Some of the best experiences I have had while traveling have been the result of connecting with local people. New Zealand has been no different. Samart, whom I had met and stayed with in Chiang Mai, Thailand, connected me to Jonathan, a factory worker who fishes and free dives on the East coast of the North Island in his spare time. I had been in communication with him since I arrived in New Zealand.

Four days into Harald and I’s camping adventure, Jonathan invited us to stay with him for a night. He took us for a unique evening fishing experience, I got to try my hand at free diving in Hawke’s Bay, and then we enjoyed a delicious seafood lunch before continuing on our journey back inland.

Fishing

Harald and I pulled into Jonathan’s driveway just as he was arriving home from diving. He walked us inside and over to his awesome salt water fish tank where he tossed in some of the day’s catches—a crayfish and a hermit crab. Everything in the tank he has caught himself. Tomorrow, he’d show me free diving, but tonight we would fish.

We loaded the back of his truck with bait, a rack of lures, a heavy reel of line, and a huge Kontiki motorized lure puller. Aside from the lures, the equipment was completely foreign to me. Fishing to me is using down-riggers from my father’s boat on the Hudson River, dropping a line from the marina docks, or casting out into a stream as a child in the back yard of my grandfather’s home. This should be interesting.

Ten minutes down the road from the beach is where we set up to launch the Kontiki. Jonathan pointed out a man down the beach who was fishing similarly, but with a non-motorized lure puller. His lure puller would take much longer to make its way out to sea. I watched as Jonathan sent his off into the waves. As it pulled line from the enormous reel, Jonathan and I hooked bait onto the lures and then he showed me how to attach them to the line. Off they went, crashing against the stones as they made their bounced their way along the line down to the water and then out into the bay.

The Kontiki would now do most of the work for us, so we hopped back into the truck and went down the road to “Hell” for pizza to bring back for an evening picnic.

The stone beach in Napier is scattered with driftwood, perfect for a bonfire. Between the wind and the dry wood, the fire started easily. We chowed down and drank ciders leisurely as we waited for the fish to bite.

Sunset marked the time the Kontiki was ready to be brought back in. The automated reel reversed direction to pull in the bait—hopefully now full of fish! The first couple lures came back empty and then we were greeted with our first catch: a spiny dogfish shark! These shark are common in the waters of Hawke’s bay, but they are not for eating.

We were disappointed to find the rest of the bait soggy and still hanging empty from the hooks. We only caught one other fish—a Kahawai fish—but threw it back. This was not a great evening for fishing, Jonathan said. Apparently, too many fishing boats illegally overfish the area while the government turns a blind eye.

But I had a good time regardless! I learned a new fishing method and enjoyed a relaxing evening on the beach. It was great to mix things up from our camping routine.

Free-diving

The next morning, I went down to the marina with Jonathan to meet his free diving friends, Thomas and Keri. These guys dive down several meters to catch crayfish, paua, and other edible critters from the sea floor. They wear camouflage wet suits to blend in and catch their prey.

Jonathan can dive up to 15 meters and hold his breath for nearly 4 minutes. To me that’s amazing but to him it’s nothing in the shadow of famous free divers like William Trubridge who dove past 100 meters with only goggles and a wetsuit (no flippers!). Check out this video of him—incredible!

We helped Thomas put his boat into the water and then loaded a bunch of diving gear into the back.

The day was very windy making the bay rough. We drove out to a nice spot near some high rocks. I put on a bunch of random extra gear they had: wetsuit, snorkel/goggles, weights, and flippers. After suiting up, I slid off the back of the boat into the water and immediately felt uncomfortable.

The water was rough and I was having difficulty staying afloat. But I was determined to keep trying. I decided to swim out to where Jonathan was diving under. When I looked under the surface as I swam, the water was very cloudy. Reaching Jonathan, I told him I was having trouble. I could barely manage to even snorkel at the surface between all the waves and the weight belt dragging me under. He gave me the flotation device he uses to hold the net for his catches and then helped me swim back to the boat.

I was not disappointed with myself at all for not being able to free dive. I was glad to get out of the water and sit safely on the boat. Even Thomas gave up because the water was too rough and the visibility too low to be enjoyable. We sat together chatting and watching the other two dive under and resurface for the remainder of the morning.

Watch the short video I snapped:

I was well-entertained watching them, and happy to be floating on a boat. I’ve been on boats since I was born so this was a familiar experience I had been missing in my travels.

Feasting

When the guys came back to the boat, they complained about the visibility and rough waters, but they had still caught several crayfish and kina. “Lunch!” said Jonathan.

He was amazed how much I enjoyed kina—a buttery, salty sea urchin inside a spiny armor.

I also tried sea slug he mixed with garlic, butter, and spices, served on the side with crayfish he had boiled in a big pot.

I spread the kina on bread like butter on toast, popped some crayfish on top with a layer of lettuce and chowed down. This was a seafood lunch fit for a king!

Jonathan also hunts wild pig and deer in his spare time. He had homemade venison and pork sausages served with the meal. I have never tried venison before and sort of cringe at the thought of eating Bambi, but I tried some sausages as well. I couldn’t tell the venison from the pork—it just tasted like pork sausages to me! Very good.

Everything was fresh and delicious!

After our big meal, Harald and I said our goodbyes to Jonathan. Thanks to him, we had been pampered for a night and fixed with a good meal to sustain us for the tough hike we had planned for the next few days. The weather was finally looking well for Tongariro National Park. It was time to hit the road and head west to the center of the North Island!