Some people kayaking with Outdoor Discoveries to Browns Island for a sunset picnic have dolphins leaping by the bow as an unscheduled treat. But I got to land on the nudist beach at Ladies Bay.
I stared fixedly out to sea while Martin, our guide, whipped out his spanner and did some rapid repairs to the rudder.
When I had studied the route on the map, from the beach at St Heliers to the far side of Browns Island, it seemed hardly any distance at all. Now that I had been in the double kayak, powered only by my own feeble arms and those of Alan behind me, I could see that it was well chosen - far enough to work up an appetite but not so far that the thought of the return journey would spoil the picnic.
We actually went further. Once our briefing out on the water was over and we dug in our paddles, everybody else skimmed away eastwards while Alan and I ploughed purposefully off in the opposite direction. Two complete left-handed circles later, Tania came to our rescue and towed us over to Martin, who fixed the rudder on the beach under the curious gaze of a handful of naturists. Our troubles were not quite over even then. Alan, which is not his real name because I want to be candid about him, was not a multitasker. He could steer, or paddle, or talk, or look around, but only one of those at a time and, as far as the steering was concerned, only when reminded. So we zigzagged after the others, pointing first towards Rangitoto, then towards Bucklands Beach, then back again. Still, it was a lovely evening, clear and sunny with a breeze to fill the colourful spinnakers of the yachts heading out for the weekend, and, despite Alan's erratic navigation, the sunburned slopes of Browns Island were closer every time they passed across the bow. Browns Island is volcanic, like Rangitoto, but much older. Its Maori name is Motukorea. Dotterels breed there, William Brown once farmed pigs on it, and 100 years ago it was a popular picnic spot for people who made the trip by steam ferry.
Arriving under our own steam was satisfying, as was the climb to the trig station 68m above, a chance for the legs to do their share.
We sprawled on the dry grass at the edge of the steep crater and were offered dips, pate, camembert and mussels with bread and crackers. I took a little bottle of sparkling rose out of my dry-bag and gave a cheer for screwtops. It was not just civilised, it was magical, to sit on that summit and slowly survey 360 degrees of beauty, natural and manmade - islands, sea, bush, beach, boats, buildings and bridge, all under a sky streaked in pink and apricot as the sun sank over the Waitakeres. When the light faded, I watched an airliner cut across Orion.
It's been many years since I waited to see the street lights come on, but when the city suddenly lit up in white and orange, I felt again that childhood thrill. And there was another on the way back in the dark with torches, when I sat to slide down the hill to the bottom. Simple pleasures.
Yet another treat was waiting as we pushed off the beach. When I dipped my paddle it left a ghostly trail through the water - phosphorescence caused by plankton - which was remarkably warm and still, now the breeze had dropped. We had lights on poles at the back of each kayak, but against the city lights reflected on the glossy water it was hard to see the others and we periodically worked through a "Thunderbirds are go" roll-call Martin had coached us in back on the island. He was close to us when he gave a sudden exclamation then laughed. "That's one shark with a headache," he said, describing how he had hit something hard with his paddle.
A more obvious danger was the Half Moon Bay ferry surging through the channel. We all waved our torches and it slowed then quietly disappeared as we paddled steadily towards St Heliers through a shining sea that was beginning to feel like treacle. By 11pm we were all back on the beach, tired but happy and ready for home, a shower and bed. It had been a perfect picnic.
- Pamela Wade was a guest of Outdoor Discoveries (www.odnz.co.nz, ph 0800 999 636) which also runs day trips to Rangitoto and up the Puhoi River to the pub, as well as overnighters and other adventures.