Waterways

We gathered last week for the interment of a dream.

Here’s the story:

Some years ago housemate Daniel and I started kicking around the idea of jointly buying a 6-foot tinny for puttering around the local waterways. The Manning Valley has some 150 kilometres of river, and we felt we should be spending the occasional Sunday exploring them. However, word got out and somehow the 6-foot tinny became a 16-foot demon with a 140 hp motor, co-owned by ten of us.

Waterways - Bayliner 2We called ourselves The Boat Club. Membership was no small commitment. We organised insurance, we fixed up the rusted trailer, we purchased a big tarp and hosing-down equipment. We got boat licenses, and learned the rules of the waterways. You know those mysterious sign posts you see on the rivers? Black, white, yellow, red, green symbols; arrows, circles and triangles?—We learned how to interpret them all.

We learned how to do the 101 actions required to prepare for launch and the 112 actions required for retrieval and return. We concreted in a robust winch. We created a 3-page checklist so that we wouldn’t forget to put in the bung plug, check the spare fuel, attach the trailer’s safety chain—or succumb to any of the lurking dangers that could have us in serious trouble. For a group who were mostly non-mariners, each outing was a major adventure—before we even hit the water.

We developed skill at trimming the motor and getting the boat to plane, and practiced endlessly at docking. We learned how to line the boat up with the trailer and retrieve it—though on a windy day with a strong current it might take a half dozen nerve-wracking attempts to achieve lift-out. We spent many dollars in petrol, repairs and routine maintenance. You know the old expression? “A boat is a hole in the water into which you pour money”. We began to have direct evidence of that.

So in the end, we didn’t use the boat as successfully as we’d hoped. Over the four years we’ve owned it, we may have had it out only a handful of times each year. We never got to the point where it was a simple process. Our dream of dropping the boat in the water, flying across the waves with the wind in our hair, and then whistling back into dry dock never quite materialised.

Happy yoyagerYou’ll be getting a picture of the dark side of owning a speed boat, and nodding in sympathy about our decision to sell it (although I hope I haven’t put you off making an offer). But let me assure you, there were many good times. Managing the launch wasn’t really something a couple could do, so anytime the boat went out, it was a social occasion. Often the destination was a café or pub in Taree, Wingham or Harrington. Sometimes there were picnics. Many an hour was whiled away under the trees at the Art House Café in Ghinni Ghinni Creek. There were times we dawdled, times we fought fierce whitecaps, times we just revelled in the exhilaration of a high-speed water race across the water. Grandchildren bounced behind on tubes. We got to know quite a stretch of the amazing 150 kilometres of Manning Valley waterway.

I also loved the learning experience. It was exciting to get my head around this alien new machine in its alien environment. I’m more confident on the water now, and more adept at separating the real dangers from the imaginary.

Perhaps best of all, our friendships deepened. We’ve had fun together on the boat, fun having meals and meetings together, fun on the working bees, fun on our voyages. It was smart to buy and support the boat as a consortium. We all got to scratch an itch without spending an enormous amount of money.

I can say I’ve owned a 140 hp speedboat and it was a fine experience.

 

And of course there’s a bright future in store.

Hobie kayakThe thing is, we bought the boat because we all love the water. So we won’t be leaving the waterways. Rick and I have had a Hobie-drive kayak for several years, and have an undiminished enjoyment of those regular outings. Ken and Sal bought a Hobie themselves recently, and Eve and Daniel are planning to do the same. Kerry and Gordon own two canoes and live right on the river. Stella and Ian are boat-lovers from forever, with riverfront to enjoy. So the dismantled boat club will build on its experience and morph into something new.

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Life under the long white cloud

I’ve just been engaging in one of those post-New-Year’s projects: sorting through holiday photos. It’s put me in the mood to tell you about our five days in New Zealand, as those November memories still sit very pleasantly with me. You might remember my recent post NZ 3about our week in the Cook Islands—well, after that adventure, Rick and I and our four travelling companions headed off from Rarotonga for the four hour flight to Auckland.

Speaking of the flight, let’s start with the issue of airport safety and security. Please note the hen and chickens, photographed in silhouette in the Rarotonga airport. I found them an attractive new breed of airport security. But even more I loved the Air New Zealand flight safety video, which whole-heartedly introduces the Kiwi experience. If you haven’t travelled Air New NZ 1Zealand recenty, you MUST play this YouTube video. For the first time in my years of travel, I listened closely to a flight video. I have certainly never experienced a plane-full of several hundred people unable to take their eyes from their screens, laughing broadly all the while. The video has a certain irreverence that alerts you to the New Zealand spirit before you have to deal with it in person. Kiwis seem to have missed out on the serum of Sober Correctness that has immunised pretty much every other airline I’ve flown on. Perhaps the most expensive safety video ever produced, it steals heartily from the movie Men in Black, while paying mischievous tribute to the mighty All Blacks. It’s an altogether superior way to contemplate a crash landing.

