head under again and I could hear them. Underwater is normally a very silent experience. If you are snorkeling or scubaing you hear only your breath; f you are holding your breath you hear nothing. It has always been one of the more peaceful things about swimming to me. Even on a crowded beach, I could just put my ears under and be in peace and quiet. But now, I could hear the dolphins.

You know the sound. Not the horrible Flipper sound of bad animal TV and even worse dolphin toys that sounds like some kind of deranged laughter. That is a sound we taught them to make in air. I mean the high pitched swoons and tiny popping clicks that they use with each other underwater. You’ve heard recordings, I’m sure. I know I have. That’s how I knew what I was hearing. But in the water, cloudy as it was and me with no echolocation in my skull, the sound seemed to come from everywhere at once. It was not muffled the way human voices and other sounds become under water are, but sharp and clear as any sound vibrating in air. A sound meant to be heard underwater. I almost stopped moving just so I could feel it better.

Then, out of the murk in front of me came a dolphin, huge and dark grey. The largest bottle-noses in the world live here and no one knows quite why they grow so large around NZ, but they do. When they swim past you at arms length, you understand just how truly large they are. The giant male in our group was about 4m in length (that’s 13 feet for the imperialists), the others not less than 3m. I swirled to look as he passed. I had no hope of keeping up the pace but wanted to look as long as I could, but then another passed by, and one below me. They didn’t come all at once, they almost seemed to be taking turns, and though I knew I was not far from the rest of the human group, I could not see any other people underwater with the limited visibility. I continued to whirl and spin, not for attention, but to see where the dolphins had gone. Suddenly a swathe of bubbles came up from below and to my left that could have been nothing else but a dolphin playing with me. Dolphins use bubbles to confuse and herd fish when hunting, but it is not unusual for mammals to imitate hunting behavior in play. (cats and yarn, anyone?) Despite the fact that bubbles are a hunting tactic, it was beyond clear these animals were playing and not threatening. It felt particularly interactive, and made me giggle and hum back to them underwater. Another pair swam by, and finally once more the huge, darker one. Then the crew was calling us back.

Did That Just Happen?

This may have been the single most ridiculously exhilarating thing I’ve ever done, I’m not sure. I don’t know how to talk about it without sounding like I’m bragging, but when people ask me what’s my favorite thing I’ve done, I can’t answer anymore because I’ve just done too many amazing things and it’s like choosing a favorite child. I’m lucky. I’m grateful. I wish everyone could have these experiences because I think if we all went around with a little more awe and gratitude the world would be a better place. Instead of a list from one favorite thing down, think of it like a series of tiers. The top tier is smallest, to be sure, but it has room for more than one thing, and it can grow if it needs too because it grows when you add stuff to it as do all the others. This experience definitely goes to the top tier where it will reside in good company with a few other peak memories of a lifetime.

I don’t have any pictures of myself in the water, but here’s a promo video from the tour company’s website to give you a visual of what I got to experience:

I am reasonably sure I was high on endorphins and adrenaline for the rest of the day. I could not stop grinning and I felt strangely warm once I was back on the ship. I was in no real hurry to get dry and dressed, and even once dressed, I felt fine leaving my scarf and coat on the chair. Meanwhile, the dolphins had swum away. They’d stuck around just long enough to play with us for a little while, then wandered off. Later, when I was talking to a crew member about them, she said that the dolphins in this pod included Ripper (an old grumpy male who usually hated people but liked showing off his male parts) and Flip. She said that they were not usually the friendliest of dolphins and often kept their distance from swimmers, but that for the last couple of weeks they’d been uncharacteristically interactive.

At that moment I had my first real clue that the gods of Aotearoa were putting on a show for me. I’m not kidding. One or two coincidences of timing and weather is luck, but this vacation has all the hallmarks of of “divine intervention” and this was the first sign that got through my thick skull. Keep watching.

Around the Bay

The dolphin encounter had been within the first 30 minutes of our 4 hour tour that day, so after I got dry and dressed we still had a lot of exploring to do around the bay. The Bay of Islands is famous because Captain Cook, the first European in NZ, decided it was a nice stopover on the way to Australia. For a while it was the most bustling metropolis in NZ, but ever since the capitol moved to Auckland, it’s become a sleepy little two town area that’s now famous for it’s beautiful seascapes and friendly dolphins.

