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17. Apr, 2012

Thrills, spills and a bad hair day with Paradise Jet Boating

I’m just a few minutes into 25 kilometres of heart pumping adventure and I think I know how James Bond must have felt careering down the Thames in The World Is Not Enough.  But I am not in London.  I am in Surfers Paradise on Australia’s Gold Coast.

“Welcome to Paradise Jet Boating” Lisa greets us as we prepare for 55 minutes of adrenalin pumped exhilaration.  “Grab a waterproof jacket if you’d like one” she later adds.  I decline – a decision I’d later regret!

Under an autumnal blue sky, we’re soon clambering aboard Paradise 1 like lambs to the slaughter and for the next hour we’ll be in the hands of Scott.

Forget queuing for 40 minutes at a theme park to get a 20 second adrenalin rush.  Paradise Jet Boating offers more spins, loops and turns than any roller-coaster ride.  Jet boating has really risen in the ranks of adventure activities since first being discovered in New Zealand many years ago.  If you want to play safe, take up knitting!

On the Gold Coast,there are 4 operators and we chose Paradise Jet Boating for their more extensive itinerary and numerous tourism nominations.

Powered by a massive 5.8 litres turbo engine, Scott heightens our anticipation as our 20 seat aluminium beast purrs at 6 kilometres per hour past the congested moored yachts and dinghies.  We soon accelerate and propel up the Broadwater, zigzagging past buoys, partially submerged tree trunks and in and out of wholemeal flour coloured sandbanks.  The azure water seems too shallow as we slam into white foaming wakes left by jet-skiers and vessels.  I imagine being on set of a Leonardo Di Caprio & Kate Winslett blockbuster and our hull being torn apart.  But these enormous beasts can turn on a sixpence in as little as 10 centimetres of water.

The fun really starts when the water is deep enough for Scott to lunge us into 360 degree spins. Huge waves of water rise like wild white stallions as they clamber to be the first to transform us from dry land-lubbers to soaked thrill-seekers. My cotton sweat shirt and board-shorts absorb the majority and I assume that my chivalry protects my fellow adventurers from the ignominy of also looking like drowned rats.

Scott was just playing with us.  More sharp turns, 360 degree spins and hair raising manoeuvres play havoc with those with finely coiffured holiday haircuts. Fortunately, I don’t need to worry in that department but sea-salt crusts on my lips from endless sea spray and does nothing to quell my hunger.  I imagine the taste of salt on some “fush and chips” from one of the excellent local chippies.  I have never understood why Aussies pronounce fish differently to the rest of us.  However, the quality of their fish and their warm hospitality can never be disputed.

“That one cost the owner $26 million, has a titanium roof that cost $1.2m, revolving master bedroom and has a basement garage for 15 cars” Scott declares as we glide past Sovereign Island’s exclusive plush waterfront mansions.

Hunter-gatherer fisherman wade knee deep as they wait patiently for their spoils on the banks of South Stradbrooke Island.  I can’t help wonder if they know that Scott has seen sharks on similar trips at least 3 times per week over the last month.  Small family boats are anchored and bob up and down like ducks in a tombola stall as their owners build sand castles or collect shells with their children and enjoy the good weather.

We make our way back to Paradise Jet Boating‘s HQ with the same G-force ferocity, bolting and swerving between water depth markers and mangroves, avoiding harm’s way at the very last moment.  It’s an adrenalin rush and is seriously liberating.

I’m a self-confessed pacifist when it comes to theme parks.  I prefer to be propelled forwards and horizontally, rather than being thrust 120 metres upwards like a NASA space pilot; or trying to keep my breakfast down on a gyrating roller-coaster – although Scott did his best to defy gravity at times.

A jet boat ride was pretty high on my wish-list on this trip to the Gold Coast.  I managed to keep my breakfast down, share a post-code with the rich and famous for a few seconds and survive a fully clothed shower – all for AUD 63.  Next time, I’ll be first in line for a water-proof jacket!

Getting there:  Paradise Jet Boating is situated at Mariners Cove Marina, 60 Sea World Drive, Main Beach, Gold Coast.  Jet Boat adventures run hourly from 09:00 to 17:00 every day.

