Thursday, March 7, 2013

Journey to Whangarei

February 12-February 20, 2013

Paradise Cove to Whangamumu

Although the distance from the Bay of Islands to Whangarei is only about 66 nm (less than a day’s travel for Silhouette when we are on passage), we took the scenic route. We left Paradise Cove one sunny morning and exited the Bay of Islands through Albert Channel. It wasn’t long before we were approaching the northeast corner of New Zealand, Cape Brett. The lighthouse (established 1910) and the now defunct light keeper’s cottage* formed a pretty picture along the profile of the land as we rounded the north side of the island. 

Cape Brett with lighthouse and keeper's cottage at right

*The light keeper's cottage ceased being staffed in 1978 when the light became automated; however, it remains open today as a Department of Conservation Hut that hikers can shelter in.

SV Freewind passes the Cape Brett lighthouse station
Just offshore, were Hole in the Rock  on Piercy Island (Motukokako in Maori) and The Dog (Tiheru Island in Maori.) I don't know how the latter island was named, but it does bear a remarkable resemblance to a canine tooth. 

Hole in the Rock and The Dog as seen from the south side
As we passed south of Hole in the Rock, more views of the Cape Brett Light were visible from the northeast coast. 

While we made this passage in benign conditions, it was easy to imagine a stormier scene in which the sea would be crashing against the rocks below the lighthouse, sending columns of spray rising into the air. 

There was very little wind, but it picked up enough to motor-sail the rest of the way to Whangamumu. The entrance to this snug little anchorage is difficult to spot from the open sea, but once inside, you are almost completely enclosed by land. Whangamumu is one of the prettiest anchorages I’ve ever seen.


The almost-landlocked harbour of Whangamumu

Whangamumu is the type of place that inspires one to take long, contemplative walks and just look at things. Patrick and I did just that on our first afternoon there, enjoying the sights and taking pictures.

Wetland at Whangamumu

Verdant hillsides surround the cove

Pohutukawa drifters

Patrick relaxing at Whanagmumu

Safe harbour

Reticulated rock (limestone?)

Whangamumu is also a former whaling station, and the ruins of the whale processing plant with more recently added interpretive signage can be found on the northwest shore. We spent the morning of our second day there exploring the whaling station and hiking to the lookout.  

Department of Conservation (DOC) interpretive sign at ruin of Whangamumu Whaling Station

Only a corner of the slip is visible at high tide, but the entire ramp was exposed during part of our stay

Old boiler with heat exchanger at whale station ruins. The cement vats in the background were used to cook down whale bones.

Patrick noted how this tree captured some bricks from the boiler foundation as it grew
Although our cruising guide mentioned a hike to a waterfall, in reality, this is a short walk of several minutes’ duration. However, there are several longer trails which start out near the whaling station. You can climb to a lookout with views of the coast to the north and south as well as east to the Poor Knights Islands. You can also connect with a longer track to Cape Brett (5 hours round trip, or “return” as they say in New Zealand.) 

View from the lookout towards the south

Fern moko*

*Ta moko is the name for the traditional permanent facial and body tattooing of the Maori. 

Silhouette at anchor in Whangamumu

Whangamumu to Sandy Cove (Whangaruru)

Had we stayed another day at Whangamumu, I would have attempted the Cape Brett hike. However, by the time we returned to the anchorage from the lookout, the wind had filled in from the north. Since the forecast for the next few days included little in the way of wind and we didn’t want to motor all the way to Whangarei, we decided to get underway to take advantage of the northerlies. In an hour, we’d eaten lunch, stowed the dinghy, and done everything else necessary in order to get underway.

We were rewarded with a pleasant downwind sail, moving pleasantly along at four knots on a gentle ocean swell, enjoying the sunshine, wind and sea.

Patrick did not like the looks of any of the recommended anchorages in Whangaruru, but he chose the one that seemed to offer the most protection, and we anchored in Sandy Cove. Since there was very little wind, this anchorage provided enough protection; however, we had to anchor off a rocky island which could have been a lee shore if the wind had been blowing from the south/southwest. We later learned that the most scenic anchorage around Whangaruru is in Mimiwhangata Bay. I had originally excluded it from consideration because it is listed as a “fair weather anchorage” and is exposed to the north. With the conditions we were having at the time, however, we would have been quite safe there; and we missed out on what was, by all accounts, a beautiful setting. 