20160816_105046As we rode out to “the Hole in the Rock”, we passed by dozens of tiny islands, some inhabited and some not. We were regaled with histories of piracy and assassination in the early days of European settlement, and of the farmers who later raised dairy cows around the islands which resulted in the need for a “cream run” boat to collect the milk and how that later became the first boat to run tourists around the bay as well and was the ancestor of the company boat we were currently on. The hole in the rock island has significance to the local Maori tribe and is still held in trust for them, although it is preserved as a wildlife refuge because it has no evidence of being exposed to external plant or animal life. We didn’t go on to the island because the boat tours don’t have an agreement with the Maori there, but we did sail out to take a look at the unique natural rock formation. When the weather permits, the boat will go through the hole, but the winds were too high so far out of the shelter of the Bay, and the skipper decided it wasn’t safe. Personally, I didn’t mind. If the weather had to pick only one thing to be cooperative about that day, I was in support of the swimming over sailing through a rock.

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On the way back in, we spotted a tiny penguin. NZ has native penguins but I gather they are more common in the south. We also spotted a lone fur seal having a sun on a rock below a now remote controlled lighthouse. For the truly dedicated outdoorsperson, there is a cabin below the lighthouse that can be rented… if you’re willing to hike the 17km across the island to it. Finally we stopped at a larger island where we could disembark and walk around. There was a beautiful beach that I imagine would have been the most popular stop in the summer, letting the boaters bathe in the clear blue waters of the nearly undeveloped island coast. But since it was a little brisk for a second swim, I headed inland toward the viewing point instead.

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The island boasted a flock of sheep and a few buildings, although we were told no one lived there full time. The hill was steep and we were pressed for time before the boat departed. Instead of my usual meander, I tried for a fast pace all the way to the top. It was a challenge, but the view was truly worth the effort. From the peak we could see all around the bay, the whole island we stood on, as well as others around us with the myriad shades of blue water, green land and yellow sand weaving a tapestry below the bright sunny sky. 

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Back to Russell

20160816_122927Staying as long as we dared, we scampered back down the hill just as the boat was sounding the 10 minute warning and we passed the only other passenger ship on our way out.  During a lingering view of a close pair of islands, we spotted dolphins again. The same pod we had swum with earlier came back for another peek at the boat. The restrictions on swimming time meant we couldn’t go back in again, but this time I had more of a chance to watch them from the deck and snap a few more photos before they left us for the last time and we began our travel back in earnest. In opposition to some of our leisurely boating around the islands, we had a speedy return to the ports where we had two options for the afternoon: Piahia or Russell.

Although I boarded the boat in Piahia, I got off in Russell with a pass to take the ferry back when I was ready. Russell is the other sleepy little town here and I spent a nice couple hours chatting with a German tourist I’d met on the boat, enjoying a local lamb sandwich lunch, and walking around the town square to admire the local architecture and gardens. Despite the fact that it was still winter, there were so many beautiful flowers in bloom . It turns out that lilies grow wild in the north of NZ and this was the first time I’d ever seen a lily in the ground instead of a vase. I also found a banana tree that was part in bloom and part in fruit so I was able to see a banana flower for the first time as well. I certainly didn’t expect flower gazing to be a part of my winter tour of NZ, but it was a treat to see these beautiful blooms up close.

PSA: About the Bay of Islands Dolphins

During certain portions of our boat trip we traveled at max speed to cover distance when there was less to see. The waves were high and anyone on deck was likely to get drenched during the fast travel, so passengers came in to one of the two indoor cabins. On the way out to Hole in the Rock, I was drying off and changing from my swim. On the way back to Russell, however, I took the opportunity to sit down with the lady who knew most about the dolphins and ask her some more about who they were and what life was like for them here in the Bay of Islands.

