The Nga Tapuwae o Toi Walkway: keep an eye open for giant beasties

dsc_1018I came across my not-so-little weta friend whilst strolling along some very scenic coastline from Whakatane towards Ohope in the eastern Bay of Plenty region on New Zealand’s North Island, on part of the Nga Tapuwae o Toi Walkway.

I’ve always liked the fact that New Zealand lacks all those crazy creatures that Australia has, the ones that’ll kill you as soon as look at you. Instead, it seems to have an excellent array of giant creepy crawlies and magnificent over-sized flying things. More than once I let out a girly squeal as something colourful and hoppy briefly landed on me as I walked, having to remind myself they weren’t going to be murderous little devils, not in lovely New Zealand.

Now the weta, as you can see, is a large cricket-like insect. There are 70 different species and they’ve been around in some form since the dinosaurs roamed our fascinating little planet. There are tree weta, ground weta, cave weta, giant weta and tusked weta – the males of which, of course, use their tusks to butt other males, or they rasp them together to see off predators.

They are nocturnal and can survive in all sorts of habitats, from grassland and shrub land to forests and caves (that’ll be the cave weta then, presumably). Sadly, some species have become endangered as a result of introduced predators and human-related habitat modification and disruption. Thankfully, though, New Zealand’s extremely active Department of Conservation is on the case and playing an active role in their recovery. Their potential is good. After all, you don’t live for that long without being quite good at adapting. In fact, the mountain stone weta (yep, that’ll be another variety) actually freezes over winter to survive in the harsh climate of the alpine areas of the South Island. It thaws back out again in the spring, carrying on its weta life as though this was quite a normal activity and not an absolutely remarkable display of adaptation.

Obviously, I didn’t know all of the above when I bumped into it on the path, but I still wasn’t entirely convinced my weta was supposed to be sitting nonchalantly on what was fortunately a fairly quiet track. It also didn’t seem to mind when I took its picture, not a great picture, but I wasn’t inclined to get too close in case the little fella suddenly decided it wanted to have a closer look at me too, and I didn’t want to upset it, poor thing.

I think this one might be a tree weta, possibly a female, but frankly all the pictures on the web of massive insects freaked me out a bit (seriously, go and Google giant weta), so I didn’t spend too long trying to find out. Whatever its variety, or, indeed, its gender, I do hope it finished its momentary sojourn on the Nga Tapuwae o Toi Walkway and hopped back into the bushes to re-join its weta clan.

A turn around Rangitoto

Rangitoto Island in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf emerged from the sea after a series of eruptions a mere 600–700 years ago. As a result, it boasts an impressively rugged landscape of fractured black lava, which has become intermingled with the world’s largest pohutukawa forest – which just happens to be my favourite tree. Sadly, I was there at just the wrong time of year to catch it all in bloom. It must look incredible at Christmastime.

Having previously stuck to Waiheke Island as my day trip destination of choice when in Auckland, I decided to branch out this February and try something different. I took the first ferry of the day (9:15 am; NZ$30 return), landing on Rangitoto, recognisable by its distinctive cone shape, just 20 minutes later.

There are no shops on the island, so you need to take any food and water you’ll need for a day trip over with you. You can stay overnight, but most people just pop over for the day on one of the two, competing ferry providers, travelling up to the volcano’s summit to admire the views of Auckland’s cityscape back across the gulf. The island is only 5.5 km wide, so perfect for a good, healthy hike; however, if you aren’t into the physical stuff you can hop on a tractor train and let that do the hard work for you.

I opted to walk, of course, choosing to head in a clockwise direction along the coast as I find most people usually meander automatically to the right when given left and right options. If you’ve just disembarked onto a practically empty island, why follow everyone else?

I say practically empty as there are 30-some baches (a kind of mend-and-make-do style Kiwi holiday home) on the island. At their peak in the 1930s there were over 100 of these illegally built constructions, but no more were allowed after that time. I guess the ones that survived are those that have passed down through families and actually been maintained along the way.

It was an obscenely hot day, and, on an island formed of black lava with very little shade, that made for a very sweaty hike. Thank goodness I only met a couple of very svelte runners and a lone kayaker on the first half of my stroll.

