East Coast Island Discovery

East Coast Island Discovery

By Monique Witsenberg

Discover the unsurpassed beauty and rugged coastline stretching along the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula. Within these waters you’ll find numerous places to explore including the magnificent Aldermen Islands, magical Slipper Island and the Te Whanganui-A-Hei Marine Reserve.

This volcanic region includes Paku Hill which was once an island formed from explosive eruptions, creating bands of crystal. These amazing lava formations are visible in most of this coastal area with majestic pillars and colourful layered cliffs giving us spectacular underwater and above water playgrounds.

Awesome Aldermen Islands Adventure:

Our first adventure was to the Aldermen Islands with the ever-ready Silver Wing Charters. As the typical summer holiday weather with its volatile conditions set in, we put the 11.5 metre Bladerunner aluminium cat to the test. With two 230hp Volvo engines the two metre swells we encountered in the 11.8 nautical mile journey proved to be a piece of cake for this sturdy vessel. The well practiced skills of our ex-commercial fisherman skipper Pete Grennell made for a stable and exciting ride, although I did have flashbacks from the movie Perfect Storm.

There is loads of room on Silver Wing and she is fully equipped with rods, reels and plenty of storage room for dive gear. The user-friendly diving platform is a major bonus for effortless descents and boarding. Cruising at 20 plus knots with the capability of over 30 knots, it only took 30 to 40 minutes to reach the Aldermen Islands. Sailed by Captain James Cook in 1769 and named ‘The Court of Aldermen’, the islands have been a protected pest-free wildlife sanctuary since 1933 with tuataras and birdlife such as storm petrels. A permit is required to land.

Due to the nor’westerlies blowing, we had to be quite ive about where to stop, but the good judgement of our hosts showed us a few beauty spots to dive, tucked into coves at George and Middle Island. The diversity of these islands, with its dramatic peaks and remnant volcanoes, means the potential opportunities for divers is unlimited. As this is not an overhead environment, even inexpert divers can enjoy diving the many caves around these islands. The water clarity is 15 to 30 metres much of the year and temperatures reach a pleasant 22°C.

These crystal clear waters present excellent opportunities to observe the habitats of many sea creatures. We encountered an enormous stingray (probably hiding out from orcas) in one of the swim through caves. In the midst of a rainbow of fish were colourful pig fish, butterfly perch, big sandager parrot fish, parties of leatherjackets showing off their mosaic-like night colours and, coming right at us, were the vigilante angel fish guarding their territory. Even snorkeling offers hunters the chance of crayfish in the shallows of these islands. Here we found a handsome Spanish lobster, but due to the rarity of these colourful creatures, releasing them back to the ocean for further breeding is a must. Amongst the off-shore pinnacles are the bountiful Len’s Reef, and the elusive Stingray Rock – this 50 hectare ocean playground with depths of 12 to 15 metres will keep you coming back for more.

The easy-going professionalism of owner Dave Rickards, the cheeky wit of Pete and the encouragement of deck hand Craig made for a very entertaining day. As experienced divers they are willing to offer any help or advice.

Silver Wing Charters also offer their services to visitors staying on Slipper Island, so this is where we ended up next. Thanks heaps guys – we’ll be back here for sure!

Magical Slipper Island:

hether you get there by boat, plane or chopper, within no time you will be relaxing in the midst of pure paradise, toasting the unbelievable tranquility surrounding you. Arriving here was breathtaking and we just had to leap straight into the sparkling blue depths and swim to the gorgeous sandy white beach awaiting us. I had to take a reality check to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. I had definitely discovered something special here.

We were welcomed by Diana and Pete Cussen and Nora Needham whose family have privately owned the island for over 30 years. They have dedicated their time to build this exquisite resort, which opened to guests in November 1999. In keeping with the island’s unspoiled image, there are only three one-bedroom and two two-bedroom chalets which offer the best in comfort with the finest furnishings and homely luxuries. All you need to provide is your food and drinks. Barbecues come with every chalet, as does your own piece of isolation (mosquitoes not included)! There is also a welcoming lodge which comfortably accommodates 12 guests, fully equipped with large indoor and outdoor entertaining areas. This is the perfect place for a wedding party or a club trip away. Even in the winter, relaxing by the massive open fire, sipping mulled wine and enjoying the catch of the day would be bliss. In another scenic secluded bay there is also a beachside camping ground – you’ll need your own cooking gear but there are cold showers and even flushing loos!

