Bay of Islands and beyond

I had been a little remiss in organising accommodation for our next leg so was pleased that I was able to get a last-minute deal for a place called the Outrigger Motel in Paihia. Paihia is about 220km north of Auckland on New Zealand’s east coast, and it’s something of a tourist hotspot during the peak summer season but it was getting quieter by the time we arrived in early March.

The motel turned out to be in a perfect spot for us, just a block and a half away from the main pier from which all the marine activities take place. We were booked here for four nights so, on arrival, we planned out our activities for our stay. We wanted to get up to the country’s northernmost point at Cape Reinga. This was another 200km further north than Paihia so we thought it best to book a tour and let someone else do the driving. We also wanted to take the opportunity to dive while we were here before we forget everything we learned when training at Cairns. Luckily, there was a dive shop about 20m from the motel so we decided to walk down and get ourselves organised for the next couple of days.

First stop was Paihia Dive where we were able to get two spots on Friday’s trip. We would be reef diving while some of the other people on the boat would be wreck diving HMNZS Canterbury, a New Zealand Navy frigate that was decommissioned in 2005 and scuttled in the Bay of Islands to serve as a dive wreck in 2007. The top of the ship is at a depth of 19m and, since we’re certified to a maximum depth of 18m, it wasn’t an option for us. We booked ourselves in for two reef dives then moved on to the tourist office on the pier.

The bus trip to Cape Reinga set out the following morning at 8:00am and would include a drive on Ninety Mile Beach (not actually 90 miles long), and sand tobogganing. Also, it would cost NZD 150 each. We decided that this was too expensive for what we wanted and the extra activities were just padding to justify the cost, so we decided to make the trip independently.

So it was that we were up early on Thursday morning and into the car for the drive north. As usual, we made a couple of stops en route at look out spots but didn’t linger, making steady progress towards our destination. Eventually, we arrived at Cape Reinga and took a walk out towards the lighthouse. It was very reminiscent of our visit to the Cape of Good Hope, lighthouse and all.


And there’s no reason why they should be different, since they’re only 5 miles apart, north to south, with Cape Reinga being the more southerly. It surprised me to learn how far south New Zealand is, or how far north the whole of Africa is. I’m not sure which.

We also saw here the two currents meeting each other just like in South Africa, although here it’s the meeting of the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea.


This is also the most spiritual place in New Zealand for the Maori culture. It is the point from which spirits make their last journey after death, over to the islands just offshore before returning to the land of their ancestors.

After our visit, we got back in the car and headed south again. The journey was uneventful, with the one notable point being a stop for ice cream which was made by crushing frozen fruit into the ice cream and forcing it out of a Mr. Whippy type of ice cream machine. I had pineapple and Ishbel had boysenberry, both of which were delicious. I would recommend the place but it was just a roadside hut and I have no idea where it was. After the long drive we chilled out in the evening, knowing we had an early start for the dive the following day.

We were due at the dive shop by 07:45 to get fitted for the necessary gear then made our way down to our boat, The Sentinel. There were about 12 divers with two-thirds of them doing the wreck dive and the other four of us doing the reef. There were also two snorkelers and a honeymoon couple from New York doing a discover diving course.  We anchored over the wreck first. If you’re doing more than one dive in a day, it’s important that each subsequent dive is scheduled to be less deep than the previous one, due to the build up of nitrogen bubbles in the bloodstream. Consequently, the wreck divers went out first, since they could be going down as deep as 25m.

Once they were gone, the reef divers had the chance to get into our gear. We were going from wearing dive skins (0mm) back in Australia to 7mm wetsuits here in New Zealand. This thickness is recommended for very cold water, but the water was 25°C here, so we declined the offer of a full hood and gloves as well.

Once the wreck divers were back on board, the boat shifted to be closer to the reef in shallower water. They took a quick photo of us just before we got into the water.


I think the divemasters on board – Luke, in this case – take great delight in photobombing the divers. We had a lovely dive at this spot with an abundance of fish around and we also saw two rays: one manta and one sting.

After we were back on board, the boat moved over to an island called Putahataha, where our dive would take us along a reef wall around the tip of the island, and into an underwater cave.


