Tuesday, November 3, 2009

100% Pure New Zealand

Today we woke to crystal clear blue skies up at the Farewell Spit . We had camped at the nature preserve entrance, so it was nice to walk out onto the deserted beach with coffee in hand and watch the sun on it's way up. The air was much warmer than expected and all of the birds were up and about chirping and squawking away. It was a beautiful site, and once again surprising to have miles of beach to ourselves.

After breakfast, we made our way back south to the town of Marahau, which is the gateway to the southern end of Abel Tasman National Park. We made it to Kuau Kayaks just in time for the safety briefing, which in hindsight, the fact that it took close to an hour should have raised some concern. We went through the drills for capsizing the boat, for deploying safety flares, what to do it you lose a paddle, what to do it you find yourself getting sucked out to Australia... and on and on. Finally, we hopped in the van with the kayak trailer and were taken to the launch area. The tides here have a 13-15 foot swing throughout the day, so even though it was flooded with water, they warned us that when we came back it would be a huge sandy beach.

We set out in our red double sea kayak, complete with a rudder, and paddled towards the National Park. This park has no roads for vehicles, so the only way to view the park is on foot (via the coastal track or smaller trails) or by boat. Kayaking was the perfect way to see the gorgeous shoreline of the park without having to do the 3-4 day hike through. We enjoyed ourselves, paddling around huge rocks sticking out of the water and looking down into the crystal clear aqua blue. We stopped at an empty beach (as most of them were) for a lunch break and went through a massive sea arch and saw a smaller cave.

Back in the kayak, we noticed the wind had increased steadily throughout the day and we were approaching the "Mad Mile" which is a treacherous, windy area to pass, with a very strong current. Right off shore from that point is Adele Island, known to have seals and native birds. We thought we would turn around and cross the 300-400 meter channel to get over to the island for a look. Turns out the channel was not the easy cakewalk we had predicted. The winds were easily 20 knots and the waves were crashing all around our little vessel. The paddles were getting caught up in the swells and it was hard to steer at all through the mess of water. We finally made it across to the island. At this point, being in the bow of the boat, and seeing the nose dunk way under the frigid water several times, I was having a complete meltdown, apparently claiming (I was told this later) that I was going to set off the flare from the island to get the water taxi to come and pick us up.

Somehow, Erich managed to talk me back into the boat and attempt to cross the windblown and current filled channel once again to get back to land. I couldn't say I was excited about the idea, but was without many options. The problem with capsizing in the channel is that you are so far from the beach, that it seemed you would just get sucked out to sea. Luckily, we never had to find out, as we zig-zagged our way back across the channel and made it to the other side. At that point it was still windy, but not nearly as threatening, and we arrived back at the beach in time for our 4pm pick-up.

Safely back in the van, we made our way as fast as possible south to Montueka to get to the garage and meet with the mechanic about fixing our inverter in the camper. We got there before he closed and he had gotten the part overnighted to him from the van company and was able to finish the replacement.

Still feeling a little dazed from our victory at sea, we headed only 15 kilometers south to a little reserve on the beach where we could stay the night. The larger town of Nelson is visible across the bay, but this area is quiet with only a handful of campers here with us. We finally had a moment to relax and play some cards and watch the sunset before we got settled in for the night.


As any good story of a day's events gets re-told there is bound to be two different versions when more than one person is involved. The day started out fairly well when Sara rousted me out of bed at the standard 630am she has been keeping our schedule on. Normally I am the first out of bed back home and find a hard time to sleep in much past 8am, but whatever reason this trip has me dragging and her coffee/chai tea making at 630am/ pulling open all the drapes to let the sunrise in keeps me from sleeping much longer. Somehow today I managed to sleep until 7 while Sara combed the beach in the bird reserve we had slept the night.

We quickly went about our morning routine, making toast, smothering it with creamed honey, then peanut butter, and then Nutella, or whatever random British turned Kiwi style food we can find being sold on the roadside while sipping the morning caffeine, Sara with Starbuck's of course, and me with some Chai green tea just for the heck of it since those Kiwi's love their "biscis" and "tea."

Anyway, the morning moved on and we departed camp back for Tanaka where we could call the Kayak rental company on the other side of Tanaka Hill (mountain for most of us). Luckily for us the rental place had another "saftey briefing" happening at 1030am so all we had to do was go back over the mountain and down to the other side of Abel Tasman National Park to begin our kayak journey.