There are some lovely views back across to Auckland, particularly at Mckenzie Bay, where the red and white stripes of the lighthouse contrasted beautifully with the shade of blue only a New Zealand sky can be.

I finally stumbled across another family of explorers at an otherwise deserted beach. In hindsight this is where I should have had my lunch. The advantage of going in the other direction would have been that I could have spent more time here, but with a deadline of 3.30 pm for the last ferry back, I didn’t dare to linger too long.

From the beach, the track started heading upwards, to the island’s summit. The trail is definitely hiking shoes terrain, not easy under foot. This is also where I found all of the other people.

Rangitoto was a military lookout point in World War II and evidence of its former role is still visible, with the shells of various buildings dotted about the summit and crater walk (a very swift circumnavigation, that takes all of 10 minutes). They’re not entirely aesthetically pleasing, but an interesting reminder of the island’s history.

There were some odd-looking fowl shuffling around the top, but I couldn’t hang around to find out what they were because there was also a massive wasp problem. My tip would be: don’t save your lunch for the summit.

Once you’ve muscled your way through all the folk wafting selfie sticks about, the view is spectacular, but don’t expect a quiet moment alone to enjoy it. Being a bit people-phobic, I was happy to set off back down the trail.

I had hoped to circuit all the way around to where Rangitoto meets its closest neighbour, the much older Motutapu, which has been connected by a causeway to Rangitoto since World War II, but I was worried I wouldn’t have enough time to meet my return ferry. Instead I took the alternative path and ploughed on through the heat, eventually finding a nice shady spot to wait for the ferry.

I saw a hint of the less than friendly rivalry between the two local ferry operators as I sat on deck waiting for our departure. A couple with tickets for the “other” operator tried to get on, but were unceremoniously told this was not their ferry. I wonder if they were stranded, left to snuggle up together for the night on a jagged lava flow in the middle of the Hauraki Gulf. Personally, I could think of worse things that could happen!  dsc_0884dsc_0886dsc_0890dsc_0888dsc_0896dsc_0905dsc_0907dsc_0914dsc_0915dsc_0932dsc_0933dsc_0935

Ben Nevis Braveheart Triathlon 2016

imageAs I was applying factor 100 sunscreen to my face in transition on the morning of Saturday 17 September, my friend turned to me and said “Just how ginger are you? It’s 6.30 am, it’s still dark, you are in the Highlands of Scotland, and you are about to get into a loch for a swim.” Ok, so it was ridiculous, but I was very nervous. I was about to embark on probably the hardest (most certainly the highest) half ironman distance triathlon in the British Isles—the Ben Nevis Braveheart Triathlon—and so applying sunscreen in the dark at stupid o’clock in the morning was just another coping mechanism.

The race takes in a 1.2 mile sea loch swim in Loch Linnhe, a 56 mile bike section along the Great Glen, and a 13.1 mile “run” up the highest mountain in Britain: Ben Nevis. I had reason to be nervous.

It was to be my first half iron distance triathlon, having only previously completed two sprint triathlons and the Half Big Ben Nevis Triathlon, at which I hadn’t exactly excelled myself four years previously—who knew competitive mountain biking was so hard?

I was, however, much more prepared than before any of those previous races, and having done various ocean swims, long bike rides, and running events of an assortment of distances over different terrains over the last however many years, I wasn’t overly concerned. Barring a mechanical malfunction on the bike (which, oddly, is the thing that was worrying me the most), I knew I could finish, it was just a matter of how long it would take me and how painful it would be.

Registration was on the Friday evening in Fort William and introduced a new and exciting element to the event, it was to be filmed for Scotland’s Adventure Show, whose host, Dougie Vipond, also drummer with Deacon Blue (showing my age here), was taking part. Basically they were collaring everybody as they registered and interviewing them (giving me flashbacks to my inaugural ocean swim in New Zealand when my pal S was the human interest element of the Sky TV coverage and we all got roped in). Please god, let this interview never see the light of day.

