Kiwi Jack: Chapter Ten

My first thought as the swell in Lake Taupo began to capsize the kayak my father and I were paddling a few hundred meters off shore:

“I wonder what the Rattlers score is.”

My second thought as the top of the kayak splashed into the water and the first tentacles of the freezing cold, volcano-created water reached over my left shoulder and touched my neck:

“Oh shit, the damn camera’s fried and I’ve lost all of the pictures.”

My final thought has I was sitting in the kayak upside down and suddenly unable to breathe and/or grow gills.

“We need a bigger boat.”

But lets back up a bit.

Today was supposed to be the Maori cultural day post; we had not one but two scheduled Maori activities in two different cities as we continued up the center of the North Island. If you’re not up to speed on the Maoris, they are the native islanders of New Zealand who came to the islands about 600 years before the first European settlers from somewhere else in the northern South Pacific.

The day started with kayaking out on the edge of Lake Taupo out to see some supposedly ancient Maori carvings. Though fitting myself into a kayak takes a bit of doing (surprisingly, length-wise is the true problem) we got in and underway with few delays. We arrived at the carvings, which looked very cool and quite ancient.

So cool right? We thought so, and were pretty proud of ourselves that we had kayaked out to see these things (they’re literally on a side of a cliff that reaches way underwater, so they’re hard to get to).

Then our guide Gordon lowered the boom: they had been carved in 1984, and were done by power tools.

THAT WAS NOT IN THE GUIDEBOOK. Not that the carvings aren’t cool, but no way was I blowing a half a day, squeezing my ass into a kayak and paddling over seven km out to see something that isn’t as old as: (1) my house, (2) Michael Jackson’s Thriller, (3) me…among other things. Gordon seemed to think this was hilarious; seems to me these carvings were done for the expressed point of making fun of dumb-ass tourists.

But, we move on, and started padding back.

Gordon had been warning us about a weather system that was going to push its way in sometime in the afternoon. Though the lake where we were looked flat, he became concerned about the increasing wind, and so we headed back, pushing much closer to shore than we had on the way out.

It was on our second to last turn around shore that the wind really kicked up (around 15 km), and we started to hit some swells. These aren’t swells that, from shore, would concern anyone, but after watching the Olympics, I’m pretty sure we were in racing kayaks, not the sea kayaks to which I was accustomed. If you don’t know the difference, the racing kayaks are lower and lower-slung, making them more susceptible to instability.

I can speak to this first hand. With about 3 km to go, I had us out of position with one of the larger swells of this system barreled towards us. Scrambling to point our bow back into it, I over-corrected and over-shot where we needed to be, allowing the swell to smack us straight on the side. Being taller (and heavy, though if I was short and heavy this wouldn’t have been an issue)), our center of gravity was higher than it needed to be, and we flipped straight over.

Ejecting from the boat, my life vest pulled me straight to the top of the water. My father, who was also in the boat and subsequently now in the water as well, had already surfaced and we both frantically scrambled back to grab the boat. However, the boat refused to cooperate. Taking on water, it continued to flip over and over like it was on a rotisserie.

The adrenaline flowing though my system, I wasn’t feeling the cold, but my lungs were adjusting to both the temperature and the overall shock of the moment, and I had some significant trouble catching my breath.

Gordon showed up about this point (very quickly; he reacted very well), and while attempting to help steered his kayak directly into my head. I moved at the last possible second by grabbing his bow, at which point I was told not to do that. This is the cardinal sin of kayaking, but hell if I was getting smacked in the head while attempting to recover from this unwelcome surprise.

After seemingly hours (but in reality only a couple of minutes), Gordon towed the boat to shore while my father and I kicked behind it to aid in its movement. 100 meters from shore we were forced to swim the rest of the way due to the rocks. Already tired as hell and sore since the adrenaline was cutting off while my life jacket was attempting to strangle me, I was able to dog paddle for a few meters before needing to take a break (not the best idea, but I was shot by now). Luckily, as my feet fell back under me, I found some solid ground, and walked in about halfway.

Here’s where I realized the bad news: my shoes were gone, and I had to cross the last 20 meters or so on rocks. After the first time I fell, I decided to crawl in on my knees, smacking them with each step, but at least it was less dangerous.

Finally getting to the edge of shore, I tried to stand up. No shoes plus slippery rocks, and I fell for the second time, wrenching my left knee and smacking my left hip into a resident rock. I tried crawling a bit more, frantically looking for any piece of solid ground, but after squeezing a sharp stone into my right palm, I tried to stand, but fell for a third time before I even got the second foot planted, this time cutting my right knee and tweaking my right hip.

I gave it up for a few minutes, and just tried to get control over my shaking extremities. Finally managing to stand, I stumbled twice, stubbed my toe, but finally made it to the tree line and some soft needles where I was able to take a damage assessment. Amazingly, other than the shoes – turns out one of mine was in the boat, but my Dad lost both of his – we had everything. Both boats, all four sets of paddles, the bottles of water that were strapped to the top and, for the first time, I realized I was still wearing my Maui Jim’s, and my camera was still in my life jacket pocket in its zip-loc bag. How that happened, I have no idea.

Let me pause for just a second here and give you a bit of context: By no means am I an expert, but I know my way around a boat. I have multiple experiences white water rafting, canoeing, kayaking, sailing and even once drove a power boat around Lake George. This is the first time, ever, that I have wound up in the water against my will (or even come close to it, for that matter).

Gordon called in for one of his colleagues to come and pick us up. But, of course, we were on a rocky shore with no road access. So we went on a true New Zealand tramp: a walk with no shoes through the forest. Round about 2 km through the mud, needles, rocks and so on, but this really didn’t bother me. Back to the road, we found our ride, went back in town and located the White Shadow (I’ve named our car). After a quick change in a grocery store parking lot, we cranked the heat and jammed north to Rotorua, roughly 80 km which we needed to cover in an hour to make our next activity.

Yep; we kept to the schedule. I wasn’t about to let some stupid ass lake screw up my day.

Side note to answer my questions from the beginning: (1) The Arizona Rattlers won ArenaBowl XXV by a score of 72-54 (congratulations to everyone especially my good friend Kevin Guy who deserves a championship more than anyone I know), (2) the memory card from the camera was fine (thus the pictures), camera condition is currently unknown and (3) hell yes we needed a bigger boat.

Fuck racing kayaks.

Tonight’s Maori cultural activity was much more satisfactory than the kayaking, to be sure. We knowingly booked ourselves into perhaps the greatest tourist trap activity of the North Island: a Maori Hangi.

If you’ve ever been to a Hawaiian luau, you’ve pretty much got the basis of the Maori Hangi. Basically, it’s a way for outsiders to get a change to see a bit of the Maori culture. We were welcomed by the traditional, very aggressive, greeting, which is designed basically to intimidate men into not declaring war on the village. Believe me, if I was wandering through the woods and came across this, I would be REALLY intimidated; they yell, stick out their tongues and basically threaten you with weapons.

We progressed from there to various stations throughout the village to see some of the different things they do, which was actually pretty interesting.

We saw how they made some of their clothes, train their warriors and how to do the Haka, the traditional war dance (which, if you’re into rugby, you’ll see the New Zealand All Blacks perform before every match).

Finally, the meal. New Zealand cuisine continues to impress; they had various meats, fish, veggies and so on all of which they buried in the ground with white hot volcanic rocks to cook for hours in preparation.

Off to rest. Tomorrow: Auckland…and we’re going sailing.

August 11, 10:43pm
Rotorua, New Zealand