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Sunday, 16 November 2008

Paddling in Pahia, New Zealand

Written by Aaron Ober
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There I was, flipping through a guide book in my hostel bunk, while
crunching noisily on vitamin C drops and sniffing back the head cold
that I had picked up somewhere in the rainy streets of Auckland. It
was day three of my solo adventure to the North Island of New Zealand.
With limited time, I decided to explore the Bay of Islands at the
utmost tip of the land, rich with native Maori history, geographically
blessed with one hundred forty-four islands, and some of the best
sport-fishing in the world.  I was dripping with anticipation—and as
sick as a dog.

I hopped on the Kiwi Express and rubbernecked at the beautiful vistas
that we passed by.  The scenery was lush and green; an expansive
vegetarian buffet for feeding the endless herds of sheep that dotted
the hillsides. The bus was crammed with anxious travelers, most of
whom appeared to be young Europeans on their "rite-of-passage" trip
that is often a tradition just after graduating high school; a
brilliant custom that unfortunately most Americans have still yet to
adopt.  Cutting the young loose to embark on a walkabout, to explore
the world and get to know themselves along the way; to travel, tramp,
trek, whatever you want to call it – too me, it was a more valuable
experience than any college education.

Just after my eighteenth birthday I had a similar journey. I hopped on a greyhound bus in rural New Hampshire and rode her for all her glory west, to the fabled peaks of Colorado; a backpack, a camera, a desire to explore, and a big shit-eating grin on my face.  My "rite-of-passage" started me on a wild journey where I would never look at life the same way again, and it began a life-long love affair with adventure travel.

After a few hours of reminiscing on my own transitions in life, we
finally arrived in the quaint seaside
village of Pahia, directly
across from Russell; the historic whaling port, who’s lawless past had
supposedly inspired the novel Moby Dick.  I found a bunk at the Pipi
Patch hostel and crawled into my sleeping bag cocoon, hoping to emerge
transformed, feeling like a new and healthier man.  Sleep turned out
to be fleeting, as one traveler after another arrived to the communal
bunkhouse.  I listened to the strange accents and soon realized that I
might as well have been in the middle of a U.N. meeting.  It was
intriguing, and I was soon drawn out of my cocoon and into deep
conversation that somehow morphed into a lopsided and somewhat heated
debate, fueled by less-than-positive opinions of
America's world
affairs. I'm usually up for a good debate, but in this bunkhouse I
realized I was greatly outnumbered, and when the fiery Irish lass
high-fived the Brit for his cantankerous impersonation of a "fat
American tourist", I knew I was in trouble.

I made a hasty retreat from the stifling atmosphere of the bunkhouse
and bumped into Arjen, a towering Dutch college student.  While on the
bus, I had noticed that he was carrying a case for a fishing rod and
we soon were sharing fish stories and laughing about the debate I had narrowly escaped.  We decided to do some fishing together, and on our way to the local pier, we came across a kayak outfitter on the beach.  There was an international grunt and nod
passed between my new friend and I, and we were signed up, paid in
full and booked for a trip to paddle around the
Bay of Islands the
following morning.

Paddling in Pahia, New Zealand, solo adventure, adventure travel, North Island, travel New Zealand, Kiwi Express, Bay of Islands, Pipi Patch hostel, Russell, Pahia, Aaron Ober

The pier fishing proved fruitful, much to the surprise of local
onlookers, as Arjen and I landed more than a dozen plump ocean trout.
As it turned out, it was a very rare occurrence for the trout to
school so close to land.  We were informed that it was a tasty and
prized fish, so we kept a few trophies and spent that evening cooking
the fish on a makeshift smoker and handing out samples of the sweet
white meat to the other travelers at the Pipi Patch.  I thought it was
a good peace offering to my grumpy bunkmates, who at least momentarily
forgot about their American grudge.  Later that night, I settled in
for a solid nights sleep, recounting the sheep that I had counted
earlier on in the day.

Our group of greenhorn paddlers stood on the gravelly beach,
uncomfortably fiddling with our skirts, while our Maori guides gave us
last minute instructions.  The sky was overcast and the wind seemed
curiously strong as we set off across the choppy sea, awkwardly
feeling out our kayaks.  We followed our guides out into the bay and
soon found ourselves rising and falling between surging swells.
"Looks like a storm is coming!  Let's head to the river!" One of our
guides yelled over the wind.