I learned that dolphins don’t really have a “home” as such. If they did use the bay as a home, we would not be allowed to swim with them because that would be too disruptive. It’s only because the dolphins are also visitors to the bay that it is a safe space to interact with them. They like to have their young in the bay or places like it because the waters are sheltered and warmer. This is also where I learned about the problems of curious baby dolphins. She told me that even though the NZ government only approves three vessels at a time for dolphin encounters, every summer dozens if not hundreds of tourist vessels flood the bay and often approach the dolphins with engines running, or on high speed devices like jet skis that frighten and disorient the dolphins. The government approved vessels have special engines and never move fast near the animals. Additionally, summer visitors will often jump in the water with the dolphins with no regard for the animals safety, young, or feeding patterns which has been severely disruptive to their life and breeding. Both the number of dolphins in the bay and the birth rate of the dolphins have fallen dramatically in the last 20 years. The number of dolphins has dropped as much as 90% and the breeding rate has fallen by about 75%. This is not to say the dolphins themselves are dying out. They may be totally fine in another part of the ocean, but they aren’t using the Bay of Islands nearly as much as they used to, and the main contributor to this behavioral change has been human beings.

Don’t loose heart. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go see and swim with a dolphin here. I am saying you should do it responsibly. Make sure you go with a government licensed vessel and respect the dolphins breeding and feeding needs. If you do go out on a private vessel and happen to see them, make sure you slow down, don’t rush around them, and don’t chase them if they choose to swim away. Speed makes them uncomfortable, and they need to be free to get to open waters if they want. No matter how tempting it is, don’t jump in the water with them if you aren’t on one of the approved vessels. Their skippers are trained to know when it’s safe and healthy for the dolphins to have visitors. If you happen to be swimming or kayaking when dolphins approach, you don’t have to run away, but be respectful. Slow down, don’t chase them, don’t try to touch them. Swimming with wild dolphins is a magical experience, but if we chase it too hard, it will slip from our grasp. Dolphins will move away from disruptive humans and our chances to interact with them will dwindle to nothing. It took years of patience and planning to find a trip that met my standards to protect and not exploit the dolphins, but it was worth it. Please, if you love them, respect them and visit them in safety so that we can continue to do so for generations to come.

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I thought about saving this story for last because so many people would assume that swimming with dolphins is just about the most amazing thing that could happen to a body during a vacation. In the end, I decided to keep it in order because the mounting sense of wonder, awe and appreciation that I felt over the course of 10 days is much more than any single experience can eclipse. I will treasure this experience forever, but it is not a jewel alone. I hope you’ll come back for more Tales from Aotearoa as we head for the waterfalls and the wilderness on the eastern side of the peninsula. Until then, please enjoy the full photo album on my Facebook page. Thanks for reading!

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Ten Days in NZ: Waipoua Forest

I spent my second night in a farm town called Dargaville in a tiny little, um, place that I found on AirBnB. I don’t want to be unkind, but this was a great example of why you shouldn’t book rooms when you can’t see the interior in the add. The host was friendly and generous, however, and although the town of Dargaville is quite small, I found an Indian restaurant that was open late and wandered along the “downtown” waterfront before heading to bed. The next morning, I left with much alacrity, heading further up the western coast of the northern peninsula in search of the biggest and oldest Kauri trees in all of New Zealand, and by extension, in the world.

The Kauri are only found naturally in the northern peninsula and Coromandel peninsula of New Zealand, so this part of the trip was a unique chance to see a new species for me. The ancestors of the Kauri appeared first in the Jurassic age, and have changed little over time, contributing to the intense pre-historic feel of the Waipoua forests. Despite looking nothing like the average pine, spruce or fir tree we associate with evergreens, they are nonetheless coniferous.  After a century and a half of extensive logging, the trees are now protected, but the Kauri Die-back Disease is still killing them. As with all of our ancient forests, they cannot be replaced in our lifetimes. Save the Forests! Am I a tree-hugging hippie? Yes. I literally hug trees, especially ones as magnificent as these.


GETTING THERE IS HALF THE FUN

Google has some interesting interpretations of directions. Occasionally it will attempt to get to physically closer to the GPS coordinates listed for a site than the official car park for that site. This may mean it wants to go on strange back roads, private roads, or even closed roads on its quest for global positioning proximity. I followed Google Maps on one such mad quest this morning and the simple 45 minute drive up the main highway to Te Matua Ngahere became several hours of single lanes, dirt roads and gravel service paths.