Besides, after all these years I could now probably find a life vest on the plane if I needed one.

NZ 2At any rate, we landed without so much as a runway thump in Auckland, where we rented a van and drove a few hours south to Rotorua. The red line gives you a highly approximate idea of the small part of the North Island we explored.

Cultural centre

On our first evening, in Rotorua (itself a charming town no doubt full of surprises we didn’t get to explore), we went to the Tamaki Maori Village. As cultural introductions go, this one was warm and engaging, with an authentic feel. We experienced elements of the marae (a traditional religious political ceremony) and were treated to excellent demonstrations of some half dozen other long-time Maori practices. You’ll have heard Performing the hakaof the haka, but have you seen it enacted live? This amazingly aggressive war dance is no doubt what keeps the All Blacks at the top of the rugby scrum. Our tour guide tells us that the dance was developed to terrify and deter the enemy, but that in practice it probably had the effect of enraging and inciting them into battle. (There’s a message in that for all of us.) Check out the haka’s modern day application here. Stand well back from your monitor.

The acting and dancing was superb, the food (much of it cooked in the “hangi” pit) was excellent, and the hundred fifty or so of us on the tour were happily sated at the end.

But there’s no accounting for what sticks in your memory. A part of the evening I remember very fondly was driving back to our rendezvous in a large coach, where our Maori driver, in a deep, smooth baritone, led us in round-the-world-old-familiar songs the whole way. And in a demonstration of Kiwi-style anarchy, he drove his big bus and 40 startled passengers around a small round-about several times to the tune of “The wheels on the bus go round and round”… … … Perhaps you had to be there.

Volcano Country

NZ 5Our second day gave us a glimpse of one of the area’s three active volcanoes, a reminder for me that we live on a rather thin crust of earth—and that active volcanoes have a habit of surprising people.

Our first stop was to visit the 10:15 am display of Lady Knox, New Zealand’s very own tame geyser. No spoilers, but those sceptics among you who are wondering how a geyser can go off at 10:15 am every single day of the year will get your answer—a reasonably satisfying one.

NZ 6Then we walked through the most dramatic visual experience of the trip—the Wai-O-Tapu park. The crust must be uncomfortably shallow here because the NZ 7extraordinary pools (all brightly coloured by different minerals, and all untamed) were at 100C, as were the bubbling mud pools, as was the magnificent Champagne Pool. The whole area was exquisite and unsettling at the same time.

What’s in a name?

The three dramatic peaks of the area are Ruapehu, Tongariro, and Ngarahoe. I tell you this because I loved the mountains, and I loved their names. I spent all day alternately NZ 8photographing them and trying to get my tongue around the unfamiliar words. Almost every name in the countryside we travelled was Maori, and it was a wonder how much difficulty I had learning and remembering them. I’m still working on Aotearoa, which is the increasingly-popular Maori name for New Zealand. (My ear hears it as “Ow-tea-a-roa”.) I’ve never been big on changing place-names, but there’s something about the Kiwis and their naming conventions that has me wondering.

A typical hillsideWe spent a day travelling the Forgotten Highway. It apparently stays forgotten—through the whole of its steep, winding way, with sheep-strewn hillsides and a small fortune in fencing, we saw almost no vehicles. Statuesque Lombardi poplar windbreaks are everywhere. They were planted by Europeans to mark boundaries and river fords, and by disciples of the Maori prophet Te Kooti, to symbolise a new pathway away from war and towards peace. Everywhere the two cultures seem to merge rather than wrangle.

Lunch at the pub in the Independent Republic of Whangamomona is not to be missed, representing as it does another example of Kiwi humour cheerfully overcoming political correctness and deference. Be sure to read about its long line of Presidents.

Our final day was spent cruising through the scenic villages on the west coast; I wish we’d had a week for this.

Rick and I have often been known to say quietly to each other, “We could live here.” The towns and countryside of New Zealand were no exception.

 

 

More than just a pretty fish

You’re lucky I don’t yet own an underwater camera. Otherwise, this post would be a well-intentioned swarm of amateur photos of tropical fish, taken more in the spirit of enthusiasm than expertise.

That’s because we’re recently back from a holiday in the Cook Islands, and I’m still having after-flashes of all the fishy friends I met underwater there.

We did many fine things during our week’s vacation, but I must admit, snorkelling is always at the top of my activities list at a tropical destination. It generally takes me 10 seconds to regain confidence that I can breathe while underwater, 15 seconds to acclimatise to the water’s temperature, and 30 seconds to reassure myself there are no

Island paradise, taken from our balcony

Taken from our balcony

currents that will wash me off to the shores of Chile. After that, snorkelling takes me into sheer heaven. There I am, floating face down in warm waters—staring into a panoply of magnificent marine life. It’s the most incredible unveiling. Who would ever guess, as you sit looking over a blue lagoon with your morning coffee, that all this was happening underneath?