Registered and with all my gear in the car, only a sleepless night lay between me and my endurance triathlon destiny.image

Transition at the Old Fort opened at an ungodly hour (about 5.30 am); it was very dark but the weather was good—a teensy bit chilly, but dry. Bike racking was a free for all, but the area was small enough that there were no bad spots. At about 6.45 am a solitary female piper announced it was time to shuffle down the carpet to the loch. I got chatting to a lady who said she had raised over £100,000 for children’s charities, she also dropped into the conversation that she’d done Kona the previous year (every long distance triathlete knows that’s an incredible achievement). If she was aiming for intimidation, she really didn’t need to, I was apprehensive enough already.

We would start in deep water, having acclimatised for five or ten minutes first. The organisers call themselves No Fuss and basically after a brief countdown someone shouted “Go” and we were off, covering two laps of an out-and-back course. The initial scrum wasn’t too bad, but all the same I found a space over to the right to avoid wayward or punchy swimmers.

It was a fair bit colder than Southsea, and we were allowed to wear hats, gloves and booties. I was grateful, without the gloves I doubt I would have been able to dress myself in transition post-swim, and I couldn’t feel my feet until 40 miles into the bike, so god knows what they would have been like without the booties. The water was pretty fresh (compared with the Solent) and visibility a little too good for my liking, I never want to know what’s in there with me. My pal and fellow Idiot D was also taking part and was wearing a very bright orange neoprene hat thing under his shocking pink swimming hat, but so was some bloke who was swimming next to me. Had D been doing some secret training? I was expecting him to be 10 or 15 minutes slower out of the water, this was most alarming. I’m not massively competitive, but I liked the idea of at least beating someone.image

I exited the water after 39 minutes, relatively pleased with my efforts. It turned out the bloke in the orange neoprene hat wasn’t D after all, 30 minutes of worrying that I was slower than usual (or he was much better than in training) had been fairly pointless.

I wasn’t exactly speedy in transition. At the briefing they suggested that people tended to survive the event if they looked after themselves between the swim and the bike. I was happy to take heed and put some dry gear at least on my top half and my feet. This meant I had to wrestle my way out of my tri top (please note my tri kit is in three parts, so I still had the matching bra top on and wasn’t breaking any decency rules), not an easy task having spent the best part of 40 minutes in a cold Scottish loch. A photographer from The Adventure Show chose this very moment to come and take my picture, at least I hope that’s where he was from! It’s not easy trying to clench your barely existing stomach muscles whilst extracting yourself from an Orca tri top.

Onto the bike. My feet were cold and I had a strange niggling pain in my right upper thigh, not sure what was going on there. We had two miles to get safely out of Fort William before dibbing back into the timing mechanism; there were too many roundabouts and roadworks in town to risk people racing this section—safety first. I had been worried about the bike, the pictures on the race website suggest a fairly constant climb to halfway. However, some long rides around the South Downs and the Isle of Wight (surprisingly lumpy), plus 66 miles in Tenby at the Long Course Weekend on a wet and windy day meant I was actually well prepared. It was a lovely ride. It was only with 10 miles to go that I actually started to feel it; perhaps I should have given it more oomph, but I knew I had a mountain to come. We were timed back out again two miles from transition, which I entered half an hour quicker than I’d told my supporters I would (ride time: 3 hours 10 minutes). I drank more fluids, ate a Cliff Bar, dumped some kit and was ready to hit the final stage: a run up the Ben.

The weather was glorious, and having applied sunscreen to my face in the dark before swimming, I would come to regret failing to put some on my legs before exiting transition, when the sun was actually shining. The first two miles take you on an undulating road up to the start of the Ben Nevis track. The undulations put paid to my already shuffling run and as I stopped to walk my supporters (having missed me in transition) suddenly appeared behind me in the road. It was great to see them, even if they did mock me about strolling. I only started running again when I saw a man with a camera filming me coming up the road.

There’s no other way of describing the trawl up Ben Nevis, it was just really hard. The start is very rocky, and I had to stop myself breathing heavily when I actually don’t think it was reflecting the effort I was putting in. I tried to relax. I came across a fellow competitor, sat on a rock, with his head in his hands, and gave him a rousing speech about how he had made it onto the Ben, he just needed to keep putting one foot in front of the other and pushing on. He got up and started moving.

