Waiheke Island, AKA, another beautiful place Europeans misnamed
Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of ferrying out to Waiheke Island, 19km/12mi off the coast of New Zealand’s North Island, eastward from Auckland. You may or may not be aware that the Maori are the indigenous people of Aotearoa New Zealand, and so many places are called their original Maori names (sort of). Great in theory, but as with any other colonized country, place names can be a bit…complicated, in practice. Take Waiheke Island, for instance.
According to several websites (this wasn’t the only one, but it was the most colorful), while Waiheke is a Maori word meaning “cascading waters,” it wasn’t the name of the entire island. It was the name of the stream the Maori were standing next to when some Europeans asked them what this place was called. The Maori actually called the island Te Motu Arai Roa, meaning “long sheltering island”. Unfortunately, the name Waiheke stuck, as that was the one on all of the maps, and so to Waiheke I went.
Every time I’m a passenger on a boat, I rediscover the experience: the gentle rocking, the wind blasting, the briny air, the freedom of movement; fresh, new. The combinations are endless: to travel X distance at Y speed in A direction toward landmass B. It reminds me of the possibilities in life – infinite – if we only had the courage to try them.
How many different words are there for the shades of color found in water? Teal, aqua, cerulean, navy, jade, green, white, grey, silver. Each wave and glint of light reflected as unique as a frozen snowflake. The landmasses dotting the horizon, calling, calling, so loudly to be explored. Not conquered, but savored. Not ravaged, but experienced. Treading softly, no big stick in sight.
After days of overcast weather, the sun emerged to caress our faces, its rays kissing our fingers and toes with the warmth of a New Zealand (ozoneless) welcome.
– journal entry from the ferry ride
A ferry from Auckland to Waiheke can cost $20-$36 one-way, per person! Instead of bankrupting myself from the beginning, I looked up BookMe for Auckland and found not only a deal for the ferry, but also a deal on the activity I had planned for the day: an EcoZip tour. There’s something so satisfying about finding a good deal, especially when you’re traveling on a budget!
Over here, the Kiwis call this sort of thing a “flying fox” adventure. I call it, “hanging from a harness while you slide very quickly down a string, stretched out over a canopy of trees.” It never occurred to me to be nervous, but apparently flying down three different 200m long cables hundreds of feet in the air is something some people think twice about. Luckily, the guides from EcoZip Adventures, Helen and Bex, were incredibly knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful, and reassured us that everything is not only double-checked, but actually doubled up in terms of safety, with two ziplines, two guides, etc. etc. There were four of us for this excursion – a honeymooning couple from Long Island, a young woman from China, and myself – and we all had a fantastic time zipping through the course. With three different ziplines, even though each ride is a quick one, you get to experience that adrenaline rush over and over again. I actually wished one of the rides was a slow ride; instead of 5 seconds, I wanted it to be 5 minutes. It was breathtakingly gorgeous. We were hanging over old growth forests, hundreds of years old, green canopy as far as the eye could see, and as I had not invested in a GoPro for my helmet, nor did I want to risk dropping my iPhone and never seeing it again, I’m left with my memories but no pictures of the amazing views we saw during the actual rides.
After the zipline part, we enjoyed a guided walk back up to the main buildings. Though we had zipped quite a ways down the mountain, the walk wasn’t so much a breathless hike as it was a zig-zag meander with lots of stops to talk about local plant life with our herbalist/naturopath guide, Helen. She knew so much about flora of the region, introducing us to the mother and father trees of the forest, and recommending Bushman’s Toilet Paper in case we ever were out in the woods and needed to go. None of us needed to at that time, or if we did, we held it until the actual toilets with real TP back up at the top, but it’s nice to know what your options are.
One of the little things I enjoyed most about my EcoZip experience was how the dreaded “how much do you weigh” question was handled. I did my homework and read through the FAQs on the website, and came across this question & answer:
Is there an age and/or weight limit?
There is no age limit, but participants under 18-years of age must be accompanied by a parent or guardian properly authorised to agree to our Booking Terms and sign the Participation Waiver on the minor’s behalf.
To participate in the EcoZip experience you need to weigh at least 30kg (66lbs) and not more than 125kg (275lbs). If you think you or one of your party might be outside these parameters we recommend jumping on a set of bathroom scales to check. Sadly, and as much as we’d love to ‘zip’ you, if you fall outside these weight limits you won’t be able to participate. And just so we can never be accused of being ‘weightist’…we weigh everyone at check-in!
For the record, I am not even close to 125 kg, but I haven’t weighed myself in months. There are lots of reasons for that, not the least of which is that I have a chronic health issue that causes my weight to fluctuate, but the main point is, I don’t want to know what the actual number is. Not only that, I didn’t want everyone else in my group to stand there and watch as we one-by-one stepped on some massive scale with bright red numbers flashing our kgs to the world (or so it went in my head). I even wrote a whole blog post earlier talking about the discussion of physical condition in adventure sports that you can check out over here. I give EcoZip major points for making the “weight thing” a complete and total non-issue. I filled out every box on the permission form other than weight, stepped over to the counter, had a lovely little chat with the women behind the counter about what brought me there today and if I’d ever zipped before, all while stepping onto a scale that showed someone behind the counter a number, and never once was that number made public to me or to anyone other than whichever one of those three women recorded it on the form. Crisis averted.
I had booked a 6 p.m. return ticket for my budget ferry ride, so I had the whole rest of the afternoon to explore after that initial adventure. The EcoZip van dropped me off at Charley Farley’s right on Onetangi Beach, where I enjoyed oysters, a salad, and a slice of apple crumb cake before heading back out to explore. Word of warning: buses are few and far between on the island, so everyone hitchhikes everywhere. I was lucky enough to have another guided tour in the form of my driver, Mike, a Kiwi who owns his own construction firm on the island, working on all of the million-dollar properties. Waiheke used to be more of a local spot and almost an art colony, but in the last 10 or so years, it’s become one of the rich-and-famous playgrounds, with humongous vacation homes that sit empty but for 2-4 weeks out of the year. Luckily, the locals keep the island going quite nicely, so I was able to stop into the Waiheke Community Art Gallery and [space] (a contemporary art gallery), and grab some ice cream as well as walk along Onetangi and Oneroa Beaches. Rachel Murphy‘s pottery (Gold Rush collection) and Olivier Duhamel‘s sculptures (Myriam), in particular, caught my eye in the galleries.
The walk back to Matiatia where the ferry picks up and drops off became an unexpected treat, as I discovered the scenic route through the Atawhai Whenua Reserve. It took me about 30-40 minutes to walk from downtown Oneroa Village to the ferry terminal, and I enjoyed every minute of the well-maintained track. Trees and bushes had little markers saying what they were, and I saw my first calla lilies growing in the wild. I wish I had known about the path on the way into town, but better late than never! Overall, I explored only a small part of the island, so I’m looking forward to going back, renting a car, and driving around to the other side of the island to do some more hiking and see the less touristy spots.