Sunday, October 25, 2009

Waiheke - Day 1

It was blindingly sunny as I made my way to the upper deck of the ferry, but I decided that I didn't want to miss the view from a 30 minute cruise in Hauraki Gulf. For Labour Weekend, my fifth weekend in New Zealand, I arranged to spend three days on Waiheke Island with a couchsurfer. I was quite happy that she agreed to host me, as there were only two couchsurfers on Waiheke who were actively hosting for that weekend. This is not surprising, as Waiheke, New Zealand's third most populated island, is home to only 8000 residents, plus serving as a vacation home spot for several thousand more. In fact, Waiheke is home to so few people that there isn't even a government-owned water distribution system on the island. The residents get their water from filtered rainwater collected through their roofs and gutters, stored in large water cisterns on their property. If there is a dry spell, they must pay for water tankers to refill their cisterns using water drawn from a few bores on the island.

As our catamaran ferry cruised past North Head and out of Waitemata Harbour, I suddenly remembered to text my host, Angie. She informed me that she and her son will be waiting to pick me up when I arrive on Waiheke. We sailed past many of the islands in the Bay, including Rangitoto, Browns, Motutapu, and Motuihe. Even from the boat, it was interesting for me to see the different geologic and flora features of the different islands, as they were all created at different times over tens or hundreds of thousands of years, and it really does show. As we sailed past the cliffs of Motutapo Island, the harbour of Matiatia, where we are landing, came into view. Matiatia Harbour was very pretty, especially in the sunlight under the blue sky. There was a tongue of sparkling blue water speckled with sailboats, which extended in between lush green hills. The land comes to a pincer formation with steep hills near the mouth of the harbour, so that you felt quite secure after passing by the entrance.

As our ferry docked, I met with Corey, who made eye contact with me before I disembarked, and we walked to the van that Angie was driving, along with her entire family. She took me on a quick driving tour of the west side of the island, the populated side, before dropping her son off at the paintball grounds and then heading home. Her home, a modest but cosy house, was located in Ostend, but very close to Palm Beach. What this means is that her house is nearly exactly in the middle between the north and south shores of Waiheke. She was quite busy that day, so after settling in a bit, I headed out for a random walk. As I was leaving the house, I was very amused at the old-fashioned key the doors were locked with, as I rarely get to use those types of keys nowadays.

My walk took me up north of the house, where I encountered some spectacular tree fern forests in valleys, grapevines on rolling hills, and views of the water, both north towards the barrier islands and south towards the mainland. I even caught a few glimpses of Auckland city from where I was. As I also wanted to meet some locals and possibly travellers, I took the opportunity to ask for directions and suggestions on what to do when I saw a woman tending to her horses in front of her house. After talking for a bit, I found out that she was originally from Norway and had worked in Beijing in the 1970s for a gas exploration company, one of the first foreign companies to be allowed to operation in China. She led me into her farm a little, to a crest where she pointed out to me Onetangi Beach.

I decided to follow her suggestion and soon found myself walking downhill along the water towards Onetangi. There were some very nice views on the way of the countryside as well as the cliffs above the water. Along with the patches of ferns and cabbage trees, it gave off a very relaxed and exotic vibe. I walked by two girls on a horse on their way to the beach and tried to start up a quick chat about Waiheke, but as they were teenagers, they were more focused on talking between themselves than with me. Onetangi Beach was a very long sweep of sand, and is in fact Waiheke's longest beach at just over one and a half kilometres in length. However, as the tide was in at the time, the beach was not as wide as usual, but was still quite beautiful. Soon after I arrived, the girls on the horse arrived too, and they splashed and swam in the water a ways down the beach with their horse. It was on Onetangi beach where I realized that the shell gravel I saw in Auckland was probably gathered in the area and not imported from afar. Large swathes of Onetangi Beach, and in fact all of the beaches there, are covered in a thick layer of seashells of different colours and shapes, most of them surprisingly intact. I decided to pick out a few shells to add to my collection of rocks and shells collected from interesting places, but I found this to be extremely difficult as there were so many choices! In the end, I settled for an off-white perfectly shaped scallop shell of just the right size, and a flat-ish sea-snail shell with pretty stripes and shiny sections filled with colour that looked like mother-of-pearl.

After a quick walk around the beach, I walked back to the house where I hung out with the family for a while to get to know them a bit. The three girls are quite a handful. The entire time they were awake while I was there, they were running around, playing and screaming. They were such bundles of energy and they all had such great personalities. Especially little India, at age two, was amazingly friendly and outgoing, and we got to spend a good amount of time with each other. The boys were a bit more shy and were absorbed in doing what they were doing rather than approaching me unless I talked to them. Once they were talking though, I found them to be very nice and caring.

A bit before dinnertime, I popped out for a second walk. This time, Angie and her kids gave me directions for Palm Beach, the closest beach to their home. The road took me through houses situated in a lush forest of native plants from New Zealand, including numerous ferns, fern trees, nikau palms, and cabbage trees. I was hoping to bump into a restaurant, but didn't find one. When I got close to the water, I asked an elderly couple walking around, and they told me that the closest open restaurant would probably be across the island in the town centre of Ostend. Fortunatly, there was a small convenience shop that was open there, so I picked up a meat pie in a heated case, an orange-mango fizzy and a few energy bars. I walked to the beach, found a rock to sit on, and had my meal there. As I ate, I enjoyed the view and sounds of the beach and the sight of a small island just offshore, which I thought would great to explore with a kayak. I slowly became aware that I was being surrounded by hungry seagulls flying in from all over the area who flocked all over where I was sitting as soon as I stood up and left. The seagulls looked disappointed as they few away again a few moments later.

I took a stroll around Palm Beach, around a group of craggy rocks on the west end of the beach. Much of the sand was quite wet as it appears that the tide had just gone out. Passing by this group of large boulders led to a smaller portion, which I later discovered was a nude beach. It wasn't dodgy though, as there were fully clothed couples and families strolling along as well. From here, I could see Little Palm Beach as well, a public beach surrounded by private property so that the only way to get there is by boat or swimming, if you can be sure you won't be dragged out to sea by the powerful rip currents there. I sat on some of the large rocks watching the sun go behind some hills and reflecting on where my life is heading. That evening, I returned to a full house, where the girls taught me Chinese Poker while India was sitting in my lap, naked, and having me read to book to her. At first I was a bit surprised, coming from the prude culture of the US, but I was explained that in New Zealand, or at least Waiheke, having small children arounter the girls went to bed, Angie showed me photos from her trip to Vietnam and Cambodia last year. After some more chatting, we headed off to bed. I had my own room as Corey was staying over with a friend and Codi was sleeping outside in the common room.

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