This was most likely a former pa site at Sandy Cove, Whangaruru

We didn’t leave the boat in Sandy Cove, but from the vessel we saw what I think was a former pa site on shore. This looked like the description of the pa sites I’d read about (“terraced hilltop forts.”) If so, this pa site was clearly less eroded than the one we had seen on Roberton Island---probably due to its more protected location. We had also passed a similar but larger and more elaborate site on our sail from Whangamumu to Whangaruru.   

Australasian gannets are birds of the open sea and are very common in New Zealand waters

Whangaruru to Tutukaka

Since we didn’t find Sandy Cove all that scenic, we left Whangaruru after spending the night and continued on to Tutukaka. The northerlies had died and we ended up sailing (beating) into southerlies at 2.5 knots or below and motor-sailing. Since the entrance to the anchorage is fairly narrow, we wanted to arrive before dark.

Tutukaka Harbour showing the entrance pass (between the rocks at left), harbour, and marina (far right)

I hadn’t seen such a dramatic entrance to an anchorage since the pass at Maupiti, and like Maupiti, it would have been impossible to enter Tutukaka Harbour under some conditions (strong easterlies.) Since we arrived in mild southerlies, we were able to make an easy entrance into the harbour. The anchorage has some shallow spots and was already pretty full, so we dropped anchor on the outskirts of the harbour. Two other, larger boats that had queued up single file and followed right behind us through the pass did the same. One of them turned out to be S/V Barefoot, whose crew we had last met in Puerto Ayora in the Galapagos. We saw the boat briefly in the large anchorage at Neiafu but did not run into David and Roslyn.

One of the pleasures of our visit to Tutukaka was getting to know Roslyn and David better than we had during our first boatside chat from their dinghy. David is from Seattle, while Ros hails from Darwin, Australia. Over happy hour, we found that we had followed almost parallel paths across the Pacific. Silhouette left Seattle only a month after Barefoot, and we made many of the same stops along the way down the coast including La Paz and Banderas Bay, as well as taking the detour to the Galapagos before crossing to the Marquesas. Another happy coincidence is that David and Ros are considering making Chile their next stop after New Zealand, which means that we may continue to sail in their company.

David and Ros extended the invitation for us to join them on their boat for a drink, so we brought over a bottle of Tutukaka’s local vintage from Sailfish Cove Vineyard. (Although their web site doesn’t advertise tastings, they can apparently be arranged with a phone call.) Ros sent us an electronic memento of our time together after they had left Tutukaka. 

"Tutukaka Red" photo courtesy of SV Barefoot (Silhouette at anchor in background)
We really enjoyed the atmosphere and vibe of Tutukaka Harbour and Marina. The marina is inside the breakwater and it seems to house several liveaboards as well as a flotilla of dive boats that take people out to the Poor Knights Islands. There are some lively waterfront establishments dotted around the fringes of the marina, and everyone we met seemed welcoming and helpful.

At Tutukaka, fuel and water are available, and there are places to dispose of rubbish and recycling. There is a dinghy dock near the fuel dock (just inside the breakwater to the marina), but we found it convenient to tie up next to the public boat ramp at the very end of the marina. The grocery store is located around the back of the left side of the huge, brown, condominium-like shopping complex at the head of the marina (the only thing that mars the picturesque nature of this harbour.) They get fresh produce in on Saturday mornings, so that is the best time to visit.  

While waiting for a weather window to visit the Poor Knights, we took a hike out to Tutukaka Head. A trail just behind the marina office leads up to a narrow road. Following that road takes you to the trailhead. 

Interesting drive along the road towards Tutukaka head

Although this quail family was crossing a driveway, coveys of quail are common along New Zealand trails
The trail is short but steep, leading down a long flight up steps, across a sandy cove, then up the side of Tutukaka Head. 

Tutukaka Head as seen from the trail approach

On the summit, we saw the functional-looking light at Tutukaka and the wind weather station. 

Wind station at Tutukaka

Someone, somewhere is thinking about us
We’d been listening to reports from this weather station for the past month, given in a computerized voice format, and Patrick did his best impression:  “ Tutu-kaka. Peak: One-niner. Aver-age: twelve. From: one-seven-zero.”    

The Poor Knights Islands from Tutukaka Head

From Tutukaka Head, we also saw this interesting disturbance off the coast. 