Our crew paddled clear across the bay as
the wind bore down and the swells rose to six feet.  My kayak tipped
and rocked and an adrenaline charged state of panic arose inside me as
I strained to keep from capsizing and focused on surfing the monster
waves.  I gritted my teeth and paddled hard, alongside Arjen, who was
hooting like a mad bull, seemingly loving every second of it.
Suddenly, rain dropped from the darkening sky, pelting us in torrid,
windy gusts.  Somehow, no one in our crew
capsized and we finally reached the mouth of the river.  I was soaked
to the bone, shivering and utterly spent, bracing myself for another
coughing spasm.

Paddling in Pahia, New Zealand, solo adventure, adventure travel, North Island, travel New Zealand, Kiwi Express, Bay of Islands, Pipi Patch hostel, Russell, Pahia, Aaron OberThe water was much calmer as we paddled up river, though we were steadily
drizzled on by an unforgiving, cold rain.  We gathered oysters off the
rocks and corralled our kayaks near a waterfall to take pictures—no
one smiled.  The dense, frilly bush stretching up the steep hillsides
looked like good shelter from the miserable rain.  We beached our
kayaks and plugged through the mud to the luxury of solid ground and a
much needed stretch and bathroom break.  I shucked and snorted down a
few of the fresh oysters we had gathered, wolfed down a salty promite
sandwich and again we were on our way, back down the river toward the

I was daydreaming about the hot tub back at the Pipi Patch, following
closely behind Arjen, when we rounded a sharp bend in the river that
opened up to utter chaos.  Our kayaks made abrupt u-turns, slammed by
a 40-knot wind sweeping fiercely upstream, turning the river into a
white-capped snake, hissing and swirling violently.  "Bear down!
Paddle hard!" Our guides ordered.  I watched as Arjen powered forward
like a steamboat, seeming to feed off the energy of the storm.  I
heard a shout from behind me and turned to watch one of the guides
tossing a towline to a flailing paddler, just in time to keep her from
being swept up the river.

While the guide struggled with the burden
of a kayaker-in-tow, I turned my attention back down the river, where
Arjen was now a mere dot in the distance.  He was a true Dutch
workhorse; while I on the other hand was shredding gears in overdrive,
chugging forward with a bitter determination and only one thing in
mind: to make it through this ordeal and get my frigging money back!

Paddling in Pahia, New Zealand, solo adventure, adventure travel, North Island, travel New Zealand, Kiwi Express, Bay of Islands, Pipi Patch hostel, Russell, Pahia, Aaron OberThe river swells collapsed over my kayak and sea spray stung my eyes.
After what seemed like hours, I made out the blurry outline of the
bridge at the river mouth.  My arms felt like rocks tied to my
shoulders, and a searing hot pain shot down my back as I inched toward
the bridge.  Enter: Rocky Theme Song…  Just a little further…  The
sound of my kayak scraping sand brought tears to my eyes.  I put my
head down--not to pray, but to shield it from a brutal sand blast
ripping off the beach.  I hastily disembarked from my kayak, legs
wobbly, arms dangling; a real life Raggedy Andy.  One by one, the
others landed on the sand bar.  Some paddlers whooped for joy, some
sat in a silent, stunned state, while one poor paddler even sobbed

Our group piled into another outfitters tiny shack on the beach for
shelter from the storm.  It was then that I remembered Arjen.  I ran
down to the water's edge and scanned the bay for him.  Sure enough,
there was our workhorse, charging through the raging sea, confident
that we were following behind him into the bay, like a Viking warrior
leading his troops into battle.  The other's joined me on the beach
and we began to cheer him on.  I secretly wondered if he would be all
right.  Even the guides didn't dare to chase him down, and so we would
take the van back and meet him on the other side of the bay.  We

As the others started for the van, I stayed a minute longer,
admiring the bravery of my Dutch friend.  It was then that I saw Arjen
look back.  He must have realized he was all alone, for he swung his
kayak around on a dime and started paddling fervently for the beach.
I called to the others and we celebrated his landing, which pried the
frustrated look from his wet, red face.  He simply smiled and asked,
"What? You guys couldn't make it?"

I never did get my money back.  Instead, I got two days use of an old
rowboat, which Arjen and I took out to do some fishing in the bay, and
yes, he rowed.  Paddling in Pahia, New Zealand, solo adventure, adventure travel, North Island, travel New Zealand, Kiwi Express, Bay of Islands, Pipi Patch hostel, Russell, Pahia, Aaron OberWe drank wine, fished and laughed about or kayaking
experience, which we later found out was at the tail-end of a
hurricane that had hit
Fiji; a perfect "rite-of-passage" ending for
two newbie paddlers.  Eventually my cold cleared up, my bruised,
"fat American" ego healed, and my attitude towards kayaking grew
surprisingly fond.  I figured it couldn't get any worse than that.
So, it's smooth paddling from here on out.

© Aaron Ober

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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