New Zealand turns it on for the homecoming team

We’d given ourselves a few days’ grace to recover from the passage and sail back home from Opua, not wanting to rush the trip nor undertake any more unnecessary overnighters, and so we wafted down south on day-trips, spending a night at Matapouri and another in Tutakaka Harbour before venturing for the last time out to a remote island. We chose the tiny island group of the Mokohinau’s, based on the recommendation of a fishing charter skipper we met at Tutakaka who drew us a chart on the back of a beer mat and gave us great advice about local conditions. With a strong wind warning in force for the area there was only going to be one viable anchorage there, and we set out at dawn from the snug protection of Tutakaka Harbour to make the 40 miles crossing, fingers firmly crossed that we’d find room there.

We needn’t have worried. After all it was New Year’s Eve, and only the truly anti-social or friendless would chose this remotest of Hauraki Gulf islands to see the new year in, so we found ourselves on our own in the most stunning and beautiful of sceneries. Towering craggy rockfaces loomed on all sides over crystal clear water in ‘the cathedral’, the bay with the best protection from strong Southerly winds, and as the winds raged in the sea outside we sat snuggly at anchor in our echoey cove. We hadn’t expected to find such beauty, and felt privileged to have travelled so far but still found scenery to gasp at on our own doorstep.

Luca by this stage had refined his rope-climbing skills to the point where he could free-climb the shrouds almost to the top, and left us wondering vaguely how we’d cushion his fall as he climbed the mast once again. Gabriel had picked up a diving weight belt as a Christmas present, and this was to be his first outing. We set out that afternoon with spearguns to hand, and after basic safety instruction we snorkeled around the cove, through the rockface and out into the ocean wall to hunt for dinner. Gabriel showed off his spearfishing talent once again with an impressive haul of butterfish, and the table was laid for fried fish that evening.

We’d arranged to catch up with good friends Greta and Jason the following day as our last stop before arriving at Beachlands, but I’d wanted to try one last time to spear a kingfish (one of New Zealand’s renown gamefish), and so set off at dawn the next day to check out a rock pinnacle some six miles south. Simpson Rock is a pinnacle that sticks up in the middle of the sea to the west of Great Barrier Island, ostensibly in the middle of nowhere, so we were unlikely to be able to anchor there. Our plan to get as close as possible, and for me to plunge in and freedive the site whilst Rebecca stood off with the engines running. The birdlife grew in intensity as we approached, until around the pinnacle it culminated in a huge flock of seabirds floating and diving, signifying plentiful fish. This was a classic work-up, where large pelagic fish ‘work up’ a school of smaller fish into a frenzy as they feed on them, driving them to the surface where seabirds can also strike. It’s spectacular viewing, and at one point the sea around the boat started to boil as thousands of kahawai tried to escape vertically from their predators. Gabriel dropped into his own personal frenzy, grabbing his fishing gear and deploying his lure a fast as he could, and sure enough within minutes a nice-sized kingfish was his reward.

With that drama over I dropped over the side, swam to the rock and began snorkeling and diving down it’s face. I’ve only had the experience of diving through a work-up once before, and this was equally amazing. The sea was full of large kahawai and terakihi, literally thousands of them swimming around completely ignoring me but somehow managing to avoid bumping into me. You could reach out and touch them. Any one of these would normally have made a respectable catch, but I was on a mission for kingfish so continued on. It was an incredible experience, diving on a rock face so full of large fish, and I was loathe to shorten it by shooting anything. But it wasn’t long before several large kingfish swam into view and my moment had come. By this stage I think my perception had been altered somewhat by seeing so many other large fish, as I remember lining up the largest and wondering briefly whether it was of legal size (kingfish must be min 75 cms long). My shot hit the target, and much to my surprise the fish seem to barely notice, allowing me to drag it away from the rock and back towards the boat. It finally livened up a bit when we tried to bring it onboard, but none of us realised quite the scale of the thing until we’d gaffed it and hauled onto the back step. The thing was enormous, weighing in at approx the same weight as Gabriel (45kg). In retrospect, my shot must have entered its backbone, as kingfish are known for their strength and there’s no question that a fish of that size would have towed me had it not been somehow disabled.