Unexplained disturbance at sea
At first, we thought there was a whale under the surface because whatever it was, it was making significant forward progress. However, we never saw a dorsal fin, spout, or whale surfacing. After looking through the camera's telephoto lens, we could see dozens of seabirds hovering over the disturbance, so we concluded that it had to be a massive fish ball. 

After taking in the views, we returned the way we came.

The skipper was pleased to report that he'd climbed the stairs without stopping to rest. The crew stopped take pictures, of course!

Sojourn at the Poor Knights Islands

We headed out to the Poor Knights Islands when we thought the weather might stay calm enough for us to anchor there. Anchorages at the Poor Knights Islands are fair-weather anchorages only. We missed out on the prime anchoring real estate in Maroro Bay because another boat cut us off---seriously!---as we were heading to our spot. 

Anchorage at Maroro Bay, Poor Knights Islands

We ended up having to moor at an inferior anchorage, near Sandager’s Reef, which was exposed to swells coming through the pass.
Silhouette at anchor off of Sandager's Reef

Flying buttresses at the Poor Knights Islands
We paid the price of a rolly night’s sleep in exchange for a glorious sundown over the Poor Knights. 

Sunset colors and a keyhole arch

The topography of the Poor Knights Islands---with their many caves and archways---reminded us a lot of Niue, with the significant difference that the Poor Knights Islands are volcanic in origin, while Niue’s caves are limestone. 

The entrance to this cave is in Maroro Bay. It is hard to get a feeling for just how large this cave is from the picture, but I have read reports of boats anchoring inside it. Although we would never anchor there for safety reasons, a boat the size of Silhouette could have easily fit inside this cave with plenty of room to spare, and even the largest dive boats could easily get in and out of it. 

Just inside the cave entrance:  Note the small arch feature in the back lower right hand corner for scale

Further inside the cave:  Getting closer to that snaller arch feature

Even closer to the arch feature at the back of the cave

Due to their geographic isolation from the mainland, the Poor Knights are home to many unique species. They are probably best known for being the home of the lizard most closely related to dinosaurs, the tuatara. They are also home to parakeets, bellbirds, and kingfishers, as well as thousands of Buller’s shearwaters. You need a permit to land on the Poor Knights (which we did not obtain), but visitors are free to snorkel and dive in the waters surrounding them.

The number of fish at the Poor Knights was truly stunning. Huge schools of fish were frequently active at the surface. 

Fish balls like this were common at the Poor Knights Islands
Most snorkeling guides for the area mention being surrounded by blue or pink maomao schooling at the surface; however, the fish balls we observed appeared to be composed of snapper. 

You could tell the Poor Knights is a marine reserve (no fishing allowed within 800 meters of the islands), because fish like these snapper would come right up to you. 

These are the fish called snapper in New Zealand. They are gray-blue with iridescent turquoise dots when underwater. 

Snapper with two-spot demoiselles (damselfish) in the background

As researched before our trip, the water at the Poor Knights was clearer than anywhere else we’d seen in New Zealand; we were dubious about its claims of being warmer; and we didn’t see many of the “tropical visitors” that frequent these islands during certain times of year. I did see one manta ray feeding along the seafloor in the pass. We did not see any sharks, although we had read about other boats whose crews saw hammerhead sharks here.

After making sure our anchor was secure, we made a snorkeling excursion to check out the area around the boat and nearby Nursery Cove. 

Sandager's wrasse

Next, we enjoyed exploring the various arches, caves and waterways of the Poor Knights.

Archway Island

Colorful wall inside the arch

Tight squeeze for a tour boat 

Going back through Archway Island with a view towards Blue Maomao Arch (arch not shown)

In the late afternoon, I made another snorkeling excursion in the pass through Sandager’s Reef (between Tawhiti Rahi and Aorangi islands.) The reef was full of activity at this time of day, just before sunset. 

Kingfish, one of the game fish in New Zealand, were everywhere, and there was even a kingfish nursery in Sandager's Reef.


Kingfish surrounded by demoiselles

The juvenile fish appeared to be feeding on the enormous zooplankton population of New Zealand's ocean. Snorkeling in the presence of this zooplankton was like being surrounded by a  "zooplankton rain." I touched a piece of zooplankton to see if it had stinging cells (no.) However, it was surprisingly dense (imagine the texture of a gummi bear!) and I could feel the zooplankton pass against my body as I swam through a cloud of it.  

