It was an Air New Zealand flight. At 35,000 feet, over open ocean somewhere between Auckland, New Zealand and Cairns, Australia, an athletic, muscular man stood in the aisle brandishing a cricket bat.
This was back in 1988. I was traveling with a work buddy on a two-part mission: explore a bit of New Zealand and Australia, and include some SCUBA diving in that exploration.
I’d had a passing interest in SCUBA for quite some time, inspired by Jacques Cousteau’s underwater videos and commentary. The Great Barrier Reef had evolved into a sort of Mecca – it seemed like the end all and be all of diving to me. Between the idea of a pilgrimage to that site and a bit of prodding from a couple of friends, I got certified to dive.
One of the prodders was that work buddy. He was already certified and was in fact a divemaster; he also had an urge to see the big reef. We both shared an interest in going to New Zealand as well, our joint interest triggered the trip. I’d been to New Zealand earlier in the ’80’s, so I led that portion of the trip and he led the dive portion.
I don’t know that I’ve ever heard or read of anyone visiting New Zealand without coming back impressed with its scenic diversity and overall beauty. You want jagged mountains? Check. Island groups? Check. Fjords? Check. Glaciers? Check. Volcanos? Check. Dry plains? Check. Green hills dotted with sheep? Double check. Our time was limited, so we stuck to the North Island.
Because we were there to dive, our primary destinations were the Bay of Islands in Northeast, and the Poor Knights Islands a bit further South. Being a freshly minted diver I was still quite the greenhorn, but once the dive operators found out my buddy was a divemaster they tended to send some of their other divers our way. This distracted both of us from focusing on the dive sites as much as we might have liked, and put me off of the idea of continuing my dive training to the DM level: if I’m spending the time and money to go someplace exotic to dive, I don’t want to babysit. My buddy learned to keep mum about his rating, and we had some good dives, especially at the Poor Knights.
We didn’t just dive, we did a bit of driving around. We got as far Southeast as Gisborne, which at the time claimed to be the first city in the world to greet the sun each day, and as far North as Cape Reinga at the Northwesternmost tip. Cape Reinga is considered the separation marker between the Tasman Sea to the West and the Pacific Ocean to the East, and you can sometimes see the clash of the tides from the two bodies of water.
Driving through New Zealand was different. They’ve opted to drive in the left lane, with the driver’s seat on the right side of the car. Being used to the opposite, I occasionally found myself reaching for the gear shift and finding the doorknob in my hand instead, and on sunny days confusing other drivers by turning on my windshield wipers when attempting to signal for a turn. It’s a good thing the accelerator and brake pedals were in their conventional places; otherwise I might be trying to slow down for a turn, and end up speeding through someone’s living room with the wipers going full speed. I’d probably need ’em, to get the plaster off the windows.
We found ourselves in a bit of a fix at Cape Reinga. After we returned from our ogling we discovered we had a flat tire, and on further inspection that the spare in our rental car was flat too. The cape is hardly in the midst of civilization, at the time it was still gravel road to get there. Fortunately, one of the other oglers had an emergency sealant/inflator kit; it was enough to allow us to gingerly limp back down the gravel road and far enough back into civilization to get the tire properly repaired.
We still had the main event in front of us; off to Australia and the Great Barrier Reef. That’s how we found ourselves on that eventful flight…
Part one ends, but the story doesn’t. Part two will be along in a bit…