We sailed on to meet up with Jason and Greta at Mototapu Island for the night, and spent a wonderful evening with them in Home Bay, devouring scallops, kingfish and snapper and watching with interest as Jakey restored his friendship with former 3 year old girlfriend Ella. From here to our final arrival at Pine Harbour Marina, where we were met by several of our Beachlands friends in a welcome that left us feeling quite tearful. We weren’t just returning to a great house and a warm community, but good friends to boot. Friends who immediately started helping us by shifting luggage, lending cars, loaning fridges, sharing internet access and bringing food to help us in the transition from sea to land. To the families Keasts, Woods, Reids, Dudleys and Derbys – thank you so much for your help. You guys rock!

As expected, the transition was peculiar. After 18 months living and sleeping in a 42 foot floating box, we all found the relatively cavernous space of our house quite overwhelming; Luca kept walking around saying “it takes so long to walk around it!” Luca and Gabriel, despite having their own bedrooms, sought the familiarity of small boat space and elected to bunk up in the same room, and we all crashed out on the floor on mattresses brought in from Tonga Moon. Rebecca and I found sleep hard to come by that first night, both finding the silence and stillness of our house quite unsettling, having for so long drifted to sleep with lapping waves and the familiar and ever-present sounds of the boat around us. But for all that, there’s no denying the joy of having hot showers on tap, full-sized and flushing toilets (our yacht loo seats are small circumference and never very comfortable), a front-loading fridge (god, how we grew to hate our top-loader where the food you were looking for was always at the bottom), and a guaranteed dry bed.

Maybe the final moment of transition was the opening of our container, in which we’d stored almost all of our worldly possessions. Running on a tight budget, we’d decided not to pay for a lock-up but instead buy our own container and stuff everything inside… amazing how much you can shove inside a 20 foot container if you try. But the million dollar question was – would it be dry? We both doubted this, given that the summer we were away was one of Auckland’s wettest, and so approached this moment with some trepidation. The padlocks slid open, the doors heaved apart, and amazingly there sat all our stuff looking as dry as the day we put it in. Phew. As we dug further into the container we started to uncover mould and mildew, but nothing a bottle of jif and some good old fashioned scrubbing wouldn’t resolve. Fred suggested that scrubbing furniture was probably a job for the 1st mate, and herein learnt one of the harshest lessons on stepping ashore. Now back at home, he found himself rapidly demoted from skipper to general dogsbody with seemingly no interim steps in between.

So we’re home, and starting the slow process of unpacking and settling back in. The boys will return to a real school in a few weeks’ time, which doesn’t fill them with joy, although being able to hang out with mates all day certainly does. Hah! – that should put some perspective to their complaints about 3 hours home-schooling on the boat! Rebecca starts work at the end of the month, re-donning her Florence Nightingale outfit but this time in fancier surroundings. And Fred must find a job. Anyone with work for a retired yachtie do get in touch. We’ll clean up Tonga Moon, complete some repairs and put her on the market to sell. But despite all these immediate urgencies, we’re already looking forward to our next project. These last few days have reminded us quite what a lovely and privileged place New Zealand is, and we reckon it’s time to see more of our homeland; so a circumnavigation of New Zealand could be on the cards once we’ve found our next boat.

So now this blog must end (altho’one or two more photos to come). It’s been really heartening to receive such great comments from many of you on the blog, and now we’re home to discover how many people have been following it. You sad buggers…it’s time to get a real life! Several people have suggested we should convert it into a book, and we’re keen although completely clueless on publishing. Anyone with publishing knowledge, we’d love to hear from you.

We feel extraordinarily lucky to have been able to undertake this trip, and we’ve returned with many mementos and tens of thousands of photos to remind us. Anyone suffering from insomnia should borrow our laptop and view them.

 

Thank you for all your wonderful support all the way around.

 

In the words of our Rossel, PNG friends: “bam-banga tpene yar. Choo-lemee ngar a kpap nmoo-or”. Take care, and God bless you all. Now try saying THAT with a mouthful of sago!

 

This is Tonga Moon signing off.