Circumnavigating Uretara Island

Our journey down the coast continued the next morning. We said our last goodbye to Amelia’s husband before we left Tauranga behind and drove down the Pacific Coast Highway towards Whakatane (that’s Whak, pronounced Fak). We wouldn’t be spending the night here, but part of the morning and afternoon would be spent kayaking out in harbor-enclosed sea waters.

My time in New Zealand has seen me double my time spent in a kayak compared to what I’d done back home. This was my first time kayaking in the ocean. I mean, technically it was the ocean. But the water that day was a bit rough, so instead of taking the Coastal Tour I’d originally booked, I arranged with our guide to kayak inside Ohiwa Harbour. Still the ocean, just not as choppy.

The clouds had begun to break up some since yesterday and the sun poked her head out every now and then as we drove. Bright flashes would flare off the top of the water when we were fortunate enough to see the sun and shifting surface meet. I’d never been down the coast this far. The towns were small, people were few, and the beaches were near untouched. Dad commented that they reminded him of how Florida looked years and years ago before all the beach houses and shopping malls took over.

Our meeting place was actually outside of Whakatane and closer to Ohope. The closer we got, the more nervous I was about finding the right place. The night before when Kenny, our guide, had called to reschedule things, I was in the process of navigating through the streets of Tauranga to meet up with a few mates. During the whole conversation, my GPS kept blurting out directions and cutting Kenny off mid-sentence. But by the end of it I was fairly certain I knew where to go.

It turned out I did. We followed Harbour Road all the way down until it dead ended. There was a boat ramp and a short stretch of beach at the water’s edge. An information sign stood beside the paved parking area. There was no one else there, so I figured we had beat Kenny. Just to be sure I was in the right place, I gave him a call. He confirmed things for me and said he was only a few minutes away. Dad and I leaned against the car to wait, enjoying the sun while we did.

A few short minutes later, a silver truck pulling a trailer loaded with kayaks turned the corner and parked opposite us. An older chap stepped out, and Dad and I walked over to introduce ourselves. I knew right away by his accent that Kenny wasn’t a Kiwi but a charming Scotsman. We spent a little time chatting and getting acquainted before Kenny sent us each off with a pair of wetsuit shorts to change into.

We stowed our personal effects, like phones and wallets, in a dry bag provided by Kenny. I left my heavier winter coat in the car but made sure I still had a few layers on to help keep out the wind. One by one we moved the kayaks over to the water’s edge. I was the first to board my kayak. I stepped from dry sand into sand covered by a few inches of water, and my foot and flipflop were immediately sucked into the muck.

I pulled my foot out, dragging my shoe with it, and passed both flipflops to Kenny to strap to the back of my kayak. I paddled out onto the pulsing water. Dad and Kenny followed a few minutes later, and we began our journey around the island. We fought wind and waves for a good while, at the same time carrying on the conversation started back in the carpark. It didn’t take long for my arms to start feeling the strain of fighting the elements. Kenny kept saying we’d catch the current soon and things would get easier. I’m sure he was right about the current, but it didn’t make things easier.

Uretara Island loomed dark and bush-clad to our right, and off to the left was the edge of the harbor. A few houses could be seen up amongst the trees, and Kenny told us his house was up there somewhere. He told us about Uretara Island, how it was owned by the DOC but they had little money to maintain it. One gentleman had taken it upon himself to rid the island of some pest (maybe possums or rats? I can’t remember). He also told us about a family who used to live on the island, and how the father had left his wife to take care of some ridiculous amount of children on her own.

At last we made it to the far side of the island and the wind all but died down. We kayaked right up to the rim of the island. Knotted and weathered tree limbs reached out over the water, some hanging so high we could paddle right through them. On one branch, Kenny pointed out a colony of mussels hanging in the water below. Soon we left the island’s edge behind and were off to navigate our way through the mangroves.

Picking my way through the thick underwater plants was a new kayaking experience. It wasn’t a huge challenge, just tedious, and it really tested your steering skills. Dad and I both knocked into quite a few mangroves. But they’re resilient plants, and bounced back easily. When we were safely through the field of mangroves, we kayaked to the edge of the harbor opposite the island and stopped for morning tea.

Kenny had brought along some muffins, a few fruits (I tried my first persimmon, and it was pretty good, and Dad tried his first feijoa) and a thermos of tea. The three of us stood in the long grass of the shore, sipping our tea, peeling persimmons and scooping feijoas. At this point, our journey was half over. When we’d all had our fill, Kenny repacked his bag and we carefully climbed back into our kayaks (I nearly tipped over, but saved it at the last minute).

Since we’d now come about to the other side of the island, our lovely wind shield was no more, and we were back to struggling against the gusts blowing out of the north. Conversation ceased here. The wind was too much and we were all too far apart to share anything but the occasional call of, “Alright back there?” I put all my focus into my paddle strokes, trying to achieve the optimal propulsion distance to energy expended ratio (that’s a thing, right?).

The final stretch saw us turned out of the head wind, and the going got easier. Our trio regrouped and we shared a few words as we closed the gap between us and the shore. At last, the bottoms of our kayaks were scraping on sand once more. Just before we pulled in, though, Kenny wanted to get one more photo of Dad and me. As Dad reached out to pull our kayaks closer together, he pulled a bit too hard a nearly flipped himself out of his kayak, and tried to take me with him! It made for a really great picture though. Kenny caught us both mid-laugh.

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Dad and I helped Kenny get the kayaks back onto the trailer before changing back into our clothes. We exchanged our sodden wetsuit shorts for wallets, keys and all the other things we’d packed into the dry bag. We thanked Kenny profusely. It might not have bee the most ideal weather day for a kayaking trip but both Dad and I had a great time out on the water. We shook hands with Kenny one last time before getting back into the car and starting our trek down to Taupo.

~Ren

If you are interested in taking a kayak trip with Kenny, I would highly recommend it. He is very friendly and personable and was gracious enough to take pictures for us during the trip. Also, don’t be afraid to mention if you have any dietary requirements so you’re sure to enjoy morning tea. Check out the website here.

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