The Bay of Islands – Discover New Zealand


Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist

Journeying North as the pandemic begins…

(This is the tenth post in a series. Missed the first nine? Click here to see them all.) A pandemic has been declared and I’m heading up north. It feels a little like the ground has been moved from under my feet. I’ve been planning to visit my friend in Australia, but I keep checking these Covid-19 numbers and it’s not looking good. South Africa, my other destination, also not looking good. My year of discovery travel is beginning to be a question mark. I was going to check out Auckland for a few days before leaving New Zealand, but I’m thinking it will be safer to head up north for a week and wait. The north sounds like it might be more remote, away from big cities, and my intuition is pulling me there. It’s March 16th and I’ve got a long bus ride ahead of me. I get to the bus station in Rotorua around 7am. So different than South America – because advanced reservations are required, the bus driver has our names each ride. We have to check in with him, load our bags, and then put them in the hold. I’m going to Kerikeri – I read that it’s less touristy than Paihia, which I also want to visit and they are about 20 minutes apart. 

We change buses in Auckland. Somehow I’ve gotten friendly with the bus driver (shouldn’t really surprise me as I am so chatty). I have about 2 hours until my next bus arrives and the driver, who is Maori, entertains all my curious questions about his culture and tattoos and how I might study Maori language and culture if I end up staying in New Zealand longer than planned. I notice that a woman, who was a fellow bus passenger up from Rotorua, is standing near us and clearly wants to ask the driver a question. Since he and I are just shooting the shit, I’m perplexed she doesn’t butt in and interrupt us. This is when I get a cultural lesson. I interrupted our conversation to ask if she wanted to ask something. She had an important schedule question. I was stunned that she didn’t interrput us for something that, clearly, was more important than our discussion which could have waited. It turns out she’s going on my next bus, too, and so I chat with her and ask her whether this is part of New Zealand cutlure, not to interrupt, that I should take note of. I learn that kiwis (do not mean to generalize, so, let’s just say SOME kiwis) are extremely easy-going and she wasn’t bothered about waiting. I chuckled because that scene in New York probably would have been very different.

Paihia at sunrise

Paihia at sunrise.

Photo by Heather Markel, copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.

Our next bus arrives, and there’s a decent-sized crowd to get on. The bus driver decides to make us board by name, so he calls us out one at a time. Miraculously, I’m the first name he calls! I make a b-line for the top deck (because he tells me my cheaper seat is upstairs) and take the front row with a perfect oversized window view of everything. A guy from the UK ends up sitting opposite me and a woman with her two daughters sit behind me. At this point, Jacinda, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, has decided that since all Covid-19 cases have originated with foreigners, any new ones into the country will have to self-isolate for 14 days before traveling. So, I am surprised a few minutes later, when the woman behind me starts chatting to me. She quickly shares that she and her girls are from Canada. They feel really lucky because they arrived in New Zealand two days ago and JUST missed having to self-isolate for 14 days. I stare at her and am literally too shocked by her selfish insensitivity to say what I am thinking, “If you want to risk your own health, that’s up to you, but what kind of person jumps on public transportation instead of renting a car, when they know they might be at risk of spreading this thing?” I extract myself from talking to her as quickly as possible and hope I’m not going to get sick. I figure I better mind myself for the next two weeks. Thanks asshole.

Lukily they’re all so jet-lagged they sleep the whole way up and the mom ends up moving a couple seats back. I eventually start chatting with the English guy. His name is Elliot and he’s also going to Kerikeri! He’s going to WWOF on one of the farms. We have a nice chat and exchange numbers at the bus drop-off in Kerikeri. He hugs me goodbye and I get worried, so we elbow bump. I’m staying at an AirBnB and the host has graciously come to the drop-off point, in the center of Kerikeri, to pick me up and bring me to her place. I have my own room, living space and bathroom with a stellar view. After she gives me a tour she informs me her daughter and 2-year old grandaughter, who are in Australia, may come to the house in two days, and she’d self-isolate there. She asks if I would mind. I don’t know how to answer. How do I tell a mother I mind her daughter coming and possibly spreading the infection, and that there’s no way we’d be able to keep the 2-year old away from all the common spaces? Luckily, they end up changing their plans, and I’m relieved, and sad, at the same time.

“New thoughts, new fears, new behaviors to adapt to.”

90 Mile Beach.

Photos by Heather Markel. Copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.