Sara has recounted most of the basic pre-kayak events. Please realize both Sara and I have had fairly extensive kayak experience in the open ocean when living in Hawaii and back in San Diego. We even just this past Labor Day went out to the Channel Islands National Park and ocean paddled around Santa Cruz Island. Basically, we have dealt with a lot of different conditions of ocean paddling and being surfers, tend to understand the nuances of the ocean quite well.

So I kayak journey began like many others, watching a bunch of blundering tourists who have little to no experience in the ocean flail around trying to get there kayaks entered into the ocean without getting drenched. We pushed ourselves off and quickly went ahead of the small pack aiming for the far shoreline where many more interesting things were to be seen.

About mid-way during the initial paddle we noticed the wind starting to pick up a fair amount. This was in the forecast from the kayak rental guides so it seemed not that out of the ordinary and almost a positive as this would give us a wonderful downwind to speed our return back to the starting point.

The journey continued in and out of small protected coves with golden sand beaches, arches, caves, and amazing rock formations with tiny trees growing out of them. As we made each turn to the North around subsequent corners we began to get an increasing wind blast swirling off the mountain passes and funneling down the coast. It was somewhat alarming in the back of our minds, but considering the saftey briefing covering the nuances of how to release an emergency flare what was there really to worry about. Besides, Billy Bob from Kansas, or at least his European equivalent was out here chumming the waters so what was there to worry about.

As Sara mentioned, we ate a nice lunch on an aptly named beach called "Stillwater Bay." Still it was, because the second we turned the next corner the hurricane let loose. We pushed further in the lee of the shallow water along the very edge of the beach with the plan of turning south just before the "MAD MILE" since this was really the only area of concern according to the guides and maps we had in our kayak. The plan (or my plan anyway since I was controlling the steering) was to point downwind with the waves and growing surf and quickly sail out to the Seal laden island reserve that sits so majestically just out of reach off shore. All was going to plan until we hit about mid channel and the "MAD MILE" found a way to send the full fetch of its waves into the small needle threading inlet. The direction of the wind could not have been more perfect to produce a 4' seas in what was just flat and calm open water only an hour before.

The problem with the safety briefing was the amount of time they spent explaining to people how to right the kayak once they turned upside down in in the freezing cold water, but don't worry, no one ever tips these things. Now considering the current conditions of disappearing between swells in the perfect storm that developed over sunny Abel Tasman National Park we found ourselves in the middle of the channel fight a hellacious stern current an overtaking waves. I found it quite exhilarating while Sara seem ready to light the flare off and any given moment. We did manage to beach ourselves on the island where Sara was out of the kayak before the bow even hit the sand. It only took about 20 minutes of convincing her that if we paddle really fast the seas will never be able to catch us. I figured King Neptune still owed me one so what did we have to lose. Of course this was quite the reasoning I gave Sara and mostly only pointed to the European version of Billy Bob floating forlorningly toward Australia but somehow seemingingly not realizing in what a dire situation the really were in. The amazing part is that if this was America, Uncle Sam would have long ago launched the Coast Guard helos for rescue and an army of lawyers would be standing on the beach waiting to sue for each and every one of us.

Off the island beach we went, but smartly pointing the bow into the waves (and Sara thought of this, thank you 14 years of Merchant Marine and Navy experience) so although we were paddling North into the wind, the wind was so strong it was actually blowing us backwards towards home. A few bow waves over the starboard beam aside and my arm and Sara's entire being including her ego being soaked, we made it to the other-side where Euro Billy Bob was sunning enjoying the calmness that was on the beach.

Back at base-camp the guide ask how the trip was, we told him just perfect aside from a bit of wind, and the fatal mistake of pushing out towards the island through the channel, and I said this fully expecting them to agree of how surprisingly rough today actually was. Sadly for my ego, apparently the Kiwis found this to be a rather normal day and losing a couple kayaks was no big deal as long as it was all done in fun, huh, mate! Now I know why Zorbing rolling down a sheep filled hill inside a large plastic ball) is considered to be an acceptable adventure sport in this country considering the risks these guys don't mind taking when dropping a few dozen clueless tourists out into the unsuspectingly ruthless offshore waters of some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Even for two very well seasoned ocean athletes.

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