Whangamata, NZ

Day 3

1.5 mi / 11.5 mph / 0 ft. climbing
Home: Harbour Inn

The owners of our accommodation run SurfSUP, the only operator that guides people to Whenuakura Island, more-descriptively known as “Donut Island”. This is a small round dome of an island three-quarters of a mile offshore, but it has a secret. On the side hidden from shore, there is a sea-cave sliced into its cliff face. That cave actually penetrates through to the center of the island, where there is no roof! It’s a collapsed volcanic cone, and you can kayak (or Stand-Up Paddle board) inside, where you’re centered in a blue lagoon open to the sky, but completely surrounded by the rocky tree-covered “donut”.

Rett had signed us up for the 3pm tour today, but yesterday one of the owners dropped by and said “we might need to send you at 9am instead”. Part of the reason we’re taking another 5 nights in Whangamata is because high winds (and rain) are coming, and while the swells weren’t supposed to be that high by today, the factor that I hadn’t considered was tide strength. Low tide is super-low right now, so that exposes more rocks and makes entry much more difficult.

So, 9am it was! We’re moving to a new accomodation today (after tortuous hours spent searching and deciding yesterday), and figured the kayaking would cover our changeover gap. We’re now earlier than planned, but the owners let us put our bikes in their little office, and then even gave us a ride over to the beach launch point a mile away.

That’s when she expressed some disappointment and doubt, saying that the swells had increased to 3 feet, despite the forecast saying 1-2 feet last night. Didn’t sound like a big difference to me, but she said that’s nearing the cutoff where they cancel the tour. “Conditions didn’t look great yesterday afternoon either, but we got everybody in and out, so maybe you’ll be lucky too…”

A legally-required selfie! (this was part of the digital release form).

A couple from Germany a bit younger than us were the only others heading out. We got a brief and not-terribly-comprehensive training session from our guide (to his credit, maybe he trusted our experience level more than we did), and before my subconscious could catch up and say “wait, this is insane, what are we doing here?!”, we were paddle-paddle-paddling straight into the crashing waves, which pitched our two-person vessel up and down much more steeply than any kayaking we’d done before.

These were sit-on kayaks, so they lack the rudder of the sea kayaks we became dependent on in our most-extensive and most-recent kayaking experience (now 2 years ago in Mexico). So it was sort of amazing that we successfully kept the boat pointed straight at the waves (going sideways would have instantly capsized us) with only our paddles to steer us, something we’ve never done a great job of coordinating on.

Keeping ourselves in place while our guide tells us about Maukaha Rocks.

Once past the treacherous surf, we caught our breath and had a chance to do a bit more practicing on the calmer waters. And then we headed off for the far side of Donut Island. We soon discovered that our success through the waves wasn’t just dumb luck; Rett and I were unusually in-sync, not just able to easily stick close to our guide (something our group in Mexico had extreme difficulty with), but also competently holding in place when necessary, by responding to the waves and current trying quite hard to push us elsewhere.

Our guide sat us in that holding position while he scouted into the island’s interior against some mighty-looking swells laying siege to the outside of the ring. When he re-emerged and paddled back out to our calmer water, he reported it safe enough for us to attempt entry (perhaps his judgement included an assessment of our abilities so far).

We edged closer, paused again to wait out two or three  big incoming swells, and then GO! Paddle! Paddle! Paddle! Once again our teamwork was perfect, and it needed to be in order to thread the needle through the 40-foot long cave barely wider than our paddles, with the waves racing to beat us to be first inside of the donut, and then gushing back out as if they’d mistakenly come to the world’s lamest party. Rett called out rocks and waves ahead, and I did the majority of the steering in response, but really it was mostly about flowing with the churning sea, and fighting it (hard!) only when necessary.

Inside the donut of Whenuakura Island, looking back to the cave-tunnel we had just passed through.

