Whakatane/Ohope Beach

(back to Auckland)

This is a photo I took of Kris and her family in their backyard in Ohope Beach. They are American, and when Mark had a chance to work in New Zealand for one year they jumped on the opportunity.. I would too! Kris said they had a difficult time adjusting (lots of changes), but now they love it. Kris has also found work, the girls enjoy their schools, they enjoy playing in the sea (surfing)... I think it will be difficult for them to leave when the time comes.

(By the way, Whakatane is a Maori word, and to pronounce it correctly the 'Wh' has an 'F' sound... at first it was hard to not giggle or be embarrassed when Kris said it because it sounds very much like f**k-a-tahn-e. And it was really hard to start pronouncing it correctly myself... but eventually I did.


Sunday, March 5 & Monday, March 6, 2006

I spent these first two days sleeping alot trying to adjust to the time change and everything. I also got myself organized. I had to 'repack' during check in to meet weight limits for one of my suitcases, so everything was all over the place. I also did some trip planning based on recommendations by Kris and it was easier once I was in the country to know how things worked. And Kris had collected some directories and pamphlets in her travels aroundt he country. Kris told me about iSites - the major towns/cities have them. They not only have information about touring activities, but they'll help you book and everything. The iSite in Whakatane helped me book my ferry crossing in advance so I could set up my rental car. I tried to set up a swimming with dolphins trip - but the sea was too rough from bad weather the week before I arrived in New Zealand, and the tide was too low. The boats just couldn't get out of the harbor. They kept saying 'call us tomorrow morning'... Oh and on Monday, Kris took me out for a driving lesson to practice driving on the left side of the road.

I also spent quite a bit of time at the beach during these two days - I ran on the beach, read, snoozed... it was nice. Kris and her family live on a long peninsula, about where the yellow arrow is in the photo below. The beach was only a block or two from Kris's house.

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

I called about the swimming with the dolphins... but again the boats couldn't get out of the harbor... they said 'call us tomorrow'... I was determined to wait it out. I really wanted to swim with the dolphins before I left Whakatane...

This was the day I took my first New Zealand hike - starting from West End (where the red arrow is in the photo above) up to Kopi Lookout (where I took the photo). The lookout is on a bluff (covered with rainforest) that juts out into the Bay of Plenty. On one side of the bluff is Ohope Beach (a town) and that's what's shown in the photo above. On the other side of the bluff is Whakatane (another town). It's about a 20 minute drive from one town to the other over the bluff. It was also my first day of driving on the left allllll by myself. It went well. I drove to Whakatane and walked around town a bit. I exchanged some US cash to New Zealand dollars... a little shopping for postcards, etc....

After my hike, I tried surfing with Mark and Kris at West End - Zoe was nice enough to lend me her wetsuit. It was rough surf so it wasn't easy and I never was able to stand up on the board and really ride a wave properly... but it was fun to play with the waves, in a sense I was playing with the sea. :-) I got absolutely pummeled by one wave. Kris and Mark were watching me from closer to the shore - they had just ridden a wave in. They saw the wave coming, and could tell how strong it was and winced a bit. But I had no idea... I just dove into it like I did to all the other waves... It was like swimming into a wall - wham! - it pushed me down into the water, threw me around a bit and spit me out. The board which was strapped to my ankle (like it was supposed to be) got tossed around quite a bit. I'm not sure where the board hit me, and where I hit myself, but in all I managed to biff my left big toe, hurt my right ankle a bit and bruise my shin. I'm lucky the board didn't come down on my head. Just the same, the power of the sea was exhilarating. :-) Unfortunately, I didn't get any photos of me with a surf board... I was too busy surfing! :-)

Oh, and I was part of the 2006 New Zealand census. They count absolutely everyone that is under a roof in a New Zealand house on the day of census. Thankfully, Zoe had the presence of mind to remember that I would be staying with them when the lady dropped by to give them the forms. I really got a kick out of that!

