GET BOARD & PADDLE
The snapper’s sizzling on our beach-side barbie, and we kick back at the end of
another endless day in the water.
I know I’m smiling, thinking about the contrast with the other hemisphere, where I spent my aquatic apprenticeship tumbling through the freezing waves of Scotland’s North Sea or semi-submerged in the icy torrents of Highland rivers - during the days
when I believed that hypothermia was just the flip side of living the dream!
After 10 years of anticipation, I first caught sight of New Zealand’s crisp white coastline from 20,000 feet above the Tasman Sea. The years of planning and preparation were finally turning to reality and we were thrilled to actually reach this land of ultimate watersport. It took no time at all to become fully engrossed in the crazy water culture that thrives around this cracking country.
Travelling South-East from Auckland, we arrived at the spectacular white sand paradise of the Coromandel Peninsula. The main draw here was Cathedral Cove and the opportunity to kayak through sea caves and explore remote beaches. We sought out Cathedral Cove Kayaks which has been operating for over a decade, and true to reputation, they had fabulous local knowledge and expertise, providing the perfect introduction to the trip.
We paddled between awesome water carved sculptures and
past tiny islands and rock gardens - but once we reached Cathedral Cove itself, we were totally blown away. The iconic arch was stunning. We took our time to wander through the cave and appreciate the legendary natural wonder. What a start to the adventure! With the blue skies and crystal clear water, I’ll certainly never forget kayaking in the Coromandel.
Bay of Plenty
Heading down the coast into the Bay of Plenty, we clocked a sizable north-eastern swell lighting up the sand banks near Mount Maunganui – a dream destination! After a great morning surf at the main beach, we treated ourselves a delicious French crepe from local outfit Bon Appetite, and continued round to the more chilled waters of Tauranga Harbour.
Our plan was to check out the Elements Watersports Center, which offer a long list of great watersport activities. Everything appealed, to be honest, but in the interests of
new experiences, we had to try
the stand up paddle boarding. SUP Boarding for short, is straight up, awesome fun.
I took to the long board pretty easy, and while the maneuvering and balance took a second to get used to, we were soon cruising through the bay aiming to perfect the technique. Building a noticeable rhythm in our paddling, within an hour we were carving around the bay on the proper mission, joking our way around the interesting harbour area, fully appreciating the stand up style sensation. It was a brilliant experience and one I would highly recommend!
Heading inland, we swung round to Rotorua and looked no further than Go Wild Adventures for our next kayak trip. After an easy drive down, we decided to indulge in the chilled out evening session, known as the ‘Twilight Paddle’.
With a beautifully clear day, we set off across the incredible Lake Rotoiti. An unreal location- huge mountains dominating the landscape, and with the sun bouncing in our faces, we set course for the luxurious hot pools on the other side.
The fading sun and snow-capped mountains were a backdrop that only New Zealand can provide, and at the right angle, the sun occasionally created a liquid gold-like effect under our paddle. It was mesmerizing and it wouldn’t have mattered if there had been no destination; the 45 minute paddle out to the Manupirua Thermal Springs was pleasure enough.
But once we arrived we couldn’t wait to the strip off and jump in!
Being only accessible by kayak (or boat), the pools felt super remote and isolated- it was properly relaxing, and we had plenty of space to watch the sun set slowly behind the mountains.
Once the sun finally did set, we attempted the interesting and unusual journey back. With only a slim moon in the sky, our torch lights and senses had to lead the way - or rather, If I’m honest, the guides local orientating knowledge really came into its own, and we drifted peacefully back to shore in near dark conditions. The whole experience felt really special and unique, and we were hugely privileged to be a part of it.
As soon as we heard of the rafting potential in the Napier area, we were mad keen to check it out. Meeting our cool guides from the Mohaka Rafting Company about 9am, we took a bus up the river, and once we’d opted for ‘The Big One’, we seriously couldn’t wait. Throwing a life jacket on, we established some essential safety tips and prepared for our first New Zealand rafting experience.
Before long we were cruising down the Mohaka River, feeling the summer vibes straight up. From a fairly chilled start, we were then thrown full-on into an adrenalinepacked adventure. We hit the first set of massive rapids hard - water rushing on all sides – and digging the paddles in deep, we threw ourselves down some cranking rapids, around quick bends and into deep cauldrons of churning white water.