 

 

 

29. Mar, 2012

Huka Prawn Park: Giant Malayasian River Prawns Evade Capture

Our mission was simple.  I would lead a small task force of seafood lovers and infiltrate Huka Prawn Park to snatch as many prawns as we could in 3 hours and return to base.  Codenamed “Operation Huka Prawn Park Hunt” we knew the risks.  We’d strike deep into the world’s only geo-thermal prawn park and use all of our stealth and patience to snatch our “targets” under the watchful eyes of scores of families and visitors.

Intelligence informed us that the prawn population was huge in both size and number and occupied 6 hectares.  “We believe that there are up to a quarter of a million Macrobrachium Rosenbergii in the area and they’re causing mayhem” our Commanding Officer, Sue Currie, announced.  “We’ve seen large numbers of parents with their children congregating in the area between 09:30 & 17:00 every day, except on Christmas Day” she added.  “And they all seem to be having way too much fun”.

We were keen to get the job done.  Rachel greeted us and briefed us on what to expect from our adversaries.  She shared her knowledge of the park’s layout and our amphibious foes’ lifecycle and breeding habits.  “Giant Malaysian River Prawns grow rapidly and are ready to harvest at 8 months” she advised.  “We also know that they are very fond of ox heart” she added as she encouraged us to hand feed some baby prawns in the Nursery & Hatchery.

“You’ll need to remain calm and patient as they are known to hide under rocks and at the bottom of the pools” she added.  Knowing that we may be in for a long haul, we applied sunscreen, hats and sunglasses and then grabbed our weapons – bamboo canes with line and hooks.  With watches synchronised at 13:30, we descended on the park.

Rachel had briefed us well.  She’d told us to expect distractions and obstacles.  Our first task was to feed the Trout to keep them from alerting anyone.  The Treasure Hunt was a breeze and we successfully negotiated the Bush Walk by hugging the Waikato River’s water’s edge.  “So far, so good” my daughter whispered to my wife.  The Adventure Walkway would be a challenge.  Would “The Gauntlet” cause our undoing, I pondered.  And was the Water Piano & Water Compass a trap?  We weren’t weary but the covered Geothermal Foot Baths provided a welcome opportunity to stop for reconnaissance.

Children were shouting excitedly, so we knew we were close.

Our rods slipped silently into the water.  Patience would be imperative.

“I’ve caught one” shrieks Cerys sporting a smile that only a 13 year old trying to upstage their parents can have.  This is going to be easier than I thought, I told myself.  I was wrong.

Our solitary captive, who Cerys named Percy the Prawn, refused to reveal where other prawns were hiding.  I respected that and was willing to release him.  Too late!  Cerys had other thoughts – she’d popped him in the pot and said he tasted delicious!

Percy must have been a lone rebel as our attempt to capture other renegades was futile.  With our mission aborted, we returned to base with empty stomachs.  We discovered that we weren’t the only task force sent out today.  A battalion of children were proudly parading bucketfuls of their captives.  Overcoming our shattered pride, we headed straight to the park’s restaurant.

“We may have lost this encounter, but we have won the day” I thought.  We may not have given the residing prawn population a run for their money but we did have several hours of fun as a family.  Huka Prawn Park’s prawns haven’t seen the last of me yet!  Rest In Peace Percy!

Mark Gwilliam is a regular contributor to www.thenewzealandtravelguide.com

© Mark David Gwilliam

08. Jan, 2012

Maori History, Dolphins & Breath Taking Scenery in Paihia

The Bay of Islands has been a favourite holiday spot for generations of Kiwi families.  At its heart, lies the picturesque seaside village of Paihia, which offers a relaxed pace for locals and tourists alike.  During the summer months, visitors use it as a base to explore the area’s enchanting 144 islands and experience its rich history.

Needing to wind-down from a hectic Christmas, I organised a short get-away at the Club Paihia timeshare resort, which nestles conveniently in the hills overlooking Paihia’s waterfront.

Arriving mid-morning from the scenic 3 hour drive from our home in Auckland, my wife, 13 year old daughter and I excitedly checked in and immediately switched to “adventure mode”.  The walk to the wharf takes less than 5 minutes – giving us enough time to discuss the scope of what adventures lay in store for us.

Explore NZ’s Ocean Adventure

We dart from one tour operator’s office to another.  Won over by Explore NZ’s friendly staff, we quickly book the last 3 seats available on Ocean Adventure for an afternoon’s adrenalin rush.  We hastily make our way over to the berth, where Darren, the boat’s skipper greets us.  His hornet coloured rigid-hulled inflatable looks all set to put us through our paces with speeds up to 70 knots per hour.

