Thursday, December 5, 2019

The best of Taupo and Rotarua in One Day

After passing through the desert road we ended up near the town of Taupo and New Zealand's largest inland lake with the same name.   Taupo itself was quite crowded and a bit too "touristy" for our

tastes.  However we were interested in a few spots just North of the town so we stayed at a nearby AirBNB and headed out the next morning.  First stop was the Huka Falls.  They are described as horizontal waterfalls and that's pretty much accurate.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

New Zealand's Desert Highway

Halfway through our North Island road trip we were driving North from Wellington, heading back to our boat in Whangarei.  Highway 1 takes you all the way from the bottom to the top of the North Island, right through the middle.  Beautiful New Zealand farmland and lush forests line the road.
Nothing but transmission towers
About 5 hours into our drive we happened upon the stretch of Highway 1 known as the Desert Road. What an unusual and unexpected delight. We were driving past green hillsides with grazing

Friday, November 29, 2019

New Plymouth has a Lot to Offer!

Three Sisters

Prior to our 10-day road trip through New Zealand's North Island Rich combed travel guides and websites to find dozens of points of interest and hikes.  We put them all on Google Maps and planned a meandering route down the West coast and back up through the middle trying to connect-the-dots.

Yesterday we were rolling down a coastal highway when we caught sight of one of the outdoor attractions. The Three Sisters are large rock formations sticking up out of a beach next to tall white cliffs.  They are located at the mouth of a river that empties into the ocean.  Lucky for us it was low tide and we were able to make our way along the river to where it emptied out onto a broad open beach.  It was a beautiful spot.  The sun was getting low in the sky and the quality of the light was amazing.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Mount Aubrey Loop Trail

Mount Aubrey seen from the road below.
On a nice New Zealand afternoon we decided to put down the boat work and go for a hike up nearby Mount Aubrey.  We read that the hike offered spectacular views of Whangarei

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Magnificent Forest of Ha'afeva Island

We met up with our friends on Manawai a few weeks ago to compare notes about our collective explorations in Tonga. They spoke highly of the island of Ha’afeva and recommended an anchorage on its North shore. The next time the winds were favorable, we set sail for Ha’afeva. As we approached the island the area had a different feel than anywhere we have been in Tonga’s Ha’apai island group. Ha’afeva is the largest of 8 or 9 islands all situated within a few miles of each other. Many were steep-sided with small hills and what looked like hardwood forest. This was in contrast to the many low-lying islands we’d visited lately which were totally covered with coconut palms.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Humpback Whale Heat Run

Female whale slapping her pectoral fins signaling she may be ready to mate.
Around 700 Humpback whales migrate from the Antarctic to Tonga each year to mate and bear offspring. At the height of the mating season we can hear whale song clearly right

Thursday, August 29, 2019

A day in Pangai

After finding out Rich is American one of the girls innocently asked if he knew "Sharon, from the Peace Corps?"
Pangai is the largest town in Tonga's sparsely populated Ha'apai group but it's really just a large village.  The entire Kingdom of Tonga has a little over 100,000 people and it doesn't look like

Sunday, August 11, 2019


Our new favorite place in the Ha 'apai group! There are so many gems here it is hard to say which is the best but this place ranks at the top for us.  But, this is where I swam with the whales twice so for me this is the best!  Click Here for that post.  The reef around the island is huge and there are shoots off it creating an arc. We anchor in the arc so we aren't really close to the island. But, it is a lot like being at Minerva Reefs. The breaking ocean waves are all around us and there is little protection from high winds and big seas. So if the winds pick up we have to go find a more protected island to anchor at.
Looking at the south end of the island.  We anchored here for more protection a few nights.  It was closer to the beach.

Humpback Whale Encounter

Last year I was quite disappointed about never having a chance to swim with the whales. Twice I went out on all-day whale excursions with no success. This year I finally had an opportunity to swim with a group of whales in Tonga's Ha'apai group.
Well hello there!

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Heading to the Ha'apai island group

Upon our arrival in Tonga we checked in with the government officials at the capital city Nukualofa.  Finally, we are clear to leave Tongatapu and sail to the more remote island group of Ha'apai.  We go to Tongatapu, the capital city, to check into the Kingdom of Tonga.  And we immediately apply for a 4 month visa extension.  With our extension in hand we sailed off on the 23rd of July.  Actually, the water was calm and no wind so we motored off.  But, we were on our way.
Glassy water on departure

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Tonga's Newest Island: The Volcano Hunga Tonga/Hunga Ha'apai

After clearing in to Tonga we immediately applied for a 4 month visa extension.  This involves handing over our passports and then checking back every few days to see if they are processed.  Last year we were told to come back in three days, but it took five.  This year we were told to come back in a week.  We were bummed becaause the best parts of Tonga are far away from the main island of Tongatapu.

For quite some time Rich had been wanting to explore a newly formed volcanic island that was 30 miles away. I was in!!!! We were so outta there! The winds were favorable to sail back in 3 days but not for the outbound trip.  We had to motor all the way . We left at 9 AM and arrived at 4:30 PM with enough light to move in close and look for a good anchoring location.