Wednesday, March 8, 2006

I woke up early and went to a RDA (Riding for the Disable Association) center to volunteer. (Of course after a call to see about swimming with the dolphins... and again they said 'call us tomorrow'... hmmmm.... I started to wonder if it was going to happen... the guy was starting to recognize my voice!) Above is a photo I took of the RDA facility from the road. I was hoping to help groom the horse and hang out with them, but they were done with the grooming very early in the morning. That's something I noticed about New Zealand in general - everything seems to happen before noon so you better be an early riser. And for the most part I was an earlier riser while I was there and it felt good. (Those of you who know me well can appreciate how unusual that is for me. I usually stay up late and get things done and sleep late.) I think New Zealanders like to get all their work done so they can 'play' the rest of the day.

I ended up helping out with two rides as a 'side walker'. A ride consisted of a group mounting and riding on a horse led by an employee or volunteer. They had more than enough volunteers to lead, so it was my job to walk alongside the horse and make sure the rider didn't fall off. The riders were disabled so falling off was a real possibility. The ride required them to give verbal orders to the horse which increases their connection to THIS world instead of retreating into their own. They also had to do physical tasks such as identifiying and grabbing a certain object from a tray, holding it as they ride to a post at the other end, put the object on top of the post and ride back. They also were instructed to sit up straight on the horse, and that helps them physically too.

The two people I rode alongside were Bernie and Gareth. Turns out Kris knew Gareth when I described him to her later that day. Kris is a social worker and had spent a day with Gareth at a seaside event in the past. Small world... but Ohope Beach and Whakatane are both small towns, so it wasn't really THAT surprising.

The photo to the right is of the RDA volunteers and employees I worked with. I'm still in touch with the young woman in the middle. Her name is Theresa and she lead one of the horses I walked alongside so we got a chance to talk a bit. I hung out afterwards and we had a really good chat including lots of recommendations about what to see in New Zealand. I found that New Zealanders love to talk about their country and where to go. So many times the map would automatically come out and the suggestions and tips came fast. For instance, I told her about how I was having trouble swimming with the dolphins in Whakatane... she said I shouldn't worry because the Whakatane dolphins aren't as friendly as the dolphins in Kaikoura anyway... she turned out to be so right...

I tried surfing again in the evening - more playing with the sea. For dinner we got really good fish and chips from a local stand. Delicious.

Thursday, March 9, 2006

After yet another disappointing call about swimming with the dolphins... I spent the morning hanging out with the RDA folks again, and then I stopped into a local SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) center that was open until noon. It was essentially a shelter for dogs and cats waiting for adoption. I got there at 11 hoping to volunteer for an hour before they closed, but they had all the work done by 11 and they were about to close up by the time I got there... like I said everything happens early in the morning. It was disappointing because I was planning to leave Whakatane the next day no matter what happened with the swimming with the dolphins and I was hoping to volunteer there. Even though they were going to close soon, they were nice enough to give me (and a nice Canadian woman in the same situation) a quick tour of the facility. It was a really nice place. I ended up having lunch with the nice Canadian woman (Sonya) in Whakatane.

Afterwards I picked up my rental car - which turned out to be a really "flash" car (see photo above). "Flash" is the New Zealand way of say spiffy, awesome, really nice, etc. The luggage you see behind is all my stuff for camping (tent, sleeping bag, etc.), clothes and other stuff. It's not much, but believe it or not, I overpacked. I could have gotten away with half of the clothes I brought. Lesson learned...

I took another run along the beach as far as I could go, and then I took a nice long walk back to the house. It was nice to meander along the beach carrying my running shoes, walking in the water, picking up shells to check them out and then tossing them back... very relaxing.

In the evening I played cards again with Zoe. I taught her a family game called Spite & Malice when we were in Auckland and she wanted to play again - I think she liked it. :-)

Friday, March 10, 2006

I had decided to give up on swimming with the dolphins and leave Whakatane on this morning... but I couldn't resist... I called from a payphone as I was driving out of Ohope to see if by small chance... and they were going! I was finally going to swim with dolphins! But I had to drive like the wind to get to the place in time before they left.

At first we were a small group of only three and the skipper. While we were gearing up (in wet suits, masks, snorkels, etc.) the skipper told us this was his last trip. He had sold the business and he and his family were going to move out of Whakatane - he didn't say where he was moving to, he was a very quiet, private guy... barely made eye contact, didn't waste words. He was the guy I'd been talking to on the phone all week - and we laughed about how persistent I'd been.

