NZ Day 5: Snorkeling the Poor Knights

To get to the harbor we had to do an early morning ride, which was a lot more hassle than we expected due to the big hill between Matapouri to Tutukaka. A lot of tight curves, with no curb and almost no shoulder, and the two of us huffing and puffing at 3mph to climb our way up. On the positive side, the drivers were clearly doing their best to help. They would consistently slow down and give us most of the lane, swerving to the outside. It was nice to know they were allies.

Nevertheless, even the most polite driving can’t eliminate that terrible feeling a cyclist gets when a two-ton metal monster is rushing up behind their back!

Whoo! Ten dollar wetsuit rental!

Gettin' suited up for snorkeling!

But we made it safely, stowed our bikes at the storefront, and walked onto the boat, ready for adventure! Here’s a video of the journey out:

Whoo! Jumping into the water!

The Poor Knights Islands are pretty amazing, even if you’re only experiencing them from slightly off the coast, which is uniformly steep and rocky. This is just as well, since the island group is a protected habitat, and the Department Of Conservation will fine you hundreds of thousands of dollars for merely setting foot on it – and far more if they catch you removing any of its unique species for sale on the black market.

Our boat dropped anchor about 100 feet from the nearest rock wall, and we got a polite but firm lecture on what we were allowed to do: Scuba, snorkel, swim, and paddle, but don’t touch anything, and definitely don’t pick anything up. We could dig it! The only thing we planned to take was awesome video!

I hadn’t been snorkeling in many years, but it came back to me easily. Ever since splashing around in the pool as a child, I’ve always been more comfortable slightly under the water – pretending I was a submarine – than on top of it. And for ten bucks each, Kerry and I got wetsuits, making the water feel nice and comfy.

Handy tip: Cold wetsuit? Empty that bladder! Aaaaahhhh. It only feels unsanitary if you forget that most of our sewage ends up in the ocean anyway…

There were a few sea-caves within swimming distance. Dark, angular, foreboding holes in the rock, sucking in rivers of seawater and then spitting them out. I ventured inside one for a few minutes, swimming with the current and then bracing myself against a rock when the current reversed, so I could keep my progress. It was like being inside a slow-moving mosh pit: Every second you think you’re going to get slammed against something, but the current surges with you, up against the obstacle, turning the impact into something less dangerous.

I didn’t stay for long, since it was too dark to see much, but before I left I pointed my mask down and saw a group of scuba divers, creeping along the bottom of the cave with a flashlight. The water was much calmer down there – no current to jostle them around. Maybe I’ll learn to scuba some day, and do the same thing? I hear the Monterey Bay back home has some great stuff…

The sea critters were delightful. I wanted to follow every fish I saw and tickle it! But even more interesting was the vegetation. Since we were right up next to an island, the water would slosh back and forth in long, languid motions like the sway of a gigantic pendulum, causing me and everything else around me to move gently within it. It created a kind of optical illusion, where all the rocks of the sea floor and the wall were moving, but all the long tendrils of seaweed that drifted out from them were standing still, with the fish and myself suspended nearby. The entire world was weaving dangerously around, but this little bubble of space was perfectly calm.

The temptation to swim over the top of a big crusty rock and just hang there, undulating in perfect sync with a curious little cloud of fishes, was very strong. We only had a few hours to explore a wide area, but I couldn’t resist just hanging out for a while, at least a few times. Chillin’ with my fish, yo. What an amazing experience.

Back on the boat, with our wetsuits off and our regular clothes back on, our next amazing experience was a sea cave, called Rikoriko. The guide claimed it was the largest sea cave in the world, but I honestly have no idea how accurate that is. It was a spectacular sight in any case – weird stuff growing from the ceiling, flickering lights reflecting from the water and dancing across the walls, long reverberation trailing every sound…

Here’s a video of the tourguide putting more accurate numbers to the size of the cave.

And here’s what I saw when I took a glance at the ship’s console:

When we entered the big cave, the boat GPS went dead. Awesome!

When we entered the big cave, the GPS signal went dead. Awesome! WE’RE LOST!

After the cave, we spent some time motoring around and between the islands, while the guide gave a history lesson, including a few different versions of the story behind the name “Poor Knights”. My favorite version is that when Captain Cook first saw the islands in 1769, the native bushes were all in bloom, creating a reddish fringe all along the top that reminded him of a traditional seafaring meal called a Poor Knight’s Pie. He had been sailing for quite a while at that point, so he’d probably eaten one recently, because the main ingredient of a Poor Knight’s Pie was old moldy bread. The ship’s cook would fry it up and spread jam on it, creating a greenish-brown slab with a reddish fringe. It must have looked just like a little island on the captain’s plate.

Ah, the life of the sea! There wasn’t any Poor Knight’s Pie on our boat, but they did provide hot drinks, instant soup, and several big pyramids of pre-made sandwiches. I was feeling very hungry, and even though the sandwiches had wheat in them, I figured, “hey, it’s been a long time since I felt a reaction to wheat, maybe my body is past it now?” So I grabbed three or four of them at least – probably more – and devoured them.

