Sunday 17 November 2019

Back to New Zealand

By the time we left Clare and Jamie in Denerau our Fiji season was almost over - we worked our way back up to the north of the Yasawas for a quick visit to The Blue Lagoon, the location of a 1980’s film of the same name.  Although there are now several resorts in the bay, ranging from low budget backpacker’s up to exclusive with private beach frontage it is still possible to walk round some of the island and appreciate the views from the high point.

The Blue Lagoon, Yasawa Islands

We needed to clear customs and provision for the trip back to New Zealand in Denerau so we headed back south, persuading Bernd and Birgit to make a stop in Mana Island on the way to enjoy a walk and watch the fire dancing show put on by the Backpacker’s resort there. 

The batons are dipped in petrol - this definitely overshadowed the Beqa Firewalking!

Our final stop was back in Musket Cove, probably the most popular destination of all the yachties in Fiji - excellent shelter, a huge anchorage so well protected by reefs that it is always calm regardless of wind strength and direction and there is also an excellent bar and supermarket.  A cruiser’s dream.

Musket Cove, Malolo Island - Nautilus is one of the tiny dots in the far distance!

Musket Cove afforded us a final opportunity for a dive in the warmth of the Pacific, but also is the site of a world famous surf break - Cloud Break.  We took the yacht to within a safe distance of the massive waves and set off in the dinghy to watch the experts at play.

The surf height was about 5 metres, and the break ends on a very unforgiving reef.

Our travelling companions, Bernd and Birgit on Rebell were staying a couple more weeks in Fiji but we decided to head for Denerau and wait for a weather window to sail back to New Zealand - there is a constant progression of deep low pressure systems that head up the west coast of New Zealand creating some very unpleasant sea conditions and also the South Pacific Convergence Zone mid way along the route where you can be becalmed for days.  This passage is amongst the most tricky we have come across since leaving the UK 6 years ago, especially as at over 1000 miles it takes longer than a forecast can reliably predict.

On this occasion we sought the advise of Met Bob, a professional forecaster who advises on suitable weather windows across the Pacific - he suggested one much sooner than we expected so 48 hours later we were on our way.  Rain was predicted, but it rained day and night for the first 5 days, our sails have not been so clean since they were first hoisted!

The view from the cockpit - grey and wet all day, incredibly dark at night.  

During our passage it became clear that there was a big low developing within the next few days - fortunately we made excellent speed, taking only 7 ½ days to reach the safety of Opua, just 36 hours before the forecast storm hit New Zealand.  Tragically a yacht heading from Fiji to Opua sank just 27 miles offshore during the storm, claiming the life of one of the 4 crew on board.  We must never underestimate the power of the sea.

This is a screen shot showing predicted gusts over 50 kts - not what you ever want to see on your route!

We arrived in Opua several weeks earlier than the majority of the cruisers - we booked into the Marina for a month, giving time to fix our windlass which was in need of expert help, and after all the rain we’ve sailed in we wanted to have a complete cockpit enclosure made to keep the elements out of the boat.  The main reason we left early for New Zealand was that my sister Rose Anne and Phil were coming to visit for my birthday - I didn’t want to risk being delayed by the weather and not being there when they arrived - a good decision:  Bernd and Birgit left after us and took over 11 days to do the journey that had taken us 7 ½.

Birthday celebration at the Opua Yacht Club, with music provided by Martin, Pelle and Lisa - a lovely start to my next decade!

Having done so much diving in the warm Pacific and Caribbean waters we were keen to experience diving in New Zealand - Phil is a very experienced and keen diver and wanted to dive the wreck of the Rainbow Warrior which was sunk as a dive site not far from Opua after the French blew it up in the 1980’s.  

The Rainbow Warrior - lying in just under 30 metres of water in the Cavalli Islands, we rented 7mm wetsuits complete with gloves and hoods from Paihia Dive Company who organised the dive.  The water was 14*C, 7mm was only just enough but the dive was wonderful, the wreck is completely colonised by anemones and other marine life.

It was a two tank dive, the second dive was totally different - we were in much shallower water in thick fields of kelp - we saw several Eagle Rays and Stingrays and our presence provided a young seal with much entertainment.

We’d not been further north than Opua, so Rose Anne and Phil’s visit was the perfect opportunity to explore the Far North by car - first stop, a view over to the Cavalli Islands, site of the wreck we’d dived a couple of days earlier.