The new volcano from above

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

North Minerva Reef 2019

Our stops in June

We stopped at both North and South Minerva reef twice this season.  Once in June on our way to Tonga and once in November on our way back to New Zealand.  Each visit presented new friends and adventures.  We always look forward to spending time here.  The coral and fish life are healthy and abundant.  The crystal clear water, isolation from everything, constant ocean roar and sharks make it a favorite.

To read about our adventures at both reefs on the way to Tonga click here Here

Our stop in November

It took a little less than 3 days to sail from Tonga to Minerva Reefs.  We ran out of wind the last 8 hours which was just as well.  We needed to slow down so that we could enter the reef with good light.  We also prefer to drop our anchor where we can see an open patch of sand.

There were already about 15 boats anchored in the North reef.  Another dozen or so showed up in the next few days.  We have never seen so many boats at Minerva.  It was nice having other boats to share the unique Minerva experience.  We made more new friends over the next two weeks than we did all season in Tonga.  In Tonga's Ha'apai group we were usually the only boat at each anchorage. We aren't complaining.  It is nice to have an island to ourselves.  But, it is also good to share experiences with fellow cruisers too.
You can make out the reef by the breaking waves on the left.

All the boats were here at Minerva for the same reason: they are waiting on a weather window to continue to New Zealand.  Most of them left Tonga at about the same time. It was a pretty tight group that graciously accepted new people into the fold.  Every morning there was a weather discussion on the VHF hosted by Tim on Pakelea Loa.  Tim would listen to weather forecast and analysis on the shortwave radio and then relay the information to all the other boats over VHF.   Then we would all discuss the weather and potential passage windows.  

Look at all those masts.
One of the catamarans graciously hosted a potluck dinner for anyone wanting to join.  There were 42 people at the gathering pushing the cat to its space limits.  We had a great time hanging with our new friends and meeting even more people.  

This little community went on for 9 or 10 days.  We started calling ourselves the Minerva Yacht Club.  We left after 7 days to enjoy some time down at Minerva South reef.

One morning Michelle found a small bird was sitting outside the front window. It didn't look at all like a seabird, but we had no internet to look it up. Fortunately, our friend Vandy on Scoots is an avid bird watcher.  Rich sent her a photo of the bird via satellite email and asked if she could identify the bird and suggest something we could feed it.  Vandy identified it as a Pacific golden plover.  It's a land bird that migrates every year between the Arctic tundra of Siberia and Alaska and New Zealand. This little guy must have been separated from his flock somehow. Rich named him Freddy.  (Freddy the freeloader) 

Looking out the salon window and I saw this sweet face!
At first Freddy stayed outside away from us.  But then we started noticing that he had been inside the boat we were out snorkeling.  There were tiny little droppings down in a cabin and ant traps that were flipped over.  Then he seemed to disappear.  We met up with some friends on the nearest boat and learned Freddy had visited them as well.  The next morning there were more signs of Freddy on board again.  Later that day were were both in the main salon as the sun was setting.  Suddenly, Freddy flew into the cockpit, hopped down the 2 steps into the salon and stood right there looking at us. He then walked right past Rich and down into the cabin below he had been in earlier. Like he owned the place! 

So we left him/her/it down there to rest.  Michelle put out plates with a variety of food including sesame seeds, raisins, granola, oats and crushed peanuts.  No sale.  Next she tried tuna, raw fish, bread crumbs and finally fresh papaya.  Still no takers.  But he did come back up to the salon later in the evening and was pecking around the floor.  Then he noticed his own reflection in the stainless steel refrigerator door and started staring at himself for long periods.  Any time he would pass by something chrome-plated he would freeze for a bit.  He stayed up with us for a couple of hours.
Freddie down in her cabin which happens to be Rich's workshop!
At bedtime Michelle moved him to the cockpit since he was pooping all over while walking around exploring the boat.  In the morning he was still out there and it was obvious he had eaten the tuna, raw fish and papaya!  This was about when we received the email from Vandy.  She said they don't usually eat during their migration since they fly non-stop.  So, that is probably why he wasn't eating at first.  

Unfortunately, the story of Freddy doesn't have a happy ending.  Rich was opening hatches and sorting equipment on the rear of the boat since he was taking a bunch of other boats on a lobster hunt.  This must have scared Freddy because he jumped into the ocean.  Not good.  Vandy told us Plovers are strictly a land bird.  They don't have big webbed feet for a water takeoff.  Michelle tried to grab him but he kept backing up.  We left him be thinking he must have a plan.  He was bobbing around behind the boat for a half hour then he was gone.  We hope he somehow made it out of the water and back to NZ. 

Later that day Michelle was relating the story of Freddy to a lady from a German boat.  Michelle was telling our sweet but serious new friend that she hoped Freddy would be OK.  The lady simply stated: "Oh no. He won't make it."  Michelle was crestfallen.  A young German crew on their boat was watching this cultural exchange with a grin and stated dramatically: "Oh, the cold, wet blanket of German honesty!"  Rich was cracking up over that for several days...