Again, there were a lot of fish around. I particularly enjoyed being accompanied for a while by this little fellow…


…a Sandager’s Wrasse, who swam along beside my head, keeping pace with me. Apparently, they love divers stirring up potential food for them. I suspect he picked me out as being the least elegant of the divers on the trip and therefore most likely to do the maximum amount of stirring up.

I was a little nervous about the cave thing. It’s all very well strolling into a cave at ground level but the underwater element added a little more of a frisson. This may well explain why I got low on air before the others in the group, so I headed back with Divemaster Luke while Ishbel and an American chap called John buddied up and continued their dive. I was back on board and dried off by the time the rest of them got to the surface. Which I was pleased about since both the current and the wind had increased subsequently, which meant the boat had to move before they could let the other divers approach and get out. We moved and anchored and beckoned the divers over. As they were swimming towards us, things got lively again and the boat had to change position once more. Ishbel later told me that she thought we were having a joke at their expense as they all swam to the spot where the boat wasn’t and looked up to see the skipper inviting them over to the new position. We managed to hold that position and get most of them out of the water, but a further shift was required before we finally got everyone on board. After that, we headed back to harbour.

I would comment on Paihia Dive that their rental equipment was better than the stuff we had learned in. Instead of the slip-on shoe integrated fins, they had dive boots and pull on fins which were much more comfortable. Also, the BCD’s had integrated weights, which are a lot more comfortable than the weight belts we used in our training course and make getting out of the water a lot easier. So kudos to those guys.

We got back to the motel and washed off the salt water from ourselves and our gear, then decided on a slow stroll towards dinner. We ate in a nice little place called Alfresco’s where the food was good and the wine was reasonable. We had a bottle of The Landing, which is produced in Russell, right across the bay from Paihia.

We then took a leisurely walk back to the motel. Except we saw a sign announcing live music tonight at the ex-servicemen’s club. The night was still young, so we decided to take a look and see what it had on offer. We arrived and, not all that surprisingly, the live music consisted of a lady singing, a gent on guitar, and a drum machine. They were playing what you would expect them to be playing, Boney M classics, songs that people could line dance to, and the kind of fare you’d expect to hear at most weddings. Except, the lady then took a break from singing leaving the gent to his own devices. I couldn’t help it: I had Ishbel up on the floor and dancing to a range of old rock and roll classics, and some lesser known tunes that I was surprised to hear. Chuck Berry’s Memphis Tennessee, followed by Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues might have been expected. But I was surprised to hear a version of Big Joe Turner’s classic Flip Flop and Fly. The locals appeared to enjoy my *ahem* uninhibited approach to dance and I was delighted to entertain them.

Sadly, all this fun music delayed our departure and I may have had one beer more than I should have done. Depart, we eventually did and went to bed that night facing the brutal reality that we were booked to go kayaking to Haruru falls the following morning. At least we had a 10am start, so not as bad as it might have been.

We both felt surprisingly chipper the following morning and a nice breakfast had us ready to face the kayaking challenge. We presented ourselves at the boat promptly and our skipper, Ben, set off sharp at 10am. We had waited to see if anyone else showed up but they didn’t so we were in the fortunate position of enjoying a private tour. The boat headed across the bay in front of Paihia and into the Waitangi River where we anchored and ventured into the kayaks. I’d never done this before so had no idea what to expect. The first thing I should have expected was a cold behind, since these things are designed to float low in the water and let in through some little holes in the sides. The good news was that it was a warm, sunny day, so the discomfort wasn’t too bad and the water trapped there warmed up fairly quickly.


Ben seemed content that, between us, Ishbel and I would be able to paddle our kayak from A to B as necessary and off we set. We had a couple of stops en route to the falls, stopping to look at an old, man-made river inlet that had been made by the Maori people to serve as a dry dock. The river is still tidal up until the falls, so the inlet would fill at high water, when they could float in the canoes they wanted to work on, then empty as the tide went out. We also took a look at some mangroves then carried on to the falls.

By this time, I was ready to turn around and head back to the boat. You sit at an odd angle in these kayaks and the paddling was playing merry hell with my much under-used stomach muscles. It was fun, but I’d had enough. Back to the boat we went and safely made it back on board.