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Amid my wanderings I came across a hilltop between two farms that peeked between the rolling pastureland and cows straight out to the sea. I found hidden valleys filled with pale yellow grasses amid the vibrant green ones. I found a river that was crossed by a narrow, single lane, non-railed bridge that also doubled as a dam.

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(I had to cross that twice, by the way, once going out and once coming back.) I found a lookout tower that offered 360 views of the whole region, and a path leading down the mountain that promised kiwi birds (although I saw none). Then finally, when I found that these roads did not lead to the Kauri I sought, I found the Waipoua Visitor’s Center. There I not only found directions, but another (or possibly the same?) river with a carving along its banks that had long since grown over with moss and plants, as well as a surprising field of bright pink flowers. Sometimes it pays to get lost.

THE FATHER OF THE FOREST

20160815_130527When I did find the trail-head car park it was a bit later in the day than I’d hoped. The sun sets around 6pm in August where I was, so I had to make the most of the daylight hours. The first stop had 3 trails in one that lead to the 4 Sisters, Yakas, and Te Matua Ngahere. I was there for Te Matua, the second oldest living Kauri, known as the Father of the Forest. His viewing platform is the farthest in on the main trek, with trails for the other two branching off at intervals. The trails aren’t loops, so it’s just an in-and-back on the same path.

There are signs everywhere imploring hikers to stay on the path. Kauri trees, despite their immense size, have fragile root systems that rest near the surface and can be damaged by the passing feet of visitors. Parts of the path were even elevated to keep as much pressure off the roots as possible. I passed the turnoff for Yakas first, but it said 30 minutes (I don’t know why all the trails in NZ are posted in minutes rather than km., and worse, I didn’t know if that meant 30 min. one way or round trip!) I wasn’t sure I could spare an hour yet, so I postponed the decision, knowing I would come back this way on my return. The turn off for the 4 sisters said only 1 minute, so I decided to have a look. The path was elevated the whole way and I began to see trees whose girth inspired awe, but were not even labeled or named. As the path took me closer to the trees, I noticed their bark was quite peculiar, but I was still too far away to touch it.

20160815_131617The 4 Sisters are 4 large kauri trees growing close together. It’s fun to see tree formations like this, but I have to admit, it was a little underwhelming. The elevated trail that protected the roots also kept me far away from the Sisters. I’m used to being able to get up close with trees, and things farther away always do look smaller. Or maybe I’m spoiled because I’ve been to the giant redwood forests of California where it’s still possible to drive a car through a living redwood. Not to say I didn’t enjoy the view or the quiet energy of the forest. There’s a reason I’ll seek out ancient and giant trees anywhere I can, and it’s because they are always amazing. But, I also know what’s “big” in a tree and the 4 sisters weren’t it.

Returning to the main trail I found the sign telling me that Te Matua Ngahere was only 15 minutes away. I guess these are 5kmph “minutes”, but I walk slowly in the woods. I get engrossed in the scenery. I look at the plants and listen to the birds. In this forest, for example,  there was a bird that sounded for all the world like the Mockingjay from the Hunger Games movies, except it was 5 tones instead of 4. There were strange plants that grew from a ropy core up the trunk of a tree and sprouted cascades of green. There were stages of new growth, old growth, decay and rebirth that I had learned about in the WA rain forests and now observed here with different plants. It seems like such a shame to walk swiftly and purposefully through so many small wonders.

Along the way, the path led me right up to the base of an old Kauri too large for me to even get my arms halfway around. I had an excellent opportunity to explore the bark up close and feel the unique texture. The bark is designed peel away like paper if it gets a fungus or other infection,  so it’s worn like river rocks. There were no areas of splintering or wood shards, only rippling smoothness pocked and dotted with equally smooth bumps and whorls. There was a tiny little vine that grew up the trunk with little green leaves smaller than my pinky nail. There were a few spots of moss and lichen as well, but however long I ran my hands around the bark, the tree offered nothing but polished smoothness. It’s quite a contrast to the redwoods which tend to be rough and pitted with deep grooves between raised patches of bark. Running your hands over a California Redwood the way I was with this Kauri could easily result in a splinter or seven. 