The trail was busy and everyone seemed to have poles that they kept wafting about with great abandon, not helpful for passing “runners”. Passers by were very supportive, although one lady said she didn’t know how us women (there were only about 16 of us in a total field of 113 finishers) were doing it. Later I thought of a retort: “Why should we leave all the fun to the men?”

The camera people appeared again just before half way, again I hope that never sees the light of day. I then caught sight of the view over the valley to the left of the path and it was all worth it. Apparently the Ben is shrouded in mist and fog for a good 340 days of the year, but not today, today it was epic. Wow. It reminded me of New Zealand, which I’m sure is what lots of people say in New Zealand about Scotland, but wow. It was worth all the stress and hard work for that view alone.

I passed another couple of runners. Then, after the halfway checkpoint, I looked up and realised the trail was steeper and the going rough and I suddenly had to stop and attack my emergency nougat. How was I going to find the strength to climb this bloody thing? Obviously I would, but bloody hell, it was steep, and rocky, and just really hard going.

At that point, the lady who I’d passed a little down the track came back into view. N would be a godsend, providing an outlet for my crazy (probably delirious) chat all the way to the top and back down again, right through to the finish.

On the way up we’d seen a lot of other competitors coming back down, running the trail like sprightly mountain goats. We’d looked on aghast, it seemed far too dangerous for that. However, after reaching the summit, being fed blueberries by the lovely lady marshall at the top, having some charming man take my picture, joking about licking people’s faces for salt (best not to ask), we found a little pace and started our descent. Not far from the summit we passed Dougie Vipond, and not far behind him my old Idiot pal D, which obviously led to me wondering whether we’d need a bit more pace to make sure we beat them both. Apparently there is a small part of me that’s competitive. image

It took me over five hours to complete the run. I wouldn’t be troubling anyone for the top spots, but from the moment I crossed that finish line I would always be a Braveheart.

If you like impressive views (although I’m not promising you’ll be as lucky as us), a mighty challenge, and your events a little less fussy, I can well recommend the Ben Nevis Braveheart Triathlon.

The Adventure Show episode about the triathlon is available on iplayer.

image

Tenby, or bust: The Long Course Weekend 2016

I’m a bit partial to a spot of running and open water swimming, as you’ll know if you’ve read some of my other posts, so when my mate V suggested the Tenby Long Course Weekend (LCW) I was intrigued. After a total palaver trying to find a hotel relatively last minute, I found myself in Wales with V and some other members of our local tri club on Thursday 7 July in readiness for triathlon action to commence on the Friday night.DSC_0978DSC_0921

Now if you don’t know what the LCW is all about, let me give you a brief explanation. It’s basically a bunch of people gathering in the very picturesque town of Tenby, in Pembrokeshire, Wales, for a swim, a bike ride, and a run. Now that sounds pretty attractive to me. However, take into account that 750 of the people taking part over the weekend will be testing themselves over the long course triathlon distances, more commonly known (or famously branded) as the ironman distances. On Friday night they swim 2.4 miles in the sea off Tenby’s North Beach, on Saturday morning they set off on a 112-mile hilly bike ride around the local national park, and they finish it all off with a 26.2-mile (yes, that’s a marathon) circular run from Tenby to Pembroke and back again on Sunday, finally finishing in Tudor Square where a special ceremony is held for those who survive the conditions and the cut-off times to receive a coveted fourth medal, crowning them LCW champions. Oh yeah, and it’s basically the Ironman Wales course.

Obviously I wouldn’t be doing the full distances, not yet anyway, that particular idea is still percolating in my newbie triathlete’s brain. Thankfully, though, you could also enter each race individually or do shorter distances, so I’d be doing the full swim (because I know I can do that), the 66-mile bike (because I don’t know whether I can do 112 in 10 hours), and then a half marathon (because marathons are horrible and this one is also very hilly). V, and several other of our tribe, would be doing it all, and much respect to them for it.

