At a Dive shop in Whitianga on the North Island’s Coromandel peninsula half a day from Auckland, I asked the teenage girl left at the till which way the tidal currents flowed around here. She smiled at me like I was an idiot and explained slowly.
‘Well, when the tide comes in it like, comes towards you, and when it goes out, it sort of goes away.’
Before I got into sea paddling that’s what I would have said, but I explained what I meant, that tidal flows moved to and fro in a given direction along a coast, not just in out, in out, like a Can-Can dancer’s legs At any constriction or headland it’s a good thing to know when planning or timing a paddle. She looked it up on the internet.
Tides apart, did I really think the surging expanse of the Pacific would be calm enough for a humble 10km coastal packayak round the cliffs of Cook Bluff to the famous and much fridge-magneted tourist icon of Cathedral Cove (painting below)? No, but now on my wavelength, Dive Girl went on to offer me tomorrow’s gloomy forecast: 4-metre swells, 35 knot gusts and occasional showers of razor-billed flying fish.
A good day for a cliff walk then. Coming back next evening from Cooks Beach, I was a little appalled to see Mercury Bay awash with white-capped rollers, as if some tsunami was on the go. Surf’s up, if you have the nerve.
It was right here in 1769 that Captain Cook and his crew – on the hunt for the fabled Terra Australis – first raised the British flag on the New Zealand shore while engaged in observing the transit of Mercury.
Maybe I’d get a chance the day after, my last. But even in the calm morning, the storm’s after-swell was still pounding the cliffs and beaches of Mercury Bay. Who knows how it was at the Cove of Broken Dreams which, they said, was still closed from the land side, anyway.
Luckily, the cliff-rimmed natural harbour of Whitianga was sheltered from all this Pacific aggression. And better still, the tides were ideally timed to be swept into the inlet, before getting spat out on the mid-afternoon ebb like a retching gannet’s breakfast.
Settling up on a grassy strand near the marina, I realised I’d left my pfd at the hostel – this after noting a warning sign advising that all in <6-m long boats required them. Oh well, if spotted hopefully the harbour master will zoom up alongside me on his jet ski and lend me one for the day. As it was, I was heading inland where there’d be no one.
Once tempered up via my hose extension, I scooted over the yacht-clogged harbour mouth, ferrying across the strong current filling the shallow inlet, tilting marker buoys as it went. I was told later that, partly as a result of dredging a channel for marina access, that Whitianga’s natural harbour was fastest flowing in New Zealand.
On the west side, under a wave-carved overhang (left) I hopped out to temper the MRS again. I like an inflatable as firm as possible but am finding, perhaps due to its larger than normal volume for a non-pump inflatable, that the S1 commonly needs a second pump up a few minutes in.
I’m now wondering if something about half the size or volume of my 600-g K-Pump Mini would be handy to get the Nomad up to operating pressure in one go. This eBay pump (right) cost me just 3 quid posted and is actually similar to the mini pump Alpacka initially offered with their $2000 Alpackalypse. With a pump like this, after high-volume air-bagging, you could judiciously pump to a highish pressure on the shore – assuming the cheapo eBay pump can hack it. Yes, a pump’s another thing to carry/lose and the comparatively bulky K-Pump will do the job in a few short strokes. But unlike a paddle, it’s not ‘mission critical’, as they say in the movies.
Fitting a PRV and being able to pump away until the PRV purged (as I do with my Seawave IK) would be even easier, because you could also happily leave the boat out on a hot beach without fear of it exploding into a thousand ribbons of ruptured TPU. PRVs are unknown on packrafts so maybe I’m over-thinking it, but double-tempering is a bit of a faff even if, as humans go, I have a good pair of nicotine-free lungs.
Anyway, I padded southwards, weaving among the lifeless yachts and cruisers, reminding me of our Hayling Island paddle last summer. Let me tell you, in this world there are a lot of massively under-used boats bobbing around and gathering algae.