"Zooplankton Rain"
We spent our short time at the Poor Knights around Aorangi Island (southernmost of the two largest islands.) Our original plan was to spend half of the next day at the Poor Knights and possibly move the boat north to Tawhiti Rahi Island (the northernmost island) in order to explore the Middle Arch. However, the wind came up from the east that morning, and the forecast for the following three days was 20 knots from the southwest. We thought---“Why beat ourselves up getting to Whangarei tomorrow, and probably having to use the motor most of the time, when we could have a pleasant sail there today?”---and set a course for Whangarei.

On the way, we checked out the southern group of the Poor Knights Islands, including the Pinnacles...

The Pinnacles in the southern group of the Poor Knights Islands


.....and Sugar Loaf. 

Sugar Loaf is the southernmost of the Poor Knights

We saw many gannets atop the Pinnacles, as well as hundreds of Buller’s shearwaters in the water nearby. 
Gannets atop a Pinnacle

A Buller's shearwater takes flight

We had a lovely daysail to Whangarei and pulled into Urquhart’s Cove with plenty of daylight.     

Arrival at Urquhart’s Cove

Urquhart's Cove
 We arrived several days in advance of our appointment to be upriver for measurements for our haul-out at Norsand boat yard, so we spent some time getting to know the area around Bream Head.

Bream Head

Hard dink with oystercatcher

Nautical mailbox

Oil refinery in Whangarei entrance channel

We took a beautiful hike to Smuggler’s Cove, passing by a World War II gun battery and battery observation station along the way. It was an interesting history lesson finding out about how New Zealand took care to camouflage the stations as rock outcroppings. The stations were either situated behind huge boulders or designed to look like overhanging rocks. Camouflage nets were attached to the sides of the stations. Finally, rocks (small boulders) were actually cemented onto the roofs of the stations.

This WW II gun battery near Bream Head was designed to look like a rock overhang

Battery observation station at Bream Head:  A camouflage net was draped over this side of the station

Strategically situated behind a boulder

Some of the small boulders and rocks cemented on to the roof remain today
We also learned that one of few surviving military murals is located here. The mural was painted directly onto the cement inside the station and was never meant to last; however, it was restored due to its historical value. The mural shows the landscape along the entrance channel to Whangarei. If you look closely, you can see the compass bearings painted under the mural topography. 

Compass bearings are painted in white below the mural and above the flag signals

The purpose of these was to get a quick reference on the bearing of an attacking ship by associating it with a known point of geology. 

The bearing 270 degrees is clearly visible at left
Then, signal flags were to be used (in lieu of the more high-tech technology of the day, such as radio or Morse code) to alert the gun battery to the position of the target. 

It turns out that the only shot ever fired from the Bream Head gun battery was a test shot. The Japanese never invaded this port. 

We believe this hill near Urquhart’s Cove was also a former pa site. 

Breathtaking scenery at Urquhart's Cove

Although the terraces in it are very eroded, we think this was a pa site because the extensive trail system in the area did not include a hike to its summit. We think this must have been sacred ground for the Maori; and while the route to the summit via a gulley was clearly visible, we chose not to take it. While it was ambiguous as to whether or not it was appropriate to hike to the summit (there were no signs to the contrary), we chose to err on the side of respect. 

Along the marked path, signs of both present and former human habitation were evident when the trail passed through what looked like a shell midden after crossing through a cattle gate. 

Shell midden along the trail?

The trail behind us

Before arriving at Smuggler’s Cove, we took a detour to Busby Head. 

Bream Rock:  Red and green channel markers are barely visible to right

Track to Busby Head

Smuggler's Cove from Busby Head

At Smuggler’s Cove, we found a dune restoration project in progress, with views of the Hen and Chickens island group. 

Sitting hen behind sand dune

Looking back at Busby Head and Smuggler's Cove

We ran into some cows along the trail

Back in the Marquesas, we reported on how falling coconuts can be a trail hazard in the tropics. We feel we should give equal time to the trail hazards in New Zealand:

New Zealand trail hazard

We had planned to take a side-trip up Mt. Lion before returning to the dinghy; however, the gate at the trailhead was locked. Trucks and debris in the area signified that some sort of trail maintenance was underway, and the locked gate sent a clear message of “Do Not Enter.” Although we could have easily jumped the gate and proceeded at our own risk, we did not. We left Mt. Lion (Kiwi habitat) to explore another day.

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