We headed back to the harbour and thanked Ben for providing the private tour, then we headed to the motel to dry out a bit. One last dinner on Saturday evening and our Paihia stay was over. Sunday, it was time to head back to Auckland for one last day before saying goodbye to New Zealand.

Diverse Photos of Divers

Just some pics from the dive trip. Clicking on each photo will get you to a larger version which you’re free to download if you were on the trip…

Our Dive Boat

“Peace on the reef”

The title of this post has been stolen from the skipper of our dive boat. Warren made a number of announcements to us during our three days on board and ended each one by saying “Peace on the Reef.” By the end, we were all responding in kind, and on one occasion even pre-empted him by saying the phrase en masse before he had the chance to.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Having qualified as PADI Open Water divers on Thursday afternoon, Ishbel and I didn’t dive again on the day. However, we were determined to have our first unsupervised dive together on Friday, 8th February. The dive schedule had three dives planned for Friday, the first of which was to take place at 6:30am. Wake-up time was scheduled for 5:45, twenty minutes before sunrise on the reef. After Thursday’s second dive, we had moved from Milln Reef to the Boulders site on Flynn Reef, which was to be the site of Dive 1 this morning.

We had devised a cunning plan to be last into the water and, ideally, first out so that we wouldn’t be getting our newly qualified selves in the way of the more experienced divers. The first part went exactly to plan. We let everyone else off the boat then stepped in to the water ourselves. On this memorable occasion, I contrived to mess up my giant step. The key is to look at the horizon as you step out. Stupidly, I looked down, the result of which was to push my mask off my nose and up on to my forehead. Luckily, I didn’t lose the mask completely. Only my dignity. Ishbel joined me in the water with considerably more grace and we swam round to the rope which we decided we would descend before swimming off to the reef.

This particular site is one which doesn’t require any real navigation skills as you descend the rope to a concrete block to which the boat is moored, then swim off. There is a steep reef wall on your left hand side, so you just keep it on your left on the way out, and on your right on the way back and you can guarantee finding the boat again.  Finding the boat is a skill all on its own and even some of the experienced divers missed it on some of the dives. Sometimes, they were close enough to be able to swim back on the surface but on a couple of occasions, someone from the boat went out in the little motor launch to tow them back home. It was comforting to know that we were in no danger of getting lost.


For our first dive, we had a great time. No dramas, as Australians are fond of saying. We swam along the wall as recommended and saw a wide variety of fish and even a couple of reef sharks, about 2m long. For all the hard work that we put into the course, and the even harder work our instructors put in to getting us through it, this was the payoff. Our relaxed dive along the Great Barrier Reef, going down to 18m for 28 minutes, was a wondrous experience. We weren’t even first back to the boat as we were enjoying it so much.

Winds, tides, and encroaching weather were all conspiring to make life difficult for the skipper and crew in determining where the next dive would be. The boat changed position in the hope of finding better sea conditions, but it was still very choppy. The decision was taken to cancel one of the Day 3 dives to give more down time between them and allow a longer dive rather than two abbreviated dives. We decided conditions were too rough for us to venture back down, and a couple of other people sat out the last dive as well. The boat was rising and falling quite noticeably as we sat at our mooring, so we decided this was a good time to take another seasickness pill. If it was like this when we were at rest, it was going to be very rough on the way back to Cairns.

One interesting event did occur between the two Friday dives. As we sat around the tables in the lounge area, someone said “I think I can smell burning” two seconds before a loud bang and a flash emanated from one of the cabins. There was a group of three American couples, all qualified divers, and the emergency occurred in one of their cabins. Nothing actually went up in flames, but someone had hung up a wet costume immediately above an electric point where they were charging their phone. The drips had fused the power, and melted the charger. The group are all current or former members of the LA Fire Department!

We skipped Dive 2, although Ishbel went out to snorkel the shallow part of the reef. After Dive 2, we headed back to Cairns, after repairing a mooring buoy at one of the sites that had been snagged the previous day. We ended up getting back to town about an hour later than scheduled, but it didn’t interfere with anyone’s plans so we weren’t unduly concerned by the delay.