Once past a sinister big black tug, the bay opened out and I was in the clear. Nearby, alongside a jetty below a cliff leading to a dwelling hidden in the bush, I spotted this pioneering-era carving.
Beyond here the shore looked oddly mangrovey and inaccessible. Mangroves this far south at nearly 37°? I’d only ever seen then around Darwin where I’d once eaten a so-called oolie worm which feeds in their trunks. Sure enough, turns out hereabouts is the southermost extent of mangroves.
I’m not so keen on this sort of drab coastline, but live and let alternative lifeforms live, I suppose. In fact it was fun to probe the passages below the shady groves as it was due to reach 30°C today.
It took a bit more idle nosing about before I finally located the channel leading southeast to the two small rivers which fed the harbour inlet. The channel narrowed as the supposedly slack tide swept me into the tangled maze of salt-loving woodland. Curving left and right, south and east, as the scaly boughs closed in, it occurred to me that this far down in the bay wouldn’t be a great place to get lost and then stranded in thigh-deep, oolie-ridden silt for the next few hours. Who knows how quick the tide turns. Anticipating this, I’d clocked a hilltop landmark over on the western hills to help orientate myself, then pushed on in as far as I dared, getting maybe 500m from shore before spinning around into the still-rising tide and scuttling back out into the open.
The tide really ought to have turned by now, carrying me back the way I’d come, but the forecast nor’westerly was on time and in my face. Luckily the Nomad’s generous stub nose stopped me making a mockery of the harbour’s 5-knot limit so it was a long hour’s slog back to the harbour mouth, bent against the breeze and slapping waves. A similarly windy afternoon on the Wairoa River a few days back must have got me into paddling shape, so the effort was all put down to good exercise.
Once past the marina, I’d hoped to slip below the jetty, under the harbour master’s cabin and out into Mercury Bay itself. Maybe cruise below Shakespeare Cliffs and then land on Buffalo Beach, like a proper Pacific navigator. But it was not to be. Chances are I’d have just embarrassed myself, tumbling through the surf and into the shore fishermen’s barbed hooks.
My time was up in NZ. Next day, rolling my cleverly adapted UDB (more below) to the bus stop, all was as calm as a kiwi’s cozy nest. I was reminded how sea kayakers must feel when they haul all the way up to the Summer Isles to be met by tent-bothering gales, only to find great conditions as they pack up.
It’ll be there next time and for sure the east side of the Coromandel looks like the fantastic place for some fabulous sea paddling. The beachside hostel I stayed at laid on hefty old SoTs for free and there were plenty of kayak touring outfits in town and around. Give it a go if you ever find yourself down here.
For this trip moving from airport to airport and in a bid to spare my creaking back, I mated my trusty Watershed UDB to a chopped-down lightweight folding trolley I’ve used on previous packboating trips. With chunky zip ties and a strap, the shortened frame fitted securely to the rugged UDB’s back harness tabs.
My load was way under the airline limit, but the thinking was that, once packboating my planned river for a few days, the UDB and small trolley would still be compact, compared to a regular wheeled travel bag.
It was all a way of stopping myself buying the painfully pricey but actually only 500g heavier Ortlieb Duffle RS 140 I’ve been eyeing up. Fitted with an IP67 TiZip (not as good as the UDB’s brass drysuit zip), it’s the biggest one they do, so ought to take my Seawave IK and gear. Lacking a backbone frame of Ort’s RG duffles, the 140 actually rolls up even smaller (right) than my DIY contraption.
A handy side benefit (which might also apply to the airtight Ortlieb), was that being able to inflate my UDB into a rigid airtight sausage made it easier to wheel around (but not as comfy as a full-framed wheel bag). I got some odd looks giving my bag a blow job by the arrivals luggage carousel, because at departure check-in I had to tug the zip open a bit to ensure it would air-off safely at 32,000 feet.
In my hand I carried my nifty Ortlieb 30-L Travel Zip.