Kayak circumnavigation of Great Barrier Island

We’re corks bobbing on an open sea. Peaks rising high around us as blackened waters are whipped high by furious winds. My friends disappear momentarily into deep troughs between the swell and in this moment I feel totally alone. Here exploring one of the most remote wilderness areas in New Zealand, we’re embodying the true spirit of adventure. I’m both challenged and exhilarated.

Day 1: Port Fitzroy – Miners Head (13 KM)

We navigate an adult game of tetrus trying to pack $800 worth of food, water and alcohol into three kayaks. Every nook and cranny cramped, kayaks groaning with the load. Deadlifting their bulk, we drag them onto the Great Barrier Island ferry and set off to what I’d later realise is the most challenging adventure of my life.

We’re attempting a 5 day circumnavigation of the island and here in Port Fitzroy, we’re lulled into a false sense of security. Blazing sunshine and warm winds greet us. We take our first strokes and paddles dip into a glossy black sea. With the breeze on our backs we take this chance to erect our new sails, crinkling and cracking as they unroll before jumping to attention. They propel us forward with minimal effort and we relax back into our seats, letting Mother Nature do all the hard work.

Our guide Nic points out a maze in the nearby rock, whose mysterious allure tempts us into the darkness. Navigating between echoing walls we discover a cave that’s bigger than my Auckland apartment. Sunlight filters through from the caves entrance and creates a magnificent light display, an aurora borealis beneath a glowing yellow hull.  Water so clear it creates a simple beauty, so rarely witnessed.

As night falls we make camp in an unnamed bay south of Miners Head. The only inhabitants a wild pig, some native birds and a school of Kahawai just metres from the beach. With tents sorted, we jump back in the kayaks for a quick spot of hunter-gathering. JP drops a line and within seconds he’s hooked on a 60cm Snapper that’ll feed the tribe. We heat stones on an open fire and use them to cook a feast of fresh fish. This is heaven.

DAY 2 – Miners Bay – Harataonga Bay (26 KM)

I wake up to the echo of wind filtering through valleys and the white noise of nearby forests. Not expecting the weather to turn for a few days, the threat of a distant storm taunts us. Eerie calm still lingers over the camp but we pack with time-poor urgency. 20+ km ahead of us today, and much of it alongside seacliffs with no exit points, no phone service and no return. We’re a self-sustaining expedition from here on in.

We power north to navigate Needles Point and Aiguilles Island, digging deep as winds threaten to blow us in the wrong direction. My shoulders begin to turn to lead and I bow my head in sheer determination. A roar of white water on the cliffs obliterates all other sounds and my mind is awash with exhilaration.

In order to shave hours off our trip, we take a sombre moment to consider paddling the heart of the needle. A mere slit between cliffs taunting us like Sauron's eye, glinting as swell explodes up the rocky faces. As usual, Nic is enthusiastic and forever confident shouting to the others that “we’ll go first to test that it’s safe for you”. I chuckle thinking that he’s toying with me – a mere pillion in the front of his craft. Turns out this guy is mad. “Paddle a little bit harder than the hardest you’ve paddled in your life” he encourages, before directing us headfirst into the gap.

I’m freaking. My body vibrates with adrenaline as waves rolls towards me, increasing in size as the gap squeezes them inwards. They break over the bow of the kayak and subsequently my head – eroding my confidence like the nearby seashells. I’m far beyond the limits of my comfort zone.

Finding out later that this rugged and unpredictable coastline is notorious for wrecking boats doesn’t surprise me. I thank god for surviving another moment of madness.

Regrouping at ‘the graves’, we surf into Whangapoua on waves long and white-fringed. We carry boats up the beach like coffins, 3 of us on each side and rest with them on the sand. This is the burial site of passengers and crew from the SS Wairarapa, 140 dying in one of the nation’s worst maritime disasters to date. Our tired bodies solemn and silent in commemoration.

DAY 3: Haratonga Bay – Whangaparapa – Tryphena (15KM)

It’s one of those wild mornings where the world reminds you whose boss. Torrential rain pierces the water like bullets. Splashes rebound to refresh my salt-encrusted skin but quickly wash away any hope of completing the full circumnavigation. We retreat quickly to the comfort of solid ground and craft a plan to paddle the other side of the island, away from 35 knot winds and a 2m swell.

The shelter of Western Whangaparapa restores our spirits and we play 20 questions and sing songs whilst paddling a final leg. Cozying up alongside cray boats we beg each of them for a sample of their fresh catch but their enthusiasm slightly less prevailing than ours. Looks like it’ll be a pub meal and some Irish pints when we reach Tryphena this evening.

You see, expeditions are not all hardships and they teach you to embrace flexibility as much as they encourage you to push the limits. The mission may be on hold but I’m not complaining. Two more nights camping remotely and making friends with the locals – I can’t think of a better way to spend the weekend.

Kayak Great Barrier Island With: Auckland Sea Kayaks. They operate a 5 day wilderness tour or customizable (and less hard-core) options for the paddling enthusiasts. 

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