Fish tales from the Bay of Islands

By: Elisabeth Easther, Photography by: Fred Rood


Elisabeth Easther and her son Theo pay a visit to a familiar stomping ground and discover a fabulous bunch of fresh delights

The radiant Bay of Islands by dawn’s early light
The radiant Bay of Islands by dawn’s early light

We arrived in Paihia on the first Sunday of the school holidays, and as we checked in to the Admirals View Lodge, the weather took a turn for the worse. The heavens opened, and raindrops as big as buckets came at us sideways, so we wisely decided to start our vacation with a spot of spelunking, aka caving.

Underground at Kawiti Caves

The following day, on the road to Waiomio Valley just outside Kawakawa, we spied chunky kereru perching on telephone wires, a pair of pheasants and a few rabbits as the still mist of morning slowly lifted after a night of steady rain.

We passed pretty old houses with chimney pots smoking cosily, and we tried to imagine who built those houses, who lived in them when they were new, and how different their lives would have been to ours.

Once parked up within the immaculate grounds of Kawiti Caves, we discovered that this family-run endeavour has been operating since the 1950s and, over the years, it has evolved from a relatively simple wade through the network of caves to a walk along a series of cleverly engineered boardwalks constructed in the 90s.

The business still retains its whanau-run feel; Nisha greeted us and told us how when she was younger she, along with her cousins and siblings, joyfully roamed the land exploring the caves, and what a privilege it was to share them with manuhiri (visitors) today.

Admittedly the cruise market has dried up for the time being, but tours still operate seven days a week (excluding Christmas Day) and, if you get there with time to spare, the coffee caravan is a welcome sight.

Once handed over to our guide we were given lanterns and taught a little about local history before being invited inside the 200-metre limestone cave system. Featuring three distinct caverns, the first was illuminated by a modest constellation of glowworms. The second elicited an ‘oh my stars, that’s amazing’, while the third cave, with its lower ceiling, ensured the effect of twinkling arachnocampa luminosa was positively dazzling.

Returning to the light of day, the 30-minute tour ended with a bush walk through striking moss-clad rocks, which rounded the experience off perfectly.

Goosebumps at Ruapekapeka Pa

Returning to Paihia, but not in any hurry, we detoured into the unsealed, rural heartland of Te Tai Tokerau to pay our respects at Ruapekapeka Pa. Properly off the beaten track, at one point we stopped to ask a farmer if we were headed the right way; thankfully we were.

The site of one of Northland’s final land wars between 1845 and 1846, an estimated 400 Ngapuhi and Ngati Hine warriors fought here against 1600 British troops. A tragic confrontation ensued with significant loss of life, in spite of the Maori warriors employing sophisticated trench warfare techniques. As we wandered respectfully across the scarred and sacred landscape, we reflected on the horrors of battle, while also feeling awestruck by the shrewd tactics developed by locals. Today the trenches are preserved and, as we gazed across sweeping Northland pastureland and bush, the presence of the bloody past lay heavily on our hearts.

Photogenic marine mammals play in the
wake, eager for their close-up
Photogenic marine mammals play in the wake, eager for their close-up

Days out fishing

It’s always tempting when on holiday to wake later than one usually would, but we chose not to fritter away our days in the bay, and signed up for an early morning fishing charter with Days Out Fishing. Heading out to sea as dawn lit up the sky, skipper Darren shared his passion for teaching people how to fish as well as talking about the need for conservation measures to protect fish stocks for the future. Theo had quite a bit of success stray-lining for snapper while I was less triumphant, although secretly I was happy simply admiring the idyllic islands. It was a most excellent morning, then it was home in time for a lunch (and dinner) of freshly caught fish.

Who says there’s no such thing as a free lunch?
Who says there’s no such thing as a free lunch?
Waiting for our lucky strike
Waiting for our lucky strike
Fishing for more than just compliments
Fishing for more than just compliments

Papatuanuku Earth Mother Tours

A veritable force of nature, Paihia local Stella Schmid devotes her incredible energy to protecting the forest and birds. As a trustee of Bay Bush Action, Stella and a band of dedicated conservationists manage over 250-hectares of the 2093-hectare Opua State Forest. Deploying close to 2000 multi-species traps along 28 traplines, over the past eight years the charitable trust has seen a huge increase in kiwi numbers, as well as population increases in many other vulnerable native species.