Here’s a hyper-speed tour through an arch during our last few minutes at the Poor Knights islands:

After that we motored back to the harbor. Kerry and I were not looking forward to another round of cycling, and we were also feeling the subtle onset of “land sickness“, which is a kind of reverse sea-sickness that creeps up on you and makes you dizzy when you get off a boat. It made me think of all those old cartoons I’ve seen where sailors weave around on dry land as though they’re perpetually drunk. I wonder how much of that stereotype – of sailors as drunks – was established just from watching them try to deal with this unanticipated problem, or the more serious long-term version of it, a debilitating psychosomatic disorder known as “Mal de debarquement“?

Even though we weren’t feeling our best, we managed to get ahold of a shuttle driver who was between jobs, and convinced him to carry us and our huge awkward bicycles down the highway for half an hour to Whangarei. We had to stack the bicycles on top of the empty rows of seats, so it was a lucky coincidence that none of the seats were booked except for one, and that passenger graciously agreed to ride up front with the driver. It rained a little during the drive, making Kerry and I feel extra grateful we weren’t out there pedaling. We made sure to leave a generous tip.

We checked in and scattered our gear around the little detached cottage, and flopped down on the bed. It would have been nice to sleep the rest of the evening away, but we needed dinner. At least we had plenty of food choices nearby. I located a thai restaurant only a few miles from the hotel and we crept reluctantly back onto our bikes.

Just outside the hotel we stopped to admire the Whangarei Falls, and I got a nice shot of a parasitized tree. It was my first up-close look at one, and I found it fascinating – more so than the waterfall, which was crawling with tourists.

Half a mile later, the road went sharply downhill. Every foot of descent was another foot we would have to climb back up on the return journey, and as the bicycles plummeted, my stomach did too. I was exhausted. I knew Kerry was even more exhausted, and already stressed out from riding too much over the last three days. She was not enjoying the trip right now, and it was all my fault for underestimating the New Zealand hills, and she was going to be angry with me for accidentally leading us down yet another one. I just knew it. At the bottom of the hill I slowed to a crawl, and still it seemed like a very long time before Kerry caught up. We rode the rest of the way to the restaurant in bleary silence. I felt panicky, and depressed, and altogether much more upset than I could remember feeling in a long time.

There was a bus stop nearby, and I stared at the schedule with the faint hope that we could ride a bus back up the hill, but it was too late at night. We locked our bicycles and shambled into the restaurant. I ordered the food. Kerry excused herself to the bathroom, saying she needed some time alone, and was gone for so long I began to get worried. I stacked our luggage up underneath the table and went looking for her. Each bathroom was enclosed behind a lockable door, so I knocked on the one that was locked, and she let me in. We both sat on the floor for a while, arms around each other, nauseated and tired.

We talked, and I told her what seemed to be going on with me: I was having a wheat reaction. The first one I’d had in a year at least, and it was no coincidence that I was having it on the day I’d decided to believe I was “cured” of that problem, and eaten a huge amount of bread. I was obviously not “cured”. All the usual signs were there, chief among them the intense, sudden feelings of depression, plus the elevated heart rate, the double-rings under the eyes, and the total inability to calm down or think clearly. A kind of free-floating panic attack that doesn’t stop. When it’s especially intense, all you can do is lay on the ground and let time pass. Your rational mind knows that it’s possible to stand up, but the panic is like a hot coal, burning the line between your head and your legs.

Kerry was dealing with her own panic attack, brought on by land sickness, hunger, and fatigue. She was upset about the hill, but not upset with me. It had been her choice to let me set the pace, and her choice to continue on it, and she told me so. We were both in bad shape but we were also both more interested in reconciliation than in conflict, and that was a big help. Eventually we got to our feet together, and when we walked out of the bathroom we found our food waiting at the table, and we sat down and devoured it. It was delicious. We stuffed ourselves and slowly began to feel a bit better.

I hauled out my phone and poked at Google Earth and other mapping tools for a while, and found an alternate route back up to the hotel that made the ascent much more slowly than the huge, steep hill we’d gone barreling down. We packed up plenty of leftovers and set out feeling much calmer. The night air and the lack of traffic helped as well.

It took about an hour to get home, but we chatted on our headsets the whole way. I told Kerry an improvised story about a weasel and a beaver who learned about each other through a newsletter, and had to fight off a bunch of romantic rivals to track each other down. When we reached the hotel we were both in much better spirits.

While unloading the bikes, we saw a huge orange cat and had to take a few pictures, even though we were tired!

Dueling cameras! Sony versus Canon! Night-time NZ edition! GO!
Maurice the cat says: "I own all these things!"
Maurice the night-time prowler!
Kerry providing some supplemental grooming to the Whangarei Backpacker's Lodge cat. Mmmmm! Pffft pfffft hairball

I think we named him Maurice!

We had the most interesting transportation on the lot!

Here’s a shot of our bikes – the most interesting transportation on the lot, I’m sure – before we hauled them inside the cottage for the night.

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