Between my frequent pauses and my long tree hugging indulgence, I lost all hope of measuring my walk by time. I had no idea how close to the end I was. I walked on, enjoying breathing in the smell of the forest. Despite the decay and end-of-winter leaf mould, the forest did not smell dead, but rather the preponderance of evergreens and the fresh moving water gave the air an invigorating, clean and above all alive smell. I was feeling tremendously lucky to have had my wish to touch one of the giants granted, and just generally bursting with happiness when I rounded a corner and came face to trunk with the true giant: Te Matua Ngahere.

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Ok, not quite face-to-trunk. He was still quite far off, but the path ended just ahead of me in a little cul-de-sac of benches and the forest canopy parted like a curtain to frame the enormous girth of the Father of the Forest. He is said to be the second largest living Kauri, but it depends on what you’re measuring. As far as I know, Te Matua Ngahere is the widest living Kauri, but does not have the total timber mass of the actual largest. 1043863_10151469307641646_1854591271_nAt a total girth of 16.3m, he’s only a little thinner than the tour-thru tree in Kalamath (shown here). He’s also probably about 2000 years old. There are several factors that make him impressive. One of course is the surprising view. Rounding a corner and coming upon him without warning is certainly a show-stopper. Compared to even the largest trees on the path, he is a giant, so he stands out among the forest in a way the redwoods (surrounded by similarly sized trees) do not. Another is that he is not that tall. He’s only 30m high and compared to the redwoods especially (which can be over 100m) he is short, like a withered old man whose spine has bent with age. The contrast of his girth and height make him seem wider, while the redwoods are proportionately similar to other cedars around them and can look almost ‘normal’ without some kind of prop for perspective. (Te Matua, left: 16.3m girth 30m height). Giant California redwood, right: 14.3m girth, 6+m height)

Either way, I did not begrudge my time to come and visit this squat giant. If anything the longer walk through the woods to reach him made the experience more serene, more spiritual. I took my obligatory photos, but then I simply sat there for ages, admiring the trees and listening to the animals who lived there. I could easily have spent hours just breathing the sweet air and soaking in the forest, but I could tell the light was changing and I wanted to visit Tane Mahuta before dark.

I spent so long lingering over the one trail that the afternoon was slipping away from me, so I opted not to visit Yakas on the way back. Taking another hour or more would have put the sun would behind the mountains by the time I got to Tane Mahuta. However, I found out later that even though Yakas is the 7th largest kauri in New Zealand, it is the largest that has a path leading right up to the trunk. Both Te Matua Ngahere and Tane Mahuta are set back from the walking trails so you can’t interact with them. When I learned about this I was a little sad to have missed the chance, but doubly glad to have spent some time with the touchable kauri on my way in, even if it wasn’t quite as big as Yakas.

20160815_125645Right at the trail head, positioned where everyone had to pass through it going in and out, there was a strange shoe cleaning contraption designed so you could scrub the soles and sides of your shoes, and then stand in a shallow sponge-full of disinfectant in hopes of reducing the spread of the horrible tree killing fungus, Kauri Die-Back. On the way out, I ran into some guys doing maintenance there and we talked a bit about the disease and the attempts at preservation around the area. Despite how clever the contraption seemed in concept, they weren’t actually too happy it, pointing out some flaws in effectiveness (like the brushes transfering debris from shoe to shoe instead of cleaning it away, and the disinfectant sponges going dry between scheduled refills) as well as the fact that it had turned a previously wheelchair accessible path into a non-accessible path. Hopefully NZ comes up with a good way to protect the trees and accommodate tourists soon.

LORD OF THE FOREST

Tane Mahuta is known as the Lord of the Forest. His trail-head is about 1km up the road from the three trails I had just seen and the parking area is much smaller. To make up for this, the trail itself is much shorter. About 1 minute away from the road, Tane Mahuta emerges to the left. His reveal is not so stunning as Te Matua Ngahere, and if you happen to be as I was, glancing off to the right or ahead (where orange signs draw the eye and indicate the trail ahead is closed), you may not even realize you are in the presence of the giant tree to your left. One of the maintenance guys told me that there was enough timber in Tane Mahuta to build a whole village. Although he isn’t as wide as Te Matua Ngahere (13.7m girth compared to TMG’s 16.3), he is taller (51m compared to TMG’s 30)and there seemed to be a whole other ecosystem in his upper branches. Other travelers have likened him to the central tree in Avatar and looking up into a tree that could build a village, whose canopy hosted a garden, I could understand why.