I’m a bit hungry and take my host’s recommendation and eat at Cafe Jerusalem. I have some awesome falafel and sauces and get to speak Argentinian with the co-owner who is from Argentina! On the way back to the AirBnB I go to New World for some groceries, then head back before dark for a nice relaxing evening. There’s a dog and a cat so I have wonderful companions. I book a tour to see 90-Mile-Beach and Cape Reigna for a couple days later. Using the site Book.me, I save about $20. The bus meets me in the center of Kerikeri – it’s a funny bus, like the duck buses that drive in water. I’m not even sure my legs are long enough to get in! Somehow, I do. I meet Paul, the tour guide, and spend the day with about 20 people, most of whom are on a senior tour from the US. 90-Mile-Beach is beautiful. I ask Paul why, when New Zealand works on kilometers, the beach is called 90 MILE beach. I learn it’s because it was discovered by Captain Cook, well before the metric system was introduced, and so the name stuck. There’s a contest going on for who can catch the biggest fish. The waters are a bit wild and I understand there’s a strong undercurrant. These guys are serious, and wade in pretty deep to win. We have a brief wander, and I speak with a couple of the fishermen. Then Paul takes us to a sand dune so we can sandboard.

Cape Reigna.

Photo by Heather Markel, Copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.

I tried sandboarding in Huacachina, Peru, last year, and did not love it. This dune is not as scary but it ends with a shallow pool of water and it’s too cold to get wet, for my taste. I take photos, instead. Our next stop is for lunch and then we head out to Cape Reigna. It’s really stunning. I feel like I’m at the end of the world, or almost, because it’s clear enough that we can see an island apparently about 80 miles away. After walking down to the lighthouse I hike up on the grass instead of the roadway. I meet a lovely girl from France and we chat a bit about solo traveling and what we might do now that the pandemic is messing up our travel plans. We take some photos of each other for each other, (selfies that someone else takes for you like in the old days!) and wish each other luck. 

I head back to the bus and on the way back to Kerikeri, we stop at a Kauri factory. These are the trees the region is known for and they are used to make amber, which I didn’t know. There’s a small museum with some amazing works of art, and a more amazing staircase that appears carved right into a tree trunk. Paul drops me back in central Kerikeri and I go back to my AirBnB content with my day. I decide to book a boat tour to the Hole in the Rock and Bay of Islands for the next day. They have room!

Hole in the Rock, New Zealand

Charging through the Hole in the Rock. Photo by Heather Markel, Copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.

I get an early bus to Paihia the next day and when I board the boat, it suddenly occurs to me that this may not have been a great idea. There are like 90 people on the boat. We’re all sitting next to each other, and much of the world has begun shutting down. I’m not sure this is safe. I sit upstairs to be in open air. Other Americans are sitting near me and talking about how they booked an earlier flight home. They are going home. I’m wondering, as I’ve caught wind of rising infection rates in the US, whether or not I should head home. Anyway, I’m here now, decision made, so I turn my thoughts to the beautiful scenery. We end up driving THROUGH the Hole in the Rock. I find this a bad idea – I think the boat is too wide to fit and the water is choppy. Somehow though, we make it through! When we get to the Bay of Islands, we’re let off on Urupukapuka Island. It’s one of those perfect, New Zealand, scenic islands with sheep grazing and beautiful water. I snap lots of photos and walk around for an hour. Then it’s back to the boat. We stop at Russel, and I consider debarking to explore, but have instead decided to spend a week in Paihia next week, so I will push that till next week. When I get off the boat in Paihia, I get a coupon to do the boat tour again, for free! That’s because we didn’t see any dolphins or whales. Wow, thanks!

I explore Paihia for a few hours. I try some food at The Tipsy Oyster. The oysters have a great reputation. They aren’t bad, but I prefer the meatier kind, so though the flavors of the sauce are excellent, the oyster is not the best I’ve ever had. My lunch is awesome though. They have a super ecclectic menu that’s pretty fascinating. I explore the downtown, and it’s pretty touristy. The supermarket is tiny and way more expensive than Kerikeri. There is a beach, though, which is nice. Eventually it’s time for me to get my bus so I head to the station. I wait and wait. The bus is now about 20 minutes late. I stick it out but then Paul, my tour guide to 90-mile-beach, rolls up! He’s just finished a tour for the day and offers me a lift back to Kerikeri. I gratefully accept. He shows me a kiwi fruit farm on the way back and I remark at the idea that a kiwi could be a fruit, a bird, or a person!

To Be Continued…

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