Explore NZ Ocean Adventure, Bay of Islands

He promised us that afternoon sea swells would ensure that passengers on the bow would experience a bumpy and wet ride.  Cerys responded like any 13 year old at a theme-park – she nestled into one of the available seats at the front!

“C’mon Mum, it’ll be fun” was not what Karen wanted to hear as she nervously strapped herself in next to Cerys and I.

Our adventure begins with Darren keeping to the compulsory 5 knots per hour cruising limit as we leave the safety of wharf behind.  200 metres later, and with engines fully revved, we bounce up and down on the ocean.  Nervous laughs and groans rang out everywhere.  To my left, Cerys sported a grin from ear to ear.  Karen was not so happy!

En route to the Hole-In-The-Rock (“Motukokako”), we briefly stop at Cook’s Cove on Roberton Island.  Captain Cook first anchored here in 1769 during his first circumnavigation of New Zealand and a bronze plaque commemorates his visit.  The island also has a darker side.  In 1839, a young Maori became the first person to be hanged under New Zealand Law for killing the entire Roberton family after falling in love with their daughter and cultural differences preventing him from pursuing his love.

Darren edges us inside Cathedral Cave to reveal a giant sea cave, with 40 metre walls, where Maori warriors used to practice their haka (“war chants”) in the Cave’s 360 degree acoustic surrounds.  For a moment, we keep their tradition alive as we tested the capacity of our own lungs!

Hole in the Rock, Bay of Islands

The Hole in the Rock has been carved out over centuries by wind and the ocean and is another exquisite piece of Mother Nature’s architecture.  We cruise excitedly through it – like threading cotton through the eye of a needle.

Explore NZ promised us an exhilarating afternoon of fun and adventure on the ocean and we were not disappointed.  The early morning drive from Auckland and the afternoon’s sea air ensured the 3 of us slept soundly this evening.

Wakas, dolphins and tranquility

Waitangi’s Treaty Grounds holds a very special place in New Zealand history and is regarded as a national gathering place to be shared by all New Zealanders.  The Treaty of Waitangi (New Zealand’s founding document) was signed on February 6 1840 between Great Britain and many Maori Chiefs.

Te Whare Runanga, Bay of Islands (photo courtesy of the Waitangi Trust)

As we enter the treaty grounds on our 2nd day in the Bay of Islands, we feel a sense of pride.  The grounds are immaculately manicured and the impressive 35 metre-long Ngatokimatawhaorua waka (Maori ceremonial war canoe) takes pride of place on the oceanfront.

Te Whare Runanga is a meeting house built to commemorate the 1940 Treaty Centenary Celebrations and is symbol of Maori involvement in signing the Treaty.  We remove our shoes and explore its exquisite carvings, depicting Maori mythology and history.

Discover the Bay Cruise

Dolphin Discovery V pulls out of the wharf a little after 13:30.  It’s a purpose built boat and our home for 4 hours as we cruise around looking for dolphins and witnessing some incredible scenery.  The skipper and his crew run through a safety briefing and we nestle into our seats with hot coffee and muffins.

30 minutes into our cruise, and we’ve already experienced coves with charming names such as Twin Lagoon; Good-fellows Bay and Honeymoon Bay.  Then we spot our first bottle-nose dolphin; then another.  Soon we’re surrounded by dolphins playing in the boat’s bow waves.  It’s easy to understand why our fellow passengers and us are fascinated by them.

Twin Lagoons, Bay of Islands

Urupukapuka Island is beautiful.  The largest of the Bay Of Island’s 144 islands, it is steeped in Maori & European history, where visitors also discover wonderful beaches, walks and opportunities to snorkel & kayak in crystal clear waters.  It’s not surprising that a wedding party group has gathered in Otehei Bay to celebrate the special day of friends and family.  Our brief stop allows us enough time to enjoy the fine white sand between our toes and a drink overlooking the stunning bay.

We zig-zag our way around a few smaller yachts moored for the evening.  Sting-rays resembling large black diamond kites glide effortlessly in the shallow waters.  Dolphin Discovery V meanders her way slowly back to Paihia and we reflect on a wonderful afternoon.

Paihia is a great option for those looking to explore this beautiful region.  Its sub-tropical climate and location makes it a perfect starting point for exploring the Bay of Islands and gaining an insight into Maori culture.  Take a journey with Explore NZ and soak up its scattered islands or cross an item off your bucket list by swimming with dolphins.  If you’re looking for a way to surprise someone special, Paihia is the perfect place!

