New Zealand Day 3: Taking the Aqua Taxi

We awoke to the insistent chatter of the news. Instead of the relatively soothing tones of the NPR crowd, all the newspeople seemed to be speaking with an accent. Then I remembered that I was in New Zealand, it was 5:30 in the morning, and we still had most of a day of travelling ahead of us.

Riding the Lynx

The middle part of the day would be spent riding the Lynx, a large catamaran ferry, from Wellington to Picton. It would be bounded on either side by more driving, first from Otaki to Wellington, then from Picton to a tiny village called Marahau, where we'd catch the Aqua Taxi.

The drive from Otaki to Wellington was uneventful. We were slightly outpacing the commuter train that runs along the freeway (for it had once again become freeway at this point) toward Wellington. Since Wellington is the capital city of New Zealand, I presume there are plenty of people who live in suburbs and commute in.

We located the ferry dock with minimal trouble, although the signs pointing the way were rather small and difficult to see at times. There was only one moment of near-panic, when we spotted a sign 100m away, and we were in the wrong lane in heavy but full-speed traffic.

The ferry check-in process was painless, and we were on the boat about 20 minutes later. Getting the car onto the ferry was a fascinating process. I'm used to Washington State ferries, where cars are basically loaded onto the main deck, and occasionally there will be a raised ramp off to either side. On Washington ferries, you drive on and off in the same direction -- the boat just docks on the opposite side when loading and unloading. On this ferry, you drive on from the rear, and are immediately directed up a ramp. At the top of the ramp, you turn toward the inside (ie, turn right from the left ramp), and go up another ramp. At the end of that ramp, you go up another, toward the outside of the boat, describing a sort of oval corkscrew shape. There are no windows. I think I counted about 4-5 levels for cars.

[Inside the Lynx] The inside of the ferry is deceptively huge. It's impressive that they can fit so many cars and people on what appears to be a not-terribly-large boat. We picked a table in the upper level, with 8 seats around it. I think we were all glad to be on the boat, out of traffic, and out of the car.

The actual ferry trip, once we were underway, was not all that exciting. When you've seen one open-water crossing, you've pretty much seen them all. The first half of the trip is spent crossing from the North Island to the South Island across Cook Strait, and the second half is spent wending slowly through what I think is called the Marlborough Sound.

[Marlborough Sound] Passing through Marlborough Sound was interesting, in the sense that it wasn't open water, but reminded me strongly of inland waterways of the Pacific Northwest. I had a sense of deja vu, and didn't end up spending a lot of time looking at the scenery.

Driving to Marahau: the Motorcycle Urge Commences

We landed at Picton, a little port town that would obviously be much smaller if the interisland ferry didn't land there. We had decided, based on a review of the map, to take a secondary road from Picton to the road to Nelson, which covers a much smaller distance (about 1/4) of the distance covered by the primary route. The road is called Queen Charlotte Drive.

[AVI movie of Queen Charlotte Drive] We quickly discovered that if the primary roads in New Zealand are chock full of curves and low-speed-limit towns by US standards, then the secondary roads are doubly so. The picture on the right links to a 2.5 meg AVI movie showing the view from the passenger seat as we rode along Queen Charlotte Dr. In case you don't have an AVI viewer handy I can give you the synopsis: it's all curves!

I didn't manage to get a picture of it, but there was a spot on the road where we passed a sign indicating the speed limit: 100 km/h. It was placed between two curves that couldn't be traversed by any vehicle known to man at 100 km/h. We were averaging 30 km/h, maybe 40, through these curves. It was around this time that I began thinking to myself, "my god, this would be so much fun on a motorcycle!" This is a theme that wouldn't leave me through the entire trip.

[Landscape view] We were compensated for the slow roads with some really fabulous views across the bay, and of the landscape. The rolling hills faded off into the distance. The sparkling bay had visible cloud shadows playing across it as the puffy clouds overhead trundled by.

Unfortunately, we were still feeling time-pressed. We had to be at the Aqua Taxi by 1:30, our scheduled departure time. The person who answered the phone there had averred that you could definitely make the trip from Picton to Marahau in less than 3 hours, which would take us from the ferry landing to the Aqua Taxi in just the right amount of time.

It seems that we are weakling drivers compared to the Kiwis. We were passed in what sometimes seemed like a constant stream of cars. I know the Toyota is a lumbering beast, but I'm not sure how some of these people maintained their speed through these corners. They were travelling 150% of our speed most of the time. Our car could have passed through most of these curves at 130% of the speed we were using, but it would have been an uncomfortable and pants-filling adventure, with lots of reflexive butt-clenching and phantom brake-stabbing by the passengers. That most people were driving with all apparent comfort at a noticably higher speed was fairly impressive.

