I should mention that if I had more time in New Zealand I probably would have made my way further North to the Bay of Islands, which I had heard were stunning, or gone West to the Coromandels and spent a few days there, but on a time limit due to my one year Round The World ticket I chose to journey to Mt Maunganui, which is within Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty. I didn’t stay in Tauranga Central as I heard Maunganui was a better area, so I paid a bit more (but still only $11 NZD) to get the NakedBus (or Manabus) to Pacific Coast Backpackers in Maunganui, which just happened to be where I was staying at $29 NZD a night. However the bus arrived at 6:50am and reception didn’t open until 8am so I hung out in the McDonalds next door to have a chai latte and write my blog. I would like to point out this is the only time I have ordered from McDonalds since being on my travels and as it is only a coffee it doesn’t really count. Oh and I was bought a McDonalds breakfast while in Sydney but that doesn’t really count either.
At 8am I went into Pacific Coast to put my luggage into storage (couldn’t check in until the afternoon) and then slowly made my way through town to Salisbury Wharf, where I would be hopping on my Dolphin Seafaris boat for my dolphin tour at 10am; most dolphin tours start at 8am but they had pushed it back due to the winds forecast for that morning.
The aim is to both view and swim with dolphins in their natural habitat but, as is the case with any wild animal, they couldn’t absolutely guarantee either would happen. But it was a beautiful day with clear blue skies so I made my way to the bow of the boat and sat out front as we made our way out past the Mount and into the bay of plenty, just enjoying being out on the water again.
We were given a briefing on swimming with the dolphins and how we would be entering their home so to be respectful and careful. As we were visiting them in their habitat it would be a case of making our way across the water until we located them, and it was probably almost 2 hours before we had our first sighting (I was kept occupied until then by the peace of the ocean, plus the muffins and hot chocolate on offer). Now, I saw dolphins when I was walking along the beach with Claire in the Catlins but this was something else entirely. They were literally swimming and diving in and out of the water right alongside our boat and right in front of it too, coming from out underneath the front to take a breath and squirt water.
I find it hard to explain how magical it was sitting over the edge of the boat with my feet dangling over the side and watching the dolphins for the next hour as more and more pods of them joined the pod already with us, coming towards our boat from in front and at both sides. At times they would swim in a line in their pods, or they would go solo and show off as they leapt out the water and back in again, or they might tease us by swimming right near the brim of the water straight across the front of our boat. We also regularly saw two (or even three) of them twist round each other almost like a figure of eight and you would see their white bellies, which is their way of mating. It takes just a second and is something they do hundreds of times a day; the only other species than humans to get pleasure from mating, they basically spend their days mating, eating and swimming. Where do I sign up?!
Apparently they have incredible hearing and respond to noises that intrigue them so the boat was a constant symphony of whistling, singing, clapping and dolphin-imitating. We were all so thrilled to be so close to these beautiful creatures that I don’t think anyone moved from the front of the boat for an hour, even when the winds picked up and waters became choppy that the boat was practically bouncing up and down.
Unfortunately this meant it was unsafe for us to get in the water so we wouldn’t be able to swim with the dolphins – to say I was gutted is an understatement and it was starting to feel as though New Zealand had something against me as this was the second of my top things to do that didn’t happen because of the weather (the Franz Josef heli ice climb being the first). I had to remind myself how lucky we were to see what we had and absorb that experience, it’s just hard when you have had certain hopes and expectations, and paid $150 for it!
We arrived back at Salisbury Wharf just before 3pm and I spent the next couple of hours running a few “errands”; exchanging my NZ lonely planet guide for the South America on a Shoestring one (way out of date as it was published in 2007, but it would be a good base to start with) and posting a card to a friend back home. I then walked from my hostel to Leisure Island, which you can walk across to from Main Beach and only takes about half an hour to walk around but offers peaceful views out across the ocean from rocks high up or down low, and I managed to catch sight of a team of kayakers making their way over the water.
I then walked over to the base of Mount Maunganui at the tip of the town where there is a base walk around the perimeter and a couple of different walks you can take up to the summit depending on how steep and how quickly you want to get up there. Feeling weary from my early morning and day in the sun (where the wind made the heat very deceptive and I had gained some rather sexy burn lines on my chest and shoulders) I took the less steep, slower walk up, stopping regularly for the views out across the ocean. Once at the top, the view of Mt Maunganui and the bay below made every uphill step worth it.
The following morning I checked out of my hostel by 10am and put my luggage into storage before walking down to Main Beach, where I spent the next couple of hours splashing in the water and laying in the sand with barely anyone else in sight. I made it back to my hostel just after 1pm to have a bite to eat and pick up my luggage before getting the 01 bus into Tauranga for $3.40 NZD, where I then caught my 3pm Manabus into Auckland, my very last stop in New Zealand…