A lazy cruise down the Waikato River is a belated birthday getaway for Isobel Marriner.
A ghost of a mist rises from the water. It's very early in the morning and the river is so still the surrounding bush is mirrored in it. Noises emanate from the trees and fish plop lazily - the wildlife is beginning to stir, but there are no signs of civilisation.
We could be in the middle of the Amazon, but we're a little closer to home - and a lot more comfortable. Our home for the weekend is a houseboat on the Waikato River, a chance to see the riverland from a completely different and fascinating perspective. It's a chance, too, to catch up with family. It's not long since I passed a significant milestone and, for a water-lover, this is an ideal way to celebrate it.
There are eight of us on this trip, three couples and two teens, but our boat, the Discovery, can accommodate 12 with plenty of space for conviviality or privacy.
Like most Aucklanders, we usually only catch glimpses of the river from car windows as we hurry south, but this time, with clear directions from the motorway, we head towards the water and are at the Tuakau mooring after a drive shorter than 45 minutes from our North Shore home.
Warmly welcomed aboard by Discovery River Cruises' owners, Ian and Judy Simpson, we load our provisions, meet our skipper, Warwick Mills, and cast off. I always get that little frisson of excitement when I can feel the water move underneath me. Despite a reasonably brisk wind, the craft is incredibly stable and there's no need for seasickness tablets.
Ian is kindly staying on board for a while and is a mine of information on the river. His company has carried out a marine survey of the river, so he knows every island, channel and sandbank. We're all allowed a (supervised) "drive" of the boat and make stately progress past the many whitebait stands on the banks.
Unfortunately, the delicacy is out of season - but by the looks of it there must still be plenty of inanga, though perhaps not as many as in the days of the old whitebait factory, when there were so many little wrigglers they supported an entire canning industry.
Ian explains that he and Judy had enjoyed houseboat holidays on Australia's Murray River and felt the Waikato had as much - and more - to offer.
To give others a chance to experience this, they imported the shell of a Murray-style houseboat. From the deck up it's all been beautifully crafted and fitted by local tradespeople. And it's spectacular, with 180-degree views from the glassed-in lounge, and gorgeously appointed bedrooms, most with en suites.
The boat was blessed by a Tainui kaumatua who gave it the Maori name Manuwai Tuarua, after a Waikato riverboat she attended dances on.
In New Zealand, unlike on the Murray's self-drive boats, you must have a licensed skipper aboard while the boat is moving. It's great, we just sit back and enjoy the scenery. Also unlike the Murray, petrol costs are included in the price, so no nasty shocks on your return.
Warwick moors us close to one of the delta islands before he and Ian depart in a launch, and we have the river to ourselves. The in-laws prepare dinner (such a luxury for me) in a kitchen I'd love to have at home, while we loafers relax with a drink on the deck.
The kids enjoy the music system and the fact there's a TV in every bedroom, plus a huge widescreen in the lounge. But the adults are happy to spot the avian life; a couple of keen twitchers on board point out the terns (caspian and white-fronted) and we think we have a bittern sighting, which is pretty neat as that shy bird is the logo for Discovery Cruises.
After dinner some of us warm up in the top-deck jacuzzi then fall asleep to the gentle lapping of the river.
Next day it's up early to enjoy the solitude of the morning and cook a big breakfast, as we have some exertion planned. Bacon and eggs done, Sarah and Colin from Stressfree Adventures load us into tandem kayaks to get even closer to the water.
The ride is mainly gentle, through the smaller waterways but on the way back we manage to surf a couple of waves. It's not without incident; my sister and brother-in-law make an impromptu wet exit as they return to the Discovery, but are hauled safely aboard.
There's time in the evening for the board games and books that are thoughtfully provided and to eat another yummy dinner before watching the swallows and carp compete for insects until twilight melts into complete darkness.
The glorious mirror morning comes on our last day. We make good headway on our trip up the river - passing the site of old Camerontown, a small settlement the British army used during the New Zealand Wars, and Alexandra Redoubt, built by the Armed Constabulary during the Te Kooti campaigns - so there's time to motor under historic Tuakau bridge, once intended to serve as a barrier if the Japanese invaded in World War II.
Then it's back to the landing and reality. None of us wants to leave. It's been a great chance to see the best side of the mighty Waikato.
Stop for a drink at ...The Kentish Hotel, 5 Queen St, Waiuku, or Tuakau Hotel, cnr George and Liverpool Sts, Tuakau.