Friday dawned with reasonable weather, if not a little chillier than our usual south coast haunt, so we wandered the winding old streets and took in the views as Tenby started to bustle with a strange combination of old-age pensioners, who must have been slightly bewildered by what was going on around them, and an ever-growing number of triathletes, clad in technical fabrics talking about all things swim, bike, run.DSC_0963DSC_0971_edited

The swim had to wait for high tide, so wouldn’t kick off until 7 pm, and was hailed as the UK’s biggest mass participation open water swim. Over two thousand people would be launching themselves in a single start wave into the water and battling round either one or two 1.2-mile laps. Crazy times.

I’ve done plenty of sea swims, but 13 degree Welsh seas that apparently last year contained thousands of jellyfish, plus a challenging current, worried me slightly. We were penned in on the beach just before the start, whilst supporters crowded the cliff above and some very rousing music blared out over the sound system. It felt like we were going into battle. The start was insane. We filed down the beach and into the water as fireworks exploded above us. Then it was just a battle to survive. I wouldn’t have wanted it to be my first ever open water competitive swim, let’s put it that way. Two thousand deranged and hyper swimmers fighting for space in the sea and aiming for three strategically placed orange buoys was complete lunacy. I got smacked in the head towards the end of the first lap but struggled back up onto the beach where we had to run round what I believed is called an Australian exit, or something, before hitting the water for lap two. I fended off cramp in my calves for the whole of the second lap and spotted one small jellyfish, plus something larger that I didn’t hang around to analyse, before hitting the final buoy. That’s where I got smacked again, this time dislodging my goggles, and this time the person just kept trying to invade my space. The surprise at being whacked had caused me to cramp again, so I stopped to sort my goggles and shout at the sod who’d belted me, only to find it was one of the perhaps seven people I knew in the entire field. How ridiculous is that? Anyway, it was done. Over an hour and a half of swimming found me clutching my first medal of the weekend.

A late dinner and late bike prep (take note, sort your bike stuff before going for your swim or you’ll be up until after midnight and a wreck on day two) found me waking up to some god awful Welsh weather on Saturday. We knew it was due to be pretty shitty, but imagine a rainy, drenching mist and blustery wind, then imagine a hilly 66-mile loop of the Welsh countryside. I had to dig deep for some strong Lincolnshire grit to even make me leave my cosy bed in my warm, dry hotel room.

My wave was due to set off at 11.15 am, but when I got there at 10.45, the organiser was just telling people to set off as soon as they liked. I followed her advice, I thought I might as well get this particular misery over. It didn’t take me long to work out that my cycling glasses were totally pointless, so they came off. I’m a fairly newbie cyclists so it was all about just getting round, trying to be efficient with my gears and getting up the copious hills. I was actually fairly pleased with myself, arriving at the 30-mile rest stop feeling full of beans (or energy gels and special hydration fluids). I gobbled twiglets, a bit of mars bar, had a rest stop, and stopped for a selfie with one of my tribe who was out doing the 42-mile route. It mostly went by in a blur of hills, mist, wind, the odd impressive pro cyclist hurtling past, and some motivational chats with other riders of similar ability. Then about six miles before the end I saw a rider hit the back of a car up ahead and flip over his handle bars. Shit. Thankfully, he was ok, disorientated and with a bleeding hand, but insistent on getting his partner round the 112 miles in less than seven and a half hours. I stayed with them until he was able to hop back on and the pair of them zoomed off in pursuit of their goal. I really hope he was ok. My own proud moment came on the King/Queen of the Mountain hill climbing challenge, when I cycled all the way to the top and the compere said I was making it look easy. I think we all know I wasn’t but it kept me going to the finish in Tenby, where the crowds nearly made me cry with pride as I crossed the finish line. I’ll never set the cycling world alight, 66 miles took me five and a half hours (including a couple of rest stops and the bike v. car incident), but never has a medal felt more deserved. Two down, one to go.

Sunday was half marathon day. We hopped on the bus to Pembroke Castle, where we would join the marathoners at their halfway point. They make you pay another £10 for the bus, which is a bit rude considering how much the weekend can cost you, and we had to go really early because of road closures, but the time spent at the castle was really cool. I had a little explore, finding some odd cave formation below the main bit of the castle ruin, before remembering I was supposed to be resting in readiness for my run.

