I left the magical Waipoua Forest with its towering kauri trees and took a breathtaking drive eastward across North Island to the Bay of Islands. The sun was shining and the old rental car I’d hired was humming along with the rhythm of the road. I arrived in Paihia, a quiet little coastal town and gateway to the Bay of Islands, surrounded by scenic forested hills and sail boats drifting lazily in the inlets and marinas.
I rented a self-contained unit by the beach, my base for the next few weeks. The apartment had a small balcony overlooking a little garden with an enormous flowering pohutukawa tree, the ‘New Zealand Christmas Tree’, its blooms a suitably vivid red for December. The air was warm and sweet somehow. A tui bird (found only in NZ) was perched outside my window singing furiously, while it proudly puffed its white chest plumage out.
Dumping my enormous backpack for a lighter day one, I headed out into the sunshine and the startling blue skies, apparently the second ‘bluest’ in the world after Rio de Janeiro (but obviously not in my photos!). Leaving the car for the first few days, I explored Paihia, looking every bit the awe-struck tourist. It didn’t matter though, the vibe of the whole place was friendly and ultra relaxed. I followed suit. Going under my own steam, I did the tourist thing, taking a ferry out to see the pods of dolphins that were famous to the area. If it’s possible to see pure joy in a wild animal, this was it. I watched enthralled as the twenty or so dolphins launched themselves out of the water beside the boat, doing back flips and somersaults, little did I know that in a couple of months I would have an even closer encounter at Kaikoura in the South Island!
I spent glorious day after glorious day soaking up the atmosphere and watching the incredible sunsets ignite the sky. Taking another boat, I sailed to Cape Brett and the hole in the wall rock, before returning to visit the historic town of Russell, a picturesque place with a rowdy sea-faring ‘wild west’ past!
But once again, it was my solitary travels away from the tourist trail that proved the most inspiring.
Waking early and packing a small provision along with my sketch pads, I took a ferry trip around some of the 150 islands scattered around, that make up the Bay of Islands. To describe them as miniature havens, islands of paradise, would not do them justice. But, most thrilling, after charting a small boat, and with a bit of persuasion, I was dropped off on a small deserted island just off the coast of Urupukapuka Island.
I was so excited I could hardly speak, as I saw the boat disappear from view. All I kept playing in my head was the theme tune to ‘Desert Island Discs’! Here I was, totally alone on my very own desert island…well, at least until 5:30pm!
Peeling off layers and clunky boots, I wandered barefoot over the island, not much more than a strip of rock with some trees and vegetation and a couple of beaches…but it was perfect! Boats sailed or powered by, but the place was quiet and incredibly serene. I sunk my feet into the sand and watched the light dance off the surface of the water. Life just didn’t get better than this.
I whiled away the day sketching and writing and dreaming, words and images tumbling out of me faster than I could grasp them. If there was a heaven, this was it. Blissful solitude with nothing but the clear sky above and nature around me. Again, snatches of the story that would become ‘White Mountain’ came to me. So as I dozed under the shade of another pohutukawa tree, I dreamed of dragons and ancient hidden civilisations, still surviving in our modern world…