We passed some huge, mysticallooking waterfalls, and avoiding some bigger whirlpools on the way, we descended at some serious speed. Constantly encouraged by the experienced and professional guides, it was a challenging trip and a proper team effort to keep the raft on course.
At one stage we even stopped for a cliff jump and to surf a standing rapid - what a vibe! The power in the water and the beauty in the surrounding valley were
breathtaking. The most thrilling aspects were certainly hitting those huge rapids and paddling so hard just to avoid capsizing!
An overwhelming sense of achievement filled the raft after landing of the last and biggest falls - huge cheers all round! Truly ‘New Zealand rafting at its best’ - I figured it would be very hard to beat!
We continued down to the West, driving around the incredible ‘surf highway’ on the Taranaki Peninsula, and - as the name suggests - we hit some serious surf spots on the way to Whanganui.
We stopped to catch some incredible waves at Stent Road in particular, camping at a cool local beach and jumping back in the water at first light. With the backdrop of Mount Taranaki sweeping down to this mesmerizing coastal magic, we decided to spend much more time in the area.
We settled awhile to enjoy the local vibes and prepare for the next adventure; we knew it was going to be huge. The plan was a 3-day
guided canoe trip through native, untouched New Zealand bush. We were signed up with Yeti Tours, which have been operating here for the last quarter century, and it was with some difficulty we resisted one of their 7 or 10 day tours down the Wanganui River - next time though, for sure.
We loaded our canoes full of food, and set off from Whatahoro in experienced hands and beautiful sunshine. Our destination was 87km downstream, at Pipiriki, and with three days to get there, we meandered at an easy going pace. Floating downriver with the current for hours, we stopped at fascinating sites such as the Bridge to Nowhere and the Puraroto Caves.
This trip wasn’t about going hard out, but taking time to navigate a significant stretch of water with a group of people who were rapidly becoming good friends. We chilled and talked, taking time to paddle around and explore the river, past magnificent waterfalls, old Maori villages and bush lined gorges, often breaking to swim or jump in from the cliffs. It was relaxing and adventurous all at the same time, silently drifting at our own pace and taking the time to soak it all up.
We simply couldn’t leave the area! Taumarunui Canoe Hire and Jet boat Tours offer an intriguing choice of options, and once we’d decided on a plan, we camped down beside the Whanganui River, free of charge. The team here, Ronnie, Karen and family were
professional and friendly too – with a great sense of fun. Before we set off there was a thorough safety briefing, advice on the location and layout of campsites - but only after capsizing! They assured us that was part of the fun – and to be fair it was a whole lot more fun than capsizing in a Scottish river! These are good folk and they make every effort to create a great experience, no matter what age you are - certainly one to be recommended!
With so much scope and diversity on the Whanganui River, and so much enjoyment in the rides so far, we simply couldn’t resist doing
it once more! This time, Wades Landing Outdoor provided the gear as we suited up and took their kayaks for a quicker one-day run downstream. A similar style trip, we found ourselves totally immersed with the nature again - paddling past birds and deer who took little notice, stopping at otherwise inaccessible beaches, and always looking out for good landing spots and suitable camping sites. We simply loved the area; the scenery and beauty were breathtaking. Being unguided this time and knowing the area quite well by now, we really enjoyed the freedom of drifting downstream by ourselves.
Abel Tasman National Park
Dropping into the Abel Tasman National Park in perfect conditions truly felt like arriving in a tropical island paradise - and we immediately understood why people got so excited about this place.
Water taxis provide access to remote beaches and our guides at Kahu Kayaks advised us take one and just wander back to base, which
sounded absolutely perfect to us. We were dropped off at a remote cove, then set course and paddled past some unbelievable beaches; drifting slowly enough to simply take everything in. We navigated numerous water-carved caves, passages and stacks, exploring the irresistible beaches and surrounding bush walks, thoroughly enjoying the diversity in the area.
The wildlife was also abundant; there were numerous bird species overhead and lots of seals swimming
around. At one point, one of the inquisitive seals actually jumped up onto one of the kayaks!
On our return journey, all our kayaks were tied together to form a single raft and we drifted together under the strong tidal current. Then, with the wind at our backs, we hoisted a huge white sail and shot off down the coast.