The homeward journey also allowed for a moment of reflection on the whole experience. Our decision to go through the diving course was something of a whim that we had decided would be a fun thing to do on our travels. I had certainly underestimated the scale of effort required to get through it and certainly wish that I had worked more on some basic fitness before the course started. Our fellow open water students were a diverse bunch of people, ranging from 18 up to, well, our age since we were the oldest. They were from Australia, Canada, Netherlands, Germany and the UK. Despite the obvious differences between us all, the sense of camaraderie was overwhelming, We could always put that down to the fact that we were united in adversity, all trying to qualify as divers. But once we were on the boat, that diversity increased as we met qualified divers from Denmark, Sweden, the US, China, Taiwan. And everyone still got along really well. There’s something about the experience that just brings out the best in everyone. We loved it.


As we approached Cairns, we were informed of a tradition whereby the instructors book tables at a German Beerhouse in town for the evening of our return to port. So it was that we showed up at 7:30 and met up with our fellow divers and a couple of the instructors for possibly the last time ever.


After some 3 litre beer towers and schnitzels, the group moved from the beerhouse to another bar where live music was playing. We had a last drink there with our fellow divers, then headed back to the hotel.

The next post will be just a collection of photos from the dive boat that will hopefully be of interest to everyone who was on board at the same time as us.



Under the ocean wave


Having been chided for a faltering schedule of blog posts, I’m going to just jump in with current events and try to catch up on the lost week at some point in the future.

We arrived in Cairns in Northern Queensland on Saturday afternoon, 2nd February. We flew up from Brisbane on one of Australia’s budget carriers, Jetstar. Ishbel’s sister kindly let us leave our instruments and one suitcase behind with her while we made this side trip which helped keep the cost down. In common with budget airlines everywhere, Jetstar are vigorous in their upsell, which includes paying extra for luggage.

We had a quiet Saturday evening in Cairns. Ishbel needed a new swimsuit so we managed to acquire that at a shop called Splish Splash Swimwear at Cairns Pier. As we came out of that shop, another caught my eye. Man Overboard had a collection of really quite striking shirts in their window. One of my shirts has frayed at the collar and cuffs so, in accordance with our “one in, one out” policy for packing, I bought a splendidly garish linen shirt to replace it. We found a bar/restaurant called Salt House at the Pier where there was live music and decent food so we spent a couple of hours there before heading back to the hotel.

We had booked our dive medicals for Sunday morning and it turned out that the Cairns 24 Hour Medical Centre was right across the road from our hotel, so that was easy to get done. We then just had a leisurely walk around the town to see what it had to offer. Northern Queensland has been experiencing some severe weather. Most of it has hit Townsville, south of here, where over a metre of rain fell just in the last week. By comparison, my home town of Glasgow which is notoriously wet, has an average annual rainfall of 1.079m. (I checked). the edges of the weather system are affecting Cairns so it was overcast and a bit drizzly for our walk. We ended up back at Salt House for food and the live music again. We were very good and only drank mocktails. Having passed our dive medicals earlier in the day, we were faced with the brutal reality that we were now going to try to learn to dive so didn’t want to impair ourselves in advance. We waited out a thunderstorm which rolled through then headed back to the hotel for an early night and a pickup the next morning at 8:15am.

We were waiting in reception Monday morning as the minibus from Pro Dive rolled up outside. We were picked up and met the first cadre of our fellow students as the bus took us to the private Pro Dive facility for our first day of classroom and pool education. We were in the classroom for three hours until lunch, learning many of the basic safety precautions necessary to qualify as a diver and some of the dangers associated with the activity. Then, after lunch, we changed into our costumes and hit the pool. There were 11 of us on the course so we were split into two groups. Ishbel, me and three others were with our instructor, Line from Norway, in Pool 1 and the other 6 were with Steffen from the Netherlands in Pool 2. They proceeded to bombard us with information on the technical and practical aspects of diving, made us swim 24 lengths, had us tread water for 10 minutes, and swim underwater fully loaded with scuba gear and weights. I learned that I’m not fat, just overly buoyant. That explains the 10.5kg I had added to me which, when combined with the tank, regulators, Buoyancy Control Device (BCD), and my own mass, gives me my own gravitational pull. It’s also quite a lot to move around in when you’re not in the water. After four hours in the pool, class was dismissed for the day and delivered back to our respective hotels.