Slipper Island’s 500 acres includes a private airstrip, which attracts people dropping in for a quick dive or charter flights which can be arranged by Di and Pete. Take the one to two hour walk around the island and explore the significant Maori history sites and observe the spectacular views that surround you. Once you’ve got your bearings, check out a good dive spot and then use one of the islands runabouts or canoes to get you there. Offering PADI Dive courses from open water to wreck diving, Slipper proves to be a diver’s haven.

Between Slipper and Penguin Islands is Manaia Reef. This is where the MV Manaia was sunk in 1896, and at approximately six metres depth, it makes for exceptional snorkelling or freediving. The south end of the reef drops down to 24 metres, and although this site does get exposed to easterlies, it is a fabulous dive. Just next door are Rat and Rabbit which are also worth investigating. Whether you’re there to catch dinner or take in the underwater scenery it’s unquestionably worth putting a flipper into slipper!

Di, Pete and Nora are very gracious and sociable hosts who like to share a story or two. This has to be the friendliest island I know of – even the guests seem like familiar friends. The complete serenity and accessibility bring people back time after time, as well as the superb efforts of the hosts to ensure you have a good stay.

If there’s a storm brewing they will organise a water taxi to bring you over for a ‘storm stay’. The wild, rugged isolation will blow you away. This place would be just as amazing in a howling storm as it is on a beautiful day.

Tairua – Hahei, coastal exploration:

Arnie Gurau from Te Paua / Tangitorori Charters of Pauanui is another friendly local. He took us diving, fishing and sightseeing at Slipper Island and up the coast to Hahei and the Te Whanganui-A-Hei Marine Reserve. An ex-commercial fisherman, Arnie has plenty of experience and knowledge of these waters, which makes for a safe, relaxing journey. The six metre aluminium cat with two 90hp Johnson outboards cruises at 25 knots and suits four to six people comfortably for a half day or full day outing.

From Tairua, past Sailors Grave and Boat Harbour, up to Cathedral Cove there are many spots to explore. A must is a visit to the famous Hot Water Beach – at low tide dig yourself a hole in the sand for a soak in the thermal water, which rises up through an old fault line from underground reservoirs. Also take a refreshing swim at beautiful Cathedral Cove, with its picturesque beach, crystalline water and majestic rock formations. The cove can be accessed by road with a 30 minute coastal walk.

In the protected waters of the Marine Reserve, due to the rough seas we had experienced, the visibility was not the greatest and our photos didn’t do justice to the sealife living here, such as the impressive sized crayfish that our divers came up buzzing about. Its reefs of hard rock, soft sediments, intricate caves and enticing underwater arches provide perfect habitats for various species of shellfish, fish and marine plants.

On the way back down the coast, we found a sheltered lagoon where the water was extraordinarily transparent. Diving with red moki, the staunch scorpion fish and the menacing moray eels, was a dazzling experience. Arnie took us right inside a huge cavern full of playful blue maumau, which is one of many diveable caves along this coastline.

Throw a line over and be amazed by the amount of fish ravenous for a bite. And when fishing the deep waters here, the locals say an encounter with tuna and marlin is quite possible! Magnificent orcas have befriended Arnie on numerous tours, inquisitively coming right up to the boat to check it out. Orcas and dolphins make frequent visits to these waters, much to our delight.

Arnie also offers night fishing or diving, for an exhilarating and contrasting experience. Thanks Arnie and Te Paua Charters for your time and hospitality.

Situated next to the waters edge on the road to Paku Hill summit is Tairua Dive and Fishinn owned by Dave and Donna Earley. They provide dive tank fills, dive gear sales and hireage, boat and jet ski hire and PADI dive courses. Since taking over this prestigious business, they have been working with local businesses to expand tourism operations in the area and are delighted to provide guidance to any adventure seekers.

Various local sport fishing competitions are organised in Tairua, and there are ample charter boats available to hire for any occasion with enthusiastic crew to help you have a memorable time. This area has much on offer to impress the most discerning tourist, whether it be trekking this awesome coastline, diving, snorkeling, surfing, water sports or simply feeding the family on the delectable sealife available. If that doesn’t work check out the sumptuous menu at the harbourside restaurant (ex-Devonport Ferry) called ‘The Upper Deck’. Tairua and Pauanui also offer excellent accommodation, shopping, crafts, supplies, wining, dining and entertainment with plenty of activities for adrenalin junkies. There’s something for everyone here – come and see for yourself.

Thanks so much to those who invited us to experience what these magical islands have to offer.

There are a few secrets I’m not gonna tell you, you’ll have to find out for yourselves. This could well be the tourism Mecca of the Coromandel.

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