Russell is a tiny, impossibly picturesque little place in the Bay of Islands, just north of Auckland, New Zealand. My mom is tiny too, although she’d say not, so I think I’ll take her there. A lovely drive, not too hairy, a couple of hairpin curves but I can inch along and we’ll savor the hectic green fernery dripping outside our windows and at the end, not too many hours of ravishing scenery later, we’ll be ON AN ISLAND. Well, not really an island, but you take a ferry to get there so it feels like one. It looks so lovely on a map.
And it is, it’s quite ravishing, and sleepy. So one of the three days when it’s asleep but we’re not, I decide to take dear little mom on a whale viewing tour. It costs the same as a night in a good hotel, and I never go on tours but, well, Russell’s asleep…Immediately after, I have tour buyer’s remorse and the sky closes in, purple and dripping.
Look, there’s no-one else here. The pier is wet and empty. There’s a tiny store on it with only one bag of crisps. My mom and I huddle under the roof crunching. It’ll never take off, or whatever it is tour boats do. There’s a nightmarish storm brewing and the water looks cross, angry actually. Okay, depressed then. The water looks depressed. Which is worse really.
But something looms out of the mist and carries us away along with a number of other wet ghosts. It’s going faster now, much faster than I think it should. It must have a lot of distance to cover and little time. The whales must be very far away. Russell looks awfully cute in the distance, like my very first pet, Bonnie.
Ahead of us the sea stretches out momentarily islandless. I can understand why whales head here, there’s less to bump into. They won’t let us outside on deck and our seats are too low and the windows too high. The rain is smashing at the glass, probably dropping straight down, but our boat is aiming for the drops at high speed. I look at my dear ol’ mom, we’re both pressed back into our seats by the sheer velocity. I’m upset. I feel like I’m in a dreary business lounge in some rainy airport. I can’t see a thing. The whales will be disappointed.
I wrench myself out of my seat and head purposefully towards the tour assistant person. You can’t go out there. I move my hands around and gesture something urgent like ‘I need fresh air. I’m going to throw up’.
Outside the wind and the rain slap away at me. Others revolt. Now there are more of us out on the deck pressing our faces into the wind. I love it at the very front of the boat where the water spits white and splits in two. We go and go. The deck is wet and slippery, sheets of spray deluge us as we hurtle up a swell and down again. Now that I’m outside, I love it. I try to love it enough for both my mum and I. It’s way too dangerous for her out here.
But wait. A tiny bundled figure tumbles out the vacuum packed door. My mom’s short grey hair is concentrated at an angle across her eyes. I dive for her. And yes, now the blue of the water arches up and sprays a fountain, many fountains. Here they are, the whales! The boat rumbles to a sort of sea tossed halt. We are lurching furiously and hanging over the edge like we want to kiss the whales and we don’t care if we fall in doing it.
But that’s not enough for our gritty, thrill seeking tour guides. We roar off again slapping into the waves.
You see that hole in the rock?
We all squint to where his wildly crazed finger is pointing.
We’re going through.
No! Everyone is shocked, New Zealand style. That means you can’t really see anything, maybe a slight tension in the jawline.
I’ve lived in America long enough to have both hands up to my face and a loud, round ‘No’ flying out before I can stop it.
Yes. But only if the tide favors us. If we can catch a wave.
Catch a wave? They’re so rugged and outdoorsy. I can see they don’t really care if the hole is too damn small and we’re so big and fast and devil- may-care.
But we do it and my mom is quite overwhelmed.
On the way back we settle into our skins. Dear little Russell comes into view. There’s the lonely little pier.
I guide my mom carefully down the aisle. We will be the first to get off. The boat slows and glides chortling into place. I take my mom’s arm.
The boat sets to rumbling again. The engine gets louder. Funny the way the pier seems to be moving.
The boat is moving, the boat is leaving.
Oh no. You’re too late.
Too late.? TOO LATE?
The boat barely stopped. If we’d got off any sooner we’d have fallen into the water.
You’d better come with us to The Next Island. She’s clearly irritated with these damp remnants. You can catch a ferry to Russell from there.
CATCH A FERRY?
Catch a ferry TO RUSSELL. That Russell?
How can I catch another ferry? How can I believe in boats again?
Russell fades back into the distance.
Two hours later we do it all over again. This time we’re not standing there waiting to disembark, we’re sort of leaning off the boat as though we might wrap our arms round a pier pile and just refuse to let go.