It was great fun, and with the breeze and current providing much more power than our tired arms, we joked our way back before bowing into the beautifully sheltered Manaku Bay. We broke up the raft and paddled ashore to reflect on an exceptional Abel Tasman adventure.
Kayaking in Kaikoura is a straight up, crazy experience. The snow-capped
mountain backdrop and blue sky combination provided a stunning introduction, and we were hugely excited about paddling in the area.
Noticing a solid Southern swell pounding the point at Mangamaunu, we stopped 22km before Kaikoura at the local surf breaks. A wrapping right-hand point setup, renowned throughout New Zealand as one of the best waves in the country; and it was pumping! We surfed past sunset with a handful of locals and left the water proper stoked - we slept locally and woke early for the sunrise session!
Catching up with Matt Foy at Kaikoura Kayaks later in the day, we learned more about the area and the deep offshore trench that provides ideal conditions for wildlife encounters. We were really keen to launch the kayaks, and it wasn’t long until we were paddling around the stunning Kaikoura Peninsula, with playful seals already surrounding our crafts. Almost as friendly as the Abel Tasman crew, these seals seemed pretty happy to swim around our kayaks, look for food, and provide us some excellent entertainment at the same time.
Matt continued to provide expert knowledge of the area, and we
paddled on searching for dolphins. Within about 40 minutes, we got exactly what we were looking for; a pod of about six Dusky Dolphins appeared almost out of nowhere, leaping around our boats to big cheers. They stayed for ages and I couldn’t resist climbing out the kayak and jumping in with them! Swimming all around and underneath us now, we provided some unusual noises for their amusement too; underwater rubbing and clinking of anything worked well, and a personal favourite was singing into the water via a back-to-front snorkel, to a fairly awesome reaction! Predictably, they eventually got bored and disappeared - but with all factors combined, it was a next level kayak adventure and we felt extremely fortunate to have spent so much time with these exceptional animals.
However, it was now time to give our legs some exercise and our tired arms a rest. Kaikoura Pedal Kayaks offer a unique kayak journey with foot-powered pedals, and we had to check it out. In contrast to some previous arm-orientated madness around New Zealand, this time we simply leaned back and let our legs do the hard work. The kayaks were super comfortable and we kicked our way around the Kaikoura Peninsula checking out the local wildlife and breathtaking scenery on the way. On that particular evening the sunset was absolutely spectacular, and we sat chilling in our kayaks for ages until the sun fell over the horizon.
Travelling further South we stopped briefly in Christchurch, aiming straight for Akaroa. Our destination was Pohatu Sea Kayaking, and arriving in glorious sunshine, we drove up and over the hill to Pohatu. There, we met local owners Francis and Shireen Helps, who have helped protect White-flippered Penguins in the area for over two decades. Highly intrigued by all the options on offer, we simply had to meet the famous local Penguins. Being the largest Little Penguin colony on mainland New Zealand, we were especially excited to get exploring.
Launching in late afternoon, we paddled
through spectacular sea-carved caves and around giant rock stacks, all overlooked by massive, towering sea cliffs. Observing lots of seabirds in the air, seals on the rocks and a pod of Hector’s Dolphins in the distance, we travelled through one particularly cool sea cave, and finally saw two little blue Penguins standing on the side. Feeling privileged to view these rare animals, we enjoyed watching them flap about for 5 minutes, laughing without disturbing them too much- and leaving the encounter fully content, we paddled a perfect trip back to Pohatu.
Everyone rightly knows Queenstown for its epic adventure status, and when you get on the Kawarau River, and I mean on the Kawarau river, you seriously know why.
Image this; you’re lying in the water on a custom built boogieboard thundered through the canyon at top speed, racing into crazy white water, sending it through tight gorges and down quick flowing rapids. Serious Fun River Surfing is basically that, and bombing down the river without a kayak or raft for once, is possibly the best part. The thick wetsuits kept us warm as we drifted downstream, and surfing some sweet rapids on
the way, we span some sick 360’s as the powerful whirlpool near Roaring Meg whirled us around.
Meandering through some quieter sections, we learned how to squirt. After some apprehensive glances, we were informed that squirting essentially involved diving the board to catch underwater currents. After a few goes, I began to get the hang of it, and one of the guides pointed me towards a significant current under the surface. Pushing my board under and diving with it, I took a breath and was instantly caught by a fast-moving underwater stream. Just managing to hold onto the board at this stage, I was pulled through the water for about 3-4 seconds with some crazy force, and popping back up with a bounce, I immediately went looking for the next jet!