Riding the Aqua Taxi

We finally arrived, safe and unscathed, but feeling rather pressed for time, at 1:45. The Aqua Taxi folks were waiting for us, since we had called ahead, already resigned to the fact that we needed to add 1/3 to any driving time estimates offered by any New Zealand natives. We piled out of the car and into the waiting boat, which was loaded onto a trailer hitched to a large farming tractor. In short order, we were trundling down the road, riding in an aluminum speedboat. The tractor traversed about 750m of roadway and turned down the boat launching ramp.

[Aqua Taxi being pulled through the surf by a tractor] At this point, things got a bit strange. The tide was somewhere around 3/4 or all the way out. The "beach" was all tidal flats extending hundreds of meters out away from the shore. We had to travel a hundred or more meters into the water before it was deep enough to launch the boat.

[Lonely tractor] Finally, the tractor driver decided it was deep enough, and backed the tractor into the gentle waves. The boat started to float, and he leapt off the tractor seat and into the water. He waded over to the boat and clambered aboard, presumably releasing some device holding the boat onto the trailer. He fired up the nearly-silent outboard motor, and we were off.

[1.6M AVI movie showing the view from the Aqua Taxi] Within moments of departure, we were cruising at perhaps 20 knots across the tops of waves with a distinctive SLAM! SLAM! SLAM! motion as we hit each wave. It was all a trifle kidney-busting. Trying to capture the effect with still pictures wasn't doing it, so I shot some video of it; click on the picture to the right to see it.

We passed a lot of great scenery via the AT. Tall, brooding hills under roiling clouds. Blue-green water lapping at bright yellow, almost white sandy beaches. We passed a pack of sea kayakers who were making their slow progress along the coastline, and many smaller groups and individuals as well.

We stopped alongside a small island, and the pilot pointed out some Southern Fur Seals (I think that's what he called them) that were nearly driven to extinction, but have made a promising comeback. I didn't even try to photograph them, for they looked like rocks when I was there. They wouldn't translate at all to photographic form.

We continued on, past a seemingly endless parade of scenic beauty. Eventually, we started slowing down, and I saw that we were headed right for a wide beach, and presumably our destination.

[My mom coming from the Aqua Taxi] The pilot brought the boat in to about 30m from shore and dropped a small anchor. He then backed down to the beach, raising the motor at the last moment as the hull of the boat gently shished into the sand. We leapt out of the boat and onto the beach with no trouble. We had been warned beforehand that we would be wading up to knee-deep in water.

They're All So... Beautiful!

Once we were on shore, an extremely attractive young woman ran up and told us that she'd take care of our baggage. She was driving a Honda four-wheeler ATV with a covered trailer hooked to the back. When I asked later, she confirmed that that was her whole job: to run guests' baggage up and down the trail from the beach to the lodge. It sounded like great fun.

Having hiked up the short trail up to the lodge, we were greeted by another set of stunning young women behind the front desk. We were led to our room by another stunning young woman. Where did they all come from?

[1.7M AVI movie of the trail from the beach to Awaroa Lodge] We had all noticed, on the walk up the trail from the beach, that some insect was going crazy, making a heck of a racket. If you can view the AVI file linked from this picture, you can hear the noise they were making. It was nearly deafening, and we were very glad when they laid off and things got quiet around sunset. I couldn't really imagine being able to sleep with that amount of noise.

We were shown to our room by our gorgeous porter, and deposited bags. Before too long, the sunny day had turned to overcast, and not long after that, had turned to rain. Of course, being summer in New Zealand, it was still in the upper 70's F, so the whole thing was quite pleasant.

Gourmet Dinner, Auckland Style

Having settled in to our spacious room at Awaroa Lodge, we had a little bit of time to kill before dinner. Sacriligeous as it sounds, I seem to recall that we all sat down and either read or had a nap.

When dinner time rolled around, we made the 50 foot pilgrimage to the dining room. It, like the other buildings of the Lodge, was built in a fairly utilitarian style, with exposed wall studs and tall ceilings.

When our food arrived, it came in the sort of "nouvelle cuisine" style that seems to be popular in Auckland: the food piled up into a wide tower, with sauces drizzled around the remainder of the plate. It was quite good, although it felt pricey for the amount of food that actually arrived on the plate.

It's interesting: in New Zealand, one must order bread with dinner. In the US, bread is, particularly as the price of the restaurant escalates, simply served whether you want it or not (and is included in the price of the meal).

Sundown, and Silence

At dinner, our waiter (another extremely attractive 20-something) mentioned that we had come at a good time of year: Cicada season. The deafening insects were cicadas, these sort of amazingly passive inch-plus-long grasshopper-looking bugs. I didn't actually get any pictures of them, unfortunately.

But, the reason that cicada season was a good time of year is a comparative one. Our waiter said that the following "season" was wasp season. I'll take cicadas over wasps any day, thanks.

As darkness descended upon the valley where Awaroa Lodge perches, an amazing transformation happened. The constant chirping drone of the cicadas faded off into silence. It was almost errie, leaving a ringing in our ears, like an aural afterimage of the sound.

Return to the Introduction - Go on to Day 4

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