We were led out of the castle into Pembroke town by a samba band, parading down along the main street so we could cheer on the marathoners who were looking at sub four hours. And then, at 12 pm, it was our turn. I very quickly realised I had no energy, I guess I’d left it all on the road the day before. I had a couple of gels with me, which I wouldn’t normally bother with whilst running, but needs must. I cracked one of those bad boys open at mile three, after a particularly gruelling hill and it pushed me on for at least another four miles. SIS gels are magic, who knew? I played cat and mouse with A from the tri club for a while, but at about six or seven miles we gave up on that and decided to see it home together, which was a much better plan. The hills just kept on coming, but finally the clouds parted and along the ridgeway outside Tenby we were suddenly rewarded with one of the views I’d been promised on the bike leg. It was stunning. We stopped briefly to enjoy it before, buoyed by our surroundings, pushing on to Tenby, more crowds, a red carpet finish, more twiglets, and our tribe members. It was my worst half marathon time ever, but medal three completed my stack and my, let’s call it, Medium Course Weekend.Medal Tenby

Highly recommended: well managed, well supported, rumour has it there’s some beautiful scenery, Tenby is charming and I just had a fab time with my tri buddies. Who knows, perhaps it might inspire me to get better on the bike and go long next year!

The difficult third marathon: Paris 2016

On Sunday April 3 I completed my third marathon, the 40th anniversary running of the Schneider Electric Marathon de Paris 2016. Things of note: (1) I recommend not missing four weeks of long runs by swanning off on holiday and claiming it was too hot to run long distances, especially when the actual race turns out to be really quite warm. (2) I really like people cheering me on by shouting “Allez, allez. Courage! Bon chance!” (3) Marathon supporters are very sweet, particularly the lovely ladies who cleaned my sunnies for me when my running vest was too damp to use (eughh), the handsome chap who opened my Cliff Bar because I wasn’t dextrous enough to do so myself, and his tremendous girlfriend who gave me a swig of her pint whilst he did so! (4) The marathon is a bloody long way but you’ll find folk of all ages and body shapes plodding around the 42 km course. (5) From the number of ambulances zipping about, it’s wise to pay attention to the conditions and listen to your body. Live to run another day; in challenging conditions time is really not important. (6) Paris is a fabulous European city, even when you’re slightly distracted by the heat and a gradually deteriorating body.DSC_0708_edited

The Legend of the Lake, Rotorua, NZ

Legend of the LakeOne of the greatest things about travelling is making friends who when called upon years down the track will meet you in random places to take part in daft events. That is how on Sunday 28 February 2016 I found myself back with my old Hanmer Springs (Ocean) Racing Sardines buddies S and G at the Blue Lake (Lake Tikitapu) near Rotorua on New Zealand’s North Island to undertake a 3.5 km lake swim.

At some point towards the end of 2015 I’d realised that my forthcoming three-week holiday would coincide with the New Zealand Ocean Swim Series’ newest event: The Legend of the Lake. And to my great joy, when I mentioned that to S and G they agreed to meet me and take part. I think for G it was a good opportunity to overturn my previous victory over him at the King of the Bays in 2011, but I might just have an overly suspicious mind.

You may have spotted the word “ocean” firmly amidst the title of the series, but the organisers have branched out to take in the land-locked home of one of the series’ greatest competitors and New Zealand’s marathon swimming Olympic hopeful, Kane Radford. It was an inspired decision.

Sunday dawned clear and warm, which was unexpected as the weather was due to be wet and stormy. The compère still advised us what we should do in the event of it suddenly thundering and lightning, which was actually mildly alarming. It went something like this: listen out for the lifeguards blowing their whistles, swim to the nearest bank, get out, wait for it to blow over, get rescued by the inflatables. Fortunately we didn’t have to put that to the test.

