Something Fishy on Urupukapuka

After spending a day wandering around Auckland, we decided to head about 3.5 hours north to the Bay of Islands, a pristine coastal region situated on the eastern coast of the far northern region of New Zealand’s North Island. Captain Cook was the first European to visit the Bay of Islands in 1769 (though the Maori had occupied the land centuries earlier), and named it so because he counted a surprising 144 islets within the bay.

With another day of gorgeous weather in the forecast, we decided to hop over to Urupukapuka Island for the day, a 40-minute water taxi ride from our mainland base in Paihia. I know, I know… I totally denigrated the previous water taxi; however, I admittedly am in no shape for a 12-mile open-water swim. After a scenic ride amongst some of the rocky and tree-covered isles, we arrived at Otehei Bay. Just beyond the wharf, a small strip of beach offered snorkeling, kayaking, swimming, or simply relaxing seaside with a beanbag and a beer from the small café. Unexpectedly, the beach was not super crowded, perhaps given the limited number of passengers on the boat. Instead of hanging out by the main beach, though, we opted for a hike around the island, hoping to take in some nice views of the bay and its many namesake isles.

The well-designed trail certainly did not disappoint. Seven individual tracks traversed distinct regions of Urupukapuka Island, and could be linked together for a longer hike spanning the entire perimeter of small island. We traversed Urupukapuka counter-clockwise on the undulating dirt pathways – climbing steep staircases built into seaside cliffs, and strolling down narrow passages that led to isolated beaches. The views were continually spectacular, overlooking dazzling green hillsides that gave way to rugged sea cliffs, plunging to intense turquoise waters below. Passing briefly through the forested and grassy interior of the island, we were enveloped by the deafening whir of cicadas, a sound that brought Stephan back to childhood summers in upstate New York with his grandmother.

About halfway around the island, we followed a track leading out to the tip of a craggy peninsula, and made our way down to Akeake Bay. The small cove was all but hidden by a tall, grassy embankment, and boasted an untouched white-sand beach, glassy aquamarine water, and a small rock cove that made a perfect picnic spot. We sat amongst the rocks, feasting on our usual PB & J and relishing the serenity, before enjoying a swim in our private little lagoon. Back on the beach, as I grabbed my camera to capture our relaxing little hide-away, I suddenly heard Stephan scream for me to turn around…

A rather diminutive wave had just washed onto the sand, carrying with it an ill-fated school of several dozen fish, that were now flopping frantically at my footsteps (seriously Kris, you would have lost it with your fish terror). My first thought was, ‘Woah, cool, look at all the shimmery fish,’ which was immediately followed by, ‘Oh my gosh, they are all going to die!’ I starting waving my hands like a lunatic, screaming at Stephan, ‘They are gasping for air! Quick, save them… SAVE THEM!” Stephan dropped his camera, sprinted toward the flailing fish, and began flinging them back into the bay at lightning speed. While attempting to rescue one of the unfortunate victims of the rogue wave, a sharp barb on one the fins sharply stabbed his finger, all but derailing the rescue attempt.

I quickly realized that the number was too great, and came to terms with the fact that we couldn’t save every scaly little life. By the end of the Akeake Bay Massacre, a couple dozen lucky friends were safely returned to the sea, while the death toll hovered somewhere close to thirty. During the charade, several eager gulls swooped in for a most fortuitous lunch banquet, and we watched as they happily picked at the lifeless remains.

After our idyllic-turned-icthycidal respite, we headed back to the trail for the remainder of our scenic island tour. When we eventually returned to Otehei Bay, we were both completely astonished that we had been the only ones on the trail for the entire perimeter of the island; we never saw another soul. With nothing to do but wait for our return ferry, the gallant Stephan ordered himself a well-deserved New Zealand pale ale, snagged a couple of beanbags from the beachside bar, and grabbed us a spot on the grass in the late afternoon sun.

Total distance: 6.5 miles
Elevation gain: 1,119 feet

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