Articles >> Bay of Islands backpacking and exploring
Exploring the Bay of Islands
Stepping into a pair of shockingly red waterproof trousers wasn't exactly going to win me any fashion statement awards. Nor was pulling on an equally attractive matching jacket.
Topped off with a so-this-season life jacket, I was looking the part. But then so were the other 25 thrill-seekers who'd joined me on the Excitor fast boat through the Bay of Islands. It was a stunning day for it, as we happily posed for our obligatory `hands in the air' photo moment before we set off. Even in early August in the middle of the winter, the sun had pulled out all the stops and was shining as if its life depended on it. It's good to know it never really gets cold up here and the dolphins hang out all year round.
High speed thrills
All up, there are 150 islands dotted throughout the Bay and the best way to see them is to jump aboard a boat - whether you choose to set sail in a cruisey style across the water, or fly by the seat of your pants in an adrenalin-fuelled powerboat is up to you. I chose the full throttle option. And I soon realised I was in for a fast ride when I took my seat up the front. As we accelerated out into the open water, the stereo was cranked up and we surged on our way to the sounds of Rio from Duran Duran. Ooh, I felt like I could've almost starred in the video - with the sun on my face and the wind in my hair. You've gotta love that. Trying to look cool by not using my hands to hold on, I was soon flung out of my seat, landing with a massive thud as we hit a swell full-on. That'll learn me for trying to impress my mates. I quickly grabbed the bar in front of me, but discreetly, so not to draw attention to my wuss-like credibility.
Still, nobody else was bothered anyway - too busy trying to brace themselves for the next bump or turn. Our 90 minute adventure of high speed thrills was a sharp contrast with the sleepy tranquillity of our surroundings. We saw beautiful bays as we passed between the islands enroute to Cape Brett, where we were lucky enough to drive right through the awesome Hole in the Rock - so ta very much to the ocean for staying low enough for us to get through. We also went right inside Grand Cathedral Cave - another imaginatively-titled Kiwi landmark. And it definitely lived up to its name. Awesome. As we headed back to the mainland, our skipper cranked up the twin 800 horsepower engines and we rode the waves all the way back. And to top it all off, Louis Armstrong's `Wonderful World' was blasting out as we powered through the surf. I couldn't have timed it better myself.
So after all that excitement, we arrived back in Paihia which was still happily doing it's own chilled-out thing. And who could blame it?
I decided to get down with the Paihia vibes and headed to the Ngawha mineral hot springs for some much-needed down time.
That's the amazing thing about New Zealand. You think you couldn't possibly be blown away any more - then you rock up somewhere truly blissful where you can soak outside in the soothing waters and hot mud of the Nga Wha, under a blanket of twinkling stars.
Hidden in a secluded area of the inner Bay of Islands known as Taiamai, the pools have been used by local Maori for more than 1000 years. So it must be good then.The Ngawha is renowned for its healing properties and also comes up trumps by relieving joint pain, skin rash and many other ailments. So you can't go wrong there really. And if it eased hangovers as well it would be mint. Ah well, you can't have it all, eh?
So back in the Bay at Paihia I soon realised that, although a sleeping beauty during the day, this place goes off once the sun goes down.
Armed with a possee of new mates from the pumping backpackers bar at Pipi Patch Lodge, we munched down a tasty barbecue, before plying ourselves with vast amounts of alcohol. Several bars later - we ended up at Paihia's one and only nightclub - The Lighthouse - and I have to admit the lights had definitely gone out by then. The rest is a bit hazy. Waking up the next morning, greeted by rays of warm sunshine pushing through the curtains, I realised my mouth resembled a camel's armpit and I was about the hit the mud in a 90 minute quad bike ride. A quick fix of caffeine took the edge off the layer of fur coating my tongue, and I soon found myself sitting aside a quad bike ready for my next mission with Bush `n' Bike Adventures.
As we set off, the stench of diesel was a bit overpowering for my queasy stomach, but I soon forgot all about it as I splashed through the sparkling Tirohanga river and over rocky streams, before testing my heart on extreme slopes, navigating rugged bush tracks and rolling farmland amongst doe-eyed cattle. Probably the last thing they expected to see tearing through their munchie-zone. After a pause to catch my breath, which I think I'd left somewhere down the track, I took in the stunning river valley views. Wow - even the countryside in the Bay of Islands is like a picture postcard. If there was a beauty contest for scenery, this place would take first prize, hands down. So, rejuvenated and smiling with mud on my teeth, my mission to blitz the hangover, had, most definitely been accomplished.
Back in time
Next up, I was off to get some culture at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. So what's that all about?, you may ask. Well, it's none other than the most important historical site in New Zealand - so kinda important then. It's where you can find the site of the Treaty House, where the historic Treaty of Waitangi was first signed in 1840 between Maori Chiefs and the British Crown. The house dates back to 1833 and has been preserved as a museum and memorial. I went on a guided tour of the site, which was a fascinating insight into New Zealand's historic past. I actually got to check out a copy of the treaty, and walked on the lawns where the treaty was first signed. And if that wasn't enough, I had a look at the amazingly detailed Whare Runanga (Maori Meeting House) with mind-blowing carvings that represent all Maori tribes in New Zealand. I also checked out one of the largest ceremonial waka (canoe) in the world, which is launched every Waitangi Day on February 6. There's a cool walking track through the estate which I had a bit of a wander on, through the mangrove forest and Haruru Falls. Another Kiwi gem to tick off my list.
I was quite sad to be leaving Paihia. A couple of days just wasn't enough. Then again, a couple of weeks wouldn't have been enough.
In fact, I'd met quite a few backpackers who'd planned on stopping there for a couple of days and were still there months later. And now I can see why. The place is simply stunning - I looked back as we made our ascent out of town into the hills on and although it looked sleepy and innocent, I knew what really goes down when night falls. And I'm going to make it my mission to go back. But at least I had something to keep my lust for adventure going - I was off on the Kiwi Experience bus to Whangarei to catch up on some zzz's before heading out to one of the top 10 dive sites in the world - The Poor Knights Islands. There's not much that makes me want to get up at the crack of dawn, especially when the rain is tonking down as if it's on a world-record attempt at a monsoon generating championship.
But knowing I was off for the day with Dive Tutukaka made clambering out from under my duvet that much easier.
Under the water
Separated from mainland New Zealand, the Poor Knights Islands are influenced by a warm current that originates in the Coral Sea, north of Australia. The water temperature is higher and visibility is significantly greater than in nearby coastal waters. Remnants of an ancient volcano, the Poor Knights Islands house a unique marine habitat which hang out among spectacular reefs, walls, pinnacles, archways and tunnels - just waiting to be explored. I was told a dive at the Poor Knights Islands would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. After diving on coral reefs in Australia and South Africa, this was a different world entirely. The visibility was astounding. I was soon cruising around with the resident fish of all shapes and sizes, and ducking in and out of an extraordinary variety of seaweeds and urchins in an array of dazzling colours. We also checked out the world's largest sea cave, along with huge arches and majestic cliffs which jutted out of the water while we warmed ourselves up with some hot soup between dives. But the highlight for me on the dives had to be swimming into a couple of caves where we could actually pop off to the surface inside the cave and have a chat - it seemed very bizarre popping out my regulator at a depth of 12 metres and having a chinwag with my buddy and instructor - that was definitely something I'd never experienced before.
As I clambered back into the boat, weary, but ecstatic, I thought to myself - what a wonderful world.
Written by Rachel Pinder
Please note: The Excitor is no longer in operation but has been replaced with the Island Adventurer.