After the Christmas celebrations, we slipped our moorings and set off from Town Basin down the river just before high tide, a calm and sunny day. Negotiating the buoyed gap in the partly completed new swing bridge across the river was no problem. Construction is due to finish in April and it will be opened on demand initially, while waiting pontoons are created at either side for those vessels wishing to enter or leave Town Basin.
Passing Whangarei Heads on our port side we set a course for Great Barrier Island, some 50 nm to the south east, but passing several other islands en route. We were making for Tryphena Harbour, to the extreme south west of the island, and only 20nm from the Mercury Islands, where we were hoping to celebrate New Year.
Great Barrier Island is 20 miles long and 10 miles wide, with two mountains, Mount Hobson 626 metres and Mount Matawhero, 424 metres. At the beginning of the 19th century it was completely forested with Kauri trees, but these were felled in their thousands to feed the need for ship builders and general building in NZ, as well as being exported. Very few of the original trees remain, though many have been planted in the last 50 years.
We had a glorious beam reach the whole way, sailing comfortably at 6-7 knots with warm sunshine and light winds, reaching the bay in the late afternoon. While enjoying sundowners, we spotted a pod of Orca (killer whales) swimming fairly close to where we were anchored. Unfortunately the light was fading fast, and it was not good enough for a photo. We had a quiet night, but then the weather decided to disrupt our plans so we decided from a safety angle to abort the passage to the Mercury Islands. Strong winds were forecast on New Year’s Eve, which were going to be boxing the compass, and without local knowledge created an unnecessary risk.
Instead on New Year’s Day we headed north to Port Fitzroy, a magnificent area of protected water, with many different anchorages that we could visit to shelter from the expected strong winds. After an overnight stop in Oneura Bay where we raised our glasses belatedly to welcome 2013, we moved to Kaiarara Bay, which enabled us to hike along several different trails across the island, and climb to the remains of a kauri dam, which was built in the 1920s. The Department of Conservation (DOC) has done a brilliant job in NZ of creating and maintaining tracks which make access to many places so much easier – an example being this suspension bridge, one of many bridges over the river up the mountainside.
The Kauri Dam is at 410 metres, quite a climb in just over two hours, was one of three built to hold back the waters on the river. The lakes behind the dams were then filled with kauri tree trunks, and when at their capacity, each dam was triggered in turn, washing thousands of tons of timber down the mountainside to holding ponds at the head of the bay we were anchored in. Apparently the noise and weight of water and timber shook the whole area, and could be heard many miles away. Once enough timber had collected, it was towed to Auckland for processing.
We were soon joined by our friends Michael and Penny, who we first met in 2003/4, and by chance they were in the Opua Cruising Club on New Years Eve 2011! We had hired a car from Port Fitzroy to see those parts of the island that we couldn’t sail to, and Michael and Penny joined us for the day. It is worth mentioning that Port Fitzroy boasts a wharf, a well-stocked but expensive store for provisioning and an information centre. Our first stop was Windy Canyon, which is the initial part of the trail to the summit of Mt Hobson. We soon discovered how it was named, with the wind accelerating upwards through the canyon.
The area around the mountain summit is still forested with kauri trees. They were too high to access, fell and extract and so have survived. It has been learnt that kauri trees are at risk from organisms brought in from other parts of the island, so hikers are encouraged to cleanse their footwear with disinfectant.
At the top of the canyon we were rewarded with beautiful views of a windswept sandy beach on the east coast of the island, one of many that we would see on our way south.
Walking along one of the beaches we came across a Variable Oystercatcher (Haematopus unicolor) with two young, and as a contrast we also visited an art gallery where some of the exhibits were surprisingly good.
We were taken fishing a day or two later by Michael and Penny on their yacht Raconteur and taught the art of fishing for snapper with squid as bait. New Zealanders are fishing mad, one in seven Kiwis owns a boat, and we are always amazed to even see sailing yachts bobbing around in 70 metres of water, in the hope of catching some fish! Within 35 minutes, as promised by Michael, the first snapper was landed, and this was followed by another three at roughly half hour intervals – strange that!
The evening was intended to be a joint effort on Pipistrelle of a snapper supper, but the weather had other ideas, and the wind began to howl. Bob helped Michael re-anchor Raconteur, and then we moved Pipistrelle. By 2100 we were seeing 45 knot gusts, and so enjoyed supper together, and Michael and Penny stayed on board for the night rather than risk Bob returning on his own by dinghy, a wise decision. At 0200 in 50 knot gusts a power boat was dragging very close to us, and the Pipistrelle anchor watch was maintained until 0430.
We then enjoyed some time visiting two other anchorages, which afforded more walking and stunning views from Wairahi Bay, and being greeted by dolphins in Nagles Cove, before heading south to the Coromandel peninsula, to meet Anthony and Kathryn on Cobalt.
We met them in Squadron Bay, just south of Coromandel Harbour and enjoyed a number of meals together. They joined us for an early morning jaunt on Pipistrelle when we took her into the Coromandel Wharf to refill with water and to reprovision. For us this is only possible at high water because of our draft. Thus we had to leave the wharf as soon as the tank was full and anchor in deeper water, going ashore and into town by dinghy for stocking up.
Pipistrelle then left for Waiheke Island, and immediately came across more German friends. Yet again another area of low pressure was tracking across N Island, so we had to move on to Auckland for boat maintenance commitments and have not yet set foot on Waiheke. In Islington Bay, Rangitoto Island, we met very briefly with Geoff and Pat on Duetto, who we last saw in Tahiti in 2011 – a very small world!