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There is also a legend related on a nearby informational sign, which I later heard repeated by the Maori in Rotorua. Tane Mahuta is the son of Ranginui, the sky father and Papatuanuku, the earth mother. In early days these two remained in such a tight embrace that there was no space between them, and their children were forced to live in the cramped darkness. Eventually they decided to separate their parents, but none were able until Tane set his shoulders in the earth and his feet in the sky and drove them apart, making room for all his brothers. He is seen as the father of all life. During his quest for a wife, he first found only non-human females and fathered various insects, birds and trees. Finally he created a woman from the soil to be his wife and the first human.

artist: Jane Crisp

artist: Jane Crisp

As impressive as Tane is, because he’s so much closer to the road his glade lacked the peaceful serenity of Te Matua’s and after the 4th group of tourists wandered by, I decided it was time to go. I thought hard about going back to hike to Yakas, but in the end I drove on to Piahia instead. I ended up picking up a hitchhiker, a local Maori farmer, which I almost certainly would not have done after dark. His accent was thick and sometimes hard for me to follow, but he was an amicable fellow and talked to me about his plans to use his farm and horses to draw in some tourists for riding adventures and lessons. It rained on our way, despite the fact that the day had been sunny, so I was glad I had taken the extra daylight after all. I dropped him off one town shy of my destination where I arrived just as the sun was going down in the bay.

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It turns out that New Zealand kauri forests are mostly evergreens, even if they don’t have needles, so exploring in the winter is a great way to see the giants with the place to myself. Two days into my adventure and I’d enjoyed the cool mild weather and some unique and magnificent natural wonders, but perhaps the least winter friendly of my plans was coming up in day 3. Piahia is one of the two main townships on the Bay of Islands where I discovered that dolphin viewing and even wild dolphin interactions were possible. Stay tuned for more tales from Aotearoa and until then, check out the full photo album from Waipoua Forest on my Facebook. Thanks for reading!

Ten Days in NZ: Piha Beach & Lion Rock

One month after I landed in the Land of the Long White Cloud, on the eve of the Chuseok holiday here in Korea, I finally finished the rough draft of the entire 10 day trip. So far, I’ve written 72 pages of small font, single spaced stories. I knew my vacation was packed, but this was really a revelation. Don’t worry, though, I won’t try to make you read it all in one place. Now that I have my thoughts and memories down in bytes, I hope to publish a couple stories a week until I catch up, possibly somewhat mixed in with my Chuseok trip to Jeju Island. The posts are geographically organized rather than a day by day retelling and although I started this adventure in Auckland, I’m going to start my stories with Piha Beach, only an hour outside of the city and my first tiny taste of wild Aotearoa.


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NZ drive map (1)Piha is a beach about an hour outside of the city of Auckland, but what makes it special is the  sand: it’s black. Most beaches (and in fact most sand) is a kind of pale brownish, yellowish color, but a few places in the world get special treatment. I used to live in Panama City, FL which is famous for it’s white sand. It really is white, like a beach full of sugar. I’d heard of black sands in Hawaii, but still haven’t made it down there, so when I read about this black sand beach that was so conveniently on the way to my first “real” destination in New Zealand, I decided I had to leave Auckland early and make the detour over. This was a good call for two reasons. One, Auckland doesn’t actually have that much to do in the city itself, and two, I ended up with the perfect preview of all the beauty NZ would unfold for me in the coming days.

THE DRIVE

This was my first glimpse of the crazy twisting roads that would mark every journey for the rest of my vacation. More than that, however, it was my first interaction with NZ flora. The drive made me feel like I was zooming back into a prehistoric age on earth. Familiar evergreens and less familiar variations of deciduous trees were mixed about with giant ferns and palms. Grasses grew in tufts taller than my car. The pictures don’t really do the forests justice because you just can’t see the enormous scale of these plants that makes you expect to see a triceratops around the next bend in the road. It didn’t take long before I got my first view of the ocean, either. The rugged coastline often included mountains and trees growing right down to the thin strip of sand marking the delineation of land and sea. The sea itself is crystal shades of blue and aquamarine, dotted with rocky islands or jutting peninsulas from further along the coastline. Because of the Queen’s Chain, the beaches remain undeveloped by private enterprise. Even right outside of Auckland, the beautiful, pristine coast just goes on and on.