Phew, we were inside! Our guide directed us over to a calmer corner of the lagoon, but before we even got there “BIG WAVE!! Turn back into it!!!” We all somehow got pointed back toward the cave mouth just before the three-foot wall of water ejected forth from it, paddled hard just to stay in place while our kayaks pointed up to the circle of sky above, and then dove back down the other side. “BACK-PADDLE!” A sudden gear-shift as the heavy volume of water tried to then suck us back out with it when it made its immediate exit.

Whew, well that was an exciting entry, a bit more than we bargained for, but really satisfying that…”ANOTHER ONE!!” No time to even breathe, much less pat ourselves on the back. Paddle! Paddle!! Paddle!!! This one must have taken the nose of the kayak four feet in the air, and when we came back down, the Germans were in the water just to our left, their kayak upside-down!

The big waves just kept coming, so we needed to prevent an already-bad situation from becoming even worse, by not whacking our tour-mates in the head with our paddles as we fought hard to keep ourselves from joining them in the water.

We somehow managed to stay upright against the continuing onslaught, and gave space for our guide to help the Germans back aboard their righted boat. But the crashing waves were making their reboarding impossible, tossing their bodies into the sharp rocks instead. So after a couple attempts, our guide directed us to land on the small shell beach.

The island is privately owned by local Maoris, and while they allow people to enter the lagoon, they have a rule that you can’t set foot on the land. So we were now breaking that rule, but I’m pretty sure the owners would understand that this was a necessity.

Inside the donut of Whenuakura Island.

The Germans swam-walked while we helped drag their kayak ashore, and they emerged from the water bruised and bloodied in multiple places from the rocks. Luckily they avoided any injuries more serious than that, and we all just stood for some moments, letting our heart rates go back down, and especially in their case, letting the adrenaline flush back out of their bloodstream.

A view of the rocky chaos making up the floor of the lagoon. Of course now there were no waves coming in!

A guidebook we have claims that “reclining back across your kayak, cocooned within the cauldron of a collapsed volcano and staring up through its bush-clad caldera to the cacophony of bird song and splashing sea soothes the soul and the senses”. Safely back on shore, I’m able to laugh while reading that again; it must be describing some totally different Donut Island in New Zealand! It is right when it calls it a “once in a lifetime experience”, we just got the adrenaline-junkie experience, rather than the meditative, all-the-world-is-at-peace version.

And the danger was far from over. Could we even get back out with the water so violent, or would we need some sort of rescue? The water had calmed a bit, so our guide directed us back into the boats to give it a try. But just boarding was such a challenge, with the waves tugging the kayaks in unpredictable directions and into the rocks, that we convinced him to lead us out one at a time, so that he wouldn’t need to risk rescuing four people from the water at one time. Even with me out in the water steadying the front of their boat, and the guide at the back, it was still tough getting the Germans back aboard, and it’s not like they were some unathletic novices.

But the two kayaks soon disappeared through the hole, leaving Rett and I alone on the beach. While it still wasn’t quite the calm-inducing guidebook vibe, in exchange we had been granted a rare and unique moment of solitude in this beautiful place.

The pool to the right of the cave mouth was the theoretically-calm spot we were supposed to have ended up in.

For our five minutes alone, the water was quite calm (that’s when all my photos were taken), only to rise back up again when our guide returned for us. Of course! We were able to board without incident, but then had another skills-test just staying in-place and upright as a new round of waves came flooding in. Finally we saw an opening, so we let a gushing outflow from the lagoon surge us into the cave opening, and then paddle-paddle-paddled through the oncoming waves and soon popped back into the light and out into the calmer open water.

We re-collected the Germans from their holding pattern, and then continued on with the “standard” tour itinerary, heading for the flat sand beach of the neighboring, larger island where we disembarked (intentionally this time!) to enjoy some kawakawa tea (made from the peppery, arugula-tasting leaves of a native tree that you can also munch straight-up). The Germans were remarkably unperturbed by the briefly-terrifying dunking and subsequent beating they received, even now when most of their adrenaline-induced pain-tolerance would have drained away. It was an admirable exhibition of stoicism, and I’m sure our guide/tour-company were also pleased with how in-stride they took the near-catastrophe. Yes, we all signed a release, but I doubt many others would have taken such an “eh, it’s all part of the adventure!” attitude that this couple displayed.