I’d rented a wetsuit for the occasion, but in hindsight I think I would have been better off in just my togs. I had also failed spectacularly to train beyond 2.2 km in the outdoor pool local to my London office. If the race had been scheduled in New Zealand’s autumn rather than spring I would have been super fit having spent most of my Saturdays in the summer of 2015 battling against the tide on Britain’s south coast; however, that wasn’t the case. G had been regularly covering 3 km in the lovely lap pool at the Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools and Spa (so one of my spies told me), and I suspect S had been doing some secret training down near his home in Queenstown, he was very shady about it. I’m basically just getting my excuses in early.

We went off in waves, on a large clockwise circuit of the lake. The water was fabulous, so clear and tasty (I had a few mouthfuls during the initial thrashing for space). The first few buoys took an awful long time coming and on the back straight I caught sight of S sailing past me, presumably G was already way ahead! By the time I rounded the final buoy and commenced the long drawn out swim for the shore I was even being passed by those swimmers who manage to drag their bodies through the water at 45 degrees – seriously, how do they do that? I exited the water after an hour and ten minutes, exhausted by my apparently massively un-streamlined flailing, beaten by both of my buddies. Never mind. I was still incredibly delighted to have travelled 11,000 miles to take part, and to have done so with them was very special.

We lounged in the sunshine to recover, ate tasty treats prepared by Kane Radford’s mum, and then waited with baited breath to see if this time we would finally take home the coveted Mr and Mrs Average titles, or even win one of what seemed to be a plethora of spot prizes. We also like to find out just how old we need to get before we finally become competitive so will sit through what seems like hours of prize-giving (75–80 is the slightly embarrassing result).

It turns out I am very slightly better than average (which I find pathetically cheering). I also miraculously walked away with a NZ$500 Jetstar voucher in what must be one of the most surprising moments of my 30-something years!

I can’t recommend the New Zealand Ocean Swim Series highly enough. Each event is well organised, takes in some fantastic New Zealand scenery and is well supported by swimmers of all ages and abilities. So, get your buddies together and get training for next year.Legend of the Lake2

Other events in the series that I’ve had the pleasure of completing:

King of the Bays (Auckland)

Corsair Classic (Christchurch)

Bay of Islands Classic (Russell to Paihia)

Capital Classic (Wellington)

Waiheke wanderings

Waiheke Island sits 18 km (approximately 11 miles) off the coast of Auckland in the Hauraki Gulf. At one time it was a major hippy hangout, but today its proximity to downtown Auckland makes it a popular commuter option for the seriously loaded. It is also famous for its ample smattering of world-class vineyards, Cable Bay and Mudbrick amongst them. I spent six weeks there way back in 2008 plucking leaves off grape vines in the blazing summer sun at Stonyridge Vineyard. My favourite memory of that time is of applying sunscreen to the nice Maori student – think of a younger but only slightly less buff version of Sonny Bill Williams and you’ll get the idea – and the equally fit blue-eyed American with the southern drawl and a penchant for Britney Spears. Vineyard work did not pay big bucks but I rented a room in an incredibly swish hilltop pad from a colourful divorcee whose daughter was an aspiring Kiwi actress. I certainly got a sense of Waiheke’s dual character: happy hippy meets city high flier.

It’s still a charming place and well worth escaping the city for. The ferry takes about 40 minutes (NZ$36 return) and most visitors seem to decamp straight to the vineyards. I took a very different route to avoid the crowds and explore a side of island life that’s a little less alcoholic: it’s walking trails. The Department of Conservation maintains the island’s trails beautifully and so off I toddled along the coastal path, heading to Oneroa, Waiheke’s main settlement, the long way round. The direct route is a couple of kilometres and takes hardly any time at all but my route south was substantially further, taking over two hours (there were a lot of photo stops). It was well worth it for the gulf views, the near solitude, and an insight into how the other half lives. The coastal properties reveal a wide variety of imaginative – incredibly expensive in some cases – architecture you just don’t see in Britain. It’s also not every day you see someone park their private, electric blue helicopter at the end of their vines!

Auckland harbour from Waiheke ferryAuckland harbour view 2Waiheke harbourWaiheke coastal pathWaiheke coastal trailAuckland from Waiheke coastal pathWaiheke coastal trail2Helicopter and vinesWaiheke vineyardDSC_0862