The Cavalli Islands - we plan to sail to this area later.

The drive north - we went through some fairly remote areas!

Houhora - the Information Centre did not look as though it had been open for several years, and even the Tavern behind, which advertised itself as The Most Northerly Tavern in New Zealand, was closed and up for sale.

Houhora Hotel, if the sign above the door is to be believed!

Fortunately we had made other plans - we booked a lovely Air BnB  on the outskirts of Te Kao.

Our Air BnB, it made a nice change to stay in a house after all the time on the boat.

Heading on north we visited Cape Reinga, the north west tip of New Zealand and where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific.  

Cape Reinga - there was a surprisingly large police presence in the car park at the cape, we learnt that we were there at the start of the Te Araroa Trail, a 3,000 km walk from Cape Reinga at  the far north to Bluff at the far south.  Two of the officers were planning to complete the whole walk accompanied by disadvantaged children over the many different stages of the walk.  We decided on something rather more modest, just the first few kilometres of the trail down to the beach.

The start of the Te Araroa Trail, it runs along the cliff top then disappears out of sight along the beach in the distance.

The north west coast is incredibly windswept, the almost constant westerly winds have created the massive Te Paki sand dunes, 1 km wide, stretching 10 km along the coast and rising to 150 metres.  Several groups were tobogganing down them on plastic sledges but we opted to walk instead.

The Te Paki sand dunes.

No trip to the Far North would be complete without stopping at the 90 mile beach - although it is actually only 55 miles (88 km) long the name apparently dates back from the early settlers who travelled by horse.  It took 3 days to cross the beach so they assumed it must be 90 miles long.  Distances in NZ are now always given in kilometres.

You can drive along the hard packed sand beach, but make sure you are aware of the tide - the beach is covered at high water and there are only a couple of access points along the whole beach.

The beach may not actually be 90 miles but it disappears out of sight in both directions.

Rose Anne and Phil’s visit was at an end so we went back to Opua, stopping at a Kauri forest on the way.  Unfortunately we were unable to walk in the forest due to restrictions imposed in an effort to control Kauri die back, but the trees by the access road were very impressive.

Kauri Trees

Our final day in Opua we visited the Waiomio Glow Worm caves - the land owners had constructed a walk way inside the cave and access was only permitted on an official tour.  The caves were beautiful, filled with stalagmites and stalactites and in places the ceiling covered in a Milky Way of little glow worms - unfortunately photography was prohibited in the caves which was frustrating as the caves themselves were as impressive as the glow worms.

We stopped for lunch at the old railway station cafe in Kawakawa and then insisted Rose Anne and Phil’s trip would be incomplete without a visit to the Kawakawa Hundertwasser Public Toilets - one of the more unlikely tourist attractions in the area!

The toilets were designed by a reclusive Austrian artist, Freidensreich Hunderwasser who lived in Kawakawa from 1975 until his death in 2000.  The toilets were built using recycled materials and bricks from a former Bank of NZ.  All vegetation removed for the construction of the toilets which were opened in 1999 has been planted on the roof of the building as per Hunderwasser’s instructions.

Rose Anne and Phil headed south back to Auckland for their flight home and we headed back to Opua where we were shortly to meet up with Steve and Lynne from Aztec Dream, our sailing companions throughout much of the Mediterranean and Caribbean.

At this stage we planned to sail round New Zealand anticlockwise, stopping at New Plymouth and then heading for Nelson on South Island but like many sailing plans the weather intervened and our plans changed accordingly.

Next - sailing in Northland

Sunday 15 September 2019

Diving with sharks and the Mamanuca and Yasawa Islands

With our stores replenished we left Suva and headed for Beqa, the home of Firewalking, according to legend this special power was gifted to the Sawau Tribe some 500 years ago in exchange for the freedom of a captured God.  A fire pit was duly prepared - large rocks were covered with branches and leaves and set alight.  

With great ceremony, over the next hour or so  all burning matter was removed from the pit and the rocks carefully re arranged.