20160814_134654_richtonehdrThe road into Piha has a couple of look out spots to allow drivers to safely pull off the side of the road and take pictures of the view below. The area itself is not highly developed and consists of a car park, a few private structures (well off the beach), a surf shop, a cafe, and the public restrooms.

Between these and the beach itself are a few sandy, grass growing dunes. I took my shoes and socks off and carried some sandals with me in case, but I wanted to feel the earth on my bare feet (an urge I would later find out had more significance than I knew at the time) The dunes were a little rough and the grass was brown and bristly, but once I emerged onto the black beach, I found myself on the softest sand my feet may ever touch. I’ve encountered many textures of sand from a rough grade exfoliant to a fine grain almost silky texture, but walking on this 20160814_141841black sand at Piha felt like nothing so much as having my feet caressed by bunny fur. The sand was black, but not the shade of black we think of in say, a new iPhone. It was blue and purple from some angles and soft grey from others. There was also some invading tan sand that rested on top, being lighter and coarser, which created interesting effects in the wind and tide as the lighter sand was pulled into patterns above the darker black sand.

20160814_141612_richtonehdrI soon noticed a line of shells along the beach, a tide line of sorts, but instead of seaweed and drift wood it was mainly composed of tiny white spiral shells. The shells were perfect miniature spirals and so delicate, they broke under the slightest pressure (two I took from the beach did not survive). Their former inhabitants had no doubt been dinner to some of the local sea birds, but the fact that the birds had managed to extract their meals without damaging the fragile shells by the dozens was impressive.

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The path I’d taken in from the car park led nearly to the exact center of the cove. There were high rocks on either side, but the right side also had a small stream leading down to the sea, so I decided to start in that direction and eventually do a complete circuit of the cove before moving on. It turned out that the large rock to my right was Lion Rock, known as Te Piha by the Maori who lived there before. The Maori named it for the patterns the waves made breaking across the rock, and later the British apparently decided the rock looked like a lion. img_2008Closer to the stream and the rock, I noticed there were people climbing on it, but I thought to myself, “that looks like a very steep climb, maybe I’ll just enjoy the beach”. I found the lake that the stream was coming from and a larger collection of what looked like private homes up in the foothills further back from the shore.

20160814_142733As I rolled up my pants to wade across the stream and explore the other cove, I noticed the base of the stairs that led up Lion Rock. “Perhaps just a few steps up, up to that platform there to get a better view?”, I thought. There must be something strangely wired in my brain because for all that I dislike climbing, I *love* being on top of high places. After I reached that first break in the stairs and took some pictures, I noticed there was another platform looking the other way, so I had to climb to that of course, and soon people coming down were telling me I was more than halfway there, so why not keep going? Next thing I knew, I was as high as the path goes, admiring the not-quite totem pole and the stunning 20160814_151838-editedview. I hung around the top taking pictures and chatting with other climbers, one of whom took quite possibly my favorite picture of me on the whole trip sitting on the edge staring out at the sea and sand below me.

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When I had spent sufficient time admiring the view and conversing with the other climbers, I returned to the beach and headed back toward the left rocks. I found some fools gold in the stream. I watched the strange galaxies that formed in the sand as the different colors swirled around, and the comets that resulted from a stone or shell stuck in the surf. I played tag with the waves and admired the reflections that the wet black sand offered of the rocks and sky above. The left side of the cove held a tide pool of sorts with volcanic rocks strewn about, covered in teeny mussels. The rough rocks claimed some skin from my toes, but the cold sea water was quite soothing, so I didn’t mind. As the tide came in, the surfers came out, clad in wet-suits against the cold, but enjoying the large waves.