On the beach of Hauturu Island.
It almost looks like these rocks could have been part of a donut at some point too.
More “kayaks on a beach” photography.

It was super-easy getting on and off the island beach, but then we had to do a long parallel-to-shore paddle, nosing slightly (and balancing) into the swells to prevent them from rolling us, and finally turning straight into beach to punch one final time through the “wall” of breaking waves without letting them swamp us. Once again, I’m sure some luck was involved, but it also really felt like Rett and I were moving as one, just feeling the sea and responding to it, and that’s also part of why we made it quickly onto the sand still mostly-dry.

One of the owners met us as we came up the beach; he had been nervously watching with binoculars and repeatedly calling our guide for status updates (the guide couldn’t answer because wet fingers weren’t working on the touchscreen phone). Upon seeing the sticky blood on the skin of our fellow adventurers, he said something like “we should probably file an incident report on this one…” They were newly-arrived in New Zealand, and had the rest of their trip ahead of them; hopefully their subsequent adventures would be calmer, and hopefully their injuries wouldn’t finally reveal themselves and become limiting.

While we certainly don’t want to use their pain to uplift ourselves, and we would have felt quite satisfied in our performance regardless, I can’t deny that the point of comparison inspired just a bit more pride in our abilities. After all, my immediate impression was “they’re better kaykers than us” (small examples: they went barefoot from the parking lot on through the whole adventure, while Rett and I both wore water shoes, and Rett initially put her wetsuit on backwards). But, maybe this is another case where our internal views don’t match external reality? On the other hand, I don’t think we have to worry about overconfidence; my takeaway at the end was more “we probably should have been more nervous about what we were getting ourselves into” rather than “now we can kayak through a hurricane!!!”

We got a short ride back to our bikes, cleaned most of the sand off ourselves at their outdoor shower (it seems every house here has one!) and rode half-wet to our new accommodation, where we could not just check in early, but were luckily informed the day before that we could check in at any time!

Days 4-7

We decided to hole up in Whangamata for the rest of the rainy week; heavy rain was due only at the end, but all the days leading up to it had strong headwinds, so staying in this town big enough to have a proper grocery store felt like a good way to avoid some potentially-miserable conditions.

The harbor was just a block from our unit, but we barely spent any time there; I suppose we got quite enough water adventure on our kayaking trip!

Among other chores, it took me a while to repair (and even decide how to repair) my rat-chewed pannier. Whanagmata isn’t big enough to have a sewing/fabric store, but I had good luck at the variety/dollar store, acquiring a thin sheet of EVA foam (waterproof), iron-on patches, and fabric glue. I experimented a bit with gluing on the foam (it seemed to work), but in the end went with the iron-on patches, placed face to face on both inside and outside (since the holes were so big), ironed, and then edge-stitched by hand. The rat assholes made my life a real pain with the lower hole, because the “one” hole went through three separate sections of fabric, all of which needed their own patch. I haven’t tested their water-resistance, but it’s probably not too much worse than the supposedly-waterproof but 20-year-old Cordura fabric (the overall pannier was never waterproof due to the stitching and zippers, so the rain cover (which I also had to repair!) will continue to provide the majority of the protection).

We met our host Wendy on our final morning, and she said “I hope all the rain didn’t ruin your plans too much!” That’s an understandable normal-traveler concern, but for us, I actually felt like there hadn’t been quite enough rain! Yes, we did definitely get a day with solid heavy stuff, but for people who are excited whenever we have paid out for a roof and then it rains, we ended up “cheated” a bit overall!

Our unit was the lower-level rear of this multi-unit building, where our host Wendy is trying (and failing) to get out of my photo.


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