18. Feb, 2011

Revel in the Romance of Queenstown’s Old World Charm

Widely accepted as one of the most beautiful countries in the world, New Zealand boasts so many tourist attractions that beckon travellers from near and far.  Real Journeys will take you on an unforgettable trip on Queenstown’s Lake Wakatipu.
 
Let the adventure begin aboard TSS Earnslaw
Step aboard the illustrious passenger steamship TSS Earnslaw and take a cruise back in time. Relive the sights and sounds of a bygone era as you ride the last coal-fired vessel in the southern hemisphere.  Arouse   your senses as you watch puffs of ash-grey smoke billow out from the ship’s giant smokestack, and listen to the hissing engines, and the chimes of authentic telegraph bells as the skipper rings directions.

Tickle your curiosity by browsing through historical photos at the Fo’c’sle Gallery.  Or grab a cup of coffee at the café before heading out onto the deck to gaze at the glorious alpine scenery as the ship glides majestically across Lake Wakatipu’s crystal blue waters.

Lasso in the fun at Walter Peak High Country Farm
Get ready because the fun is just about to start as you get out those work boots to celebrate farm life! Disembark the Earnslaw and visit the renowned Walter Peak High Country Farm on Lake Wakatipu’s western shores.  Savour the idyllic atmosphere as the local host graciously makes you feel right at home.

Walter Peak lets you experience the simple joys of country living. Pet and feed sheep and deer in their holding pens, and get up close to the magnificent Scottish Highland cattle with their long elegant horns and thick coats.

Explore the lush farm fields the old fashioned way – by riding a sturdy horse! Hold on tight to your saddle as your guide takes you around the verdant hills to a lookout that provides panoramic views of the lake and surrounding mountains.

Your rural adventure would not be complete without a front bench view of some spectacular sheep shearing. Be amazed as the farmer quickly shears a sheep right before your very eyes, and you can even learn to spin wool!

Wine and dine at Colonel’s Homestead
Round your day off at the historic Colonel’s Homestead, where you can amble around lush lakeside gardens and enjoy tea, and home baked scones and pikelets.  Or if you’re really hungry, dine on a succulent barbecue lunch, while enjoying the incredible views from the lakeside terrace.

As you board the TSS Earnslaw for your short journey back to Queenstown, sit back and relax in the warmth of a golden sunset and reflect on your day.  Visit http://www.realjourneys.co.nz for booking information and further details.

17. Feb, 2011

Auckland’s Whale & Dolphin Safari Promises To “Make Dreams Come True”

I will admit that, since I was a freckle faced child, I’ve been fascinated with the grace and beauty of dolphins.  Ancient Greeks recognised their beauty and killing one was considered sacrilegious and punishable by death – they were called “hieros ichthys” or “sacred fish”.

And so, exploiting a rare window of opportunity of “father and daughter” time, Auckland’s Whale & Dolphin Safari would now host 2 more adventure seekers for the afternoon.  Somehow Cerys’ seemingly never ending school holiday programme of: window-shopping, boogie-boarding on Auckland’s sun-kissed beaches and “chillaxing” with her friends would have to wait another 24 hours!

Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour & Hauraki Gulf Marine Park are world renowned for being a “yachtie’s” and “boatie’s” playground.  But, for many, they have a much broader appeal.  The crystal clear, calm, waters are home to a diverse marine environment, where dolphins and whales are spotted all year round.  Due to abundant food rich waters, dolphins and whales have occupied New Zealand’s ocean supermarkets for many centuries – long before Auckland was inhabited by the indigenous Maori people. 

With a typical azure-blue Auckland January sky, interrupted only by scatterings of ribbons of cotton wool clouds, and brilliant sunshine forecasted, we applied a generous layer of sunscreen.

Andy, our Skipper for the day, delivered a short but comprehensive safety briefing interspersed with typical Kiwi humour and gently slid the throttle forward.  Slowly winding out of the Viaduct Basin, and the hustle and bustle of downtown Auckland, Andy edged the boat into the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park’s sparkling waters.  It wasn’t difficult to notice Cerys’ hair softly fluttering in the gentle north-westerly breeze, revealing a healthy glow that most Kiwi school children sport midway through their extended school summer break. 