That wasn’t enough education for one day for us. We decided to attend a session at a place called Reef Teach, which does exactly that. It was recommended by our instructors and was scheduled to run from 6:30 to 8:30, so when we got out of there at 9:30, we were considerably better informed about what we could expect to see on the Great Barrier Reef when we eventually got out there. After that, we had time to grab a quick bite at Evo Burger which was delicious.

We were exhausted by this time so headed back to the hotel then up in time for a 7:35 pickup on Tuesday morning. We were driven back out to the facility then were straight into the pool for the morning. We again practised skills and emergency procedures, like taking off our BCD and putting it back on, while in the water. Taking off our weights and putting them on again, in the water. Taking off our mask and putting it back on again. In the water. Throwing away our regulator (air hose) and finding it again. In the water. This all finished about noon and, once again, we were feeling a tad fatigued by the whole exercise. Bear in mind that we have a good 10 years on the next oldest student and he in turn has a few years on most of the rest of the class. We’re entitled to be tired!

We then all went for lunch together at a place called Grill’d before stopping by the Pro Dive shop in central Cairns to look at and possibly acquire equipment. We, of course don’t have any room in our luggage for such things. So imagine my surprise when I found myself the proud owner of dive boots and flippers and Ishbel had a snorkel and mask! These things happen.

Anyway, after the shopping spree, it was back out to the facility to sit our exams. Luckily, we all passed so the whole class was set for the next part of the course: the Great Barrier Reef. Pickup on Wednesday was at 6:15. It just keeps getting earlier! We were driven to the shop to check in for the trip and to store the luggage we wouldn’t need on board. Once that was done, we were back on the minibus and out to the marina to see our boat for the first time, the Scubapro. I should mention that I had chosen today as the first day to wear the previously mentioned garish linen shirt. So when the skipper, Warren, completed the roll call once everyone was on board, he stopped at my name for a special mention of the shirt. Yes, it really is that loud.


In total, there are 31 divers on board. Apart from the 11 of us PADI Open Water students and one snorkeller, the rest are already qualified and are either having fun dives or are trying to qualify for more advanced qualifications. For our group to qualify, we have to complete four open water dives and perform certain skills both at depth and on the surface. I don’t usually get seasick but the skipper pointed out that even people who don’t get seasick get seasick on this boat so Ishbel and I decided to take a preventative tablet each. The ride out to the reef was very turbulent and once the outbreak of seasickness inevitably happened, I was delighted that we had done so.

It was a three hour trip out to the reef, and the skipper informed us that North Westerly winds were making it very choppy at the usual Day 1 site so we would head to what was called the “Wild Side” of Milln Reef. Once moored, everyone changed into their gear. The water is warm out here, about 28°C so we all have highly attractive full body lycra suits to wear. My apologies for putting that image into your heads. If you don’t want to be further traumatised, look away now.

2 - 1 (9)

Thus it was that, looking somewhat like an aquatic Santa Claus, I made my way to the back of the boat, held my regulator and mask with my right hand and the mask strap with my left, and took my giant step into the ocean. As we descended to about 12m, we again were obliged to go through a variety of skills similar to those we had learned in the pool, with the added thrill that we were in the sea with waves buffeting us and currents pulling us around. We all survived that and just about managed to scramble onto the boat at the end. That is a whole new skill.

IMG_3594.JPGThere’s a well defined schedule for dives for the three days we’re on board. As learners, we need to do Dives 1 and 2 on Day 1 and Dives 1 and 2 on Day 2 in order to qualify as PADI open water divers. Once we’ve done that, they actually allow us to dive without an instructor.

2 - 1 (10)
Ishbel has the turquoise snorkel and I have the yellow hood.

The good news is that Ishbel and I managed to complete the 4 dives necessary – 2 at the Wild Side, Milln Reef and 2 at The Whale, Milln Reef –  and are now, as I type, qualified divers. I’m sure you find this as difficult to believe as I do. However, having qualified, we declined the opportunity to go diving unsupervised on Day 2. Mainly because we are absolutely shattered. We slept 9 hours straight on Wednesday night and will probably do the same tonight (Thursday). We plan on doing at least one dive on Friday before the boat returns to port in Cairns.