We were told to not miss The Bay of Islands. We heard about the scenery, the animals (including the wild dolphins that often hang out in the bay), and quaint towns with a rich history. So we pointed the van North from Auckland and headed for a little town called Russell.
The cabin we rented had tons of character. According to the newspaper clippings on the wall, the cabin was once a fishing lodge that was moved from the water-front to the holiday park. The holiday park that had native flightless birds walked around the camp and colorful butterflies mating in the trees. Our cabin was about a mile out of Russell, which is a quaint, clean little town with a rich history. Russell sports a small museum set in a building that was constructed using “rammed earth” methods and was used in the 1800’s to print prayer books in the Maori language. The print shop has a working manual printing press with all the old type-set pieces, an operating leather tannery, and a binding area where books were assembled. It was an interesting hands-on field-trip for the kids.
The big event was a day sailing on a catamaran and swimming with dolphins. We were fortunate to have a warm, sunny day without much wind or waves. The boat was very comfortable and only had about 20 other passengers – all of whom appeared to be under the age of 25. It is not unusual for Suzanne and me to be the oldest, and for Patrick and Alex to be the youngest on these types of excursions. The skipper of our boat quickly found a pod of dolphins playing in the bay and the passengers quickly donned our gear and once the skipper gave the word we all plunged into the sea in an attempt to get near a dolphin. We were told that the dolphins would only come near us if we were somewhat interesting to them, so we should hum into our snorkels, or in some other way appear non-boring to the dolphins. The actual swim was a bit frenetic as 20 people drop into the sea in a matter of 60 seconds, all humming into their snorkels, with the skipper yelling directions for us to swim toward the dolphins, the borrowed mask and snorkel leaking, and then an open water ocean swim for 10 minutes chasing dolphins.
The skipper dropped us into the ocean 3 times – which is the maximum number of times allowed by the Dept of Conservation. Alex stayed with me the first dive and we spotted a couple of dolphins shortly after we dropped off the boat. Patrick took off swimming after the dolphins on his own and covered a respectable distance in his pursuit. His comfort in the ocean has come a long way since we began our adventure last year, and I’m considering SCUBA lessons for both of us when we return home.
After 3 open ocean swims the skipper anchored near a small island for lunch. Suzanne and I hiked to the top of the island for a great 360 view.
After lunch the skipper cut the motor and we sailed back to Russell while laying out in the sun on the tarp slung between the pontoons of the catamaran. It was a great day, and another high-light.
For dinner we went to a local yacht club (more like a boat club) just outside of town. It reminded me of other small yacht clubs I have visited in Tahiti and the Sacramento Delta.
The building is built on piers over the water and to get to it we had to walk down the beach. Tattered old sailing banners are hung along the ceiling, the tables and chairs are well used and mismatched, and there were a few old salts (with a few sheets to the wind) leaning against the bar and speaking a bit too loudly. The waitress/bar tender/cook/manager welcomed us and had me sign-in as a guest, since it was a members only club. The food was good, the beer was cold, and the sun set as we walked back down the beach to our car. Life is at its best on days like this.
Our 5 weeks in NZ had drawn to an end, and we hustled back down the coast the next morning. As arranged earlier we stopped by Steve and Jennifer’s farm to drop off the borrowed boogie boards and wet suits. It just so happened that Jennifer had arranged to tour an amazing house that was constructed out of clay that evening and asked if we were interested in checking it out. A modern house made out of clay?! We had to see that. The house was really interesting, the owner is a mechanical engineer who I would consider “extreme DIY”. He and his wife built their house himself from the ground up using clay. He has a huge wood shop where he made all the doors, windows, trim, and much of the furniture in the house. I commented to John, the owner, that it must be great to have such a tangible life goal that he can see, touch, and use every day. He asked if I was interested in doing something like building a house from scratch; and I said that my life goals tend to be a little less tangible – revolving around experiences and relationships. Their place is amazing and I really enjoyed the obvious pride they took in showing us around and answering all our questions about how they managed such an impressive project.
Leaving the house the Wensels headed back to their farm and we continued into Auckland to prepare for our flight to Chile the next day. As they drove in front of us Andrew and Ryan were waving goodbye to Patrick and Alex; and by the time we separated there were hands, arms, and legs waving outside both of our cars – along with the giggles, laughs and honking horns.