Snorkelling is physically a wonderful thing, the closest I get to meditation—slow breaths rasping through my snorkel tube, my body floating in complete surrender, blissful comfort, the feeling of being absolutely present. But the visual feast!—that’s the magic of it. And Rarotonga in the Cook Islands put on the best display I’ve yet experienced.

There were dainty angel fish the size of dinner plates, their wispy strands floating behind them. Gentlemen fish all black and white with red cummerbunds. Masses of silver needle-nosed fish. Lorikeet-style fish, turquoise with startling swaths of yellow, green, red and oraSwimming in a school of butterfly fishnge. Swarms of butterfly fish, looking exactly as this Pinterest photo captures them. As I drifted over various rocky reefs, I counted more than three dozen varieties, each more colourful than the last. Eventually I lost confidence in the maths and surrendered to appreciation rather than precision.

Our resort host told me about one fellow who, every few months, comes to stay for a week, and spends 10 hours a day in the water with his snorkel and camera. Odds are some of the photos I’m looking at on Pinterest right now were taken by him. I’d love to have met him and heard some of his stories. A fellow-snorkel-traveller is easy to spot. One day I watched a young English tourist who was practically unable to get out of the water. She would stagger out wrinkled and shivering, lie on her towel in the sun for a few minutes, and then head back, ecstasy in her eyes. England will never look the same to her.

Somehow, the biggest sensation is the gift of being welcome to participate freely in an alien world. What a privilege.

Admittedly, the Cook Islands have much more on offer than just a world-class snorkel, and I’d be remiss not to bring that to your attention. Here’s a bit of travelogue:

Rick and I flew out to Rarotonga in the company of four other friends. We flew direct The earth is all water!from Sydney on a six hour flight. If you have a globe, swing it round until you see all of the Pacific Ocean—and the Pacific Ocean is just about all that you see. How uninhabited this area is of anything but water! You fly hours and hours over nothing but ocean, until suddenly a small volcanic island emerges. Jagged peaks and rolling hills are surrounded by an almost unbroken reef, with waves smashing against it from the outside and a placid blue-green lagoon within. You’re looking at Rarotonga, the largest of the fifteen Cook Islands.

We rented a van and drove around the island (about a 45 minute circumference) until we could check into our wonderful little resort, the Aro’a Beachside Inn. Over the course of the week, we went to the markets, lunched and dined every day at fine cafes and restaurants, and drank local beer at our resort’s Shipwreck Hut beach bar. We sang along with Jake, a musician who welcomes every plane at the airport with Island songs—and has done so for 35 years (some 20 flights a week now). We toured the backroads, saw the local market gardens and bounced on steep roads up into the hills in an old open Land Rover Defender. We got to know a bit about the Pacific Islanders who own all the land on the Islands, about their history and their current practices. They seem a happy, peaceable people, comfortable in their skins with not a thing to prove to anyone. We took in an excellent live show, beautifully choreographed and danced, accompanied by the kind of superb drumming you might expect in a Pacific Island paradise.

The Aitutaki atoll

On one magical day we flew out to the northernmost of the Cook Islands, called Aitutaki (nominated “the world’s most beautiful island” by Lonely Planet). We spent the day visiting its heartbreakingly lovely minor islands, all part of its atoll. One of the especially-idyllic islands hosted several episodes of both Survivor and Shipwrecked.

The Cook Islands lived up to every expectation I could have had.

Today I’m sitting here on a chilly Mitchells Island morning, with a threat of rain and the skies dark as dusk. It’s enough to set me thinking again of turquoise lagoons, orange sunsets, piña coladas and fat sandwiches of freshly caught mahi-mahi.

That’s the thing about travelling. It can leave you with the experience of being a well-tolerated guest—with my good travelling friends, with our Pacific Islander hosts, and with the technicolour denizens who briefly shared their underwater world with me.

Snorkelling in Rarotonga

Add a few wrinkles and that could be me

Flaffing around

Eight years ago Rick and I retired, moving to Mitchells Island to create our shared dream home in our dream location – confident we had enough savings to last us as long as the fates might allow us breathing time.

Five years before that, I was gnawing my nails about whether we’d ever be able to retire.

That was when we first met with the FLAFFs. At that point, for the six of us, acquaintances who embarked on a retirement and research planning mission, being FootLoose And Fancy Free was an intention. But after five years of said research and planning (sprinkled with generous amounts of food, wine and travel as we became good friends) there we were: footloose and fancy free in actual fact.

If you haven’t read the whole story of this magical transformation from burden to freedom, I refer you to previous posts in this blog, The Seven Secrets of the FLAFFs (Part I, Part II, Part III).

Raratonga in the Cook Islands

 

At any rate, the FLAFFs are off again, this time to the Cook Islands and New Zealand. I will post an update, with photos, when we’re safely home again.

* Definition of flaffing: to engage in unproductive activity. I can’t think that applies to us, as we explore this new part of the world – but I will let you know.

 

See you in a few weeks.