The “Dolphin Explorer” is a sleek, purpose built, luxury 20m high speed catamaran offering comfortable seating on its spacious upper and lower decks as well as limited catering and toilets.  But it’s more than just an excuse to spend time viewing dolphins.  Dolphin Explorer plays an important role in marine research.  It provides hands-on experience and opportunities for marine students and graduates (most have either a Masters Degree or PhD) to collect essential data about Auckland’s marine environment to help research and protect the marine population.

Cruising out past the iconic Rangitoto Island and popular Waiheke Island, it was obvious that Andy and his crew were passionate about their work.  They were walking A-Z encyclopaedias on marine life and its conservation and it wasn’t hard to imagine that Auckland’s marine life was in safe hands.

It wasn’t long before an athletic looking middle aged woman gesticulated and pointed with the enthusiasm of someone a quarter of her age.  A concert of “ooohs” and aaahs” echoed around the boat as the first battleship grey coloured Common Dolphin was spotted frolicking in the boat’s bow waves.  Fellow aquatic adventurers, including a family from Argentina, 2 back-packers called Tomas and Maria who hailed from Germany & Uruguay respectively, several Europeans and scores of New Zealand families with small children quickly stir into camera clicking frenzy. 

In a rush of fatherly excitement (and a tinge of paternal frustration), I convince Cerys that life wouldn’t end if she didn’t immediately return her friend’s text message!  I need not have worried.  As I fumbled with my 4 year old Canon Powershot, she converts her credit card sized instant messaging communication accessory to camera function with lightening speed and clicks away – capturing “Flipper’s” silk like body as “he” resurfaced.  I barely caught his shadow and felt as deflated as a 3 day old party balloon!

And then, in chorus like precision, 3 more appeared from nowhere and playfully joined the orchestra.  There’s such a tangible feeling of joy watching a school of dolphins perform for its audience.

To our starboard, almost close enough to hand feed, we observe other dolphins feeding.  With tight military precision, they form tight knit circles around schools of fish and drive their prey to the surface where they compete with voracious Australasian Gannets for the spoils of an all you can eat ocean buffet. 

As The Dolphin Explorer Team continues to carefully survey the area, everyone scans the same area as if our lives depended upon it awaiting the moment when more of these highly intelligent animals surface.  We didn’t have to wait long. 

Auckland’s Whale & Safari confidently state that dolphins are seen on 90% of the trips.  As the afternoon progresses, we’ve became “hawk-like” and much better at spotting torpedo shaped dolphins propelling towards us.  Whilst dolphins are the “main attraction”, we also see Little Blue Penguins, Cormorants and scores of other sea birds.  The Skipper also confirms a sighting of a solitary Hammerhead Shark. 

The brochure also says that whales are spotted on 75% of the trips.  Bryde’s Whales & Orcas (which are actually members of the dolphin family) are regularly spotted gracing this maritime playground.  I wondered – would we be lucky enough to see one? 

Andy enthusiastically bellows “Whale spume (spray from their blowholes) spotted 100 metres to our starboard” over the boat’s tannoy system.  And with this, everyone carefully scans the ocean’s surface with the knowledge that our eyesight (although inferior to our feathered accomplices) was more accustomed to spotting our “prey”. 

As whales often submerge for up to 30 minutes at a time, we all pray that we’d not missed this powerful, yet humble, creature.   We wait for another cloud of bubbles or another spray and eagerly wait for the whale to surface again.  And there it was…a whoosh of air and water blasting skywards and the sea seemed to suddenly part as a walnut brown shadow gracefully emerged about 75 metres in front of us.  The Bryde’s Whale (pronounced “Brooders”) curves its back and within seconds dives and slides majestically back into the calm turquoise ocean. 

We didn’t expect to see it again.  But with another unmistakeable spume, it appears again, momentarily, before disappearing silently back to the depths.  No “spy-hopping”, “lob-tailing” or “flipper slapping” like its bigger cousins, but impressive, nonetheless.    

When I read in their brochure that “Dreams can come true” I thought that it sounded a little cliché for an old cynic like me.  But as we pulled back into Auckland’s Viaduct Basin, with the imposing Sky Tower in the background, the scores of restaurants & bars’ terraces were already full with patrons, soaking up the late afternoon sun.  But I am sure that for those of us who had experienced an afternoon with the monarchs of the ocean, the excursion was a truly memorable, possibly a once in a lifetime, experience.  For Cerys and me, we’re proud to call Auckland our home and to share it with such majestic creatures.