Goat Island Adventure

It’s the height of New Zealand summer and, even better, the middle of what I think of as the holiday period. New Zealand doesn’t do a very good job of distributing its holidays: there’s absolutely nothing from June through October, then seemingly a holiday every other weekend (see here). This week it was Auckland’s regional holiday, so M and I wanted to take advantage of the three-day weekend to go on a big overnight trip up to Cape Reinga, the north-most point in NZ, but Godzilla decided to start stalling at random. M took it into the mechanic for a service but that failed to fix the problem. We didn’t want to completely give up the weekend (though there’s another three-day weekend in two weeks) so we opted for a day trip to Goat Island.

Goat Island is located on the east coast about an hour and a half north of Auckland, within NZ’s oldest marine reserve. The main attraction here is not laying on the beach (which is a bit small) or exploring the island (which has no goats on it), it’s snorkeling in the clear, fish-filled water around the island. M had never been snorkeling before, while I’d done it in Hawaii and was keen to do it again in a new type of undersea environment.

Goat Island (at low tide).
Goat Island (at low tide).

Of course, since it was summer and a holiday weekend, we had to wake up earlier than we would have liked in order to get on the road. At first our plan to beat the traffic seemed to have worked, but we made the fateful mistake of turning off at Silverdale to avoid the toll on the main highway north. On Google Maps this seemed to add only ten minutes to the trip, but Google Maps didn’t account for the road going from multiple wide, divided lanes to a narrow two-lane road through small towns busy with Saturday morning markets. Past the towns, we began climbing up and down large hills, which Godzilla did not like at all. As a result, by the time we rejoined the main highway we found ourselves behind a line of slow-moving cars, with nothing to do for it except enjoy the scenery.

Eventually we made it to the Goat Island area, stopping into an outfit named Seafriends to rent some scuba gear. The guy running the place, who was a biologist who had studied the reserve during his PhD, recommended that we get wetsuits along with the usual mask, snorkel and fins. He said that they were great protection against the elements and that he never went without his; indeed, my wetsuit looked like it had lost a few battles with some rocks. We packed all the gear into the car and drove to the beach, excited for our adventure.

Unfortunately, we arrived at high tide, so the beach was nonexistent. This fact hadn’t stopped the crowd of other daytrippers from establishing themselves on the rocks above the water. M and I decided to leave most of our stuff in the car and walk down to the water in our wetsuits, just leaving our flipflops (or jandals, as they’re called here) on the rocks. This plan worked well, though we looked ridiculous I’m sure, and after some tripping over our fins we were in the water!

The area around Goat Island is mostly a flat sandy seabed, with rocks along the shorelines and large patches of kelp offering a place for fish to hide. Since it was high tide the water was a few meters deeper than expected, but we could still see a variety of fish, mostly snapper, cruising around. M claimed he even saw a ray! Our masks fogged up and waves splashed water into our snorkels, forcing us to pause often, but a happy side-effect of the wetsuits was that we were very buoyant and could float without effort. We still got pushed around by the waves though, especially as we tried to get out of the water, but it was a good time.

Obligatory bird pic: the ones with brown specks are teenage seagulls who were still begging their parents for food!
Obligatory bird pic: the ones with brown specks are teenage seagulls who were still begging their parents for food!

After about an hour, we wanted to go get some lunch. However, the area around Goat Island only has a few snorkel shops and the university research lab, so we had to venture to the nearest town, Leigh, for some food. (Most of the other people there were smart and brought their lunches, though they did have to contend with some large aggressive seagulls in order to keep it.) We ended up at a surprisingly nice place called The Sawmill Cafe, where we split a delicious seafood pizza. Snorkeling is hard work! Afterwards, we decided that since we had the snorkel gear all day, we could detour a bit to the nearby beach of Pakiri, which the guidebook promised was a beautiful white surf beach with good birdwatching.

The road to Pakiri led up into the hills. At the top were some stunning views back down towards the nearby Omaha town and beach.

This country is so green and blue.
This country is so green and blue.

We stopped to snap a few pictures and let Godzilla recover from the steep climb, then got back in the car and promptly hit a gravel road. The guidebook had not warned us about this and there were no signs on the road at all indicating that this transition was about to happen. Luckily Godzilla’s four-wheel drive and power mode brought us safely down the hill on this narrow gravel road, dodging people driving up the other way.

Welcome to rural New Zealand!
Welcome to rural New Zealand!

Of course, at the bottom of the hill the road switched just as abruptly back to pavement, which carried us the rest of the way to Pakiri beach.

The guidebook was right here: it is beautiful!
The guidebook was right here: it is beautiful!

The beach was definitely worth the harrowing trip! It was more crowded than expected because of the holiday: lifeguards were even on-duty to watch over the people swimming in the waves, which were quite a bit rougher than the ones around Goat Island. We had no interest in swimming so we headed in the opposite direction, towards the bird nesting area. This area in the dunes was of course roped off, but we could see little dotterels running around, as well as the larger oystercatchers.

Giving us the stink-eye.
Giving us the stink-eye.
The also endangered NZ dotterel.
The also endangered NZ dotterel.

We wanted to see fairy terns, which are tiny seabirds that are also critically endangered and only nest in a few locations in NZ, including Pakiri. We couldn’t spot one: unsurprising as a sign claimed that there are only 40 nesting pairs left. We did enjoy walking along in the soft white sand, though.

Don't know what island that is.
Don’t know what island that is.

Pakiri was nice but we wanted to go snorkeling again! Godzilla managed to make it up the gravel road and back to Goat Island. Now the tide was low and we could see the underwater rocks and features which made this place so attractive.

This beach wasn't here before! The boat was though.
This beach wasn’t here before! The boat was though.

We got back in the water and slowly swam around in the now shallower and clearer water. Small thin silvery fish darted around near the surface of the water while goatfish (no relation at all to the name Goat Island, apparently) poked around on the bottom. Some of the snappers were quite large (and I remembered how delicious they were at lunch!) We saw sea urchins, or kina, hiding in the rocks. According to the guy at Seafriends’ research, crayfish keep the kina population under control so that they don’t eat all the kelp and create an undersea wasteland. We didn’t spot any of these crayfish, but that was OK by me.

Some non-sea life: a pied shag.
Some non-sea life: a pied shag.

Eventually we got tired again and hauled out onto the now-present beach. We lay on our beach towels (which M got from his job at the liquor store and so are Corona-themed) in the late afternoon, letting the sun dry us off. The snorkel gear was due back at 7pm, so we reluctantly shook the sand off and drove back to Seafriends to drop off the gear. Seafriends also had a small cafe with Belgian waffles (since the guy there was from Belgium, presumably) and we had a quick snack before starting our journey back to Auckland.

On the way back we decided to simply pay the $2.60 toll in order to avoid the winding road and small towns along the free route. As a result, we got to Auckland seemingly much faster, and I snapped a few pictures of the city while we drove over the harbor bridge.

Auckland at sunset.
Auckland at sunset.

A lovely end to a lovely day!

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