Story and Photos by Katherine Rodeghier exclusive for Vagobond
As my paddle dipped into water the color of black ink, I kept my eyes peeled on the glowing red headlamp of the kayaker in front of me. Single-file, we slid across Lake McLaren, following the verbal cues of our guides whose disembodied voices echoed over the water.
Kayaking, always an enjoyable activity for me, takes on an added sense of adventure at night on New Zealand’s North Island. The uncertainty of navigating an unfamiliar body of water in almost total darkness has a big payoff though: the chance to glimpse some of the oddest insects on earth, glowworms.
Our flotilla of kayaks left the main channel and crowded into a narrow canyon where we flicked off our headlamps in unison. And there they were, thousands of blue dots, draping the canyon walls like Christmas lights. If you want to get all scientific, these are not worms at all, but the larvae of a winged insect similar to a firefly. They spin sticky threads hanging from the rock and switch on their nightly bioluminescence to lure prey.
Reluctantly, we left the glowworm grotto and headed back on the lake, where a full moon rose above the trees as if by magic, serving as a beacon as we paddled toward shore.
For visitors to New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty and Coromandel Peninsula, such moments of magic and mystery are not uncommon. Perhaps that’s due to the influence of the Maoris and their myths about their worship of the natural world. These indigenous people who traveled here from Southeast Asia by way of Polynesia on outrigger canoes—according to one theory—brought beliefs and traditions that enrich the Kiwi character today.
In the town of Mount Maunganui, a small mountain sacred to the Maoris perches on the edge of the Bay of Plenty. According to myth, the spirit of this mountain, called Mauao, dragged it here as a result of a love triangle. It had been one of trio of mountains on an inland ridge, two male, one female, but when its love was not returned, it sought to drown itself in the Pacific. Just short of shore, the spirit of the female mountain called to it, pleading with it to stop. I spent a pleasant hour on a two-mile walking path around the mountain, peeking out through overhanging trees to watch surfers and swimmers off Ocean Beach.
When the British came, first to take gold and lumber from the North Island, and later to settle there, the Maori were suppressed, their land taken, their language banned. But their culture was never snuffed out. Today 14 percent of New Zealanders proudly proclaim their Maori heritage and 37 or the 120 seats in Parliament are held by Maoris.
Maori tribal life is centered around the marae, an ancestral house used for social and religious gatherings. In Tauranga, cruise ship and tour bus passengers visit Huria Marae to share in a feast of Maori foods, enjoy song and dance, and learn a bit about Maori culture. Both men and women are heavily tattooed in traditional designs, perhaps the most unusual of which is a woman’s chin tattoo bestowed on those of high esteem, usually later in life when they are gray-haired grandmothers.
One of the most popular tattoo designs is the spiral-shaped koru depicting the silver fern as it emerges in new growth. Representing new life, or peace, it unfolds into a long, silvery frond that’s the national symbol of New Zealand and logo of its wildly popular All Blacks World Cup-winning rugby team.
I saw plenty of large silver ferns on a day spent tramping (Kiwi for hiking) through the rugged Coromandel Peninsula with one of New Zealand’s foremost nature guides, Kiwi Dundee. A rugged, weathered gent with more than 25 years of guiding under his belt, he walks and talks through the bush, peppering his comments with puns as old as he is. In real life he’s Doug Johansen. He and his wife, Jan, named their tour business Kiwi Dundee Adventures after he was given the moniker in answer to the Aussie’s Crocodile Dundee craze in the late 1980s.
Doug points out the massive kauri trees, cut for lumber and masts on 18th-century sailing ships, the entrance to an abandoned gold mine, and hushes us to silence to listen to the bird calls in the canopy above. He also explains the volcanic origins of the peninsula and points out Hot Water Beach where, at low tide bathers dig pools in the sand that fill with hot water from thermal vents a mile out in the bay. Hot enough to cook mussels in five minutes, bathers must add cool ocean water to bring their sandy hot tub to a comfortable temperature.
I missed the low tide, so I had my soak at the Lost Spring, a day spa in Whitianga. Owner Alan Hopping began drilling on the site seeking the hot water he knew was down there somewhere. Twenty-five years later he finally found it and opened his hot pools to the paying public in 2008.
The Kiwis love sports, nature and wildlife, all found in abundance on the Coromandel. The peninsula, just two hours from Auckland, is where the Kiwis come to play, spending their weekends and holidays at a campground or bach (beach house). Beaches are particularly attractive on the eastern side where cliffs tumble into the sea, scattering rocky outcroppings and tree-covered islands into the ocean. A favorite is Cathedral Cove, a natural sandstone arch accessible by kayak or a hike down a path from the town of Hahei. It’s part of the Te Whanganui-A-Hei Marine Reserve in Mercury Bay. Off limits to fishing, it’s a great spot for boating, swimming and snorkeling. Jump in and with luck you might find yourself frolicking with a blue-eyed penguin diving and dashing off shore. It’s another of New Zealand’s unusual creatures, but much more slippery and a whole lot faster than a glowworm.
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