Finally, the rising tide chased me back up the beach, and as the light of day grew dimmer, I enjoyed a toasted cheese and onion sandwich from the cafe. My hands and feet were red and partially numb from playing in the winter sea, but the warm melty cheese was heating me up from the inside. As I stood one last time on the small dunes looking down at the pounding waves and dark sand, my heart filled with gratitude for the opportunity that had brought me there that day and I thought, “If the rest of my holiday is even half so good as this beach, it will be one amazing adventure.” Little did I know it was only the opening act.

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Piha Beach is to the west of Auckland and labeled on my trip map. From there I drove to Dargaville to spend the night before embarking on a forest exploration in search of the oldest Kauri trees. I hope you enjoyed the beach with me, and don’t forget to see the rest of the pictures on my Facebook page! 

International Perspective 9/11

Yes, I’m working on the much more fun New Zealand stories, but they aren’t ready to publish, so here’s a little thought for the 15th “anniversary”.


Two years ago (2014) I was in Saudi Arabia for 9/11 but I had only arrived a few days before. I didn’t know enough to feel comfortable asking too many questions and I was assured that discussing it on any form of public social media would be grounds for reprisal. Were there people in Saudi who celebrated 9/11? Yes. But that just makes those people immature jerks who enjoy schadenfreude and every culture has some of those. Please don’t judge a whole country or religion by it’s worst representatives (Westboro Baptist, anyone?) Were there people in Saudi who grieved for the loss of life and for the perversion of their faith? Absolutely. I’m a little sad I didn’t get the chance to write about it at the time, because it was a surreal and thought provoking experience to be American in the country that spawned Osama-bin-Ladin during that time.

For most people outside the US, 9/11 is just another day. For most Muslims this year, 9/11 isn’t about terrorism, but the biggest holiday of their calendar, Eid al Adha, that only coincides with September 11th every so often because it is decided by a lunar event. While it’s important to remember our own history, it’s also good for us to be able to see through the eyes of those who are different from time to time.


I spent my September 11th this year with a family of Canadians at a UN Memorial for the Korean War here in Busan. It didn’t even occur to me that it was 9/11 because, living on the other side of the date line, my Facebook feed was still set to “normal” instead of “super patriotic reminder day”. It wasn’t until I woke up on Sept. 12 that I saw the flood of memes telling me to “never forget” that I realized the actual date.

Sometimes, I get a little frustrated with America for being so sensitive about 9/11, but then I have to remind myself, everyone’s trauma is valid. There is no scale of objective judgement for how a traumatic event affects someone. One of the worst things you can do to a victim is to diminish their pain by telling them how much worse someone else has it. So, it’s not helpful to tell America to get over 9/11 because other countries have more terror attacks or more deaths.

However, when I look at the Korean War Memorial here and realize that I am living in a country that was 90% flattened 60 years ago and is now one of the most technologically advanced democracies in the world, I am astonished. Korea did not forget what happened to them by any means, but nor do they treat their aggressors with spite and hatred. Even though the North decimated the south, leaving a landscape of ash and rubble, South Korea does not seek retribution and instead implemented things like the Sunshine Policy. Even after that policy ended due to continued rejection and aggression from the North, South Korea has refused to use force or invasion to punish the North or bring them back into the fold.

What is the point I’m getting at? Well, victims of trauma have a choice. Do we collapse in on ourselves with self-pity while lashing out at the world in anger, or do we learn to be strong and use that strength to practice compassion towards others who have suffered in a way we now uniquely understand?

After 9/11, America lashed out hardcore, starting a war in a country that had nothing to do with our trauma because we were so hurt and angry and scared. But it’s been 15 years. Kids in high school don’t know what it felt like to watch the towers collapse in flames, to stare at the devastation played over and over on every TV and try to reconcile the fact that it wasn’t a movie effect, to wonder if your loved ones in New York and DC were alive but not be able to get through because the phone lines and cell towers were so overloaded. In a few more years those kids will be adults, old enough to enlist or even be drafted into the military that is still fighting in the aftermath of that lashing out.

So by all means, never forget, but think carefully about what you want to do with that memory. When we look at countries, including Muslim ones, who are devastated by ISIS or other terrorist attacks, do we ignore their plight in order to nurture our own homegrown grievance, or can we say, “Yeah, I know how that feels, let’s help each other get through this.”?