I’m taking a break from my musings about Thailand/Cambodia this week, having been alternatively inspired by my impending off-road triathlon in the Scottish Highlands in September. The idea of dusting off my wetsuit and swimming in a Scottish sea loch has reminded me of my former life in New Zealand and so I offer up this post instead.
Russell in New Zealand’s beautiful Bay of Islands was once known as the ‘hell hole of the Pacific’, a raucous city, riddled with alcohol and prostitution, a place where neither European nor Maori law held any sway. Today it is hard to imagine this sleepy, mellow backwater in terms of its past; tourists instead come to admire its white wood-framed buildings and to nibble on Devonshire cream teas in its organic cafes. In December 2010, I was there for a totally different reason; it would be the start line for the second event in New Zealand’s State Ocean Swim Series: Russell to Paihia. I would be launching myself into the emerald-green waters off its coastline and swimming 3.2km across to the other side.
Arriving in Paihia (home to the historic Waitangi Treaty grounds) the evening before the race, I couldn’t believe how far it looked to the other side. I had visited the Bay of Islands several times, but had never noticed how far away Russell looked until now. I could hardly make out the township in the distance and my shark-fearing nerves were starting to surface.
The following morning I joined 900 other crazy fools on what felt like an interminable ferry ride to the other side. Our route would be marked by six bright orange inflatable buoys and the welcome sight of an army of New Zealand lifeguards paddling on their surfboards, poised to rescue any ailing swimmers.
We would set off in waves and being on the mediocre side I would be somewhere in the middle of the field. Being quite frightened of swimming in the ocean, I am happiest when I can see other swimmers all around me, let’s call them shark fodder. My training had also been a little irregular and although I knew I could handle the distance it would still be tough going. On the bright side, the sea was delightfully warm and a brief dip before the start helped to settle my nerves and regulate my breathing.
The race itself was long and tough, the vast number of swimmers at the start created a maelstrom of thrashing arms and legs and I was lucky not to emerge battered and bruised. I breaststroked a lot in the first few hundred meters, fighting for every breath. Thankfully, everyone calmed down and settled into their strokes and the field spread out; it then became a battle of (wo)man versus ocean. As the race progressed the incoming tide brought higher waves and pushed many off course. I drew on every ounce of my previous experience and sighted and aimed for the vibrant red of the pohutukawa trees that grace the Paihia shoreline.
Hours later, whilst booking a tall ship ride for the following day at the Tourist Information office, a local man remarked that I was crazy to have taken part, ‘It’s a shark breeding ground’, he said. As proud as I was of my achievement I had a funny feeling I wouldn’t be doing it again next year.