And then they really did walk on the rocks - the rocks were certainly still hot, it was an entertaining spectacle but maybe not quite ‘Firewalking’

Posing with the Firewalkers, Beqa 

Beqa is not only the home of Firewalking, but also of the Shark Reef Marine Reserve which was originally created to study the shark population and aid long term shark conservation worldwide. They offered diving with Apex predators - Tiger and Bull Sharks, we couldn’t resist: We were in a group of 20 divers plus 10 Dive Masters who were there to feed the sharks and look after us.  By far the largest group of divers we’ve ever been with but very well organised so we all descended to 28 metres and knelt behind a rock ‘wall’ whilst the sharks were fed Tuna heads from a large wheelie bin suspended overhead by one of the Dive Masters.  It was an incredible experience - luckily the sharks prefer dead tuna to live divers and it did feel strangely safe down there with 40 or so fully grown bull sharks!

After the excitement of the shark dive we headed on to the neighbouring island of Vatulele, one we had also visited last year.  We anchored off  the beach inside the lagoon - the wrecked small cruise ship is still on the beach much the same as last year, but the resort which closed in 2012 is in a far worse condition:  Previously one of the most exclusive resorts in the Pacific and employing  most of the islanders,  last year there was still a security guard on site and rumours of a $24million refurbishment - this year it really was a wreck, the security guard had gone and the place has been ransacked - furniture and fittings dragged outside and left to the mercy of the elements.

Vatulele Beach, with the abandoned cruise ship visible in the distance.

The remains of a once very high spec resort - now more of a rubbish tip.

We walked across the island with Bernt and Birgit, our sailing partners on the Yacht Rebell, to present Sevusevu, passing the now very disused airfield on the way.  Again, we had visited last year and been shown the foundations of the new church they were planning to build - this year there was a huge concrete base and major steel works erected for the walls and roof.  An absolutely vast construction for a small village which doesn’t even have running water.

The new church taking shape.  We’d met the Pastor last year but he, along with the Chief were away from the island when we visited.

In much the same way as Fulaga is known for it’s wood carvers, Vatulele is known for it’s Tapa cloth.  Initially used for clothing and bedding it is now purely ornamental, the women spend literally hours beating narrow slivers of mulberry bark with wooden sticks on a low bench whilst sitting on the floor.

Several layers of freshly beaten bark are layered together and dried on what ever is available before being sent on to the main islands to be decorated and sold to tourists and used in local ceremonies.

These two young girls showed us round the village, and behind them Tapa cloth is drying on a water butt.

Our route from Suva - first to Beqa then to Pacific Harbour where we did the shark dive, on to Vatulele and then via Denerau for supplies before meeting Clare and Jamie in the Mamanucas.

Clare and Jamie arrived in style, by sea plane.  We went to record the event, paparazzi style, before leaving them to enjoy the first part of their honeymoon in Paradise Cove, Naviti Island in the Yasawas.

Arrival by sea plane - apparently built in the 1960’s!!!  Diving with sharks might be safer ...

We spent a few days round Naviti, staying in Somosomo Bay where a local climbed a coconut palm to give us a drink.

There is a pass between the islands where Mantarays are known to regularly feed, we were lucky enough to see them whilst snorkelling.

Jamie trying to keep up to take a photo - they are very graceful and very fast.

We all dived the wreck of the Glory, sunk as a diving site in 2016 so no coral growth but a great dive.

Mother - Daughter time, underwater.

Clare and Jamie blowing bubbles.

Having been so impressed with our own shark dive we wanted Clare and Jamie to experience one as well - and discovered a dive centre in Waya island also offered Bull Shark Dives.  A smaller outfit this time, we were in a much smaller group of 11 divers.  The sharks were just as spectacular.

This one had just swallowed a tuna head.

Again they were so close you could have touched them.  We heard later that earlier this year a diver in Beqa ended up with their head in a tiger shark’s mouth, fortunately he only sustained minor injuries but I don’t think we will be going on another shark dive now!

Our time with Clare and Jamie was sadly coming to an end, we stopped for a couple of nights on Mana Island (where the American Survivor TV programme is filmed) and we hired a local boat driver to take us on a couple of dives on the outer reef and coral pinnacles then headed on back towards Denerau, stopping at Musket Cove and lunching at the Cloud 9 floating Pizza Restaurant in the crystal clear waters of the lagoon near the famous Cloud Break surf site.

We were joined by a pod of dolphins who came to play in our bow wave.

Cloud 9 Floating Pizza Restaurant on our last day with Clare and Jamie.

Our season in Fiji has now almost come to an end, we plan to head back up to the Mamanucas for a week or so before we head back to New Zealand for what we expect to be our final hurricane season there.