Wayward on the Waitemata

By Pamela Wade

The evening was warm and golden, the sea a sparkling blue dotted with the bright spinnakers of yachts also heading out from Auckland City to enjoy the weekend delights of the Waitemata Harbour. Our Outdoor Discoveries group, though, had more of a modest aim: an hour’s paddle across to Browns Island for a sunset picnic on its grassy summit, followed by a leisurely trip back in the dark.

All good, I thought — except that Alan, it turned out, was not a multi-tasker.??Randomly selected from our group on the beach at St Heliers to sit behind me in the double kayak, I thought he would be a sturdy powerhouse at the back, propelling the boat across the water while I sat in the front enjoying the scenery. Once out on the water, however, I soon discovered that he could steer, using the pedals fitted at his end of the kayak, or he could paddle, or he could look around, or he could talk; but only one thing at a time and, as far as the steering was concerned, only when reminded.

I didn’t realise this at first, because a separate problem arose the instant our briefing out on the water was over. Everybody dug in their paddles and set off, skimming eagerly away eastwards — while Alan and I, like some cartoon couple, ploughed purposefully off in entirely the opposite direction.

After two complete left-handed circles which involved some politely terse conversation between the two of us, guide Martin noticed our absence and came to our rescue, towing us ignominiously over to the nearest beach to fix our jammed rudder. While others in the party, we discovered later, were having delightful encounters with playful dolphins, our experience of nature in the raw was of quite another sort: Ladies Bay, we discovered, is a nudist beach. Naked bodies lay on the sand, soaking up the sun, but all was well until Martin whipped out his spanner to tighten the nuts, which was a signal for all the men to take a closer interest and wander over with their own (cough) toolkits on full display.

I stared fixedly out to sea while Martin did rapid repairs under their curious gaze. When I had studied the route on the map, from the beach at St Heliers to the far side of Browns Island, it seemed hardly any distance at all. Now that I had been in the double kayak powered only by my own feeble arms and those of Alan behind me, I could see that it was well chosen: far enough to work up an appetite, not so far that the thought of the return journey would blight the picnic. Or so I thought!

Shipshape once again, we headed back out into the waves, which was when Alan’s erratic navigation and spasmodic paddle action revealed themselves. We zigzagged after the others, pointing first towards Rangitoto, then Bucklands Beach, then back again, Browns Island tantalisingly dead ahead only briefly at midpoint.

Still, it was a lovely evening, clear and sunny, and despite Alan’s efforts the sunburnt slopes of Browns Island were closer every time they passed across the kayak’s bow. Martin distracted us with some history — Browns is another volcanic island like Rangitoto, but much older; its Maori name is Motukorea; dotterels breed there; William Brown once farmed pigs on it; and a hundred years ago it was a popular picnic spot for people arriving by steam ferry.

Arriving under our own steam was satisfying, as was the climb to the trig station 68 metres above: a chance for the legs to do their share, and a doubly useful workout for Tania, who valiantly nipped back down to fetch the forgotten hummus and mussels. We sprawled on the dry grass at the edge of the steep central crater as we were offered dips, pâté, camembert and mussels with bread and crackers, and I took a little bottle of sparkling rosé out of my dry bag and gave a cheer for screw-tops.

It was not just civilised, it was magical, to sit on that summit and slowly survey 360 degrees of beauty, natural and man-made: islands, sea, bush, beach, boats, buildings and bridge, all under a sky streaked in pink and apricot as the sun sank over the Waitakeres.

As the light faded, Martin offered tea and plunger coffee with chocolate biscuits, and I watched an airliner cut across Orion’s belt.

It had been many years since I last waited to see the street lights come on, but when the city suddenly lit up in white and orange, I felt again the childish thrill; and there was another on the way back down in the dark with torches, when I gave up trying to keep my footing on the shiny grass, and sat to slide to the bottom: simple pleasures.

Yet another treat was waiting as we pushed off the beach. When I dipped my paddle, it left a ghostly trail through the water: phosphorescence, caused by bacteria in the sea, which was remarkably warm and still now that the breeze had dropped. We had lights on poles at the back of each kayak, but against the city lights reflected on the glossy water, it was hard to see the others, and we periodically worked through a ‘Thunderbirds are go!’ roll call that Martin had coached us in back on the island. He was close to us when he gave a sudden exclamation and then laughed. “That’s one shark with a headache,” he said, describing how he had hit something hard with his paddle.

A more obvious danger was the Half Moon Bay ferry hooning through the channel. We all waved our torches and it slowed and quietly disappeared as we paddled steadily towards St Heliers through a shining sea that was beginning to feel like treacle. By 11pm we were all back on the beach, tired but happy and ready for home, a shower and bed. It had been a perfect picnic.

Pamela Wade was a guest of Outdoor Discoveries (www.odnz.co.nz, tel. 0800 999636) who also run day trips to Rangitoto and up the Puhoi River to the pub, as well as overnighters at Mahurangi and other adventures. Instruction is given so no great skill is required — just ask Alan — and only moderate fitness is needed.