A five-day kayak circumnavigation of one of New Zealand’s most beautiful places, Great Barrier Island.
When the first salty wave crashed over my face, soaking me thoroughly and blurring my vision, I dug my paddle in, bracing for the next one.
We’d stepped into our kayaks mere moments earlier in the sheltered waters of Tryphena Harbour on Great Barrier Island. The sun was blazing, but the wind was howling.
Now, on the open water, our eyes grew wide as we realised the waves were much, much bigger than they had looked from the ferry.
“Turn into the oncoming waves!” our guide Daniel O’Connor called to us, as we slowly made our way across Taylors Bay.
We were five minutes into our five-day, 100km circumnavigation of Aotea/Great Barrier Island, and this was our first reality check.
Things had been looking good earlier that morning, as the five of us watched the Auckland skyline grow smaller on the calm, sunny horizon.
We’d been dropped off at the ferry in Auckland at 7am with the kayaks, food and gear, which rested on the car deck.
Daniel gathered our group for a pre-trip meeting, going over the basics of how to pack our dry bags and the kayaks. After cramming our belongings and supplies into the two tandems and one single kayak, we pored over the map as Daniel explained the route options; either clockwise or anticlockwise around the island. Much of that would depend on the weather, which at that time was looking fine aside from wind and a short spell of rain forecast for the third day. We decided on a anticlockwise route, planning to kayak from Tryphena to Medlands Beach (18km) that afternoon.
“Would Daniel O’Connor please report to the ferry captain for a message from Auckland Sea Kayaks,” the loudspeaker boomed as we approached Great Barrier.
After Daniel met with the captain, we reconvened and learned that the winds had picked up to near gale-force, and we were forced to reconsider our options. We’d put the kayaks in the water upon arriving to test the conditions, with several pull-out points established if paddling became too hairy.
On arrival at Tryphena Wharf, we carefully lowered the kayaks into the water. But, our group’s elation at finally being in the kayaks, paddles in hand, with the sun on our backs, was short-lived.
A strong south-westerly filled the harbour with gusts up to 30km/hour, kicking up metre-high swells.
Today, would not be a kayaking day. Instead, we retreated to Tryphena and set up camp for the night. Next morning, we’d get a ride over the hill to Medlands Beach and start our trip from there.
As we ate lunch next to a grove of pohutukawa, several locals drove by. One of them, Ted, who has lived on Great Barrier all his life, was intrigued by our plans and mentioned how he wished more people would do the same.
“Great Barrier needs this kind of tourism,” he said as he settled into the grass next to us. “Low-impact, sustainable expeditions.” He then offered us a place to stay on his land just up the road. He lives completely off-grid, as do many who choose to make the Barrier their home.
More than 60 per cent of the island’s 285km2 is Department of Conservation land. Copper mining once dominated its remote northern rocky coastline, and it’s also the site of the last whaling station in New Zealand. There are less than 1000 permanent residents on the island, which relies on tourism during the summer months.
There are 17 walking tracks on the island, two DOC huts, and a natural hot spring along one of the tracks.
Our late summer expedition meant there were few tourists and even fewer people on the water. The day we put in at Medlands Beach, we were greeted with an empty expanse of sandy shoreline, with glassy water and a steadily rising warm sun.
We pushed off and marvelled at how different the conditions were from the previous day.
Sheltered by the island from the south-westerly, we paddled north-east with a slight tailwind. The eastern side of the island is known for its long sandy beaches, and we kayaked across bay after bay, between rocky cliffs that rose from the sea at wild angles and the surging waves left whirlpools in their wake. When we were feeling brave, my paddling partner Damian and I paddled in the narrow spaces between the rock gardens, following Daniel’s lead and enjoying the adrenalin rush as we raced to get through before the outgoing waves could pull us into the rocks.
As we made our way north, beaches gave way to steeper, more rugged terrain, with massive cliffs rising from the sea.
After a couple hours paddling, the tailwind picked up and Daniel had a stroke of genius. We rafted up and he pulled out a big yellow tarpaulin and asked Chrissy and me to attach the corners to our paddles, creating a sail. The effect was instantaneous; we shot forward as the sail filled, with we two wrestling with the force of the wind to keep our paddles – and the sail – upright.
We sailed 4.5km, after which my arms felt like jelly – holding up the sail was much harder work than paddling. Our flotilla disbanded and we paddled to a sheltered beach in Harataonga Bay for lunch.
Our afternoon paddle took us farther north, making quick progress with a gentle breeze and calm water.
We’d been earnestly scanning the surface of the water for dolphins; it’s the perfect environment to spot pods, but we’d so far seen none.
Then, just before we were about to turn into Rangiwhakea Bay for the night, I spotted a triangular fin slowly gliding through the water just in front of us.
“Shark!” I called to the others, who couldn’t quite make out my words. I made a fin out of my hand and put it on top of my head, and pointed at the water where the shark was making its way towards them. It was the first of many bronze whaler’s we’d see in the coming days.
