The days in Paihia seem to slip out from under you. This small beach town and main port on Bay of Islands is the Mecca for backpackers in the north. The beaches and bars are filled with traveling twenty-somethings, largely European, looking for a drink and a tan and staying at any one of the hostels littering themselves from the shore down Kings Road as if washed in with the tide. After three drunken, sun-drenched days casually flirting with a couple of Irish boys, I dragged my half-drunk, loudly stumbling body from the top bunk of my hostel bed in the still dark hours of morning. I heard the bodies of my sleeping dormmates stirring as I attempted, unsuccessfully, to pack my bag without waking them further. The boat ride from Paihia to Urupukapuka passed quickly as I slept awkwardly in the rigid seats, sheltering my throbbing head from the adamant sun that grasped selfishly at every corner of the sky. As the boat arrived at Urupukapuka, I stretched the soreness from my limbs and wondered in sleepy anticipation what my second couch surfing experience held in store.
Still half asleep on the water taxi from the shuttle to the island, I looked out over the spring green ridges of the island, speckled with the deep piney tones of native bushes and trees until I heard someone call my name. Turning to my left I met vibrant blue eyes with blonde hair tumbling in salty curls over dried, sun beaten skin. His surfer look and mentality could do nothing, however, to hide the Midwestern accent I heard peeking out from his friendly banter. Still in a bourbon induced daze, I apologized for not remembering his name. When he introduced himself as David, I realized this was not some guy I had drunkenly danced with at the bar the night before, but was, in fact, my next couch surfing host. I apologized for my lack of mental clarity as I stumbled through tales of the genesis of my debilitated state and we made our way onto the island for some much needed breakfast and coffee.
As soon as I finished eating, David got me set up with a kayak to explore the many isolated bays spotted along the twisting shoreline. Knowing well that the ocean is the best cure for a hangover, I packed my camera, phone, cigarettes, journal, and a pen into a wetbag and paddled out around the bend of Otehei Bay. Barely before I began, the various warnings and advice about winds and currents David had rambled through as he pushed me off vanished from my mind like a dream. I’m sure I’ll be alright, I thought, as my paddles sluiced through the soft jades of the South Pacific, propelling me forward, my muscles still potent and fresh as I passed the first of the secluded bays. I recognized a young, bearded backpacker from the boat setting up his camp on the quiet, grassy knoll above the shore and decided to push through to the next beach, leaving him to the seclusion most come here searching for. Sharp rocks in deep grayish browns jutted out from the tips of each of the bays, the water deceptively shallow over them. And as I recalled David’s advice to stay close to the shoreline, I found the bottom of my kayak scratching their surface as the ebb and flow of the currents sucked the ocean back, exposing the massive, jagged plateaus. With small struggles I made it around the bend from Sunset Bay, tucked into the scalloping coastline like a well-kept secret, and came upon Cable Bay. Its sandy length swept itself across the southern coast in a lazy smile that welcomed mine.
There were no secrets on this exposed stretch of arching sand, crawling in soft greens up to the island ridge, and I made my way to shore to relax and let the scenery and the sun warm and dry my salty skin. After an hour of swimming and writing, I packed up the kayak, satisfied, and continued on tracing the coastline. Around the threatening rocks I winded until I came upon a few patches of sand, barely large enough to be considered beaches. As I pulled my kayak up onto the small cove and swung my feet over the edge I began to sink. Each foot swallowed by the sand, six or eight inches deep until I pulled it out against the vacuuming force, pressed in the next, and began the struggle again. Suddenly the “Prohibited Anchoring” sign posted in the thin strip of dry sand before the thickly forested incline that I had chosen to ignore started to make sense. An eerie feeling crept its way up my body in uneasy vines and I felt frighteningly alone on this beach that could disappear, or make me do the same, without a trace. Though I had docked here with the intention of swimming out to a small cave I had seen in the base of the rocks nearby, the unsettling feeling this forbidden corner gave rise to in me had me shortly back in my little vessel and on my way.
Paddling away from the beach the subtle whisper of discomfort stayed with me. I wasn’t sure how much farther I was to go before David told me to turn back. How many bays was I to pass? Recalling warnings of strong currents and open oceans around one last bend, I started to turn back. Just before I did, I recognized the silly fears getting the best of me for what they were, and felt with some certainty there was at least one inlet left to be seen. My arms were starting to tire from fighting the strong currents and relentless winds, but I pressed on, determined as I approached the last rocky corner to conquer. As with the others, the stony tips peeked above the water far from the actual coastline and I found myself grinding against them as I struggled to push myself further out. But each time I did, a surge of water from the open ocean, now just on the other side of the bay, slapped me back into the razor blade coast. Again I pushed and fought to beat the wave I could see rolling towards me, scared as I knew my weak paddling a sorry match for its careless power. Determined now to make it to the final bay, I pushed my ore in long, hard strokes, deep into the water, quickly flipping it, straining the muscles in my now sunburned arms, until finally I broke free from my laughing, crashing opponent and into the calm, deep, turquoise waters of Urupukupuku Bay. I paddled my way to shore and collapsed from the tiny boat, letting my muscles relax in the warm sand as the amiable waves of the protected bay rolled and crashed over my newly browned toes. This place was incredible, I had made it here on my own, and I let the sun pierce my eyes as I looked out over another place in the world I had never seen before, until now.
Once my skin was dry and my strength returned, I pushed off once again into an ocean like none I had seen before. Varying from rich sage in the shallow bays to vibrant cobalt on the endless ocean it is hard not to feel awe with every breath. I wonder if the people that have seen this every day of their lives still feel the same overwhelming sense of beauty each time they set their eyes upon it again. I couldn’t imagine ever taking something so serene, yet so powerful, for granted. Proud of myself for making it to the final bay before the calm waters turned to turgid ocean and the sweet secrets of beaches to towering unforgiving cliffs, I found new strength in my acidic muscles and stopped at nearly every beach on the return trip to write , and to explore. The pristine isolation of this place haunted me as I climbed to the top of a ridge through grass that deceptively swallows your legs the same as the sand on that mysterious beach. Looking out over what I could see of the island from the quick climb, I knew I would be returning here to hike the twisted trail round the island, rising and falling like breath with the rolling hills.
After a beer and Barbie filled weekend with my endlessly positive host, I did return to Urupukapuka. With the same essentials for my kayak excursion hanging from my shoulder, I began the slow climb in the relentless midday sun. The stunning, lonely hike was as long and hard as it was rewarding. And though my legs burned in protest on the twisting ascents, and my flip-flops fearfully slid with the dirt rolling under my tractionless shoes like marbles in each countering trek down, every second, every struggle, every heaving breath was beyond worth it. Amazed, overwhelmed, exhausted, contented, and inspired, I was back at Otehei Bay in fewer than four hours for one of the more rewarding beers of my life. As I have already passed fifteen hundred words in my rambling descriptions, I will let the pictures say the next thousand or so.