My first taste of the “real” New Zealand would be a trip to Paihia and the Bay of Islands. I looked forward to finally seeing all the Kiwi stereotypes I’d heard so much about, such as the unique natural beauty and the millions of sheep. To do this, I’d have to get out of the city center and to help me was Dooley (aka Gareth), our tour guide and bus driver.
Gareth picked us up from the hostel bright and early in the morning. It turned out that there were only eight people on this leg of the trip, which was a nice and cozy way to begin. While driving out of the city over the Auckland Bridge, Gareth told us about Auckland’s history.
The hustle and bustle slowly gave way to rolling green hills and farmland. Many of the passengers took this opportunity to nap since we’d gotten up so early in the morning. However, as this was my first glimpse at New Zealand, I was wide awake and fascinated by how green and lush everything looked.
Our first stop was at the McKinney Kauri, which is over 800 years old. It stood tall and proud with wide-reaching branches. Gareth told us that this wasn’t even the biggest kauri in Northland. There is an even larger one called Tane Mahuta, which is between 1,250 and 2,500 years old. Its name in Maori means “Lord of the Forest.”
Next we visited Kawakawa and its famous (or infamous) public toilets. German architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser designed them, and they might be the most visited toilets in all of New Zealand. Even after seeing some very unique toilets in outback Australia, the Kawakawa toilets managed to hang with the big boys and rank up there among some of the weirdest bathrooms I’ve seen so far.
When we finally reached Paihia, Alba and I checked into YHA Paihia while everyone else stayed at the Stray-recommended hostel. The YHA was just a few buildings away and ended up being cheaper. After settling in, we met the group and walked to the wharf and our dolphin cruise boat.
By this time the weather had become cloudy with rain being a high possibility. It wasn’t exactly the best dolphin-watching weather but we went anyway. The boat looked like a cross between a Baywatch rescue boat and a ferry. Although there were only about 30 people aboard the ship, it seemed like it could hold a lot more.
As we pulled out of the dock, I could tell this would be a rough ride as the waves and wind whipped against the boat. Still, I was excited about the trip because the skipper told us it was likely that we’d see a pod of dolphins that had been sighted daily. She also said that all the dolphin-watching boats cooperated with one another and radioed when they found a pod. With this tag-team mentality, it ensured that all the visitors were able to see dolphins firsthand.
Sure enough, we saw a small pod of less than 10 dolphins and calves. Due to the pressence of babies as well as the rough weather dashed anyone’s hopes of swimming with dolphins, although I wasn’t keen on it myself. Amazingly, the dolphins swam right up to and under the boat. It seems that they were familiar with the sounds of the motor and didn’t give it a passing glance. Meanwhile, aboard the ship, people were madly snapping photos trying to capture the moment.
Despite the gloomy weather, this was definitely a nice way to begin exploring New Zealand. I could already feel how special it was, and this made me look forward to discovering much more of it.