Landing at Rangiwhakea Bay was our first real taste of Great Barrier’s wilderness. The small campsite here is nestled beneath a big pohutukawa tree, its giant branches sprawled out in every direction including resting on the sandy ground.
We woke early in anticipation of a long day on the water. We’d be kayaking around the northern tip of the island, straight back into the southerly wind.
As we came into sight of Aiguilles Island and Needles Point, the northernmost rocky islands at the tip of Great Barrier, an aura of seriousness descended on our group.
There are two options for crossing to the eastern coast; either between Great Barrier and Aiguilles Island, or through a narrow slot between the rocks. The night before, Daniel had told us the story of another kayaking group who’d had a tandem kayak get caught sideways on a rogue wave, capsizing in the middle of the gap. This wasn’t exactly confidence-building.
Upon reaching the slot, we watched as the water surged through the gap, tossing waves against the rock walls and filling the narrow alleyway with white water.
Daniel, in his single kayak, paddled expertly and cautiously through the gap, waiting for the waves to help guide him in and out again. I held my breath as a strong wave tossed his kayak against a wall, but he emerged unharmed.
We were silent as he paddled back to us.
“Want to give it a go?” he asked.
We nervously looked at each other. I wondered if he was joking.
“Um, I’m about 60 per cent leaning towards no,” I ventured, and breathed a sigh of relief as the others agreed. It looked like a thrilling challenge, but not one I felt like taking in the middle of a five-day expedition.
We opted for the safer route around the bottom end of Aiguilles, and I gulped as I saw what awaited us on the other side.
Gone were the placid waters of the past two days. Here, we were facing a strong headwind, big waves, and a long paddle ahead. On top of that, a scan of the shoreline made it obvious that there would be no easy pull-out if something went wrong. Instead of long stretches of sandy beach, there were vertical cliffs rising 100m above the sea.
It was time to dig deep. For two hours we paddled non-stop; to rest would mean we’d be swept backwards, losing precious progress.
At first, I felt my anxiety heighten with each wave. While the wind and swell weren’t nearly as strong as the first day in Tryphena, conditions were still enough that we needed focused, strong paddling to make our way south. The first 20 minutes were white-knuckled, as I held my breath every time a wave came that looked over head-height.
Then, Daniel came up alongside us.
“Pro-tip, Meghan,” he called out over the roar of the wind. “At the crest of every wave, dig your paddle in and push through it; that way you won’t lose momentum!”
Heeding his advice, everything changed. Each wave became an opportunity to practice a new technique. Not only did it work, it also erased my anxiety. I relaxed and sliced through the waves with more skill, and far more enjoyment.
At Miners Head, we reached a protected cove. It was here in 1894 that the SS Wairarapa was wrecked while en route to Auckland from Sydney. Sailing in dense fog, the ship collided with the cliffs at Miners Head and 140 of the 235 people on board died.
The wind dropped considerably in the afternoon as we made our way south to Port Abercrombie, where we’d planned to camp for the night. As we entered the bay, we encountered another group of kayakers who were part of an outdoor education programme. Their guide, a local, suggested we camp at Bradshaw Cove on Kaikoura Island, to the south of Port Abercrombie.
The cove had an idyllic beach, but limited space for camping. I pitched my tent on the beach, while the others walked up a small hill and tented next to some abandoned buildings near a Second World War bunker. Kaikoura Island is a scenic reserve and forms a natural harbour for Port Fitzroy.
In the morning, we stopped to say hello to a group on a keeler who’d spent the night anchored in the bay.
“Are you guys kayaking around the island?” a man asked as we got near. “We heard about you on the radio!”
There wasn’t a breath of wind as we set out and glided through the placid waters. The wind had shifted north-west, meaning we were once again completely sheltered.
Just south of Kaikoura Island are the Broken Islands, a stunning archipelago. Coupled with the calm conditions, they made for a magical morning exploring the jagged coastline.
Around midday, we passed through a narrow channel with water so clear, we could see schools of fish below. It was time to test our handline. I loaded up the lure, dropped the line, paddled a few strokes, and saw a tug on the line. But it was only a thick stalk of seaweed.
When we saw a flock of birds circling overhead as we were cutting across a large bay, I again dropped the line. This time, within seconds, we had a bite. I snatched up the hand-reel and pulled in a kahawai the length of my arm.
We wasted no time to enjoy our catch pulling in at the next beach, where we filleted and cooked the fish for lunch.
We stayed at a campsite on Okupu in Blind Bay, which turned out to be a busy beach with several fishermen launching their boats. It was a gentle reintroduction to the real world; we’d be paddling back to Tryphena in the morning.
We woke to heavy skies and glassy water. Upon paddling into the bay, we passed two women doing a stand-up paddleboard yoga session in the calm waters. Moments later, we passed three sharks.
The final paddle was bittersweet. We rafted up just before returning to the ferry landing. Daniel told us to close our eyes as he spoke about the experiences we’d had, encouraging us all to visualise each stage of the expedition, helping to plant the memories firmly in our minds.