Once we were on the boat, he gave us tips on how to attract and keep the interest of the dolphins. Suggestions included 'singing' into the snorkel, not reaching out to touch them, diving down into the water (if you are able) and swimming in circles. These are WILD dolphins, and they do not entice them with food or anything - it's entirely up to the dolphins to decide to swim with us or not - and it was made quite clear that there was no guarantee the dolphins would be interested in us. At the last minute, we were joined by another 12 people and two crew members, which was a bummer, but oh well.

It took about 30 minutes by boat to get out to where the dolphins were in the open sea. When we came upon the group it was wonderful. They were everywhere, all around us. The captain told us for every one we saw coming up for air, there was another 4-5 below the water. I got weepy they were so beautiful. I strategically placed myself near the back of the boat so I could be in the first group to go into the water. They sat five of us along the back of the boat, and when the captain blew the boat's horn (that meant he had maneuvered the boat into the middle of the group and turned off the engines) we were to slip into the water as gently as possible.

I went in and was singing like crazy and looking around but I didn't see any dolphins in the water. I tried diving, but I was so awkward - my mask kept fogging up and slipping because I kept forgetting to breath only through my mouth. If you exhale through your nose you lose the seal on your mask... I never did see any dolphins and very soon they called us back to the boat. When I got back on the boat I found out none of the other swimmers had spotted any dolphins either... the crew said the dolphins had swum in a different direction right after we went in the water. The dolphins just weren't interested in us - I was disappointed, but not frustrated because we had been warned and I knew is was a possibility. Besides, I can respect that these are free animals with a will of their own and an entire ocean to swim in.. that's what would have made the experience so amazing so I had to accept the disappointment. We repositioned the boat and I went in one more time, but still no luck. I was exhausted already from diving and swimming, so exhausted that I didn't feel safe in the water. I decided to just watch from the boat. One person saw one dolphins and that was because he was an experienced diver and he swam like crazy, we watched him - he was a man on a mission... trying to keep up with dolphins in the water is not easy.

I went up in the nest of the boat to chat with the skipper and have a better view. I noticed there were quite a few dolphins swimming in front of the boat and when I commented on it... the skipper suddenly looked at me straight in the eye and said quietly, just to me, 'come with me'... I followed him down out of the nest and down into the bottom of the boat. He opened a trap door for me and then he scurried back up to the nest - because the boat was moving without a driver as he took me down. I went up through a trap door and found myself at the very front of the boat looking down on the dolphins swimming only a few feet away. Eventually, a couple people followed me, but I sat down in a prime seat and let my feet hang down so they were only about a foot from the surface of the water. Whenever the boat stopped to let people get in the water, the dolphins disappeared, but as soon as we started moving again, 7 or 8 dolphins would show up in front of the boat again and crisscross each other, coming up for air to within inches of my toes! It was a wonderful to watch them glide so effortlessly through the water - and we were going pretty fast! I went snap happy... I couldn't choose from among these three photos of my legs and dolphins - so I'm putting them all here. Those with slow Internet... please forgive me.

After we gave up on swimming with the dolphins, the skipper took us to White Island. It's a wildlife preserve with seals, birds, etc. We couldn't get too close because the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DoC) protects the island and its wildlife very carefully. There are no buildings on the island, boats cannot land there without a permit. The success of the island as a sanctuary is quite a feather in the DoC's cap. The skipper pointed out fur seals on the rocks (the first of many that I saw on the trip), various birds, and he explained that the island was a volcanoe... one in a long line of volcanoes stretching out further into the ocean, as well as back into the center of the north island in the Tongariro region - where I was headed next.

On the way back to land we saw a penguin in the water. A little one all by himself. I really liked that. Anyway, once we were back on land, the 12 who showed up at the last minute went one way, and our original 3 went another. I commented to the other two on the trip that I was going to get in a car and drive all day with salty hair and skin. We laughed about it. But later the skipper offered to let me use his shower - I thought that was so nice of him. Also, I wanted to buy one of the t-shirts he had hanging on the wall, but he said he would just give them to me because he was going to throw them out anyway.

So freshly showered and wearing a brand new t-shirt, I felt satisfied that I had 'swum' with dolphins. (Little did I know I would have another, even better dolphin experience in Kaikoura!) I got in my "flash" rental car and headed out of Whakatane towards Tongariro. My next goal was to see Mount Doom... (that's a mountain in Lord of the Rings)...

(on to Tongariro - Part One)