Meeting Lady Star
When we arrived at Minerva the boats were anchored on the far side of the reef to get the smoothest water.  But since the winds were light we decided to anchor right inside the entrance for quick access to outside of the reef.  All the best snorkeling is on the outside.  We were anchored by ourselves for a day then Lady Star arrived and hove too outside the reef waiting for daylight.  At first light then came in and dropped anchor near us.  When went over the next morning to invite them snorkeling with us they were thrilled.  

Rich had met them walking around Nukalofa the day before we left Tonga and he was happy to see them again.  We had a lot of fun with these 3 guys from Norway over the next several days.  Ralph, Frank and Thord explored the outside the reef with us and we met up for some walks around the edge of the reef at low tide.

Walking on the reef at low tide with Thord from Lady Star.
From the above photo you get an idea how close we were to the edge of the reef.  I was walking along looking in the water and I saw many cool things.  A shark laying on the bottom, huge fish darting about and then I saw what looked like a huge snake.  So I put my hand in the water with the camera to get a photo.  It was a huge eel swimming around with the most unbelievable skin pattern I have ever seen on an eel.    I was behind it getting shots and Rich told me to run ahead to get his face.  I tentatively stuck my hand in front of it hoping I wouldn't get bit.  I didn't and I managed to get his face.
This is the shadow I saw looking into the water.
Stuck my hand in and got this shot of his body.
And finally, his face!
As we walked back the water was getting deeper again covering the reef back up.
Rich went out with Lady Star and another boat Tribasa Cross (that had a couple of young swedish guys as crew) to go lobster hunting and came back with a prize.  They caught a lobster for every boat and 1 to spare.  So that evening we were invited for a BBQ on Tribasa Cross.  They cut the lobster in half longways and everyone gorged.  
Look at the size of that lobster.
Close up.

Rich is holding the tail open. The lobster will snap it shut on your fingers and could do some damage if not careful.

Frank and Thord (LadyStar) and the cook is Gustav from Tribasa Cross
Ralph (Lady Star) and Sven (Tribasa Cross)
The finished product

And after dinner a lovely sunset. 

Each morning we listened to the daily weather discussion before heading out to swim.  Rich announced that we would be walking across the reef then jumping in to swim outside the reef. And of course looking for lobsters.   Three boats joined us and we had a great time.  Tribasa Cross, North Star and Greyhound joined us.  The location that we walk across is where the reef is narrow so it is a shorter walk to the outside.  We took the dinghys in until it got too shallow then we anchored and walked to the edge of the reef.

There are finger channels cut in the reef that make a good place to get in safely.  The waves break on the edge of the reef and dissipate as they go inward.  So you can squat down with your fins in hand and either jump or ease in the water.  Then hurry up and get your fins on so you can swim away from the breaking waves.  It works really well because the grooves are just wide enough for your body and very deep.  And the underwater side of these grooves is a site to see.  It is beautiful.  A group of huge parrot fish hang out here, we all see large game fish and sharks.
You have to be careful walking on the reef.  There is live coral and sea creatures to watch out for.  The green is alive and there are often clams, starfish, urchins and sea cucumbers laying in the cracks.

Paul from S/V Greyhound walking over to the reef. 

Rich explaining to the group how we get in/out of the water safely from the edge of the reef.
Rich pointing to a good cut for entering the water.

Waves breaking on the edge of the reef.
This shows how long the finger grooves are. Simon is watching the waves for a good time to go.

There he goes!  Only his foot above water.  You can see the wave breaking behind him.
Swimming out past the breaking waves.  The dark blue water is the open ocean side.
Here is what it looks like from underwater.  The grooves are spaces between large coral heads.  I am on the open ocean side looking back at the reef.
Several people just got in and swam through that cut.
This is a nice cut to get in!  Fish are swimming down deep in the cut.
Emperor angelfish down deep in the cut.
The school of large parrot fish

Every swim includes a patrolling shark!
After the snorkel everyone went lobster hunting in the reef cracks.  I just took photos!
The guys with their lobster buckets.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

South Minerva Reef Aerial View

Minerva Reefs are a popular stopover on the passage from New Zealand to Tonga.  They are about 600 miles from New Zealand and 250 miles from Tonga.   A week-long passage is split up into two shorter passages with a break in-between.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Minerva Reefs - North & South 2019

Minerva Reefs are one of our all-time favorite places.  They are two submerged atolls hundreds of miles away from anywhere.  The only way to visit them is on a private yacht.  

Drone photo of Minerva South "West Lagoon"

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Goodbye New Zealand...for now

We were among about 8 boats waiting at Town Basin Marina for a good weather window to leave for the tropics.

The last group of cruisers departing Whangarei for the islands.

2019 Passage From New Zealand to Minerva Reefs

We untied our lines at 10 AM on June 13.  It was a beautiful sunny day and as we went down the Marsden Cove marina channel the Whangarei heads were straight ahead, with a layer of misty clouds passing over them. 
It's easy to see why the Maori name for New Zealand translates to: "The land of the long white cloud"

Friday, May 31, 2019

Special Guests

Last weekend we had some very special guests from the US.  When we were home at the holidays I was catching up on months of accumulated mail and came across the newsletter from my college fraternity.   An article about an undergraduate brother studying in Auckland caught my eye.
Andy & Victoria