Before Stella led us onto the bush track – more of an experience than a tour per se – we first cleaned and disinfected our shoes to help prevent the spread of kauri dieback.

Setting off on the short walk, goosebumps pricked as Stella passionately recounted the story of Ranginui, the sky father and, Papatuanuku, the earth mother, with her beautiful korowai (cloak) that is the forest of Tane Mahuta. I was particularly amazed to learn about the life cycle of the puriri moth. First they construct their dwellings within the flesh of the puriri tree in the shape of a ‘7’ then build a waterproof tent over the entry to keep the rain out. Once they’ve mastered architecture during their seven to nine years as a larvae, they metamorphosise into beautiful moths up to 15cm in length, whereupon their sole purpose is to mate. Next they lay up to 1500 tiny eggs before dying of starvation because, as a moth, they have no mouth to eat with – that’s one heck of a life cycle.

Stella is also a practitioner of rongoa (traditional Maori medicine), and Theo was especially interested to learn how one particular fern possesses a lethal fluid that warriors would daub the tips of their spears in, to ensure their foes were dispatched, if not by trauma, then by the adverse effects of the poison.

The highlight of the journey was the towering kauri Tane Tukaha, where the sight of the forest giants rendered us speechless as well as saddened to calculate how many trees must have been lost to milling and trade.

But there is hope for the future, with the help of conservation heroes like Stella and her many volunteers, who do their best to carry the mantle of kaitiakitanga (guardianship and protection).

Wild Blue Charters

In spite of it not being kingfish season – anglers have better luck between January and March – Theo was still keen to have a go, so we joined a Wild Blue Charter with Trent at the helm and first mate Tris as our bait-and-tackle valet. Another early start and another stunning sunrise, we motored out in the dawn’s early light, headed for the deep blue sea and, once having determined where to stop, hooks were baited and the fishing began.

"How strong are your arms?" someone asked me, possibly wondering if I had what it took to haul in a kingi. "I can lift a house," I said, exaggerating a little.

When I actually got a strike, adrenaline kicked in and I wondered, in spite of my boastful talk, what if the kingi was more than a match for me? I braced myself for battle, lifting the rod tip, lowering and reeling, resigned to repeating this for some time when the line snapped and I was off the hook. When another angler got a strike, excitement grew again, and this man actually reeled his in. To my eyes it was a monster fish but, being under 75cm, it was returned to the sea. Having never seen a keeper of this species, I know I’ll be astonished if I ever do see one in the flesh.

Theo and Elisabeth proudly display the catch of the day
Theo and Elisabeth proudly display the catch of the day

All's well that ends well

In spite of not catching a kingfish – we did catch a few tasty snappers – we enjoyed another gorgeous outing on the water, including a captivating dolphin encounter. But all too soon it was time to return to land as Tris expertly filleted and gutted the snapper to the delight of the waiting seabirds. Another happy day in the bay.

Bay of Islands fishing
To the is-land!
Bay of Islands fishing seabirds
Seabirds take their rest between courses

Admirals View Lodge

Our sea view spa unit at Admirals View had everything we could’ve wished for. Generously proportioned beds with quality linen, electric blankets, a huge bath we could have swum lengths in and a well-appointed kitchen. With an excellent outlook, we were snug as bugs in what was sometimes inclement weather. Proprietors Craig and Penny are perfectly suited to hospitality and, in spite of having spent years welcoming guests to Paihia, they’re still fabulously friendly, enthusiastic and helpful. admiralsviewlodge.co.nz

Bay of Islands fishing tour
One of the Bay of Islands’ 144 beautiful islands…

Bay of Islands Walking Weekend – 16-18 October, 2020

As well as being a regular year-round attraction, Stella’s Papatuanuku Earth Mother Tour is also part of The Bay of Islands Walking Weekend, an increasingly popular event featuring a range of walks from gentle rambles to hearty hikes based in Russell. boiwalkingweekend.co.nz

Flying high in popular Paihia
Flying high in popular Paihia

For more information about fishing charters and other activities:

DAYS OUT FISHING CHARTERS fishingdaysout.co.nz

WILDBLUE FISHING AND ADVENTURES bayofislandsfishingcharters.co.nz

PAPATUANUKU EARTH MOTHER TOURS earthmothertours.nz

KAWITI CAVES kawiticaves.co.nz

 

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