“Plenty of time” I was happy to hear, as we raced out of the water into a waiting, heated van then drove straight upstream to do it all over again!
News quickly spread through the hotel, and a meeting was called at 9am. Part of the access road into Milford Sound had been covered by a huge rock avalanche overnight, the road was closed, and would be for the foreseeable future.. Was it a problem being stuck in one of the most beautiful places on Earth? Amongst thousands of waterfalls, birds and mountains in a truly remote tropical alpine paradise? Aye.. right! There’s even a pub!
Arriving in Milford Sound to the sight of Mitre Peak and the surrounding landscape, we were totally speechless. During wetter periods, thousands of waterfalls race down Milford’s iconic valley walls, and we couldn’t wait to get amongst them.
On this particularly quiet day, we looked no further than local legend Rosco and his well respected Rosco’s Milford Kayaks. Suiting up in a comfortable wetsuit, we jumped in the water taxi and navigated the full length of the fiord, with waterfalls simply everywhere we looked. Pointing to an especially awesome looking section, the skipper shouted ‘we’re hitting them!’; excitement rose through the roof, and quite quickly we arrived at the Tasman Sea to beautiful sunshine.
Dropping the kayaks into the water, we set off back down the insane route we’d travelled up. Unlike the relatively quick pace set by the cruise ships, the laid back kayak vibe really allowed us to feel the fiord. We reached out and touched the massive valley walls, getting absolutely drenched by the countless falls surrounding us. Around every corner was a new and exciting waterfall to explore, and sweet smelling, healthy vegetation got every sense tingling. Mountain water was falling everywhere we looked and I was totally captivated with the moment and this incredible place. The guides provided expert knowledge on the area and at one point we followed him towards a super chilled out blue penguin, lying on his back, scratching his belly.
A few hours later, we were lucky enough to encounter a pod of the local Dusky Dolphins! The friendly fellas came up real close and jumping high into the air, they really showed off their aerial skills. The playful dolphins spent a few minutes chilling before shooting off on their own adventure. Their excited nature was really infectious, and we were completely buzzing from the encounter.
This Milford Sound experience totally blew our minds; the scenery was utterly outstanding, and it was definitely one of the highlights of the whole journey.
After the awesome adventure in Milford, we decided to road trip up the
West Coast for some more remote wilderness and natural serenity.
First up was Glacier Country Kayaks who operate on Lake Mapourika in the foothills of the spectacular Southern Alps. Launching the kayaks in the early morning sunrise, we enjoyed stunning panoramic mountain views, totally captivated by the mirror effect in the completely clear, reflective water. Paddling close to native bush and untouched rainforest completed the super peaceful journey, and we really enjoyed the relaxing morning trip.
With Ultimate Descents next on the case, we were seriously back on it. It was our final excursion on New Zealand waters for this trip, and it lined up as one of the finest.
After a cool drive to the remote and charismatic Karamea, we scored some awesome waves on the West Coast and put our heads down for the night; we knew tomorrow would be mad. Opting for the one-day Heli Rafting adventure, we set off from Karamea in the chopper and flew about 15 minutes up river. The helicopter journey was an unbelievable way to start the trip, and as we looked below to the crazy canyon we’d be descending down, adrenaline started really pumping. The aerial viewpoint allowed us to fully imagine the upcoming onslaught, and from the air the journey looked pretty gnarly!
Being flown-in to the river edge made our location feel very remote, and loving the isolation, we jumped on the raft and set off downriver; immediately dealing with huge rocks and tight drops, we were fully glad of the experience we’d built up by now.
We were absolutely sending it over the falls - all senses fully alert to cope with the compounding pressure as we fired down the river in a thrilling, jam-packed adventure. There was a much-needed lunch break by the river, and then our crazy day continued all the way to the West Coast. Finishing the trip, we were absolutely stoked and hugely thankful of the excellent guides who took us on the journey. This option is highly recommended for the real adventure enthusiast!
And that’s it – so far! New Zealand is bigger, wetter, wilder, more intoxicating and more addictive than anything I’d imagined it could be - and I’m certainly not finished the adventure yet!